If somebody thinks feudalism in Nepal has ended, this may be far from reality. Like any other socio-political system, feudalism is reflected in political, economic, and cultural aspects. If monarchy is feudalism, we can say political feudalism has ended in Nepal with the establishment of the republic. If we think feudalism has to do with much land owned by landlords, we may say it has also ended because landlords no longer hoard much land. But we cannot say by the same token we are done with cultural feudalism. To a large extent, cultural feudalism still exists in Nepali society. It is reflected in relationships between people of different castes, religions, languages, customs, and traditions. This article aims to show some of the linguistic indicators of feudalism.
It is only with the use of language that human beings make sense of the world around them: they see things and events and understand them; they feel pain and pleasure and express them in language; they gather knowledge and experience from deeds when they are put into words. It is even the least intelligent human creature can interact a thousand times better than the most intelligent non-human creature. Language is the only marker that distinguishes humans from other animals on this planet.
Despite chiefly being used as a means of communication, language also has another important function. It is not only used to say something about the already existing things and concepts about those things but also to form opinions about them, construct ideologies, shape our thinking, and influence the thought process itself. Not only that, language is as successfully used to persuade people as it is used to dissuade them. Just as language is used for telling the truth, it is also used for telling lies. Language has thus an immense possibility to tell so many things that can influence the way we think about life and the universe around us.
Language has the potential to get things done. J. L. Austin, an exponent of the philosophy of language, propounded speech act theory in which he argued that words are deeds and saying is doing. As he claimed, the sound produced is transmitted to the human mind, which makes sense. Then the sense triggers the human mind to do certain things. When somebody says, for instance, “Open the window” to a person, they immediately go to the window to open it. This indicates that the sense the words carry has the inherent power to rouse people to action. According to Austin, any word that exists in the world contains the potential to rouse the listener to move. Once words are uttered, they trigger deeds. This is called the illocutionary force of language.
It is due to this illocutionary force of words that human language has intrinsic power. Because language has that power, it influences society in two ways. It shapes civilised society if the language users speak politely. On the contrary, it leads to a decadent society if its users speak rudely. This suggests that courteous language builds culture, and discourteous language develops counter-culture. It is a widely accepted assumption that politeness in language is one of the essential characteristics of a cultured society. We think when most people in a particular society are polite in language use, they form a civilised society. However, politeness is not the only linguistic marker of a civilised society. If polite language is used for flattery and appeasement to the feudal, it cannot be called courtesy. Instead, it is one form of feudalism.
Language is the reflector of social hierarchy. The hierarchy in terms of age is acceptable in all cultures. But it is undesirable in terms of power. Social hierarchy is more conspicuous in a feudal society where the inferiors have to use honorific terms to address their superiors. Superiority under feudalism can be distinguished from inferiority in terms of caste, class, and gender. In South Asian societies, the people of a certain caste, class, and gender use honorific terms to address the people of another caste, class, and gender. People in Nepali society have also practiced this distinction in language use since long ago.
The linguistic hierarchy was more common in former times than at present. Under the absolute monarchy, the courtiers used terms such as “Maharaj,” “mausuph,” “sabari hos,” “bhuja jyunar hos,” marji hos,” “daya garibakshiyos,” and a host of others to address the king, queen, and their family members. Not surprisingly, it was also practiced within the Rana family. This kind of language had two purposes: to show high respect to the royal family and elitists and to flatter and appease them to get things done in their interests. To use honorific terms to show due respect to senior people in terms of age is less debatable, but their use for the second purpose is controversial. If words are used to flatter powerful people, they are the indicators of feudalism.
Now the monarchy has been abolished. There are no kings and queens. Nor are there any elitists who expect such forms of language. But the commoners, especially middle-class people, have used these honorific terms. These language forms have been widely used, especially among Brahman and Chhetri communities. Undoubtedly, these forms of language promote social inequality. In this sense, they are the linguistic indicators of feudalism. It looks like they will exist as long as social hierarchy exists.
Even in recent days, we tend to flatter the people in power by using feudal forms of language. It is not a good idea to appease them in this way for our benefit. Nor is it a good practice to take advantage of the potential of language in any way. Government rules and regulations cannot impose prescriptions on language use. It is a spontaneous social practice that can only be changed by conscious efforts. We need to avoid using the feudal forms of language if we want to develop an egalitarian society.
(The author is the chairman of Molung Foundation. firstname.lastname@example.org)