Language and people


Scientific pursuit, struggles in the arena of production, and class-war making language dynamic and rich is related to the issues of the world around – nature and processes in nature, dialectics, basis and super structures and relation between these, power and powerlessness, class and class struggle.

Whatever individual contribution in the universe of language is made, it’s ultimately the product of society, of social labor, a product of a social milieu. It’s an important area of study by, among others, political activists connected to people’s politics as questions related to production relations and sociopolitical order are connected to this, as they strain to ground people’s political power.

Classes in unremitting contention with each other mould language as they enter into production relations, where the powerful dominates access to language while people’s life with connections to production tools and their struggle counter the dominant tact; and thus, language flows like a perennial river. However, it can’t surpass material basis, the immediate material conditions, of the historical epoch it lives through and evolves. “Production relations and the sociopolitical order shaped by those relations determine the full range of verbal contacts between people, all the forms and means of their verbal communication – at work, in political life, in ideological creativity.” (Valentin Nikolaevich Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, Seminar Press, in liaison with the Harvard University Press and the Academic Press Inc., 1973, first published in Russian in 1929) The relations, and the order determined by the relations control access/non-access to language by people while language is a tool for struggle by people as it’s a tool by the dominant part of society to perpetuate its control.

Access/non-access to language plays a role in decreasing/increasing inequality in society, where exploiters control economic and political life although the contrary is essential for a better life of the exploited classes. Dominant class sets up hurdles, at times, with another language as an informal but functional condition for making advancement in economic area at individual level, and, at times, with incomprehensible terms related to intricacies of power, to access language by people.

The hurdles’ society-wide impact cements inequality. Jumping over the hurdles turns difficult for the poor, even for a major part of middle class, for historic and economic circumstances, which as a whole hurts the major portion of society. In such case, the language-access-game is actually a power play with different forms of power including money-power. Only a people’s political struggle can encounter such language-access-game played by dominant class.

A research looked at “the law’s language in order to understand the law’s power. Its premise [was] that power is not a distant abstraction but rather an everyday reality.” (John M. Conley, William M. O’Barr, and Robin Conley Riner, Just Words, Law, Language and Power, “The politics of law and the science of talk”, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2019)

It said: “Language is a critical element […] To the extent that power is realized, exercised, abused, or challenged […], the means are in large part linguistic.” The research questioned: “Why do many people continue to think that the law does not treat them fairly?” “The answer”, it said, “cannot be found just in the study of legal norms. [….] If the law is failing to live up to its ideals, the failure must lie in the details of everyday legal practice – details that often consist of language.” Language is such a connected and important issue; connected to power, fair treatment, ideals, people, and some more.

The “some more” include inequality and its perpetuation, moneybagses and empty-pockets. “Power is the answer to the question of why some people get things, while others do not – why, in other words, the haves have what they do. Stated in this way, the study of power must deal with the fundamental issue of inequality, asking why it exists and how it is maintained. This sense of power is encompassed in the notion of hegemony, which means preponderant power in a political context, or the ability of some groups to sub-ordinate others.” (ibid.)

The study said: “After twenty years of further research by ourselves and others, we reach the same conclusion that we had in 1998: language is not merely the vehicle through which legal power operates – in many vital respects, language is legal power.” (ibid.) The question – language – raises another serious issue: legal power. With the issue of legal power, illegal power, power-holders/hucksters of power, powerless, etc. issues, and, consequently, the issue of people arise as these are connected to people, who in most cases are unaware, unorganized, least capable to use language to further their interests.

There are cases of language industry with grand profit having close connection to education industry – a major part of these is connected to imperialist interest. People, especially the poor and the lower-middle income group have no scope to access these industries. The divide is sharp – I have money, I access, you’re poor, don’t dream to access. The reality stands as here’s language, here’re people, but people can’t benefit from it as long as they don’t have money.

To put the issue in simple questions: How many Baanglaa speaking factory workers dream to go through Tagore’s Taasher Desh, Country of Cards, or Nazrul’s declaration – gaahee saammer gaan, I sing the song of similitude, or the illuminating Kreetadaasher Haashee, Slave’s Smile? These works are in Baanglaa. Even, how many of them are aware that there’s a treasure of Baanglaa works that tell their tales, which they can learn and use for making their life better? Let’s forget the studies on poverty, inequality, nutrition, slums, the treatise on rights, the books on labor law, science, history, philosophy and appropriation of surplus labor, Gorky’s Mother, although many of these are compiled/translated/written in Baanglaa; how many of the Baanglaa speaking house cleaners, plantation workers, smiths and loaders know Rizia Rahman’s works mostly depicting the working people’s life? The works are in Baanglaa. Let’s ignore their language proficiency; do they have information about these books, and that time to go through these? The same with rickshaw-pullers, construction workers, self-employed, transport workers, journeymen, farm workers, and others of the same category. They form the people, the majority. They talk Baanglaa; the works are in Baanglaa. But the connecting rod, the bar joining piston and crank, is absent. So, the majority can’t access information, can’t access opportunity to learn and plan, can’t articulate their aspiration. A difficult question on the path of people’s struggle it’s!

A study in the UK finds:

“[L]anguage is important in stirring change; both through societal attitudes and political action. It also has the ability to reproduce or challenge inequalities. So it is important to consider how to talk about the structural inequalities in society in meaningful terms that fully articulate individual lived experience and the intersectional, cumulative nature of disadvantages faced.” (University College London (UCL) and Resolution Foundation (RF), Structurally Unsound Exploring Inequalities: Igniting research to better inform UK policy, report, October 2019)

Referring to Social Mobility Barometer (2018), a study by UK’s Social Mobility Commission, the UCL and RF’s report said:

“[J]ust 55 per cent of people in the UK understand what the term ‘social mobility’ means, with 18–24-year-olds least likely to understand it, compared to older age groups. If the language used to evidence and discuss social inequalities is not widely understood, it risks obscuring the true picture of social inequalities. Affecting societal change will, through public attitudes, in turn, then prove extremely challenging.” (ibid.)

“Opportunity (and lack of) is a defining fault-line in UK society. It is a central factor when considering structural inequalities. For example, in a recent survey, 40 per cent of respondents believed it is getting harder for people from less advantaged backgrounds to move up in society.” (ibid.)

If this – 55 per cent and 40 per cent – is the reality created by an advanced bourgeois state in a society with a long history of working people’s struggle, then, what’s the reality in the Third and Fourth Worlds without merest bourgeois democratic space, where imperialist capital and its local ramifications, along with imposing its ideology on people, controls most of people’s/working people’s political and cultural discussions, organizations and activities? It’s easy to comprehend. The gamut sings capital’s song.

The study said:

“The language we use also influences the way we understand and seek to address policy issues.”

“Language shapes and goes hand in hand with access to society. Language can in itself be a barrier and a form of structural disadvantage. [….] If those who can’t communicate out are consequently excluded from debate, then language in itself risks acting as a structural disadvantage and perpetuating societal inequalities.”

“Language holds an important political dimension.”

Should people’s non-access to language and language’s political dimension be overlooked? There’s no way to overlook these if people are to march forward.

Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

The article first appeared in Ekushey Special 2021, special issue on February 21, the Mother Language Day, of New Age, Dhaka on February 21, 2021.



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