Saturday, March 6, 2010

Linguistic Genocide?

I have  ... um ... complicated beliefs about language death. Nonetheless, I thought this was a list worth reading: 10 Modern Cases of Linguistic Genocide.

HT: celiabcn, via twitter #linguistics.

8 comments:

Lonehermit said...

At least the USSR rusification example is overblown. People simply project their nationalistic sentiments to language issues.

It is my own experience from the life in Soviet Latvia where the use of Russian greatly increased during the Soviet rule. It was a political invasion and many newly arrived Russian speaking immigrants changed the linguistic pattern of the country so it practically became a bilingual society – both Latvian and Russian. Many Latvians resent this but Russian gained more foot due to existing political situation, not through forced extermination of Latvian. Immigration and economical advantages is a far cry from genocide.

Ukraine might be a different issue but but even though nationalistic Ukrainians don't want to admit it, their language is quite similar to Russian and it requires very little effort on both sides for mutual understanding. It probably made sense to use one standard language in schools and administration. I don't think that many people cared about this issue.

In fact, now when the pendulum has swung to the other side, the current language laws of independent Latvia and Ukraine are much more discriminating. In Ukraine it was even forbidden for teachers to speak in their own native language during the break from the work and it took the Supreme Court's decision to abolish this law. In Latvia it is actually forbidden for public authorities to communicate with citizens in any other language except Latvian. It has created many anecdotal situations, for example, the human rights organization was fined for providing informative booklets in Russian and English. And it took three Cabinet meetings to allow publishing the bus fare information at the airport in English and Russian. Before that too many tourists were caught taking the bus without paying the due fare simply because they could not understand instructions that according to the language law were published only in Latvian.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes. Comments of a Russian bigot (Lonehermit). Where have I seen them before? Oh yeah, everywhere. Even if I disagree with our host on language death on purely linguistic grounds ("there is no data like more data"), I think our host really does not support active extermination of languages.

Chris said...

Lonehermit, thanks for you thoughtful comment. I tend to agree that rhetoric about language death often becomes exaggerated and fails to recognize some less evil reasons why some languages die. I find it rather arrogant to assume that young people have some sort of responsibility to be fluent in their parent's tongue. Imagine I argued that French teens should all be experts in the music of Édith Piaf and and Jacques Brel, and if they didn't, it was the equivalent of musical genocide. This would clearly be hyperbole. I'm not convinced the arguments for linguistic genocide are all that much stronger.

Typically what is being protested in the MEANS of death. There may be good reason to protest the means, but protest those separate from the death itself. They are a separate phenomenon, imho.

Chris said...

Anonymous, yes, you are correct, I do not support active extermination of any language; note that I posted my previous comment before yours was visible. I'm not familiar enough with the linguistic issues of the Latvian-Russian-Ukraine regions to comment specifically, though I don't see anything in Lonehermit's comments per se to warrant the label "bigot".

As I said in my comment, my primary goal is to separate the politics of oppression from the linguistics of language change. It's true that socio-political pressure can cause language change, just as overpopulation can cause ecological change. But to truly understand ecological change, it must be studied separately from overpopulation.

Anonymous said...

> I'm not familiar enough with the linguistic issues of the Latvian-Russian-Ukraine regions to comment specifically
>
> my primary goal is to separate the politics of oppression from the linguistics of language change.

This is very, very difficult. In this particular case, as I see it, one thing was that Stalin didn't want to leave any written notes about his extermination orders. Funny thing was that Stalin himself was once responsible for minority languages in Russia... Just out of curiosity, how can you find evidence of language death (or change) connected or not connected to the politics of oppression (I recall the American oppression of native Americans being said to combat those uncivilized tongues in one way or another, even if this wasn't the main point). And where do you draw the line?

After all this, what can I say. Only that it seems very easy to deny other people of their native language. I don't know if there is a lot that I can say to convince you or anyone else but here goes nothing.

> Many Latvians resent this but Russian gained more foot due to existing political situation, not through forced extermination of Latvian.

The fact is that Latvian lost ground, whether you want to sugarcoat it saying it was due to the existing political situation or not. One language of Latvia, Livonian, is dead due to the then-existing political situation (your boats were crushed and you, the fisherman, were forced to get your livelihood elsewhere, factually this meant assimilation and language death). All of this could have been avoided without the Soviet invasion (I'm not trying to sugarcoat the Latvian displeasure of a meager Livonian renaissance before World War II but it really was nothing compared to what followed).

You surely know about:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holodomor

This is not all there is, but...

> I don't think that many people cared about this issue. (Ukrainian)

Funny. I seem to recall there is (and was) even something like Ukrainian nationalism centered on the language issue.

Lonehermit said...

The Soviet regime in Latvia or elsewhere was wrong on many levels but I never witnessed official discrimination on linguistic grounds alone. At least in Latvia everyone could communicate with local authorities in Latvian, receive university education in Latvian etc. The mere fact that the political system was forced upon us does not prove that local language extermination and total russification was its intended goal. I think that it was unfortunate side effect due to otherwise implemented unification policies and the resulting immigration and cultural changes.

Holodomor may have been directed to suppress the nationalist tendencies of Ukrainians but I doubt that it was because Stalin did not like the sound of Ukrainian language. After all, even Russian speaking Ukrainians could be as much rebellious.

For what it is worth, nationalists in Latvia today are equally afraid of invasion of English. Young people prefer Hollywood movies in English, and perfect knowledge of English is the road to better paying jobs and economic prosperity. For a small nation it is hard to resist the globalization. But this time nationalists can't blame the oppressive foreign powers therefore they make restrictive language laws to protect the local language.

Lonehermit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lonehermit said...

your boats were crushed and you, the fisherman, were forced to get your livelihood elsewhere, factually this meant assimilation and language death

For ages Latvia has been under the rule of different powers so I don't think that the Livonian people were particularly targeted for assimilation. It is an interesting fact that genetically Latvians are more similar to our Finno-ugric neighbors yet Latvian is Indo-European language. What had probably happened is that the the ancient tribes that arrived from the North and displaced local population took their language. It shows how relative particular national language is.

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