Transceding Sociolinguistics: Language, Caste and Power

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Transcending Sociolinguistics:
Language, Caste and Power in India

Sociolinguistics and the Language Problem in India

Though there has been a long tradition of studying and interpreting language in India, most of these studies are in descriptive, technical or structural mode. For long, language has been seen as a non-political or apolitical phenomenon and its study has remained restricted to its structure. India also has a long tradition in the study of language. However, the linguistic tradition in ancient India was exclusively concerned with what is called descriptive or synchronic linguistics.[i] It refused to see that language is not just a self-referential object and its study assumes the organic relationship it has with the society and power. R. K. Agnihotri argues that “the primary preoccupation of linguistics has been the analysis of the structural properties of language” and the “process of segmentation and classification eventually lead to postulating roots and stems that nobody uses”. Even when some efforts were made from time to time to locate language in its social context, structuralist considerations continued to dominate the enterprise.[ii] For example, American linguistics in the first half of the twentieth century remained primarily a “formal discipline”, almost along the line of abstract mathematics. Concentrating on the analysis of language structure and focusing on a corpus of sounds and smaller and larger units of meaning, the linguists studied the properties of language, as if it existed above and beyond its users. Recently, it has been well argued by the scholars of language that there exist interrelationships between language and society. Interest in the study of language in its social contexts can be traced back quite far, to the eighteen and nineteen century sociology and social philology. However, the stronger and clearer interest has come from linguists, both as a result of its more sophisticated synchronic (i.e. non-historical) concerns as well as a result of its growing response to applied demands.

Though the realization is widespread that the study of a language without reference to its “social context” leads inevitably to “the loss of opportunities for further theoretical progress,” the term “sociolinguistics” is very often understood either as the “sociology of language” or as just one of the branches in the study of linguistics.[iii] B. R. Bapuji has pointed out that in the former approach, it is meant to be one of the approaches borrowed from the discipline of sociology or, more precisely, from the functional or behaviourist technique. In the latter, it is an attempt to emphasise on the social and cultural content of a given language behaviour. In both the cases, one discerns a failure to formulate an integrated theory that explains the social process of which the language behaviour is an inextricable element.[iv] Sociolinguistics in the recent years has shifted its emphasis from an abstract study of the rules of language to a concrete use of language. It now assumes that the study of language has to consider the fact that language usage is essentially and predominantly a social phenomenon. The term “sociolinguistics” is constituted of two components - socio and linguistics. In sociolinguistics - as the name indicates - the focus is very much upon the relation between social groupings (classes) and - contexts and variable ways in which languages are used in the society.[v] Joshua Fishman has argued that, with the rise of sociolinguistics, many linguists came to be concerned with variations in language that were formerly set aside as purportedly unsystematic and of little scientific account. Deborah Cameron has criticised Fishman for the overplaying of the “sociological” aspect, which was a starting point in her sociolinguistic enquiry. William Labov’s work on the relationship between language use and social class is...
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