Not All Languages Were Born Equal: What happen when the way you speak is not considered the “norm”.

While people today give great care for equality, political correctness and try to treat all people the same, sadly we wouldn’t be able to create a world where everybody is regarded the same. We are different. We are continually ranking and forming hierarchies within our social groups. The most obvious examples are on the internet, which is filled with countless articles that rank things. Top 10 movies of all time and so on.

But, the problem that I want to talk about in this post is something much more fundamental. It is the language we use. In this world, language is also ranked. Language is ranked within certain social groups and nation states. But, It is also ranked within the international community. No language is treated the same. We have “stronger” language and “weaker” ones. It has nothing to do with the sounds it produces, the diversity of its lexicon or how easy it can be learned. What makes certain languages “better” or more dominant than other languages is the simple and unpleasant fact, “the might is right.” The more the society is “accomplished,” or “successive” – meaning the more they dominate other people through economic and military means, the more their language is being used and learned by others.

It is best explained through linguistic death. The reason why languages die off. In his book “language in danger,” Andrew Dalby depicts this process, using Latin to explain this process. Imagine you live in a little village that belongs to a relatively peaceful people. You use your X language to communicate. One day, the Roman Legion march through your village, and you understand right away “who is the boss.” Your father is a carpenter. He might hate the roman’s, but they do pay for his work. To have more “new” customers, he learns some words in Latin. Over the years, his Latin improves, but he could never be fluent in it.

You, on the other hand, started to learn Latin at a younger age because this was important for your future. Your parents insisted that you will learn Latin in order to get a better job, and might find work in the big city. You grow up to use Latin with anyone outside of your community, while mainly using your X language with your family, friends, and neighbors. You move out from the house to learn a craft, and you end up staying In the city. You get married to a “foreign” girl, that was born in a different part of the Empire and start your own family. If you were bilingual, but you were a “successive learner,” meaning you learned one language first and then the other. Your children are “native bilinguals” they started to learn both languages right off the bat. You try to speak with them as much as you can in X, but they are just better at Latin, and prefer it. Your grandchildren will know few basic X words and maybe a few phrases. Their children will be perfect Monolinguals of Latin, without a shred of knowledge about language X.

When enough people adopt the dominant language (In this case Latin) and use it in ALL areas of life (including talking at home), the language will die off. You can say it is because of business; you can say that it is a choice. But, in the essence of things, Latin was placed above language X in the hierarchy. It was more important. Today this language is English. I was forced to learn English at school. I wasn’t aware to the importance of English until a later age, but I had to know English if I wanted to play video games, get access to knowledge (the Hebrew part of Wikipedia is mostly shorter than the English version). If you wish to maximize your customer number, English is a must.

Not only English. Think about your community. There are different accents, different ways to speak and so on. Those are also hierarchical. Bourdieu talks about this in his work “language&symbolic power.” The official institutions of the state (and society) dictates the norm. Meaning, what is the appropriate way to behave and to speak. Any deviation from that deems the user to be “less.” If you use a heavy accent from a town in the periphery, people might think that you lack education and manners. In Japan, people try to hide their local accents as much as they can when they move to a big city. In Israel, if you have a foreign accent (because you weren’t born in Israel), it does put you in a tight spot, people think that you are not yet a “true” Israeli.

This is natural. We cannot help that. Even if everybody in the world were to speak English as monolinguals, we would have different accents, a different way of speech (like how the Afro-Americans have their unique style of talking). We, society create a hierarchy in every area of life. Thus, as long as people will talk differently, they will never be truly equal. Why? Because language is directly tied to power relations between people. If you have an accent, it doesn’t matter who you are; you will suffer a certain degree of prejudice. You will be ranked below the “norm.”


9 thoughts on “Not All Languages Were Born Equal: What happen when the way you speak is not considered the “norm”.

  1. You wrote a daring piece on an interesting topic. I encounter the phenomenon of language death all the time because I am studying endangered minority languages.
    I am currently learning a language that has 30 active speakers at most and this language is called Schiermonnikoogs (exonym) or Eilauners (endonym). The language is spoken on the island of Schiermonnikoog in the Netherlands.
    I am interested in this tongue because my research interest is the diversity of Frisian tongues. People may know that English is Anglo-Frisian and that therefore English is closely related to Frisian. However, they do not know that Frisian is a multitude of languages.
    Schiermonnikoogs, which I am learning right now, is one of several Frisian tongues and it is actually one of the most endangered ones.
    Before I started writing about and in Schiermonnikoogs/Eilauners, this Frisian tongue had no real online presence. There was some information available online about it on Wikipedia and several news articles reported on the language.
    There was a widespread consensus among the articles that Schiermonnikoogs was a language in decline and that it would eventually die, because only the elderly were still speaking it.
    This prompted me to learn the language as fast as possible. Why should it have to die?
    Language death is a complex matter, just as language transmission is.
    I believe that language has a deeper value than meets the eye. One can analyse it merely as a tool which serves the purpose of of communicating with the maximum number of people possible. However, this is a narrow perspective which does not hold true because it ignores the fact that languages are tied to social identity and as we all know, humans are tribal.
    On the one hand, people may wish to communicate with the maximum number of people for economic gain. But this is not always the case.
    As you mentioned in the article, the protagonist may be encouraged by his parents to learn Latin and still retain his own language.
    You assumed his progeny would have no incentive to learn their ancestral tongue.
    Of course, this depends on how strong the social identity is that tied our fictional protagonist to his native tongue in the first place.
    If our protagonist has a religion or culture that encourages the use of the native tongue in specific settings, then the native tongue will definitely not die out completely, or at least the knowledge of it will be preserved. A situation somewhat similar to Latin today may emerge: a language that can be revived anytime.
    Languages may be lesser-used but that does not necessarily diminish their value.
    Languages are more than what an economist might think it is. That is why some languages survive against all odds.
    Moreover, if a language has for instance merely 2 active speakers and manages to survive for generations thanks to a supportive culture or religion, how can it be called dead? Latin surely is not “actually dead”. It is still thriving and it may even make a bigger comeback thanks to the internet.
    The world is changing and thanks to the internet people are encountering languages they would otherwise not have encountered.
    You can encounter some of the world’s rarest languages online and people are interested in these languages for various reasons.
    My blog is focused on giving a bigger internet presence to rare languages that were previously not used actively online. Modern technology is making the survival of rare languages possible.
    There are going to be surprising cases of endangered languages that survive in the modern age, and that is because languages are more than what socioeconomic hierarchies would predict.
    I have often encountered mistaken assumptions about languages and their speakers purely based on socioeconomic factors. People do not know the treasure of knowledge that is found in such languages, because they have never been intimate with the “content” of that langauge while they never studied it thoroughly. I study languages thoroughly in order to unravel their valuable “content” and to share this information with the world freely.
    Building awareness about the value of “content” found in languages is vital. In this age of information technology, we have already learned that information is valuable. We should therefore be even more aware of how valuable centuries-old and sometimes millenia-old linguistic information is. Languages do not just emerge in a few decades, but it takes centuries and millenia for them to develop. Losing such old information would be a shame, just as burning old books would be a shame. Throwing away a language is essentially equivalent to burning away all of the world’s monumental books. It’s a loss of knowledge, a loss of content, that we may need at a later time..
    Oftentimes we do not realise at the present why some content may be extremely relevant for the future. Oftentimes people, who recorded languages in the ancient past, could not have imagined why those ancient languages would be relevant and widely studied today. We cannot know exactly what future generations may do with the information we carefully store for them, but make use of it they probably will.
    That is also why storing information online about endangered languages is a valuable endeavour. Does a librarian need to know the value of the books he carefully stores away and catalogues for future readers? The librarian just needs to know they exist and how to take proper care of them so others can access the content more easily.
    I am just someone who is researching languages in order to make information more readily available for whoever is interested. We cannot predict exactly why people are interested in specific minority langauges, just as we cannot predict why people will borrow specific books in a library. People will feel a desire to access certain content, they may be inspired by the content or not, and they may do with the content whatever their heart desires. People love reading books anyway, there will always be book lovers, because the content of books is valuable to human beings. Languages are the same, and so I have no fear that minority languages will actually completely lose relevance in the future. Some old books are more widely read than others, yes there is a hierarchy, but that doesn’t make us throw away and burn the lesser-read old books. So, language documentation and preservation remain valuable endeavours for the future, just as cataloguing books and preserving books are valuable endeavours.

    Liked by 1 person

    • you are right. To preserve knowledge is extremely important. This is why writing is such a crucial invention in history, because it allows us to “freeze time” and talk to people who are no longer here with us. In the old days, when a knowledgeable person died, he took his techniques and knowledge to the grave with him. This is why people argue that when the big library in Alexandria was burned down, humanity went back 1000 years in science and technological terms. Some people still believe that humanity had to rediscover most of the knowledge that was there, and that some parts of it will never be rediscovered at all.
      who knows, maybe they had there the knowledge of how they built the pyramids, and today people still don’t know how they did it.

      It is an important job and I thank you for doing that. We don’t know who might read it, but someone might find it useful to re-understand human language and culture throught it. People still find it exciting to think about langauges that use different conceptual building blocks, like not egocentric direction (left and right) but universal like north and east for example, and the way it effect human perception of reality and understanding of the world.

      Liked by 1 person

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