Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Language Death, Globalization and Western Values

If language is viewed as a kind of symbolic glue which holds a "nation" together, then the natural run of human linguistic diversity is likely to be perceived as  threat to the existing structures of power and to those whose interests the structures of the nation-state are meant to serve. Linguistic repression, in one form or another, is the common consequence.....When European nations were able to seize control of large areas of the Americas, Africa and Asia in the colonial expansion of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such ideas and the policies they inspired become global in their reach. Three languages in particular-- English, Spanishand French-- were established as imperial languages over large areas of the world.... With the establishment of languages of global reach and with the foundation everywhere of nation-states, people everywhere came under enormous pressure to learn and use the languages of power.

There are anthropologists and linguists (Ken Hale of MIT for instance) who have argued that the casual multingualism that still prevails over much of the third world is, in some sense, the natural state for a human being to be in, that to know and use only one language is a recent aberration, characteristic only of first-world nation states....

Europe is now the most impoverished region in the world in terms of linguistic diversity, home to just three per cent of the world's languages, desptie having roughly 15 per cent of global population.

That's from an excellent book entitled Voices Silenced: Has Irish a Future? by the linguist James McCloskey, published in 2001. (It's a short book, and contains an Irish version of the text as well.)

The reference to "the casual multilingualism that still prevails over much of the third world" explains why I can't share the Western chauvinism of many upon the Alt Right, Alt Lite, the New Right, and many of the other ideologies which have risen up in opposition to political correctness. (Gavan McInnes explicitly uses the term "Western chauvinism".)

Don't get me wrong. I don't have anything against chauvinism in general. I'm rather in favour of it.

But it just doesn't make sense to me to oppose globalism in the name of Western values. Surely Western values-- which are good and bad in themselves-- created globalization? Surely it was Western man, with his relentless drive towards rationalization, expansion and exploration, who brought about this phase of homogenization in world history?

I don't say this to bash Western man. After all, I'm Western man, and I don't go in for self-flagellation. But I think we have to be clear-sighted about this. If we are going to fight globalism, we are going to have to repress some of our own drives and urges, at least in some respects.

The book is deeply depressing. Do you know how many languages have been created in the last century? The author can only think of three: Tok Pisin (an English creole in Papua New Guinea), Nicaraguan Sign Language, and modern Hebrew. And on the other side of the ledger: "Ask me to list languages which have come to the point of extinction in the same period, and I could list thousands". Indeed, in an earlier passage, he gives us this bleak prognostication: "[Mike] Krauss's calculation suggests that ninety per cent of all the languages currently spoken will be lost in the next century or so. I know of no serious challenge to the validity of these calculations."

I haven't even come to the part about the Irish language yet. 

Updated later: I'm finished the book now. (It's very short.) Interestingly enough, Irish is not included in the ninety per cent of languages which are in danger of dying in the next century. The fact that it has the support of a state behind it lifts it out of this category.

McCloskey has some interesting things to say about the Irish language revival. He describes it as the first concerted effort to revive a dying language. He also says that its achievements were (and are) extraordinary, considering the difficulty of such a project.

However, he's also quite dismissive of nationalism. To an extent, I understand this-- he argues that nationalism has contributed to language loss, since nationalists have generally wanted a single language as a symbol of national togetherness, and have often actively suppressed regional languages and dialects to this end. He also takes a dim view of coercion as a tool of language revival-- compulsory Irish in schools and the civil service, for instance. Finally, he complains about the Irish language revivalists associating the Irish language with a conservatism and nationalism which alienated many actual speakers.

But these arguments don't make much sense to me. What else would have motivated the Irish language revival, whose achievements he admires, except nationalism? And how does he know that coercion and compulsion didn't play an essential part in that? I wouldn't have any Irish if it wasn't for coercion and compulsion, and now I'm very glad I was coerced and compelled! Furthermore, the fact that the language has the backing of the state involves an element of coercion, since Irish people's taxes are used to fund it.

As for conservatism, surely caring about language preservation is intrinsically conservative. It makes no sense to me to be conservative in this department but not in others.

On the whole, however, it's an eye-opening and eloquent book.


  1. That is terribly sad. People can make all the arguments they like for practicality, but I don't think that saying about "tír gan teanga" is far off the mark. That whole idea of *belonging* to a place is something that’s always fascinated me. A word, or a way of speaking, growing year by year among particular people in a particular place, takes on itself the weight of description of that place’s life, a weight of memory that no upstart outsider can supply. And, if one must leave his own place and his own people—what can he carry with him but his own language, his means of understanding? With all the beautiful shades of meaning and sound each language has to offer, each so peculiar to its own people, it indeed seems appropriate to term the loss of one a "death."
    It’s sad that many languages have come to a point where they have to be more or less academically preserved, or, worse, academically recorded before their demise. I mean, it’s grand work, and I admire it (indeed, I would quite happily do it myself) but it’s a shame that circumstances often force the people who should be the natural inheritors of a language to learning it from a textbook and only pulling it out for special occasions. I was thinking vaguely of the plight of many Native American languages when I wrote that—Navajo, appearing to be a happy exception—but it does apply to Irish for a lot of people too, I suppose. That people should think it worth the trouble of braving the textbook, though, that’s a beautiful thing!
    While I don’t buy the theory that people can only recognize an object/concept if there is a word for it in their language, the precision that each separate language has to offer, the fine shades of meaning and association—ah, it’s all just poetry waiting to be arranged in lines! And who, in his right mind would want less of that?
    In short, I really loved the phrase “casual multilingualism,” and I, too would like to see more of it in action! (Have you read anything else about Ken Hale? Sadly, he passed away recently, which is mostly why I know about him, having seen his obituary on a language site I check sometimes, but he sounds like a most extraordinary and enthusiastic multi-linguist.)

  2. And I might add--the Western inclination towards a single language is a rather recent development in one aspect--seventy years ago, high school students were plagued with Greek and Latin as a matter of course. Yes, that's different from keeping living languages alive, but it is a rather enviable form of multilingualism notwithstanding--says I, safely out of high school.

    1. Thanks for that, Molly. I agree with all of it.

      The author is actually attached to the University of Santa Cruz, so he writes about Californian native American languages a lot. He has a linguist friend who is the last speaker of one such language (although one wonders who he speaks it to).

      Tragically, he says that every linguist who works in this area has the experience of young people coming to them JUST AFTER the language has died and seeking to revive it-- when it has become extremely difficult. As he says, a language dies very easily-- all it takes is one generation of children not speaking it. He says that children actually "recreate" languages rather than learning them.

      Language revival is a funny thing because it's not going to make anyone better off in any tangible way. It possibly has no utilitarian benefit whatsoever. And yet the thought of all those languages dying just makes me want to wail-- their preservation seems like an imperative.

    2. By the way, I have updated the post with my thoughts on the rest of the book.

    3. And no, I'd never heard of Ken Hale before, God bless his soul.