Year XXIX, 1987, Number 1, Page 17

 

 

Federalism and Linguistic Behaviour
 
FRANCESCO ROSSOULLO
 
 
 
1. The nature of the problem.
 
The federalist scheme taken in its entirety (i.e. extended to a prospective World federation and hence not limited to the struggle for the European federation) is ultimately based on the belief that the progress which is underway towards closer ties between men on a worldwide scale presents essential political and institutional aspects. This political and institutional dimension, in its turn, is in dialectic relationship with the evolution of other areas of society: every institutional change favouring a world federation is both the expression of a certain degree of economic, social and cultural interdependence which has already been reached and, at the same time, the vital condition for pursuing a greater degree of interdependence. But the growth of interdependence, in a world which, at least in its most advanced regions, is entering the post-industrial era does not mean, or does not necessarily mean, a levelling of all social behaviour on a world scale. On the contrary, in many cases, greater contacts between cultures will consciously enhance and encourage the originality of every culture and will provide an opportunity to recover lost or languishing cultural identities. Moreover, the new mode of production that goes by the name of the scientific and technological revolution is creating the conditions for a process whereby the uninterrupted increase in interdependence is accompanied by a growing accentuation of the political, economic and cultural identity of the local community. In this respect, one of the essential aspects of society’s development that needs to be followed carefully relates to language. The evolution of linguistic behaviour is an interesting means of monitoring the way in which the complex interdependence of the relationships between men (which constitutes the social basis of federalism) is growing all the time.
Edwards notes, in a recently published book,[1] that language, besides having an obvious communicative function, is a symbol of group identity. Federalism, in its turn, is an ideology that recuperates and revalues feelings of membership that history has repressed. Federalism does this by acknowledging these feelings institutionally. In other cases, federalism would release feelings of membership that only now have the possibility of emerging. Hence the great significance to be found in any examination of the linguistic situation emerging at a world level, fuelled by the evolution of productive forces which is the mainstay of the federalist phase of mankind’s history.
Language is a problem which federalists have always had to deal with. We may recall the hurdles that the diversity of languages places on the road to European unification (not least of which is the grotesque situation which requires multiple translations to be made in the European Parliament). Equally significant are the difficult but recurrent relationships between federalism and the revival of languages and regional cultures and the friendly dialectic between federalism and the Esperanto movement.
Federalists must examine the problem of language carefully, never forgetting that linguistic behaviour is only an indicator of the degree of maturity reached in the process of transformation of society: a process in which conscious human will cannot have any influence, except by freeing it from the institutional bottlenecks that prevent any move ahead. A specific linguistic system, whatever it may be, cannot and must not become a strategic objective in itself, but only a major issue supporting our institutional battle.
 
2. The trilinguistic model.
 
The increasing interdependence manifested through the increasingly integrated economic relationships of the world market, the unceasing development of transport of men and goods and the transmission of images and information has been accompanied by the tendency to use English as the universal language of communication. This is a phenomenon common to both the industrialized world and the Third World, where it has been much facilitated by the linguistic inheritance of British colonial domination. But this process is accompanied by two other trends which apparently conflict with it. The first is particularly strong in Europe (even though we must not forget that even in the United States there is an ethnic revival, although with markedly different features). It relates to the efforts to restore the fortunes of cultures humiliated by national centralism with its levelling function brought about by state schooling, compulsory military service and administrative centralization. Linguistically, this tendency is apparent in the re-evaluation of dialects and the attempt to restore the status of literary languages to the speech of outlying regions only partially assimilated by the dominant national culture.
The second trend operates in the Third World — in particular in Africa and Southern Asia — and is an attempt, which has met with varying degrees of success, owing to the diversity of the contexts, to impose a national language over and above the myriad of vernacular tongues that constitutes the linguistic reality of most of these populations. (This function cannot be achieved by English because of the negative symbolic associations which it normally generates and because of its status as a means of transnational communication). The solution to this problem is usually attempted, according to the case in question, by promoting a lingua franca to the dignity of national language (as happens with Swahili in Kenya) or by imposing the language of one ethic group over others (as happens with Hindi in India or with Malay in Malaysia).[2]
In the light of these trends, and with the caution that is essential when advancing a hypothesis that does not relate to the immediate future, we may conclude that the most plausible model towards which the world’s linguistic behaviour is moving, at the dawn of the post-industrial era, is a trilinguistic model, i.e. a situation in which everybody will have at least three instruments of communication: English as a universal language, a national language and dialect.
 
3. The universal language. The diffusion of English and the presumed dangers that this involves.
 
We must not hide the fact that the road that separates us from this goal is long and full of hurdles. Nor should we forget that the model sketched here is currently far from winning the approval of all those interested in sociolinguistics. It is worthwhile questioning the more serious difficulties that seem to prevent the achievement of the model and the most widespread objections raised about its legitimacy.
We may begin with an examination of the universal language level. In this respect there is agreement — ample though not general — on the need for an instrument which fulfils this function. The problems arise when it is a question of establishing what this instrument must be. In particular, many people have voiced strong objections against the asserted vocation of English as a world lingua franca. Such objections are basically matters of opinion which come down to nothing more than the idea that the tide must be stopped. Such ideas do not generally detract from the indisputable fact that English is acquiring the status of a universal language. The arguments used to support this thesis are essentially the following:
I) The hegemony of the English language is a by-product of American imperialism (and in a previous phase of British colonialism). By accepting it, the peoples whose mother tongue is not English demonstrate their submission to the United States, thus perpetuating their inferiority vis-à-vis the United States even in this decisive way. In other words, they renounce their own mother tongue in international relationships: in so doing, they fail to express their own thought and desires with maximum propriety and effectiveness and fail to understand the nuances of other people’s thinking. Americans (and other English-speaking peoples) are, on the other hand, able to express themselves in a mother language and enjoy an intolerable privilege.
II) The spread of English is both a sign and vehicle of cultural retrogression since it is the linguistic side of behaviour, a way of life, culture, tastes, dress, etc. which is considered vulgar and which was exported from the United States to the rest of the world in the postwar years.
III) The penetration of English has polluted national languages whose specific identity, developed over centuries of glorious literary history, needs to be protected. This type of worry has, in some countries, led many people to believe that certain languages, at least in certain contexts, have been so profoundly adulterated by contacts with English as to be considered hybrids (hence disparaging names like “Franglais” or “Japlish”).
 
4. An artificial language as a means of universal communication?
 
These arguments are put forward by those who, explicitly or implicitly, deny the usefulness or the desirability of a universal language and by those who claim that this function must be carried out by an artificial language. The latter use the further argument that all natural languages and English, in particular, have a phonetic, lexical, grammatical and syntactic structure with no rigorous logical coherence, which makes them unsuitable for rapid learning, facility and propriety of use.
The ideal of the artificial language, as Andrew Large recalls[3] in a recently published volume, has been kept alive with mixed fortunes in European culture for more than three centuries now. The issue has thus acquired sufficient dignity to merit closer examination.
The most convincing reply to the supporters of artificial languages who reject the use of English is what has in actual fact happened. The reality is that English is on the way to become a universal language and that the undeniable existence of this trend is the most effective reason for persuading a growing number of people throughout the world to take the time and trouble to learn it, in the awareness that their efforts will bring concrete short-term results. It is thus a self-generating process which may now be considered unstoppable.
People prefer to learn a relatively difficult language, which is ambiguous and full of idioms, but which many people speak, rather than learning a language that only a few people speak, even though, theoretically, its simple, logical and transparent structure would make it the ideal candidate for a universal language. Here we come up against the problem of reaching the critical mass that Zamenhof, the founder of Esperanto, was perfectly aware of. In his book, which was published in Russian in 1887 and in English in 1889 with the title An attempt towards an international language,[4] he invited readers to send him back a declaration in which they committed themselves to learning the new language once the number of commitments he had received went over the million mark. This figure was never even remotely achieved. It was just a bet destined to go wrong, one that could never have worked out.
The plain truth is that the critical mass necessary for the spontaneous diffusion of a language cannot be created through voluntary action or propaganda — not even when carried out by a dedicated set of militants as happens in the case of Esperanto. The great national languages have grown up in the various countries and outside them thanks partly to political power which has not infrequently resorted to brute force in imposing them. But not even the most brutal of despots (and fortunately nothing suggests that the problem of the universal language in the future will be tackled and resolved by despotical power) would have had the strength to impose a dead language in any significant community, or even a language spoken by a small number of individuals. Power has been effective only where it has used a linguistic instrument that had an independent communicative function as the language of the majority or a considerable part of the population, or the region where the capital was, or as the language of the political and cultural elite. The proof of this statement can be found in the history of the Irish language. In the course of the struggles for independence from Great Britain, Gaelic had had a great function as a symbol of national identity and, with the proclamation of the Republic in 1921, the Irish government was actively committed to turning it into a true national language, helped in this by the fact that the language competing with Gaelic, English, was the language of the historical enemy of Ireland. But all their efforts proved ineffective, and the decline of Gaelic has continued unremittingly. It currently has the status of a mother tongue only for a relatively isolated rural portion of the population of Ireland. Evidently, the communicative advantages of the use of English (which were directly tied to the number of people who, in Ireland and in the rest of the world, already used English) were and are so clear as to make the call for Gaelic a largely symbolic one.
The example which is most frequently quoted in support of the possibility of “creating” a language from nothing is Hebrew. In actual fact it is only an exception in part, and one that more than confirms the rule: Hebrew has always been used in the Diaspora as a ritual language and by many groups even on non-ritual occasions. Moreover, its rise in modern times depends on two facts: firstly, in the years of the foundation of the state of Israel, the population consisted of groups who had come in a short space of time from many different places and who spoke a wide variety of disparate languages; secondly, first-generation immigrants were motivated by extraordinarily intense national and religious convictions.[5]
Zamenhof realized that an artificial language does not have all the resources, both communicative and symbolic, that natural languages normally have, one of which is of great significance: being the mother tongue of a sizeable population. He tried to get round this handicap which is inherent in an artificial language, by stressing the symbolic side of its use and thus impressing on the Esperanto movement an almost religious vocation, which is still apparent in the missionary ardour often motivating its members.
The need to instil the movement with a strong, militant spirit also derived from the fact that Esperanto had to, and still must, face competition from many other artificial languages (Volapük, Ido, Latino Sine Flexione, Novial, Occidental, etc.) each of which is recommended by its devotees because of its greater rationality, simplicity, flexibility, etc. vis-à-vis the others. Now the main condition for the success of an artificial language is that there should only be one: in the case of Esperanto, to achieve this, it was necessary to kill off the competition. Hence the violent diatribes that have characterized the history of the relationships between the devotees of some twenty artificial languages that have been drawn up since the last twenty-five years of the 19th century, diatribes from which Esperanto has emerged as the only language that, precisely because of the not exclusively linguistic character of the movement that supports it, has kept together a band of followers albeit modest and hardly on the increase.[6] The somewhat maniacal devotion to the cause of many of these people is measured by the fact that, according to Large, in the world today there are even some poor children, the offspring of militant Esperanto couples, whose mother tongue is Esperanto.
The price paid by the Esperanto movement for assuring its survival has been very high: the presence in its ranks of an abnormally high percentage of cranks, who as Vossler, quoted by Large, said “want to speak merely for the sake of speaking, quite regardless of what or with whom they are speaking”[7] and who, again taking a quotation from Large, this time quoting C. K. Ogden, “are, as it were, the fundamentalists of a not very evolutionary Faith, and in the bitter internecine quarrels of the past forty-five years… have developed a method and style of controversy that is reminiscent of the religious logomachies of earlier ages”.[8] But this is a detail which is far from having a decisive importance, because the causes of the unworkability of an artificial world language lie elsewhere. Nevertheless, it has contributed to halting the spread of Esperanto.
To round off the subject, we should mention briefly the possibility, in which Zamenhof himself did not believe, of having an artificial language imposed by the authorities through schools. Two observations need to be made in this respect. The first is that a policy of this kind can, in theory, be successful only if it is adopted everywhere at the same time by all the governments in the world, or at least by a majority of them. Apart from being absolutely improbable in itself, this possibility is so remote as to make it quite clear just how absurd the idea is in a world in which the acceleration of interdependence is speeding up the drive that scientists, managers, men of culture and the young have to learn English.
The second is that, even if, absurdly, this possibility were conceivable in the short term, it would be unthinkable that, in a world moving towards growing freedom in teaching, the introduction of an artificial language in the school syllabus would be accompanied by the contemporary elimination of English by decree. Clearly, the initial advantage of English is so great, since it is a language spoken by almost a billion people in the five continents, as to make the idea of learning an artificial language quite unappealing for youngsters. It is indeed clear that, while the learning of English does not discourage the learning of other natural languages, which are irreplaceable instruments for direct access to other cultural traditions,[9] the same could not be said for an artificial language, whose use is entirely communicative.
 
5. Language, politics and culture. Linguistic pollution. International English.
 
Once the artificial language alternative has been discarded, it remains to be seen if the destiny that awaits us, namely the increasingly strong role of English as the universal language, is as tragic as some would hold. In particular, a reply needs to be given to the three objections to the diffusion of English I mentioned previously.
I) It is claimed that accepting the diffusion of English means accepting American imperialism. But, the very fact of cutting itself off from the world communicative context and denying itself access to scientific, technological and economic information essential for development, and hence political independence, would be exactly the behaviour by which a country now in the American sphere would almost certainly make its dependency definitive and irreversible. By refusing to speak English, anybody with ideas for transforming the world balance by transcending the superpowers’ blocs and hegemony — and federalists are among these — would have to give up the idea of making their opinions known to the rest of the world and getting the world to listen to them.
It is true that the root of the diffusion of English lies firstly in British colonialism and American hegemony subsequently. But precisely the fact that the same language was used by the former colony as the linguistic means by which to reverse the power relationships with the motherland, effectively shows that the diffusion of a language is the effect and not the cause of a power situation and hence — at least for the purposes of this argument — a language is neutral vis-à-vis the power situation. As a neutral instrument, it can lead an entirely independent life from the power situation that caused its diffusion. (Think for example of the use of koiné in the age following the dissolution of the Alexandrian Empire). A language can even be used to alter the power balance.
Finally, we must recall that whoever speaks two languages has a communicative and cultural advantage as compared with whoever can only speak one. It is thus possible to claim, at least in the mid-term, that the diffusion of English in the world must be considered for the Americans as a cost of hegemony and not a benefit.
II) Leaving to one side the far from settled question as to whether it is appropriate to consider European society between the two wars, i.e. before certain features of the American way of life began to make themselves felt, as being more civilized than it is currently, we must examine the more general ties between language and culture. Now, nobody denies the clear fact that human groups that speak the same language can communicate cultural contents to each other with greater ease. But this does not mean that they must necessarily do so, i.e. that language and culture are the same thing. If men in the five continents are able to understand each other, this is so because the languages they speak can be translated, i.e. can communicate the same contents (with the partial exception of poetry which is intrinsically tied to the form and music of words). In reality, language is neutral even vis-à-vis culture, so much so that, as in fact often happens, different cultures can be expressed through the same language in just the same way that the same culture can be expressed through different languages.[10] English spread throughout the world even with certain particularly vulgar contents. But this does not detract from the substantial neutrality of this language — still the language of Henry James and T. S. Eliot. It is up to those who use a language to fill it with the richest and noblest contents rather than try to unload the responsibility for vulgarity on a particular language.
III) The concern about linguistic pollution has no foundation. While languages are living structures and not petrified in the role of ritual instruments, they are in perpetual transformation and unceasingly undergo and transmit influences and loans. The idea of a pure language is just as mythical as the idea of a pure race. Many linguists, on the other hand, hold all that languages have their own particular structure which defines their individuality, which certainly changes historically, but according to an internal logic and not under pressure from outside influences (Sapir’s concept of drift). In this way, they can retain their identity even when they change in the course of time and acquire many lexical loans from other languages, as happened with English at the time of the Norman occupation.[11] The conclusion is that an influence like the one currently exercised by English on languages with a solid cultural standing is restricted to a few areas of the lexicon. Considered within these limits, the phenomenon of mutual fecundation among different languages must even be considered as a process of enrichment.
All this does not mean that a language cannot die as has happened on many occasions in the past and as is still happening. But languages certainly do not die because they become unrecognizable through the effects of linguistic pollution, but simply because they cease to be used as a means of communication.
Finally, consideration must be made as regards the destiny of English as a universal language. On the basis of the tendencies already clearly perceptible in current usage, we should expect that the more the role of English as a universal language gains momentum, the more its use will tend to become distinguished in the different national varieties. There already exists an international English with its own clearly defined characteristics. This process of identification is destined to continue thanks to the contributions, that will become increasingly intense with the passage of time, from the national languages of those who, in ever-growing numbers, will use the international lingua franca. Clearly, however, the tendency towards differentiation will become more marked the more numerous and significant the contributions made in all the major sectors of world communications by non-English mother tongue speakers are. Consequently, we must stress that, if, on the one hand, the current diffusion of English at a world level is tied to the economic and political hegemony first of the British and then the Americans over much of the world, on the other hand, full status for English as a universal lingua franca will go hand in hand with the march towards the World federation, and hence with the progressive creation at a planetary level of relationships of equality among peoples both from the political and economic standpoint.
The development of international English will be encouraged by the existence of many national varieties of English, which in their turn are undergoing a process of increasingly marked reciprocal differentiation encouraged by a work of standardization that is not carried out with the intention of unifying the use of English in the entire English-speaking area, but with the opposite function of describing the autonomous evolution of different national varieties. We must, moreover, remember that in English-speaking countries, where the greatest undertakings in lexicography of all time have been made, the descriptive attitude to language traditionally prevails over the prescriptive,[12] as is demonstrated by the absence of official bodies entrusted with the task of establishing the correct use of the language, as happens in other countries with institutions such as the Académie française, the Accademia della Crusca or the Real Academia Española.[13] This is linked to the traditionally tolerant attitude of English mother tongue speakers to errors and linguistic imperfections that non-mother tongue speakers of English perpetrate. These features in their turn depend on the great geographical distribution of English mother tongue populations, i.e. on the very fact which has turned English into the only natural candidate for the status of a universal lingua franca.
 
6. National languages.
 
An institutional federal mechanism can live and work effectively only if it is backed up by coherent social behaviour. The essential characteristic of this behaviour is a plurality of loyalties, the fact that men do not feel they are members of only one community, but of a series of communities of different dimensions but equal significance and dignity, for each of which there is a different variant of mankind’s culture. Language is a major instrument for easier and more immediate access to one or more cultures expressed in that language.
Multilingualism is hence an important characteristic of federal social behaviour that is slowly taking shape in the world and thanks to whose progressive introduction the ideal of a World federation begins to take on the concreteness of a political objective even though not an immediately attainable one.
Evidently, all this does not mean that, in a post-industrial model of World federation there should be a distinct linguistic area for every sphere of self-government. It only means that multilingualism — and in particular trilingualism — which seems to me to constitute the arrival point of the current process of transformation, is destined to be an important component in the articulated cultural identity of the citizen of the future World federation. In this respect, the national linguistic level plays a vital role. In its absence, we would have a direct universal language-vernacular opposition, and the linguistic expression of the cultural originality of every human group would be entrusted exclusively to a communicative instrument used in extremely restricted environments, not standardized or suited to expressing contents which are simply as restricted as its area of diffusion. The absence of an intermediate linguistic environment with sufficiently large geographical dimensions to effectively counterbalance the use of a universal language, would hence seriously upset a balance which is important in guaranteeing a suitable cultural basis for federalism.
National languages must thus be considered as an instrument of decisive importance for the protection of the individuality of various traditional cultures, and in particular those which have their own literature, poetry and theatre.
All this does not mean, it should be stressed, that language is an indispensable factor in the formation and maintenance of a cultural identity, not even the national one (so much so that there are human groups which consider themselves nations though they speak several languages or share their language with other nations). It means, however, that language is a privileged vehicle for immediate access to a cultural tradition: hence the diffusion of a national language to all inhabitants in a certain territory is rightly considered as an essential moment in the process of nation building.
 
7. National languages in the industrialized world and in the Third World.
 
The problem of the survival — or the creation and strengthening — of a national linguistic level takes on a radically different shape in Europe and the Third World.
In Europe what is prospectively at stake is the capacity of the national languages to respond to the challenges of the post-industrial era. It seems to me to be beyond question that the great historical languages — used for written and oral communication by national communities of tens of millions of men, rigorously standardized and strengthened in their prestige by long-standing literary tradition — are destined to have a long historical life even though they will continue to evolve in the future as they always have in the past. More uncertain is the fate of languages on which the status of a national language was imposed in the most exasperated and chaotic phase of the struggles for national independence in Europe (I am thinking in particular of certain Balkan languages).[14] These are languages that are spoken by groups of a few million people and which have a much less consolidated literary tradition than the languages of the great nations of Western Europe. Now it is clear that the existence of these languages is questioned by the growing interdependence of the culture market. The existence of a potential book market limited to a restricted number of readers will tend in the future to dissuade anyone from undertaking the career of writer in a language such as Greek or Romanian. For this reason, it is not possible to rule out the possibility that the increasingly rapid evolution of cultural communication towards increasing interdependence may progressively reduce certain languages to the rank of dialects. This is, moreover, a trend that our will cannot change since this is a permanent feature of the world’s linguistic history.
The problems of the Third World and, in particular, Africa and Asia are very different. Here it is not a matter of conserving but of creating, or at least consolidating, national languages which generally, in the current situation, are only potentially national languages.
This is a problem with prohibitive difficulties. European colonial domination usually marked out the borders between territories which then gained independence becoming sovereign states in a way which entirely ignored the cultural and linguistic map of Asia and, in particular, Africa. Linguistically homogeneous groups often came to be divided into several states, and most of the states are now inhabited by linguistically heterogeneous groups. Even so, and indeed, precisely for this reason, most governments in the Third World countries, in an effort to give their peoples a conscious identity and the minimum degree of unity necessary for peaceful co-existence which transcends divisions into tribes, are committed, with different degrees of success, to imposing a national language based on a lingua franca (like Swahili in Kenya) or by the language of the prevailing ethnic race (such as Malay in Malaysia or Hindi in India).
Now, it is difficult to predict the outcome of these attempts. Some of the new states have such a fragmented linguistic map that it seems hard to imagine the undertaking will meet with success. In Cameroon, to take just one example, the political class has deliberately abandoned any such attempt and has made English the compulsory language of the educational system (and in part French) together with the use of various vernacular languages.[15] But in many other states, governments are committed to creating a national language (which is not necessarily condemned to failure) which testifies to the priority importance that they attribute to the problem.
This is not a chance occurrence, and raises the problem of the dispensability of the national stage in the Third World’s passage to continental unity in Asia and Africa. I am inclined to think that, in this process, the national stage is in fact a necessary step. It is difficult to believe, for example, that African unification may be reached among populations in which only tribal loyalty is essential in much the same way as it is difficult to imagine that the process of construction of nations occurs exclusively through the diffusion of the use of English, which is a linguistic vehicle closely identified with colonial domination and which, because of its potentially universal character, is not suited to transmitting a sense of internal unity and originality vis-à-vis the other peoples in the region to the populations in question.
It thus seems that the national linguistic level must correspond to a real and living need in every part of the world. It is a need — and here we must return to an issue that was already touched upon previously — that also occurs in countries where English is the mother tongue since the variety that is spoken in each of them will increasingly tend to acquire its own characteristics just as international English will accentuate its peculiar nature and will increasingly tend to evolve into autonomous national languages, with their own separate development.
It is appropriate to repeat, to conclude this point, that, in a federal institutional framework, national loyalty would lose its exclusive nature. Stripped of the attribute of sovereignty, nationality would lose all its aggressive connotations and intolerance of diversity. This would have important repercussions on the linguistic situation of multilingual border regions. These regions, in a national framework, are condemned to a permanent identity crisis and are often afflicted by the plague of intolerance. This situation would be reversed in an authentically federal framework. In such a framework the absence of the exclusive character of the feeling of belonging to a nation would give the inhabitants of the regions situated on the borders of different linguistic areas the awareness of finding themselves in a privileged situation inasmuch as they represent a point of contact between two cultural traditions. The silly barriers that currently exist for example in South Tyrol and which rigorously separate the two communities would disappear. The frontier regions would become link-regions and would tend as such to develop their own specific identity, based precisely on the possession of two cultures.
 
8. Dialects.
 
Let us now take a brief look at dialects. The vernaculars have different degrees of vitality in different parts of the world, but almost everywhere they tend to recede in the face of national languages or English.
The decline of dialects is clear from two distinct indicators: the decline in the number of the people that speak them and the decline in their cultural dignity. There are two main causes. One is the deliberate policy of cultural centralization of national states, which operated in Europe in the course of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, and which Third World governments are trying to emulate at the present time. It has had the effect of weakening dialects, preventing their use among cultured classes, transferring semantic contents increasingly to the national language and, in general, debasing all the symbols of community identity. This is confirmed by contrast by the fact that the only federal state that currently exists in Europe, Switzerland, is also the one where dialects (in particular the infinite varieties of Schwyzdütsch and the Ticino dialects) are very diffuse and are spoken by all social groups in the population. The other is the growing mobility of the population due to the continual evolution of the means of communication in a situation of strong territorial disequilibria at all levels which forces enormous masses of men and women to transfer from poor to rich regions to improve their lot. This is also true (and dramatically so) for the great cities of the Third World where immigration from the most varied and distinctive regions is particularly frenetic and chaotic and in which the inhabitants cannot understand each other when they speak their native dialects.
It follows that dialects tend to be confined to the less developed areas, from which people emigrate, and thus to be associated with poverty and material and cultural underdevelopment. The abandonment of dialect in the education of children thus becomes a symbol of social promotion everywhere.
 
9. Regional languages and revival movements.
 
There are, however, some signs of a reverse trend. In Europe, in particular, the monopoly of the national level of society which affects even language is questioned both upwards through the growing diffusion of English as a lingua franca over and above national linguistic barriers and downwards through the attempt to recuperate regional varieties.
The objective meaning of this phenomenon certainly goes in the direction of the trilinguistic model that I have attempted to delineate. It can, of course, have dangerous and aberrant forms. The revival movements, that are currently springing up everywhere in Europe (and as we shall see subsequently, in a different form, even in the United States) do not set out to end the exclusive character of national identity but oppose a “national” nationalism with regional micronationalism.
They thus try to recuperate speech that at the current time has dialectal characteristics (variability, absence of standardization, almost exclusively oral use) giving it or restoring the dignity of a literary language. This is what happens with Celtic languages in Great Britain, Ireland and Brittany, for Provençal, Basque and Catalan, Sardinian, Friulan, etc. We may note that in this way regional languages are placed in direct competition with national languages to which they are opposed and which they should ex hypothesi replace.
In putting their case, regionalist movements can often point to the fact that at least some of the languages that they are trying to restore can boast a respectable literary history which has been interrupted by the nation-states through the instruments of state schooling and compulsory military service and even with recourse to violence. All this is very true, but also entirely irrelevant. Until now in history, most stages in the material and civil progress of mankind have involved heavy costs. The affirmation of certain values has always taken place at the cost of sacrificing other values. If this awareness were sufficient to legitimate condemnation of any historical change, no event in the history of human emancipation would escape this judgment from the paleolithic to the post-industrial era (take for example the terrible consequences in terms of misery and death of the Industrial Revolution). What is certain is that anyone who currently has the fortune to be a mother tongue speaker of one of the great European languages, which usually acquired its current status through conquest and oppression, possesses an instrument of access to culture that places them in a privileged position vis-à-vis those born in a linguistic area of a few million people, condemned by the limited size of the market to cultural backwardness.
It may be added that the trilinguistic model based on English, a national language and dialect foreshadows a stable linguistic situation because each of the three linguistic instruments has its own sphere of application, sharply distinguished from the others and hence does not compete with them. On the contrary, as Edwards notes,[16] bilingual or multilingual situations within a single community are highly unstable in that whichever of the languages in question is most suited to resolving the problems of communication and symbolic identification arising in the same social context will tend to oust the other. In the conflict between a great national language and a regional language which attempts to regain the status of a literary language by means of an increased use of the written variety and increased standardization, the outcome is decided a priori, and it is right that it should be so. Revival movements hence work for the King of Prussia. By trying to rid local languages of their vernacular status and opposing them in a confrontation destined a priori (and fortunately) to be lost to the national languages, they prop up the shaky monopoly of the latter and obstruct the emergence of authentic pluralism.
 
10. The specific character of dialects.
 
The problem takes on an entirely different complexion if the objective becomes recuperating dialects as such. The characteristic of dialects is that they have an entirely different field of application from national languages in that they are used for daily communication within the local community. Hence they do not have, and do not pretend to have, the status of literary languages (which does not prevent the development of a minor literature which expresses itself in the vernacular, and which is generally destined to be listened to, rather than read, in that, when written, it uses rather uncertain, non-standardized and very subjective rules of phonetic transcription). It is their lack of standardization that causes their continual variability in time and space and makes it impossible, in particular, to draw precise territorial borders between one dialect and another. The territorial variability of dialects constitutes, as Saussure pointed out,[17] a continuum, in which it would be arbitrary to attempt to identify definite linguistic environments with a centre and periphery.
It must be noted that this characteristic of dialects makes them an indispensable communicative instrument.
They are in fact much less rigid forms than national languages, tied to less rigorously standardized rules. Dialect is the speech closest to daily life, the needs, feelings, humour, fantasy of ordinary men, multiform, iridescent, mellow and difficult to capture with a standardized linguistic instrument which necessarily evolves slowly. As such they are also the humus on which national languages feed. National languages’ standardization entails the risk of petrification. Hence they can only draw vitality from permanent confrontation with a vernacular reality which is very mobile and varied.
From this it becomes even more striking just how much regional micronationalism could compromise the linguistic heritage of a territory if it managed to impose itself, for example by turning a region into a sovereign state. Not only would a poor language with limited distribution come to replace a great language of culture, spoken and written by tens of millions of people, as a literary language; it would also dry up the endless source of meanings coming from the multiplicity of vernacular idioms by standardizing a single variety and promoting it to the dignity of the official language of the region.
It is easy to imagine that the variety liable to suffer this destiny would, in the majority of cases, be the spoken language of the regional capital, which would become the primary symbol of the cultural identity of the population in the region. Now, as we have seen, the essential characteristic — and the source of the vitality — of dialects is precisely their infinite territorial variety which allows every single community to have its own independent cultural identity which is different from all the others. When a single variety becomes the symbol of regional identity, all the others would be degraded to “impure” manifestations of the same identity. National cultural centralisation would be replaced by a regional one, much more suffocating and oppressive because it is much narrower and poorer in content.
 
11. The New Pluralism.
 
One of the essential characteristics of dialects is to express, on the one hand, the infinitely differentiated linguistic identity of every single local community but, at the same time, to reflect the continuity of speech in a territory. In Europe, apart from an extremely small number of linguistic frontiers which have generally been maintained artificially by feeding political and ideological tensions, vernaculars change imperceptibly passing from one point to another in the territory, so that the differences between the ways of speaking in two different places increases in proportion to the distance between them. Dialect is thus not a factor of conflict, but of agreement between territorially close communities. In this way it is clear that the problem connected with the dialectal level and its function of safeguarding the variety of linguistic expressions in the territory have nothing to do with what in the United States is called New Pluralism.[18] This expression designates a trend, manifested with particular force in the seventies by groups of immigrants attempting to recuperate their original national cultural identity. This aspiration to return to one’s roots runs counter to the idea of assimilation and the melting pot, which has constituted the essential symbolic element in the formation of the American identity. The leaders of the movements which are collectively called New Pluralism claim that the melting pot is only an ideology, which serves to hide and justify the political, cultural and economic predomination of the oldest level of the population, the so-called WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). They argue that the best way to oppose this domination would thus be to refuse assimilation and keep one’s own original cultural character.
What seems to me to be important is to stress the fact that this “pluralism” is the exact contrary of what is manifested through the variety of dialects. The pluralism of dialects is the result of a deep attachment of the population to the territory, while the result of simultaneous presence in the same territorial horizon of communities having profoundly different cultural and linguistic matrices is the reverse: the uprooting which followed the exasperated geographical mobility that arose in the last century owing to increased interdependence in a framework of growing territorial disequilibria. Thus while the variability of dialects is the sign of the strong consistency of the social structure, the co-existence of completely different cultures in the same city or the same quarter is the sign of a pathological situation of social disgregation.
 
12. Towards a less mobile society.
 
One of the principal tenets of federalism is upgrading local communities (even culturally) and hence promoting pluralism. But the demand for pluralism, in the form in which it is carried out by ethnic minorities in the United States, or at least by their most intransigent leaders, were it to be successful, would mean the end of an American identity and the dissolution of American society in a jumble of opposing groups not capable of a common design. This means that a healthy cultural pluralism in the United States of tomorrow could only develop on the territory as the variable expression of a single American identity and hence after the problem of the assimilation of linguistic minorities has been resolved.
All this leads to the question of mobility. It must be noted that mobility is the origin of ethnic and linguistic problems in Europe and the United States, as well as the cause of the decadence of dialects in Europe. Moreover, mobility is commonly considered as a specific connotation of modern civilization and increased interdependence, and hence is thought of as being destined to become accentuated with the advancing of the process.
In reality it is a connotation typical of a specific phase in the process of industrialization, and, moreover, of a phase which is about to be transcended. Perhaps the most promising of the prospects opened up by the scientific and technological revolution is the end to territorial disequilibria. This means that everybody will have the possibility of leading a rich and creative life in his birthplace to which he is tied by feelings, memories and affinities. In this prospect mobility is reduced to the movements that everyone will decide to carry out to enrich their own culture and to satisfy their own curiosity or other freely determined motivations while mobility determined by need would disappear. Men would find their roots again. They would thus create the conditions for the rejuvenation of dialects where these are still diffuse and for their restoration where they are dying out.
 
13. Linguistic behaviour and territorial equilibrium.
 
In a federal model of post-industrial society the political, economic and social factors which in the past have reduced the use of dialects and have contributed to their cultural degradation would disappear. On the one hand, in a federal institutional system the nation-state would lose its exclusive character and national languages would be deprived of their current function of supporting the ideology of the nation as the only reference point for feelings of group identification. Dialects would thus recuperate great freedom, as has already happened in Switzerland, where they still have communicative functions long since lost in the unitary states of the European continent. Moreover, the progressive affirmation of the scientific and technological revolution governed by the instrument of multi-tier planning would allow local communities to reacquire functions — including cultural functions — from which they have been expropriated by great cities. Culture as a non-professional fact would thus tend to become the heritage of everybody. At the same time for the same reason the incentives which have so far inspired intellectuals (taken as the professional operators of culture) to reside in capitals or at the very least major cities and abandon their territorial roots identifying themselves as a national class would be lost. Finally, as we have already seen, a balanced territorial policy would reduce emigration to the minimum and make the reciprocal ties between the members of the same community more stable. It would thus encourage the restoration of local varieties and the linguistic differentiation between different communities in proportion to their distance.
Clearly, this trend would act vigorously also in those areas where spoken varieties have a past history as literary languages. But it should be pointed out that they would be recuperated not as languages but as dialects. Moreover, the same trend would operate where dialects have been completely removed or where their cultural decay makes their restoration improbable. In these places the trend would be towards the progressive formation of new dialects, i.e. idioms reflecting the specific cultural temperament of every single community: the very temperament which today tends to dissolve in the cauldron of national culture but to which the stability of the social composition of every compartment in the territory and the intensity of the community life would restore vigour.
 
14. Conclusion.
 
Three brief considerations remain.
I) The first is that multilingualism is a perfectly natural feature of human groups. However, the national state has tried to obliterate this simple fact which, in the absence of interference by political power, is characteristic even, and particularly, of not very highly cultured classes. Our trilinguistic model does not thus run counter to the boundaries of normal linguistic behaviour. The only indispensable prerequisite for a multilinguistic situation to become stable is, as we have seen, for every language to have a well-defined field of application which does not coincide with the field of other languages.[19] In our model, the contents of the universal language are supranational politics, science, technology, economics, world cultural communication. The national language’s content is national policy, literature and the theatre, as well as messages from the mass media, the legal system and the national bureaucracy. It also serves as the main vehicle for teaching in schools, while dialect relates to daily speech and local oral culture (dialectal theatre, etc.).[20]
II) The second is that multilingualism enriches each of the languages used in every point of the territory. Indeed, while each of the languages used has a distinct field of application, interference necessarily arises. Thus the powers of expression of every individual are increased while among the various linguistic levels there is a continuous interplay, comparison of meanings and exchange of words and phrases. It may be concluded that with multilingualism communication is destined to become more lively, more penetrating and capable of keeping pace with the evolution of reality in all its aspects than with monolingualism.
III) The third and final consideration is that Western Europe — even from the standpoint of the evolution of the linguistic instruments of communication, as well as from the political and institutional standpoint — is the region called upon to experiment federal solutions destined to be exported to the rest of the world. It is, in fact, the geographical area in which the greatest urgency is felt as regards the need for a universal language. The European Parliament with its army of translators is the symbol of the chaos in which the linguistic Babel risks throwing political, economic and social ties between the citizens of the Old Continent’s states. On the other hand, Western Europe is the region where national languages were born and took hold. These national languages have served as vehicles for the expression of Western culture (the culture which whether we like it or not is becoming the culture of the world). These languages are still fully alive and are a model for countries which are committed to the difficult task of linguistic planning, namely acquiring a national instrument of communication and symbolic identification. Finally, Western Europe is an area in which dialects, even though often reduced in diffusion and degraded in cultural dignity, are often spoken and may recover full vigour as soon as the appropriate conditions arise.


[1] Cfr. John Edwards, Language, Society and Identity, Oxford, Blackwell, 1985. Cfr. in particular the Chap. III: “Language Maintenance and Language Shift”.
[2] See the interesting collection of case studies edited by Chris Kennedy, Language Planning and Language Education, London, Allen & Unwin, 1983.
[3] Andrew Large, The Artificial Language Movement, Oxford, Blackwell, 1985.
[4] New Yode, Holt, 1889.
[5] Cfr. for Irish and Hebrew, John Edwards, Op. cit., pp. 53 ff. and 86-88.
[6] Andrew Large, (Op. cit. pp. 94 ff.) stresses the difficulty of obtaining precise estimates both as regards the diffusion of the skilled use of Esperanto and as regards the number of associates belonging to organizations which are members of the Universal Esperanto Association (UEA). As regards the first figure, estimates run between a few hundred thousands to 15 million, throughout the world (but in highly varying proportions from one country to another). Moreover, the concept of skilled use of Esperanto is not clearly definable, and certainly many people who show nothing more than sympathy for Esperanto are catalogued as Esperanto speakers when they can barely speak a word of the language. As regards the second figure estimates are below 50.000.
[7] Andrew Large, Op. cit., p. 201.
[8] Andrew Large, Op. cit., p. 126.
[9] There are grounds for arguing that learning English from the start of school life and hence mastering it from early childhood as well as one’s own language would leave the young with much more time and energy to dedicate to subsequent learning of other literary languages.
[10] The problem of the relationship between language and culture is very complex and controversial and in this respect it is impossible to make more than a passing reference. It should be remembered that from Humboldt onwards to Quine’s sophisticated studies on synonyms, nobody has questioned the argument that some meanings in a language may be understood only by analyzing the language in question in the cultural context in which it is used. If, therefore, we posit the case of two profoundly different cultures, which come into contact with each other for the first time, there can be no doubt that for a certain period of time a certain number of expressions in the various languages will be untranslatable.
If, in spite of all this, we emphasize, following Sapir, the neutrality of language vis-à-vis culture, we merely wish to state that untranslatability relates only to a part of our two hypothetical languages. It is a contingent historical fact and not a structural characteristic.
History in fact shows that it is always possible, even though with varying degrees of difficulty, to learn a language with a structure very different from one’s own and hence acquire the necessary competence to act as an interpreter between two speakers each of whom only speaks one of the two languages in question. This means that, after a more or less long period of learning, it will always be possible to use one’s own language to express the contents of another culture and inversely use another language to express the contents of one’s own culture.
This may happen because apart from the differences between cultures there is still a way of looking at the world which is roughly common to all men and which makes it possible for all to share a few common reference points and rules thanks to which it is possible to achieve a preliminary approximate switching of the linguistic code of every speaker into that of all the others. Here we come up against something which resembles Chomsky’s universal grammar. On this basis it is possible to advance towards an understanding of the most extraneous aspects of the various cultures and the translation of the attendant linguistic expressions, possibly by means of an instrument which has had a decisive role in the formation of all the European languages: loan words.
Since the contacts between cultures become more intense with the passage of time so much so that there is now practically no human group which can consider itself completely isolated from a cultural standpoint, understanding between cultures and the translatability of languages increases — even if this does not mean that the multiplicity of one or the other is lost.
The linguistic competence of men is thus destined to become increasingly similar and carry out the task of mutual comprehension more effectively thanks both to the diffusion of multilingualism, and the increased expressive and denotative possibilities of each language.
Thus, I find it correct to conclude that if it is true that the history of every single language cannot be understood without reference to a culture (or more correctly cultures) whose means of expression it represents, this does not detract from the substantial neutrality vis-à-vis culture in that language, thanks to its capacity to evolve and to acquire new and diverse meanings, has in it the power to express any cultural content.
[11] “The force of a language”, writes Goethe (quoted by Adolf Bach, Geschichte der deutschen Sprache, 9. Auflage, VMA-Verlag, Wiesbaden, p. 472), “does not lie in rejecting what is extraneous, but in assimilating it”. It goes without saying that this affirmation is true only for languages with a consolidated literary tradition. It could not be extended to dialects, which are so variable and so open to external influences as to be unrecognizable in the space of a few decades. This is what happened for example in the Salento, as Gerhard Rohlfs (“Tra Latini e Greci nel Salento”, in Calabria e Salento. Saggi di Storia Linguistica, Ravenna, Longo Editore, 1980, p. 54) emphasizes. The number of Greek-speaking communities have declined, under the influence of Italian speaking communities, from 34 in 1500, to 15 by 1700, and now number only 8.
[12] Cfr. the fine volume by Robert Burchfield, The English Language, Oxford, OUP, 1985, pp. 159ff., and John Edwards, Op. cit., pp. 30 ff.
[13] Cfr. John Edwards, Op. cit., pp. 27 ff.
[14] For the complex history of Balkan languages see Eugen Lemberg, Nationalismus, Reinbeck bei Hamburg, Rohwolt Verlag, 1964, Vol. I, pp. 152 ff.
[15] For the situation in Kenya, see L. Harries, “The Nationalisation of Swahili in Kenya”, in Chris Kennedy, Op. cit., pp. 118 ff. For the case of India, see M.V. Nadkarni, “Cultural Pluralism as a National Resource: Strategies for Language Education”, Ibid., pp. 151 ff. For the case of Malaysia see J.K.P. Watson, “Cultural Pluralism, Nation-Building and Educational Policies in Peninsular Malaysia”, Ibid., pp. 132 ff. Finally, for the Cameroon, see L. Todd, “Language Options for Education in a Multilingual Society: Cameroon”, Ibid., pp. 160 ff.
[16] Op. cit., pp. 71 ff.
[17] Ferdinand de Saussure, Cours de linguistique générale, Paris, Payot, 1966, pp. 275-6.
[18] Cfr. John Edwards, Op. cit., pp. 99 ff. See also Edmond Orban, La dynamique de la centralisation dans l’Etat fédéral: un processus irreversible?, Montreal, Québec-Amérique, 1984, pp. 119 ff.
[19] John Edwards (Op. cit., p. 177), quoting Pandit, as evidence of the fact that in certain regions multilingualism is practised daily but only on condition that every expressive instrument has its specialized use, gives the example “of a Bombay businessman whose domestic language is a Kathiawari dialect of Gujerati. He uses Marathi in the local markets and Hindustani at the railway station (this variety, notes Pandit, is used in a pan-Indian context but at a popular level: thus it is appropriate at the station, but not when addressing a hostess on an international flight). At work, the businessman is a spice merchant, the language used is Kacchi. In his free time he watches films in Hindustani or English and he probabily reads a newspaper written in a more standardized variant of his native Gujerati”.
[20] This is certainly not the place to go into the complex question of the relationships between oral and written language dealt with so thoroughly by Walter J. Ong (Orality and Literacy. The Technologizing of the Word, London and New York, Methuen, 1982). It is, however, interesting to recall that the prospect of recuperating dialects (i.e. almost exclusively oral languages) vis-à-vis national languages (whose birth and standardization is tied to the interiorization of writing and printing in particular) appears historically in the industrialized world at the dawn of the electronic era to be characterized by the restoration of orality albeit in a secondary form. We should also remember that the birth and diffusion of printing coincided with the birth and strengthening of nation-states and that the uncontested domination of written communication has been matched by the breakdown of community ties that make up the indispensable framework for oral communication. On the contrary, the advent of the post-industrial mode of production creates the conditions for the restoration of lively local communities with institutionally guaranteed autonomy and the strengthening of oral communication by recuperating dialects.

 

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