Natural and Mental Phenomena
A conversation with a linguist about language, history and politics
One of the most well-known Russian linguists abroad, Vladimir Plungian is a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and head of the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics at Lomonosov Moscow State University. He also leads the Department of Corpus Linguistics and Poetics at the Vinogradov Institute of Russian Language. Here he talks to BRICS Business Magazine about the relationship between languages and thought, what makes a good global language, the consequences of globalization, and Africa.
You have said on many occasions that each language presupposes an independent system of thinking. What does that really mean? What is the connection between language and consciousness? Does the underlying grammar affect how we think and how we make decisions?
As far as I remember I have never expressed this idea. However, I did refer to this opinion that has become very widespread in modern linguistics (but not generally accepted). Overall, it is a very complicated question and I would caution you not to make any absolute pronouncements – no matter how impressive they sound. After all, scholars are very boring people and they always like to emphasise that things are not that straightforward, and that jumping to conclusions is very dangerous, etc. Incidentally, this is what sets them apart from non-specialists, who always tend to see things in black and white terms and think that everything is simple...
Language and thought are undoubtedly linked but this is a very vague statement; the subtle bit is how they are linked. There are a number of extreme hypotheses in the history of linguistics, the most famous being the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. According to this school of thought, our thinking is strictly determined by the language we speak. Sapir was a great American linguist who in reality had very little to do with this idea. He was just friendly with Benjamin Lee Whorf, a chemical engineer, insurance specialist and gifted amateur who came up with somewhat strange and at times paradoxical ideas.
At some point Whorf discovered the languages spoken by Native Americans, and it struck him how different they were from European languages. Having recovered from the shock of this discovery, Whorf went on to formulate his hypothesis: that the way a language is structured, its lexicon and grammar, have a direct impact on how we can or cannot think and perceive the world. According to Whorf, our native language imposes very strict limitations on us. For instance, the fact that some languages spoken by Native Americans do not have a grammatical category of tense leads to the conclusion that these peoples’ physical perception of time was also different from that of the Europeans. Whorf even made a famous statement along the lines that ‘if Newton were born an Indian there would have never been any classical mechanics.’
Naturally, today professional linguists do not take the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis seriously. Nobody believes in these dramatic statements that are completely unsubstantiated by hard facts. Yet they all acknowledge that there is a connection between language and thinking. Language is a form, based on which we think. The main problem is whether the specific aspects of this form affect in any way how we perceive the world, and act. There are still naïve relapses of Whorfianism that occur in popular literature from time to time. Recently, I read an article written by an economist who claimed something along the lines that the languages in which the future tense has a dedicated grammatical form produce societies with successful economies.
African language systems are some of the most complex; they are veritable pearls in mankind’s linguistic repertoire and perhaps serve as one of Africa’s most significant contributions to world culture. Africa is a territory where the indigenous population is dominant and nearly nothing threatens this enormous number of languages in the immediate future
I think it is complete nonsense. If we take the English language, for example, it has a future tense but in a rather problematic form – there is no single future tense marker. For instance, ‘will’ is a modal verb that has many other meanings, such as intention or willingness. English is a fine example of a language with a non-dedicated future tense marker (expressing future among many other things), just like other languages in the Germanic group. If the Scandinavian countries with their Germanic languages are not some of the strongest economies in the world, I do not know which countries are. And when it comes to the future tense in these languages, things are not that great either. In Slavonic languages, on the other hand, the dedicated markers of the future tense are perfectly well attested.
It is obvious to a professional linguist that the notion of future tense is very complex; generally speaking, it is a label without a comprehensible content. It may seem to laymen that this is a very simple label because they have never thought about it. To agree on what we want to refer to as the future tense, we would have to read and write many articles and books. However, a reasonable way to agree on the meaning of the future tense is absolutely incompatible with the statements made by this author.
Mind you, this naïve Whorfianism is not an entirely harmless thing after all. It comes across as some sort of ethnic propaganda with a thinly veiled suggestion that there are ostensibly languages that are good and useful for efficient thinking, and there are others that are poor and underdeveloped. Parenthetically, this thought is not entirely new – it dates back at least to the 19th century. Modern linguistics absolutely rejects this value-based attitude to languages: from an instrumental point of view all languages are equal. The languages spoken by tribes in Brazil or New Guinea that still remain at the hunting and gathering stage of development are as complex as Chinese, English or Russian, and in some ways even surpass the latter.
What is a language corpus?
A language corpus is a collection of texts that are first of all presented in electronic form and secondly processed, or ‘annotated’ as we term it. In other words, those who compile the language corpus add various types of information to it, mostly of a purely linguistic nature that deals with grammar, word forms and other aspects – anything a researcher might need. If the annotated corpus is rich, it means that it offers broad search possibilities and researchers can find anything they need in this corpus, from phrases with short adjectives to verbs in past tense, and other fascinating things.
In other words, the corpus enables researchers to select any combination of examples with the properties they require, which is something you cannot do by simply running an internet search, because nobody is going to filter out the dative in Google. Serious work usually goes into putting together a corpus, but when the work is done and the corpus is large, we have a chance to work with a language on a scale that is unimaginable in the absence of such a corpus. It is not unlike inventing a telescope or a microscope in the natural sciences.
Corpus linguistics is an exceedingly valuable area that is undergoing explosive development. One could even say that it serves as an example of how modern information technologies can be used in the humanities, even though linguistics does not belong purely to the field of the ‘soft sciences.’ It has always been something in between; after all, language is not merely a phenomenon of mind, but also of nature. In many ways it belongs to the world of the unconscious. Language speakers are not aware of language rules and have no control over the laws governing language development. This makes ‘precise’ and ‘objective’ methods all the more valuable for language studies.
Corpora exist for all big and developed languages. In preparing our project for the Russian language we were supported by Yandex (the biggest Russian internet resource with one of the most powerful and innovative search engines) and the Russian Academy of Sciences, which has now been disbanded. It is one of the most efficient academic projects of recent times in the field of human studies. Today the Russian National Corpus is available online (at ruscorpora.ru) and is used widely all over the world. Naturally, it is primarily favoured by Russian language teachers and researchers, but it is also used for many other purposes.
If you develop the know-how and have the right technical platform, you can lay a solid foundation for any language corpus within one or two years, and then this corpus can be constantly updated and improved. However, it is not easy to understand how to build a corpus well.
Once the Russian National Corpus was completed, the same team built a number of other corpora. They had already gained the experience, and that is why for the most part they managed to create corpora that are quite good, especially those for the Armenian, Ossetian, and other languages. For researchers of these languages such corpora are a priceless gift.
All these corpora are freely accessible. This was our principal position. A language corpus is the highest form of scientific altruism, if you will. You create a corpus to a lesser extent for yourself and to a much greater extent for all those who are interested in this language and who need it.
There is this effect that the bigger the language, the more people speak it and the greater the probability that its structure will simplify. One can try to measure the complexity of a language – there are works of this kind. There is also the notion of the ‘Kolmogorov complexity’: Roughly speaking, the longer it takes to describe an object, the more complex the object gets. Let us say that if a language has eight types of declension, it would be more complex than a language with only one declension type. These are the parameters that, as a rule, make languages spoken by smaller ethnic communities more complex than those spoken by larger communities. There is an explanation: When there is a constant inflow of alien ethnic elements that learn a language from scratch (the so-called ‘imperfect learners,’ as they are frequently dubbed), the language has to sacrifice something. That is why, roughly speaking, English and Chinese are much simpler (in this particular sense!) than languages spoken by small tribes that lead a very secluded life.
No new languages have appeared since the era of great geographic discoveries: the world has become finite and exceedingly small. No single community can be divided so as to completely lose all contact between the parts. In the past, a great number of languages died and a great number of languages were born, but now they have only been dying: smaller languages are absorbed by larger ones. This comes as a result of globalisation;
it is one of its most salient manifestations
You worked in Mali and studied one of the local languages. Did you manage to internalize a new system of thinking?
It was difficult. Unfortunately, I am not a professional in the field of African linguistics. I am a typologist, which makes me an eternal dilettante: I have to know a little bit about every language area. But still I did study African languages quite intensively for about 15 years without any impressive successes, and I did try to speak some of these languages.
To be able to do it well, one needs to pick one’s words and structure phrases in an entirely different way and, to an extent, really think differently. That is why one could partially understand Whorf: differences between human languages can be huge and may boggle the unprepared mind. For instance, they often refer to an ‘untranslatable play on words.’ Indeed, there are many things that can be expressed naturally and with ease in one language but which cannot be translated as easily into another. Naturally, any thought can be expressed in any language – this statement would equally ring true. Some sort of an equivalent can always be found. You can say anything about everything, but the problem lies in the fact that in a realistic situation it is not always something that is willingly discussed.
This is where we move from the workings of the language to that of the society and culture. After all, in reality the language is not some magic wand that opens up any world, nor is it a straight railway track that you cannot turn off from (as Whorf believed). A language is by and large a system of customisable templates, if you will. The content that is most sought after in a given society will be expressed naturally with great ease in its language both by means of its grammar and lexicon.
There is a well-known phenomenon of culture-specific words. This is an example of such a mental template. For instance, specialists in Russian write a lot about words like udal’ (prowess, courage, daring) or uyut (cosiness, homeliness, comfort, convenience), which are difficult (but really not impossible) to render in other languages. There is a group of researchers (Anna Zaliznyak, Irina Levontina and Alexei Shmelev) who have published several books on this subject. They try to show that Russian culture has a certain convenient way of talking about perceptions that are intrinsic to this culture – what they term ‘key concepts.’
For example, let us take the verb dobiratsa (get somewhere, get to, arrive), which we use very often both in the written language and in our everyday communication. It turns out that it is quite difficult to translate it into French or English and not even because it is impossible to find an equivalent, but rather due to the fact that we do not see such a great interest in who ‘gets’ where and how in English or French discourse: the constant agonising process of negotiating a hostile environment is not a key concept in these societies.
The language services a set of perceptions that are sought after by the society. Does the language itself affect the way the society’s perceptions are shaped? When there is an easy trail and a difficult one, naturally it is less trouble to choose the one that is easy, but if you really need to make a turn then you will. You may even blaze a new trail. One could say that every language is a network of roads, with dense traffic heading in a certain direction and just a few cars heading in another. But in no way does it mean that one language is ‘better’ for it or another is ‘worse.’ Generally speaking, I would not try to look for advantages or disadvantages in languages, even though there are plenty of differences.
My core scientific specialisation is linguistic typology, which involves comparing the structures of different languages. Typology answers the questions of how human language is built, what is possible within it, and what is impossible.
Linguistics in the true sense of the word is not a science that studies one single language but rather all languages of the world. In my view, typology is one of the most advanced streams in modern linguistics. Incidentally, there are typological schools operating in Russia that are quite good; this area has been traditionally strong in our country.
Sometimes, to scare our colleagues who study Russian, we say that from the point of view of modern science, in order to be able to describe the Russian language well, one would need to learn how all other human languages are built. But on a serious note, that is true in many respects. Any human language is a variation on a specific theme, and to be able to judge the extent of this variation one needs to understand what our theme is all about. No man can have a perfect command of all languages in the world – there are currently about 7,000 of them – but a typologist must understand how all of these languages are built and how they ‘work.’
Otherwise we would arrive at a very primitive logic along the lines that if, for instance, your native language is Chinese, you are likely to grow rice better than other nations. I hope you realise that this is not a very shrewd statement, to put it mildly.
Going back to Africa, can a European understand it? The continent is turning into a gigantic, rapidly growing market that the rest of the world needs to learn to understand, both in its entirety and each fragment specifically.
Africa is a very interesting continent that has been forgotten to an extent by the modern world. We remember Africa only when we read about another bloody conflict in the press. For an ordinary person it is as if it does not exist, which is of course bad. There is a significant difference between those who remember that Africa still exists and those who do not think about it.
One can understand Africa; understanding is a difficult job though. This is why we need liberal arts education, which is a question they constantly talk about nowadays. We need this to be able to understand others. To be able to understand Africa, one would have to immerse oneself in it for a long time and be able to reject stereotypes.
Of course, knowing African languages or at least knowing something about these languages would come in very handy. African language systems are some of the most complex; they are veritable pearls in mankind’s linguistic repertoire and perhaps serve as one of Africa’s most significant contributions to world culture. We should bear in mind that, first and foremost, there are exceedingly many languages in Africa, as opposed to South America and in particular North America or Australia, where indigenous people have been considerably marginalised and their languages are fading away. Africa, on the other hand, is a territory where the indigenous population is dominant and nearly nothing threatens this enormous number of languages in the immediate future. They can and must be studied. European languages that are used in most countries as official state languages do not have any significant influence on in-depth processes. African societies remain largely traditional and are still hardly affected by Western civilisation. From one standpoint that is very bad, and from another it is good – a certain alternative remains. There is a very serious subject to be studied and I would encourage you to treat Africa seriously and avoid conventional prejudices.
Many people treat Africa seriously specifically because of economic considerations. But you probably mean something else.
I am speaking more about what is related to culture in a broader sense. Africa can make a very valuable contribution to the study of mankind. That is why I always get irritated when I hear laymen’s perceptions of Africa as a concentration of absolute savagery. Such statements, which are often heard, speak more about those who utter them and reveal their stupid arrogance and primitive narrow-mindedness.
Africa is a continent of exceedingly diverse cultures and many ancient civilisations – it is very complex and is not homogenous in the least. Before the Europeans arrived on the continent there were very subtle and interesting structures in place, which the Europeans destroyed and did not even notice it. And of course modern Africa is unfortunately an area suffering from recurring humanitarian disasters. But this is a problem of all mankind and not just of African nations.
There is this unscientific yet frequently quoted premise that certain ethnicities have a system of thinking that is simple and limited, and which prevents them from overcoming their disadvantaged state and reaching prosperity.
There is no rational proof that this is the case. Speaking about language, as I have already mentioned, it is more like a network of roads that is easy to change if you want to move in a different direction. It should be noted that by and large any society is ready for change and is capable of it. Psychologically and physically, all people are built the same way and have initially the same potential.
Going back to Africa, I would like to reiterate that from a linguistic point of view Africa makes an exceedingly interesting study. For instance, in many African languages there is this wonderful grammatical category called ‘temporal distance,’ which indicates not just the time reference of an event – whether it took place in the past or will take place in the future – but when exactly this event took place and how long ago (or how soon it will take place): just now, yesterday, today, tomorrow, several days ago, a long time ago (for example, during this year) or very long ago, and so forth. In most languages we can convey this idea by using ordinary words, adverbial modifiers of time, but in African languages a separate grammatical category exists just for this purpose. In other words, when talking about events of different remoteness, you have to use different forms of verbs! Something of this sort exists almost nowhere else in the world. It is distinctly specific to languages spoken in equatorial Africa.
As a linguist I encourage people to study Africa; so far this continent remains largely unexplored. Admittedly, linguists find attractive all areas where you can find new languages that have not yet been described or have been described insufficiently. There are still enough such places on the planet. In particular, the languages spoken in the Extreme North of Russia deserve the closest attention. There are languages in our country that are absolutely great and, unfortunately, they are not going through the best of times. It is obvious why: as a rule there needs to be one official state language and it will bring great benefits, including for people in the regions. However, this does not mean that other languages cede their place to it and ultimately diminish more and more until they disappear altogether. Indeed, as a rule, the move to a ‘stronger’ language is something that is done voluntarily, but it is a huge loss for science.
In our case, for example, one could definitely say that languages spoken in the Extreme North can well compete with African languages in terms of the complexity of their grammatical systems and rich lexicon. It is self-evident that these languages are ideally suited to describe the environment in which their native speakers live. Indeed, to attempt to ‘mothball’ such a language often means to go against the grain of history. But at least one should understand that if they do disappear it would be bad on a humankind scale. I would not want people to think that shifting from smaller languages to bigger ones always brings unconditional and unquestionable benefits, at least not the decision makers.
Do new languages emerge?
No, there are no new emerging languages and most likely there will be none in the foreseeable future. The fact of the matter is that as time goes by and generations change, any language changes as well. But a new language emerges when, for example, two parts of what was previously one people lose all contact. It takes 300 to 400 years for the differences that occurred independently in each of these peoples to become noticeable, another 300 to 400 years to become pronounced, and approximately fifteen hundred years later two entirely different languages will emerge.
Differences between human languages can be huge and may boggle the unprepared mind. They often refer to an ‘untranslatable play on words.’ Indeed, there are many things that can be expressed naturally and with ease in one language but which cannot be translated as easily into another
It is clear why no new languages have appeared since the era of great geographic discoveries and technological revolutions: the world has become finite and exceedingly small. No single community can be divided in such a manner as to completely lose all contact between the divided parts. In the past, a great number of languages died and a great number of languages were born, but now it has already been several centuries since they have only been dying: smaller languages are absorbed by larger ones. This comes as a result of globalisation; it is one of its most salient manifestations.
How much more difficult is it for people living in multilingual countries to understand one another?
The greater part of mankind lived and continues to live in a multilingual environment and is well adapted to it. Speaking of Africa, it is built exactly that way – the fact that you are surrounded by several languages since early childhood is perfectly normal; from their perspective there are no obstacles in the way and everyone can learn all of these languages.
In this sense Russia is a relatively unorthodox country, where indeed one language remains dominant across its vast territory. It should be noted that the Russian language is very homogenous, from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad; there are no noticeable dialects except of course those of a traditional nature spoken in small villages, but their visibility is small and the society knows nearly nothing about them. As opposed to many countries (Italy, Belgium, and others) Russia does not have urban dialects and there are no significant differences in the language spoken by people who live in cities. In Russia even a specialist would often find it impossible to place a person’s origin, and would be able to name the right region at best.
Take Belgium, for instance. It takes two to three sentences to be able to place the speaker in his or her native city: It is one thing when someone comes from Ghent and a completely different thing when they come from Antwerp, even though the distance between them is miniscule by Russian standards. In general, as a region, Europe is a great mosaic – almost all European countries are characterised by fragmentation into different languages or dialects.
This is what usually tends to happen: the larger the territory, the greater the linguistic fragmentation. Russia is the only exception. Apparently, the main reason lies in the fact that Russia’s population was highly mobile. Dialects are formed when people live in the same place for several centuries. Belgian peasants and artisans never moved and never travelled to any particular locations. One generation after another they were born and they died in their small village or town where everything was probably to their liking.
If people perceive their language as something not very prestigious, it is exceedingly difficult to change that perception; for the development of the language it is much worse even than a small number of native speakers. Some people are certain that they would achieve something if they were to learn English. These seemingly purely psychological mechanisms of prestige and success have a much more destructive effect upon the fate of languages than bullets, warheads, the size of population and other factors. All changes originate in people’s minds
It was different in Russia. Suffice it to recall the colonisation of Siberia – for several centuries it was populated by people from all regions of the country. Or take recent Soviet history, when the entire country was in turmoil with people being thrown from one corner to another and anybody could be uprooted at any given moment. “His orders were to move West and hers were otherwise,” as Isakovsky’s song goes. Russia was constantly shaken and stirred. If you shake a cocktail long enough it comes out homogenous.
You said in one of your lectures that the dominant position of the English language today is predicated on the Allies’ victory in the Second World War. What does the future hold for English?
To be able to answer this question, one should be asking what the future holds for humanity as a whole, and the United States in particular. Will this country stay the global leader, or cede its place to China, India, Indonesia or Brazil?
It is not about the English language itself. What matters is the role of the countries that speak English. And English is far from an ideal global language, if we really think about it. Grammatically, English is relatively simple, and it is easy to learn to speak it poorly, but English phonetics are very complicated and ‘unwieldy’ for those who try to listen to and comprehend it. In this respect Italian phonetics, for example, are much clearer; Italian would probably make a great global language. However, it is not a matter of the technical details of a given language – it is all about politics. It is not linguists who elect the leader, and it is not linguists who judge his future.
How long does it take for a language to become global? Even back in the 1970s the English language did not enjoy the same status as it does now.
You see, 50 years proved to be enough. These changes arrived quite rapidly. Let us think back to the situation before the war. Today, when we read memoirs and documents from that era, many are surprised: the vast majority of Europeans did not speak English. It was what they call a ‘rare language.’ In Russia educated people always used to be bilingual, but English was rarely represented as the second language. It is well known that English was spoken in Nabokov’s family but this was considered an exception, an act of eccentricity of sorts. Just imagine that your family spoke Swedish.
America was far away and Britain was but a small island for Europe, even though it was a colonial power. But as you can see, even the 19th century empire ‘on which the sun never set’ did not manage to turn English into a global language. At that time, international science favoured mostly German. French enjoyed a huge niche as the language of advanced culture, literature, and fashion – the language of refined actions and thoughts. And all of these things co-existed until a certain point in time.
The balance was drastically upset after the Second World War. Germany took away its status of intellectual leader with its own hands; France, exsanguinated by the two terrible wars of the 20th century, plunged into all sorts of domestic problems that prevented it from enjoying the same influence as it used to. The centre of gravity shifted to America. Add to that Canada, Australia, and India. The new world meets the legacy of the British Empire.
Post-war America emerged as a nation of advanced scientific thought, which played a very significant role. Intellectual leadership is important for a language to spread. Almost all intellectual innovations are now formulated in English – not in Hindi, not even in Japanese, but in English. This phenomenon has a cumulative effect: even if I live in another linguistic space but I want the world to learn about me, I must translate myself into English. If someone wants it to be different, they need to create a centre of intellectual leadership elsewhere. No propaganda tricks, demonstration of force, bravado or threats will help in this regard. The Goths and Huns captured and destroyed the decrepit Roman Empire, but the grandchildren of these conquerors still switched to the Latin language.
Intellectual leadership is important for a language to spread. Almost all intellectual innovations are now formulated in English – not in Hindi, not even in Japanese. This phenomenon has a cumulative effect: even if I live in another linguistic space but I want the world to learn about me, I must translate myself into English. If someone wants it to be different, they need to create a centre of intellectual leadership elsewhere. No propaganda tricks, demonstration of force, bravado or threats will help in this regard
If our objective is to spread a specific language in the world, all we need to do is to create something unique in this language, something that does not exist in the domain occupied by other languages. Young people all over the world have derived a great deal of pleasure studying Japanese exclusively because of Anime, and complicated hieroglyphs do not scare them – on the contrary, they find their beauty attractive.
What do you think about the statistics showing that by 2050 the topmost languages in terms of numbers of speakers will be Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, Spanish and English?
It depends on what we mean by ‘topmost.’ There is the factor of population size, which does not directly spell global leadership. You may have a poor family with many children and a rich family with just one child. They are difficult to compare. There are regions with rapidly growing populations and by extension the number of language speakers increases as well. I am speaking of Indonesia, India, China and the Arab world. But if you look at it within the intangible space of culture, science and politics, this growth is not that visible. The fact that there are many of you does not mean that your voice will be heard. Unfortunately, this is how the modern world works.
One should also bear in mind that, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as the Chinese or Arabic language at all. They are rather what is called linguistic clusters. Of course the Arab world uses the literary Arabic language but it is not a native language for anyone. This is the language in which the classical Arabic literature was written – the language of the Quran and the masterpieces created between the 7th and 12th centuries. It is as if all Slavic countries used the Old Church Slavonic language for writing and communications with one another.
Tunisians, Algerians, and Syrians cannot even understand the native languages spoken by each other. When they want to socialise, they switch to the literary Arabic language or al-fushá, which all educated Arabs speak. A partly similar situation exists in China. There are several dozen so-called Chinese dialects (including Cantonese, Min and others) which are in a full sense different languages. This diversity is especially pronounced in the south and southwest of China between Shanghai and the Vietnamese border. Naturally, there is the standard literary Chinese language called Mandarin (or Putonghua) that is based on the Beijing norm, but not everyone speaks it well.
America’s intellectual and economic leadership, its victory in the Second World War, its geographic span – all of these factors combined have contributed to the connotation of prosperity that the English language has. Can the number of speakers increase to such an extent that their sheer mass and pressure ensures prosperity for the mother country, for example the Spanish language and Spain?
In my view, the fact that a language is spoken by many people in and of itself does not automatically spell prosperity. In essence, a language is not something tangible – it is rather a spiritual, mental and cultural phenomenon. The size of the population, on the other hand, is very physical and belongs in the material world. There is no direct correlation. Naturally, if a language is spoken by several million people, it will feel relatively well, whereas a language spoken by several thousand is virtually doomed. If the world does not change in a radical way, smaller languages will continue to disappear.
Another intangible notion – that of prestige – offers a very powerful mechanism. If people perceive their language as something not very prestigious, it is exceedingly difficult to change that perception; for the development of the language it is much worse even than a small number of native speakers. Someone feels embarrassed to speak his or her native language and does not want to use it and believes that speaking this language has something to do with being poor or backwards.
We started from the premise that from the scientific perspective all languages are equal and that there is no determinism; to blame one’s problems on one’s language is tantamount to naïve Whorfianism. But unfortunately, in the minds of ordinary people there is often this association. Some people are certain that they would achieve something if they were to learn English, for instance, and then they make their children forget their native language and switch to English. These seemingly purely psychological mechanisms of prestige and success have a much more destructive effect upon the fate of languages than bullets, warheads, the size of population and other factors. All changes originate in people’s minds.
In Central Asian countries people shifted from Russian to native languages rather drastically. Does that mean the prestige of Russian, or the prospects associated with it, diminished just as suddenly? Or is it purely a desire on their part to find their own identity, leading them to preserve their language no matter how non-prestigious it is?
This is a complicated process. What the Russian language was undergoing in the post-Soviet space was a multi-vector process. In a certain sense everything that happened is natural and is to be expected in the foreseeable future for independent nations with dominant indigenous populations.
Let us revisit Africa. Why is it that after African countries gained their independence, English or French still remained the official languages nearly everywhere? Many expected that Central Asia would repeat Africa’s experience and the Russian language would retain the same role as French does in Africa. But then the two situations could not be more different. In Africa it was a forced measure primarily because there is enormous polyethnicity in every country: dozens if not hundreds of ethnicities in a relatively small territory. Secondly, local languages were not functionally developed and standardised in any way; the vast majority of them did not even have a writing system.
And in Central Asia there were, generally speaking, modern states with sufficiently developed infrastructure. First of all, they were relatively monoethnic. Secondly, they had their own press, literature, writers, dictionaries and even academies of sciences. A transition to their national language in all areas of life merely required a small initial impulse, the so-called ‘political will,’ and the machine clicked and switched into gear on its own. As for political will, there was certainly no shortage of it. It would be strange and naïve to expect that given such a point of departure the elites would prefer another country’s language. There are no reasons to assume that, except perhaps out of arrogance.
Surprisingly, Kazakhstan is the only country to retain the Russian language to a certain extent, and that is thanks to the fact that, in certain cases, Kazakhs still continue to communicate with each other in Russian. But this is a unique situation that should be highlighted and encouraged.
The processes that lead to the opposite result should hardly surprise anyone any longer – we are talking about the rise of national identity and ordinary nation building. If you have your own nation there is no other way for you to go about it. Indeed, it begs the question of longer-term prospects. Was it really the right step to resolutely do away with the Russian language, which still is a global language no matter how you spin it, and certainly one of the principal languages in the Eurasian space? However, people tend to think more about transient benefits and ignore arguments of this kind. Having said that, the pendulum may at some point swing the other way, which is often the case.
However, those who are concerned with the spread of the Russian language in the world should understand that the expansion of a language is not a function of power politics. It is predicated on how attractive are the specific cultural and intellectual patterns that exist within the space of this given language. A language is not sustained by the soles of military boots and sledgehammers – it is sustained by books, ideas, inventions, and discoveries. People will not speak the language of Attila the Hun or Genghis Khan but rather that of Virgil and St. Augustine, Newton and Leibnitz, Pascal and Einstein. Well, come to think of it, the Russian language does not have such a bad standing in this competition…