Arts & Living
By Domenico Maceri
The English word "normalization" would not be banned from official documents in Japan because no Japanese substitute exists. "Second opinion," "delivery," "informed consent," and another 56 English words, however, would be replaced with Japanese terms, according to a recommendation of the National Institute for the Japanese Language. As the English language continues to dominate the world's linguistic landscape, many countries become increasingly concerned about the "pollution" which Shakespeare's tongue might cause to their national languages. Inevitably, one line of defense is legislation. The most visible example of protecting language through laws is in Canada. When the Parti Quebecois won the provincial election, French speakers managed to take charge of Quebec's political system by wresting power away from an English-speaking elite, which had been in control. Eventually, the Parti Quebecois passed Bill 101, a milestone in linguistic laws for the province. One of the most controversial aspects of the law is Article 52, which states that business signs in English can only be half the size of their French translations. Fear of English pushed the government in France to act in the defense of French. To counteract the popularity of songs in English being broadcast on the radio, the government passed a law stating that at least 40 percent of the songs must be French. A similar law was passed about movies. Other countries are feeling similar repercussions and adopting French strategies to preserve their language. Brazil's Lower House of Congress passed a bill to ban the use of English terms such as "coffee break," "fast food," "shopping," etc., from Portuguese. If the bill becomes law, foreign words will be effectively banned in Brazil, except for indigenous languages and scientific and intellectual terms already included in Portuguese dictionaries. Ironically, while other countries try to protect their languages from being overcome by English, the US has used legislation to protect it from an invasion of Spanish. Twenty-six American states have passed laws declaring English the official language.
Do laws protect a language or do they serve merely as symbols? In the U.S., English-only laws have been primarily symbolic with few practical effects. Certainly, Spanish is still vibrant in the U.S., including those states that declared English their official language. History tells us that language laws have little impact, for people will learn whatever language is necessary to succeed. When Roman soldiers arrived in Spain more than two thousand years ago, the local people began learning Latin because they saw in it something of value. Eventually, the Latin spoken by Roman soldiers, merchants, and bureaucrats evolved and became what we now know as Spanish. The same thing happened in France and other countries such as Portugal and Rumania where Latin supplanted the local languages. On the other hand, if a language loses its practicality, there is probably not a lot anyone can do to defend it. Irish laws did not manage to assure the survival of Gaelic. Although it is the first official language of the country, the use of Gaelic is limited and only a small percentage of the population speaks it. The Irish would have loved to get rid of English, the last vestige of English imperialism. Yet, when the country became independent in the early 20th century, the oppressor's language was maintained. English became the de facto language of Ireland because the people saw advantages in it which Gaelic lacked. Protecting a language from the "attacks" of another can be best accomplished through action which has little to do with laws. As they often say, the best defense is offense. Speakers of "threatened" languages need to add value to their languages in some way. They need to make them desirable. Jewish settlers did it in Israel by reviving Hebrew because of religion and politics. The common language gave speakers of many different languages a unifying force. Perhaps the best example of adding value to a minority language is represented by the Florentine of the 14th century. When Dante wrote his Divine Comedy he chose the vernacular instead of Latin, the prestigious and international language of his time. The high literary quality of Dante's words in the Divine Comedy gave the Florentine dialect a prestige and power which turned it into the national language of Italy long before the country became unified in the 19th century. If you are trying to defend your language, laws won't do much, but a great poet might help. Any other Dantes out there?
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Domenico Maceri, Ph.D., UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA. His articles have appeared in many newspapers including Los Angeles Times, Washington Times, Japan Times, and The Seoul Times. Some of his stories won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications.
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