Friday, September 6, 2013

Language And Politics: Defining Language by Jennifer Collins

If you ever asked yourself what is it that makes language a language, you have probably realized how difficult it may be to give an appropriate answer to this question, even with the extensive knowledge of sociolinguistics. Sometimes, a language and a dialect are separated by a thin line that is often defined by some extra-linguistic forces.

These extra-linguistic forces are frequently related to political concepts of country and nationality. Usually, the first feature that defines the language is the country it is spoken in. However, being a living thing that develops and progresses, a language cannot always be tied to a precisely defined territory. This is the case with many regions in Europe, for example, where the turbulent history caused many nations to interrelate and merge in terms of culture and language alike.

How is the official language chosen?

With the emergence of the notion of ‘nation’, countries adopted different symbols of their national identities. Besides flags, anthems, and coats of arms, an official language is also an important feature that defines both nation and country. However, problems appear in multicultural surroundings and countries where many different languages and dialects are regularly spoken. Recently, The Lingua File featured an interesting article on the Languages of Bolivia, which pretty much illustrates the point.

In such cases, the official language is chosen based on the number of speakers, current political climate and available funds (for reprinting all the existing material). Therefore, choosing an official language is not an easy decision, especially in some underdeveloped countries, in Africa for example, where there are still separate tribes speaking completely different languages.

Is language a national property?

Different examples from Europe prove that a language can be treated as a property emblematic of a national identity, regardless of its linguistic features. This is the case with Swedish, Norwegian and Danish, which share a lot of linguistic features but are spoken within national borders of different countries. ‘Appropriating’ language in this way further poses challenges in terms of defining the features that actually constitute a language.

Even more striking example is the case with the languages of ex-Yugoslavia and disassembling Serbo-Croatian to four ‘new’ national languages. After the huge political transformation when the country got divided into six smaller ones, national language was also divided and turned into: Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin. Clearly, these four languages didn’t just emerge the same day the country disappeared. They have always existed in the form of standardized registers, until they were given a new status once the national territory was reorganized.

When language is not a language

To make this discussion even more complex, there are some opposite examples when two significantly different dialectal varieties are treated as the same language, even though they are spoken in two different countries. An example of this is Swiss German and its peculiar status in Switzerland.

Namely, Swiss German is regarded as an Alemannic dialect widely used across Switzerland and some parts of Italy. The peculiarity is the fact that in Switzerland, Swiss German is used on all levels of communication but it is still treated like a dialectal variety, rather than a language. Instead, the official language is Standard Swiss German, which has only few areas of use. It is used in formal contexts, such as in educational institutions, for official news and broadcasts.

Even though Swiss German also encompasses a group of different dialects, it is unusual that it has never been standardized in order to get a status of an actual language, especially because it does have political preconditions for this.

Obviously, defining a language depends on multiple parameters. Due to frequent migrations and redefinitions of national borders within Europe, this region seems to be one of the most challenging areas for defining the notion of a language. The examples given above make it clear that a language is much more than set of linguistic features - it is a cultural property and frequently a political tool.


Jennifer Collins is an ESL teacher and linguist currently working on Saundz, a new software programme for learning English pronunciation.