[ Freelance Traveller Home Page | Search Freelance Traveller | Site Index ]

*Freelance Traveller

The Electronic Fan-Supported Traveller® Resource

#8: Language

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue.

The relationship between language and culture is deep, and exists on many levels. Social relationships can affect language and its use, occasionally in interesting ways.

One such is the phenomenon of the ‘avoidance language’ or ‘mother-in-law language’. While the formal definition is quite a bit narrower (and more rigorous) than I use here, it’s not entirely inaccurate to describe the phenomenon as a language (or vocabulary within a language) that allows communication between social groups that may not otherwise be permitted to interact ‘normally’. Some examples of this phenomenon—and possibly related ones:

Another way that social relationships can affect language is in the phenomenon of “code-switching”. This term is used, perhaps not entirely properly, in at least three different ways:

In so-called ‘immigrant nations’ (such as the US, Canada, Australia, etc.), assimilation to the dominant culture (and language) is generally encouraged—but the immigrants sometimes feel that the pressure to assimilate is excessive, and resist. One manner of resistance is to insist on the preservation of the original language. This might be done de facto via ‘ghettoization’ (as is frequently seen in “Chinatowns” or “Little Arabias” or et cetera), or by the deliberate creation of schools that conform to local educational requirements, but conduct instruction and recreational interaction in the immigrant language. In some cases, this might extend to an official policy of bilingualism (with the extreme represented by Québec, where the policy requires local dominance of French, rather than the de facto dominance of English as in the rest of Canada) or polylingualism (for example, in California in the US, most state governmental forms are required to be available in dozens of languages, and court interpreters must collectively be able to interpret in any of the 220 languages recorded as being spoken in the state).

On the other side of that phenomenon is the ‘accreted’ nation, where many disparate groups are welded together. In such a case, the central government may not demand any sort of assimilation and make official the use at a national level of a language not spoken by any of the disparate groups, while allowing regional and local use of indigenous language (India is one example of this, where English is used as the neutral common language (although Hindi also has official status nationally)); alternatively, a mandate for assimilation may be in place, and the dominant culture to which everyone is expected to assimilate also provides the official language (the People’s Republic of China, with its common written language, uses Mandarin as the official spoken language, though most regions have their own language). There is a third policy, exemplified by Switzerland, where there are only a few regional languages; there (and possibly similar cases elsewhere), the regional languages are all granted coequal official status. Similar to this third option is the use by international organizations of several widely-spoken national languages as official languages, all generally with coequal status (such as the United Nations, with English, Russian, French, Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic all having official status, or the European Union, where all of the member states’ national languages have official status.).