Opinion

The many dangers of language domination


Published : 19 Apr 2022 09:08 PM

Often religion is blamed for the increasing number of conflicts the world has witnessed since the end of the Cold War. But, it is no clash of civilisations. Most of the time, ethnic cleavages in violent conflicts are not religious but linguistic.

As some research claims, collective grievances along with linguistic division are at least four times more likely to be present in an ethnic conflict than religious differences.

Language is as strong an identity marker as religion. At the same time, language is closely linked with livelihood. To mobilise a group based on religion, the conflict entrepreneurs often need a common language, but conflict mobilisation over language can be done independently. When the ethnonationalist mobilisation over religion manages to overcome the language divisions within the group, that project is not likely to last long as language issues might erupt after some time.

‘Religious-neutral’ position

It is also relatively more manageable for the state to maintain a ‘religious-neutral’ position to avoid the conflicts between two or more religious groups.

Even if a country is officially theocratic, it does not cost anything to majoritarian ego to grant limited freedom to religious minorities to practice their faiths. But, accommodating language-related demands of linguistic minorities is not that easy.

There are only 55 countries in the world that are officially bilingual or multilingual, and many languages in most of the countries in the world have no official sanctions behind them. To give in to the demand of a language group and make it an official language by the state needs a substantial amount of economic and institutional resources.

A new official language requires the creation of new educational infrastructure and expertise, also significant resource allocation to public administration to adjust to the new situation. It also enables a marginalised group to be a competing stakeholder in the nation’s power structure and resource pool.

Giving into linguistic demand of a group by the state can be easily interpreted and politicised by the competing majority group elites as ‘they win we lose’ terms. There are several reasons why particularly developing countries show reluctance to accommodate the demands of linguistic minorities.

At the same time, if there is more literacy in the country, the language factor becomes more critical in conflict formation and escalation than religious factors.

Competing language groups

Linguistically different ethnic groups like Russians in Ukraine, Kurds in Iraq, and Baloch in Iran are engaged in violent confrontation despite having similar religions. When religious and linguistic differences are present, the ethnic conflict is likely to be more vicious and intractable. South Asia witnesses several of these cases.

While countries try their best not to give in to the competing language groups’ demands, they also often adopt one language policy as a nation-building strategy. Nation-building with one language creates the possibility of language endangerment in the multilingual developing or transiting countries. Even if, for some time, smaller language groups try to shift to the official language, gradually, the realisation of marginalisation sets in, and they start demanding fair treatment.

The reason for it is that the dominant language group taking advantage of one language-based state structure manages to control the politics, economy, governing institutions and usurps most of the available jobs. If they fail to assimilate, the other language groups are left only with the choice of resisting.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, although several of the 'new' countries in eastern Europe and Central Asia replaced their political system with a new one, the language difference has become the cause of many ethnic conflicts. The growing tension of the minority group with the majority rule has been over the language issues concerning education, social sector, employment, and even citizenship.

Explosive ethnic hostility

Much explosive ethnic hostility is being witnessed in countries where majoritarian regimes consider linguistic cleavages a threat to national unity and take steps to create national uniformity in terms of language.

The rise of right-wing populism has led to the reinforcement of majoritarian politics worldwide. That has further led to acute politicisation of language issues and increasing attempts by the regimes to make the dominant language the country’s only official language.

In its pursuit of bringing one language domination, majoritarian politics tend to forget that language policy is not an internal matter only. The language issue is also part of the fundamental human rights of minority language groups. Taking away the linguistic rights of minority language groups infringes upon their freedom of expression and subjects them to discrimination.

While majoritarian politics support the domination of one language, many consider multilingualism a burden. They see the presence of several languages to be damaging to a country’s economic development. For a majoritarian ethnonationalist, a single language country is often associated with political stability and economic prosperity.

Thus, the increasing attempts in many multilingual developing countries to create a single national language lead to a serious situation where smaller language clusters are in real fear over the possibility of not being treated fairly and being discriminated against by the dominant language group.

At the same time, language has become a powerful weapon for the majoritarian populists to divide people. Unfortunately, that sets the stage for the emergence of many newer violent ethnic conflicts over linguistic cleavages worldwide.


Ashok Swain is a Professor of Peace and Conflict Research, at Uppsala University, Sweden. 

Source: Gulf News