Language and Power

Language and Power

Observance of International Mother Language Day, held on 21 February to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity, is part of a broader initiative “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by people of the world” [Representation image: SNS]

Observance of International Mother Language Day, held on 21 February to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity, is part of a broader initiative “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by people of the world”. However, from a Foucauldian perspective, language functions as a creative strategic relation ~ a form of power that structures the field of other possible actions.

Language is used in order to describe the world around us as well as to build social relationships. In this respect, language is also a potential tool to exercise power. In totalitarian states, language can constitute an effective instrument of power, but even in democracies power is exercised through language and those who possess political power can influence language and determine discourses in society.

Russian Jewish linguist Max Weinreich’s popular phrase, “A language is a dialect with an army and navy”, willy nilly, refers to a seizing of power by a dominant language in a political multiplicity. The recent controversy in our country, which took place in view of “Hindi imposition”, as dubbed by some state heads, would have indicated that language is indeed all about politics and power. It may be viewed as an intrinsic part of politics itself where language is used as a tool to establish control.


Languages are from time immemorial closely associated with power. A language symbolizes for most of its speakers a real or imagined fortress of intellectual, literary or cultural power. Sometimes, there may be a relation of total domination that speakers of one language exercise over others. The Greeks even denied the existence of a proper language for the others whom they named ‘barbarians’. The Romans were, from the beginning, intellectually dependent on the Greeks, and they, in turn, subjugated the rest of Europe with their Latin during the Middle Ages. More recently, English, French and other European languages have had similar roles in their respective colonies.

Within the kaleidoscope of language, a constant struggle may be seen between the centrifugal and centripetal social forces for one or the other form of power. These vital forces not only prove to be just a gross feature of language but, in Mikhail Bakhtin’s Semiotics, they can be discernible at the level of each utterance. As a language gains power, its constituents remain constant across relatively large stretches of space and of time. Such is the nature of a “major” language. On the other hand, when the users of a language are constantly working on its variational possibilities, language sheds its constants and there begins to exist a “continuum of variation.” Such is a “minor” language. English is a global language today because the political power of the British spread over a large part of the world for a long time. However, before the dominance of English, it was Latin that reigned supreme. Much after the decline of Roman military power, Latin continued to maintain its grip. Also, the Roman Catholic Church had become a mighty force and adopted Latin as its lingua franca.

The most effective way through which a language gains ground is through its political power. And English began to dominate by the end of the 19th century when the British became the leading industrial and trading country in the world. The last millennium saw the world domination of English promoted almost singularly through the economic advance of the new American superpower. However, over a period of time, through its overuse as the first language, second language and the official language across the globe, the English have had to forfeit their ownership over their own language.

Admittedly, the formation of the modern Indian state is largely a product of colonisation with its administrative machinery and its constitutional framework; the English language continues to be the most powerful vehicle of that idea. In spite of the fact that the progressive momentum of English is feeble and its overall historical importance more threatened than at any other point in the recent past ~ one has to only look at our political scenario ~ it still remains superior, in its conceptual content, to any other Indian language.

On the other hand, despite massive efforts to promote it on a larger perspective, there has been a reactionary recoil within Hindi and this makes it a powerful instrument of communication of those who wield political power. With the abolition of English teaching at the primary level by the Left Front, West Bengal witnessed how the suppression of English could act as a force of social and economic retardation, in spite of the fact that Bengali has a richer heritage of progressive values than many other Indian languages.

Language is not just an instrument of expression, grammar, and philosophy, it embodies the genius of a race and its culture. It is also an icon ~ an emotive symbol for which people die as martyrs. It happened with the Jews, the Irish and the Bengalis (rather Bangladeshis). As an instrument of articulation, it is indispensable, and as an icon, so noble and chaste. But when it is used as an instrument of oppression by means of imposition, it may prove to be dangerous. Sometimes, language as an icon has come to inflame our passions in pre- and post- Independent India as motivation for self- realization in the form of demand for linguistic states and also for recognition of one particular language ~ Hindi or English, as the national or official language. The impact of bilingualism, its liberating influence on our mind and art is recognized, but still occasionally, it serves as a handicap or backlash.

Nehru’s approach to language, even in the midst of politics, was one of a linguist ~ scientific and unemotional. He learned at Independence that language has an impact beyond words and literature, that language as an icon possesses power to alter history. It seems that Nehru believed in the free-market principle in the field of language: the choice of language being determined by economic and other principles which offer more opportunities and advantages than a monolingual preference. In a multilingual democratic country like India, a single national language ~ Hindi or English ~ cannot be enforced when there is widespread resistance.

Recently, in a similar way of negation like Tamil Nadu and Kerala, Telangana minister K T Rama Rao, shot off a letter to PM Modi arguing that the country would be put on a backward course if the recommendations of a Parliamentary Committee to make Hindi the medium of instruction in higher educational institutions including IITs and end the practice of compulsory English language paper in the competitive examinations were followed.

One could well imagine that the Central government’s determination to launch a “Hindi week” in all its departments from September 1986 could not be executed without much ado. According to the circular, all official correspondence with Hindispeaking states must be in Hindi, even to the extent of envelopes being addressed in the Devanagari script. Predictably, there had been protests from the southern states with Tamil Nadu warning the Centre that this ham-handed attempt to popularize Hindi could lead to serious consequences.

Mr. Rajiv Gandhi’s comment at the All India Rajbhasha Sammelan held in New Delhi in 1985 on the need to speed up the propagation of Hindi and Mr Zail Singh’s remarks on the subject had already aroused fears that Nehru’s assurance about the continuing importance of English as India’s official language might be diluted in practice. The abundance of Hindi programmes on Doordarshan ~ partly a consequence of the absence of regional second channels ~ had also led to widespread accusations of what is called “Hindi imposition”.

The irony is that through their overzealousness, the champions of Hindi are said to be scoring self-goals. The model schools scheme, for instance, had come under a cloud of suspicion in South India when there were widespread allegations that Hindi would be imposed on all students. What the rashtrabhasha advocates do not appear to consider that even the slightest hint of compulsion revives the controversy, and the entire issue is politicized. As the language of almost the whole of North India, Hindi undoubtedly enjoys a preeminent place among Indian languages, and its popularity is not necessarily confined to any geographical region. But this has come about because of the natural logic of the marketplace and not through imposition.

Language as a construct is an essential part of human culture. It is through language that power may make itself known via state messaging and can set the tone for social interaction. 

(The writer, a former Associate Professor, Department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata, is presently with Rabindra Bharati University)