Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 1:4 June-July-August 2001
Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.


M.S.Thirumalai, Ph.D.


Early Pallava kings in Tamilnadu used a language (not Tamil) to issue their inscriptions and coins, etc. However, slowly the dynasty switched over to Tamil for such acts after a few centuries. The shift was also spectacular because under their patronage Tamil literature and arts reached greater heights. Originally a language not native to the subjects was commonly used, but soon the language of their subjects become the language of the rulers. Similar instances are attested throughout the Indian history. The shift from the Persian and Arabic to the Urdu language by the Mughals is another example, but this Mughal shift was not without a "price" in the sense that Urdu was born out of the interaction between the rulers and the ruled, a beautiful accommodation. A reversal of some sorts, however, took place when the subjects themselves eagerly embraced English, the language of the rulers, as their own medium during the British rule. Perhaps the subjects did not have much of a choice! Whereas the earlier rulers found it convenient to transfer to the local idiom in some manner, the British decision makers found it convenient to introduce their language as the language of administration and overall communication. From the point of view of the subjects, introduction of a language for administrative purposes becomes a domestic policy, but, if the rulers are from another nation, it becomes a foreign policy for the rulers. It is a foreign policy towards their foreign subjects.

In the territories won over by the medieval Cholas, across the seas far beyond the Tamil country, the policy of the Chola dynasty appears to have supported the propagation of a language of culture and religion (Sanskrit), rather than their own tongue. This gives us another contour to the place of language in formulating a foreign policy. It was not the current speech of the Cholas but the valued language of culture and religion that was viewed to be representing the interests of the rulers.


Generally speaking, the concept of foreign in Tamil, and perhaps in most Indian languages, seems to have four different but related features.

These four features are reflected also in the features inherent in the English word foreign. The English word, however, seems to have features that are not denoted or implied by the equivalent Tamil words. In general, the English word "foreign" includes the spatial dimension, exteriorization/external location, possession by others and not by self, lack of kinship, ideologically dissimilar, movement from without, strangeness in shape and location (and behavior, alien in character based on external location), affairs not of the self but of the others, and difference in country of birth, and using a non-native language.

The semantic field in Tamil for the word "foreign" in phrases such as foreign affairs is more or less restricted to geographical territory, that is exterior and not one's own. In languages like Kannada and Hindi too the translation of the word "foreign" in foreign affairs is translated invariably with the addition that signifies a geographic sense. For example, in Hindi, foreign is translated as antar-rashtriya "inter-national." In Tamil, the emphasis seems to be more on the contrast between the domestic and the foreign, the self and the other, the interior and the exterior, and the movement from within as opposed to the movement from without. The word ayal is used in Tamil more frequently than the borrowed word anniya. ayal refers to the following: neighbor as well as stranger, but without any contempt. The focus is on the other as opposed to the self. What is most important is that such words refer to a continuum from the physical self and to the relationship that the physical self has with the other physical selves, whether of one's own political boundary or extending in a continuum to other physical selves inside other poltical boundaries. "Foreign," thus, is not a discrete unit, but a continuum from the self. It is not static; it is clearly, decidedly, and explicitly dynamic. It is not simply social and political, but it is individual-based in its origin. "Foreign" is not based only on self-interests, but it is clearly a code for living together. Foreign is not geared towards enmity, but is oriented towards friendliness and cooperation, while recognizing the other. Anything other than my own being is foreign, but I need that foreign element to survive. Connectedness, thus, appears to be an important underlying element or characteristic of the conept "foreign" in Tamil.

Note that the foreign policy formulations of all the nations profess this simple truth to be their goal, but in reality they all work towards exclusive self-interests, rather than connectedness. They will aim at connectedness only through the path of realizing self-interests. Language becomes very handy because of its inherent potential for double articulation, prevarication, and the display of arbitrariness and iconic relationships.


In formulating a foreign policy via language, whether the language used for this purpose is one's own, or it is somebody else's, or it is the so-called international language, those who formulate the policy exploit the built-in ambiguity in language. The built-in ambiguity in language facilitates multiple and varied interpretations of a foreign policy statement. This helps maintain the relevance of a foreign policy statement even when the circumstances change.


At the level of expression, both speaking and writing, the use of guarded ambiguity in the statements made shows that a policy statement is well-formulated. At the level of comprehension, the interpreters seek to identify the specific and explicitly arrived at possible behavioral consequences. Interpretation of a foreign policy statement issued by another nation has to be as precise as possible so that necessary counter measures can be initiated. Also by interpreting it in a specific and explicit manner, and making the interpretation known to the foreign nation, one is able to get a response from the concerned foreign nation as to the original intent of the statement.

A foreign policy statement is a product of conflicting demands made on the language skills of production and reception. A foreign policy statement speaker/writer is a highly motivated language user. His goal is not to establish a co-ordination between the production and interpretation of foreign policy statements unlike an ordinary language user and learner. He will keep these two separate and distinct. The language mechanisms and devices such as lexical choice and syntactic constructions assume the role of a pliant tool in the hands of a foreign policy statement writer. He does his best not to be controlled by the tool he manipulates. He views the tool with suspicion right from the beginning and, thus, tries to put in the statement all the possible contingencies, perhaps with self-assumed success at the time of announcing the policy. But, unfortunately, as the time proceeds further, it is always the tool that has its last say, when the motivated mind will find it a necessity to reformulate the policy once again with renewed deliberate ambiguity for the contingencies.

The dialectic between the perceived ends and the scope of the ambiguity characterizes the formulation of a foreign policy statement. A foreign policy statement is formulated via language but it is to be judged or assessed via the consequences in the nonverbal mode. The dialectic between the verbal and nonverbal modes in the formulation, interpretation, and implementation of a foreign policy statement is quite interesting, one mode contributing to the proper and correct understanding of the other.

HOME PAGE | Language(s) in the School Curriculum | What Happens in a Linguistic Junction? | Concept and Language Development in a Diglossic Situation | Applying Linguistics to the Study of Indian Languages-1 | CONTACT EDITOR

M.S.Thirumalai, Ph. D.
Bethany College of Missions
6820 Auto Club Road #320
Minneapolis, MN 55438, USA