Language challenges religion as the biggest trigger of conflict. Disagreements over which language should be used, particularly at national level, is a major contributing factor in many wars and civil disagreements.
Language disagreements are presently raging in regions such as Ukraine, where attempts to gain more recognition for the Russian language inflamed tempers in the Ukrainian parliament. Russian is also a controversial language in Latvia, where society continues to debate the extent to which Russian should be used in their country. In both regions, the language debate is a cypher for the bigger issue of Russian political influence.
Language is often a key issue for minority groups trying to assert their identity against a dominant majority. Language status is a big part of the Kurdish struggle. Chinese authorities are attempting to suppress Uyghur language as part of a bid to assimilate this ethnic group into mainstream Han Chinese culture. Both are examples of minorities where language is a key identity factor.
Language disagreements have the potential to ignite other issues that are already sensitive. Slobodan Milosevic’s insistence that Albanians should speak Serbian lit a touchpaper of existing ethnic and religious conflict that led to war in the Balkans.
It seems humans are most willing to pick up a weapon over language than over other issues. Perhaps language is the most cherished element of our group identity?
Language and conquest
It’s often the habit of the conqueror to ban the use of the indigenous population’s language.
When the declaration of independence was signed, only around 40% of the US population spoke English. Aggressive promotion of the language gradually led to homogenization. When the US defeated Spain over control of the Philippines, it imposed English in schools and penalised the grades of students who didn’t speak it.
Both the US and Canada sought cultural eradication of indigenous groups such as the Blackfoot Indians by imposing the dominant language on their children, often taking indigenous children away from home until they had forgotten their own language.
Minority languages can be eradicated through economics rather than physical oppression.
Speakers of minority languages find that in order to participate fully in society, they need to sacrifice their language preference. There’s evidence that the early Roman empire had much greater linguistic diversity than the later Roman era: it may be that languages of trade and empire became more valuable to citizens right across the empire, who traded their native languages for ones such as Latin.
In the present day, Catalan is perhaps one of the languages prompting the most strife. Prohibited for several decades under Franco, the status of Catalan language remains a contentious issue in Spain – and it’s a core part of the Catalan independence movement today.
One of the motivating factors for the recent push for separation from Spain is the attempt by Spanish central government to impose greater use of Spanish language into Catalan society. The Catalan language is inseparable from Catalan identity for many people in this region.
It’s hard to determine which language has been the most persecuted over time. One of the languages that might be proposed is Yiddish. The fate of Yiddish is strongly entwined with anti-semitism, and the decline of this language parallels the turmoils of twentieth-century Europe.
It was a dominant language for Jews across Europe for around a thousand years, until the bulk of speakers were wiped out in the Holocaust. Around the same time, Stalin banned the language and many remaining speakers were displaced. It’s an astonishing example of language decline.
If you’re trying to determine which language controversy was the most influential, consider the contribution the issue of liturgical language made to the Protestant Reformation. Some key reformers, such as Jon Hus, argued in favour of local languages replacing the liturgical Latin.
The 1588 publication of the Bible in the Welsh language made a huge impact on the Welsh-speaking population and left the last legacy of Protestantism in the nation.
It’s hard to disagree that the reformation of Europe was not a highly influential event with an impact that continues to be felt today.
The spread and dominance of the British Empire around the world ensured that English was the most muscular language in many parts of the world. So influential was the Empire, and its legacy in many territories, that the prevalence of English continues to court controversy.
Take 1970’s South Africa, with apartheid in full force. Oppressed black populations recognised that as a global language English was more use to them than local languages such as Afrikaans.
Attempts by the white nationalist government to control black populations by imposing the use of Afrikaans on them rather than their language of choice, English, led to a rebellion in which 176 schoolchildren died. This uprising was one of the contributing factors to the eventual overthrow of apartheid.
Everyday language conflicts
Language strife is not limited to the national level. There’s plenty of opportunity for conflicts over language at levels below civil and international war. Some conflict over language seems to polarise between different generations – Millennials and Baby Boomers seem at odds over issues such as txtspk and vocal fry.
In Hong Kong, the question of whether to use simplified (some would say ‘butchered’) Chinese characters when subtitling Mandarin TV programs is still hotly debated.
There are thought to be around 6,700 languages in the world and 225 nation-states. In the struggle to dominate nations, there’s plenty more opportunity for language conflict ahead.
Henry Hitchin commented that “wherever more than one language is used, conflict of some kind is inevitable.” Because language is so closely connected to identity, people tend to see any threat to their language status as an attack on their identity.
And they’re not always wrong. Throughout history, attempts to manipulate language use have often been a cypher for an attack on a particular group and an attempt to consolidate power at their expense.