More than just a vehicle to communicate, language expresses and helps construct identity. As such, it has the power to inspire and unite people — but language can also be a source of division, or an impediment to peace between groups already in conflict. From squabbles over things like spelling and pronunciation, to minority groups fighting for the survival of their mother tongue — and everything it stands for — language politics can be deeply disruptive. Here are five examples from around the world:
Traditional Chinese vs. simplified Chinese
In China, people have been arguing for decades over whether to stick with traditional Chinese characters or accept the more simplified versions Mao Zedong introduced to stamp out illiteracy in mainland China. Simplified characters are by far the dominant option, although in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, people still use the traditional variety — at least for now.
Sign mixing Traditional and Simplified Chinese characters — Photo: Panzer VI-II
There are signs of change, however, as the Chinese newspaper QDaily reports. In Hong Kong, a former British colony, one international school recently took the controversial step of doing away with classes in traditional Chinese characters.
Turkey's crackdown on Kurdish
The ban on the Kurdish language in Turkey's Kurd areas has long been a key component of the government's discriminatory treatment toward the minority group. Authorities make sure that Kurdish is not used as a language of instruction in the education system, and prohibit the publication of books written in Kurdish. Turkey's recently reelected leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been especially heavy-handed in his treatment of the Kurds, which nevertheless had a major influence in the June election, as the English language news source Ahval reports.
Speaking "Mexican" in Montana
Spanish is the second most commonly spoken language in the United States, which is now the world's second largest Spanish-speaking country after Mexico, with an estimated 50 million people who speak it as their first, second or heritage language.
"We speak Spanish" sign in the U.S. — Photo: Paul Sableman
But not everyone's happy about the expansion of español. In Montana, an immigration agent recently detained and questioned two U.S. citizens waiting in line at a gas station because he heard them speak Spanish, The Washington Post reports. He bluntly demanded their identification papers and told them the issue was that they were speaking Spanish in a "predominantly English-speaking" state.
Making a bold statement ... in Breton
From Occitan in the south to Alsacien in the northeast, there are a number of languages spoken in France besides standard French. Little by little these regional tongues are disappearing, although there are initiatives here and there to protect them. One recent example took place in the western region of Brittany, where a group of 15 teenagers decided to answer a portion of their end-of-high-school exam in Breton, the Rennes-based Ouest-France newspaper reports. The move was in protest to national education rules requiring that the exams be done only in standard French.
A polemic tweet in Punjabi
Khadime Punjab jewere taalim ("The servant of Punjab"). So reads a recent tweet (in Punjabi) by Shehbaz Sharif, the former chief minister of Pakistan's Punjab region and current president of the Pakistan Muslim League, a center-right conservative party in Pakistan. The tweet was controversial because although Punjabi is widely spoken in the region and in Pakistan as a whole, Sharif himself had never showed an affinity for the language.
Shebhaz Sharif — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
It's odd too, the Times of India reports, that it came just after completing his term as chief minister of Punjab, where many fault Sharif for not using his authority to make Punjabi the official language of the region.