Google Search Called This India’s ‘Ugliest Language.’ The Backstory Isn’t Pretty.

The tech giant’s mistake has also exposed India’s language wars.  
SJ
Mumbai, IN
June 8, 2021, 2:06pm
Google Called This India’s ‘Ugliest Language
Language wars in India are increasingly fractious. Photo by Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

India’s ugliest language is Kannada, according to Google search results—until an uproar last week forced the tech giant to remove the result and apologise.

The search engine’s suggestion about Kannada, which is 2,500 years old and spoken by more than 40 million Indians, also fuelled debates over the country’s marginalisation of regional languages.

The search results went viral with a screenshot shared on social media.

Political leaders and social media users slammed Google, with Arvind Limbavali, the minister of culture in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, even threatening legal action against the U.S.-based company.

“From millions of languages in India, Kannada is one of the 22 languages recognised by the Indian constitution,” Ganesh N Devy, a cultural activist who surveys languages through his People’s Linguistic Survey of India, told VICE World News. “The highest literary awards in the country have gone to Kannada writers, and about 4 out of 10 of India’s best traditional musicians are of Kannada origin, so for Google to even allow such an insight to come up at a click is offensive.” 

Devy pointed out that since Google primarily functioned as a web of information for its users in India, it had the responsibility to scrutinise information that went out. 

Google has since deleted the response and said sorry for the “misunderstanding.” The tech giant - which employs more than 200,000 Indians and has a major presence in the Kannada-speaking city of Bengaluru - said officials had little control over what its search engine pumps out. 

Google’s search results operate through an algorithm that relies on keywords used by websites. After a user enters a query, Google’s search engine scours through websites and articles for related keywords to suggest results.

But critics feel that Google should take more responsibility for the results it suggests.

“Tech giants like Google must make the effort to conduct a verification process that is done with a cultural analysis to unlearn these biases,” Inji Pennu, a digital activist and journalist, told VICE World News.

Pennu argued that Google should have conducted training workshops and undertaken programming processes to help its algorithms identify what information could be controversial. 

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“Especially in a post-COVID-19 era, when everyone is digitised, its platform can be used for fear mongering or even ethnic conflicts,” Pennu added.

This isn’t the first time Google has had to explain embarrassing search results. In 2018, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who was born in the southern Indian city of Chennai, was asked why its search engine showed images of former President Donald Trump after a query that said “idiot.”

Google’s error comes amid increasingly fractious language wars in India.

Last year, HD Kumaraswamy, the former chief minister of the southern Indian state of Karnataka, alleged that the government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi was pushing policies to spread Hindi without doing the same for regional languages.

This criticism came after Kanimozhi, a political leader from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, was questioned about whether she was an Indian because she did not speak Hindi.

Hindi is the first language of 44 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people and is the language Modi uses in official speeches.

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