Hegemony of the Tongue

Photo by Etienne Girardet

In the preface of his 1914 novel Travel Across Three Continents in Twenty-Nine Days, father of Afghan journalism, Mahmoud Tarzi notes:

“Although age has its normal limits, it may be extended by two things-the study of history and by travel. Reading history broadens one’s perception of the creation of the world, while travel extends one’s field of vision.”

I’ve been fascinated by this line for many years. It’s a sentiment directed from a deeply literate man to a deeply literate portion of the world. In its elegance, however, it neglects a key feature of the study of history and access to global interconnection: Language and linguistic hegemony.

This is an issue I see come up a lot when looking at national minorities without states across the rich world.

Language is deeply connected to cultural identity.

This is true for indigenous communities in settler-colonial states and empires (Indigenous communities of the Americas and Northern Europe and Asia, for example). It is also true for ethnic and national minorities in Western European states that have only begun the process of linguistic homogenization in recent centuries (Bretons, Catalans, Basques, for example).

Recently former deputy attorney general for the Navajo Nation, Eric Eberhard was interviewed for a radio program on Seattle’s KUOW on the potential impacts of the United States Supreme Court’s ruling on Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta. In the interview, he pointed out that “Sovereignty in Indian country is cultural. Everything in Indian country is cultural… I think it’s fair to say that almost every Native person would look at this decision as an offense to the basic sovereignty of the tribes and the cultures and customs of the tribes and a serious threat to them.”

Through that lens, language — and thereby cultural access to a community’s modes of understanding of the world — is also a question of sovereignty.

What then of endangered languages and the threat of linguistic extinction?

How are communities that have become largely or wholly assimilated into more dominant linguistic spheres of influence maintain cultural sovereignty while also “[broadening their] perception of the creation of the world,” as Tarzi would have it?

I can’t answer that, honestly.

But, at some point down the road, I’d like to attempt to get Secessio Populi translated into the national languages of the groups discussed on it. I don’t think I have access to those translation resources yet. I also don’t want to make some big thing about it, like it’s something more significant or important than it is.

It seems like it should be common courtesy that if I write an article on Mapuche independence aspirations, it should be available to be read in Mapudungun, for example. I don’t expect my attempt to do this to be part of some experiment in decentralizing Spanish in South America or anything so grandiose.

But I digress. The centrality of language to ethnic and cultural identity is key to understanding independence fights worldwide. The contours of this are worth watching.

Originally published at https://davidnwaeze.substack.com on July 25, 2022.

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David Nwa'eze

David Nwa'eze

I write about independence aspirants within rich & developed states. Mostly posting random observations on here. Socials: linktr.ee/SecessioPopuli