2000s >> 2005 >> no-1215-november-2005

There Are Words for It


Around five thousand languages are spoken at the moment, a number likely to be halved by the end of the twenty-first century. This is partly due to the impact of the world’s ‘major’ languages, such as Spanish, Russian and (above all, of course) English. As English becomes a truly global language, the main language of films, popular music and the internet, not only do its words find their way even into languages like German, but it completely displaces many local or minority languages. The decline in numbers is also caused by the growing role of ‘national languages’, those taught in schools and recognised as a country’s main language of communication. TupÆ, for instance, once widely spoken in Brazil, is now down to a few hundred speakers, pushed out by the expansion of Portuguese (though it will live on in words it has given to English, such as jaguar).

Endangered languages like this have existed throughout history, but are now far commoner than previously. The reasons for this are usually seen as straightforwardly political:


large centralized political units (both the old-fashioned empire and the all-modern nation state) cause the total number of languages in their territory to decline. In so far as the world goes on being apportioned in such units, the total number of languages in the world will go on falling.” (Andrew Dalby: Language in Danger)


This statement is correct as far as it goes, but it plays down the economic factors behind language death. Languages decline and die when the communities of their speakers are disrupted (by conquest, exile, disease, and so on) or when children grow up speaking in daily life a language other than that of their parents. This can happen for various reasons, one being that the ‘new’ language is seen as a means of economic advancement, perhaps just because it has more speakers and can offer better employment prospects or a bigger market. Languages with a few thousand, or even a few million speakers, can hardly ‘compete’ with English, the language of international business.

Even the way a language is written can be affected by political and economic considerations. After the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1991, the governments of the new countries of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan decided to switch from the Cyrillic to the Roman alphabet to write their respective national languages, which are all related to Turkish. This was partly due to anti-Russian nationalism — the Cyrillic alphabet, which is used to write Russian, having been imposed by Stalin in the 1940s. But it is also clearly motivated by a desire to attract tourists and business visitors and to make it easier for people there to learn English. Returning to the Arabic alphabet (which was used in these countries before the Cyrillic) would have been possible, but would not have served the new rulers’ westernising aims.

Besides undermining the status of languages, economic factors can lead to the creation of new languages. In The Power of Babel, John McWhorter traces the origins of Russenorsk, a kind of mixture of Russian and Norwegian, which came into being in the nineteenth century when Russian traders brought timber to Norway every summer to sell. Russenorsk was a very basic kind of language, useful for bartering and various other kinds of social interaction, but not usable for political debate or discussion of any abstract ideas. Languages like this are termed pidgins, and they usually arise when two groups of speakers come together in specific circumstances. Many Native Americans at first spoke Pidgin English when speaking to white people, while maintaining their own languages too. Unlike Russenorsk, which was a genuine mixture, this Pidgin English consisted almost entirely of words from the language of the dominant group — English — since English-speakers rarely had any desire or motivation to learn a local language. This is the usual situation: the language of the conquerors or colonists provides the vocabulary of the pidgin, which the conquered people have to use to talk with their new masters.

Pidgins often die out after a while: the subordinate group may well adopt the language of their conquerors, as happened in North America. Russenorsk ceased to be needed when the Russian Revolution put an end to the timber-trading. But sometimes a pidgin is expanded to become a full-fledged language, not one just used for a few special purposes, but one with its own individual structure and a vocabulary as large as that of any ‘normal’ language. A pidgin which has become a full language like this is called a creole; formation of a creole usually happens when people speaking different native languages and only sharing a pidgin are brought together. McWhorter mentions the case of Sranan, a creole spoken in Surinam, on the northern coast of South America. This was a British-owned slave colony, and slaves from various parts of Africa who were brought there had only Pidgin English in common at first. This eventually expanded to become Sranan, which is widely spoken in Surinam nowadays, alongside Dutch.

In fact the slave trade is the commonest causal factor in the origins of creoles. This appallingly cruel and immensely profitable system of trading in human beings resulted, among other things, in millions of people being uprooted from their homes and families, transported across the world, and set to work in desperate and scarcely-believable conditions. It should come as little surprise to learn that many languages of the West Indies are creoles (Jamaican creole, for instance), as is Tok Pisin, one of the official languages of Papua New Guinea. As creolised forms of pidgin Englishes, these still have vocabularies that are partly derived from English, but they are absolutely not debased forms of English. The languages of other colonising nations have also given rise to creoles, such as a Portuguese-based creole in the Cape Verde Islands in the North Atlantic, and the French-based creole spoken in Haiti. As McWhorter says, “most creoles have arisen amid conditions of unthinkably stark and ineradicable social injustice.”

One, rather controversial, claim is that the development of agriculture about ten thousand years ago led to the wiping out of many languages, as cultivators expanded their territories and settled down, thus overrunning existing groups of hunter-gatherers, who may well each have spoken their own language. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that capitalism, with its globalisation and its tendency to make everything homogeneous, is now killing off languages like nobody’s business. An examination of the current state and historical development of the world’s languages shows how capitalism leaves its ugly footprints everywhere, even in the way we speak.


Paul Bennett




It has been estimated that the so-called Bushmen of the Kalahari have lived in southern Africa for at least 20,000 years, but that cuts no ice with the zealots hell-bent on the development of capitalism in that part of the world.


The Bushmen of the Kalahari – among Africa’s last indigenous peoples – are on the verge of losing their ancestral homeland after the Government of Botswana stepped up a campaign to force them into squalid resettlement camps” (Times, 12 September). The government has sent heavily armed wildlife guards into the Central Kalahari Game reserve – an area that had been promised to the Bushmen “in perpetuity”. Their aim is to remove some 200 to 250 Gana and Gwi who have returned there from the resettlement camps. The Times report continues: “Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, which has been highlighting the Bushmen’s plight, said: ‘The Government seems hell-bent on finishing them off this time. The situation is very urgent. Unless circumstances change through outside intervention, this could very well be the end of these particular people’”.


The plight of the Gana and Gwi people is by no means unique. The development of capitalism crushes all the tribal societies it comes into contact with. In the past we have had the slaughter of the native Americans in the USA, the butchery of the Australian aborigines and more recently of the Yanomami in Northern Brazil. The concept of a tribal society that lives by gathering and hunting with no recourse to capitalism’s markets is anathema to a property-based social system.


The Botswana government has destroyed the tribal wells and banned hunting in its efforts to restrict tribal groups. The growth of farming and diamond mining probably lie behind the government’s recent actions. Some government ministers have hinted that the evictions are needed because deposits of diamonds have been found in the area, although the state diamond company, which is an offshoot of De Beers claim they are uneconomic to mine. “However, De Beers does not rule out mining them at a later date.”


The development of capitalism in Africa must crush tribal communities just as it did in Europe and America . The only hope for a communal life-style is not a return to primitive tribal society, but the transformation of present day private property, profit-producing society into the new social system of world socialism.

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