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CR: The New Centennial Review 1.2 (2001) 1-17

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Language Wars

Marc Shell
Harvard University

Language Conflict

Ever since the Biblical myth of the Tower of Babel, analysts have identified language difference as a potent cause of division and conflict. We might question Solorzano y Pereyra's view in Politica Indiana (1648) that "the diversity of languages is the greatest cause of religious warfare, national discords, and civil seditions," 1 but it is often difficult to identify a more fundamental and ubiquitous cause. Where empires once extirpated a people's language as a sign of domination, and where nation-states once sought their own form of totalizing dominance for the national tongue, language conflicts are now often a complex tangle of hegemony and resistance that threatens to re-create Babel on a global scale.

We generally respond to the Babel of languages in the world by seeking to carve out a space in which only "our" language is spoken; but this response is inevitably at odds with the reality that living in the world demands a range of spaces in which speakers of different languages can communicate effectively. The problem is immense: there are now some 225 so-called nation-states in the world and 6,700 languages. 2 For each nation-state there are, on [End Page 1] the average, 30 languages, and for every nation-state that has only one language (as do Iceland and Liechtenstein) another has 60.

This range of linguistic spaces is particularly important nowadays because, until recently, the academic discussion of language and international politics has been dominated by responses to a single sort of "space," the territory of the nation-state. And, since the early nineteenth century, that national space or territory has been defined by the ideal of linguistic nationalism: the idea that peace and justice demand that all the speakers of a given language secure a national homeland where that language is supreme. The bloody conflicts caused by this aspiration have by no means ceased, but as the nation-state retreats in importance it necessarily yields to more complex spaces in which official national languages coexist uneasily with dialects, with minority and immigrant languages, and with such "international" languages as English.

One might say that the homogeneous linguistic space of the nation-state is being contested by an older archetype: the multilingual trading city. Alexandria in classical times, Constantinople and Venice in medieval history, and Strasbourg in early modern and modern history existed precisely to overcome constraints of distance and language and to bring different peoples together.

Linguistic conflict and cooperation now take place in such a bewildering variety of specific spaces and cases that the importance of language itself is in danger of being lost. Yet, in an age when language is being rediscovered as an "historical determinant," 3 many wars that we used to call simply "religious" or "nationalist" turn out, on further reflection, to have been "linguistic" as well. Increasingly, peoples are being understood as attached to "group language" or "mother tongues" in something like the same sense in which historians once said that they were attached to territory, 4 religion, 5 and race. 6 (For example: Britishers, though they once warred for the territory "England" or "Great Britain" or for the religion "Anglicanism," seem nowadays actually to have won the battle for the language "English.") 7

Language, as such, is an important component of "culture"—if not, as we will also consider, the essential component of culture. After all, some people believe that changing their language means changing their culture, their [End Page 2] kinship system, and even their rights to the land. Indeed, many people maintain that they cannot change their language without ipso facto also changing their gods and themselves. When the captive Jews exiled in ancient Babylon—the Hebrew babel—are required by their captors to sing an entertaining song in the tongue of their new masters, they hardly know how. Their psalmic refrain, "How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" 8 came to mean, not that slaves and exiles do not know...


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