“Language wars” Part 1 – The causes of war

The first part of a discussion based on a reading of French linguist Louis-Jean Calvet’s Language Wars*.

Calvet neatly turns Clausewitz‘s famous maxim on its head. If “war is a mere continuation of politics by other means” then linguistic intervention by forced multilingualism, deliberate neglect or even inapproriate planning is to Calvert just another means of war. And the aim, like any conventional war, is to gain or maintain power. Calvert reminds us that most countries (including Scotland) are multilingual and most of the planet’s speakers have been and a majority still are multilingual too. Even self-declared monoglots “use different forms of [their] language, and the choice of one form or another comes down to particular functions” (p56).

Monoligualism is therefore something of an unnatural state.so why do people try to enforce it? Calvet gives a range of interconnected reasons.

  • Religion – In the Bible story of the tower of Babel multilingualism can be interpreted as a value-judgement – a ‘punishment from God’. The ‘shibboleth’ story links linguistic difference as the mark of the ‘other’. Many other religions are also closely associated with language purity; Sanskrit, Arabic, Hebrew etc.
  • Classical languages – In the West Greek and Latin were considered superior languages and anything else  -including English for a while- was the base tongue of ‘barbarians’ (literally the ‘other’ who did not speak Greek).
  • Ideologogy of superiority – “Confronted by language differences, men have always felt the need to demonstrate the excellence of their own language and the inferiority of others” (p.44).This is especially true in a diglossic situation where one language is the language of power. The ideologogy of superiority unsurprisingly and readily shades into prejudicial and racist judgements of the actual speakers of other languages or varieties. Remember Henry Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion; ” A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere—no right to live.”
  • Nationalism – language is seen as a major marker of belonging, and can be used as a tool for liberation or of oppression. Again the underlying issue is power. As Calvet indelicately puts it “if the barbarians gain power anywhere, their language, which was previously considered inferior can become the prestige language“. The original rise of English, French etc can equally be interpreted in this way as can the post-colonial resistance to them.
  • Modernity– using a language like English can be a way of psychologically rejecting or transcending ‘conservative’ parental cultures.
  • Utility – Similar to the modernity argument is the utilitarian view that learning an international language such as English – often to the exclusion of the parental language – ensures the economic wellbeing of the offspring. Multilingualism is sometimes seen as a barrier to full proficiency and integration, especially among immigrant communities.

In the next part of this discussion I will look at the ‘front line’ of the language war.

*Calvet, L-J. (1998) Language wars and linguistic politics, Oxford University Press

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