'Kannada ugliest language?' Google search query lands tech giant in row; here's all you need to know

Sociolinguists believe the attractiveness of a language is determined by how positively we view the native group of speakers of that language

FP Staff June 04, 2021 11:10:02 IST
'Kannada ugliest language?' Google search query lands tech giant in row; here's all you need to know

Representational image. AP

Google apologised on Thursday for hurting the sentiments of a section of society after a random search query about "ugliest language in India" returned Kannada as the answer.

Notwithstanding the fact that the query in itself made little sense, is absurd at worst and a matter of personal opinion at best, the tech giant had to issue an apology as the Karnataka government took umbrage at the episode and threatened to take legal action.

The inaccurate result offended many as they accused the search engine giant of insulting a historically significant language, which dates back over 2,000 years and is spoken by more than 40 million people.

Netizens, meanwhile, slammed the internet giant and reacted with hashtags like Kannada, KannadaQueeenOfAllLangages, BoycottGoogle stating that the search result hurt the sentiments of people.

Here's all you need to know about the issue

The controversy

Kannada as an answer to a query in Google on the ugliest language in India sparked outrage on Thursday and the Karnataka government said it would issue a legal notice to the tech leader, while that reply appeared to be a gaffe.

Karnataka Minister for Kannada, Culture and Forest, Aravind Limbavali told reporters that a legal notice would be served to Google for showing such an answer to that question.

Later, he took to Twitter to express his outrage and demanded an apology from Google to Kannada and Kannadigas. Kannada language has a history of its own, having come into existence as many as 2,500 years ago, the minister said and added that the language has been the pride of Kannadigas through the ages.

Showing Kannada in poor light "...is merely an attempt by Google to insult this pride of Kannadigas. I demand an apology from @Google ASAP to Kannada, Kannadigas. Legal action will be taken against Google for maligning the image of our beautiful language!" Limbavali tweeted.

Former chief minister HD Kumaraswamy denounced Google in a series of tweets for the outrageous answer to the language question. He sought to know why Google "behaves in an irresponsible manner" in terms of language.

Others including the BJP's Bengaluru Central MP, PC Mohan slammed Google and asked it to apologise.

Sharing the screenshot of the search on his Twitter handle, Mohan said Karnataka is home to the great Vijayanagara empire and the Kannada language has a rich heritage, a glorious legacy and unique culture.

"One of the world's oldest languages, Kannada had great scholars who wrote epics much before Geoffrey Chaucer was born in the 14th century. Apologise @GoogleIndia."

How does Google work?

When you ask Google a question, the answer may not necessarily be the 'right' one -- although it is programmed to give you the 'best one'. If we were to sum up the search mechanism in sort of an oversimplified definition, Google essentially relies on a complicated AI algorithm to decipher a query based on semantical similarities, a range of synonyms, and local context based on the user's location. It's how the search engine manages to answer even vague queries that have more than one possible meaning. It simply runs through all indexed information to return results that match the maximum number of possible meanings of a query.

When the algorithm finds an answer it thinks is particularly useful, Google will prioritise it at the top of its search results and quote relevant sections in a large box-like snippet to make it easy for the user to skim through the information on the go.

This process ensures we have a highly intuitive AI trying to guess the meaning of our most banal thoughts that we decide to key into its search engine. But it cannot ascertain whether the best match to the several possible interpretations of your question is also the right one.

Sometimes it gets extra tricky when the query posed to the search engine is insensitive, subjective and/or has racist undertones. Google's AI is being updated regularly to get better at recognising hateful or racially/linguistically prejudiced content, but a query with a benign and generic keyword such as 'ugly' may have bypassed those filters.

Also, in this situation, no matter how the search engine answered the question, it would have been the wrong answer. Sociolinguists believe the attractiveness of a language is determined by how positively we view the native group of speakers of that language.

Dr Vineeta Chand of the University of Essex told The Guardian on the subject of the perceived 'beauty' of a language that if we have a positive perception of a particular community then we tend to have equally positive views of the language they speak. Language value and attractiveness is, she explains, linked to the prestige of the speaker.

The article further quotes Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher's book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages which posits that if a language includes rarer sounds, it is more likely to be perceived as less alluring to those unfamiliar with it.

Google, as we know it today, is certainly unequipped to offer an opinion on such a highly subjective and imprecise question.

When contacted, a Google spokesperson told PTI, "search isn't always perfect. Sometimes, the way content is described on the internet can yield surprising results to specific queries."

How did Google respond?

With people expressing their indignation and leaders cutting across party lines slamming Google for the gaffe, it quickly removed Kannada "as the ugliest language in India" and apologised to the people saying the search result did not reflect its opinion.

"We know this is not ideal, but we take swift corrective action when we are made aware of an issue and are continually working to improve our algorithms. Naturally, these are not reflective of the opinions of Google, and we apologise for the misunderstanding and hurting any sentiments," a statement from the company read.

If you run the search for "ugliest language in India" now, it will show a list of news articles that have reported on the story.

With inputs from PTI

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