Dominant languages can spread even without coercion

N EVER THINK the world is in decline. A recent book, “Speak Not” by James Griffiths, looks at the bad old days when it was seen as acceptable to impose a culture on others through force. The author tells the stories of Welsh and Hawaiian—languages driven to the brink of death or irrelevance before being saved by determined activists.

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Americans fomented a coup in Hawaii that led to its eventual annexation. Missionaries built schools and fervently discouraged local customs like the hula, a performance in honour of ancestors that the Americans considered lascivious. Oppression of culture and of the language went hand in hand: by the late 20th century the only fluent Hawaiian-speakers were worryingly old. But activists fought to expand teaching of it, and eventually brought Hawaiian into many schools. The number of speakers is now growing. Even some of the state’s many citizens of other ethnicities find it fashionable to learn a bit.

Welsh survived centuries of union with England largely because of Wales’s relative isolation and poverty. But in the 19th century British authorities stepped up efforts to impose English; schoolchildren had to wear a token of shame (the “Welsh Not”) if they spoke their native language, the kind of tactic seen in language oppression around the world.

Again, activists fought back. In 1936 three of them set fires at an air-force training ground built despite local opposition. The perpetrators turned themselves in, then refused to speak any language but Welsh at their first trial. It ended in a mistrial; their second resulted in a conviction, but on their release nine months later the arsonists were feted as heroes. They had lit a fire under Welsh-language nationalism, which in later decades would not only halt the decline in Welsh-speakers, but reverse it. Today the right to speak Welsh at trial (and in many other contexts) is guaranteed.

Mr Griffiths’s book ends with a sadder tale. Though Mandarin is the world’s most-spoken native language, China still has hundreds of millions of native speakers of other Chinese languages such as Cantonese (often misleadingly called “dialects”), as well as non-Han languages like those used in Inner Mongolia and Tibet. Evidently regarding this variety as unbefitting for a country on the rise, the authorities have redoubled their efforts to get everyone speaking Mandarin—for instance by cutting down Cantonese television and resettling Han Chinese in Tibet, part of a wider bid to dilute its culture. A regime indifferent to the tut-tutting of outsiders can go even further than American and British colonialists.

But English spreads by less coercive means, too. Rosemary Salomone’s new book, “The Rise of English”, tells the tale of a language that has gone from strength to strength after the demise of Britain’s empire and perhaps also of America’s global dominance. These two forces gave English an impetus, but once momentum takes hold of a language, whether of growth or decline, it tends to continue. Everyone wants to speak a language used by lots of other influential people.

The triumph of English led to the death of many languages (notably indigenous ones in America, Canada and Australia), but elsewhere it has merely humbled them. Ms Salomone looks at the Netherlands, where English fever has led to its explosion in universities. Entire graduate and even undergraduate curriculums are in English. Students submit essays on Dutch poets in English.

Small countries naturally want to internationalise and attract overseas experts. But this has led to a shrinking space for Dutch. Not only is much scientific research done in English (Ms Salomone points out that, without this commonality, the covid-19 vaccines might not have been developed so fast); so is the teaching of clinicians, who may therefore lack Dutch terms when talking to patients. In such situations, languages can retreat to homes and friendship groups, no longer considered serious.

This poses a dilemma for liberal-minded types. Forcing people to use a language is bad. It is harder to argue for heavy-handed state action to prevent them from voluntarily adopting one. If people feel that is in their best interests, who are outsiders to say otherwise? Yet diversity is a liberal value too.

Multilingualism (both in countries and individuals) lessens the zero-sum nature of language competition. But it is costly, in both time and money. Ultimately, some societies may have to put a price on a cultural inheritance that, once lost, is nigh-impossible to recover.