Context and Categorisation in Language and Society

Louriyam Bebica *

We are all one


The basic understanding we have about language is that it is an instrument/tool to communicate. However I felt that it is also a feature that enable us to differentiate from animal kind (ability to think). My supervisor gave me an interesting example

-You put a trap to catch a mouse . If he can't escape on that spot he will get kill. If he did he will come to the spot the next day again. Whereas in case of a human, we won't be going there again .

Both man and animals are experiencing the same kind of world around them. The world is so vast that it is impossible to remember everything or store in our mind. It is with the help of language that we can keep a continuity and certainty on what is happening around us. Animal also has memory though in little form. Above that they have no language to restore the past events in their brain. They might remember what had happened last night in a pictorial form. However that reality of the incident cannot retain for long in pictorial as it is not the case in us.

We human can memorized our past events. We also can think of present and future in form of language. This possession of language distinguish us from the rest of kind in this world. Most of the people had pre-judged language's function as a mean of communication only. Even animal also communicate. Does it mean they have the ability to think ? I don't think so . If they can think they would have not allowed the human to explore them. Those white men taught us their language (English)to produce their thought . We were simply following what they thought and want . Mentally we were not allow to any contribution .

In that context, learning language can be for communication. In this post-colonial context, we no longer hold on their thought. So the primary function of language is it is the mean of thought, communication can be secondary. When I say 'think,' some might ask me if we cannot think at all without language? For that my answer will be, definitely no. We cannot think without language.

Forget about our conscious mind, lets speak about sub-conscious mind, dream is a process of our sub conscious's mind. So 've you ever dream without language? It could be any language but there will be a language.

Let me have Rene Descartes' famous sentence

Context is an important element in language. The same meaning may be portrayed with different lexical items and structure according to the variation of context. For instance ,we can take a telephonic conversation as an example
-In England, people answer the phone call by reciting their phone number.
-In a particular institution (like departments) the receiver receive the call with 'yes' rather than a hello. -Or let's say in customer care centre, they will answer the phone as 'this is customer care , may I help you'.

Here I am trying to postulate the fact that context played such an important role that we need to recognize. A very known example will be when we pretend to listen to a lecture by our professor even though our mind is somewhere else. No matters how boring the class might be we have to pretend that we are listening to him/her. Why are we doing this ? Because the context of our classroom and the professor demand us to do it so.

As Hans Robert Jauss in 'Horizon Of Expectation' state that literature's interpretation of a text's value varied according to time and situation . Shakespeare's drama The Tampest will be an interesting piece to analyze this view. Two different contexts will have two different concepts on the character of Caliban, the son of Sycorax. He was portrayed as a savage (monster) whom Prorpero and Miranda taught of religion and the language they speak while he taught them how to survive on that Island .

Two different interpretation can be seen here one from colonizer point of view another from the colonized. These two words differ only at the ending parts of the word. First one ending with '-zer' and second one with '-zed' . But their views are world apart . For colonizer CALIBAN was a savage because he didnot talk nor dress up nor worship like them. Everyone who was different from them were savages according to their context . Whereas for colonies, CALIBAN is a character who rebel against those colonizer for taking his rightful rights on the Island. So the point is CALIBAN can be both villain and hero at the same time. It depends on the context how you interpreted it.

In England, professors are not called as 'sir' or 'madam'. Their context demands them to refer them with their first name. It so happened that one young man from India went there for higher study. In his first day of class he wished the professor
-Good morning sir. The professor hesitate to answer him.
-Please don't call me sir, called me Peter. He went down to his ear and said.
-No no. I can't call you by your name sir. The Indian student replied the professor.

They were correct on their own context. Both of them find it weird when they try to leave their context and follow the other's context. It is the importance of context. On The Origin Of Spicies, Darwin, talked of a common ancestor. His thought was strongly unacceptable in that period. It was the time when everyone has the conventional believed or thought that God created us. So when Darwin suggested them the possibility of monkey being our sibling or relatives genetically, people were not ready to accept it. Because the context of that point of time have different conventional thoughts. Whereas in case of present context, his idea is accepted and trying to give more better hands to it. Darwin's statement in earlier or now is the same. The only difference is the context that enable to see its meaning differently.


Another point I would like to put forward is categorization. The notion of category goes back to Aristotle. A category 'is a conceptual unit formed for that are "Things" relevant , or "matter", to the people of a community". In a very simple word, we can say that things on our world are infinite. So we categorized them for our own 'convenience'. I haveve quote this word 'convenience' because I would like to elaborate on it latter.

What do you think an adequate categorization is possible? Let's say we, human, are categorized as man and woman. But the question comes- is this categorization applicable to every human? What about those lesbians and gays? Under which category they come? On this issue, sir (my teacher) narrated me an interesting fable folk tale. It seems once upon a time there was a war between animals and birds. Every birds and animals were busy organizing their groups for the war. In this preparation only the bat was left out. He was not present either in animal group nor in birds. So animal came to question him
-Why didn't you come for the war?
-Bcoz 'm not an animal. Unlike you, I can fly. Bat replied to the animal. Then comes the bird asking the same question
-Why didn't you come for the war?
-Bcoz 'm not a bird. Unlike you I don't lay eggs.

In our society there are many people who are like that bird and animal who wants to group for their own benefits, there are also people like that bat, who does not want to follow any group or categorization. A complete categorization can never happen. As I mention earlier, we categorized things for our convenience . For instance, there are lots of beings on this earth, some with four legs, some with wings etc. We categorize them as animal and birds.

Again under this we categorized them as dog, cow, pig , parrot, sparrow etc. We are categorizing them for our convenient . Else it may create confusion to us trying to have a conventional image of each of them separately . In simple word 'I' is more important than them so we used the mechanism of categorization. But it wont matter to them whether they are categorized or not. In fact they may have no knowledge that we had categorized them. Every categorization happens according to the convenient of categorizer.

Same thing is happening in our society. Some organizations, politicians or individuals who are in power are trying to draw a line of categorization as Tribe, Meitei, Assamese, Kuki...etc. The context that was created by white colonist is still imposed on us where tribals, SCs were under-developed people with least to respect with no space. But the context is changed now. It iss no longer the way it was.

We heard the story of lower class people drinking the water that washed the feet of a Brahman. But now it is not the caste or group that underestimated us, it is the people with money and power that does it. All the ministers or rich people whether Tribal, Meitei ,Assamese or Kukis... will be enjoying their lives. Whereas all the poor people from every caste will be living a life of death.

So you tell me - is this our way of categorizing? No, it is your way of categorizing. If we (Commoner) are permitted to categorize than, it will be between Rich and Poor, Power and Helpless. It's not the caste system but the power and money system that is killing us? If you really think you are working for us, (any group or individual) go and ask to everyone in every houses what they want? A separation ? A union? Or what? The answered will be "let us have peace and love".

No common man wants this hatred and blood, after all we are human no matters how you categorized us. So stop categorizing us for your convenient, stop imposing your colonial context because we are human with language that enable us to think unlike animal so let us think the reality of this word that 'We All Are A Kind Not Many Kinds'.

As Rabindranath Tagore says that if you want to progress by leaving the other people behind you then these people will pull you back, so let's march together.

* Louriyam Bebica wrote this article for
The writer is a PH.D. student at Tezpur University, Assam and can be contacted at bebicalouriyam708(at)gmail(dot)com
This article was posted on February 14, 2013.

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