The fallacy of the Mother Tongue, part 2 of 3

I recently posted some observations about the many misconceptions regarding native vs. non-native use of a language. Here is part 2, or: Why these misconceptions are actually harmful.

Drawing examples from rural France because it's the place I know best, but you can substitute a great number of countries, past and present, independant or colonised. Take your pick.

Language first became a topic for philosophical reflection around the 19th century. The arrival of language as a philosophical problem coincided roughly with romanticism, which, itself, coincided with some interesting inventions: nationalism, and the wonderful concept of volkgeist, the Spirit, or Genius, of a people.

The 19th century opened on a small incident called the French Revolution. Aside from killing the aristocracy and frightening the crap out of European nobility at large, the French revolutionaries had a big problem on their hands: they wanted to reinvent the country. They wanted to destroy the France that had been, and make a brand new country, that would still be French in essence, but purified of its royalist elements. Thus started what would become one of the biggest concerns of the 19th century: how can our culture survive changes in the economy, changes of governments, and establish our right to figure among the predominant nations in a colonial world? To answer that question, countries went in search of their identity, by exploring their own folklore (and often making it up), dissecting their own language and making all kinds of statements about What They Were, what made them special and justified the preservation of their culture. One of the most effective tools they used to reify their own identity was language.

Language is one of the primary means of asserting a country’s identity. Different languages express slightly different things, occasionally making people think in slightly different ways. That simple truth was blown out of proportion for a whole century. Language became a unique treasure, something that was supposed to inform your whole intellectual process, to make your mind, your culture and your life unique, and also to give you special superpowers, like law for the French, philosophy for the German an economy for the English. Thus was born an enduring myth: that your brain is drastically affected by the language you speak, and that speaking a different language makes you a different person. From the need to protect your national treasure was born another myth: that only a native can understand their mother tongue to a perfect degree.

Aside from being a big load of stupid, those myths did enduring damage to entire peoples. I’m referring to those who were not lucky enough to have French, German or English as their native language, or: The unfortunate destiny of minority speakers.

During the 19th century, there were far more languages spoken in Europe than there are now. There were over twenty in France alone. But French was the language of Paris, the language of the political and cultural elite, who had caught the nationalist virus at the time and were looking for a way to make sure that no one in France or elsewhere would challenge their superiority. Their solution was simple: erase local languages under the pretext of reinforcing education and modernisation. Yes, subtlety was a rare commodity in those days.

They started by twisting the theories of language in the same way social darwinists twisted the theory of evolution, using them to “prove” that some languages were naturally inferior and had to be eradicated. French, through a mind-blowing coincidence, was found to be far superior to Occitan, Breton or Corsican. But it was not enough to teach French to the people of the “province”, the entirety of France situated outside Paris. Speaking the language of the elite was just not considered good enough. To be part of that group, you needed to be a Native Speaker. You needed to have your native tongue rooted out of you at an early age, and French implanted in its place, for your own good, of course. Schoolteachers were thus encouraged to shame their students into giving up their native languages for the language of the elite, using various horridly cruel ways of humiliation and corporeal punishment. The aim was, ostensibly, to allow them to become a part of the very selective club of Native French Speakers, though of course they would rarely be: their local accents would always betray their humble origins.

That system was very effective. Not only people became ashamed to speak their own native languages and accordingly stopped in most of the country, but people with marked regional accents are still shamed today, in more or less subtle ways. Having a Southern accent marks you as vulgar and working-class. Of course, people who sneer at Southern accents fail to reflect that perhaps it’s not the accent itself that sounds working class, but the fact that the only people with Southern accents that get to speak to a wide audience are either comedians or sports commenters, and they don’t get to talk about non-working-class subjects anyway. People with a Northeastern accent are seen as peasants. And so on. What was initially a great tool for the central power to reinforce their influence over the whole country (they created a space where they were the original native speakers of the One Superior Language, thus seizing the authority to decide who had a right to hold on to their culture and who would have it beaten out of them) is still used in pretty much the same way today, albeit with less efficiency, as it is easier to get rid of your accent than to learn a new language.

The best part? Provincial French people had it comparatively easy. The same system was enforced in many other parts of the world, including colonies. The ideology behind it was always the same: to gain access to our club, you can’t be content with learning our language and the ways of our culture. You need to be a native, because you’ll never understand it otherwise. And if you’re not, then you need to give that wonderful chance to your children. Please do help us oppress you for your children’s sake, we’re getting tired of having to do all the hard work by ourselves. We’re sure you understand.

Soon: part 3, or, In the end, was it worth it?


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