Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 5 : 2 February 2005

Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.
         A. R. Fatihi, Ph.D.




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Copyright © 2004
M. S. Thirumalai

A Sociolinguistic Perspective
Jennifer Marie Bayer, Ph.D.


Each society has an inherent social environment, a universe separate, yet different, from the other. Intra-group interactions, which are forms of a society's socio-cultural practices, values, and norms of social distance, set standards for inter-group interaction. Power equations are often the point of contention, which leads to conflict.

The paradigm of conflict across history has brought about changes, transforming societies in various ways. Inter-ethnic and inter-nation conflicts have been the common ground for traditional wars, but, in the modernistic ongoing war against terrorism, the dyadic delineations have changed.

A reasonable hypothesis is that language used by societies in conflict with each other's ideological worldviews often shape new meaning. In this paper, I take the ongoing war against terrorism as a point of reference and delve into the concept of conflict and its emerging repertoire.

The act of terror on the World Trade Center in New York changed power equations across nations. It is observed that one of the strategies adopted in the war against terrorism is comparable to the ancient Indian practice of "Dhaana" and "Dakshina" (donations and sacrificial fees). In their quest to rid the world of terrorism, and yet to balm the anger of the Islamic world, the Alliance of Nations has mixed firepower, food aid, and diplomacy. And therefore, the nuances of meaning ascribed to these two concepts taken from tradition and framed in modern practice seem to remain the same.


September 11, 2001 has probably changed the course of history for the humankind. Terrorism struck skyscrapers, which for over a century have been a symbol of American power, wealth and ingenuity -- a relatively small place that allows many people to interact which leads to the creative exchange of ideas. Architects did foresee that new methods of terrorism could pose threat to symbols of power. As Prof. Witold Rybeznski of the Department of Urbanism, University of Pennsylvania said, "Skyscrapers were boastful. We're not a shy people. Skyscrapers declare that. And they declare it so that you can see it from far, far away. And they are very self-confident, which is perhaps the most terrible thing about September 11. Our self-confidence has been rocked." (Asian Age, 13.11.01)

The conflict for power equations is prevalent not only among the nations but also within tribal communities and their leaders in Afghanistan. Language, being the most important medium through which power is achieved, I propose to present aspects of change occurring on the linguistic scene in this war against terrorism.


Conflict, a significant dictum in human behavior, is the result of competition, rivalry and dispute among societies to attain the status of the most powerful nation among the nations. Because of the wider presence of television networks, reasons for conflict among nations, so meticulously planned in secret, can now emerge on the international political scene for direct observation and reaction by people across the world. Unlike other wars, where power was brokered unobserved, present day regional, national and international conflicts are staged for all to see, and for Sociolinguists, to observe the semantics of language use.


For individuals, who resent established power controls of the developed nations, secret diplomacy has now regressed to be deliberated in traditional strategic styles, in mountains and caves, away from advanced technology. Wood paneled rooms with high tech modernity seem dangerous to such individuals in playing the game of conflict of power. It is cohesive conventional war strategies versus multi-pronged multi-faceted modern battle. It is high tech air force versus primitive savage force.

Within Afghanistan, an ancient cat's cradle of tribal grudges, it is tribal communities out to take ethnic revenge similar to the 19th century Afghan warlords, who murdered for fun. Interpretations of Islam are diverse and, in the process, the freedom of women continueS to be suppressed, unabated. There is rift between tribal identities, sectarian identities (Sunnis and Shias) and linguistic identities. There is no common language that binds Afghanistan.


According to Duetsch (1973:10),
competition implies an opposition in the goals of inter-dependent parties such that the probability of goal attainment for one decreases as the probability of the other increases.

In a competitive world, the aim is always to have the rankings of the other lowered. The inter-relations between the majority and minority groups in most nations are glaring examples.

Conflict is a part and parcel of human engineering. In an effort to reach the tip of the hierarchy of power, people and their social groups vie with one another to dominate the scene.

Social conflict is a struggle over value or claims to status, power, and scarce resources, in which the aims of conflict groups are not only to gain the desired values, but also neutralize, injure or eliminate rivals. (ibid)

Osama bin Laden's contention is that America, in its effort to access crude oil, which is a scare resource in America but a natural resource in the Arab world, desires control of Arab land. And this, he thinks, dilutes the sanctity of the land, central to Islam.

Boulding (1968) defines conflict as
a situation of competition in which parties are aware of the incompatibility of potential future positions and in which each party wishes to occupy a position that is incompatible with the wishes of the other.


The ongoing war against terrorism is the conflict between power equations - political, religious, minority versus majority groups, with economic factors playing the intermediary role. The most powerful nation on the globe is up in arms against a suspected individual whose guerilla tactics have spread terror and fear like wild fire across humanity. In this war, there is a suspected enemy. The "Rogue State" (a term used by the US to identify its enemies in this conflict) could not be finger pointed. One of the headlines in the local newspaper has aptly put it "BUSH MEN VERSUS CAVE MEN."

This caption read later may either be understood literally at its face value, or may connect "Bush" with the name of the President of America. Only Time will tell.

In the initial reaction to the attack, President Bush led "A Western Crusade against terrorism," as the American people demanded quick retribution. ("Crusade" was originally used as a Christian concept to refer to the military expeditions made by the Europeans in the Middle Ages to recover the Holy Land, Jerusalem, from the Muslims. The original force of the meaning is generally lost in the currrent language use.) The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom leading the offensive said, "We will put a trap around the regime, and I say to the Taliban, 'Surrender the Terrorists or surrender power. It's your choice.' " The Russian President added that the international terrorists are "bacteria that adapt by living off their host body."

While many in the western nations tried, and try to focus on the theological beliefs of the terrorists, the Archbishop of Milan, at a Summit of Religious leaders in Rome seeking ways to prevent further terrorist attacks, said, "We must be on guard against all simplifications and never identify one religion as the source of evil and violence."

Unlike traditional strategies, the modern war against terrorism, holy for one, unholy for the other, has shaken the consciousness of people across nations. (Time Magazine, 15.10.01)


Fellow Muslims, who oppose Osama bin Laden's recourse to terror in the name of Islam, detest the way he treated the Afghans. For example, the secret police of the Taliban known as the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue had rigid control over the people. The football stadium, a place for joy and pleasure, was converted into a public execution ground where innocent men, women and children were executed. The Taliban Muslim militia blew up ancient Buddhist monuments.

The debate among Muslims has been on issues of "Islam's ability to adapt to modernity."

Izzat Majeed, a Pakistani writer and businessman, wrote in a letter to the Pakistani daily The Nation,
Islamic practice and education is still based largely on traditional Quranic interpretations that are not embracing modernity, pluralism or the equality of women, ... the deadly circle that produces bin Ladenism - poverty, dictatorship and religious anti-modernism each re-enforcing the other - just gets perpetuated. (Friedman, 2001)
... due to the hypocrisy of state-sponsored mullahism, for more than a thousand years, Islam has stood still because the mullahs, who become de facto clergy instead of genuine scholars, closed the door to ijtehad (reinterpreting Islam in the light of modernity). (Ibid)

In other words, modernity is blacked out in the growing darkness of the bin Laden caves.

Jordon, seen as a peace broker, voiced the view that the Muslim world has suffered too long and in the absence of Middle East Peace they cannot wait, they are tired of "finger-pointing" and are afraid that extremism will continue to fuel anger and frustration.


Coser (1967) defines social conflict "as a struggle over value or claims to status, power, and scarce resources, in which the aims of the conflict groups are not only to gain the desired values, but also neutralize, injure or eliminate rivals." Osama bin Laden's protest is that "the presence of foreign troops in the cradle of Islam is "the latest and greatest" of all infidel aggressions against the religion in its 14 century history ... the US forces' presence in Saudi Arabia defile the Muslim holy land. Now infidels walk everywhere on the land where Muhammad was born and where the Koran was revealed to him."

Osama assumes the role of being the savior of the Islamic world. For the Americans, however, he is likened to a "King of Terror." The Vice-President of America is of the view that "We'll keep after him (Bin Laden) until we smoke him out and run him to the ground." (TV news reports, 2001)


The strike against terrorism, international in nature, is not an inter-nation dyad, but amongst two entities. One is an established nation, that went on to form a coalition of nations to eliminate terrorism; and the other, an individual (said to be trained by the American CIA) and his Legion with a staunch fundamentalist worldview. Chomsky (2001), however, a dissident who opposes the American foreign policy, calls it the "terrorism of the powerful." "The US leads the pack."

Singer (1980) pointed out that the main attributes of traditional wars are:

  1. Materialist
  2. Structural, and
  3. Cultural

These can be used as parallels to the strike against terror.

9. THE MATERIALISTIC ASPECTS - Geographic, Demographic and Technological

"Jihad" versus the "unholy war", the air strikes on Afghanistan, unpopular among sections of people in America after the Vietnam experience, are being waged in a remote land with a hidden enemy. Compared to the Vietnam War, which involved jungles, rice fields and swamps, the Afghanistan strike involves deserts, mountains, caves, dusty winds, tunnels, and acute winter snowfall. All types of military arsenal are being used with more emphasis on unconventional types of battle. The enemy knows the lay of the land; an obstacle in the Afghanistan military strategy, hampering the introduction of western ground troops.

10. THE STRUCTURAL ASPECTS - Instituitions and Organizations

Structural aspects in conflict situations are Institutions and Organizations, which compose of Economists, Sociologists and Political Scientists who mould the Institutions of Power. These include legislative, administrative, judicial, banking, commercial, welfare and informational institutions and organizations.

Icons of America are the targets of attack. Known for its spirit of teamwork in all aspects of life, the call to the people of America is to strengthen 'team-building' across nations to combat terrorism. And, therefore, legislation has set in motion a "state of public emergency" to rescind a key plan of human rights to allow indefinite detention without trial of foreigners suspected of terrorism. Or use the entertainment industry to contribute to marketing the war on terrorism (for example, the Motion Picture Association of America). Or even freeze bank accounts of individuals suspected of supporting terrorism. And in "Crisis time" in a male-dominated machinery of war, "Women who shape US image" in the Bush administration are the "most important shapers of words and images", trying to influence public opinion about military operations and other aspects of conflict that the allies are seeking to convey to a global audience. (Asian Age, 12.11.01)

As Maureen Dowd (2001) puts it, "The color our foreign policy will be wearing this fall is grey. We have to capture Osama bin Laden and quell terrorism, so the Bush Administration is making compromises and offering carrots where it once turned up its nose," Scientists from all walks are cooperating to build and administer institutions and organizations.


Cultural aspects in conflict situations are psychological properties of people of a specific cultural system, which comprise of personality types, attitudes and opinions, i.e., perceptions, preferences and predictions of social behavior, which is, the ways things/phenomena are, should be and will be. At the national/international level, it is ideology and cultural climate.

People refer to the strike against terrorism as the clash of civilizations, because they perceive it as partitioning people into distinct civilizations - "the Islamic world," "the Christian world", "the Hindu world", "the Buddhist world" and the like. But, in the thirst for power, the partners in conflict overlook the fact that the contemporary world lies in the pluralities of identities and therefore pluralities of power, which means, power sharing. Prof. Chomsky, (2001) however, is of the view that "The US was now fighting Al-Qaeda because it turned against the country, that there was no clash of civilizations. Neither was the US fighting Islamic fundamentalism nor its ally Saudi Arabia was the most fundamentalist of Islamic regimes."

One of the key factors in war across nations is the nation's foreign policy and national security, which is homogenous (Singer, 1980). However, in this war against terrorism, these two categories are on one side, i.e., the coalition of nations is a heterogeneous combination of policies. And therefore, frequency, severity, magnitude and intensity that measure incidence of international war has to be re-defined in the war against terrorism. Traditional wars had Alliances of nations; bipolar in nature, which involved one set of major powers in opposition to another (ibid). It is different in the war against terror. To use terms from Champion and Stoll (1980), it is 'satisfied' versus 'dissatisfied' with controls of power.


Osama bin Laden said,
The Twin Towers were legitimate targets, they were supporting US economic power. These events were great by all measurement. What were destroyed were not only the towers, but the towers of morale in that country ... We are treating them like they treated us. ... There are two types of terror, good and bad. What we are practicing is good terror. We will not stop killing them and whoever supports them. (Media reports 2001).

The roots of Oasama's rage lie in his aim to expel the US from the Islamic world (withdrawing its military forces from Saudi Arabia) and unite Muslims in one empire.

During the year of "Dialogue Among Civilizations", the President of Iran sees bin Laden's interpretation of Islam as "extremist" that does not strongly resonate in the Muslim world and that the attack on the WTC was perpetrated by a cult of fanatics who self mutilated their ears and tongues and could only communicate with perceived opponents through carnage and devastation. But as per the noted Arab Scholar Said (2001), the West considers "Islam a threat to western civilization."


The American President voiced his anger saying the guilty, that this, those who committed the crime and those who harbor terrorism, will be brought to justice. Bypassing UN norms, the Americans air struck Afghanistan for crime against humanity. Richardson (1960a) noted, "Many of those who are considered experts on foreign affairs do not base their opinions on historical facts, but on some sort of instinctive reasoning." Many nations voiced their displeasure. Being the most powerful nation, America, with the active support of the UK, hastened to chastise Afghanistan.


i. A cue from ancient Indian practice

Take a cue from ancient Indian practice. When tradition had it that people in their ritualistic practice made vows and promised to fulfill them by giving away things that were precious and important to them. The practice was in the form of different kinds of Dhaana and Dakshina. An interpretation is made to link this ancient traditional practice that seems to continue to be applied even in the modern times.

With change in the nuances, approaches, interpretations and presentations, the power of Dhaana by the nations in power seem to suit the convenience of operations.

In the study of society and economy of ancient India, information has often to be ferreted out from seemingly unlikely sources. What is often associated with apparently non-economic activity, such as religious rituals, can sometimes provide insights into social and economic concerns. ... The essays on Dhaana and Dakshina (donations and sacrificial fees) are a form of exchange where sometimes the tangibles like material wealth are exchanged for the intangibles like status, religions, merit and legitimacy. (Thapar, 2000).

ii. Cajoling Pakistan -- How does one achieve their aims?

I use these two concepts to relate it to the way the west has cajoled Pakistan for providing operational bases by lifting economic sanctions to clear its debts, bombing Afghanistan, killing civilians and yet trying to demonstrate that they are friends of the Afghan people.

Social groups have ways to achieve their aims by direct or dubious means. In the Indian tradition there are four ways, which are:

  1. Saama - to pacify and negotiate
  2. Daana - to offer something
  3. Bheda - to divide and rule
  4. Danda - to strike or beat

Forms of the above categories, used in tradition, continue to be use in modernity.


Dakshina is offering in kind as well as cash. In the Mahabharata, Karna appeared as the son of a chariot driver. We are told that there was objection for him to fight with the Kauravas in the war against the Pandavas. It was at the instance of Prince Duryodhana that Karna was donated a Kingdom called Angarajyam and he became Angaraja that facilitated his participation in the war.

In Indian mythology, Bali Chakravarty emerged as the most powerful Emperor on earth. As Dakshina, Lord Vishnu asked King Bali for three gifts in the form of three footsteps. Lord Vishnu put one footstep on the earth and thus became the most powerful on earth, one foot on the Universe and thus became the most powerful in the Universe. He then asked Bali as to where he could put his third step. Bali said 'on my head' Lord Vishnu stepped on his head which dwarfed him and suppressed him to the underworld, which is 'paathala' (Srinivasacharya, 2001)

This is to highlight that across time, in traditional practice as well as in modern application retention of power and wealth has been and continues to be the key factor in conflicts. The next section presents connections.

16. A VIVID ILLUSTRATION FROM A TAMIL PROVERB -- Pinch the baby, and then rock its cradle (to quieten her)!

The strategy being adopted by the Global coalition is similar to this Tamil proverb:

kuLandayai killiTTu toTTilum aaTTuRaan = "Pinch the baby and then rock its cradle (to quieten her)!"

Military action in Afghanistan inflamed the Muslims worldwide. The Coalition had to find a way to counter this impression. Leaflets, accompanied by a photo of a western soldier shaking hands with an Afghan civilian, as well as humanitarian rations were dropped. The President of America promised $320 million in food aid for Afghan refugees. In a speech to the State Department, he said, "This is our way of saying that, while we strongly and firmly oppose the Taliban regime, we are friends of the Afghan people." The Alliance of Nations, promised they would reconstruct Afghanistan. The 'food drop' program is criticized for its modus operandi. Due to targeting error, the food got into the hands of the enemy and quite often landed on mines. Children unaware of the land mines ran after the food pouches and were shattered to smithereens.

Interestingly the food pouches are 'culturally neutral' vitamin fortified rice cakes, each stamped with the American flag and the words: This food is a gift from the United States of America" (The Time Magazine, 2001).

The American people are asked to be vigilant, get involved and be sensitized to injustice in other parts of the world. It is termed as a peoples' movement, to keep America safe and to show the enemy their values. American children are to be ambassadors of American culture; children are encouraged to write letters to Muslim children across the world, more particularly to the Afghan children.

The UNICEF produced millions of donation boxes "TRICK-OR-TREAT" for a door-to-door campaign by American children to collect funds to be sent to the children of Afghanistan. President Bush called on the people to America to become a September 11 Volunteer, a peoples' movement of teachers, soldiers, postal workers and health workers to help take the battle to the enemy and stop them. The priority of the Alliance of Nations is ro prevent terrorists attacks and to accentuate serving each other more aggressively.

Unlike the terrorists who ask their children to hate Americans, the Americans are taught not to hate but to love Afghan children. During the Reagan administration the dictum was "trust and verify," and in the words of the Russian President, "The world is far from having international relations based solely on trust." And the Bush Administration is promising his people zero level tolerance security services.


Without going into a linguistic analysis of use, examples of metaphors and clichés will be presented with a view to bring home the fact that it is possible to make a quick assessment of language use and thereby reinforce the concepts of modes of interpretation as seen in tradition and modernity.

BUSH - In the Year of Darkness, 2001 America devised the ultimate plan. He would reshape the future by Ridding the world of an evil that Felt nothing but hate. He was …THE TURBANATOR. (Newsmakers, The Asian Age, November 21, 2001, Bangalore, India)

The term "Turbanator" reminds us of the film Terminator. As can be seen the coinage implies terminating the wearers of turbans.

  1. "Efforts should be at smoking Al Qaeda out" (be on fire, smolding)
  2. "We need to flush out terrorism" (wash out)
  3. Referring to the search for Osama bin Laden, Bush said "cough him up" and peace will prevail (To give away under threat)
  4. US war planes again pounded Afghanistan on Sunday (pulverized)
  5. A Kuwaiti spokesperson for Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terror network issued a blistering televised threat to kill Westerners, whether in their home countries or in the Persian Gulf area. (intense)
  6. Pentagon admits 'targeting error' led to death of civilians
  7. US Secretary of State Colin Powell will kick-off his first ever visit to South Asia
  8. The Bush Administration today opened the second week of air strikes against targets in Afghanistan with American planes blasting select areas in Kabul and Kandahar.
  9. These 'storms (of planes) will not calm until you retreat in defeat in Afghanistan
  10. President Musharaff referring to the attack on Afghanistan hoped that the attack would be 'short and surgical'.
  11. Coat of Armour - HAZ-MAT suit is the new coat of Armour to combat the threat against "Anthrax"

Other key phrases floating around to refer to the ongoing war on terror are

Bio weapons attack
Barriers are coming down and money is flowing through
Incite people to rebel"; "militarized television
Ground operations by the US
Limited ground warfare
Limited strikes
Limited on time
Alliance with different tribes
Fire power to accomplish


I have, in my paper, highlighted the words and phrases that, in the context of the war, have acquired new meaning and significance, which are otherwise from the domain of common parlance.

Use of language, in terms of metaphors and clichés, a powerful tool in the upsurge of the war against terrorism is open for all to observe.

With advances in information sharing through television and cyberspace, we have access to interesting aspects of language use.

The most significant point is that the powerful are willing to barter their wealth with their opponents to maintain power and wealth, which is an age old practice passed on over generations; only forms of barter have changed with the passing of time.


1. Asian Age, Bangalore, India. 13.11.01

2. Boulding, K. 1968. Conflict and Defense. New York: Harper Touch Books. In Theories of Social Conflict. Anthony Obserschall.

3. Champion & Stoll. In Boulding 1968

4. Chomsky, Noam. 2001. Afghan war not a clash of civilizations. The Deccan Herald. 21.11.01. Bangalore.

5. Coser, L. 1967. The Functions of Social Conflict. New York. Free Press

6. Coser. L. 1967. Continuities in the Study of Social Conflict. New York. Free Press.

7. Duetsch, M. 1973. The Resolution of Conflict. New Haven. CT. Yale University Press.

8. Friedman, Thomas L. 2001. An Open letter to Bin Laden. In Editorial. The Asian Age. Bangalore. India.

9. Maureen Dowd. 2001. Murder for fun: It will be difficult for America to manage its deals in Afghanistan. Chicken run: A kite flies over Kabul. Asian Age, Bangalore.

10. Singer, David, J. 1980. Accounting for international way: The State of discipline. Annual Review of Sociology. Volume 6.

11. Srinivasacharya, K. 2001. Personal discussion on the concepts of Dhaana and Dakshina. CIIL. Mysore.

12. News Analysis. CNN. BBC. Udaya TV. Star News

13. Richardwon, L.F. 1960. Statistics of Deadly Quarrels. Pittsburgh. Boxwood.

14. Said, Edward. 2001. in R. Prasanna. Clash of Civilizations. The Week. October 24, 2001.

15. Thapar, Romila. 2000. Cultural Pasts: Essays on early Indian History. OUP. New Delhi.

16. The Time Magazine. 15.10.01. Can the US stop the Rage?



Jennifer M. Bayer, Ph.D.
Central Institute of Indian Languages
Mysore 570006, India

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