Home The Currency of Language: A case for the advancement of the IIT slanguage

The Currency of Language: A case for the advancement of the IIT slanguage

by Krishna Dhir
0 comment
5727362908_d68f2ea44e_o (1)

Image credit: Frits Ahlefeldt

Early in the inception of IIT Bombay, its students were already developing the unique vocabulary used by them today to express concepts, experiences, sentiments, and emotions that are unique to their IIT experience. Somehow, the vernacular languages represented at the Institute were simply inadequate for effective reporting of one’s thoughts and feelings within the context of the IIT acculturation. The process of living the mainstream life at IIT was so demanding that it required its own slanguage. For instance, if one performed badly in a quiz, one’s dejection was reported as, “tamboora baj gaya!” This was to state that the individual had a difficult time concentrating on the questions asked in the quiz, because some melody kept playing over and over in the person’s head. In three simple words, a deep emotion, and the associated resignation, was effectively conveyed. Those three words explained both the cause and the effect of poor performance. If a colleague was found in a confused state of mind about some theory to be applied to a problem, he was told, “You need to get your fundas, yaar!” This implied that the individual was ignorant of the basic tenets of the theory and ran the risk of becoming inconsequential, with little to offer to the learning of his peers. Over the years, students at various institutions have developed their own ‘slang language’ and the phenomenon has achieved a degree of sophistication, enough for this phenomenon to attract serious attention of social linguists. Image credit: Frits Ahlefeldt

Eventually, my experience with slanguage at IIT Bombay came in handy when I began working in corporate organizations, first at Borg-Warner Chemicals in West Virginia, manufacturing high-impact plastic resins, and then later at CIBA-GEIGY AG in Switzerland, manufacturing pharmaceutical drugs. I noticed that corporate organizations, too, develop their own slanguage! Often the evolving vocabulary is derived from the unique characteristics of the industries in which the corporations operate, technologies they use, specialized disciplines they deploy, and the ambient culture in which they reside. The practice is widespread. For instance, at IBM, to resolve an issue was to “flatten” it. To nonconcur was to disagree. A foil referred to an overhead slide and to reswizzle it was to improve it.

Eventually, my experience with slanguageat IIT Bombay came in handy when I began working in corporate organizations… I noticed that corporate organizations, too, develop their own slanguage!

I too encountered unique vocabularies, while working for CIBA-GEIGY AG in Basle, Switzerland, at their world headquarters. The local language spoken in Basle was Basler Deutsch, a dialect of German unique to a narrow, well-defined region. Not too far away is Zurich, with its own dialect. During my time in Basle, through the second half of the 1970s and early 1980s, Basle was home to two additional world headquarters of pharmaceutical multinationals, one for Sandoz, and the other for Hoffmann La Roche. While the working language in CIBA-GEIGY was English, in Sandoz it was French and in Hoffmann Roche it was German. I wondered why three major multinationals with headquarters in the same city, operating in the same industry, would opt for three different working languages. I started reading literature on choice of language. I found that corporations choose a language that best enhances their competitive advantage within the strategic environment in which they operate. The same is true for a community of people. If available languages do not adequately and effectively facilitate exchange of information or cultural nuances, the members of the community develop a new vocabulary.

I also found that philosophers have long contemplated on the relationships between wealth and knowledge. Their insights have resulted in such observations as, “His word is gold,” and “Money talks.” Coins are minted and so are words! Florian Coulmas quotes a 17th century thinker, Stefano Guazzo, as stating, “Just as all sorts of coins — golden, silver and copper — issue from the purse, expressions and other words of greater and lesser value come out of the speaker’s mouth.” John Locke viewed a word as “the common measure of commerce and communication.” Locke’s contemporary, Leibniz started the mischief of linking Language and Money. Subsequently, David Hume went further, describing parallels in the development and functions of language and money.

It is important to note that their analogies were between Money and Language. Therein, I thought, was the problem! Just as money may be managed in different currencies, so can a message be managed in different languages! Imagine my shock, when I began to entertain the idea that these great philosophers, the likes of John Locke, Leibniz and David Hume, needed to get their fundas clear! I was seeing a parallel not between Money and Language, but rather between Money and Message, and Currency and Language! Just as money could be managed in various currencies, so a message could be crafted in many languages. I find it rather surprising that even when examining the parallels between the functions of money and language, Hume did not catch on the misplaced analogy! I can imagine the reader asking, at this point of this essay, “So, what then are these functional parallels?”

Introductory study of the nature of currency informs us that currency has three basic functions. These are: (i) accounting for value, (ii) storing value, and (iii) exchanging value. As a tool for accounting of value, currency can be used in various ways, including invoicing trade and denominating various financial instruments. As a store of value, currency serves as an investment device, allowing value to be transported across locations and applications. As a medium of exchange, one may use currency to settle various financial transactions, including trade. To explore the parallel functions of language, one needs to go no further than to examine the roles of IIT Bombay’s own slanguage! What, after all, does the lingo developed by the students at IIT Bombay over the years do for them?

Imagine my shock, when I began to entertain the idea that these great philosophers, the likes of John Locke, Leibniz and David Hume, needed to get their fundas clear!

The students are admitted to the IIT through a stringent screening process, then to be subjected to a highly demanding routine to attain superior performance before graduating. The screening process creates a student community that shares a set of values that stresses learning, professionalism, team-work, and high academic achievement, among other qualities. The common values of the students, their experiences, their traits and habits, their responses to the demands made on them, all contribute to the creation of a distinct IIT Bombay culture. As stated by Edward Burnett Tylor in 1871, “Culture… is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” The slanguage of IIT Bombay is at the heart of this culture.

The students use the vocabulary of their slanguage(i) to account for their culture, and affirm it, through their narratives; (ii) store their culture through a specialized vocabulary, which ensures that their shared beliefs, social forms, attitudes, values, practices as a group, are perpetuated; and (iii) exchange their culture to acculturate new students joining the Institute, and communicate it to communities outside IIT Bombay. Similarly, the functions of a language may be viewed as parallel to the functions of a currency in a corporate setting as well. In a corporate setting too, as in any community, a language may be seen as performing three parallel functions: (i) accounting for culture, knowledge, or information, through narratives; (ii) storing culture, knowledge, information, and know-how; and (iii) exchanging culture, knowledge, or information. Further, note that information has value, especially in an emerging knowledge-based economy. Therefore, in an economic context, language is a corporate asset, and in a social context, it is a community asset, in a manner similar to currency! The student lingo plays an essential role in student learning experience at IIT Bombay. At IIT Bombay it should rightly be deemed an institutional asset and should be conserved and promoted as such.

Leave a Comment