On language, culture and technology

I was wondering why some languages contain words that have no suitable equivalent in another language. For example, the Sanskrit word Dharma (धर्मं) has no English parallel. The most we can do is use insufficient replacements like ‘religion’, ‘responsibility’ etc. Not only are these words insufficient, they are also very misleading in some political contexts.

A culture gathers words into its collective vocabulary on the basis of many criteria. People learn words that imply ideas and define objects that matter to them in their lives. It is said that Eskimos have a hundred words for snow (do they really?). Seeing how snow is such a major presence in the lives of the Inuit people, it is no wonder that they have many ways of referring to it in many different contexts. In much the same way, the nature of a culture’s vocabulary depends on its priorities — things they like to do, matters they consider important, customs and traditions they value, and so forth.

The word Dharma being such a solid part of Indian civilisational vocabulary simply points to the fact that the ideal has always been important to Indians. Dharma, in all its versions (social responsibility, individual choice, religiosity), is a concept that has had a lasting presence and a widespread influence on Indian society and thought.

Cultures find words for things that are important to them. Because Dharmic concepts are such an important part of Hindu thought, there is a whole range of words for them in Sanskrit and its child-languages — words that often do not have equivalents in languages spoken by people from other traditions.

Take the world wide web for example — it is the language I am using to communicate with you right now. But the vocabulary of this language is mostly based on commerce. Commercial values dictate the form our communication takes. The web services we use need to make money if they are to continue their existence as tools of communication. This reliance of the web on commerce is only because commerce dictates intercultural interactions in the real world as well. Things on the web are a mere echo of human society as it exists outside the digital world.

Perhaps, in the future, when human society adopts a more mature set of values, the web will start reflecting this maturity and gather a new set of words around itself. Already, words like ‘share’ and ‘social’ have become a big part of the internet’s vocabulary. But the impetus behind this seemingly generous new wave of information technology remains commercial — big corporations herding large numbers of people into walled gardens and using their creativity to make money off them. This may be another bubble that will soon explode, and if it does, I hope a more distributed model of commerce will take its place. One where I can talk, trade, and transact with you without having to abide by commercial third-party rules.