On Language

Tagore writes:

“But when this language [English], with all its products and acquisitions, matured by ages on its own mother soil, is carried into foreign lands, which have their own separate history and their own life-growth, it must constantly hamper the indigenous growth of culture and destroy individuality of judgement and the perfect freedom of self-expression. The inherited wealth of the English language, with all its splendour, becomes an impediment when taken into different surroundings, just as when lungs are given to the whale in the sea.” [191]

This quote made me think about the Imperialism of language on the Internet, and the very limited computer-based language support available. As Tagore points out, this clearly has implications for the particular ways in which knowledge, society, art, culture, etc. are described and understood. Just a quick peek…

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_used_on_the_Internet (no Indian languages)
http://translate.google.com/ (a few Indian languages)

I was wondering what Tagore would think of the more contemporary form of language Imperialism — which seems to be largely driven by the market for computer software. Colonialism looks a bit different now — people aren’t necessarily forced to speak the language of the colonizer in the same way that they were, say, 100…or even 50 years ago — but perhaps the consolidation of language has nonetheless accelerated? Any bilingual folks in the class have any thoughts on the influence of language on cultural expression? How do contemporary forms of computer-mediated expression limit how you can communicate?

1 thought on “On Language

  1. Or how about this list:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-English-based_programming_languages

    Have you heard of any of these languages? Are any of them in common use?

    The design and use of computer programming languages has inevitably reflected international economic power structures and the hegemonic power of English-speaking countries. I wonder what Tagore would have said after witnessing what has been widely lauded as one of the great Indian success stories of the turn of the 21st century – the Indian information technology boom, which by 2012 accounted for 7.5% of the GDP. While there is no doubt that this boom has had some positive effects on Indian society, what about the downsides? The IT sector in India largely consists of IT services and business process outsourcing. The largest customer: English speaking North America. Programmers work in English-based programming languages to create software solutions for some business student with a great idea he thought of in his fancy American business school; customer service agents speak English to some angry guy in Anytown, USA who is having problems turning on his Dell. What about the rifts this creates between those Indians who have a good command of English and those who do not?

    I realize that I am simplifying and generalizing a great deal here, and also failing to mention that there may also be a flowering of homegrown innovation that has risen alongside the outsourcing industry. However, to the extent that the IT boom in India has involved the outsourcing of English language software and business process drudgery to cheaper labour, has India slipped off the iron chain of British colonialism only to replace it with the silicon handcuffs of American IT?

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