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17.3.13

Linguistic Hegemony

You know?  I don't believe there's such
a thing as TV.  I mean -
They just keep showing you
The same pictures over and over.
And when they talk they just make sounds
That more or less synch up
With their lips.
That's what I think!

Language!  It's a virus!
Language!  It's a virus!
Language!  It's a virus!
  --Laurie Anderson

I admit I am guilty of linguistic hegemony.  I have made a fair living off of teaching English.  To be fair, I have also taught Spanish and German, but I go where the market is.

I also point out that I am fluent in four languages, conversant in another five, and have at least elementary command of an additional eight.  So I claim a certain amount of expertise on the subject at hand.  I have formally studied English, Spanish, German and Latin, and I have learned the rest by osmosis.  I have even learned a foreign language using another foreign language, which is a fun thing should you have occasion to try.

That said, I will tell you that empires are built on little more than language.

I find very few commentators or writers pointing out this fact.  They speak of economic, religious or military domination, but rarely, if ever, highlight the role of language in the maintenance of empires.  All other forms of empire are founded on the power of language to project them across time and space.

The Roman empire could not have stood for 900 years had not Latin been forced on all conquered peoples and nations.  In order to conduct commerce or access information or receive public appointments, one had to be proficient in Latin.  It was that simple.

If the Teutans wanted to trade with the Gauls or the Angles, they had to do so using Latin.  It was the only common means of communication available, and most people with any amount of education had already been forced to learn Latin as subjects of the empire.

Even now, there are five primary Romance languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian).  Latin is still the official state language of the Vatican, which has no small amount of influence on global events, as evidenced by events of the past month.  And Latin suffuses dozens, if not hundreds, of languages worldwide.  The etymology of nearly every polysyllabic word I have written thus far is from Latin, with a smattering of Greek (another empire) and a grammatical base of Teutonic that is English.

Language is the mortar which binds many of our modern nation-states.  The United States could not exist without the use of American English as the common denominator.  Indonesia maintains its republic through the use of a Malayu dialect.  China's republic is held together with Mandarin, just as the vast nation of Russia is held together with a common language.  In fact, none of these monolithic political states could exist without a common language.

Most of the success of the Anglo-American empire has been founded on the international use of English as a sort of trading language.  Just as Arabic holds the Islamic world together, English creates the hegemony of the Anglo-American empire.  Those who wish to access the economic or intellectual benefits of the empire must perforce use English.  All the professional journals of any consequence, most of the translations of more obscure texts in other languages and the vast majority of international trade are available only to those who have a command of the English language.

But why is this important to empire?  The answer is both simple and complex.

All language is symbolic.  When we speak or write, we are converting images and symbols in our minds into a form of carrier wave and transmitting them to others who are capable of decoding and rebuilding the images and symbols in their heads.  Every form of human communication is nothing more than encoding and decoding information to transfer and recreate images between transmitters and receivers.

The key concept here is that the images and symbols we have in our minds are cultural and experiential.  For instance, the concept of elephant will have vastly different images and symbols connected with it for a US school kid and his Thai counterpart.  The former will envision zoos and circuses, while the latter will see a common work animal.  Thus it is true that no matter what we say or write, it carries specific cultural meanings and contexts.  So anyone learning a foreign language must necessarily become immersed in the culture of that language, because language and culture are one and the same thing.  Language simply encodes culture and transmits it to the receiver.

By the same token, culture is language.  We typically call this phenomenon slang.  Each generation develops its unique slang based on its unique experiences, and as a way of identifying itself as distinct from others.  Some slang catches on in the general culture and becomes a permanent part of the language, while other forms fade over time and are eventually lost in meaning.

We need look no further than Shakespeare himself for clear examples of this.  The terms fish monger, nunnery and fishwife are all contemporary slang for whorehouse, pimp and whore, though modern readers of Hamlet will hardly get the pun.

So what's the point of all this, you ask impatiently.  I'm getting there.

Language has been the single most effective tool for maintaining empires in the squalid history of Mankind.    The English language has been shoved down people's throats for hundreds of years, first by the British empire, then later by the American empire.

Enforcement is simple.  If you want to do business with the empire, you need to use the language of the empire.  Plain and simple.  In so doing, the empire ensures that its culture is infused into subject nations, thus ensuring a market for its products and services.  One of the largest global cottage industries is teaching the English language, and by extension suffusing other cultures and peoples with the Anglo-American way of life.

Learning English gives access to English-language books, movies and music.  It brings with it a very subtle and likely permanent invasion.  The ideals, concepts and contexts that are the 'Western way of life' are encoded in the language and infect all who tap into the transmission.

The English language itself is a study in conquest.  At its core, it is a Germanic language and many English speakers will find they recognize a lot of German vocabulary.  Over this base is laid Latin, French and Greek.  In addition, English has picked up words from dozens of other languages, especially those of conquered peoples.  American English contains dozens of American Indian words.  Australian English stole many Aboriginal words.  British English has picked up a significant Indian vocabulary.

Another phenomenon, noted by myself and others of my acquaintance, that becoming fluent in other languages usually means creating entirely new personae, as well.  When I speak Italian, I find myself gesticulating wildly, or Spanish makes me feel romantic, while French turns me into a snoot.  It is quite obvious that learning and using other languages carries with it cultural viruses that infect the user and subtly change the personality.

Language is a curious thing.  It not only encodes, but is encoded.  It creates a culture, but is also created by a culture.  It is at once the chicken and the egg.

Powerful economic, political or military cultures leave their impressions in other languages, as they have been left in English, and the study of a language is a study of its cultural history.  Indonesian is embedded with Chinese, Arabic, Portuguese, Dutch and English...all empires that have squatted on this country.

English does have certain advantages over other languages.  It readily assimilates foreign grammar and vocabulary, and the syntax is flexible enough to accommodate a variety of dialectical forms.

Still, it is a tool of hegemony, like other languages of conquest.  It transfers and overrides other cultures and is the key to a number of 'thought viruses' that tend to infect minds.  Of course, this power behind the language is and has been dependent on the economic engine of the empire.  Without the financial might backing it, the linguistic hegemony may well collapse.

All of which should leave you with two distinct ideas:
1) You feel dirty now because I've infected you with thought viruses; and
2) You really should start learning Mandarin.