fight1_rWhen we talk about what languages do, such as expand, die, shift, etc., we sometimes overlook the fact that those things are directly tied to not only the people that speak them but also the surrounding people. That is, the activities of people directly affect what happens to languages, so languages have to, in many ways, follow the same rules of interaction as people do.

The problem for the innocent languages with this is that people don’t always get along. Humans are a belligerent species, in general, always in a conflict of one kind or another, either as the aggressor or the defender. When two large groups of people meet, they collide, and the outcome of that has an impact on the fate of the language as well.

1) Conquest

The most common outcome of conflict is that the winning side conquers the other. When this happens, the losing people are forced to do whatever their new masters decide. This normally means that the defeated population becomes absorbed, either as equals, secondary citizens, or slaves. If the language between the two sides is very different, the conquering side will probably force their language upon the new citizens, making them learn it while abandoning their own. This happened quite often in South America, when invading Spaniards defeated the native tribes and forced them to drop their own languages and learn Spanish.

Conquest is the major cause of language extinction, as it often not only destroys the population of speakers but it also forces the survivors to stop using their language.

2) Merger

Not all conflicts are violent. They might occur when one country creates colonies in another in order to establish trade. This can result in a hybrid language, or pidgin, being born. It’s essentially people on both sides trying to make sense out of the other language. They try to adapt the foreign sounds into something they can reproduce and the result is a unique, simplified creation. Since it is a merging, it is not a dialect of either one. These are most commonly developed for trade purposes, and thus often called “trade languages”.

3) Living Together

Just like people, some languages end up living together, neither as one dominating the other, nor as a combination, but rather as trying to co-exist in the same population. As you can imagine, like people, this is normally a very tense and unstable relationship, and will eventually erupt into a greater conflict.

The best example of this is in Belgium, where two languages are locked in a battle for dominance: the French based Walloon and the Dutch based Flemish. The situation came out of numerous political and linguistic conflicts over the centuries that caused two people and languages to be bound in one country.

Further Reading

fight2_rI talk a great deal more about language conflicts in Parrot Time. There are a number of articles relating to “Languages in Peril”, discussing how many now endangered languages got to be that way. There is a much longer examination of the results of languages colliding in “When Languages Meet”, as well as articles pertaining to specific cohabitation, like “Language Conflicts: Bokmål vs. Nynorsk” and “Language Conflicts: Flemish vs. Walloon”.

I hope you take time to explore this topic more, either in what I write or in others writings.

Chris Broholm wrote a piece in his blog, Actual Fluency about why we should let endangered languages die while Brian Powers wrote in his Languages Around the Globe about whether we should learn endangered languages or not. Both are very good articles and the expand upon the results of language conquests.

Please tell us in the comments below you own thoughts on or experiences with language conflicts.