Are the English guilty of language imperialism?
There is a new term I have stumbled upon which might be said to have sinister undertones. It is called ‘language imperialism’. For myself, I am hugely conflicted because the language in question is my own.
While our legions have long ago been withdrawn from around the world, our language has not. It is good that we have seen the back of imperialism, of course. No country has the right to run the affairs of another, much less to oppress its peoples in order to maintain its dominance. In that regard, this country has much to answer for – though I like to console myself by believing that my forebears seldom employed gratuitous violence to maintain their position.
The world does, however, stand in need of a universal language, one which will allow us to communicate not just information, but, our thoughts, fears emotions and everything between. When you face a person from another culture, almost all of whose habits are alien to your own, there is so much better a chance of reaching an understanding if you have no need of an interpreter and don’t end up lost in translation, as it were. I swear so many past conflicts could have been nipped in the bud had this been the case.
Rome’s reach, great as it was, never extended to giving all Europe – and the Near East – its wonderful language of Latin. Perhaps if it had, we may have avoided many of the miseries we have endured down the centuries and continue to endure to this day. Wouldn’t we be better placed to achieve harmony in the troubled Middle East if we could all talk to one another?
So while I deplore our part in the imperialism of the past – though I will not say no good ever came of it – I cannot deplore the fact that we have succeeded where Rome failed in leaving behind a language which in the fullness of time will play an important part in bringing together the whole human race.
But this second language is in danger of coming at a price. That price is the threat it poses to indigenous languages. Just as here in our small corner of Europe we have not allowed the Irish, Welsh and Scottish languages to die – sadly it appears Cornish is doomed – we must not allow the other home languages of the world to disappear. Imagine what treasure troves they hold of those often-captivating cultures. What would we know of ancient Egypt if we had not cracked hieroglyphics?
People are perfectly capable of continuing to use their home language while becoming totally fluent in another’s; witness French Canadians, Scandinavians and the Dutch. And let’s not forget the Swiss who somehow manage, for the most part, the four languages which make up their own country.
But in India, today, we see an oppression where their languages are concerned of a most worrying kind. So obsessed are the governing classes in pushing English that they refuse to feature local dialects in such things as prescriptions, menus. road warnings and street signs, driving licenses, government forms, medical instructions, ingredient labels or even movie tickets. How crippling is that for the hundreds of millions who do not form part of the elite. Imagine what it’s like not to be able to read your child’s medical instructions. It’s a bit like when Norman French pushed Saxon English into the shadows for 300 years and you had court cases decided in a language you couldn’t understand.
There are laudable reasons why the Indian elite promote English in the way they do. They believe it to be a unifying factor in a land with 150 languages, all with sizeable populations and a total of 1,650 altogether. They also see it as giving them an advantage in business and a world of still increasing globalisation. But it’s tough meantime out in the hundreds of thousands of villages and towns who cannot fathom the language.
There is one good thing about the language, however, which they and the world, by happy chance, have been landed with and which they will eventually master. It is blessed with a massive vocabulary, a rich literature, beautiful poetry, great flexibility and much else besides. Many reasons have contributed to this. It is a fusion of invading settlers, mainly Germanic and Scandinavian in origin. And adding to the mix are those 300 years of Norman French, from which 45% of our words are derived. They carry a high Latin content so perhaps Rome didn’t, after all, lose out completely. She remains with us still.