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.”