Vincent West / Reuters

Capitalism, colonialism and nationalism are language killers

Economic autonomy is crucial for preserving language diversity

December 28, 2014 2:00AM ET

Mondragon, the world’s largest cooperative, is a famous name wherever people still ponder or practice alternatives to capitalism. The Mondragon federation is made up of 257 enterprises in a host of industries, with more than 74,000 workers and 12.5 billion euros ($16 billion) in annual revenue. Call it a blueprint for revolution or a kinder form of capitalism; it’s a compelling model of worker control and egalitarian economics, decades in the making.

Less known, Mondragon developed within a movement to revive an endangered language and culture: Basque. Spoken in the western Pyrenees along the France-Spain border, Basque is a linguistic world unto itself, what linguists call an isolate, unrelated to the Indo-European languages surrounding it or any other known language. Long stripped of political autonomy by Paris and Madrid, Basque speakers began to face persecution under the fascist regime of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and rose up.

By the 1960s, the Basque language movement had become a groundswell. Among its accomplishments were a network of semi-clandestine schools, do-it-yourself literacy programs, rollicking cultural festivals and ultimately, official recognition from the Spanish state. With some 700,000 speakers in a regional population of 3 million, Basque today is vulnerable but enduring. The economic might of Basque country — which boasts the highest GDP in Spain, booming exports and enterprises such as Mondragon, the bank BBVA and the wind turbine manufacturer Gamesa — has matured in tandem with its cultural and linguistic renaissance.

The Basque story runs directly counter to claims by researchers that have garnered recent headlines such as “Prosperity is why languages die” and “Economic success drives language extinction.” These sound bites distilled a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B that claimed a correlation between high GDP and language endangerment. The United States’ Pacific Northwest and Australia’s Northern Territory topped the list. “As economies develop,” concluded Tatsuya Amato of the University of Cambridge, “one language often comes to dominate a nation’s political and economic spheres. People are forced to adopt the dominant language or risk being left out in the cold — economically and politically.”

The pressure to adopt a dominant language is indisputable, as is the increasing ascendancy of just a few imperial languages in the contemporary world. But the tendency to equate diversity and poverty or to claim that assimilation brings prosperity endorses a dangerous stereotype that misconstrues how economics and linguistics intersect. The truth is that economic success, achieved on local terms, is a powerful force for reviving and developing languages and bringing the world’s hyperdiverse linguistic heritage into the 21st century.

Imperialism’s long shadow

Increasingly dominated by imperial languages, today’s global linguistic landscape is the direct result of an ongoing chain reaction started by specific histories of colonialism, nationalism and capitalism.

A language doesn’t die in a day. The loss of Klallam, a Native American language of the Pacific Northwest, reflects broader patterns all too familiar to those who study language endangerment: A dominant culture moves in with guns, germs and steel, radically destabilizing indigenous life. Those in closest contact with the dominant culture begin switching first, then the language retreats even where it seems strongest. Whole chunks of vocabulary and grammar drop off, entire spheres of language use (hunting, ritual, education, music) disappear as associated ways of life are forbidden, stigmatized or altered.

The gradual destruction of native cultures in western North America and Northern Australia, for example, entered a decisive phase in the 19th century, with the mass arrival of European settlers, the loss of traditional economic mainstays and demographic collapse due to genocide and disease. In the U.S. and Australia, mandatory boarding schools in the 19th and early 20th centuries dealt these already vulnerable languages a crucial blow. Students were typically forced to use only English, often on pain of corporal punishment.

Hazel Sampson, the last native speaker of Klallam, was 103 years old when she died earlier this year in Port Angeles, Washington; in other words, by the 1910s transmission was already exceedingly rare. Contemporary language loss is often connected to urbanization, inequality and the pressure to find paying work, which may correlate loosely with GDP. But the crucial point is that the erosion of indigenous economic and political systems almost always comes first. 

Stability, autonomy and economic growth are every bit as vital for the speakers of a language as grammar, syntax and vocabulary.

A revitalization trend

In and of itself, then, economic growth does not cause language loss; in fact, prosperity achieved on local terms can promote linguistic diversity. The clearest demonstration of this — depicted in Language Matters, a new documentary out next month on PBS — is also one of the most significant linguistic trends of our time: the revitalization of threatened languages in communities that have already achieved sufficient autonomy and prosperity. Basque, Catalan, Welsh, Hawaiian and Maori are the best-known examples — language movements at least half a century old, predicated on a basic level of economic self-sufficiency. For a case in the making, consider how economic success and relative autonomy have made Hong Kong the global center of Cantonese, long neglected as a nonstandard Chinese dialect; in this fall’s protests, the language emerged as a major theme.

Reviving a language is a formidable challenge as soon as natural transmission from generation to generation is interrupted. Yet through extraordinary willpower, dozens of languages around the world are said to be in various stages of the revitalization process, particularly in Europe, the Americas and Australia, where relative prosperity, demographic stability and autonomy are finally at hand for many groups. Put in terms of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, basic physiological and security needs come first, then belonging and self-actualization. If a language buckles when its speakers suffer, it can rebound when they recover.

Besides these cases of minority revival, consider the gains made by embattled South African languages such as Zulu and Xhosa at the end of apartheid. Or how the independence of the Central Asian republics elevated overnight the status of Uzbek, Kazakh, Tajik, Kyrgyz and Turkmen, all of which arguably faced a long-term threat from Russian during the Soviet period. Quechua, the most popular indigenous language in the Americas, is making rapid progress in Bolivia and Ecuador as part of an indigenous rights movement. With growing prosperity and autonomy in Erbil, Kurdish is becoming more secure by the day. In each case, embattled cultures are legitimized in tandem with political and economic gains. Funds and votes lead to textbooks, dictionaries, primary schools and television stations in the language.

Future of language diversity

The fight for endangered languages is far from over. In fact, we are in the middle of a historic shift. “We are now seeing a pattern of linguistic diversity that was originally shaped by the environment give way to a pattern that is being shaped by policy and economic realities,” Daniel Kaufman of the Endangered Language Alliance recently told the BBC. Islands, mountains and particularly productive areas with generous fisheries and bountiful forests were once residual zones, to use a term coined by linguist Johanna Nichols, regions where a huge diversity of smaller cultures could survive and even thrive. But today residual zones are disappearing; the reach of global capital and the contemporary nation-state mean that the world is increasingly down to a handful of spread zones, where almost nothing can stop a dominant language.

Given this reality, allowing, maintaining and developing diversity must become a conscious responsibility, a set of decisions requiring resources, willpower and a bedrock of local autonomy. Political trends toward devolution and local autonomy suggest that Basque- or Hawaiian-style language revitalization could be the great linguistic movement of the 21st century, countering the homogenization brought by the 20th. Just this year, Alaska became the second U.S. state (after Hawaii) to officially recognize its indigenous languages, 20 of them. The poverty rate among Alaska Natives, while still unacceptably above the U.S. average, is less than half the rate for them in 1970 (PDF), and the state’s tribes and Native corporations are investing in language and culture. Megadiverse countries such as Nepal, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu may represent a new, more tolerant model of nation building.

To be sure, the social processes attending economic growth across Asia, Africa and Latin America represent a significant threat to languages. But those who care about language diversity — local activists, radical linguists or open-minded members of the dominant cultures — can harness economic growth, not fear it. Not every language movement will have a Mondragon, but every culture needs an economic base that to some extent it can call its own. Stability, autonomy and economic growth are every bit as vital for the speakers of a language as grammar, syntax and vocabulary.

Ross Perlin is a writer and linguist based in Brooklyn. His writing on language and labor has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian and Harper’s magazine. His first book is “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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