The Politics of Language

During our English 400 experience, we have explored the topic of language and its relationship with cultural/national identity.  We have read several articles about conflicts between different social groups over the recognition and use of language.  Around the world today they are many different governments taking legislative action to protect and preserve the use of their language within their society. 

In one article about Quebec for example, the government has implemented legislation requiring the use of French in various circumstances.  Most notably businesses must write their signs in French letters.  This is justified in the name of defending French against the Anglo-invasion.  Other articles included the debate between making English the official language of the United States.  The author of this article argues that American English must be defended against the “anti-assimilation ethic” of the new generation of immigration.  Another discussed how Chinese newspapers have become increasingly westernized and now are being written left to right where they have historically been read right to left.

Many of these articles and the actions of these governments represent a dangerous mingling of the cultural and the political.  Language is a sociocultural phenomenon.  It is born, develops, and grows organically.  Politics does not create language but rather language creates politics.  To legislate or mandate language is a road (I think to more sinister actions).  As another article pointed out, governments in the past have used language as a means of control.  To implement language controls in the name of defending culture does little more than mandate a certain tongue.  One could argue that historically speaking, legislative action has done more to uproot communities and local cultures than it has to protect it.  One need only browse the history of colonization in North and South America to understand the full implications of this for local culture and civilization.     

As we have discussed in class on several occasions, certain words do not translate from one language to another.  The word democracy for example has limited meaning outside of certain western languages.  This is not imply that non-western cultures would be unable to practice democracy (in whatever form) but rather that their social and cultural history does not necessary allow for a discussion of democracy in the same context as the west.  Whether this is good or bad is a debatable issue but it seems to me that it would be difficult to legislate language in a society such as America which is becoming increasingly non-western European in its ethnic orientation.         

 While there is certainly a legitimate interest amongst different groups of people to defend their cultures and languages, many of these legislative proposals represent a vicious and xenophobic attack on people who are different.  Whether it is defending French against the Anglo invasion or English against the Spanish invasion, or R-L Chinese versus L-R Chinese it all represents a skepticism about the “mingling” of cultures.  As the world continues undergoing globalization and areas becomes increasingly pluralistic, there will be calls to defend and protect language and culture.  While there is nothing objectionable to a cultural group taking action (in the social realm) to preserve their heritage, it is another thing entirely for them to seek to mandate a sociocultural standard on others because they are different from them.

~Ollie Garland


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Filed under La Rochelle, Language Identity

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