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Man and Language

Alok Rai

Edited by Nadia Tazi
Vistaar Publications, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 160, 148, 148 & 168, Rs. 195.00 each


The volumes under review here—four for now, more to follow—are yet another instance of a kind of ecumenical impulse that has surfaced from time to time in well-meaning individuals when confronted by the deeply frustrating—or intriguing, it’s a matter of taste—nature of our relationship to language. As human beings, it is our distinction, and our destiny, to live in language, to live in worlds that are, variously, constituted and mediated by language. And while language itself—any language, all languages—is inescapably elastic, the inherent difficulty—and abiding mystery, it’s again a matter of taste—of the situation is compounded by the fact that we live in not one language—though even that is infinite—but in several. Not only is it the case that individuals are frequently not-monolingual, but also the more immediately available fact that we the peoples of one shared world, all use and therefore inhabit several different languages. The kind of frustration that animates the myth of the Tower of Babel—if only we could all speak one language, heaven would be within our grasp! —may well appear philosophically naïve. Thus, how can one resolve the question of priority between the infinity of lived worlds and the infinity of language and languages; do we experience the world differently because it is mediated through different languages, or is it mediated through different languages because we experience and therefore construe a deeply asymmetrical and unequal world differently; is the incommensurability of our languages—not the grammarians’ abstractions but the highly individualized and nuanced dialects in which we live and appear to communicate—itself a cause or a symptom of some deeper, underlying, extra-lingual incommensurability? But the urgencies of the given and fallen world in which we live are such that philosophical niceties appear to be beside the point, pointlessly fussy—because there is, and who can deny it, real work to be done.   Purely philosophical questions are not of immediate concern to the movers of the present project. This project—inspired by the Charles Leopold Mayer Foundation, and driven by a concert of publishers—seeks to work, the series subtitle says, “for a different kind of globalization”. It might be best to let the Series Preface speak at this point: The project offers fundamental notions from different cultural points of view, taking a hard look at a common object with a ...

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