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The struggle to resist linguistic empires

  • 06 July 2012

On Wednesday, I arrived home at the airport, drowsy and bitter after 27 hours in transit. I reached past someone to pull my suitcase from the carousel. 'Scuse me, sorry.' 'No worries,' he said. 'Cheers,' I replied. 

The exchange of words made me feel instantly at home. I’d been living in Papua New Guinea and Japan for almost six months, and in that time had only met one other Australian.

With my own accent all around me, and no lousy foreigners ruining it by commenting on how it sounds like British only weirder, I felt the warmth of belonging. For better or worse, my home is in Australia, my identity Australian. 

When I arrived home that evening, I read Aidan Wilson’s essay at The Drum, ‘Letting languages disappear is a crime against humanity,’ in which he argues that speaking and being educated in one’s native language, regardless of how small the language is, is a human right. 

I had just spent six months living and travelling with a linguist who is working on documenting and studying endangered languages, so I found the article clear and true, and an important contribution. 

The Ethnologue is the most referenced catalogue of world languages. It states that 389 – or nearly 6 per cent – of the world’s languages have at least one million speakers and account for 94% of the world’s population. By contrast, it says, the remaining 94% of languages are spoken by only 6 per cent of the world’s people.

But I foolishly went on to read the comments on Wilson’s article. Comment after comment shouted that if a language could not keep up – or rather, if the language was not English – it should die, die, die, as though it were a simple matter of natural selection. I wondered if any of the commentators had come from a linguistic background that had vanished. 

It’s true that languages acquire prestige when they are politically and economically dominant. English is the language du jour. And there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be acquired as a useful second, or third or fourth language by speakers of other languages. But to suggest ‘natural selection’ is to assume that there is something innately better about the English language. 

Language itself is arbitrary. It is spread, forcefully, by the dominant politics of colonialism and neoliberal trade. Although languages have changed and disappeared throughout the conquests of history, at no other time in human