Building Nations with the Cunning Use of Foreign Languages

The British comedian Eddie Izzard once said that Great Britain built up her empire with the cunning use of flags. I thought this over simplification was not only pretty funny but that it also had a ring of truth to it. Thinking it over myself, I also found that many nations seemed to have built themselves up by defining their languages. Can I be a German if I don’t speak German; can I be an Egyptian if I don’t speak Egyptian Arabic? Are nations really defined by the languages they speak?

Family Matters

The Latin language gave birth to a large and violent family. Many of its children, like Asturian, Occitan, Valencian, Aragonese, Dalmatian and many others, never reached full maturity. Even to this day poor Catalan, Galician and Aranese have never really recovered from the abuse of their childhood. Latin’s eldest child, Italian, has become the language of love and culture. Latin’s illegitimate child, French, has become a literary and global giant. It looked as though Portuguese might end up as the runt of the family but instead it turned out to simply be a late bloomer.

The Iberian Peninsula, like the rest of Medieval Europe, was dived into many tiny countries whose boundaries were always changing after small wars. By today’s standards, we would say that most of these countries all spoke dialects since their languages didn’t really have much of a written standard. Most things worth writing were written in Latin. In 1290 King Dennis of Portugal founded the University of Lisbon and declared that Portuguese would be the official language of his kingdom, effectively cutting short poor little Portuguese’s linguistic adolescence. The day before, everyone in Portugal was speaking a corrupted dialect of Latin but a royal decree and a university laid the foundation for Portuguese to become the language of the Bible, Camões, Fernando Pessoa and over 230 million other people living in the four quarters of the Earth. King Dennis’ foresight allowed Portuguese to survive when other little countries, and their dialects, were swallowed up by Castile and Leon and the Spanish language.

Power to the People!

Bengali is spoken by over 170 million people who live mostly in eastern India and Bangladesh. When India was about to become a nation, independent of the British, the Muslim Indians wanted to have their own country so they wouldn’t constantly be out numbered by the Hindu majority. The decision was made to form Pakistan wherever there was a Muslim majority. The problem was that there was a Muslim majority in the western and eastern extremes of India.

The people in the west spoke Urdu, which is essentially Hindi written with a Perso-Arabic alphabet instead of Hindi’s Devanagari alphabet. By simply giving their writing different symbols the Indian Muslims of the west claimed to have created a new language: Urdu. Since Urdu was intrinsically associated with Indian Muslims and most of the Pakistani leaders were from the west, the new government of Pakistan decided to establish Urdu as the official language of the country. All dealings in the government, schools and media would mandatorily be in Urdu. The problem was that of the 69 million Pakistanis, 44 million lived in the east and spoke Bengali, not Urdu. This meant that 63% of the new Pakistani citizens had to watch TV and listen to the radio in a foreign language. It meant that their local town meetings as well as their national meetings would be in a foreign language and that their children not would be educated in the language spoken at home. This led to mass protests for several decades until Eastern Pakistan eventually separated itself from the rest of Pakistan and became the independent nation of Bangladesh where the official language is Bengali.

Ben-Yehuda’s Miracle

Even before the ancient Jews were defeated and carried away by the Babylonians (ancient Iraqis) Hebrew was losing ground to Aramaic, which was a related language. By the time the Jews came back to their country Aramaic was the language that most of them used in everyday speech. Most scholars believe that Christ gave His sermons in Aramaic, not Hebrew. After the second century A.D. Hebrew ceased to be anyone’s native language. Most Jews ended up speaking their own dialect of German (Yiddish), Spanish (Ladino) or whatever other language they were surrounded by. Today, eighteen centuries later, it is the native language of over seven million people. How did that happen!?

Hebrew wasn’t really dead but it was definitely in a coma. Luckily, the Jews acted like caring relatives and visited the language often. Most Jewish boys had to study Hebrew at an early age. Almost all religious ceremonies and rituals were conducted in Hebrew. The language was also used in rabbinical literature. As a result many Jewish people, especially men, had at least a basic grasp of Classical Hebrew.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, an Eastern European Jew, moved to the Ottoman controlled area of Palestine and set out to revive Hebrew as a living language, convinced that it could unite the Jewish people. Since Jews from all over the world were coming to Jerusalem, some of them were already using Hebrew as a lingua franca. Ben-Yehuda and his wife spoke nothing but Hebrew to their son and even tried to shield him from the influences of any other language. They also encouraged other Jewish families to give up their native languages and speak nothing but Hebrew at home.

His success was very limited until he was able to get Hebrew to become the language of instruction in public schools. Even this achievement had a rocky start. At first, several different pronunciations were being taught in different schools. A huge influx of Yiddish speaking Jewish immigrants also threatened to kill the movement. People also questioned the practicality of teaching a minority language of little economic value to their children. Yiddish has a high degree of mutual intelligibility with Standard German.

Ben-Yehuda could not be dissuaded. He, and others, came up with an official Hebrew dictionary with modern terms and regularly published a Zionist newspaper entirely in Hebrew. In the end, the Israelis decided that it made more sense for them speak Hebrew than Yiddish. Israelis who commonly used any language other than Hebrew were criticized and sometimes even harassed. The phrase, “יהודי, דבר עברית (Jew, speak Hebrew).” became very common in Israel when one Israeli heard another speaking a language that was not Hebrew. The movement was successful and Hebrew has been revived after a 1,800 year long coma.

One Language, Indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for All

In 1914, American President Theodore Roosevelt stated, “We have room for but one language in this country, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.” The United States has absorbed huge numbers of German, Italian, French and Spanish speakers. If Scandinavian were one language and not three, it would also count as a major language absorbed in the USA. Most children in the USA whose parents speak a language other than English at home end up having only a very passive knowledge of it and then very rarely pass it on to their children. This is the way things have always been.

The huge immigration of Spanish speakers to the USA in the latter half of the 20th century and in the beginning of the 21st has created something of a phenomenon. For the first time since WWI, when the German speakers were persecuted and their schools and newspapers shut down, a language other than English has a significant presence in the USA. This issue is controversial to say the least.

The US government is aggressively avoiding the issue despite what its citizens demand. Every few years it passes laws that fine people who employ or house illegal residents but these laws are almost never enforced. Twenty eight of the fifty states have declared that English is their official language but that doesn’t stop the Hispanics from speaking their native language or from having quinceañera parties. Ignorant and desperate Americans are holding raids in different parts of the country, rounding up people who have brown skin and speak English with an accent. There are even a few counties with telephone numbers to call and report illegal residents. Since the average white American is monolingual and does not know much about Hispanic culture, many legal residents are being arrested along with the illegal ones.

Many Americans fear that the Hispanics will eventually do what the Bangladeshi and Portuguese did: use their linguistic separation as a precursor to creating a new nation. Indeed, the only city with more Mexicans than California’s Los Angeles is Mexico City itself. The only city with more Puerto Ricans than New York is San Juan, Puerto Rico. Americans have a situation that is similar to the Israelis’: they live in a country of immigrants where unity is facilitated by a common language.

Are Americans wrong to demand that immigrants, legal or illegal, learn English and abandon their native language? Should they feel intimidated that more tortillas are sold in the USA than bread? Should they be bothered that some of their children have trouble finding part time jobs because they do not know Spanish? Should they use the situation to become a bilingual nation? Should they embrace not only Spanish but all the languages and cultures of their immigrants? Is it necessary for Americans to cling to English in order for America to continue in prosperity or is this a false perception on their part? Are Americans silly to think that Hispanics are taking over their country?


9 Responses

  1. Great post. Very engaging.

    It’s late and there is plenty I could (and will, later) say about the topic broached in the final paragraphs. But to answer the last question: Yes, it is silly for Americans to think that Hispanics are taking over their country.

    Y punto.

  2. “The people in the east spoke Urdu” – “in the west”, surely (I’m sure this was just a slip as you got it right elsewhere)

    Otherwise, a great read covering an impressive amount of the world. As your examples suggest, all kinds of things could happen in the US, languages do matter, and government policy can have a huge effect- in fact, it is the main difference between a dialect and a language

    Some other random points:

    Were the pre-unification Spanish states (self) defined as countries, or like the French did they have an idea that they belonged to a larger country that just hadn’t come together yet? (genuine question)

    In Born to Kvetch, the author suggests that Yiddish could never be the language of Israel because everything about it reflected the mentality of a defeated minority. I know nothing about this subject, but interesting theory.

  3. Alex: Thanks for pointing that out. I’ve corrected the error. As for your question about pre-unified Spain, I don’t think so. I do know that they felt united as Christians against the occupying Moors but I don’t know how united they felt apart from that or how much of their unification was due to Castile and Leon’s political maneuvering. Apparently Michael Wex was right because Yiddish didn’t end up becoming Israel’s language.

    Travis: It’s true, Hispanics will not “take over” the USA for a variety of reasons, one being that they usually integrate after the first generation. I’m sure you had some other ideas though. Care to expound?

  4. Great post. I think nations are defined by their cultures, history and people. All of this relates to languages. And flags help embody all of that.

  5. “Apparently Michael Wex was right because Yiddish didn’t end up becoming Israel’s language.”

    Could have been for other reasons though.

    Another interesting question is whether the history of Israel would have been different if they had chosen Yiddish instead of Hebrew. For so many reasons, I think the answer is clearly yes. And the same is true for other language decisions in other countries.

    TEFLtastic blog-

  6. re: the yiddish comments.

    First off, Yiddish is in no way a dialect of German; only about 70% of Yiddish words have their source in German, much lower than the say 90% mutual comprehensibility between danish and swedish.

    In addition, the Jews of eastern europe were not a “defeated minority”; they were a large minority and well-integrated into eastern european culture and society. Of course, the spectre of anti-semitism did hang over the Ashkenazi community (see chelminicki, the shoah).

    In reality, the primary reason that Hebrew was chosen to be the official language of Israel was the fact that all Jews knew it (or had basic knowledge of it), as opposed to the 1/3 of Jews who did not speak Yiddish. Another important factor is the fact that the Jews of mandate palestine (who were overwhelmingly from Eastern Europe) wanted to create a new Jew; ashekanzim (and by extension, their language) were seen as being weak, and more importatly, too religious.

  7. And as to the yiddish speakers of Israel “sometimes being harrased”: There are well-documented instances of hebrew partisans rioting in front of Yiddish organizations, Yiddish being banned from all forms of media, despite the fact that 25% of the country spoke the language, and Yiddish speakers being treated as 2nd class citizens. View “Words on Fire” by Dovid Katz for more information.

  8. Harris: Thank you for your comments and insight. It seems that you have done more reading about Yiddish than I. I never said that the Yiddish speakers were a defeated minority and I certainly hope that that is not why you put quotation marks around these two words. As for Yiddish not being like German, although I myself do not speak German I have been told by NUMEROUS people who do that they can understand most of what is said in Yiddish. Perhaps they were exaggerating. This link: shows a university class that teaches that German and Yiddish are quite similar. Not speaking either language myself, I’m afraid that I can’t confirm this. Perhaps you do and can?

    Your comments about the Yiddish speakers being persecuted in Israel makes sense to me. In my research for this post I read that there were rumors of a bomb being placed at a meeting held in Yiddish. The rumors part seemed sketchy to me so I used the word “sometimes” just to be on the safe side. I was still a little doubtful. The line from the 2005 movie “Munich” that said, “How do you think we got the land in the first place? By being nice?” was ringing in my ears. Again, it’s obvious that you’ve read up on this subject. Thanks for sharing.

  9. The Low Lands (or it’s provinces) were seperated along the border of it’s speakers. French speakers had their own provinces, Dutch speaker had their own and the German speakers. Later the German speaking provinces joined the German empire and in 1830 Belgium declared themself independent from the Netherlands (although the northern part remains Dutch speaking).

    Now, in Belgium there’s Flanders (Dutch speaking), Wallonia (French speaking) and the Deutschsprachige Gemeinschaft Belgiens (which never joined Germany and is actually a very small part of Belgium). In Belgium there’s still a strong seperation between Dutch speaking and French speaking communities, marked by it’s borders.

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