Friday, 26 October 2007

Nationalism, language extinction and power

Language is a vital component of any nationalist programme. In European struggles for statehood the nationalist movements in France, Italy, Germany and other countries, sought to unite various disparate nations under a single a national narrative and identity suitable for the modern state. Nationalist movements were essentially the promotion of a particular nation or new national identity and the incorporation or destruction of previous nations. In Nations and Nationalism since 1780 : programme, myth, reality Eric Hobsbawm writes:

the French language has been essential to the concept of 'France', although in 1789 50% of the French people didn't speak it at all, and only 12 to 13% spoke it 'fairly' - in fact, even in oïl language zones, out of a central region, it wasn't usually spoken except in cities, and, even there, not always in the faubourgs [suburbs]. In the North as in the South of France, almost nobody spoke French.

Conscription, co-ercion and state-power established French as the language of 'France'. Other distinct linguistic groups/nations, such as the Bretons and Occitans were subsumed into the French nation.

The unification of Italy, from city-states into a single nation-state was accompanied by the promotion of a unified Italian language. In fact, as recently as fifty years ago, the majority of Italians didn't speak Italian.

Radio 4 recently aired a programme about bi-lingualism and the government-sponsored promotion of the Welsh language in Wales. The plan, as described by one contributer, was long-term: backed by the Welsh Language Act (1993) school children have been given compulsary Welsh classes and the hope is that in 30 years the decline of the Welsh language will have been reversed. This is ironic given the role of educational policy and Welsh elites in the decline of the Welsh language.

Several interesting issues were raised during the programme:

  • The concentration of Welsh speakers is mainly in the North of Wales, away from the major business and administrative centres.
  • Anonymous local government employees argued that the Welsh Language Act and the Welsh Assembly/local government bureaucracy struggled to find competent Welsh speakers (there is nobody in Wales who speaks Welsh better than they speak English). This meant Welsh speakers were being promoted over English-speaking colleagues unfairly. And this was a Welsh speaker complaining.
  • This revival has less to do with preserving a language and more to do with an elite-led Welsh nationalist revival. Young people in Cardiff were asked about their Welsh language education. None of them used Welsh, nor saw a future where they would. Many of the people pushing for a Welsh-language revival are not Welsh speakers themselves, but it is a canny political strategy.
  • Critics argued that it was fine to have a language revival, but it shouldn't be state-sponsored and it shouldn't be imposed on people who aren't interested.
  • Immigrant communities are being encouraged to learn Welsh (one of the biggest Welsh-language groups is in Argentina).
  • Analogies were drawn to the Basque and Catalan regions in Spain, both areas with emergent nationalist movements using official recognition of their languages are political props.

State-sponsored campaigns to re-establish a language such as Welsh are doomed to failure. Welsh nationalists will realise that disinterest from most Welsh will prevent the language from making any real inroads. Instead, bi-lingualism will remain a local government requirement, maybe a few phrases or idioms will slip into common usage, but not much more. There may be a thriving Welsh-language music or literary scene, but this will remain a cultural ghetto within Wales. For people in Wales the language may be a part of their national identity, heritage or a badge of pride but most can't be bothered to learn or to use it.

This was followed up the next day with a section on the Today programme about Gaelic in Northern Ireland politics and a possible attempt at an equivalent of the Welsh Language Act there. Although most Sinn Féin and Republican politicians are not native Gaelic speakers they have always started their speeches with a few lines in Gaelic. Within the Northern Ireland Assembly this is incendiary with Unionist politicians denouncing the use of Gaelic. Attempts in the Republic of Ireland to launch a language revival have proved to be less than successful with only 7.1% of people using it on a daily basis.

In both these cases the promotion of a specific language is about power, clientelism and patronage. It is nationalists with sometimes tenuous power-bases trying to establish themselves with a programme that includes a national identity re-inforced by a "common language" and funds for their community. But the common language, or the language of the nation, is not the language nation-members speak on a daily basis. With the language-promotion they are essentially imagining a community and trying to graft that onto a nation.

Trying to accomodate different "nations" within a single modern state can prove tricky. For example, Belgium's political deadlock stems from two different nationalist power-blocs trying vying for control of the state. Switzerland's 4 official language-communities seem united. If only against immigrants. The genocide of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda was, partly, the result of two nations trapped within a single state. In South Africa the majority Zulu nation is largely unrepresented in the Xhosa-dominated Republic's government. In Lebanon the settlement between Druze, Christians and Sunni Muslims is straining as Shi'ites look for a involvement in a political system that has until now largely excluded them.

Modern nation-states try to create a nation in the image of the elites/minorities that establish or control them. Where minority nations persist within a larger nation-state the pose a political dilemma for nationalism. Absorb, ignore or destroy?

The Turkish answer to the Kurdish question has, for almost all of the 20th Century, repression and denial. The 14-18 million Turkish Kurds have had their language and culture banned, newspapers and broadcasts closed down and advocates of a Kurdish national identity imprisoned. Reasons for this include the strength of the ultra-nationalist sentiment in Turkey that sees Turkey as a nation for the Turkic speaking peoples and Turks alone and the violence of some Kurdish sepratists. The Kurds are a nation, not only because they represent a distinct ethno-cultural group, but because they have been marginalised from Turkey's own national identity and made pariahs within the modern Turkish state. Restrictions on the Kurdish language may have been eased in the last decade, but the Kurds are a long way from winning state subsidy of their language as the Welsh have done. And that isn't even in their programme because Kurdish is a living language, not one that needs propping up by the state.

In Iran only 51% of the population is ethnically Persian. The modern state under Reza Shah was renamed from Persia to Iran and includes Persians, Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis, Turkmen, Armenians, Assyrians, and Georgians. Linguistically, the ethnic minorities are less problematic as many speak Persian are their first language and their customs and culture are considered to be local variants of the dominant Persian culture. Added to the promotion since the Shah renamed the country Iran of a distinctly modern 'Iranian' national identity, the tension between different ethnic and nationalist identities doesn't seem that strong.

The centuries long battle between Yiddish and Hebrew was carried out in a nation without a state. In Words on Fire Dovid Katz explains that for centuries within European/Ashkenazi Jewry:

  • Hebrew was the liturgical language of Judaism, the masculine, rabbinic language and those that had become "an expert in little black dots" were respected and had social capital
  • Yiddish was the international language of the Jews, but seen as feminine, vulgar and unsuitable for serious scholarship
  • Many Jews spoke the local language, Yiddish and were aquainted with Hebrew through their religion
  • Following the invention of the printing press, there was a Yiddish literature explosion that included original works, Jewish versions of Christian stories, and most importantly, efforts to translate Hebrew religious texts into Yiddish
  • Translating Talmud and Torah into Yiddish was criticised as it was a threat to the power of rabbis

Yiddish remained the international Jewish language up until the start of the 20th Century. It enjoyed a cultural revival in the USA as Yiddish-speaking European and East European Jews established themselves in cities like New York. But by now it had to contend with Zionism claiming Hebrew (a language that had been solely for scholarship and was revived as a spoken language only in 1881) as the language of the Jews. The argument between the Zionist Congress and the Yiddisher Arbiter Bund was settled by history. The Holocaust and its destruction of European Jewry destroyed many of the Yiddish-speaking communities and ironically strengthened the Zionist movement. Following the establishment of Israel, Hebrew won and Yiddish became the language of a forgotten nation.

Hebrew as a revived language has helped immigrants to Israel shed their previous identities and embrace Israeli nationalism. Thus Modern Hebrew, linked to the past and ripe for nationalist myth-making, has played an important role in the national identity for Israel that Yiddish, with its ties to a more recent, internationalist past would not have done.

The long lists of extinct languages, like the lists of lost nations and peoples, make for depressing reading. It shows that languages are transitory and become extinct frequently. The tendency towards language extinction does undermine the linguistic aspect of a nationalist identity. Censorship and attempts by powerful minorities and states to actively destroy languages must be confronted and undermined. People should be able to speak, read and write in whatever languages and with whatever language they choose. Suppression of minority languages and media, like the loss of languages, can only reduce the sum of human knowledge and understanding.

Why is language death an issue? Humanity loses concepts, contexts and methods of discourse. A point emphasised by a recent article showing despite its breadth there remain many "phrases conveying complex notions - from comparing yams to walking on warm sand - for which the tongue of William Shakespeare and James Joyce has no equivalent". Spoken languages, like programming languages, solve specific problems, have their roots in particular environments, contexts and histories. Linguistic diversity, different genders, concepts, tenses, pronouns, articles, etc. all add to human understanding and perceptions of the world.

Globalisation and improved telecommunications make it inevitable that isolated, minority and ethnic communities make more frequent contact with other larger communities. Language extinction is the result of better communication, population conquest and migration. But how does a language survive the shock of exposure to a more dominant culture or rapidly changing context? What use is a language with no concept of or word for the Internet, electricity, helicopter, etc.? Does a language or some academy try to nativise words - swapping pizza for "elastic bread" and helicopter for "rotating wing" or "horizontal-bladed tractor" or absorb the foreign words? What strategy works best for linguistic survival?

I'm not sure, but the resurrection, consolidation and promotion of a language to serve a nationalist elite or government edict doesn't seem like the right move.

1 comment:

  1. Just a note that this sentence

    "(there is nobody in Wales who speaks Welsh better than they speak English). "

    is very untrue. There are many, many people who are much more comfortable and competent in speaking Welsh than English.


Comments with links, feedback, etc. greatly appreciated. Spam will be deleted.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.