The Many Dangers of Linguistic Domination


Often, religion is blamed for the increasing number of conflicts the world has witnessed since the end of the Cold War. But this is not a clash of civilizations. Most of the time, the ethnic divides in violent conflicts are not religious but linguistic.

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

Language is an identity marker as strong as religion. At the same time, language is closely linked to livelihoods. To mobilize a group based on religion, conflict entrepreneurs often need a common language, but mobilizing conflict over language can be done independently.

When the ethnonationalist mobilization on religion succeeds in overcoming the linguistic divisions within the group, this project will probably not last long because linguistic problems could arise after a while.

Religiously neutral position

It is also relatively more manageable for the state to maintain a “religiously neutral” position to avoid conflict between two or more religious groups.

Even if a country is officially theocratic, it costs the majority ego nothing to grant limited freedom to religious minorities to practice their faith. But meeting the linguistic demands of linguistic minorities is not so easy.

There are only 55 countries in the world that are officially bilingual or multilingual, and many languages ​​in most countries around the world have no official sanction behind them. Yielding to the demand of a language group and making it an official state language requires a significant amount of economic and institutional resources.

A new official language requires the creation of new educational infrastructures and expertise, as well as the allocation of significant resources to the public administration to adapt to the new situation. It also allows a marginalized group to be a competing player in the nation’s power structure and resource pool.

Giving in to a group’s linguistic demand by the state can be easily interpreted and politicized by the competing elites of the majority group as ‘they win, we lose’ terms. There are several reasons why developing countries in particular are reluctant to respond to the demands of linguistic minorities.

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

Competing language groups

Linguistically different ethnic groups like the Russians in Ukraine, the Kurds in Iraq and the Baluchis in Iran are engaged in violent clashes despite having similar religions. East Pakistan seceded from Pakistan and became Bangladesh on the language issue. When religious and linguistic differences are present, ethnic conflict is likely to be more vicious and intractable. South Asia is witnessing many of these cases.

While countries do their best not to give in to the demands of competing language groups, they also often adopt a single language policy as a nation-building strategy. Nation-building with one language creates the possibility of language endangerment in multilingual developing or transit countries.

Although for a time smaller language groups tried to switch to the official language, gradually the awareness of marginalization set in and they began to demand fair treatment.

The reason is that the dominant language group taking advantage of a language-based state structure manages to control politics, economy, government institutions and usurps most of the available jobs. If they fail to assimilate, the other language groups have no choice but to resist.

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 linguistic difference became the cause of many ethnic conflicts.

The growing tension of the minority group with majority rule relates to language issues concerning education, the social sector, employment and even citizenship.

Explosive ethnic hostility

Explosive ethnic hostility is seen in countries where majority regimes view linguistic divides as 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 strengthening of majority politics around the world. This has further led to an acute politicization of language issues and increasing attempts by regimes to make the dominant language the sole official language of the country.

In its pursuit of single language dominance, mainstream politics tends to forget that language policy is not just an internal affair. The language issue is also part of the fundamental human rights of linguistic minority groups. The suppression of language rights of minority language groups undermines their freedom of expression and subjects them to discrimination.

While majority politics supports the dominance of one language, many view multilingualism as a burden. They consider that the presence of several languages ​​is detrimental to the economic development of a country. For a majority 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 groups actually fear the possibility of being unfairly treated and being discriminated against by the dominant language group.

At the same time, language has become a powerful weapon of majority populists to divide people. Unfortunately, this sets the stage for the emergence of many new violent ethnic conflicts over language divides around the world.


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