The Collapsing Tower of Babel

Language barriers are good, not bad, and their loss is a disaster for hundreds of millions of people

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 24th August 1995

According to the Greek Embassy, there are no minority languages in Greece apart from Turkish. This may come as a surprise to the country’s 400,000 speakers of Arvanite, Aroumanian, Slav-Macedonian and Pomak. It was certainly news – relayed via the Greek police – to a representative of the EC’s European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages. While researching their distribution three weeks ago, he was arrested and held for questioning for 24 hours.

Because of the government’s failure to recognize these languages, and their exclusion from schools, administration and radio and television, they are likely before long to fade away in Greece. They are not alone. Of the 6000 or so languages presumed to exist on earth, 95 per cent seem destined to disappear within the next hundred years. As languages die, the concomitant loss of meaning compromises everyone’s ability to sustain both a peaceful and a purposeful life.

There are several reasons for this extraordinary rate of extinction. Governments, especially repressive governments, often equate diversity with instability. In Turkey, Kurds are imprisoned simply for speaking their language in a public place. In the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, addressing a meeting in a local language is treated as an act of insurgency. Education, publication or broadcasting in minority languages are discouraged in nations all over the world.

But the subtler causes of language loss are perhaps still more important. As indigenous groups engage with the outside world, their language often becomes a token of inferiority. When the “master language” – English, Spanish or Mandarin for example – is the parlance of business, of government and media, parents will go to great lengths to ensure that their children can speak it. Young men and women pretend they cannot understand their mother tongue.

There are many people, in business and international finance in particular, who maintain that language death is not to be lamented, but celebrated. It hastens the consolidation of the global village, in which goods can be freely traded and information readily shared. People with access to both the market and the media can defend themselves more readily against destitution and repression. The better we understand eachother, the more peaceful our lives will be: the Tower of Babel, after all, was built to confound us.

But for those who have worked with threatened minorities, it is becoming clear that the interests of many of these groups are best served by remaining outside the global village. As remote communities are pervaded by multinational trade and communications, self-sufficiency withers. South-west India’s experience is typical. There, multinational grain merchants have used their capital reserves to drive out local producers and traders with anti-competitive pricing, before attempting to commandeer the seed market. The result is dependency and destitution.

All over the world, local traders, craftsmen, farmers, fishermen and entertainers are losing their livelihoods to the well-financed, well-connected enterprises which global integration suits best, and ending up, unrepresented and underemployed, on the human slag heaps rising around all the world’s big cities. Language is one of the most effective barriers to penetration. It allows people to pursue the livelihoods that serve them best.

Ethnocentrism and racism, moreover, are the hallmarks of insecurity. The incomprehension and intolerance which have made this a decade of ethnic conflict surface when one culture feels threatened by another. Without pluralism there can be no peace. In society, as in ecosystems, diversity affords stability.

But these tangible prospects are perhaps the least important. In New Guinea, the most linguistically diverse region on earth, language is not just reflective of culture; it is its major component. The Dani people, for example, can each speak seven or eight wholly different languages. Men with a vocabulary wider than Shakespeare’s engage in punning stories whose play upon a single word can last for two hours. For them language death – which the Indonesian government is doing its best to engineer – means losing their entire cultural history.

It is arguable that humankind’s fastest-growing malaise is anomie. All those of us who have lost our roots suffer it to some degree, and strive to reassert a cultural identity, even if it is no more consequential than a style of dress or support for a football team.

But for many of those who have lost their language, and the sense of belonging it sustained, the collapse of self-worth is complete. Alcoholism and drug abuse are endemic to Native American reservations and Aborigine settlements. Suicide has become an epidemic among the Guarani of western Brazil.

Every language encodes untranslatable concepts. The Maasai of East Africa, for example, have over a dozen words to describe different types of pasture. As the dominant language in the savannahs switches from Maa to English or Swahili, the recognition of these zones – which is essential to good management – is lost in translation. As languages disappear, so do the songs and stories which relate the history of the world’s oppressed, until we come to see ourselves only from the perspective of the victors. The loss of language is a loss of collective memory.

The extinction of a language is not necessarily forever. Many leave a written record, from which it is possible, with diligence and tremendous political will, to reconstruct a new vernacular. This is how Hebrew became the national language of Israel, as settlers at the turn of the century adapted it from the scriptures back into a conversational form. But the circumstances of this revival were exceptional, and it demanded a bitter campaign of vituperation against its competitor, Yiddish. A similar attempt to drag Cornish out of its grave can hardly claim such success: six people now speak a rarefied, literary version of a vernacular which died out in 1777.

There’s a better chance of survival if a language is caught before it falls, but only if those who speak it retain some ability to govern their own lives. Despite forty years of repression under Franco, Catalan, aided by the economic strength of its speakers, has remained a language of status and prestige in Catalonia. Even immigrant Castilians are anxious to acquire it. Irish Gaelic, by contrast, though Eire’s “first official language”, is still declining. Top-heavy attempts to defend it seem only to have accelarated its loss, as industrialization and subsidized farming in the Gaelic-speaking regions have drawn more English speakers in.

Living with complexity is a messy, difficult business, which requires constant responsiveness, creativity and goodwill. But as nations all over the world are now finding, living with simplicity is very much harder.