Political power and language change

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Tue Jul 22 16:58:53 UTC 2008

Political power and language change
Preamble: I was discussing the ability of a political power to affectlanguage with a few friends (over burgers and beers, of course;because we had tired of talking about The Dark Knight, which we'd justwatched). I had written a last-minute essay for an undergradsociolinguistics course on the topic, but couldn't recall my argumentsvery clearly. As such, I made a number of faulty and unconvincingarguments in an attempt to support my position that political poweralone cannot abolish or enforce a language.
On coming home, I found the essay and read it over. I'll admit, itsconclusions are not earth-shattering—basically "it's complicated"—orinarguable, but it was enough to spark and fuel some prettyinteresting discussion. So, I've reproduced it here. If you agree ordisagree, take offense or whatever, feel free to post a comment.Please keep in mind that I'm no historical linguist or essayist, thecitations are patchy, I like commas, the sun was shining in my eyes,etc.
Language and thought control
In his most popular work, 1984, George Orwell introduces the languageof Newspeak: "a medium of expression for the world-view and mentalhabits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [the totalitarian governingpower]" that will "make all other modes of thought impossible…literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent onwords."1 The language is based on English, but with significantchanges, including a more regular system reliant on prefixes andaffixes, an emphasis on shorter, easily pronounceable words, and adrastic reduction of vocabulary. Orwell seems to think this lastfeature most important in controlling speakers' thought, "eachreduction [is] a gain, since the smaller the area of choice, thesmaller the temptation to take thought." By shrinking the choice ofwords and simplifying their construction, Newspeak aims to shift thelocus of control over language from the higher brain sectors to thelarynx, away from any unorthodox or seditious thought, making theminexpre!
 ssible. By 2050, Newspeak is to be the one and only spokenlanguage in the lands ruled by Ingsoc.
Despite being a work of fiction, the threat that language can beco-opted or replaced by those in power is considered as real outsideof 1984 as in. Mamet insists that "names are powerful," that "theassignment of nicknames, the application of jargon is an understoodtool for the manipulation of behaviour."2 Noting the increase ofunnatural, government-made terminology in the United States since late2001—weapons of mass destruction: "overlong, clunky, and obviouslyconfected"—he warns against a shift "from the conscious into theautomatic," worried of a linguistic take-over very much like the onein Orwell's dystopic England.
Are fears of Newspeak justified?
The fear of political control through language is based on theimplicit assumption that "the language spoken by the individualdetermines the way in which that person thinks"3, a concept known aslinguistic determinism. If true, this concept, distilled from the workof Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, would certainly be cause foralarm; Newspeak, once adopted fully, would limit thought andexpression eternally.
However, linguistic determinism does not stand up to scrutiny. Ifthoughts were determined by language, how is it that new words comeabout? How could "nigger" ("nigga") and "queer," both potentderogative words, have changed over the past few decades into friendlyterms of address or exclamations of pride? In truth, the relationshipbetween language and thought is not unidirectional, but two-way,social reality both shaping and being shaped by its language."Sociolinguistic conventions have a dual relation to power: on the onehand they incorporate differences of power, on the other hand theyarise out of—and give rise to—particular relations of power"4.
The examples of "nigger," "queer," and "sexist"5, are doublyimportant: they are shifts in language use introduced by minorities,groups deprived of much political influence, often working againstestablished powers. While examples such as these do not eliminatelanguage as an influence on thought (and, indeed, many of the samesocial causes that gave rise to sexist aim, wrongly or rightly, toreform language and, in doing so, common conceptions of gender6), theydo diminish it. Constraining language does not necessarily constrainthought, thus fears or fantasies of absolute control and stagnation ofideology by means of language alone are less likely than Mamet orOrwell propose.
Language and empire
Language alone may not determine thought, but it is a vehicle for anda body of ideology, a way of exercising power7. Those in positions ofcontrol—over nation-states, corporations, armies—as well as many ofthose over whom they hold sway, act accordingly: idioms are imposed,language changed through coercion, use warped on the fulcrum ofpolitical power. Phillipson quotes a Spanish report written for theQueen in 1492 that proposes the use of language as "a tool forconquest abroad," noting that "language has always been the consort ofempire, and forever shall remain its mate"8. The difficulty (likely,impossibility) of engineering thought through the manipulation ofsignifiers (words) may not be overcome, but spreading a whole systemof signs—a language—as a means to indoctrinate or undermine anothergroup of people has been attempted time and time again. Could Newspeakever become the only language in a large empire? Is political powereffective in enacting and maintaining a l!
 anguage? Just how great afactor is power in language change?
Japanese occupation
Consider Miyawaki's study9 of the harsh Japanese colonial languagepolicies in Taiwan, Korea, Micronesia, and occupied territories inChina and in Southeast-Asia during the first half of the twentiethcentury. These policies were rigid and explicitly aimed at eradicatingnon-Japanese cultural and linguistic influences, as well as impressingJapanese values on the colonized people. In Taiwan, this began in themid-1890's by legally stating that the fundamental objectives ofcommon school education be the provision of moral education andpractical skills to Taiwanese children, thereby cultivating in themattitudes of Japanese nationalism and also leading them to be wellversed in 'Kokugo' [the national language i.e. Japanese]…
More drastic revisions such as the abolition of the native language(Chinese) teaching and the integration of the educational system andcurriculum with those of homeland Japan were made in 1937 and in 1942respectively.
The intent of such policies was stated more forcefully during thePacific War. Japan pressed for the use of Japanese not only inschools, but at home; they hoped to "diffuse Japanese, gradually limitthe use of European languages and eventually abolish them" inSoutheast-Asia, "to stamp out European/American thoughts, andestablish an Oriental-minded culture." Positive assimilation, policiesthat were to nurture Japanese culture in the colonies, quickly becamenegative, punitive and brutal. Miyawaki finds that many native-bornstudents under Japanese rule recall being publicly humiliated,sometimes beaten, for speaking any tongue other than Japanese.
Yet, for all the influence and coercion, both positive and negative,exercised by the Japanese colonizers, the proportion of Japanesespeakers to non- in the former colonies today is small to none.Miyawaki notes a variety of small linguistic changes, notablyborrowing, pidginization, and a bilingual minority, present to thisday. These effects, however, are shallower and more localized thanwhat one would have imagined a large, modern empire would be capableof over fifty years. Miyawaki concludes that colonial power is onlyone among many influences that can affect "language ecology." Much aswith language and thought, the relationship between power and languageis less direct than anticipated (in Japanese policies). Although theJapanese policies did alter "the society, culture and psychology ofthe ruled," they did not determine it, and did not succeed in imposinga foreign language on a conquered people over the long term.
Linguists urge readers to consider a myriad of factors and constraintsthat may cause language change. In their introduction to Language andPower, Kramarae, Schulz, and O'Barr present a variety of opinions onhow language and power may interrelate, so many different avenues ofstudy and interpretation that they seem to through their hands in theair, claiming that an "adequate understanding… may be severalsociolinguistic years away."10
Ancient Akkadian
Ostler gives much weight to the influences outside of direct politicalcontrol in his historical analysis of language change.11 He is quickto dismantle J. R. Firth's assertion that "world powers make worldlanguages," pointing out that the Germanic rulers of Europe thatsucceeded the Romans were only a slight influence on the Romancelanguages still in use to this day, and further, that the Romansthemselves were incapable of imposing Latin on their subjects in theeast, where Greek remained the common tongue through the hundreds ofyears of Roman rule. Ostler finds explanations for lasting languagechange reliant primarily on political power, "based on militaryconquest or commercial dominance," lacking; even "total conquest,military and spiritual, is not always enough to effect a languagechange."
Ostler gives the example of Akkadian, the primary language of theimpressive Assyro-Babylonian empire. Akkadian was "preeminently alanguage of power and influence," a literary standard, the singlelanguage of an empire lasting almost two thousand years. The influenceof the empire helped spread its language, the uptake of the Akkadianin lands outside of Babylonian control carried largely by prestige(and others' eagerness for the relatively new technology of writing),until it became a well-established lingua franca among the many peopleand powers of the time. Yet, the language was overwhelmed by Aramaic,a language spoken "mainly by nomads," a community radically differentfrom, and hostile to, the Babylonians, with "no cultural advantage…highly unlikely to set up a rival civilization."
Stranger still, this change in language came at the zenith of theempire's power. Having conquered much of the area after decades ofsuccessful war, a policy of separating conquered people was instated,intending to unify the populations by "cutting them off from theirtraditions" while acculturating them to Assyro-Babylonianculture—importantly, its language. This policy of division andassimilation eventually displaced some 4.5 million people over threecenturies, an act of immense power. Unfortunately, this policy did nothave the intended effect. It backfired, encouraging the spread ofAramaic and undermining Akkadian as a common language.
Since the Aramaeans were the largest group being scattered in thisway, when other western Semites, such as Israelites or Phoenicians,found themselves transplanted, they could tend to find themselvesspeaking more and more like their new neighbours.12
Aramaic quickly became the dominant language, and remained so, duringthe following centuries of the empire and long after its collapse.Both Assyro-Babylonian and Japanese policies (some 2500 years apart)shared similar goals and failures despite being backed by powerful,long-established cultures and military forces. The triumph of Aramaicover Akkadian is an extreme demonstration of the weakness of politicalinfluence on language.
Determined not by power aloneThe wealth and might of a political power does not determine thespread and stay of the language it speaks, and may well, as in thecase of Aramaic and Akkadian, exist separately from it. Through meansinsidious, duplicitous, or explicit, political powers may mean toaffect language and, through it, how people think. However common thebelief that language molds thought, it does not appear to, certainlynot the the degree feared by paranoiacs or wished for bypropagandists. The influences of language on thought, of power onlanguage, are complicated, two-way, and subject to many other forces.Political power alone cannot guarantee the abolition or spread of alanguage, nor can it always succeed in altering it.

Orwell, G. (1949). "Appendix: The Principles of Newspeak." ↩Mamet, D. (2004). "Secret Names." Threepenny Review (96). ↩Osborn, R. (1999). "The Whorfian Hypothesis Today." In M. Danesi, & D.Santeramo (Eds.), The Sign in Theory and Practice (pp. 119-133).Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press. (Original work published 1987) p.119 ↩Fairclough, N. (2001). Language and Power (2nd ed.). Toronto: Longman. p. 1 ↩Osborn, R. p. 132 ↩Jones, J., & Peccei, J. S. (2004). "Language and politics." In I.Singh, & J. S. Peccei (Eds.), Language, Society and Power: Anintroduction (2nd ed.) (pp. 35-54). New York: Routledge. ↩Fairclough, N. ↩Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic Imperialism. Toronto: OxfordUniversity Press. p. 31 ↩Miyawaki, H. (2002). "Colonial language policies and their effects." ↩Kramarae, C., Schulz, M., & O'Barr, W. M. (1984). Language and Power.Beverley Hills: Sage. p. 13 ↩Ostler, N. (2005). Empires of the Word: A Language History of theWorld. New York: HarperColl!
 ins. ↩Ostler, N. p. 66 ↩
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