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The death of a language

  • Published at 08:00 pm February 21st, 2019

Why International Mother Language Day is as important as ever today 

As we approach International Mother Language Day on February 21, marches and events will be scheduled in high intensity by members of minority language speakers to bring awareness about their language. This day coincides with the Bengali Language Movement in the early 1950s, when Pakistani police shot and killed protestors on February 21, 1952. The protestors’ demand was that their native language Bangla also be considered as one of the official languages of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). In 1954, this day was finally commemorated as a national holiday. 

The matching of these two event dates is not a coincidence. Indeed, Bangladesh played a big part in this initiative, and along with Saudi Arabia, proposed February 21 as International Mother Language Day, which was then adapted at the UNESCO General Conference in 1999 and has been celebrated since 2000. 

However, Bangladesh is not the only country to have fought for this right, and a look back at other histories can also reveal the need of initiating a day dedicated to mother languages. 

Historical context: language and human rights

After World War II, a few dozen countries came together and formed the United Nations with the goal to establish relations among nation-states and prevent future wars and atrocities. Hence in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adapted. When the document was prepared, much of the discussion concerned how to define what is and may be considered a genocide in order to protect the fundamental rights of humans around the world. 

One such controversy was geared towards the discussion of ‘cultural genocide’. Raphael Lemkin, a law professor of Jewish-Polish background, was highly involved in the drafting of the UN Genocide Convention, originally coining this term and pushing for it to be included in the final Genocide Convention. In a 1947 draft document, the concept of cultural genocide was included in Article I (3), whereby its characteristics clearly addressed issues regarding the prevention of language destruction —  “prohibition of the use of the national language even in private intercourse; or systematic destruction of books printed in the national language or of religious works or prohibition of new publications.”

However, this concept, and along with it the protection it hoped to achieve through hindering the destruction of cultural (including linguistic) rights, did not appear in the final version of the document published in 1951. Rather, the convention speaks of genocide in broad terms committed against a ‘national, ethnical, racial or religious’ group, leaving out specific mentions of linguistic groups, although some might argue that ‘ethnical groups’ might entail the language dimension in some cases if an ethnic group is primarily defined on the basis of their language. However, failing to include linguistic groups does not change the fact that in everyday life, linguistic links to ethnic or racial prejudices are common practice around the world, such as Spanish speakers in the US, Kurdish speakers in the Middle East or Tamil speakers in Asia.    

Does language equal people?

Raymond Williams, a Cultural Studies theorist, could not have said it better in this famous phrase from 1977 — “a definition of language is always, implicitly or explicitly, a definition of human beings in the world.” 

Ultimately, the suppression or promotion of a language can impact the speakers’ everyday lives and along with it, others’ views on them. Language destruction can occur through more subtle gradual processes understood as a language shift or through direct state enforced policies. In the latter case, scholars have adapted the concept — linguicide (language death) — deriving from the words ‘language’ and ‘genocide’, to describe the phenomenon of intentional government enforced language planning policies and initiatives. 

Additionally, some scholars have recently written about the link between modernization, nationalism, and genocide. For instance, O’Driscoll explains the link between language and modern technologies in this way — “ideology of nationalism led to the drive to unite and nationalise the masses under a dominant linguistic identity, and the industrialisation of the printing press in the nineteenth century was an important tool in facilitating this process.”

Yet, not everyone agrees that this term can be easily adapted to all cases where (certain) minority languages cease to exist. Hence, some scholars have used other terminology such as ‘invisibilization’ or ‘erasure’ that demonstrates a less strong connotation of a language death as a result of state policies geared towards an ethnic community and its specific language(s). 

Generally speaking, while linguicide occurs from structural violence, invisibilization in itself is a symbolic process. The concept of erasure overlaps with invisibilization but occurs in a less obvious manner. Regardless of the mechanics resulting in the endangerment of a language, once a language finds itself on the way to extinction, its revival becomes almost impossible. To date, Hebrew is the only case where the language was revived without any native speakers — as a result of the establishment of Israel that opted for making Hebrew its national language. 

Hebrew was then used in many areas of life such as politics, arts and literature, and most importantly in the educational spheres. Indicators for the survival of any language are highly dependent on these three areas, whereby mother tongue education instruction can be viewed as especially impactful to the survival of any language which goes extinct once its youngest members are no longer taught to speak it. 

Signs of linguicide on Kurdish language(s) in Turkey

The case of the Kurdish languages spoken in Turkey is a prominent example of attempted linguicide. First, it needs to be acknowledged that there is some ambiguity as to what languages count as Kurdish in the first place.

In Turkey, besides Kurmanji-Kurdish, the second most spoken language is called Zazaki which is spoken by 3-4 million people; while it is considered a full language, the controversy is related to the speakers’ ethnicity as Kurds or a distinct group to be called the Zaza people. Scholarship has been slow and hesitant to engage with this identification dilemma and use the word Kurds or Kurdish in a broad sense.

In Turkey, both Kurdish (Kurmanji) and Zazaki speakers make up about 20-25 percent of the population, with their ancestral regions being located in eastern Turkey.

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the leaders of the new Turkish republic envisioned a nation-state based on an imaginary citizenry that shared one common language and customs. 

As a result, for decades, numerous constricting and assimilative policies towards the Kurdish minority and its language were observed. 

More specifically, the intensified promotion of the Turkish language in daily use, especially in schools, resulted in an asymmetrical development of the Kurdish and Turkish languages. These strict enforcements included the destruction of Kurdish literary works and expressive culture that lasted well into the 21 century. Some scholars (e.g. Hassanpour et al. 2012) label these enforcements by the Turkish authorities, and to a wider extent the general population, as linguicide. These policies prohibited the use of the language in many areas of life such as politics, arts and literature, and most importantly in the educational spheres. 

However, since the state policies were not always successful in its attempts to fully destroy the language, viewing the Kurdish example through the concept of “attempted” linguicide better captures the practical outcome of the Turkish state’s policies. Some reasons for this linguicide project failing can be attributed to education, such as low literacy rates among Kurdish and Zazaki speakers, whose native languages were not replaced by Turkish, and the relative spatial separation, including the rural urban divide of Kurdish and Zazaki majority speaking areas in Eastern Turkey.

Nevertheless, the restrictive policies gravely weakened the longterm survival of the language.

Since the last decade, minor positive changes have occurred in Turkey that lifted the repressive state policies, such as allowing the opening of Kurdish and Zazaki language courses and a few study programs at the college level. We need to wait and see to what extent one can speak of the revival of the Kurdish language, while prospects for the Zazaki language are bleaker and since 2009, it has been declared as a vulnerable language by UNESCO and faces extinction

What to do on February 21?

Two decades ago, UNESCO officials initiated this awareness of language loss by adapting an International Mother Language Day with the aim that governments, institutions, educators, parents, and citizens alike will become aware of the disappearing of world languages. Currently, there are about 7,000 languages spoken in the world, yet one third of them are endangered, with fewer than a thousand speakers left. A 2009 UNESCO report on the status of world languages further emphasized the fragile state of many languages, assessing and categorizing their vitality rate. With an estimated one language dying every two weeks, as stated in the UNESCO report, a language death means — “…the disappearance of various forms of intangible cultural heritage such as performing arts, social practices, rituals and festive events, traditional crafts and the priceless legacy of the community’s oral traditions and expressions, such as poetry and jokes, proverbs and legends. The loss of indigenous languages is also detrimental to biodiversity”. 

There is much at stake with the loss of languages at such rapid pace. While International Mother Language Day is for everyone to celebrate their specific mother tongue, we cannot be oblivious to the danger of extinction being faced by some languages, especially if they are not designated official or national languages. 

As 2019 has also been chosen as the International Year of Indigenous Languages, I want to encourage everyone to take some time and find out what minority and indigenous languages some of your friends, colleagues, or neighbours might be part of. You will be surprised about the linguistic richness in your close circles and I hope you can take advantage of listening to the sounds of some of these world languages while they last.