Jean-Louis Calvet, professor of social linguistics at the University of the Sorbonne, in Paris, and author of a score of books, which have been translated into a dozen languages. His works published in English include Roland Barthes, A Biography (1995).
States rarely manage to force people to use a language against their will. The fate of languages ultimately depends on their speakers’ needs
Just as ecology depicts the world as a series of interlocking parts ranging from the single cell to the ecosphere, the planet’s languages can be presented as a system based on gravity. Today the keystone of that system is English, a “hypercentral” language around which a dozen “supercentral” languages gravitate. Between 100 and 200 “central” languages, linked to the supercentral ones through bilingual speakers, are in their turn surrounded by 4,000-5,000 “peripheral” languages.
These languages do not all have the same weight, the same vigour or the same prospects. The future of the vast majority is in doubt, and more and more efforts are being made to preserve them. Languages, like baby seals or whales, are regarded as endangered species (see pages 18 and 19).
But anxiety is not only focusing on the “peripheral” languages. Concern is also being expressed about the widely-spoken hyper or super-central languages, including English and French. In the United States, organizations such as US English, US First and Save Our Schools are campaigning for English to be recognized as the country’s sole official language in face of growing bilingualism due to substantial Hispanic immigration. In France, the 1994 “Toubon Law” was an attempt to regulate the use of French by resisting the use of words borrowed from other languages.
The myth of language purity
Language purity is a myth which leads only to stagnation. The Latin that Cicero spoke is perhaps a pure language, but nobody speaks it any more. Today different versions of Latin that have developed over the centuries are used. They include Italian, Spanish, Romanian, French and Catalan.
This myth, this desire to protect, illustrates a thoughtless fear of change, of borrowing words and expressions from other languages. It is as if only stability could somehow guarantee identity. How far can or should policies to protect languages go? Is it possible to keep alive language forms abandoned by their users, sustaining them by a kind of drip-feed or other forms of intensive medication?
Some language policies have been successful. In Turkey in the early part of the 20th century, Kemal Atatürk used authoritarian methods to reform the spelling of Turkish, and struck out of the Turkish dictionary words borrowed from Arabic and Farsi. Indonesia has adopted a unifying language, Bahasa. In other countries, things have been less straightforward. Arabization in Algeria is still confronted by major obstacles, and the attempt by the late Guinean president Sekou Touré to make his country officially multilingual was a total failure.
“Language war”: a convenient metaphor
A language policy can only work if it is attuned to the way in which a society is evolving. Only rarely can a language or reform be imposed on people against their will. Is it possible to defend (or save) a language whose speakers don’t want it any more? The issue is not the language itself but the importance attached to it by its speakers. A language policy cannot ignore them.
A language disappears not only because it is dominated by another, but also—and perhaps above all—because people decide to abandon it and do not pass it on to their children. The term “language war” is a convenient metaphor, but languages themselves cannot wage war on each other. It is people who struggle, fight or agree with each other. We can follow their conflictual relationships by looking at the relationship between their languages.
Linguists are always sorry when a language dies out, but languages are not museum pieces. They belong to the people who speak them and constantly change and adapt to their needs. They are there to serve people and not vice-versa. The evolution of language forms and the relationships between them is an ongoing process, and while some die, others are born, sometimes before our eyes.
Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the break-up of Yugoslavia, new countries have appeared and new languages are making themselves heard—Bosnian, Serbian, and Croatian, for example, which until recently were considered to be a single language, Serbo-Croat. The speakers of these languages are affirming their identity by stressing and increasing the difference between them, though this only amounts to a few dozen words. Likewise, the division of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia has pushed the Czech and Slovak languages further apart.
In francophone Africa, local forms of the official language, French, are emerging. Slightly different variants of French are spoken in Senegal, Gabon, Niger and Côte d’Ivoire.
These differences, slight though they are so far, perhaps herald a break-up of French, which may become a kind of mother tongue for a new generation of speakers, just as Latin is the mother of the Romance languages. The same goes for English, Arabic and Spanish. The Spanish spoken in Madrid is not quite the same as that spoken in Buenos Aires, and there are differences between London English and Bombay English. The Arabic of Rabat is not at all the same as that spoken in Riyadh.
The function of languages influences their form. The languages used for trade in the markets of African capitals are gradually becoming different from their vernacular forms. The Wolof spoken in Dakar is no longer the Wolof that rural people speak, and the Bambara heard in Bamako is not the same as that spoken in Ségou, 230 kilometres away.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in various situations, Creole languages developed as a linguistic solution to the communication problem faced by slaves speaking different languages when they were taken to the Indian Ocean islands or to the Caribbean. Using European tongues such as English, French or Portuguese as a basis, they created languages which today are different. A Mauritian, a Haitian and a Guyanese cannot understand each other, even though their languages have a common ancestor—French. Perhaps the children of immigrants will one day speak, along with the language of their host country, a Germanicized version of Turkish, say, or a Frenchified Arabic.
An ever-changing language map
English may not escape this process. Its world domination today is indisputable and will probably last for a while. But history shows that the more a language spreads geographically, the more variations it generates, so what happened to Latin may happen to English.
This being the case, the world language map is clearly going to change over the next few centuries. Many languages currently spoken by only a few people are dying out and new ones are appearing or will appear. This means that in the gravitational model described above, languages and their functions will evolve. The hypercentral and supercentral languages may change, and some peripheral languages may become central (and vice-versa). Like history itself, the history of languages does not stand still. It moves on, constantly changing and being shaped by the practices of users.