What Makes A Language ‘Polite’, ‘Poetic’, Or ‘Romantic’?

What Makes A Language ‘Polite’, ‘Poetic’, Or ‘Romantic’?Linguists do recognise that some varieties of language are ‘considered’ better than the other, however, there isn’t anything special about that perceived ‘better’ variety.(Wikimedia Commons)
  • What decides if a certain language should be perceived as ‘polite’ , and some, more ‘attractive’, and yet others ‘sounding better’.

“Still I remember how her body lay
Exhausted by our love, her pale cheeks lined
With tumbled lock of hair, and round my neck
The tendrils of her arms she tightly twined;
Held me so close as if she bore within
Her heart concealed some secret deed of sin.”

The poem is not from an English erotica. Nor it is a translation of French, Spanish, Italian, or Farsi love poetry. It is a translation of the eleventh century Kashmiri Sanskrit poet Bilhana’s Chaurpanchashika (The Love Thief) by Richard Gombrich (Love Lyrics). If you are surprised by the fact that this sensuous poem was originally written in Sanskrit, you are not alone as we seldom envision Sanskrit a language of romance. Despite being the language of such masterpiece as Abhigyanshakuntalam, Kamasutra, etc, we rarely hear of Sanskrit being claimed as a ‘romantic’ language.

Such accolades, around our dinner table and in friendly conversations in WhatsApp groups, are reserved primarily for French, Farsi, Spanish, English, Italian, etc. Not to be undone by this, we also hear claims that such and such language is ‘polite’, some more ‘attractive’, and yet some others ‘sound better’.

We recently heard one of the Indian politicians promoting Urdu over Hindi because Urdu, according to him, was a more ‘polite’ language that Hindi. The question we should ask now is how are these claims made? Is there a basis to such claims?

Linguistically speaking, there is nothing in the sound, structure, syntax, or morphology of a language that makes it attractive, romantic, polite or poetic. All languages are governed by rules (of grammar) and have complex sets of structural patterns in syntax, phonology, morphology, etc. In fact, sociolinguist R A Hudson claims, “one of the most solid achievements of linguistics in the twentieth century has been to eliminate the idea (at least among professional linguists) that some language or dialects are inherently ‘better’ than others.”

Linguists do recognise that some varieties of language are ‘considered’ better than others, however, there isn’t anything special about that perceived ‘better’ variety.

Then how do we explain such claims of better-ness?

Language and its relationship with thought, culture, the world-view has always intrigued scholars. In fact, the Vedic scholars, grammarians, and philosophers believed that a universe of objective reality exists solely because human beings can express it through language. Nothing exists without language. Every element, every object, every idea in this world exists because it can be expressed through language.

The Upanishads delve in the relationship between the words and the objects. The Brihadaranyak Upanishad talks about the unity of words and the objects they signify. That is to say the signifier and signified are not physically distinct from each other.

So, if words don’t exist so do the objects they signify. According to the Shatpatha Brahmana, the supreme consciousness Brahman enters into this world with rupa (form) and nama (name) and the world extends as far as rupa and nama extend. Bhartrihari, a fifth century Sanskrit grammarian, postulates four stages of speech.

Vaikhari is the manifest form of speech, the spoken and written form. Madhyama is the unspoken mental state of sound. Pashyanti is the visualised undifferentiated stage. At this stage, differences between the languages do not exist. And finally Para, the fourth stage, is the transcendent absolute stage. At this stage, the distinction between the sound and the object merge and the sound encompasses all the features and qualities of the object.

Similarly, in modern times linguists such as Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf (of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis fame) claim that language determines thought to a very great extent and it does so in many ways. So if one can master all aspects of language, one would have control over thought. Emmitt and Pollock argue that even though people belonging to similar behavioural backgrounds or cultural situations but speaking different languages will have different world-view.

We also know that all human languages are sufficiently capable of representing objective realities around them. Languages also adopt the changes in the environment around them and respond to such changes by creating new modes and terminology to describe them. Languages also use their existing resources to unpack the meaning expressed. For example, the modern concept of ‘computer’ might be expressed as a “machine that does complex calculations” in some non-English languages.

All humans (and societies) have similar sense perceptions of colour. However, they may employ different terms and mechanism in describing those colors. North American women are known to apply more colour distinctions than their male counterparts. Eskimos have dozen or more words for snow while Hindi has just one – barf – which actually means both ice as well as snow. But rest assured that if and when the Gangetic Valley starts getting snowfall on a regular basis Hindi language will develop mechanisms to express this phenomenon.

While Hindi speakers wait for that to happen, they make fine distinction about other things that are around them. Take the example of different preparations of rice – chAval (plain, uncooked rice), bhAt (cooked rice), mURhi (puffed rice), chURa (flattened rice), etc. Similarly, absence of separate words for tomorrow and yesterday in Hindi (it has just one word— kal) does not mean Hindi speakers do not know how to talk about it. Hindi uses verb ending to disambiguate the meaning of the word kal in a given context.

Same can be said of expressions of emotions.

Different cultures, or even different individuals within the same cultural group, may employ different linguistic mechanisms to express feelings. There is no uniformity in the words or phrases used across the cultures in such situations. At the same time the levels of verbal as well as non-verbal communication in expressing emotions also differ across cultures.

Hindi is not known to use explicit words in expressing gratitude, remorse, or even love. However, in Hindi (as in many other languages) using words like dhanyawad in intimate or family situations may even be considered very ‘formal’ (hence indicating distance) to the extent it could be considered ‘overkill’. Famed sociolinguist Braj B Kachru describes the traditional ways expressing gratitude in Hindi as follows:

a. acknowledge one’s good fortune in encountering someone, or receiving that which benefits oneself, and/or

b. praise the person, circumstances, etc. beneficial to oneself.

For example, Hindi:

hamare dhanya bhag jo ap hamari kutiya men padhare

(It is our good fortune that your came to our humble abode)

Simply put, the above is just an elaborate way of saying, “Thanks for coming”. Similarly, Hindi has no equivalent for apology, apologise, or sorry. Apology in Hindi, for a perceived transgression, is sought by asking for forgiveness and/or expressing sorrow or distress. For example:

mujhe bahut khed/afsos hai ki … or … baRe khed/afsos ki bat hai …

(I am very distressed … or … It is a matter of extreme pain/sorrow …)

On the other we also know that Hindi has multiple layers of politeness with three second-person pronoun – tu, tum, and ap. Tu is considered the less polite/informal form whereas ap is the most polite/formal form.

Does that mean English, with no such distinction, is a less polite language?

So how do we reconcile that fact that certain languages are considered attractive, poetic, and polite or downright better that some other languages? The answer may lie in the perception, which is a result various socio-economic factors.

For linguists, there exists no absolute standard of a language unless one is deliberately created as a prescriptive exercise. However, language is one of the most important factors by which social inequality is perpetuated across societies and cultures.

We all know how, consciously or unconsciously, we attribute intelligence, friendliness and other similar virtues with the way one speaks a language. We also know how often we have been proven wrong in our judgments based on someone’s speech. Similarly, with our speech, we humans transmit information about ourselves. This information could be about speaker’s position in the society, level of education, etc.

Language is also used as a symbol of group membership. So, if a language is seen of a higher status, membership to that group may automatically enhance a speaker’s status in the eyes of a hearer.

Similarly, no matter how a hard a speaker may try to impress upon his/her listener with poetic language and rich vocabulary, etc, if his language doesn’t have appropriate social standing, it is going to be an uphill battle. Languages such as English, Spanish, Dutch, French, etc gained ‘attractiveness’ because of the perceived prestige of these languages as associated with their colonial past. They were, and many cases still are, considered languages of power and opportunity. Persian (and Urdu) in India gained similar prestige because it was the preferred language of the Muslin rulers. Knowledge of English and Persian/Urdu in India meant enhanced employment opportunity, which in turn, resulted in economic prosperity and improved social standing.

So a positive view of a society is determined by its socio-economic power. That socio-economic power, in turn, also enhances the positive view of the language spoken by that group.

If people have a positive view of a speech community, chances are they will have a positive view of their language as well. Linguist and Cognitive Scientist Vineeta Chand summarises this very succinctly: “There hasn’t been any research that I know of that has directly exploited the attractiveness of a language and didn’t eventually tie it back to the social evaluation of the speaking community”.

Avatans Kumar is a JNU and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign alumnus. He writes on language, cultures, and current affairs. Twitter: @avatans

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