On distance, caste, and language

Distance is a fundamental and natural regulator of social relations, for men and women all over the world tend to interact with people who are close-by. This is for two commonsensical reasons: first, distance requires the additional hassle of transport and communication, which may or may not be available or affordable; second, proximity creates the feeling of kindred which is both necessary for, and is facilitated by, social interactions.

Language is a fundamental and natural tool for and outcome of social interactions, and distance, therefore, has a fundamental impact on it: the speakers of any given language tend to cluster geographically, and it is possible to draw very accurate geographical boundaries between any two linguistic peoples and earmark well-defined linguistic areas. To put it in another way, people who live together and who are isolated from other people either geographically or otherwise, develop their own language. For all practical purposes, language is equivalent to distance in regulating social interactions. Marriage is a fundamental and natural social institution, and distance has a fundamental impact on it, too: marriages also tend to form geographical clusters, as men and women tend to choose their spouses from nearby. But most marriages happen within the same linguistic area, because communication and cooperation, which are facilitated by a common language, are essential ingredients of successful marriages.

Therefore, matrimonial and linguistic clusters have significant overlaps worldwide. Even with the coming of modern means of transport and electronic communication, the importance of distance as a regulator of social relations has not reduced by any significant degree. Fast cars, ships, airplanes, mobile telephony and the internet have had negligible impact on the geographical clustering of languages and marriages. On the contrary, the existing geographical clustering of languages and marriages has had a significant impact on the patterns of social relations that have emerged on these new technological platforms.

In the Indian subcontinent, caste is an additional regulator of social relations. But it is neither a fundamental nor a natural regulator in the sense that distance and language are; it is an artificial one which has come to be due to the mishandling of racial diversity. Caste, however, impacts both marriage and language. That caste impacts marital relations—even appears to be its fundamental purpose—is a well known fact. But it is perhaps less known that caste also impacts language, creating different caste-based dialects and usage patterns within the same language.

Despite these impacts, caste as a regulator of social relations is weaker than distance, and one must concede that it is therefore not as fundamental a regulator as distance. The artificial regulations imposed by the caste-system on marriage and language fail to supersede the fundamental regulations imposed on them by distance: we find the people of almost all castes finding their spouses within tens of kilometers and living within well-defined linguistic areas. That is, it is very rare to find people crossing the barrier of distance to marry within the caste. Therefore, by and large, both languages and marriages are primarily distance-limited, and only secondarily caste-limited. I say ‘by and large’ because languages like English and marriages of the higher castes such as the brahmanas tend to go beyond geographical limits, but these are trivial exceptions from a percentage occurrence perspective.

Caste as a regulator of social relations is weaker than language, too, and therefore less fundamental than it. Different castes, because of their geographical co-location, have no choice but to communicate with each other, albeit while maintaining the social restrictions imposed by the caste-system. This communication cannot happen without a common language, even though there may be dialect and usage differences due to the isolation between castes. Essentially, therefore, castes are contained within well-defined linguistic areas. Once again, it is only the numerically trivial upper castes that provide an exception to this rule.

(Excerpted from The Pyramid of Corruption)