In highly diverse societies, language conflicts are inevitable. Throughout the development of the modern nation-state, questions of language identity and language choice, closely allied with ethnic, religious and the varieties of group claims, have formed a central tension. Modernizing states are thought to require a united, cohesive and complaint population. At the very least, this is believed to include mutual intelligibility of language, as well as a certain sense of shared identities, goals and methods for achieving these.
The relationship of language with national identity in the modern period has been thoroughly explored by prominent theorists of nationalism. There has certainly been a normative preference for the notion of ‘one state, one nation, one language’.
Historically, modernizing states have pursued policies of suppressing ethnolinguistic claims by minority groups, as well as homogenizing and unifying language systems. But international norms have shifted somewhat and as indigenous, minority and formerly oppressed groups throughout the world assert a broad set of political rights, including language rights, states have been compelled to adopt somewhat more flexible and diversified language policies.
Since language forms a core rights-claim for many cultural groups, language policy has distinctly political implications. It is the politics of language that I seek to explore here, leaving the linguistic, educational and aesthetic aspects of language to other scholars. It is worth pointing out that it is states that select the national language(s), and it is states that dictate and control the content of school curriculums, and the conduct of court rooms, legislative bodies and other public spaces where language identity matters a great deal in daily life. It is one area where private business, civil society groups, and even individual families, no matter how powerful some of these may be, have little or no impact. One of the most basic and central aspects of our daily life is choreographed by the state, regardless of whether an official language policy is formally stated or left implied.
It is not surprising then that language issues emerge as so vital and so contested in the context of national or sub-national appeals for greater inclusion and representation. Language is an immediately visible indicator of exclusion, of rights denied. Philosophers and political theorists may have (or think they have) the philosophical and personal distance to see language as constructed and in some sense engineered. States, too, may regard language as a relatively inexpensive and highly effective site of intervention in facilitating the political objective of a cohesive national identity. But citizens lack this distance.
Language is most often experienced as natural and innate. Since our language is received and mastered well before we become aware of a world that is at all constructed or shaped by forces outside the home, it is one of the most natural of all aspects of a person’s individual identity. Denial of the right to speak one’s mother tongue, the language of home, family, clan, ethnic or religious group, is often experienced as perhaps the most undemocratic and autocratic of all policy measures passed by the state.
Language is much more than just speech. It is also a carrier of culture, of individual, community and even national identity. Some have pointed out that language is much more than an instrumental good, allowing us to communicate with one another, but that it ‘has an intrinsically valuable dimension … It is itself a human creation or accomplishment, participation in which is an end in itself’ (Réaume, 2003: 283), which in part explains the tremendous emotive appeal of language rights to speakers of minority or oppressed language groups.
And the language of the state carries with it powerful implicit messages about citizenship. It is a signal of who is included in the political community and on what terms. Language policy can build identification with, loyalty to, and membership in a particular national political community or it can significantly undermine any efforts in this direction (Kymlicka and Patten, 2003: 11). These points can be better understood by thinking about the types of political goods any particular language policy delivers to its citizens.
Smith, L. (2008). The Politics of Contemporary Language Policy in Ethiopia, Georgetown University. Journal of Developing Societies 24, 2 (2008): 207–243