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What Is Linguistic Imperialism?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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Linguistic imperialism occurs when the language of a large or dominant population or the language of power transfers to other people in the same or neighboring areas. There are many types of linguistic imperialism and many causes of it. Causes include immigration, conquest, trade and cultural superiority. The spread of religions that transcend local cultures and languages can also cause linguistic imperialism. Such changes in language can be forced or can take place through natural changes.

Acts of linguistic imperialism have taken place throughout the world’s history. Not all of these cases have been successful. After 1066, the Franco-Normans attempted to make French, or rather the Norman dialect of French, the national language. After 300 years, they eventually gave up trying and learned English. The Hungarians resisted centuries of attempts by Ottoman Turks and later Habsburg Austrians to make Hungarian illegal.

Immigration is a large cause of linguistic imperialism. This is most often seen as the act of an invading or migrating people making others learn their language. At the end of the Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries AD, a number of Germanic peoples moved westward into the Empire’s territories. Of those invading powers, many took control of the area, but their responses to the indigenous language varied. The Angles, Saxons and Jutes managed to eradicate the language of the native Romano-British. On the other hand, the Franks who invaded Gaul and the Ostragoths, who invaded Iberia, both adopted the language of the native population.

Large-scale linguistic imperialism occurred during the colonial era. It first began with the Portuguese in Brazil, the Spanish in Mesoamerica and the English in North America, but widened to large parts of the world. In most cases, new countries and new territories covered a wide patchwork of linguistic groups. In these cases, the dominant colonial power imposed its language on the native population for the system of government. In some countries, like those of the Spanish empire, the colonial language became the majority language.

In other countries, as seen in India, it became a language used to unite disparate linguistic groups. In these cases, an imposed language, while often resented for its imposition, works as a unifying force and a means of preventing the imposition of the language group on the rest of the country. The imposed language becomes a second language to many people.

The rise of nationalism across Europe and in other countries has caused linguistic imperialism on a more local or national level. Political leaders and members of the dominant ethnic or linguistic group within the country wanted to develop a sense of nationhood, collectivity and singleness by downgrading minority languages. This has seen the many small languages of regions from Cornish and Breton to Dalmatian and Yaeyama-go reduced to historic fossils and dialects.

A dominance of culture can cause another kind of linguistic imperialism. The idea of imperialism is the imposition of power by one group over another. The dominance of a dialect or language can be spread by arts and culture in the form of music, television shows and music. The power and wealth of American popular culture has had a great linguistic impact on countries and peoples around the world, including those countries that already speak English.

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Discussion Comments

By Logicfest — On Jan 31, 2014

Good points, but there are advantages to such linguistic imperialism. Take the United States, for example. How much of a mess would it be if we had various languages spread throughout the nation rather than one, unifying one? Culture and language help forge a national identity and sense of unity, after all.

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