Johnson is the name of the column about languages published by The Economist, named for Samuel Johnson, the dictionary maker, has just published an article about the “struggle to preserve regional languages.” It refers, we believe, to the survival of minoritized languages, which in no way is the same as “regional” languages. The latter term carries with it the idea that it’s somehow inferior to “national” languages.
But even leaving that aside, it turns out that among the three examples of minoritized languages given, Basque, modern Irish Gaelic, and Maori, two of them are the official languages of their countries (Ireland and New Zealand), and the third, Basque, is official in part of the Basque territory.
The author, referring to Irish, states that the “requirement that all youngsters study it” makes it seem as if they or Maori speakers weren’t required to learn English, or the Basques Spanish or French. One of the things the educational system does is determine what knowledge the students who attend must gain; they also do this because of legal obligations.
The article also highlights that learning a language doesn’t mean it will be used, and that the goal of these languages, to keep them alive or even make them predominant, is not good because it ends up “shaming those who abjure” it. It’s even possible that, in order to achieve this goal, governments “might have to force shopkeepers to address customers in it,” which would be coercion, which would of course be “unpopular and illiberal.”
All of this omits the causes that brought about this situation. The imposition of “national” languages by states which wanted to turn all the territory under their control into one homogeneous reality. This homogenization is, quite coincidentally, carried out by imposing an education system in the language of the colonizer; the exclusion of the minimized language speakers from administrative positions; and the creation of the idea that the colonizing language is educated, modern, and competent, while the natural language is one of hicks and rednecks.
It also omits the imposition for so long of media, education, books, administration, and more being done only in the incoming language, making the so-called “regional” languages residual and outside social usage.
All this is due, lest we forget, to the lack of a sovereign political power that coincides with the cultural environment of each one of these national and cultural realities. In order to understand this, we can compare the case of Catalan and Danish. In the former, their national language is but a regional language, so it’s 7.7 million speakers (only in Catalonia) cannot aspire for it to be their natural language, and must accept Spanish as their vehicular language. However, in the latter case, 5.8 million Danish speakers do consider their language to be vehicular, even though they have English as a second language.
It seems as if the article wants everyone to simply accept the status quo. And that also means taking a simplistic and narrow view of the realities of national languages that have been pushed aside by colonizing ones. In the end, it means accepting that there are languages that are “useful” which deserve to be used, and others that aren’t.
It’s tantamount to defending the idea, even in the 21st century, that Élisée Reclus, an anarchist member of the First International, had in the 19th century, when he wrote in his book “The Basques: A Disappearing People” that he was convinced that “modernity” would reach this country to impose itself and finish off our nationality and our language.
Happily, knowledge cannot take long in spreading in these peoples of such vibrant and expansive nature. In this century of prodigious activity, in which the “battle of life” (13) condemns to ruin all those who are left behind, the Basque will also learn to march at an ever faster pace, but that will be at the expense of their nationality and their tongue. Of their magnificent language, classified among the things of the past, there will be nothing more than glossaries, grammar books, a few tales, poor modern tragedies, and songs of disputable age.
The recommendation by this article in The Economist is not as radical. It seems to say that the ideal situation is that people may make the most of the opportunities offered by a leading language while maintaining the traditional one, an invaluable link to the past, preserved in adversity. Basically, it seems to say that the people of these nations who have their own language but not their own state to defend it are to become “walking museums,” preserving their national language as a beautiful work of art, interesting, but of no real use.
Among the Basques, the Irish, the Catalans, the Maori, the member of the aboriginal peoples, there are many who believe that this is not the way, believed even by those who don’t know their own national language. We won’t renounce English, or Spanish, or French, or German, or Portuguese, but neither will we renounce our own language, the one that belongs to the culture we are a part of or which has taken us in, to make it a living language tha tleads our social relations.
Being raised in and using the language to fulfill its purpose, to communicate, does not giving up that goal that the language also be the one to socialize in. If Basque speakers have taken the time to study another language so that those who do not speak Basque well can participate in the conversation, it’s not because Basque is a “secondary” language, it’s because those who speak it are better educated, because they know more than one language, which cannot be said of those who only speak English, Spanish, French, German, et al.
The Economist – 25/8/2022 – Great Britain
The struggle to preserve regional languages
Go to the Basque Country of Spain and, linguistically, you feel you are entering not just another country but perhaps another continent. Familiar world languages—Spanish and French—suddenly give way to the otherworldly-seeming Basque, with its proliferation of x’s and k’s, and alien-looking words of tongue-twisting length. Basque (also known as Euskar is unrelated to the Indo-European family that includes almost all European languages.