The relationship between language and power is well known and documented. In fact, discussions about English teaching and language education policy in India are rarely distanced from the narrative of power, class, and inequity. Less acknowledged, I think, is the power wielded by speakers when they conceal their proficiency over a language. It’s something we talk about at an anecdotal level – encounters with traffic cops in cities (Bombay, Bangalore?) whose language you’re not supposed to know, as they talk among themselves about how best to relieve you of the Rs.500 note that’s weighing down your wallet; haggling with Kashmiri antique merchants who have no clue that they just told you their reserve price as they mutter to each other about your stinginess; or the wallflower of an office helper who is privy to conversations about insider-trading deals he ought not to understand. Just as command over a language could translate into power, cloaking this knowledge may give you the upper hand.
In a case of fantasy fiction reflecting reality, last week’s episode of Game of Thrones concluded on this note of language, power, and a nasty massacre. People who aren’t GoT fans may need a preface before viewing the video so here goes.
Daenerys Targaryen, an exiled royal of the kingdom of Westeros finds herself in far-flung Astapor, negotiating to buy the city’s main export, martial eunuch slaves called the Unsullied famed for their loyalty and skill in battle. Negotiations proceed slowly through a slave translator of the Good Masters (the rulers of Astapor) who tactfully dilutes the pejoratives and invectives they throw at a seemingly clueless Daenerys. The deal is closed when Daenerys agrees to swap a prized baby dragon for 8000 Unsullied, an exchange her own advisors criticize as inane and to her disadvantage. In the original book, A Storm of Swords, the dialogue is obviously in just one language so the impact of Daenerys’ linguistic deception is not immediately apparent save an old slaver who turns his head sharply when he hears her speaking his language. But, in the HBO version, you hear two languages and Daenerys’ triumph as she discloses her command over the language of her antagonists.
The impact of concealing language proficiency may not be so dramatic in real life but I reckon there definitely is an impact. I’d be interested in hearing your experiences with this subject.