Loss of Language, Loss of Soul

Nobody seems surprised today when someone says that “Europe is rich” or “Africa is poor”

News | Anthony Loewstedt | December 2008 / January 2009

A map of endangered languages; 95% worldwide are threatened (Photo: Living Tongues Institute)

More than half of the world’s languages, perhaps as much as 95%, are threatened with extinction by the end of this century.

Most will be lost in Africa – a cultural loss perhaps unprecedented in recorded history.

Analysts blame the spread of commercialism and the rapid global spread of English as the principal causes.  This poses a threat not just to linguistic diversity but also to cultural diversity. But there are other factors, such as US- and UK-driven cultural imperialism, urbanization, and expansionist developments in communications, business and technology. Other factors include sharp increases and territorial expansions of large human populations, the spread of French, Arabic, and Chinese, and the activities of missionary religions.

The concept of ‘linguistic genocide’ was defined and roundly condemned by the United Nations in the final draft of the 1948 Genocide Convention and was eventually voted down by 16 members, most from powerful north Atlantic states.  However, other sorts of oppression – whether classism or racism – are surely at work when linguistic diversity suffers as a kind of ‘collateral damage’.

Today, in so-called ‘post-colonial’ Africa for example, some 90% of the continent’s intellectual output is produced in European languages. Not a single treaty between Europe and Africa exists in any African language, and in most countries, the official language is different from the language most used. Only 13% of African children are receiving primary education in their mother tongue.

The developing world’s answer so far puts the West to shame. India has 16 official languages. South Africa, a country with some 40 million inhabitants, embraced a total of 11 official languages after liberation from apartheid in 1994.

In contrast, the European Union, an association of 27 economically well-off countries (most of whom joined after 1994), has only 23 official languages, less than one per country on average. The USA, the home of 300 million people, also has only one de facto official language. Canada, the second largest country in the world, has only two. And all of these North Americans only use European languages officially. On the other hand, an estimated 50% of Native American languages, spoken in the continent before the European invasion, have died out.

Due to long-lasting centralized states and brutal histories of war and conquests, Western Europe and North America today have the lowest rates of linguistic diversity in the world. Europe is by far the poorest in linguistic diversity. Only 3% of the world’s languages are spoken there, compared to 15% in the Americas, 30% in Africa, 32% in Asia and 20% in the Pacific region.

Yet, everyone seems to take for granted that, in general, "Europe is rich" and "Africa is poor".

The concept of globalization is often taken to involve progress beyond the nation-state, since trans-national corporations now act regardless of state borders.  In fact, the division of the world into a system of sovereign nation-states is a pre-requisite for globalization. The essential characteristics of this system is that the world is divided into around 200 sovereign nation-states typically covering huge tracts of territory and containing millions of people.

A global market incorporates (or is superimposed upon) all of these states, but there is no global state to regulate the global market.

Since 95% of the world’s 5,000-plus languages are threatened by extinction this century, we can see where we are heading: towards a maximum of around 200 languages worldwide.

The global system of nation-states, both before and during globalization, is a disaster for cultural diversity, and probably also the source of otherwise avoidable human rights violations. But the problem is not nationalism per se: Obviously, nationality is part of cultural identity for billions of people.

It is the sovereignty that is the problem. Africa should not consist of 54 countries, but rather of 2,000 – the number of languages spoken on the continent at present. But Africans have not been allowed to draw their own borders. Not even Europeans were asked to draw their own borders. The European elites did it, all over the world. It is a political, democratic, and moral bankruptcy. And it is a cultural disaster.

There are precedents. For example, the introduction of Christianity as the state religion of the late Roman Empire meant the persecution and deaths of the ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and other religions. It probably also resulted directly in hundreds of thousands of killings. Perhaps it also brought a fresh sense of identity to many people who had found less and less meaning in the old religions. Nevertheless, from the points of view of cultural diversity as well as of human rights, tolerance would have been far better.

Does this mean that, say 6 billion languages would be better than three? Not at all. Long-term viability and the inevitable, constant mergers and fragmentations of languages must be taken into consideration. I am not extending an invitation to the Tower of Babel. People can learn additional languages more easily if they know their own well.

The current world language status of English enables communication between more people than ever before. Unfortunately it seems to consist mainly of one-way communication to more people.

Yet in some places, local populations are reasserting themselves: the Jamaican and West African varieties of English, for example, are becoming more than just dialects. Africans, at home and in the Diaspora, can teach many Westerners that it is normal for one person to speak many languages. Cultural diversity does not end even with the individual; because each one of us is a carrier of many cultures as well as potential new ones.

We need to make special efforts immediately to save language groups, e.g. the entire Khoisan language phylum of southern Africa, or the indigenous Japanese Ainu language, which has no known relatives and is spoken by only around 150 people today.

But if these efforts are seen as exclusive responsibilities of government agencies and UNESCO, the quest to rescue linguistic diversity is doomed to failure. In a global market, we need a global regulator. The best, or least bad thing would be a democratically elected global authority, to enforce anti-trust rules, especially for the mass media and promote the free flow of information on which a rich cultural life depends.

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