The Politics of Language
Published on: September 12, 2012
show comments
  • WigWag

    Two comments come to mind about Professor Berger’s erudite post. I am not sure that Professor Berger gets it quite right when, referring to the language laws in Quebec he says, “it’s language laws had the unintended consequence of driving out many anglophone businesses from Montreal to Toronto.” I suspect many former anglophone citizens of Quebec would argue that the consequences were not unintended at all but were in fact quite intended.

    Secondly, Professor Berger reflects at some length on Yiddish, but he neglects to mention Ladino which in fact has a far richer linguistic heritage than even Yiddish does. While Ladino was based on Spanish (much as Yiddish was based on German) it was also heavily influenced by Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Turkish and even Greek. Almost 100,000 people in Israel (virtually all of them of Separdic decent) consider it their native language. Ladino is still spoken in Spain, Turkey and the United States and ad with Yiddish, there have been recent attempts to revive the language.

  • UzhasKakoi


    Than you for very interesting post. I happen to be from Bukowina’s capital Chernotsy (now Chernivtsi or Chernivci, between WWI and WWII: Chernauti, and before Chernowitz). Unfortunately, during the soviet time the multilingual culture disappeared. I knew though uneducated people who did speak 5 or 6 languages.

    Recently I’ve heard someone calling pre-soviet Chernovtsy a fish that spoke 5 languages. So yea, you are correct.

    Thanks again!


  • WigWag

    One other thought on Ladino; on more than one occasion I have met Ladino speakers who tell me that when they travel to Spain and speak Ladino they are told that their language is reminiscent of the language of Cervantes. The analogy might be a 21st century American hearing someone speak to them in the language of Shakespeare sans the iambic pentameter. This surprises me because Ladino has been substantially enriched by the language sephardic Jews encountered on their wanderings in Turkey, the Arab world, North Africa and the Balkans. The so-called “Hidden Jews of New Mexico” also spoke a version of Ladino. In light of this it is perplexing that Ladino sounds to native Spanish speakers (at least the ones from Spain) like old Spanish, but I have been told this story more than once by Ladino speakers.

    For a quick taste of what Ladino music sounds like, try this link,

  • WigWag

    I am sure that it is way more information than anyone needs, but I confess that I spent sleepless night thinking about Professor Berger’s interesting post. The post motivated me to get out of bed when I should have been sleeping and head over to my bookshelf and pull out a copy of Stephen Pinker’s 1994 book, “The Language Instinct;”(at $7.59 on the Kindle, it’s a steal.

    Pinker’s book expounds on Noam Chomsky’s theory about “universal grammar.” To be fair, at this point to call Chomsky’s thesis a theory doesn’t do it justice; it’s more like Darwin’s theory of evolution-that is to say an accepted fact by anyone other than the preternaturally dimwitted. For those who are unfamiliar with it, Chomsky’s thesis suggests that the ability to learn grammar (which is the building block of all language) is hard-wired into the human brain which is evident from the fact that children learn to speak without being taught. Chomsky started a whole generation of linguists on the search for the universal properties that all human languages share. To the extent that Pinker disagrees with Chomsky at all, Pinker believes even more doggedly than Chomsky does about the biological imperative when it comes to language. Since Chomsky developed his thesis and Pinker wrote his book, the genomics revolution has validated a number of points that they made. Several human genes associated with language have been identified and disorders in speech development in children have now been associated with a number of these genetic variants. For those who are interested, the most important gene regulating human language development is called “FOXP2.”

    Given that there is nothing that unites the human species more than the fact that we, alone amongst the species inhabiting the earth, possess the language instinct (Pinker’s book demolishes the idea that animals such as birds, dolphins or non-human primates have real language) it is somewhat surprising that differences over language have proven so divisive.

    Perhaps the only thing that has excited more rancor throughout human history than language is religion. This fact puts me in mind of an explanation I once heard during an interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez where the great author was asked how he explained why the animosity between co-religionists like Roman Catholics and Protestants or Shia and Sunni was more likely to lead to violence than animosity between members of different religions (e.g. Hindu and Christian). Garcia-Marquez’s explanation was as elegant as it was simple; the problem he said was that they all read from the “same book.” Religious people who take their cues from different books have much less to fight about.

    All of this brings me back to Professor Berger’s remark about the Anglophones in Quebec. I don’t think that there is any question that the purpose of the Quebec language laws was to ethnically cleanse Anglophone speakers from the Province. The French majority in the Province, which overwhelmingly supported the legislation, wanted what all linguistic chauvinists want; they wanted their Anglophone neighbors to “convert” and speak French or to leave. Like the conversos in Spain, many Anglophones chose to conduct their business in French while furtively speaking English at home; many left the Province for good. Either way, the French chauvinists got what they wanted, but only partially.

    After achieving their linguistic hegemony in the Province, the next goal of the many Québécois was independence from Canada. For a time, it seemed that the political party enfranchised to accomplish this goal, the Parti Québécois (PQ), might achieve independence. Ironically, once the English language was practically banished from Quebec, this caused the nationalist fervor amongst the Province’s French speaking citizens to abate. Previous referendums on the issue all failed and for the past 15 years the PQ was out of power in Quebec. Just a few weeks ago, the PQ was voted back into power but without any mandate to seek independence from Canada. Once the French in Quebec could bully others into speaking their language, their zest for political independence dissipated.

    Of course, the French are not the only linguistic chauvinists in the world. The Turks don’t much like the Kurds speaking their native tongue; the fact that Turks and Kurds are both mostly Sunni Muslims hasn’t lessened the distaste that both populations have for each other, largely over the issue of language. In Japan, during the 1970s when the Japanese economy was ascendant, it was not uncommon to hear Japanese intellectuals and businessmen attribute their superior economic performance to the supposedly unique way in which the Japanese language shaped the Japanese intellect. Of course, now that Japan has become an economic laggard for the past 20 years, we never hear Japanese attribute their economic failings to the inadequacies of their language.

    Still, there does seem to be something unique about the French; in a world full of linguistic chauvinists they always seem to ascend to the top of the pyramid. In fact, the political unification of France was very much about the French language crowding out and then destroying local languages and dialects spoken in what were to become parts of the French periphery. A wonderful book that describes this history in some detail is Graham Robb’s, “The Discovery of France.” At $9.99 on the Kindle, it is also a steal and well worth a look,

  • ahad ha’amoratsim

    The Israeli joke is funnier if you know that the literal translation of “Yiddish” is “Jewish” (which is the only English nmae I heard it called by when I was a kid) and that “Yid” (with the ‘y’ pronounced like a vowel, not a consonant) is the Yiddish word for Jew.

    In other words, translated from Yiddish to English, the punch line is that she is speaking to her son in Jewish so that he won’t forget he’s a Jew.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Prof. Berger’s discussion of the attempt to revive the Aramaic language of Jesus in a Christian village in Arab territory in Israel indeed is interesting.

    Berger describes the stated purpose is to unite all Middle East Christians in “one strong nation.” Cognitively besieged by Arabic and Hebrew languages as what might be called “hegemonic languages,” this Christian minority wants to re-institute Aramaic as a way to re-create what Berger would call a “Christian plausibility structure.”

    This is ironic in that the New Testament world and language was Greek.

    In Jerry Dell Ehrlich’s book “Plato’s Gift to Christianity: The Gentile Preparation for and the Making of the Christian Faith” (2001) the author asks:

    “Why, if Jesus and all the disciples were Jewish, is the entire New Testament written in Greek?”

    “Why within 100 years of Jesus’ reported religious ministry were all the leaders of the Christian Church Greek speaking?”

    Ehrlich makes a case that Jesus was a “Hellenized” or Greek Jew, not a Palestinian Jew. Ancient Palestine was a Greek state or occupied territory. The names of Jesus’ family and his Disciples are mostly Greek. The Herodian dynasty ruled Palestine from 37 BC to AD 70, with the life pf Jesus exactly at the peak of this 107-year dynasty. The lineage of Herod the Great had mainly Greek names. His wives had Greek names. Herod’s grandfather was a Greek army general or “Strategos.” A large proportion of the names in the Christian New Testament are Greek, not Jewish or Palestinian. Ehrlich writes that the name “Jesus” is of Greek origin.

    According to Ehrlich, the occupation of Jesus as a reported carpenter or stone mason could not have occurred in Galilee, but in the City of Sepphoris, built during the years of Jesus’ life by Herod Antipas, the Greek son of Herod the Great. In Sepphoris, a 4,000 seat theater was built in which Greek plays were performed and Greek philosophy was taught. This theater was the largest public works project of its time and locale. As a builder, Jesus may even have worked on this nearly project. Thus, Jesus may have come into daily conversation with Greeks.

    An Ehrlich point out the very word “synagogue” is a Greek word. And since Jesus is reported on nine occasions by his Disciples to have read from the Jewish scriptures in the synagogue, and the Jews in Palestine mostly used Septuagint Greek, Ehrlich believes he must have known Greek.

    Jesus is referred to as a “teacher” over 50 times in the Christian Gospels. But in the entire New Testament only three Aramaic expressions are attributed to him and everything else is in Greek.

    The Letters of Paul the Apostle were written before the Christian Gospels. And the Pauline birthplace of Christianity was the City of Antioch, not Jerusalem.

    That the modern Greek state is now bankrupt and a dependent ward of the European Union may be why a Christian enclave in the Arab section of Israel may desire to revive Aramaic rather than Greek for its community language.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    I should have added in the above comment that a nostalgic return to Aramaic instead of, say, Orthodox Greek or even English as the language of Mid East Christians may resign Christianity to a marginal sect rather than a religion embraced by hegemonic nations.

    Corrections to the above comment:

    “As a builder, Jesus may have worked on this NEARBY project.”

    “AS Ehrlich POINTS out the very word “synagogue” is a Greek word.”

  • Gary Novak

    Berger’s discussion of the politics of language is rich in detail, but I would like to focus on two more general comments he makes in passing: Reality looks very different as filtered through languages (German and Italian in this case). And every language opens up a distinctive window on the world. Both images—filtration and window-gazing—suggest that language limits our access to reality but does not “construct” reality. Language influences what we pay attention to, what counts as reality for us, but neither sexist language nor androgynous language was present when God laid the foundations of the universe.

    Radical sociolinguistic constructionism, which holds that there is no mind-independent reality, is obviously not interested in listening for signals of transcendence from what Nietzsche dismissed as worlds behind the scene. For constructionists, the point is to engineer a better world through language-police enforcement of politically correct language. (I recall a sociology textbook which denounced the military’s attempt to normalize war with terms like collateral damage and neutralization of enemy assets. Having finished the topic of linguistic spin, the text took up the topic of abortion and noted the case of a woman who experienced unnecessary guilt because she believed she had killed her baby—rather than removed unwanted “products of conception”!)

    Cognitive scientists like Steven Pinker (The Language Instinct, The Blank Slate) have properly ridiculed standard sociological nonsense about Eskimos constructing snow with words. But, refreshing as it is to have fellow-traveling scientists debunking the idea that humans and the whole world are blank slates, theists can travel only so far with those who ignore philosophical anthropology and view language simply as a collection of modules in the “adapted mind.” The language “instinct” cannot explain a God who speaks or the responses of creatures made in the image of God. Language, like consciousness, remains a miracle, despite the claims of cognitive scientists to have “explained” both.

    Berger’s inclination to support a multiplicity of distinctive language windows is sound. If language does not actually construct reality, there is not much danger of getting stuck in the “wrong” language. As Archie Bunker famously put it, God speaks all five languages. And, of course, language differences are not just between languages but within them. Chaucer’s English is not ours. Language change never stops.

    But if laissez faire is the best language policy, it is not only unwise to police language but perhaps also to artificially preserve it. Spoken language windows are more life-enhancing than dead language windows—or dying language windows. As a current resident of Oklahoma, I frequently encounter efforts to preserve Indian languages that have dwindling numbers of speakers. The multicultural presupposition seems to be that if culture constructs selves and language constructs culture, then letting a language die out is tantamount to genocide. But if a language is dying not because of language suppression and the associated hostility to its speakers, it may be possible for values acquired in one language to receive expression in another. If I may be permitted to expand the discussion to include the “language” of ballet, I would note the disproportionate number of world class Indian ballerinas from Oklahoma. I recently attended a memorial tribute for one of them, Moscelyne Larkin, daughter of a Russian mother and Indian father. As a child she hated ballet lessons—“Indian children like to run free, not be stuck doing barre exercises.” But then she discovered that all that discipline vastly enhanced her capacity for self-expression– including her Indian self. Linguists speak of “subtractive bilingualism” when oppressed people are forced to speak the oppressor’s language (and their own on the sly). The additional language diminishes their selfhood. I think it is safe to say that the Indian ballerinas experienced no subtractive bilingualism when they danced Swan Lake. The point is that the larger world was receptive to their contributions. They did not have to choose between being Indians and being ballerinas. Dancing Swan Lake was one way of being Indian.

    So, in accordance with laissez faire language policy, I would not oppose efforts to revive Aramaic or preserve Chickasaw or hold a war dance festival. But linguistic ethnocentrism is not our greatest human failing. Ranking higher is our reluctance to say what needs to be said in any language.

  • Pingback: Liturgy Free Catholic Online Publishing Angels | Big Pulpit()

  • Matt R

    This is a very interesting article.
    I would like to offer a clarification: The Maronite Catholic Church is not ‘Orthodox in communion with Rome.” It never entered into schism. Also, Melkites as they are referred to in the piece can only be Catholic, as their Church of the see of Antioch came into communion with Rome in the 18th century, after a split with the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch.
    Both are referred to as Eastern Churches.

  • Tom


    This is the second recent article in which you refer to the Melkites as being Orthodox in communion with Constantinople. This is incorrect. The Melkites are Byzantine-Rite Catholics in communion with Rome.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2017 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.