When Linguistic Superpowers unleash Linguicide

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Language death is often confused with language attrition or the loss of proficiency in a first language of an individual. Speakers of many languages, particularly regional or minority languages, often decide to abandon their vernacular based on economic or utilitarian grounds, in favour of languages regarded as having greater utility or prestige. Language revitalization slows down or reverses language death. Revitalization programs are ongoing in many languages, and have encountered varying degrees of success. Linguistic diversity is cited as a Pillar of Cultural Diversity. Languages, with their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development, are of strategic importance for people and existence. We know that when languages fade, so does the world’s rich tapestry of cultural diversity. Opportunities, traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking and expression–valuable resources for ensuring a better future are also lost.

Preserving linguistic ecology benefits human social justice and the natural world. Cultural and linguistic diversity is a matter of social justice because distinctiveness in culture and language has formed the basis for defining human identities. There are no zoos, museums or cemeteries for dead languages. We lose everything that represents the life of a language: the idiolects or individual styles and quirks of speech, the subgroup dialects, the literary and expressive richness of a living tongue, its infinite capacity to reflect distinct modes of thought. There’s nothing more corpse-like than a dead language. They never come back to life. The brute fact is that no government is going to put taxpayers’ money into any such project.

The Linguistic Superpower or the top language in the linguistic premier league, is a language with a potent army. Be it a weapon of war or a cultural signifier, “language is to Homo sapiens what water is to fish”. If it is taken it away and we’re neither human nor sapient, as a new book. In many countries people who are not fluent in national or official languages have uncomfortable relation to services such as education, the media, participation in public life and inadequate translation deny them access to justice. The preservation of a language in its fullest sense ultimately entails the maintenance of the community who speaks it, and therefore the arguments in favour of doing something to reverse language shift are ultimately about sustaining cultures and habitats. The right to use one’s own language, in public or even in private, is not universal.

Today, even the internet, much like the written word, struggles to reflect the linguistic diversity of the spoken word. According to the UN, just 500 languages are used online, with Google search supporting 348, Wikipedia 290, Facebook 80, Twitter 28. Understanding how to best represent linguistic diversity online remains another major challenge. Facebook estimates that making the internet useful for 80 percent of the world’s population only requires content to be available in 92 languages. Wikipedia is getting close, with 52 languages supporting 100,000 articles or more.

Globalization gets the main blame in reducing of diversity, a trend towards homogenization that affects every aspect of a community’s culture, including its language. Several linguists fear that within a century or so the total number of languages spoken around the world will be reduced from close to 6,700 today to around 200. The biggest losers in this competition will be the indigenous languages spoken in territories colonized by Europe over the past four centuries. The languages of the leading colonial powers–English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish, the languages of the major industrial powers like Japan, the languages spoken as vernaculars by millions of people, like the varieties of Arabic, Chinese, and Indic languages, and those Third World languages that function as national or regional lingua francas will perhaps congregate in the trophy room.

As a response to English linguistic dominance, De-Anglicisation became a matter of national pride in some places. It has been initiated in several parts of the world but some linguists assert that identifying hegemonic languages such as English, French and Hindi as killer languages, is a misconception. Languages do not kill languages, the speakers do. A language is transmitted and maintained in a community through continuous use. Languages die when their speakers give them up. It is like having a population whose members refuse to produce offspring. The only difference is that speakers do not deliberately refuse to use their languages but are often compelled to speak other languages that offer practical or material advantages: being integrated in a mainstream society, finding a good job, and getting opportunities for socio-economic ascension.

There are powerful forces active against language revitalisation: war and boundary disputes, the rise of one group and their language variety to political and cultural dominance, overt repression, forcible resettlement in the name of ‘national unity’; economic force, when rural poverty leads to migration to cities and further afield and if the local economy improves, tourism may bring speakers of majority languages; political force, for example, education policies which ignore or exclude local languages, lack of recognition or political representation, stop the use of minority languages in public life; cultural dominance by the majority community, when education and literature are wheeled by the majority or state language only; indigenous language and culture become ‘folklorised’; attitudinal force, when minority languages become associated with poverty, illiteracy and hardship, while the dominant language is associated with progress.

One doesn’t need to be a linguist to comprehend that language always carries meanings and references beyond itself. The meanings of a particular language represent the culture of a particular social group. To interact with a language means to do so with the culture which is its reference point. We could not understand a culture without having direct access to its language because of their intimate connection. Learning a language, therefore, is not only learning the alphabet, the meaning, the grammar rules and the arrangement of words, but it is also learning the behaviour of the society and its cultural customs. Zuckermann rightly says, “..language reclamation will become increasingly relevant as people seek to recover their cultural autonomy, empower their spiritual and intellectual sovereignty, and improve wellbeing. There are various ethical, aesthetic and utilitarian benefits of language revival—for example, historical justice, diversity and employability, respectively.”

International Mother Language Day is more than a perception. The world will always remember Bangladesh, a country that led a massive protest against the most common process leading to language death of a community of speakers of one language, a nation that refused to shift allegiance from their original heritage language and culture, Bangla. Thanks to them who officially sent a proposal to UNESCO to declare 21 February as International Mother Language Day. The proposal was supported unanimously at the 30th General Conference of UNESCO held on 17 November 1999, to begin a new era to promote multilingualism and language revitalisation, two distinctive disciplines entwined to multiculturalism and Linguistic Human Rights.

Languages do not die or get killed suddenly but death is in the air. Our children will speak differently from us, and their children from them. Our 6,000, and shrinking, human languages all descend, despite infinite metamorphoses, from a common proto-linguistic African root, and are continuing to mutate, ad infinitum. Dialects die and change. That’s how they live. But language itself never wears out. Nor will it, as long as we are human. If people of Bangladesh had to face bullets and lathis on February 21, 1952, the native speakers in many parts of today’s world have to be ready to make even strange linguistic encounters with new age enemies, such as overgeneralization, undergeneralization, loss of phonological contrasts, changes in word order, morphological loss, syntactic loss, relexification, loss of word-formation productivity, style loss and the loss of ritual speech.


Avik is Author and Columnist, based in Kolkata, India.

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