In the beginning was the Word … As humans we are defined by and immersed in language. We often think of it as a simple means of communication, but, on deeper reflection, the way we see our language is much more complex than that. With the strengthening in recent centuries of the link between language and national identity (a link built and maintained subjectively through human interaction and interpretation), symbolic attachment to one’s language has also come to mean hate for the language of whoever was perceived as national enemy.
Potentially that link could have remarkable power for social mobilization, cohesion and interaction. Joshua Fishman has written insightfully on the positive power of the symbolic link of language and ethnicity. But it can also be a reason for wars, and it is a favorite topic for political manipulation and propaganda. The mobilizing power of language understood as a symbol of group identity is much greater than that of language as the tool that makes possible our mere interaction. As speakers of a certain language, humans often construct its image as an idealized representation of the group they belong to, often threatened and even victimized by some sort of “enemy," as suffering being always in a moral conflict with “the other." So every time nationalism is in the air, we speakers, in our national subconscious, behave like soldiers assigned the task of praising our language as the best, the most beautiful, the oldest, the richest, the most important, the language of diplomacy, of philosophy, of ballet, of cuisine or whatever special value, and defending it from imaginary attacks. Being from the Balkans, I know this attitude first hand. But the “backward and foolish” Balkans are not alone in this behavior; quite the opposite. Some of the highest legal fortifications, for example, have been built to protect the honor and purity of French, “the language of civilization” from all sorts of “wicked” linguistic attacks from outside and inside.
A few months ago one of the graduate students of the European Center at UIUC published in this blog an entry about the use in EU institutions of members’ languages. In one sentence he gave an opinion regarding the similarities between Serbian and Croatian, which are often discussed by linguists as dialects of the same language, and have lived as such for many years inside the ex-Yugoslavian socialist space. That sentence drew heated reactions from speakers of these languages, who dismissed the thought of such similarities. Reason and argument are not satisfactory answers in these cases: the symbolic value people give to their languages transcends any structural argumentation on the matter, and it is exactly in the domain of the historical relations of languages with cultures, and in their role as identity signifiers and molders, that such phenomena can be understood. Individuals would never apply critical self-analysis to reach the process through which such attitudes are constructed and to question the work of dominant ideologies; it would take a much longer time and mass education to undo what social propaganda has daily incorporated in our national cultures.
|The bilingual signs were put up in line with EU rules on minority rights|
But even in peaceful societies, exclusive linguistic policies and hostile measures towards one of the languages of the community’s repertoire are not uncommon today, and the image of past victimization often becomes a reason for new institutional measures “to return the favor” to the old victimizers. The case of Catalan vs. Spanish in Catalonia, or the treatment of Russian in some of the Baltic Republics are two of many cases in point. In all these cases a strong claim is made for delayed but necessary justice and moral right, and probably with good reason. But the goal of achieving justice and that of respecting democratic principles and human rights are not always easy to reconcile. Major changes in linguistic policies to achieve justice for once subordinate languages, often result in the anticipated reversal of language shift, which in the long run establishes linguistic balance and promotes the maintenance of diversity, as in the above two cases. As much as this goal is honorable, maintaining democratic standards in dealing with speakers of once dominant languages is a challenge in all European societies, especially those that have undergone rapid but significant political changes.
To come back to the Balkans’ linguistic issues: language purism, although not rampant and mainstream today, is not just an issue of the 19th century; it continues in all the little states of ex-Yugoslavia, in Albania and even in Greece (an old EU member), towards general vocabulary and toponymy. But it is always justified as done in the name of love and respect for the language. Greek, Slavic and Turkish words in Albanian are layered according to very old contacts and relations of various kinds of Albanian speaking communities with these languages; but they are seen today with much less affection than the older Latin borrowings, or than much more recent loans from Italian, French and English. These loan words carry the weight of hostile or friendly discourses socially constructed as dominant cultures define their enemies and friends. The loan vocabulary from countries seen today as discursively hostile is treated as if the words themselves work as vicious undercover agents for national destruction. The fact of the matter is that these old borrowings from different historical periods which are today an integral part of Albanian, in spite of what language they come from, simply make the vocabulary of Albanian much richer and more expressive than the new, often unnecessary but “cool” borrowings from some modern languages.
|Photo by I. Floqi|
The problem is that hate for a language is very close to hate for its speakers, and this condition is an enemy of a civil and peaceful society. The stability of today’s multiethnic multi-migrant societies depends fundamentally on the linguistic attitude and linguistic culture of these societies. The truth is that love for one’s language should not hurt but heal, as it does in the case of thousands of endangered languages around the globe, where simple (sometimes illiterate) communities of speakers make extraordinary efforts to save their languages. Unesco’s Endangered World Languages Atlas lists about 155 endangered languages and dialects in Europe alone. Most of these communities fight daily to save their languages from the threat of death. And imagine that Europe is the continent with the smallest number of endangered languages in the world!
At the 17th international conference of the Foundation of Endangered Languages at the University of Carleton in Ottawa that took place in early October, the case studies that showed real care and love for the language were so many, that they would make even a cynic change his mind on the future of humanity. Still, there was one presentation regarding two very similar unwritten languages in Africa, Nabit and Gurene, the second of which, just to avoid having the same writing system as the first one, flipped left to right all the letters of the newly created alphabet of the other language. Certainly this “separatist” move would not help linguistic maintenance of these two very small similar languages; in order to secure maintenance and revitalization, the communities would need ways to enlarge the affordable use of the language, its publications, schooling through it etc, so they would need to build sameness and not difference (without hurting authenticity?). Unfortunately linguistic efforts to build more difference which endangers the mere existence of the language itself, are not rare. But as Jonathan Glover says in his book Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, tribal feelings that push groups to build separating walls are deeply rooted in humans. He asks “Why does hostility develop between even these minimal groups? One explanation is biological. Some behavior patterns may have had survival value for genes in an earlier environment” (p. 142).
I reject the idea that today we cannot overcome the drive of those genes, if they ever existed. Linguistic diversity, as a democratic and cultural cornerstone of the European Union, should not be just an ornament in the documentation of all the member states that belong to the EU, but a social practice in everyday communication in these countries. Love for one’s language should be cosmopolitan and not nationalistic. Many people I know who love their language, love just as much the language of the other. I dream of a world where this is the group that normalizes societies, and not the political parties that consistently and enthusiastically hijack the linguistic question, in Europe and everywhere else. We would live in much a better world, if the deep connection that we as humans feel with the languages we speak could be used to get closer to the rest of the world and not to build new boundaries separating us from them. It would be better to express love for the language by the wish to use them a lot, not let them die, translate from one to the other, study them, give them to the younger generations, and treat them as treasures, as our own life. Eric Dursteler, a researcher and historian of the Mediterranean, writes about a time when around this sea which many of us still share, a large mass of people spoke between three and ten languages all their lives, and used them as equal tools that simply allowed them to communicate and live with each other… But this was before Herder, north of the Mediterranean, called on his Volk saying “Speak German, o You German!” Am I talking of a utopia? Could be, but you need at least to talk about it, for it to have any chance to ever become reality.
Eda Derhemi (PhD in Communication, 2003) is a lecturer in the department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, and an adjunct assistant professor of Communications in Media and Cinema Studies. She completed her undergraduate studies in Linguistics and Literature at the University of Tirana, Albania, and her graduate studies in Illinois. She has extensive teaching and research experience in Italian Language, Linguistics and Media Studies. She worked as a correspondent journalist for Deutsche Welle, and is a regular writer of opinion pieces in the main Albanian media. Her interests are: linguistic endangerment and language death, minority languages and ethnicity in the EU, language of the media and propaganda, Balkan and Mediterranean studies, Arbëresh and Arvanitika.