2. Nation-states and minorities
Nationalism and the nation-state
Ethnicity and nationalism
Ethnic conflicts and the nation-state
Languages and the nation-state
Language death and the nation-state
Cultural homogenisation and differentiation
Minorities in the seamless modern world
3. The nationalist quest for linguistic
Nationalist ideology and linguistic unification
The state and linguistic variation
4. Linguistic oppression and resistance
The Greenlandic Inuits
French-lexicon creole speakers in the UK
Spanish speakers in the USA
The Kurds in Turkey
Language policies in "plural societies"
Problems in challenging the hegemony
5. Some implications
Afterthought: Between the native reserve
and cultural genocide
"Can the ... vision of a better world based upon sharing
a multiplicity of little languages and appreciating a variety
of little peoples be tested, confirmed, or revised and refined?
Does it have a scientific rather than "merely" a humanistic
or philosophical future? I think so ..."
Joshua A. Fishman (1982, p. 10)
The present essay should be read as a synoptic study of oppression
and resistance, as well as an attempt to delineate some conditions
for peace and the realization of human rights in the widest sense.
The forms of oppression which are about to be considered, are not
necessarily of a physical and overt kind. On the contrary, they
are often invisible to the casual observer, and they are sometimes
not even articulated as forms of oppression either by the oppressors
or by the victims. For this reason, the social and cultural processes
with which I shall deal have scarcely at all been investigated as
forms of systematic repression; they have rather been described
and analysed as processes of modernization or as social change,
aspects of minority strategies, forms of cultural homogenization,
or cultural conflict. The topic is the relationship between linguistic
minorities, social identity, and nationalism as embedded in a nation-state.
The present perspective departs from a conception of power asymmetry where the nation-state is regarded as the chief power-holder and
its linguistic minorities as relatively powerless at the outset
of a conflict. I shall in this context argue that the standardization
of languages and, in particular, the nation-state's insistence on
a shared national language, constitutes a serious threat against
the well-being of many inhabitants of many areas, who have more
or less involuntarily become citizens of some nation-state.1 By
implication, I shall argue, nationalism as such, which combines
the immense power of the modern state with ethnic ideology of exclusion
and inclusion, deserves critical scrutiny.
The linguists may tell us that there are between 3,000 and 8,000
distinctive languages in the world, the exact number depending on
the definition used (Trudgill, 1991). Only a tiny proportion of
these languages are given official recognition by governments ("less
than five per cent", according to Skutnabb-Kangas, 1990). Although
most of the world's states are de facto plurilingual, very
few states give equal rights to linguistic minorities. The members
of these minorities are often forced to become bilingual in the
dominant language, which frequently leads to the eventual loss of
their vernacular. Both the presence of linguistic minorities and
institutionalised bilingualism are regarded as problems by nationalist
ideology. By extension, the members of these minorities are defined,
virtually by default, as problems for the nation-state.
This essay falls in three parts. First, the relationship between
nationalism, the nation-state and linguistic minorities is presented
in an abstract and general way, highlighting the modern character
of contemporary conflicts between nation-state and minorities (see,
however, Mannheim, 1984, for an interesting "pre-modern"
comparison). Then, several examples of linguistic dominance and
minority resistance are presented and compared, with the aim of
showing variation and similarities in multi-lingual situations in
different contemporary settings. Finally, some general principles
regarding the prospects for linguistic survival on the part of linguistic
minorities are enumerated, and some implications for further research
are suggested. An essential underlying concern is a wish to suggest
ways in which qualitative research, which takes into account the
wider social and cultural context of a given conflict, can be of
considerable value in peace and conflict research.
2. Concepts and processes
and the nation-state
As Richard Handler (1988) has observed, a difficult problem intrinsic
to the study of nationalism consists in the fact that the social
disciplines and nationalism to a great extent have a common intellectual
heritage. In other words, the respective concepts and models of
the social world invoked by nationalism and by the social disciplines
are intrinsically related. An additional reason why it can be difficult
to treat nationalism with the analytical detachedness required,
consists in its urgent appeal to our political views and emotions.
There are probably few fields -- at least within anthropology (which
is this writer's discipline) -- which run a greater risk of being
contaminated by the inaccurate and sometimes passionate language
of politicians, the press and lay people, than the field of nationalism.
A few conceptual demarcations therefore seem immediately pertinent.
Nationalism is a political doctrine which holds that the boundaries
of the state should be coterminous with the boundaries of the cultural
group (Gellner, 1983). Very few nation-states are therefore nation-states
proper, since most of the world's 162 internationally (sic)
recognized states (as of October, 1991) contain minorities, who
do not define themselves as members of the group represented through
state nationalism. There may be 10,000 or more culturally distinctive
groups in the world, depending on one's criteria. As Gellner (1983)
remarks, the number of potential nationalisms is probably much, much higher than the number of extant or successful nationalisms.
Most nationalisms can further be defined as ethnic nationalisms,
and do therefore not include, in their delineation of the nation,
the minorities who happen to live in the territory which they define
as the national one. Both cultural minorities and foreigners are
thus outsiders to the "imagined community" postulated
by nationalism. Minorities, in particular, are "matter out
of place" in relation to nationalism; their distinctiveness
is in itself a sign of the lack of congruence between nationalist
ideology and social reality. For this reason, many nation-states
try to assimilate minorities and in order to create the cultural
homogeneity insisted upon by nationalist ideology; some do so through
extremely violent means, through the extermination or expulsion
of minorities. -- It is perhaps characteristic that our paradigmatic
vision of a democratic society is the ancient Greek city-state.
Just as we tend to forget the dark side of that society, including
slavery and lack of women's rights, we also tend to forget that
the "democratic" unity of a modern nation-state is nearly
always parasitic on those whom it excludes from its unity -- whether
they are outsiders or insiders -- or those who are compelled to
join against their will.
In the Europe of the late nineteenth century, Peter Worsley writes
(1984, p. 260), there were two rivalling views on the relationship
between state and nation. The Serbs represented one view. They argued
that the nation's (or ethnic group's) quest for cultural self-determination
could be satisfied even if the nation was divided between different
states, or if several nations shared a state. The other view, which
was represented by the Hungarian revolutionary Kossuth (and by many
others, among them Guiseppe Mazzini), was that each nation, or "people",
ought to have its own state. "It was the latter conception
which was to win out," Worsley (ibid.) comments dryly.
The idea of a multicultural, multilingual state seems unnatural
and impractical to contemporary nationalists. Europeans laugh sadly
at the "artificial" African states, which can be composed
of as many as forty or more linguistic communities. What should
be kept in mind here is the fact that most European states were multilingual only a century ago, as well as the fact that they still are multilingual, notwithstanding current nationalist ideologies
and various forms of legislation which suggest that they are not
(the only nearly monolingual European states are Iceland and Portugal).
Most countries in the world contain linguistic minorities, whether
they are "indigenes" or immigrant communities.
The distinction between nationalism and the nation-state can be an important one. Several rivalling nationalisms may exist
within one nation-state; usually, one of them is dominant and may
refer to the others as "ethnic", "secessionist",
"regionalist" or even "tribal" or simply "subversive"
ideologies. The nation-state is a state representing itself through
nationalist ideology; this is an ideology proclaiming, in a normative
rather than a descriptive way, the essential cultural unity of all
citizens. It is not difficult to understand, therefore, that serious
conflicts may easily arise if many of the citizens do not regard
themselves as being culturally represented in the state -- in a
word, that the dominant nationalism is not an ideology with which
they identify. The inherent dangers of making nation-building in
a poly-ethnic society into an ethnic project are thus obvious.
Ethnicity and nationalism
been defined in many ways. In the present discussion, the term means
the systematic and sustained reproduction of basic classificatory
differences between groups whose members define themselves as being
culturally distinctive from members of other groups which are defined
in a similar way (see Barth, 1969, for an influential discussion
of ethnicity along these lines). Ethnicity is thus created and maintained
through the ongoing creation of socially relevant contrasts -- not, as many laymen and ethnic chauvinists would have it, by
virtue of "objective" cultural differences. The minimal
unit in ethnic relations is therefore not one ethnic group, but
a relationship between members of different ethnic groups.
An ethnic group seen in isolation is an analytical absurdity; it
amounts to what Gregory Bateson, in a different context, has spoken
of as "the sound from one hand clapping" (Bateson, 1978).
Ethnic groups nearly always have a common myth of origin and rules
of marital endogamy, which are -- needless to say -- practised with
highly varying degrees of rigour. One could add further criteria,
but that does not seem necessary here. A main point is that ethnicity
does not have an imperative relationship to "objective"
criteria; it is constituted through its social and cultural relevance
(cf. Ardener, 1989). It is, in other words, ideologically constituted,
and many ethnic groups contain members who do not perceive ethnicity
as important, but who would rather attach themselves to a political
organisation based on a different ideology, for example one based
on class membership. In the present context, a main point concerning
ethnicity is the empirical fact that collectivities of people who
define themselves as culturally distinctive may see their distinctiveness
as being threatened from the outside -- largely from the homogenizing
and discriminatory practices of the nation-state -- and that they
may react in different ways against such a perceived threat.
In the scholarly literature, ethnicity has been accounted for through
two main kinds of perspectives. "Instrumentalist" approaches
regard it chiefly as a kind of political organisation based on metaphorical
and real kinship (e.g. Cohen, 1974); while the "primordalist"
view stresses the historical continuity of the ethnic community
as a determinating factor for personal identity (e.g. Epstein, 1978).
While neither of these kinds of explanations are fully satisfactory,
both of them depart from the assumption, which has been empirically
supported on a number of occasions, that ethnicity simultaneously
has a strong emotional appeal and an equally strong politically
mobilising potential. In a situation of conflict, the combination
can be extremely powerful and volatile.
Nationalism and ethnicity can frequently be interchangeable terms.
Many organizations and collectivities which are officially defined
as ethnic ones within the discourse of some nation-state, may regard
themselves as nationalist movements. The distinction between nation
and ethnic group pertains to their relationship to the state. If
a social or political movement aspires to create its own, culturally
homogeneous or hegemonic state, then it is by definition a nationalist
movement. For example, in defining Biafran (Igbo) rebels as an ethnic
movement in the late 1960s, the Nigerian authorities indicated that
they did not acknowledge nationalist tendencies in Biafra as legitimate;
the only relevant national unit was here defined as Nigeria. In
addition to "proto-nations" such as Biafra, there are,
of course, many ethnic movements which cannot be described as nationalist
ones. Urban minorities and indigeneous populations tend not to be
nationalists, in so far as they have no ambition of founding an
independent nation-state (see Eriksen, 1991; in press, for more
Ethnic conflicts and the nation-state
The nation-state inspires ethnic conflict in so far as the political
unit contains people who do not identify with the cultural group
represented through the state (Eriksen, 1991). Under such circumstances,
when there is a lack of fit between ideology and social reality,
the state has three main options. First, it may insist on the assimilation
of "entropy-resistant" elements; it may insist that say,
minorities such as Bretons, Provençals, Basques and Catalans
become Frenchmen; that they shed their exclusive group identity
and parochial language and replace it with a wider French identity.
Although such policies of assimilation are widely believed to help
their target groups to achieve equal rights and to improve their
standing, they often inflict great suffering and loss of dignity
on the part of the minorities, who thus learn that their tradition
is of no value.
The second option for the nation-state can be described as domination.
This has been the characteristic situation in South Africa and Israel,
where there has been no attempt to assimilate the powerless groups
(Africans and Palestinians, respectively), but where they have simultaneously
been deprived of equal political rights.
The third option consists in the transcendence of nationalist ideology,
that is to say, that the state adopts an ideology of multiculturalism,
where citizenship does not have to imply a particular cultural identity.
It could be argued that India has in some respects followed this
course, not least in its decentralised language policy (India has
14 "national languages"). On the other hand, Indian politics
is definitely dominated by Hindus, who comprise 80% of the population,
and can in this regard be seen as a nation-state proper rather than
Ethnic minorities in nation-states where the pressure to assimilate
or the domination from the hegemonic cultural group, is strong,
have three main options -- the options described as "exit,
voice or loyalty" by Alfred Hirschman. The first option is
to assimilate. Historically, this kind of reaction has been very
common -- whether it has actually been chosen or not -- and in this
way many ethnic groups have disappeared from the face of the earth.
Immigrants to the United States, for example, tended to lose their
language within two generations (although remnants of ethnic identity,
with limited social and cultural relevance, frequently survived).
Minority members may also acquiesce in their subordination or try
to co-exist peacefully with the nation-state, which most urban immigrant
minorities do. Alternatively, they may negotiate for limited autonomy
in say, linguistic, religious or local political matters. This has
been the option chosen by the Saami, the indigenous people of northern
The third main option available for minorities consists in a rejection
of the dominant nationalism and the existing nation-state, and a
consequent attempt to set up their own state. This is the kind of
situation that we face in north-eastern Sri Lanka, in Croatia, in
the Baltic republics and in Punjab -- and it is under such circumstances
that armed conflict between ethnic groups is most likely. In these
situations, the minorities see their identity as being threatened
by the state in such grave ways that exit seems to be the
only alternative. It is a sad irony of these movements that the
creation of new nation-states as a response to the domination of
someone else's nationalism, entails the same contradictions as those
which the secessionist group tried to escape from. The difference
lies in the fact that the previously dominated group now becomes
the dominant group. Examples of such processes are numerous; a brief
glance at the dissolving Soviet empire would serve to substantiate
it. Peoples who were minorities in the Soviet Union become majorities
in their own republics, which in turn contain sometimes as many
as two dozen minorities -- and which transform the resident Russians
into minority members. Since hardly a single nation or ethnic group
has its territory entirely to itself, it seems that a doubling of
the number of independent nation-states would also imply a doubling
of the number of minority problems associated with nationalism.
Burgeoning Slovak nationalism in the Federal Czech and Slovak Republic
has inspired a Moravian nationalism fuelled on resentment of presumed
Bohemian dominance in the Czech part of the republic. As if this
were not enough, some members of the Silesian minority in Moravia
now feel that they should also have their own political unit (Neumann,
1991). The fact that the only credible reaction to domination by
nationalism often seems to challenge it with one's own, alternative
nationalism, indicates the pervasiveness of this kind of ideology.
Languages and the nation-state
Linguistic processes taking place in a society can be regarded as
indicators of, and as being intrinsically related to, many other
aspects of that society. When languages die and give way to majority
or dominant languages, this indicates that the different groups
inhabiting the area in question become culturally more similar and,
presumably, more tightly integrated at the abstract level of the
state. Linguistic unification, or homogenization, is thus an integral
aspect of most nation-building projects, stressing as they do the
cultural uniformity and essential equality of all citizens. The
transition towards such forms of integration may be a painful one
for the minorities involved, and it need not succeed in every respect.
The outcome of such "acculturation" has frequently been
the loss of tradition and cultural autonomy of groups whose members
remain unable to measure up to, or effectively resist, the exigencies
of the modern state. When, on the contrary, minority languages survive
despite external pressure to surrender, such stubborn survival is
an indication of the continued social relevance of minority group
identity. When minority languages or unofficial languages, further,
are neglected or systematically discriminated against by the state,
there is every chance that the state may lose its legitimacy among
the speakers of these languages.
The loss of cultural universes or world-structures which is manifested
in the rapid disappearance of languages in the modern world, can
be regarded as a major tragedy for mankind as a species; to those
humans whose language is lost, considerable suffering and discrimination
are frequently inflicted. Studies of ethnocide, either in
its literal or in its metaphoric sense, have shown how nation-states
or capitalist enterprises radically alter the conditions under which
ethnic minorities live, and in which ways this contributes to the
transformation of their culture and social organization. Such studies
of indigenous peoples, which have often been commissioned by organizations
like the IWGIA (International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs)
and the MRG (Minority Rights Group), have doubtless contributed
important insights in this regard.
Recent studies of nationalism have, on the other hand, indicated
the integrating and potentially conflict-solving aspects of the
modern nation-state; they have shown that nationalism can be a vehicle
for the expression of strong and profound collective identities
(Anderson, 1983; Smith, 1991) and that it has been, notwithstanding
its ambiguous moral character, an apparently inevitable agent in
processes of modernization worldwide (Gellner, 1985; Hobsbawm, 1990).
The nation-state, unlike earlier state formations, stresses the
formal equality of its citizens. It is therefore untenable (or at
least analytically uninteresting) to regard the nation-state a
priori as a malevolent force in contemporary processes of group
integration or conflict. Enlightenment must be sought in analyses
of the actual conflict situations involving the nation-state and
parts of its population as antagonists. In doing so, we will see
that the part played by the nation-state in these conflicts is highly
variable, but it will be equally evident that all of the different
situations have something in common in that the nation-state is
always a much more powerful agent than the minorities which may
oppose it. This fact should lead us to consider the role of the
nation-state, as "the pre-eminent power container in the modern
era" (Giddens, 1985), with a critical attitude. In this day
and age, where many if not most of the cruelties of war and armed
conflict are justified ideologically through nationalist ideologies
-- whether they represent nation-states or minorities in quest of
a state ("stateless nations" or ethnic groups) -- it is
indeed timely to look for alternatives to the nation-state as the
most relevant political unit for humanity.
I shall now indicate ways in which linguistic differences within
a nation-state or a potential nation-state can have harmful consequences
for certain categories of inhabitants (i.e., minorities), and I
shall also discuss and compare strategies of resistance and "cultural
revitalization". A main purpose is to argue that a state need
not have a national language, and that linguistic diversity
should therefore be tolerated, if not positively encouraged. Such
a focus does not imply that factors other than language should be
considered unimportant in situations where cultural distinctiveness
is confronted by the nation-state. In deciding on linguistic difference
as the nexus of the conflicts to be considered, I have wished to
call attention to some of the less visible aspects of group domination
in the nation-state and, notably, to the complex interplay of the
organizational (political) and symbolic (meaningful) aspects of
social identities such as ethnic and national ones.
Cultural homogenisation and differentiation
The salience of ethnicity and ethnic conflict in the contemporary
world is sometimes described as a paradoxical phenomenon. Rather
than vanishing or losing its significance in modern societies, ethnicity
has become an ever more important principle for political organisation
and focus for individual identity. Formerly seen by many scholars
as an atavistic retention or as a kind of "cultural lag",
ethnicity is now increasingly acknowledged as an inherent aspect
of modernity. It was formerly widely believed that cultural differences
would cease to be relevant in modern nation-states, and that ethnic
allegiances would eventually be replaced by class loyalties and
other overarching ideologies. However, it has now become abundantly
clear that ethnicity indeed often assumes political importance only
from the moment discrete groups are integrated into a nation-state.
The transition from the Garden of Eden to the Tower of Babel is,
apparently paradoxically, chiefly a result of contacts between
groups, not by isolation. Only from the moment a group is thrown
into a situation of regular and enduring contact with other groups,
its members become able to develop a reflexive awareness of their
distinctiveness and a notion that they are the carriers of a unique
tradition. People become a people through awareness of differences
In the modern world, there is a marked tendency for many cultural
differences to be smoothed out and to disappear. This holds true
for many languages too, particularly those lacking a script, which
tend to die quickly in these times (see the contributions to Dorian,
1989). On the other hand, recent ethnic and nationalist revivals
have contributed to the standardization and preservation of many
languages which few years earlier seemed condemned to vanish. Whereas
modern education, modern mass media and modern avenues for professional
careers encourage, and tend to effect, the smoothing out of linguistic
differences, these processes are met with considerable resistance.
Some nearly extinct languages have actually been revived and strengthened
since the 1960s.
A paradox of the contemporary world could therefore be phrased thus:
On the one hand it is an indubitable fact that citizens of most
of the nation-states in the world are gradually becoming more similar
in certain cultural respects. This is brought about through their
increasing integration into the institutions of the state, notably
the educational and political systems; the integrative effects of
capitalism, which creates a uniform labour market and a more or
less shared "economic culture" within the state; and finally,
processes of cultural globalization (Appadurai, 1990; Hannerz, 1989;
Robertson, 1990), which are mediated by various forms of mass communication
(mass media as well as air travel and patterns of consumption),
and which create cultural similarities across borders. On the other
hand, a strong ideological and political current in recent decades
has been that which can best be be described as forms of ethnic
revitalization. This tendency, which may be seen as a countervailing,
"negentropic" force directed against the processes creating
cultural similarity, has led to the widespread revival of half-forgotten
rites and religions, the codification and articulation, and in some
cases the "re-invention", of presumedly ancient custom,
and frequently, the glorification of vernacular languages. Despite
its often traditional appearance, ethnic politics is in an important
sense thoroughly modern.
Minorities in the seamless modern world
The "re-invented" culture championed by ethnic movements
is qualitatively different from that which it seeks to emulate.
It is always filtered through a literate, reflexive consciousness
postulating a unity of will and culture among an enormous number
of people who will never meet. The difference between traditional
society and traditionalist movements which seek their roots
in traditional society, is of great importance. The loss of innocence
implied by modernization is irreversible. Although their organizations
often call for a return to pre-modern society, it is perhaps impossible
for the members of minorities to undertake such a return. They are
now increasingly literate wageworkers, and it is wholly unrealistic
(and, perhaps, impossible in principle) for them to "forget"
their conversion to modernity entirely. This loss of tradition,
I will show, paradoxically presents a comparative advantage when
it comes to linguistic survival. A related paradox is the fact that
cultural brokers,2 those individuals mastering both the code
of the dominator and that of the dominated, are simultaneously the
minority members farthest removed from the traditional culture and those best equipped to serve their interests.
As the value of air becomes evident only from the moment
the air becomes seriously polluted, so does the significance of
belonging to "a culture" -- or a linguistic community
-- become an issue for reflection and political action only from
the moment when the community seems threatened by imminent extinction.
Such a development could provide a partial explanation for the linguistic
revival witnessed in many parts of the world since the 1960s: Whereas
minority languages such as Inuit, Saami and Breton were predicted
to vanish within a generation in the early 1960s, subsequent developments
have demonstrated a strong will to retain the languages, to revive
them and to propagate their use in the modern bureaucratic sector
The representatives of minority languages or ethnic minorities are
now aware of the fact that they represent a distinctive "culture"
and are concerned to retain their distinctiveness. This self-conscious
minority identity relies crucially on contact with, and a certain
understanding of, that which it is distinctive in contrast to -- which is ususally the majority or dominant group. Ethnic identity
is, as noted above, always defined through the cultural creation
of contrasts vis-à-vis other identities. The "original
cultural forms" which ethnic movements seek to revive were
not, therefore, necessarily ethnic identities in their time.
The traditional form of life of say, the Canadian Inuits (Eskimos),
did not rely on the contrast provided by mainstream Canadian society.
In a sense, it was reproduced unwittingly. The traditional Inuits
labelled themselves Inuit, which simply meant the human
beings. Contemporary Inuits, on the contrary, define themselves as a minority. Their identity is meaningful only insofar
as it can be contrasted with other identities, which become relevant
only within the framework of a modern nation-state. Since contacts
between groups defining themselves as being culturally different
increase in intensity and frequency with ongoing integrative processes
of economic and political change (viz. capitalism and nation-building),
it can therefore be argued that ethnicity, which was long regarded
as in some way parasitical on modernity, is an intrinsic aspect
Ethnicity is sometimes regarded as a purely political kind of process
whereby individuals seek to maximize power. Its symbolic, or meaningful,
aspects should also be appreciated. For if the call for traditional
culture represented by ethnic revivalists did not respond to some
deeply felt need among their listeners, then ethnic movements would
never have been successful. Ethnic identity does not rely on political
carrots in order to be meaningful. To members of many minorities,
ethnic revitalization can signify the end of a long history of discrimination
and neglect, and an investment of pride and dignity into a formerly
stigmatized cultural identity.
On the one hand, modernization in all of its forms reduce the scope
of cultural differences worldwide. On the other hand, the emerging
cultural self-consciousness (or reflexivity) brought about through
modernization and the incorporation into nation-states has led to
the formation of self-consciously distinctive ethnicities which
strongly stress their cultural uniqueness. One may put it like this.
While (say) one's grandparents lived as traditional Saami (Welshmen,
Kurds...) without giving it any thought, and one's parents took
great pains to escape from their stigmatized ethnic minority position
and become assimilated and modern, ego does everything in his power
to revive the customs and traditions that his grandparents followed
without knowing it, and which his parents tried to forget.
One might also put it like this: Australian aboriginals nowadays
study anthropological monographs about their culture, in order to
use the ethnographic material as evidence when presenting their
case as that of an impoverished and oppressed cultural minority
to the Australian government. In looking at such cases of ethnic
revival, we should avoid the pitfalls of distinguishing between
"authentic" and "artificial" culture, which
is sometimes implicitly suggested by students of these phenomena.
Although it is important to understand the difference between tradition
and traditionalism, the latter being a modern phenomenon,
there is no valid reason to designate one as being more "real"
than the other. If we do so, we shall commit a typical nationalist
error through romanticizing and glorifying the past. Moreover, if
we unthinkingly praise the virtues of "traditional Inuit life",
for example in viewing it as a better form of life than the prospective
futures of the Inuits, then we shall inadvertently demonstrate a
total lack of respect for the Inuits themselves. Our "noble
savages" may actually want some of the benefits offered by
modernity, and we should be extremely careful to listen to their
articulated demands, lest we take these indigenous peoples hostage
to our own self-contempt (see Kapferer, 1988, for a similar point).
3. The nationalist quest for linguistic
Nationalist ideology and linguistic unification
Writing on French linguistic unification since the Renaissance,
Pierre Bourdieu remarks that before the 1789 revolution, the merging
of dialects and the introduction of standard forms was an integral
part of the development of the monarchical state. There was hardly
any linguistic legislation; the project of cultural unity associated
with the nation-state had not yet begun. The dialects, which were
"sometimes endowed with some of of the characteristics which
one usually attributes to "languages" ... were gradually
being replaced ... by the common language which was being elaborated
in the cultivated milieux of Paris" (Bourdieu, 1982, p. 29).
From the Revolution on, language planning from above took
the place of gradual linguistic change. From now on, French was
to be purged of local idioms because France was to become a nation
proper. In the name of revolutionary equality, local languages related
to standard French were now systematically discriminated against.
be naïve to attribute the policy of linguistic unification
exclusively to the technical need of communication between the different
parts of the territory. ... The conflict between the French of the
revolutionary intelligentsia and the local idioms or patois is a conflict over symbolic power whose end is the formation and reformation of mental structures" (Ibid.,
What was later to become the standard French not only of France
but also of her former colonies was, in other words, identified
by the country's revolutionary leadership as the language of progress.
Other idioms were reactionary, backward or primitive, restricted
codes (see Bernstein, 1964); crude parlers or jargons
which were deemed inadequate as means of advanced communication
in a modern nation-state.
I have cited Bourdieu at some length because his description of
French language change illustrates some very general aspects of
linguistic hegemony and power. In defining minority languages as
deficient in some way or other, the hegemonic (national) language
effectively justifies its exclusive use in education and other official
contexts and thus efficiently prevent nonfluent users from attaining
power. Further, such a ranking of languages, when sanctioned in
several sectors in society such as the school system, the mass media
and the political system, also encourages a mass of inferiority
complexes and the eventual abandonment of maternal languages among
minorities. As a Mauritian acquaintance, fluent only in the despised
Kreol language, once told me: "Kreol pa enn lang sa, enn
parle quoi, selman enn patwa." (Kreol is not a language;
it's a jargon, right; it's just a patois.) The creation and continuous
confirmation of this form of self-contempt is possibly the most
widespread form of linguistic oppression.3 It is perhaps not surprising
that we have some of the best descriptions of this subtle oppression
from authors writing in French (many of them, like Franz Fanon ,
colonials -- others, like Bourdieu and Michel Foucault , French-born
academics).4 Unlike English, French was in colonial times not only
a language to be learnt by the French subjects of Africa, Asia and
the Antilles; it was a language to be mastered. An unspeakable
amount of suffering and humiliation was -- and is still -- being
inflicted by colons of every phenotypical shade, both within
and outside of France, against nonfluent speakers of the standard,
"educated" variety of the language.
While these forms of linguistic oppression may be painful and certainly
reproduce injustice in the name of equality, any opposition against
the use of dominant languages can be inherently paradoxical. With
no knowledge of these languages, one remains parochial and powerless,
and will lack opportunities for social mobility along the lines
defined by the dominators. I shall return to this contradiction
in the final sections of the essay.
The state and linguistic variation
Since the turbulent age of the French Revolution, Herder, Fichte
and German romanticism, nationalisms have often linked up with languages
proposed as the one and only authentic national languages, organically
connected with the "will of the people". Granted the fact
of the modern nation-state, they have access to systems of monitoring
and social control of a scope and efficiency which could never have
been imagined by the inventors of nationalism. In the case of France,
the Republican nation-state existed prior to the linguistic community
of Frenchmen. Up to the present, French nationalism has sought to
eradicate linguistic variation through legal, educational and informal
strategies -- with a great measure of success, one might add, although
such variation still exists. In the case of Germany, the idea of
the Teutophone Volk existed prior to the unified German nation-state
(which did not, and will not in the foreseeable future, encompass
all of the German-speaking peoples).
The German case, where the nation, or linguistic community, existed
before the nation-state, is exceptional. In almost every other nation-state,
linguistic homogeneity gradually emerges after the formation
of the state. In most countries of the world, this remains an ongoing
process. Some nationalists have actually invented new languages, albeit usually based on existing dialects. The purpose of such
a radical move could be to promote social and cultural unity in
an otherwise diverse population, which was at least partially the
case with the "national compromises" whereby a modified
(and "modernized") Swahili was introduced in Tanzania,
a re-codified version of Hebrew in Israel, and Bahasa Indonesia
(a language based on Malay) in Indonesia. "New" or newly
codified national languages could also, conversely, contribute to
delineating the culture whose existence is postulated by nationalism.
When, in the mid-nineteenth century, some Norwegian nationalists
created a literary language based on certain rural dialects, Nynorsk (New Norwegian), a main purpose was to create a distinctively Norwegian
language with the same compass and pretentions as Danish, which
had hitherto been used. Danish, however, was closer to many spoken
varieties of Norwegian than Nynorsk, but it could not help the nationalists
in their project of creating a distinctive Norwegian nation. The
Irish case is comparable, although in some respects very different.
At independence, the Irish nation-state decided to promote Irish
as a national language although it was understood only by a small
minority of Irishmen; its legitimacy, apart from confirming, and
mythologizing, the presumed ancientness of the Irish nation, consisted
in its being distinctive from the language of the former imperial
masters (Hindley, 1990).
The great importance of language in ethnic and nationalist movements
all over the world -- from Greenland to the Tokelau islands (see
Hovdhaugen et al., 1990, for the latter) -- testifies to a close
link between language, politics and ethnic identity. This connection,
often striking in ethnic symbolism and propaganda, should not be
over-generalized. First, there are nationalisms (notably in Africa
and in South and Central America) which cannot propose an intrinsic
relationship between the official language and the national mythos.
The Argentine and Ivorian nations can for obvious reasons neither
distinguish themselves from the Uruguayan and Senegalese nations,
nor present their nationhood as an ancient community, through an
emphasis on their national language. Their nationalisms can be effective
as mobilizing ideologies no less. Secondly, there are many examples
of ethnic groups which have retained important aspects of their
cultural distinctiveness after losing their original language and
adopting that of dominant linguistic groups. A good example could
be the Indian diaspora populations in Guyana, Trinidad and Mauritius.
These groups, the large majority of whom have switched from Bhojpuri
to the local English or French lexicon creole, remain strongly committed
to their Indian identities.
However, the converse -- shared collective identity without shared
language -- apparently does not work. It is difficult to imagine
a tightly knit community where no shared language forms a basis
of mutual understanding. Such a shared language, it should be noted,
does not have to be a mother tongue. (This is an important point
to make since many nationalists seem to regard bilingualism as "unnatural".)
Since nationalists conceive of the nation as such a tightly knit
community (and for other reasons, mentioned above), the tendency
in nationalist ideology and practice is to try to eradicate linguistic
differences. Sometimes, this is done through cruel and authoritarian
methods. One obvious example of this is Turkey, where the use of
Kurdish has not only been discouraged, but banned, for decades.
I now turn to a discussion of the techniques employed to this end
and the reactions such strategies are met with by members of nonhegemonic
Linguistic oppression and resistance
uniformity of the modern nation-state makes wide-ranging comparisons
between nation-states possible. Nation-states have, among other
features, this in common: They have fixed boundaries (unlike the
vague frontiers of former times), national, usually uniform educational
systems, a national legislative system, a national military force
and a domestic police force, a state bureaucracy and national budget
-- and, in most cases, a national language. As regards their relationship
with linguistic minorities, there are important differences between
states. Conversely, there are relevant differences between linguistic
minorities. An important distinction between kinds of linguistic
minorities must be that of differential integration into the
nation-state and other cultural and institutional vehicles of
modernity (see, for example, Giddens, 1990, for a good discussion
of the institutional dimensions of modernity). If we were to compare
the Saami of Northern Scandinavia with say, Kurds in Turkey, Hindi
speakers in Britain or Quechua speakers in Bolivia, therefore, such
differences must form a basic dimension for comparison. I now turn
to some such comparisons along these two axes. Differential integration
into the nation-state forms one axis; differential legislation and
state practice concerning linguistic minority issues forms the other.
After these presentations of empirical cases, I shall try to make
some general, policy oriented as well as research oriented conclusions
about the relationship between linguistic minorities and the nation-state.
A minority can be defined as
numerically inferior to the rest of the population of a state, in
a non-dominant position, whose members -- being nationals of the
state -- possess ethnic, religious or linguistic characteristics
differing from those of the rest of the population and show, if
only implicitly, a sense of solidarity directed towards preserving
their culture, tradition, religion or language" (Minority Rights
Group, 1990, p. xiv).
While this definition is not entirely satisfactory -- numerical
majorities can in fact be minorities as regards their access to
power (Allardt, 1984; Skutnabb-Kangas, 1990) -- it is sufficiently
clear for our purpose. It is more difficult to define indigenous,
or aboriginal, populations. Some have suggested that the term indigenous
peoples should be applied to the "first-comers" to an
area. This is clearly insufficient, since, for example, Germans
and Russians, who were first-comers in many areas (provided we exclude
the populations whom they replaced, which we ought to since there
have been earlier, now extinct societies almost everywhere), cannot
be regarded as indigenous peoples. I therefore propose to use a
definition adding some further criteria, based on family resemblances,
not on "essences", to the definition of minorities cited
above: Indigenous peoples are nonimmigrant minorities associated
with a non-industrial mode of production, usually hunting gathering,
pastoralism or horticulture, whose languages have been widely used
in writing less than a generation ago if at all.5 The fact that
these peoples are associated with a non-industrial mode of production
does not necessarily imply that most, or all, of their members take
part in this. Many of them can also be literate, but their own language
has usually not been a common language in literacy for very long.
The main point is that indigenous peoples are essentially non-state people. I shall now compare two indigenous peoples, which have very
different kinds of relationships with their nation-states as regards
their linguistic situation.
The total number of Inuits (Eskimos) is approximately 100,000;
they have citizenship mainly in three states; Canada (25,000), the
USA (Alaska, 30,000) and Denmark (Greenland, 42,000).6 The language
of different Inuit groups varies almost to the extent of being mutually
unintelligible in extreme cases, but there are no sharp linguistic
boundaries. I shall concentrate on the Greenlandic Inuits, who have
been the most successful Inuit group in terms of ethnopolitics (Gray,
There has been virtually no permanent loss of language among Greenlandic
Inuits. Although their language has absorbed many Danish loan-words
(the island has been a Danish colony for centuries), the language
seems in no way to be threatened at present. Only a generation ago,
however, Greenlandic seemed doomed. The case of the Greenlandic
Inuits is in some ways typical of the ethnic revitalization wave
of the second half of the twentieth century, and it is also a good,
if less typical, example of a situation where an indigenous language
has successfully been revived after initially declining dramatically.
Greenlandic7 was acknowledged and encouraged by the Danish colonial
administration until 1950 -- the first printing press for printing
books in Greenlandic arrived in 1856 (Berthelsen, 1990). Most Greenlanders
were nevertheless functionally illiterate in this period. From 1950
until 1978, Danish gradually became a more dominant language, notably
as a medium of instruction in schools. This, Christian Berthelsen
writes (1990, p. 335), was actually a Danish response to the wish
of Greenlanders "to make Greenland Danish-speaking in the long
run". The brokers of the Greenlandic community, that is their
formal leaders, saw no future for Greenlandic. In a sense, they
were Danish nationalists negotiating for equality with the Danes.
As a part of the new trend in international ethnopolitics gaining
momentum in the early 1970s, a new group of spokesmen began to make
demands on behalf of the Greenlandic language. Since then, and particularly
since the institution of Home Rule in 1978, Greenlandic has again
gradually begun to replace Danish in schools, media and bureaucracy.
The case is untypical in some ways, but in others it is typical:
One's grandfather (before 1950) unquestioningly adhered to the Greenlandic
language; one's father (19501970) wanted to become modern and to
assimilate; ego (since 1970), already assimilated, wants to revive
the half-forgotten traditions of the grandparents.
Causes for the success of Greenlandic are obvious: First, the colonial
power was relatively benevolent and permitted the use of the minority
language in most sectors. Secondly, the Inuits had a well-defined,
isolated territory. Thirdly, the Inuits have for decades been represented
politically in the State, and have since 1978 been politically autonomous.
Fourthly, the Inuits have successfully drawn upon international
law and the support of supra-national organizations such as the
WCIP (World Council of Indigenous Peoples) which can sometimes overrule
the nation-state. Fifthly, the Greenlandic language community was
large and occupationally relatively diverse (it contained, among
other things, professional brokers, that is politicians), and sixthly,
the language was preserved and used as script before it began to
decline due to the pressures from modernization. It could therefore
easily be revitalized.
Very different, and more representative of the language situation
of indigenous peoples, is the case of the Dyirbal of north-eastern
Queensland, Australia. The imminent death of the Dyirbal language
has been researched by Annette Schmidt (1985). In presenting the
case, I shall highlight the differences vis-à-vis the Greenlandic
Unlike the Greenlanders, the distinctiveness of Australian aboriginal
culture was never respected by the white colonialists. Groups were
slaughtered or forcefully transported to alien areas; their languages
were usually recorded only by anthropologists for research purposes,
not by missionaries and government agents. A newspaper article from
1874 brings out the typical view of the colonialists: "When
savages are pitted against civilization, they must go to the wall:
it is the fate of their race" (Schmidt, 1985, p. 11).
Before 1860, an estimated 3,000 individuals, covering an area of
8,000 square kilometres, spoke a variant of Dyirbal. Today, the
language is confined to isolated pockets. The community studied
by Schmidt had a population of about 100, "and is the last
area where Dyirbal is spoken in a sizeable community". Signs
of language contraction and imminent death are evident, as the young
speak an imperfect Dyirbal heavily mixed with an imperfect English.
Important factors distinguishing the Dyirbal case from that of the
Greenlanders are: The absence of a script; compulsory education
in the dominant language; no mass media in the vernacular; small
numbers; enforced interaction with monoglot English speakers; no
political organization able to negotiate with the authorities; lack
of the resources required to link up with international law and
supra-national organizations such as the WCIP. The language is heavily
stigmatized even by its own speakers and will, like many indigenous
languages in a similar situation, soon die.
An important point is the fact that Greenlanders are no less culturally
assimilated or "modernized" than the Dyirbal. They, too,
have radically modified important aspects of their traditional culture,
and their policy of revitalization is comparable to modern nationalist
ideologies and policies in other parts of the world. Languages which
can be represented in formal political bodies stand a much better
chance of survival than others; if they can also actually be used
in local administration, the chances for survival are enhanced further.
This is an aspect of the paradox of modern ethnicity described earlier: Those groups which have most successfully adapted to the dominant
culture stand the best chance of long-term survival as cultural
groups. Total isolation is no option in the contemporary world.
The minority situation of recent immigrants in industrial environments
is different from that of indigenous peoples in several ways: They
cannot lay claims to a territory; they are from the outset, through
the act of migrating, committed to participation in modern society;
and they are frequently non-citizens in their country of residence.
I shall contrast two such categories; the French-lexicon creole
speakers of the United Kingdom and the Spanish speakers of the United
creole speakers in the UK
French-lexicon creole languages, which are only partly mutually
intelligible, are spoken in former French plantation colonies (and
present overseas territories), mostly in the Indian Ocean and the
Caribbean. The Seychelles is the only nation-state where a French
creole is officialized (together with French and English), and the
various creoles exist in diglossic or triglossic relationships,
usually with French and/or English, in all of the societies where
they are spoken.
The largest communities of French creole speakers in Britain come
from Dominica and St Lucia in the eastern Caribbean, where the creole
vernaculars, latterly known collectively as Kwéyòl (Nwenmely, 1990), are diglossic with English.8 The Dominican and
St Lucian creole speakers, who speak closely related creoles, are
identified by Britons simply as West Indians. In this way, they
form a small minority within a small minority, the dominant segment
of which is of Jamaican origin and speaks an English creole. There
may be some 20,000 Kwéyòl speakers altogether in Britain,
many of whom are nonfluent in their mother tongue (which may literally
be their mother's tongue only to them). Until very recently,
Kwéyòl was only relevant in informal conversation:
the language of schools, media and public life was always English.
In addition, many second-generation immigrants have tended to define
themselves "primarily as part of a larger British Black grouping
and British Black English rather than Kwéyòl as the
language of wider currency" (Nwenmely, 1990, p. 62). An unprestigious
language even in its original context, one would expect Kwéyòl
to die out soon -- like Dyirbal and other stigmatized minority languages.
It probably would have died out, had there not been taken conscious
measures to revitalize it during the 1970s and 1980s. Concerned
Kwéyòl speakers, particularly in London, have invested
a great amount of work and creativity into the task of preserving
the language, which is now being used in theatre, popular music,
newsletters, poetry and, since the mid-1980s, in some educational
contexts -- indeed, it is now even taught as a foreign language
to second-generation immigrants who grew up speaking English.
Some general points can be made here. First, the Kwéyòl
example illustrates the provisional point made about the Inuits
to the effect that a high degree of integration into the institutions
of the nation-state seems a prerogative for the preservation of
a minority language. Only after attaining a high level of education,
it became possible for certain Kwéyòl speakers to
promote their language systematically. Secondly, the Kwéyòl
speakers resist cultural assimilation more efficiently than the
Dyirbal, despite their small numbers and lack of a territory. This
is also due to their higher degree of integration in the nation-state;
they are literate and formally organized. Thirdly, it is clear that
the Kwéyòl revitalization is in part a resistance
strategy directed against stigmatization and discrimination from
British society. Perhaps they would have preferred to assimilate
completely if that were possible; however, their looks (they are
black) set them apart within the British system of ethnic classification.
Fourthly, the Kwéyòl movement, expressing the virtues
of an unprestigious and marginal language, indicates that linguistic
identity, codified as "cultural roots", can be important
as a countervailing force against the flux and transience of the
modern world. Fifthly, the success of an urban minority language
such as Kwéyòl relies on proficiency in the majority
language among their speakers. Since virtually no conventional career
opportunities would be open to a monolingual speaker of Kwéyòl,
it is taken for granted by the Kwéyòl speakers themselves
that everybody should learn English properly. As Nwenmely (1990,
p. 67) succinctly puts it, citing a Kwéyòl proverb:
"Sé pou'w mantjé néyé pou ou
apwann najé (In order to learn to swim, you must survive
The size of a minority could be a crucial factor as regards the
degree of generality of the latter contention. This dimension will
be pursued further in the next example.
speakers in the USA
At the time of the 1980 census, 11.1 million US citizens, or
nearly five per cent of that country's population (excluding Puerto
Rico), stated that they spoke Spanish at home. The majority stated
that they were bilingual in English, but this figure is probably
too high. Besides, the number of Spanish-speakers has grown considerably
throughout the 1980s. Spanish-speakers are clustered in certain
areas, notably in New York, Florida, Texas and California.
Resentment against linguistic diversity has always been extremely
strong in the USA, and virtually all earlier immigrant groups lost
their language within two generations (Garcia et al., 1985, p. 343).
This shift seems not to come about in the case of the Spanish-speakers,
despite strong pressure from the government. I shall make a few
points concerning the prospects for linguistic survival in the Spanish-speaking
community in the United States: First, there are now cities (such
as Miami) and parts of cities (such as Spanish Harlem in New York)
where the majority of the population are native speakers of Spanish.
The "Hispanics" are thus in a situation more comparable
to the Greenlandic Inuits than to the speakers of Kwéyòl
in Britain; although they are a minority in the nation-state, there
are areas where they constitute a majority. Secondly, bilingualism
is widely regarded as a serious problem -- as something which should
be tracked down, cornered and exterminated -- in the United States
(see Wardhaugh, 1987, pp. 249-51; Fishman, 1989). On the other hand,
several states in the USA have found it necessary to introduce some
public services codified in a different language from English, usually
Spanish. This has met with great resistance from monoglot English-speakers.
During the 1980s, funds for education in other languages than English
were cut back, despite the fact that these programmes were probably
intended to remove foreign languages in the long run through their
emphasis on teaching English (Wardhaugh, 1987, p. 251). Unlike the
Greenlanders, whose language was encouraged by the hegemon, and
unlike the Kwéyòl-speakers, who were treated with
benevolent indifference, -- but like the Dyirbal, whose language
and culture were treated in an arrogant and authoritarian way aiming
at the total eradication of the minority as a distinctive group,
the Spanish-speakers in the United States are confronted with a
by-and-large hostile environment demanding their rapid linguistic
In this context, it would seem that a precondition for the preservation
of Spanish in the United States would be linguistic segregation;
in other words, that the Spanish-speaking community should create
autonomous bodies aimed at their linguistic survival. This is in
many respects possible with this large minority, which is in many
ways less vulnerable than smaller ones, and which has the additional
advantage, if we compare with former immigrant groups to the USA,
of modern means of communication. At present, the Spanish-speakers
of the US have a large number of newspapers and periodicals, TV
and radio stations, community centres, control of local government
in core areas, and some access (although decreasing) to publicly
funded primary education in Spanish. If the community becomes sufficiently
wealthy and diversified (which it is not at present), then a speaker
of Spanish in the US may have the same career opportunities as an
Anglophone without knowing a word of English! In this sense, increased
integration into the institutions of the nation-state (in this case,
the economy) would serve the community well (see Garcia et al.,
1985, p. 356), but these institutions would not necessarily be connected
with the state as such: they could be parallel, autonomous institutions.
If such a cultural segregation was to come about, then the US would
actually be a multi-national state (see 4 below) and not a nation-state.
At the moment, however, the authoritarian pressure from the majority
demanding the swift integration of the minority is very strong.
One of my general assumptions as regards the linguistic survival
of minorities thus holds true in this case as well: The minority
must master the cultural code of the majority as well as its
own in order to retain its identity. In this case, however,
the cultural difference between majority and minority is clearly
less than in the case of many indigenous peoples, and the switching
of codes required in a bicultural environment need not be as difficult.
The example of the Spanish-speaking minority in the USA has further
suggested that a sufficiently large minority can, at least in theory,
learn this code through its own educational and professional system,
without relying on an unreliable state. If this option is available,
which it is to the Inuits and the Hispanics but not to the Dyirbal
and the Kwéyòlophones, then linguistic survival can
be complete. If successful, Hispanics need not suffer the discrimination
implied by a diglossic situation, since most of them will be able
to remain in a monolingual environment for most of the time. Such
a situation, where a minority language becomes codified and used
for all sorts of writings (I am aware that Spanish has been for
some time; West Greenlandic, however, has not), will also lead to
an increase in the overall prestige of the language.
Let us now turn to a discussion of a different kind of majority/minority
relationship. This section deals with "proto-nations",
that is minorities which may wish to form their own nation-state
or at least a politically autonomous region. Notwithstanding the
power asymmetries, these contexts are marked by competition over
linguistic (and political) hegemony. Nowhere is the hegemonic position
of the nation-state more apparent, and perhaps nowhere is it more
evident that nation-states abhor cultural differences, than in their
endeavour to mute the linguistic distinctiveness of proto-nations
residing in their territory.
Brittany, in union with France since 1532, has gone through
a gradual Gallification, which has grown considerably in strength
and intensity since the French Revolution and its identification
of the French language with its ideological cause. The Breton language,
unrelated to French, is a Celtic language. It is related to Welsh
and Gaelic, which can also be described as threatened minority languages
on the outskirts of Europe (see, for example, Hindley, 1990; Dorian,
1981). The distinctive Breton identity remains strong in Brittany,
despite -- or perhaps in reaction to -- centuries of political domination
from Paris. The decline - and possible revival -- of the Breton
language follows a familiar course, which will now be summarized.
The post-revolutionary Republican state legislated harshly against
the public use of Breton. "The Breton language was to be destroyed
and teachers were instructed 'to kill the Breton language'"
(Wardhaugh, 1987, p. 108). Nevertheless, Brittany's geographic isolation,
the relative economic independence and the presence of a Breton-speaking
educated class contributed to preserving Breton intact and undiluted
until the end of the nineteenth century. This is an important point.
While the mastery of dominant cultural codes was regarded as a prerequisite
for linguistic survival among the other minorities I have discussed,
the opposite seems to be the case here. Unlike the Inuits or Hispanic
Americans, the Bretons have for centuries been an integral -- if
peripheral -- part of greater "national" society. The
intensification of French linguistic imperialism during this century
could therefore be much more efficient than in other places; the
French had already set up their governmental institutions in the
area, and the infrastructural facilities precluded isolation. The
Bretons were easy prey, particularly since the linguistic Gallification
took place largely before the global trend of ethnic revitalization
among minorities. The fact that leading Breton nationalists collaborated
with the Germans during World War II (McDonald, 1989, p. 123 ff.)
weakened their case further.
The increasing integration into greater French society has been
the most important factor in the dramatic decline of Breton during
the twentieth century. The massive onslaught of French-language
mass media, the increasing social and geographic mobility requiring
fluency in French, the continued use of French in government matters,
and a rigid educational system of growing compass have been main
factors. In contemporary France, the average individual has wider
contact with the macro level of society than he would have formerly,
and the Breton case is in this respect a clear exemplification of
the fact of cultural homogenization in the age of the nation-state.
Whereas some 1.3 million, or 90% of the population of Lower Brittany,
spoke Breton at the turn of the century, only 25% reported that
they did in 1972. Today, states Ronald Wardhaugh (1987, p. 110),
the language is little used. French is depicted (by the French)
as the national, urban language of progress, sharply contrasted
with Breton as the regional, rural language of the past (Kuter,
1989, p. 76). So, it might seem, the case would be closed for Breton.
This need not be the case, and as already demonstrated, doomed languages
are often revived in the nick of time. Lois Kuter (1989) refers
to studies indicating that young Bretons have a positive view on
learning Breton, linking it with their unique cultural identity
as distinctive from Frenchmen. Many young people, raised as French-speakers,
now learn Breton as a foreign language at evening classes and summer
schools. Some radio and TV programmes are also made in Breton. The
inherent weakness of the language, competing as it is with a prestigious
international language, nevertheless renders it extremely vulnerable.
The intolerant and sometimes brutal policies of the dominant linguistic
group, which has consistently rejected attempts at introducing other
administrative languages than French, has hitherto functioned efficiently
in muting linguistic minorities such as the Bretons. Occasional
terrorist bombings by Breton nationalists in the 1970s were met
with little enthusiasm from the population, although most of them
would probably prefer a greater degree of political and cultural
autonomy. Since the survival of their language cannot be achieved
through the nation-state, and since full independence is unrealistic,
many Bretons now look towards Brussels for support. The federalist
model of the European Community could actually be a main factor
in the future survival of Breton. In reducing the importance of
the nation-state, and increasing regional autonomy, federalism --
which could be an interesting alternative to nationalism in general
-- could save Breton from a quick death.
The Kurdish people, totalling some 20 million individuals, are
frequently mentioned as a typical "proto-nation"; an ethnic
group possessing all of the characteristics of a nation except their
own state. The majority of the Kurds live in Turkey, Iraq, Iran
and Syria, with the Turkish group forming half of the total community.
This concerns Kurds in Turkey.
KurdishTurkish relations are in some regards similar to BretonFrench
relations. Like the Bretons, the Kurds have inhabited a well-defined
territory for very long. They enjoyed periods of de facto autonomy under the Ottoman empire, but attempts at forming a Kurdish
state failed. When, after the dissolution of the empire, the radical
nationalist Kemal Atatürk seized power in Turkey, the Kurds
(like the Bretons after the French revolution) expected their condition
to improve under the new "progressive" regime. Like the
Bretons, their experience with the nationalism of others has been
disastrous. The great Turkish nationalist Atatürk initiated,
from the 1920s, a long period -- lasting up to the present -- of
systematic repression. "Kurdish associations, schools, publications,
religious fraternities and teaching foundations were all banned,
thus removing all public vestiges of a separate Kurdish identity"
(Minority Rights Group, 1990). In Atatürk's view, the Kurdish
language (which is actually unrelated to Turkish) was a Turkish
dialect! Despite occasional uprisings, many of them violent
and explicitly nationalist, the Kurdish case in Turkey remains an
unresolved problem -- for the Kurds as well as for the Turkish nation-state.
Only one political party has recognized the Kurds, and it was banned
in 1969 for doing so. The Kurds officially did not exist until 1991;
they were labelled "mountain Turks". The use of Kurdish
language was illegal; in this respect, the Turkish state has gone
even further than the French one in terms of repression. It is too
early to state whether recent changes in Turkish policy (as from
spring, 1991), which to some extent recognize the existence of the
Kurds, will have profound practical consequences.
There are also some relevant differences between the Kurds and the
Bretons. First, the Kurdish language community is much larger than
the Breton one, and by virtue of size alone, it will survive for
the foreseeable future. The division of labour among the Kurds is
less complex, and the community as a whole is less integrated into
national society than the Breton community. As regards language,
this situation, along with government repression, implies the continued
existence of a plethora of dialects, paucity of Kurdish writings
(although many are now published by exiles), the lack of a common
script,9 and continued monolingualism among many Kurds. Although
there are by now many highly educated Kurds and thousands of refugees
or "foreign workers" in western Europe, the organizational
infrastructure required for the Kurdish cause to be politically
effective within the Turkish nation-state is largely absent. Factionalism
and lack of internal organization are typical problems (Bruinessen,
There are three options available for the Kurds. They may opt to
assimilate and become Turks; they may continue to fight for a nation-state
of their own; or they may try to influence the Turkish state to
grant them political and cultural self-determination in their region.
If the latter option, which seems the most credible, is chosen,
radical social change in Turkish Kurdistan will probably be necessary;
in other words, the Kurds must become more strongly integrated into
the institutions of modernity -- in matters of education, division
of labour and political organization. Thus, the paradox mentioned
several times in the course of this article, is repeated: In order
to achieve the right to be different from their antagonists, the
Kurds must first become more similar to them. However, the Kurds,
like the Bretons (and to some extent, but in different ways, like
the Greenlanders and the Hispanics), are in this respect different
from urban or numerically weak minorities. Due to their numbers
and territorial concentration, they may in theory, and perhaps in
practice, acquire the skills and institutions needed without relying
on the (very dubitable) benevolence of the nation-state. This, of
course, requires that they have access to alternative resources
-- that they can modernize politically and educationally without
becoming entirely dependent on the institutions of the Turkish state.
Language policies in "plural societies"
An underlying premise for the preceding discussion has been that
nation-states are, as a rule, culturally plural, and that this plurality
is generally neglected or actively undermined by the state. I have
indicated some common forms of linguistic oppression -- from denying
the officialization of minority languages to the downright banning
of their use. I have also discussed strategies of linguistic resistance,
ranging from the formation of informal clubs and "cultural
groups" to political secessionism. The causes of the oppression
lie with the nation-state and its ideology, insofar as it denies
culturally deviant citizens the right to be different and claims
a functional need on the part of the state for cultural homogeneity.
While most linguistic minorities do not advocate secession -- it
is usually unrealistic, and it also tends to create new minority
problems -- it should be stressed that states need not be nation-states,
and that the implementation of this insight into the official practices
of states may alleviate tensions. I have also argued against the
widely held assumption, particularly widespread among speakers of
dominant languages, that bilingualism is "unnatural".
I shall now describe the linguistic policies of three countries
whose governments are aware that their countries are de facto multicultural.
The Swiss language communities are territorially located; in
addition, no supra-ethnic national language exists. In this, Switzerland
differs from Mauritius and Kenya, which are presented below. Switzerland
has four national languages; German, French, Italian and Rhaeto-Romansch.
Apart from the latter, all can relate themselves to much larger
language communities outside of Switzerland. However, the German
community is by far the largest, and had Switzerland been a typical
nation-state, German would clearly have been the official language.
The political structure of the country explains why this has not
come about. It is extremely decentralized at the level of the canton
(county), and federal control is in many respects much less than,
for example, in the United States. The rights of the old linguistic
groups which make up the Swiss people are thereby preserved. On
the other hand, the lack of a shared language sometimes poses a
problem within the country since many Swiss are monolingual, and
many of the bilingual ones have chosen English as a second language.
A second point to be kept in mind is the fact that Switzerland is
infamous for not granting ordinary citizen rights to labour migrants
from abroad. Nobody bothers about their linguistic rights,
although there are many thousand Gastarbeitern, largely from
south-eastern Europe, in the country.
Kenya, independent from Britain since 1963, contains some 40
distinctive linguistic groups, some of which are closely related.
No group forms an absolute majority, and no ethnic language has
ever been proposed as a national language. Independent Kenya has
witnessed a process of growing trilingualism in its population:
First, one speaks one's mother tongue; then, one learns English and Swahili, which are both officialized as national languages
(Swahili since 1974). Primary instruction in schools is carried
out in English and Swahili, and both languages are in use up to
the university level. The government has found, it would seem, a
compromise unifying an otherwise diverse population. However, there
is a constant tension between the two languages (Harries, 1976).
Swahili is recognized as an African alternative to the imperialist
language; English is recognized as the international, and also the
pan-African language (speakers of French and Portuguese are conveniently
left out in this rhetoric). Up to the present, it should be stressed,
the two national languages have co-existed in uneasy compromise, without extinguishing a single minority language. In Africa,
as in many other parts of the world, it is not at all seen as unnatural
that one should be able to communicate in two or three different
The linguistic case of Mauritius is in some ways similar to
the Kenyan one (see Eriksen, 1990b, for a full discussion). Upon
independence in 1968, the new leaders of this Indian Ocean state
decided that English should be the official language. Although most
Mauritians were -- and are -- unable to express themselves well
in English, there has been little controversy over this choice.
Since none of the several ethnic groups inhabiting Mauritius claim
English as their mother tongue, the language seemed a good (and
useful) compromise. The newspapers and radio broadcasts continue
to be predominantly in French, which is the second language of nearly
Unlike Kenya, Mauritius had no pre-colonial history as a society.
The inhabitants of the island initially spoke the languages of their
places of origin; during this century, a growing majority speak Kreol, a French-lexicon creole (which is, incidentally, quite
different from Kwéyòl), as their mother-tongue.
Kreol remains a despised language, however, regarded as unfit for
sophisticated forms of communication. When the radical nationalist
MMM government tried to introduce Kreol as a national language in
1982, it was met with massive protest and was forced to withdraw
the proposal (Bowman, 1991). Like Kenyans, therefore, the majority
of Mauritians are more or less trilingual: virtually all speak Kreol;
most understand and speak French; many understand English. A significant
number of Mauritians of Indian descent also speak Bhojpuri fluently;
many Sino-Mauritians speak Hakka. In addition, several ancestral
languages are carefully guarded by their speakers; as in the case
of Breton, many young Mauritians of Indian origin learn Hindi, Tamil
or Arabic as foreign languages. The main difference if we compare
with the Breton situation, is that instruction in minority languages
is supported by the Mauritian government. In Mauritius, it is legitimate to belong to a minority, although it is also taken for granted that
all citizens must master the common denominators required for society
to function efficiently (Eriksen, 1990a), including a shared linguistic
code (which is usually Kreol). In a federal state such as Switzerland,
this does not seem necessary, although the Canadian case suggests
that the lack of a supra-ethnic language is highly problematic.
In Canada, the tendency has been that French speakers have been
more strongly urged to learn English than vice versa, English being
the larger language. Indeed, contemporary nationalism in Québec
is strongly focused on language and the need for secession in order
to save the French language in Canada (Handler, 1988).
Problems in challenging the hegemony
of self-contempt inflicted on the nonhegemonic by those who represent
linguistic hegemony is evident in Kenya as well as in Mauritius
-- as, indeed, in most countries in the world. Mauritians speak
Kreol malgré eux, and there have so far been few attempts
at creating a literature in Kenyan languages (Swahili, a Bantu language,
is not a pan-Kenyan language proper). In both countries, the colonial
languages dominate in bureaucracy and formal communication. Let
us therefore consider the following problem.
Since changing his name from John Ngugi to Ngugi wa Thiong'o ("the
son of Thiong'o" in Gikuyu) in the mid-seventies, this Kenyan
author has written most of his work in Gikuyu (the Kenyan Kikuyu
language, spoken by roughly twelve per cent of all Kenyans). Ngugi,
who had been instrumental in setting up a Department of Linguistics
and African Languages as a partial replacement for the former Department
of English in Nairobi (see Ngugi, 1972), was accused by his academic
colleagues of Kikuyu chauvinism (Ngugi, 1981, pp. xxii-xxiii). Throughout
the 1970s and early 1980s, Ngugi engaged in a lively, pan-African
debate (which was, incidentally, held in English, thus excluding
Francophone and Lusophone Africans, among others) about the advantages
and disadvantages of African languages in literary and social criticism.
Rejecting English as the language of the imperialists, Ngugi argued
that African authors had a responsibility to write in their vernacular.
In their replies, several South African writers retorted that an
important aspect of apartheid policies consisted in the encouragement
of vernacular African languages in education and mass media. This
was was in fact an efficient method for debarring blacks from social
mobility and communication with the outside world. Therefore, the
South Africans argued, one should write in English despite its being
an imperialist language. Besides being the language of the imperialists,
it was also the language of power. With no knowledge of English,
therefore, one would be powerless.
This predicament can be phrased in a more general way. If social
desiderata are denied speakers of particular languages, they may
develop contempt for their own vernacular and switch entirely to
the dominant language, or they may at least confine its use to a
limited range of social contexts. In a study of the coastal Saami
of northern Norway, Eidheim (1969) thus noted that the stigmatized,
bilingual Saami tended to use the vernacular only in private contexts.
The language deemed appropriate for "frontstage" contexts
was always Norwegian, which was the language of the state bureaucracy,
the educational system and the mass media. With no knowledge of
Norwegian, it was impossible to get a job, a spouse or a new acquaintance
outside of the few Saami speaking communities in Finnmark county.
A similar point is made by Watson (1989), who takes as an indication
of the inherent weakness of the Scottish and Irish Gaelic-speaking
communities the fact that "some individuals within the community
itself frequently dissociate themselves from the language, behaving
as if they were virtually monoglot English speakers" (Watson,
1989, p. 42). So while one the one hand, some minorities are discouraged
from using their vernacular, others (notably in South Africa) are forced to use their vernacular. Neither option is attractive.
In this sense, the world's linguistic minorities seem to be trapped
between the reservation and cultural genocide.
The oppressive aspects of nation-building, described with reference
to French linguistic unification above, can easily be recognized
here. There can be no easy solution to the dilemma for the minorities.
It would be too facile to try to persuade the "natives"
concerned to use their vernaculars "for their own good".10
South African children were unable to choose -- they had to remain speakers of African languages only, with no access to the
dominant code. Insofar as opportunity is linked with the dominant
language, revival of minority languages or the replacement of a
hegemonic language with a "national" one certainly presupposes
fluency in the dominant language. The mechanism is familiar and
has been mentioned earlier: while the powerful need not worry about
their linguistic ineptness, the powerless must always learn the
codes of the powerful in addition to their own code, which
they cannot afford to lose lest they be totally assimilated and
lose their distinctive identity. Most of the examples described
in this article indicate three phases in the development of minority
languages: Autonomy and widespread use; threat with extinction due
to pressure from a national or imperial language; attempts at revitalization
following modernization and the rise of cultural self-consciousness.
The solution to the dilemmas which have been outlined here, must
entail the encouragement of bi- or plurilingualism and official
equity between languages.
I shall not bore the reader inordinately with a systematic comparison
between the nine examples which I have described. Some general comparative
points have already been made about the relationship between linguistic
minorities and the nation-state, and they shall merely be summed
* First, those aspects of personal identity which are expressed
through one's language, can be extremely important to the well-being
of individuals. Linguistic rights should be seen as elementary human
* Second, the nationalist doctrine of unity between culture and
state is always harmful to linguistic minorities.
* Third, the idea that a multilingual society is an unhealthy society,
intimately connected with the idea of nationalism, is mistaken.
A lingua franca may be necessary, but it needs not replace
* Fourth, the psychological pain, inferiority complexes and difficulties
in social mobility inflicted on individuals by linguistic hegemons,
can be alleviated only if the minority group asserts its own language
as a full-fledged alternative to the hegemonic language.
* Fifth, linguistic minorities stand a better chance of survival
if they codify their language in an alphabet,12 as well as developing
the organizational and cultural skills associated with modernity within that language. Only then can their language be an
alternative as a language of "progress" and education,
and not simply a "colourful jargon" useless for serious
purposes; and only then can they, as a group, present their case
convincingly in national and international politics.
* Sixth, modernization -- including among other dimensions
formal education, occupational diversification, social mobility
and international communication -- is a necessary prerequisite for
linguistic minorities to survive in the long term.
* Seventh, a suppressed linguistic minority, victim to the whims
of the nation-state, can opt for political independence only if
it has a well-defined territory and relatively large numbers. Only
a few minorities do.
* Eighth, recent immigrants are more vulnerable to linguistic assimilation
than indigenous minorities, all other things being equal. They are
less likely than other groups to gain the goodwill of either the
national government or bodies of international opinion.
Although perhaps none of these conclusions are highly original,
a pertinent point may be that a focus on the less obvious forms
of oppression, such as linguistic oppression, may make important
contributions to conflict studies and peace research. This is both
because subtle and invisible oppression is and remains a kind of
oppression, even if it is "muted", and because insight
into such forms of dominance may help us to understand some of the
apparent fanaticism and wanton destructiveness of ethnic movements
representing minorities who, after decades or centuries of humiliation
and discrimination, at some point decide that they will take
The world is bound to remain a system of states yet awhile. Many
of these states are continuously being torn apart by "ethnic"
conflicts, while others contain large, muted but severely oppressed
cultural minorities. This article has chiefly been intended as a
reminder that the nation-state is not natural, and that many conflicts
are "invisible" but no less serious for that. There are
several states today which pride themselves on their multicultural
and multilingual character; there ought to have been many more.
Afterthought: Between the native reserve
and cultural genocide
One of the strengths of social anthropology as an academic discipline,
and one of its most important critical functions, has been its ability
to remind literate (actually, largely Anglophone or at least "Western")
humanity that their form of life represents only one of an almost
infinite range of possible ways of coping with the perennial questions
of humankind. Many anthropologists, among the finest Claude Lévi-Strauss
(for example, 1962) and Hans-Peter Duerr (for example, 1984), have
undertaken an immensely important task in trying to convey and translate
experiences and life-worlds which are radically and qualitatively
different from those typical of the inhabitants of modern societies.
The kinds of cultural variation promoted in this article are in
many ways of a less radical nature. Since the homogenizing institutions
of modernity now impinge, to a greater or lesser extent, on virtually
all of the traditional "peoples" studied by social anthropologists,
aspects of modernity are present -- and are being propagated --
on a global level at this very moment. However, studies highlighting
radical cultural discontinuities between human societies have shown
us that men and women may differ in an enormous number of ways,
and so there is every reason to assume that variation will prevail
and that new forms will develop, even if future societies will eventually
all share important common organizational denominators of modernity:
literacy, monetary economy, abstract ideology, citizenship. Since
I regard cultural variation as an absolute asset for humanity, an
important concern of this essay has been to argue that such variations
remain possible in an apparently seamless, thoroughly "modern"
world. In a world of nation-states, linguistic minorities are trapped between the native reserve and cultural genocide -- between
isolation, neglect or expulsion from the benefits of modernity,
and total absorption by hegemonic groups. They should neither be
forced to remain "picturesque" exponents of human diversity,
nor to lose their identity as distinctive cultural groups. If nonhegemonic
groups in modern societies are to decide their own destiny, they
must be released from the straitjacket of aggressive nation-building.
Rather than applauding nationalism as the authentic expressions
of the people's will, we should look for alternatives. Ethnicity
in some form or another will doubtless remain an important focus
for many people's personal identities, and the system of states
will prevail for the foreseeable future. However, it might be noted
that the unfortunate merger of ethnicity with the state which constitutes
the nation-state is not an inevitable outcome of this. The system
of states need not, in other words, always remain a system of nation-states
dictated by narrow-minded, excluding ethnic, that is nationalist,
The author is indebted to Harald Eidheim, Kjetil Folkestad, Leif
John Fosse, Even Hovdhaugen, Randi Kaarhus, Stein Tønnesson
and an anonymous referee of the JPR, for many useful comments on
an earlier version of this essay. A shorter version of the essay
is due to appear in Journal of Peace Research in the course
1This essay is in many ways complementary to Eriksen (1991), where
I discuss the general relationship between ethnicity and nationalism
in poly-ethnic societies and kinds of conflicts between states and
(1966); Paine (1971); Kapferer (1976), for anthropological perspectives
on the phenomenon of cultural brokerage, that is mediation between
discrete cultural universes.
of dominance is often expressed through some form of diglossia,
i.e., the co-existence of "low" and "high",
ranked forms of a language or two languages in a society. This phenomenon
will not be discussed here (but see Ferguson, 1959; Fishman, 1989;
and -- for those who read Scandinavian -- Danielsen, 1987).
aspect of French academic language is advanced word-play, the aim
of which is at least partly to humiliate, dazzle and confuse one's
readers! (It can, of course, also be great fun.)
to mention one apparent exception, has been codified as script since
the eighteenth century. However, literacy among the Greenlanders
was negligible until this century.
6There is also
a small group of 1,500 Inuits in eastern Siberia.
the term "Greenlandic" in referring to the language, I
refer to West Greenlandic, which is spoken by nearly 90% of Greenlandic
other creole-speaking islands would tend to migrate to France or
Québec, since their second language tends to be French. This
holds true even for Mauritians, although their island is a member
of the New Commonwealth.
three scripts currently in use: Arabic, Latin and Cyrillic.
should be aware of the fact that this author is writing in a foreign
language at this very moment. Why should he?
11The UN charter
on human rights does not mention the right to a language. However,
the UN Draft Declaration of Principles for Indigenous Rights states:
"Indigenous nations and peoples have the right to be educated
and conduct business with States in their own languages, and to
establish their own educational institutions" (§ 12).
efforts tend to confirm this. See, however, Mühlhaüsler
(1990) for a challenge against this assumption. He suggests that
the alphabetization of Melanesian languages, in creating literacy,
actually undermined these languages since Melanesians, as soon as
they became literate, were drawn strongly towards English as a medium
of expression. His argument questions the value of literacy as such,
and that is a topic which is too vast for me to go into here.
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On the one hand, cultural differences in the contemporary
world seem to vanish rapidly. This is effected through homogenizing
processes of economic and political integration into nation-states
and into the global system, as well as the globalization of culture
brought about through modern means of mass communication. On the
other hand, the last decades has seen the widespread resurgence
of ethnic sentiments and revitalization of local cultural identities.
This apparent paradox is seen as an inherent aspect of modernity.
The processes of integration into nation-states puts strong pressures
on minorities to assimilate. For this reason, many minority languages
are threatened. The article, defending the rights of minority languages
and criticizing their nationalist antagonists, compares several
linguistic minorities. The comparison focusses on their relationship
with the nation-states to which they are subjected, their strategies
of resistance, and problems in challenging linguistic hegemony.
Perhaps paradoxically, cultural minorities may have to assimilate
culturally in important respects in order to present their case
effectively and thereby retain their minority identity.
A main conclusion emerging from the comparisons is that states need
not be nation-states relying on nationalist ideologies proclaiming
the virtues of absolute cultural homogeneity. Although they may
be unspectacular, forms of linguistic oppression are forms of oppression
no less, and demand the attention of peace and conflict researchers.