Learning about the history of nationalized and marginalized languages
November 22, 2015 1:45 PM   Subscribe

I know there was this process in the last few hundred years of European history where newly forming nations, trying to take hold of themselves, would decree one language official (French, Spanish), and try to squelch all of the many other languages/dialects (Occitan, Catalan) spoken within their borders. Where can I learn more?

Simple googling is not turning up enough to assuage my curiosity. I have a bunch of questions: is there a name for this process? How much resistance was there to it in Europe (like the modern Catalan independence movement)? How similarly did this process play out in Europe vs. other parts of the world (Russia, Japan, China)?

So I'd love some discussion of this, and pointers to essays and books that would be accessible to a layperson. Thanks!
posted by gold-in-green to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The Story of French and The Story of Spanish by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow might help you about these two languages as they deal with this issue at length, but I am not aware of books especifically about linguistic centralization.
posted by sukeban at 2:07 PM on November 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

A book I really enjoyed on this subject is Helena Drysdale's Mother Tongue: Travels through Tribal Europe.
posted by Catseye at 2:15 PM on November 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

What a good and interesting question! I couldn't think of any books offhand (which surprises me), so I posted it at Languagehat—we'll see what turns up.
posted by languagehat at 2:15 PM on November 22, 2015 [4 favorites]

For Japanese, Lee Yeonsuk's The Ideology of Kokugo is a good read, although it's more focused on the new standard as a political tool than the linguistic aspects. Karatani Kōjin's Origins of Modern Japanese Literature also touches on the vernacular vs classical issue a bit.
posted by No-sword at 5:17 PM on November 22, 2015

Something similar is discussed in Benedict Andersons Imagined Communities, on the creation of nationhood. It's a good read and a classic in its field.
posted by tavegyl at 7:16 PM on November 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Salikoko Mufwene has written some really interesting stuff about the forces that make people abandon their mother tongue and pick up some others; his writings like this one mainly focus on Africa, and in particular, the loss of mother tongues to languages like Swahili. His work and others working in his frameworks are mainly concerned with what happens when the official structures surrounding the promotion of colonial languages go away or are weakened.
posted by damayanti at 7:31 PM on November 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

I live in East Tennessee - former Overhill Cherokee land - and have an interest in language. When Europeans settled this area, they tried to banish the Cherokee language. They also very nearly succeeded in banishing the Cherokee to the West. A Cherokee man named Sequoyah devised the Cherokee Syllabary with its 85-ish characters. Sequoyah's written Cherokee is evident throughout the Eastern Nation on road- and business-signs.

I do not have a name for this process, but I have witnessed the process, and its outcomes, here in the mountains that I love.

Spoken and written Cherokee have survived, along with its people, largely through the cracks. The Great Smoky Mountains are incredibly rugged terrain; the people who avoided abduction here in the East share a language with those in the West, and Sequoyah put it all to verse.
posted by workerant at 9:58 PM on November 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also The Discovery of France
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:59 PM on November 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Nick Ostler, Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World goes a fair bit further back than the last few hundred years, but is an interesting overview and will give you some of the language for talking about historical language change. You might also like Pier Judson, Guardians of the Nation: Activists on the Language Frontiers of Imperial Austria

somewhat embarrassed disclosure: I've just written a book on sort-of-this (for a history of Chinese and Malay languages in modern colonial Southeast Asia) and I also couldn't really find a word for the processes you describe. There's often talk about 'standardization' in the sociolinguistics literature, which will get you reading in the right directions, but I came to feel that standardization describes only one part of a larger and sometimes violent discursive project. So the title of my book is 'Taming Babel', which I felt got some way towards describing it.... It'll be out next summer from Cambridge University Press. Memail if you want more reading recs.
posted by idlethink at 4:04 AM on November 23, 2015 [5 favorites]

This is happening in Singapore right now (and has been for a while). My aunts there tell me that it's basically illegal to speak their dialect (Teochew) now. Here's a Wikipedia article about the Speak Mandarin campaign. I'd highly recommended looking into it more, the linguistic landscape in Singapore is pretty fascinating (and sad).
posted by thebots at 8:40 AM on November 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Call it 'state-ideology-driven linguistic suppression', perhaps? Or 'linguicide'?

Eugene Weber's Peasants into Frenchmen has at least a chapter about how the process happened in France. Chapter 6, 'A Wealth of Tounges', is followed by Chapter 7, 'France, One and Indivisible'.

The Spanish state came later to this sort of language policy than the French; efforts to revive Catalan as a literary language, and to rescue Basque as a spoken language had already been underway when Franco's Spain criminalized the use of these languages, mid 20th century. In contemporary Spain the revival/preservation of both languages is going rather well. If you read Spanish, the early chapters of the book El Pendulo Patriotico can give you a sense for the milieu in which some, following Sabano Arana's lead, decided it was important to start to work towards saving Basque. Also, there is a book in English on the Basque revival -- Reclaiming Basque -- which might give insight. Though, of course, it's mostly about the inverse phenomenon to what you ask about.

Remember, too, that the English state has historically done its best to suppress non-English languages of the British Isles. Although Welsh is still with us, as is Irish Gaelic, if less so, neither have the dignity of being the main language in their territories. (One of the rallying cries of the Irish war of Independence was to liberate the language so that Irishmen could speak Irish in their own country. However, in contemporary Ireland almost everyone just speaks English.) Other British languages are extinct, like Cornish.
posted by bertran at 10:50 PM on November 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

Wikipedia's Language Policy page is a good hub to a host of pages on this subject.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:26 PM on November 24, 2015

Thanks for all the responses, everyone! And thanks languagehat, your blog post got a lot of good comments.
posted by gold-in-green at 8:56 PM on November 25, 2015

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