Something very historically unusual has been happening for the past century. At an unprecedented pace, languages around the world have been disappearing. By some estimates, we’ve been losing about one language every three months for the past hundred years. By the end of this century, we may lose another 50% of the languages currently spoken.  What is causing the erosion of linguistic diversity? You may have heard this phrase before: “the world is getting smaller.” What is generally meant by that is that we are becoming globally connected in a way that was never possible before. An individual, albeit a relatively privileged one, can board a flight and be halfway around the world in less than a day. Family members living on different continents can communicate in real-time. Co-workers can hold meetings thousands of miles apart. No doubt technological advances have brought about a level of global integration that has radically altered how almost everything works.
This process began around the decay of feudalism in Europe. If you have not seen the video on this channel covering mercantilism, you may find some useful insights about the advent of capitalism in late feudal Europe. Pre-capitalist societies were based largely on immediate social relations. Communities were small, tight-knit, and fairly disconnected with the broader world. This all began to change as commerce brought cities across the world together. The development of capitalism shook up the feudal order, forcing disenfranchised peasants into large cities. The proletarianization of the masses was a homogenizing process. People began to identify less with specific villages or counties, and more with an abstract national and class culture. As a historical force, capital has always washed away differences, leaving behind a smooth surface where a rocky one used to be.
As smaller communities became tributaries that flowed into larger rivers, dialects and local languages disappeared. For much of history, people did not see themselves as constituents of so-called nation-states. And yet, by the 19th and early 20th centuries, national identity was definitively displacing self-affiliation with local communities.
Gramsci: Unification and Diversity
This was the backdrop for Antonio Gramsci’s views on unification and diversity. The Italy of the early 20th century was precisely a battleground between a nascent national identity and a series of smaller and older regional loyalties. For Gramsci, language was an extremely important medium through which these tensions played out. Sardinian at birth, Gramsci had first-hand experience speaking what was sometimes considered a dialect or “smaller” language, while also grasping the increasing importance of Italian. Like many people of his time, Gramsci firmly believed that the world was indeed getting smaller, and that the future for not only Italy, but all of humanity, was unification. In this sense, a unifying language was considered as historically progressive and politically desirable. But as Alessandro Carlucci argues, Gramsci was staunchly opposed to the artificial imposition of a language over others. As such, Gramsci was an avid proponent of linguistic pluralism, both because the political struggles of diverse regions could best be articulated in their respective native tongues, and because the coercive assimilation of groups was futile at best and destructive at worst.
The main question was how to go about striking a balance between diversity and unification:
“The tension between the two poles — unification and diversity — can never be entirely resolved. History does not destroy, it simply rearranges. Unity does not mean uniformity, and there may be a deeper level of autonomy and diversity in a future unified world than there is within the present conflict-ridden and divided humanity” (Carlucci 2015, p.17).
However, the question of how to go about reaching a standardized national language involved delicate practical implications. Teachers needed to be aware of and sensitive towards regional and local particularities (without compromising standardization). The issue was one of respecting “popular” dialects/languages without romanticizing them.
In the end, unification required planned intervention, but this intervention could not work “against the grain” of organic developments. Gramsci believed rigorous and scientific evaluations of the current linguistic transformations were necessary to guide interventions. As a result, the unified language will not necessarily be specifically pre-ordained, that is, what we end up with will never fully reflect the blueprints (p. 108).
Soviet Views and Policies
Gramsci was able to experience some of the most unprecedented language policies in contemporary history during his time in the early years of the Soviet Union. There too, many thinkers were concerned about the way linguistic and political struggles were connected. Yevgeniy Preobrazhensky and Nikolai Bukharin wrote, in The ABC of Communism, that linguistic oppression was a staple policy among the empires of Europe. National equality in a liberated workers’ government must therefore recognize the full linguistic rights of minority groups. The tension of unification and diversity was present at the conception of the Soviet state. Lenin, who uncompromisingly campaigned for the ethno-linguistic rights of minorities in the former Russian empire, nevertheless envisaged a process of economic, social, and political integration on an international scale. Lenin believed this integration would happen through, rather than in spite of, multilingualism and multiculturalism. Carlucci notes that,
“This support for multilingualism was organised around a set of theoretical intuitions and precise policy directives. From Lenin’s point of view, unification and integration develop and emerge historically, and cannot be imposed by the coercive repression of diversity. Unification can only mean voluntary integration, in connection with the development of the economy and of productive forces of society. Furthermore, an unbounded access to democracy, which Lenin considered to be the key to the integration of different populations, requires the equality of all languages” (p. 119).
As such, Lenin firmly advocated for the right of groups, no matter how small, to receive education in their native languages, and to use those languages in public and state institutions. He went as far as to suggest that institutional unity would be best achieved through the use of multilingual procedures in governmental and political functions.
Soviet policy on language was ultimately very closely tied to formation of new nations. Soviet policymakers worked closely with linguists and sociologists to codify, systematize, and promote minority languages. At times, however, the zeal of the scholars and the political motivations of the Party created boundaries where none had existed before. The Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, for example, was dissolved into smaller republics out of fears of a Pan-Turkist movement emerging in the region. The grounds for the demarcations between the republics were, at least in part, motivated by linguistic differences that were at times arbitrarily derived.
Gramsci believed that the Russian language was the unifying vehicle “capable of expressing the highest and most universal achievements of world intellectual culture.” Consequently, the Soviet policy of ethno-linguistic demarcation was a hindrance to the elevation of the masses.
Of course, what was initially an explosion of interest in linguistic diversity gradually became reconfigured on terms that favored the Russian language. Many languages, including those that had already begun the process of Latinization of their alphabets, were Cyrillicized. Though various degrees of linguistic freedoms persisted throughout Soviet history, Russian continued to be the dominant language for political and academic discourse.
For Gramsci and others who valued unification, the standardization of Russian in educational and professional spaces was not principally wrong. The main objection was that language policies in the USSR often went against the grain. Gramsci theorized that linguistic changes (and political ones) “irradiated” from organic centers. Consequently, language planning ought to have facilitated unification by maintaining a careful awareness of spontaneous developments.
“Gramsci believed that diversity, including linguistic diversity, could not simply be denied, bureaucratically abolished or violently removed. Yet he also believed that modernity offered great opportunities for overcoming cultural and linguistic cleavages, in that modern economic and cultural trends would promote universal unification at a national level, and, ultimately, also at an international level. The characteristics of the unified language that was eventually to emerge through this process of unification were not entirely predictable, and could not be determined from the outset” (p. 188).
What is especially interesting is that the outcome of the Gramscian approach doesn’t presuppose the emergence of a dominant language that is intact. The emergent language is clearly a synthesis of languages, a product of the organic process of unification.
Language in the Future
A hundred years have passed since the observations of Gramsci and his contemporaries. Regardless of what we think about the supposed necessity of linguistic unification, history has demonstrated that we are in fact moving towards a world with fewer and fewer languages. Capital moves at an accelerating pace, which brings us closer together with every passing year. This interconnection, however, is not at all innocent. The flows of capital transport certain languages around the world while they erase others. Lecercle calls English the language of imperialism for this reason.
“[…] a single language suffices — the language spoken by the whole world because it is the language of globalisation and empire: those who have the good fortune, or the privilege, to speak English as their mother tongue do not need to learn a second language, unlike the unfortunate natives of secondary languages and dominated cultures. Or, going even further: you need to know English, and there is no need to learn another language, because English is the language of imperialism” (Lecercle 2009, p. 5).
This pattern of consolidation may prompt some to adopt an almost Luddite reaction to the invasion of English into other languages, expelling any influences or loan-words simply because they are derivative. But such responses are not necessary, and, as Gramsci would say, impose artificial constraints on an otherwise organic process. English is the global lingua franca par excellence only because of a specific historical and social conjuncture. It’s entirely possible that in the process of becoming-minoritarian (as Lecercle puts it), English as the language of imperialism will go the way of Latin, outliving the empire and ultimately dissolving into a family of related languages. For our part, we should forget the obsession with purifying foreign contaminants and focus, rather, on the spaces where language struggles articulate political and class tensions around the world.