Avinash PANDEY

Exploiting The Arbitrary: The Opacity-Transparency Dynamics In The Patterns Of Language Use Of The Nath Panthi Davri Gosavi Community

The principle of arbitrariness is given the status of first primordial principle in Saussurean theory of language. The importance of this principle has duly been recognized in subsequent linguistic theories, especially Structural Linguistics. However, the inherent tension, in his ‘writings’ – lecture notes and manuscripts –, between the conception of language as a tool for communicating something and the conception of language as a self-sufficient system of signs has remained a relatively under-discussed aspect of the Saussurean principle of the arbitrariness.

Saussure emphasized that the two aspects of the sign – signifier and signified – formed an inseparable synthesis. The relation between the two is conventional and systemic. Structural Linguistics develops the conception of language as a self-sufficient system of signs and consider grammar as a way of internally limiting the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign. Words derived from other words are less arbitrary than the parts they are composed of. The systemic nature of grammar makes language learnable by increasing the level of transparency within the linguistic sign.

The other conception of language – a system for communicating something – too is present in Saussurean theory. The boeuf-Ochs example [1] is a clear indication of this presence. The view that linguistic systems offer different ways of saying the same (or at least similar) things suggests the possibility of increasing the opacity of language by decreasing the level of transparency of the linguistic system. The presence of slangs, jargons, argots in all linguistic traditions clearly indicate that language-users exploit this possibility to suit their communicative needs i.e. fulfil various social functions.

The true complexity of the Saussurean principle of Arbitrariness of the Sign can be understood only by examining the transparency-opacity dynamics in language-use of various communities. The present paper seeks to examine this dynamics in the language use of the Nath Panthi Davri Gosavi (NPDG) people – a nomadic community in India which relies on begging for its livelihood. The community, along with using its mother tongue – a variety of Marathi -, has developed another variety, referred to as Parushi, for intra-group communication in presence of strangers. The paper argues that development of Parushi is indicative of the above-outlined inherent tension in Saussurean conception of language.

[1] See [Saussure 1959], especially page 68.

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