By: Sanjana Srikumar (National Law University, Jodhpur)
A lot has been said about the power of words – words that spark revolutions, words that irreparably wound. The pen has been considered mightier than the sword. Yet, to some, they appear shallow. Amitav Ghosh once compared them to ripples on the surface of water – they have no effect on the depths, which remain unchanged. I, for one, have always believed that words are powerful, even if somewhat inadequate at times. What is the power of words? To be very specific, I place this question in the context of our perception of the world we live in.
Linguistic psychology has dedicated a lot of scholarship to understanding the link between the language we speak and our cognitive processes. Someone pointed out to me once that the Japanese language discourages the use of subordinate clauses, grammatically compelling people to express a well-organized line of thought. This is believed to have affected the reasoning capacity and organizational capabilities of the Japanese-speaking. Similar analogies have been drawn to explain the effect of the scientific nature of Indian languages on the mathematical prowess of the Indian people, and that of the Romance languages on the artistic inclinations of some European countries. Dr. M.K. Chen studied languages that draw a clear distinction between past and present tenses (such as English) and those that didn’t (such as German) and showed the impact of this difference on the national saving rates. In essence, what these studies suggest is that languages play a role in our thought process.
What is the power of words in shaping our social perceptions? I believe that words often promote negative social stereotypes, by the casual use of the identity of certain communities as derogatory terms. A couple of years ago, a friend of mine convinced me to join her in an experiment- we were to stop using the word ‘gay’ in an insulting manner. Now, I was by no means, homophobic and considered myself fairly open-minded. It seemed like an easy resolution to keep and so, I agreed readily. I found that this practice gave me a sensitivity I had hitherto believed I already possessed. It compelled me to question the link between being effeminate (another word I have issues with- our gender roles and codes of behaviour are often too rigid) and being homosexual. For example, calling the act of a man crying on watching a touching movie ‘gay’ promotes two socially restrictive ideals at once: that men do not have the right to publically display emotions; and that being homosexual is something to be repressed, an undesired way of behaving.
I repeated the experiment with the word ‘retarded’, used to describe a medical condition associated with developmental problems. In common parlance, it is often used to describe unreasonable behaviour, something worthy of ridicule. It promotes the ideal that a word that must inspire our empathy, may instead inspire ridiculed. It adds a negative connotation to an unfortunate condition, displays insensitivity to a condition that surely isn’t something to be embarrassed or ashamed about.
A recent example that comes to mind, of the unfortunate use of vocabulary, was when Aaja Nachle released. There was a lot of controversy surrounding a line in the title song, that was eventually deleted: Mohalle mein kaisi maara maar hai, samjhe mochi bhi khud ko sonar hai. These lines described a state of chaos, where the shoe-maker fancies that he is at par with a goldsmith. Why did these lines offend so many? Another tactic to browbeat big production houses into paying up? I beg to differ. In the traditional caste system, the role of those who dealt with leather in their professions was placed hierarchically lower than those who dealt with gold. It was a reminder of an oppressive social order. While I believe wholeheartedly that the lyricist meant no harm, it is pertinent to understand that words aren’t as harmless as we would like to believe. To the lyricist, it was an unfortunate choice of words, inspired more likely by rhyme scheme than a feeling of casteism. But to those who lived on the less fortunate end of the caste lines, it suggested that the idea of a shoe-maker at par with a goldsmith was ridiculous, that perhaps, there was a ‘correct’ place for each in the social order.
Words are capable of shaping the way we perceive the world. Without realizing, the words we choose may shape our perceptions. While this idea may be harder to accept, surely, it is not ridiculous to point out that they reflect our perceptions. They may or may not change the way we see the world, but they certainly change the way the world sees us. As our means of communication, they communicate, among other things, the ideals we stand for. Given that, is it really ridiculous to suggest that it is inappropriate to use the names of lower caste groups as an insult? These words are usually used out of habit or ignorance, used often by people I would, by no means, consider insensitive. However, they represent repressive social regimes, and promote restrictive ideals. Our words, alas, are more powerful than we often realise and unleashed, they can neither be taken back nor controlled. It may sound to some like something organic-food-eating, khadi-clad, protest- loving activists would say to raise a hue and cry over nothing. However, it seems to me like too small a sacrifice to make, if there is a possibility that they promote inclusiveness. If words are just a series of letters, why not choose the ones that represent what we stand for? Why not choose to write in letters of acceptance?
 Chen, MK (2013): “The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets”, American Economic Review, 103(2): 690-731.