1980s >> 1981 >> no-926-october-1981

Language, Class and Nation

One of the most remarkable things about human beings is their possession and use of language. Within a few shorts years, every person acquires a knowledge of their native language, including a vocabulary of thousands of words, enabling them to express original ideas and communicate to others on all sorts of topics. Language is also one of the most specifically human attributes, for no other animal possesses a communication system anywhere near as flexible and useful as human language. Animals such as bees and sticklebacks can convey a united range of information to each other but cannot, for example, refer to events in the past or future. The languages of the world, with their rich structures and histories, are a fascinating subject of study. But in the class divided society of capitalism, language is a basis for hostility, prejudice and discrimination.


Our impressions of other people are partly formed by the way they speak. Too often people are regarded as ignorant or unintelligent because they pronounce  the r in a word like cart, say they was, or use a double negative (as in I ain’t done nothing): they are condemned for speaking a “sub-standard” dialect. But from a linguistic point of view, there are no such things as sub-dialects, only non-standard ones which is very different. In the course of a language’s development, one particular form of it, usually that spoken in. a particularly powerful or important area, becomes the standard dialect. This means that it is taught in schools, used in literature, and then spread by radio and television. Becoming powerful and “successful” in such a society usually entails becoming proficient in the standard dialect, so that speakers of other dialects are looked down on as backward and uncultured. But prejudices of this kind are social, not linguistic, judgements. Every dialect of a language, standard or otherwise, is linguistically as good as any other; I ain’t done nothing conveys the same meaning as the standard I haven’t done anything. Speaking a non-standard dialect does not make a person stupid, untrustworthy, or whatever.


Prejudice against non-standard speakers is taken even further when it is said that they have no proper language at all. In particular, some psychologists have argued that black children in the United States have no grammar and speak merely by stringing a few words together. This type of misconception arises from a failure to realise that the children in question simply have a different grammar from standard English. For instance, when a black kid says they mine, is not simply putting two words together (in the way that young children may do).  Instead, this is his equivalent of standard they’re mine, both being reduced forms of they are mine (in standard speech, are is “contracted”, in non-standard it is deleted). The claim that black children have practically no language has been put forward as explaining why they do so badly in American schools, justifying a “compensatory education” designed to make the child fit into the school system. Obviously, this avoids the less comforting conclusion that the children do badly because of the appalling conditions they live in!


A slightly more sophisticated version of this verbal deprivation theory is associated with the name of Basil Bernstein. Bernstein draws a distinction between elaborated and restricted codes, the elaborated code being less tied to the specific “here and now” context than the restricted code. It is claimed that “middle-class” children have access to both codes, while manual working-class children have access to the restricted code only. Allegedly (and Bernstein is none too particular about citing actual data) a “middle-class” child will tend to describe the scene in a picture by saying Three boys are playing football and one boy kicks the ball, while a working-class child tends to describe the same picture by saying They’re playing football and he kicks it. From anecdotes like this, he leaps to the conclusion that, as the elaborated code is expected to be used in school, working class children’s lack of access to the elaborated code is the reason for their comparatively poor scholastic performance. Quite apart from the incorrect view of class, this is unacceptable. All children are able, outside the artificial experimental situations referred to by Bernstein, to use a range of styles, from formal to informal. All speakers of a language, whatever their social status, speak a language which is as flexible and creative as that of any other speaker.


It should also be stated that there is no such thing as a primitive language. No language which exists today, or for which past records are available, consists of just a few words and no true rules of grammar. Nor are there a people, however primitive their way of life, which does not possess a language which is perfectly adequate for all the uses to which its speakers put it. Even where a language lacks a particular concept because its speakers do not need it, they are not cognitively unable to handle it. For instance, some Australian aboriginal languages have no words for numbers higher than two (just words for a few and many), but when their speakers learn English they have no difficulty in mastering the English numerical system and counting as high as you like. There are no such things as backward races speaking primitive languages.


But different people do speak different languages. In a rational society, there would be no reason for this to cause problems, but in capitalism it is the cause of much misery. Nearly every country in the world has more than one language spoken within it (even excluding recent immigrants). Great Britain, for example, has English, Welsh and Gaelic, while Spain has Spanish, Catalan and Basque. Where one language is spoken by an overwhelming majority of the population, that is likely to be the country’s official language. Members of a linguistic minority may be discriminated against in various ways: no books or newspapers may be published in their language, it may not be the medium of teaching in schools, and so on. Speakers of a minority language will often need to learn the official language in order to “get on”. Resentment against such treatment may lead to the demand for political autonomy, as a means of converting a linguistic minority into a linguistic majority, for instance the aim of an independent Basque state. Let it be said that discrimination on the grounds of language is as odious as discrimination on grounds of race. Nevertheless, the call for independence as a means of ending linguistic oppression is not one that workers should support.


To start with, people do not live in blocks consisting of speakers of only one language (there is no part of Wales where no English is spoken), so that independence would create new linguistic minorities. The demand that speakers of each language should have their own nation also overlooks the consideration that the distinction between a language and a dialect is by no means clear-cut. The standard definition is that, unlike different languages, dialects of the same language are mutually intelligible, but this raises a number of problems. Intelligibility is a matter of degree, may go in one direction only, and is not transitive (which means. that dialects A and B may be mutually intelligible, and also B and C, but not A and C). Between Paris and Rome there is a chain of dialects, each intelligible with its neighbour, even though the end-points, standard French and Italian, are not mutually intelligible; on purely linguistic grounds, it is not possible to draw a sharp distinction between dialects of Italian and of French, or between those of Dutch and German. In practice, language and dialect are defined in cultural and political terms, and any attempt to define a nation or state in terms of language is circular. As one American linguist aptly put it, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”.


But above all, independence does not solve the economic problems of the speakers of a minority language. A separate Basque state would not free Basque workers from unemployment, insecurity and exploitation. These are caused by the economic set-up of society, not by the wrong placement of political frontiers. Capitalism is a world-wide society, and no part of it can escape from world trends and crises. Separatism, whether motivated on linguistic or other grounds, offers precisely nothing to the working class.


Socialism, too, will be a world society, but one without states or frontiers. The concept of linguistic minority will then have no meaning. A language with comparatively small numbers. of speakers will not be discriminated against, and there will be no problem about arranging education in that language, if its speakers so wish. Publishing material in that language will not be restricted by considerations of profit, but by the needs of its speakers. It is possible that an invented auxiliary language, such as Esperanto or Ido, will be used to facilitate communication between speakers of different languages. We look forward to a world in which learning another language will not be the drudge it so often is today, but an enjoyable adventure. All children could be brought up bilingual, and then travel to other parts of the globe to learn a language in its native environment. Becoming multilingual in this way would be the best way of becoming a true citizen of the world socialist community. Socialist society will mean the liberation of all mankind, without distinction of race, sex or language. We ain’t seen nothing yet.


Paul Bennett