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don't speak

you might think that it sounds dramatic, but linguistic genocide is something that happens. people in power will go to great lengths to eradicate certain languages, not just for the sheer joy of making the world a lesser place, but as a way of beating down the culture that's associated with it. language has a unique reciprocal bond with culture, and every group that has attempted to break down another has recognised that forbidding a cultural group from communicating in their own language is an extremely effective way to tear apart their culture.

there are lots [and lots and lots and lots] of examples of this sort of thing, some successful, some not, but far too many to cover in one blog post. however, i thought it was worth looking at some languages that have been the subjects of active repression, and what the political consequences of that have been.

devastation :: the native north american languages :: it should come as no surprise that the largest genocide in history [by a massive margin] also yields the greatest toll of lost languages. more than a hundred languages were wiped off the map, with nearly double that number [virtually every remaining native language] falling on the endangered spectrum now. [canada and america are bad enough in this regard, but mexico, with greater linguistic diversity, is shocking.] north americans were clearly decimated by every measure across north america by colonial powers, but also by their own geography. large plans, temperate weather for much of the year, and boreal forests are not difficult to move through compared to subtropical jungles. moreover, they were familiar landscapes for european invaders, whereas the wilds of africa, southeast asia and large swathes of south america- all of which fared better in protecting their diversity- were not.

the staggering scope and tragic success of the programs of "assimilation" and which are still an influence on the experience of all native americans is difficult to conceive. and it is ludicrous to believe that it is something that ended long ago. in canada, aboriginal people were not legally considered persons until 1951. until 1985, a native seeking the right to vote, attend schools outside of a reserve, or drink alcohol had to renounce their status and agree to be assimilated into mainstream canadian culture. the last of the disastrous residential schools, tasked with "killing the indian to save the man" was closed in the 1990s. in the united states, the right of natives to preserve their languages was not recognised until the native american languages act of 1990, and even then, the act was little more than an expression of moral support.

enduring resistance :: kurdish :: it appears that this genocidal effort will ultimately lead to a happier ending, although at great cost. the kurdish people were artificially split among a handful of countries, and subject to severe repression in nearly all of them. in iraq, the language was banned until the fall of saddam hussein and the ba'athist government. [it is now an official language.] in syria, publishing in kurdish is still technically illegal, although the civil war has meant that there is no enforcement of the law. after decades of trying to resettle non-kurds into the kurdish part of the country and forcing assimilation of the local population, the turkish government placed an outright ban on the kurdish language from 1983-91. even with the ban lifted, the language was heavily regulated [to favour assimilation], and banned from schools and publication/ broadcast until 2002. government documents and public signage were turkish-only until 2010.

so it is nearly miraculous that not one of the major kurdish dialects is even considered endangered. while the future may still be fragile, international recognition of the plight of the kurds has increased. political shifts have also benefitted the kurds, as they have sided with the west [almost accidentally] in fighting the assad regime in syria, and the turkish government continues to fall out of favour with europeans. so, all in all, the kurds are in a better position than they have been in a very long time. that said, it's not like just having the legal right to speak is a guarantee of safety. in 2009, kurdish member of parliament ahmet türk caused a political uproar by speaking his native language in the house. the live feed on public television was shut down immediately, and a few months later, türk and his party were thrown out and banned from even joining a political party after erdogan government accused them of links to the terrorist kurdish workers party [pkk]. although türk was subsequently elected mayor of mardin, he was arrested late last year, once again on charges that he collaborated with the pkk. so, speaking kurdish in turkey is still akin to painting a big target on your chest.

resurrection :: the celtic languages :: when it comes to crushing the lives and spirit of other cultures, the english really do seem to have a gift. but while they're best known for using this power in their colonies, they've also flexed their genocidal jaw muscles in their own backyard. to be fair, celtic languages were waning by the time the franco-teutonic normans arrived on their shores, but the english have never been happy with partial conquering. while efforts to suppress irish, scottish, welsh, manx and cornish through assimilation date back to the middle ages, the first three were targeted for destruction in order to break resistance to english rule. cornish and manx were effectively eliminated through assimilation, while extra pressure was required to eliminate the others.

the promotion of english as the language of the upper [and educated] classes in both ireland and scotland served to make unilingual gaelic speakers a marginalised group. in fact, use of gaelic in scotland proper faded in the fifteenth century, but it was steadfastly maintained by the "lords of the isles" and their people, who inhabited the western part of the country. scottish gaelic rose to prominence again in the lead up to the 1745 rebellion against the british, after which it was banned outright, along with many other beacons of scottish culture.

[as a passive-aggressive form of revenge, the scots took english and made something beautiful and terrifying out of it. today, scottish is considered an english dialect, but there's an argument to be made that it's a separate language. if you've ever listened to a hardcore scot, you'll know that mutual intelligibility can be an issue. certainly, it's at least as different from english as portuguese or catalan are from spanish. the reason it's not considered a separate language stems mostly from the fact that scots write in "normal" english. it's much like how chinese, with myriad dialects that are not mutually intelligible, is called one language because it has a single written standard.]

the scots and the irish were either driven or starved off their land in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, forcing many of them to go england to find work, or to the colonies to start a new life. both of these moves required them to commit to using english exclusively, forcing them to choose between survival and ancestry.

welsh resistance to english rule was far more placid, but that doesn't mean that they were spared. in fact, the english "welsh not" campaign, aimed at forcing children to stop speaking their native tongue in wales, involved forcing those who failed to speak english to wear a wooden sign as atonement, with the unfortunate who was left wearing the board at the end of the day usually subject to a brutal beating.

across the english channel, the bretons [descendants of cornish immigrants who fled the anglo-saxon and norman invasions] didn't have things a whole lot easier. well, in a way they did. for a long time, the french crown was disinterested in eliminating regional languages and dialects, since they were the languages of peasants. it was only after the french revolution and "the terror" that followed that the government actively tried to eliminate other cultures [in order to ensure the unity of the new republic]. and from that time on, the bretons and their language have been under constant threat. similar to the "welsh not", teachers in northwestern france berated students who spoke breton, but this continued right through until the 1960s. until 1966, it was forbidden for parents to give their child a traditional breton name.  

being at odds with the government in paris has put the bretons on the wrong side of history more than once. they supported the monarchist cause in the revolution, since they'd enjoyed relative freedom. and in world war ii, many of them sided with the germans and the broader fascist cause, driven by their opposition to the french government.

by the late twentieth century, all of the remaining celtic languages were extinct or well on the way. but then...

credit the irish, who put their foot down about the acceptance and perpetuation of their language when they achieved independence in 1922. or credit the hippie-era wave of curiosity about alternative spirituality, or the establishment of the wiccan religion, which caused interest in the mysterious celts to skyrocket. [it also caused the circulation of a lot of wild, baseless rumours about who the celts actually were, and an explosion of druids.] recent years have seen celtic cultures, particularly the irish and welsh, push back. and, inspired by those efforts, new life has been breathed into the dead languages of cornwall and man. for the first time in centuries, the number of speakers is rising. most of those will go on to use english for most of their lives, but there are some parents who are opting to educate their children in their ancestral tongue.

too little too late? perhaps. it may be that speakers of celtic tongues will become the vinyl collectors of the linguistic world, but the important part is that there are some efforts not just to save the languages, but to restore that sense of connection with cultural history.

[side note :: to gauge the interest in these languages, consider these numbers: there are fewer than two million speakers of irish in the world, and fewer than a hundred thousand who are fluent. the irish language course on duolingo currently has 2.84 million learners. welsh, with fewer than 1.5 million speakers, has 562,000 students on duolingo.]

i've chosen the above examples because they illustrate three methods of linguistic repression, and three possible outcomes. if you'd like to see another post i did on endangered languages [with just a tiny bit of crossover], you can check this one out.

keeping track of these linguistic battles is interesting from a historical perspective, but it's also important when looking at the world: the suppression of a language is never about the language itself. instead, it's a step towards eliminating the culture that goes with it. measures like outright banning a minority language in business, government and schools is not an end; it is a step. and if the powerful aren't able to break their target down through these means, it's a matter of time before it escalates to violence. 

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