Speaking up in defense of language rights

  • February 21, 2022

Land & Liberation

By the end of this century, we will have lost about half of the world’s languages. To protect Indigenous languages under threat, we must defend language rights.

Two Aboriginal men playing music on the streets of Darwin, Australia. Of the more than 250 Indigenous languages in Australia, only 123 are still in use, and just 12 are being actively taught to children. Photo: Di Vincenzo / Shutterstock

Today is the first ever Global Language Advocacy Day — an important opportunity to raise awareness of language rights. Moreover, 2022 marks the first year of the United Nations’ International Decade of Indigenous Languages. Now is time for us all to stand up for language rights, because in countries all around the world, Indigenous and minoritized peoples are being forced, coerced, cajoled and lured into linguistic assimilation under the false pretext that this will ensure them of a life of equality and dignity.

And the outcome? One recent conservative estimate suggests that about half the world’s languages are currently being “forced into hibernation” and will no longer be in use by the end of the century.

Despite this ongoing destruction, many people like to think of our age as one of increasing diversity: an era of Babel. But another biblical allegory is far more appropriate: the tale of shibboleth.

The story of shibboleth describes how people fleeing a war between two tribes were met at a river-crossing by their enemies. If they could get across the river, they would be home safe. But a test awaited them.

“Say shibboleth,” said the men waiting at the river.

It was a trap. Those fleeing could not pronounce the word in the way they were commanded to. “Sibboleth,” they said, lisping the initial sound. This exposed them to their adversaries as belonging to a different tribe, marking them for immediate execution. And then they were killed on the spot.

The story captures the dynamic driving the global loss of languages: mimic the languages of those in power or be destroyed. Today, this destruction is more likely to target a person’s dignity than their body, but this violence is still enough to make their linguistic choices profoundly unfree.

The word shibboleth itself means something like “flood,” and indeed, the violence driving the loss of the world’s languages today seems like a force of nature: a tsunami sweeping across the planet, demolishing everything in its path.

Out of the 193 member states in the United Nations, only 30 escape mention in the Catalogue of Endangered Languages, a database that lists the world’s 3,453 languages that are currently threatened with destruction.

Those 30 countries are not safe-havens of linguistic diversity: most of them are landscapes of linguistic ruination that the flood of shibboleth has already swept over. Around a dozen of these are island nations in the Caribbean, where Indigenous languages were destroyed by the first violent expansions of European colonialism.

This tells us something important about the origins of the flood of violence called shibboleth. It is inherently linked to the European colonialism that engulfed the planet starting in 1492. Everywhere Europeans went, they destroyed languages. Nowhere was this truer than in the settler colonies of Australia, Canada and the USA, which today have the highest rates of language loss on earth.

Though originating in Europe, this colonial violence lives on everywhere today in the form of the nation-state. Each flag at the United Nations represents a tiny empire. Whether they claim to be multicultural or openly assimilatory, the vast majority of countries sit firmly in the stream of shibboleth, jealously guarding their territorial integrity and political unity while the torrent carries away one language after the other.

But the flood of shibboleth is not a force of nature. It is a political force that we have unleashed on the world, and which is maintained in the structures of the global system of nation-states. If these states cannot protect languages, but they cover the entire face of the planet, what hope do we have for protecting linguistic diversity?

Our best hope for resisting the destructive forces of shibboleth lies in language rights.

These are not rights gifted to citizens by the state. They are not the liberal rights deployed by superpowers to lead us into war, or the empty freedoms of pathological individualism promoted by libertarians and conspiracy theorists.

Instead, resisting shibboleth requires radical rights that restrain and contest the power of the state: the right to protest, to dissent, to refuse and resist. And above all, the right to speak up and speak out, in whatever language people choose, without fear and without retribution.

Language activists need our support to defend these rights because speaking up comes at a cost for them: like the death threats received by Sylheti language activist Mace Hoque. Or the imprisonment suffered by Tibetan language rights advocate Tashi Wangchuk. Or the backlash against the use of Indigenous languages in Australia. Or the stream of unending, repetitive abuse faced by Gaelic activists in Scotland.

Despite the costs that activists incur, they persist because they know that defending language rights works to hold off and turn back shibboleth. Following in their footsteps, we can draw inspirations from movements in places like Australia, the US, and New Zealand, where work to reclaim and protect Indigenous languages has built on the achievements of the civil rights struggles of the second half of the 20th century, and Indigenous power movements such as the Black Power movement in Australia, the Red Power movement in Canada and the US, and the Brown Power movement in New Zealand. This history shows how the struggle for language rights has been entwined with other movements for justice, and suggests how it might also become part of broader struggles today: for climate and racial justice, for decolonization and against patriarchy and capitalism.

Language rights work, and it is time we all stood up for them and turned back shibboleth.

Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/defending-language-rights/

Further reading

Join the movement!



Read now

Magazine — Issue 11