Languages and Capitalism

As the well-known saying goes “To have another language is to possess a second soul.” Language is the medium through which we express ourselves, and like it or not, it underpins our entire world-view. For example, the way we see colours completely depends on which language we speak. In Vietnamese green and blue are the same colour (xanh), while in Russian ‘blue’ is two separate colours (синий and голубой) and in the Himba language spoken in Namibia; dark blue, dark green, dark red, brown, purple, and black are all one colour (zoozu). However, it’s not just colour that language affects, but how gender and possession are expressed (in Gaelic the only way to say you own something is to say it is ‘at you’) and much more. Languages reflect the richness and diversity of human culture, and when we lose a language we also lose poetry, songs, stories, and a whole perspective on the world.
However, under capitalism profits are valued above all else, and culture is cast to the side. 2,473 languages are currently defined as endangered and recent studies have estimated from 60-90% of all currently spoken languages will be extinct by 2050.
Currently the world’s resources are concentrated in a few countries, and within them this vast wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny group of billionaires. English being the language of the largest imperialist countries means that it is valued above all others. Children in non-English speaking countries are told that learning English is the only way to become successful while children in English speaking countries miss out on all the benefits of bilingualism such as access to another culture, better concentration and multitasking, and even the delayed onset of dementia. Worldwide between 60-75% of people can speak two or more languages fluently, compared to only 20% in the USA and 5% in the UK. Under the capitalist system language is merely seen as a barrier to world trade and local identities as a hindrance to workers who are needed to be transient, unrooted, and able to move when the market dictates.
Closer to home, in Scotland we have our own minority language Gaelic or Gàidhlig which has around 57,000 fluent speakers, concentrated in the Highlands and Islands, but also with large communities in Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Inverness. Except for the Northern Isles it was once spoken all over Scotland, and until recently continued to be the main language of the Highlands. However, like all endangered languages it did not ‘naturally’ start to fade away, as is sometimes implied, but was brutally repressed.
The 1745 Jacobite rebellion made it clear to the ruling class at the time that the Highlands were a threat, as they were not yet integrated into the capitalist system or the British state. As a result, a series of laws were enacted aiming to destroy Highland culture, and unsurprisingly one of the main ways this was done was to make it illegal to speak Gaelic. However, the language continued to survive, and Gaelic was still the main language in Highland communities, churches, homes and schools.
A second blow came to the language in 1872 when a national education system was put into place. Under the new system all children had to be taught in English and faced severe punishments for speaking their native language. Many people alive today still remember being ruthlessly beaten in school for using Gaelic. The worthlessness of the language was ingrained from a young age and as a result confidence in the language dropped. This view that it would be better to just speak English and that Gaelic is somehow ‘worthless’ and ‘a waste of time and money’ is still around us today. Many think that Gaelic isn’t suitable for a modern society, or that it is only for ultra-nationalists who want to return to feudalism or the like. This is completely ridiculous; in fact Gaelic gives us access to a wealth of literature, poetry and culture.
Despite the pressures from the capitalist system in which English domitnates, Gaelic is still spoken by many. Gaelic education is now highly popular, as results have shown that children in these schools drastically outperform their single-language peers. However, despite some support from Holyrood, in Austerity Britain, Gaelic is not getting the support it needs to thrive.
Under socialism the way in which languages would be viewed would be completely different. Instead of the languages of the biggest imperialist countries dominating and all others being dismissed; bilingualism would be rightly valued. Sufficient resources could be allocated to minority languages like Gaelic, and without the pressures of the market all languages could flourish. Language is the key to the huge wealth of human culture, and under socialism it would no longer be stamped out.

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