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LANGUAGE: Chaos



Those of us who have spent our lives in the intensive study of many languages (not just one) and their implications for development, realize that, whereas language is a marvellous instrument, the modern proliferation of languages is a curse.

Take Spain. Castilian is a great and beautiful language. The revival of Catalan, a language with a long tradition, has a solid basis, but it endangers the role of Barcelona as perhaps the most important publishing center in the Spanish-speaking world and as a place to learn Spanish. Valencian is an extension of Catalan, but the Valencianos sharpy insist that it is a different language and are trying to establish it as such.

On the other side of the Peninsula, Portuguese an international language, the language of Brazil, the most important country in Latin America. It derived from Galician which, in a united Spain, was reduced to dialect status. Now it is asserting its status as a language, but what the Galicians actually speak is a muddle. Other Spanish dialects are claiming their rights as languages, with the consequent chaos in schools.

The worst case is that of Basque, a language whose origin is not known and, when I was there, was spoken only by mountain folk. Now it is used in schools and has become an affirmation of Basque nationalism and the associated ETA terrorism. Some terrorists accused of the worst crimes insist on speaking Basque in court.

The result is the linguistic and social fragmentation of Spain, with the consequent bitterness. Instead of learning standard Castilian, many children are being confused by this chaos and cannot express themselves properly in Spanish, which is necessary for success in life. The Spanish government is properly concerned.

The situation is similar in much of Europe,a situation aggravated by the "Europe of regions" which is part of the structure of the EU. Regions feel encouraged to promote their local language. It is one of the aims of the Corsican nationalists, who use the example of Spain to justify their claims to make the Corsican dialect the language of the island. As in the case of Basque, this is accompanied by terrorist activity. Similar movements, likewise accompanied by terrorism, exist in Brittany and the French Basque territory. The fear that France may break op has led to a constitutional crisis, and a leading politician, Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement, has resigned from the cabinet.

In Britain, the demand of Welsh nationalists that even professors speak Welsh, has led to the resignation of leading specialists, with the resultant serious downgrading of Welsh universities. Needless to say, this has been an impediment to Welsh students learning standard English. Since there has not been a similar movement in Germany and Austria, the result will be to strengthen the position of German, the most-spoken language in Europe. However, there is so much resentment over this that slowly English is becoming the lingua franca of Europe.

These trends swell and ebb. Some time ago in Argentina there was a movement to make lunfardo, the jargon of the docks area of Buenos Aires (similar to cockney) the official language of Argentina, but that silly proposal died. Now there is a growing realization that what is a good command of a standard language. In the age of technology this is increasingly important, since linguistic confusion leads to general confusion.

In the United States the standard of writing even among university students is dismal. Stanford would not win the language Olympics. In my classes I spent hours going over each student's paper, simply correcting English. This was the time when politically correct linguists proclaimed "Leave your language alone!" That slogan has been cast into the garbage can of history.

That was the deserved fate of Black Mathematics and its soulmate Black English, while similar interest groups promoted bilingual education. Now the failure of bilingual education has become apparent. It is therefore discouraging that Stanford,/i>, in its September-October issue should have featured an article "In praise of spoken soul. Black English thrives." A broad discussion of the subject would have been welcome. The magazine's treatment of a critical issue was irresponsible.

Language is glue which holds countries together. Without this glue countries tend to fall apart, witness Yugoslavia and India. Many of us fear a tribalized United States, the very real "tyranny of the minorities:" Some may not worry about this, others may rejoice in it. I for one would not welcome the breakup of the United States, but I fear it.

Ronald Hilton - 9/11/00


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