Language is a vibrant life force that connects people and minds, providing a channel, a living medium for ideas to float upon and flourish. The immense power of language in everyday life goes largely unrecognised and unacknowledged. The onward march of the human civilisation depends primarily on our complex and nuanced forms of communication.

It is through language that ideas are bounced off and refined. Language can be moulded either as a barrier to keep off intruders or a bridge to provide access—depending on the situation. Legal, technical and highly specialised terms originated as a means to define something fresh and new, which resisted being enclosed in the boundaries of old knowledge. But subsequently these turned into fences —keeping outsiders out, restricting concepts within the understanding of a select few.  Simplification of language can take even the most abstract, highly complex ideas and specialised knowledge to the large mass of people — as Stephen Hawking did with A Brief History of Time (admittedly much supported by his editor who convinced him to drop all equations in the book — all but one: e=mc2).

Much like wealth in its ability to segregate or equalise, language has clear demarcations denoting the pecking order of society. The most educated, intellectual personalities —the crème de la crème of society — would be marked by a concise, polished use of language — the utmost refined form. Conversely, those occupying the lowest rung of the social ladder are represented by the crudest use of language, in its coarsest form. Interestingly, the wealthy need not be the most polished users of language: think loud-mouthed, uneducated politicians or the nouveau rich with oodles of currency but no sophistication. Despite all your wealth, if you can’t handle the nuances of at least one language, you’re still rough at the edges.

To quote Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the greatest Islamic philosopher and jurist—a person resides behind their tongue. It’s not just your mastery of language then, but also of the accompanying non-verbal intonations that determine the shades of your personality most visible on the outside. 

Like all living forces, languages take birth, expand and grow—and die. New languages are born from the interaction between old ones; traditional monarchs are toppled by young upstarts. Take Urdu, which was born through the interaction between soldiers of different nationalities living in military camps; hence the word ‘urdu’ which literally means ‘camp’ (in Turkish). Interestingly, this language of poetry and refinement was once considered a coarse language of military men, because Persian held a far superior position. An amalgamation of primarily Prakrit and Persian, Urdu uses a smattering of words from other languages such as Arabic, Sanskrit and Turkish.

That, in fact, is how languages evolve—taking in new words through new interactions. Like the proverbial survivor of Darwinian quality, languages, too, fight to remain fit — they too must adapt to survive. They shed their redundant parts and take on new forms to keep up with the new world. Both Arabic and English, for instance, do not exist in the same form as they did many centuries ago. English, in fact, now holds words like ‘juggernaut’ in its dictionary — from the Hindi word Jagannath.

The evolution of language takes place even now, as you read this. Technology dictates its direction, because the way we communicate has changed. Abbreviations, acronyms, short forms rule the roost, what with micro-blogging sites hogging all the limelight. Language is ever fluid and pulsating; like a body of water, it is both the mirror and the medium.

Not for nothing does ‘word’ form the most part of ‘world’.

Columnist: 
Zehra Naqvi