Linguistic Change and Politics

Cultural Languages – Remarks on the Prevailing Linguistic Situation

Balloons with flags
What makes a language modern? As in all markets, in the language market, too, there are offers of different kinds. One normally has no choice as to one’s native tongue, but where one has a choice, there is a not all that large group of languages in the contemporary world which have on the whole proven useful for the various demands. The languages of the great European cultures belong to this group, including German.

Languages that satisfy these requirements in principle have recognisable areas of competence and diverse focal points of use. Thus in the nineteenth century German enjoyed a pre-eminent reputation as the language of science, and French as the language of diplomacy. The ascent of English to the position of the international language of use has clearly changed the positions of the other languages. But what are the presuppositions for belonging to the club of the modern languages?

Languages can be compared

For the language scholar and the child, who learns his native tongue without further ado, all languages are equally good. They all have what may be demanded of a language. And this holds quite independently of whether we are talking about linguistic forms that are commonly called languages or about dialects. It is not as if languages could be distinguished according to whether they were as such better or worse suited to dealing with the tasks whose fulfilment is rightly expected of language. That languages which seem to us Europeans to employ strange techniques – for instance, a great number of apparently bewildering grammatical categories like the African class languages – satisfy these demands just as well as our European languages, to which our grammatical descriptions are in the first place oriented. Yet nevertheless languages are evidently not all the same, and represent different forms of what we call language. Here, too, there are languages which, for different reasons, are more similar than others; not for nothing do we speak of “families” of languages. Since the multiplicity of languages has come into view, people have sought to bring typological system into the structural differences. As far as Europe and its historically influenced cultural space is concerned, we can even state that the relevant languages have become more similar than could have been supposed by reason of their genesis.

Languages cannot be compared

Prof. Eichinger
We can find our way round in the world in all languages, whose home the world is. The world in which languages are at home, however, is not everywhere the same, but fairly incomparable. The exchange in languages of small, in many ways closely bound up groups, which are in addition scarcely dependent on written exchange, may in many respects be looked upon as the fundamental “dialogical” constellation from which the essential characteristics of language and languages received their stamp. From this situation, quite fundamental things can be inferred. For example, that systematic reference is somehow made to both partners in a dialogue and to that about which they are talking, which is reflected in, for instance, the system of personal pronouns and corresponding declensions.

The languages that shape our picture of the contemporary world are far removed (if to different degrees) from being able adequately to describe a purportedly natural form of communication with this picture. Not wrongly, therefore, we have the feeling that languages like German consist of a lot of language-like phenomena that together shape the picture of one language. These great cultural languages possess the common trait that they have developed their own form of written language, alongside which stands a spoken variant for different functions.

Languages have their own character

Looking at languages in this way, it strikes us that their differences cannot be adequately grasped if they are described as diverse mouldings of linguistic systems. And this kind of description fails to suffice because it is subject to various goals.
How “languages” are assessed depends not on their structural units and contexts in which they are meaningfully used; they are assessed as social symbols; they are subject to integration into a normative structure which retains its value only as long as it reasonably corresponds to shared social ideas. Thus we draw traditional distinctions which take up various aspects of this structure. The role played here by interpretative authority and its material conditions can be seen from the frequently cited observation that languages are dialects with an army and a fleet. That this observation, which qualifies the objectivity of such terms as “language” and “dialect”, was originally formulated in Yiddish (“A shprakh iz a diyalekt mit an armey un a flot” – “A language is a dialect with an army and a fleet”), suits the nature of the case.

Modern traits

Are then language that are adapted to modernity simply languages with large armies and fleets? Yes and no: naturally the background of a language plays a role. Thus it is more than an accident that Latin, French and English drew their significance from historical constellations behind which stood, so to say, great power and intellectual force. The comparison of the contemporary situation to previous conditions, however, is fairly lame. In contrast with the cultural surroundings in which the previously named languages achieved the zenith of their influence, something has happened in the meantime that has opened similar possibilities to a great number of languages. The emancipation of the (European) vernacular languages and their consolidation as national languages reflects the increasing participation of their speakers in public discourse. In the major areas of Europe and their languages, from Italy to Sweden and from Portugal to Russia, this process was complete by the end of the nineteenth century.

Necessary experiences


All languages that could be called “cultural languages of the European type” have undergone such experiences. So one of the presuppositions for a “modern” language can be said to be that it has the indisputable status of a national tongue. National languages have a largely standardised, or at least well-described and transmitted, written form. This characteristic ensures not only that the language can be learned, but is also a guarantee that the most important things in our world have already been spoken of in this language. The written form of a language need not therefore be a kind of writing that can deal with the most diverse facts in the most diverse manner. This criterion is best satisfied by the great languages of the European type which have grown up in a world of printed books, newspapers, journals and the like. Yet an incidental occurrence within this development has been no less important: in the course of these events, the great languages have by the way come into shared traditions of speaking and a reciprocal exchange of a common vocabulary. This may be seen most clearly in that part of the educated vocabulary in which a host of scientific and specialist words in various languages reveal to us their Latin or Greek origins, from “hyper-sensualism” to “discotheque”.

For the attainment of an adequate degree of modernity, it was also important that all the countries in which these languages are spoken succeeded in schooling all native speakers in the ability to read and write their own language. Studies of the letters that German emigrants of the nineteenth century sent home show clearly the long, arduous and meandering way that had to be taken to achieve this. The other side of the development is that these languages have found a unified oral form which corresponds to a great degree to their written form. Whether the particular oral form chosen was that of a dominate class or region (as in England or France) or a kind of compromise arrived at by the consensus of educated citizens (as more or less in Germany) is of secondary importance. This form of language was meant, moreover, to have its unquestioned place in the media – and for every sort of subject.

A new problem

Shaping through media

Needed in order to satisfy all these requirements is a large group of people that shares a language as their native tongue, and a certain extension of this language into larger contexts. This is the problem of minority languages whose speakers frequently see themselves in the position of having to fall back on a majority language in circumstances beyond the narrow purposes of everyday life – for example, speakers of Sorbian, a language which even has no lack of written traditions. If because of this interplay of factors “minority languages” had in principle an equal (if varying) share in a transnational language market in the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, today the situation has changed. For various reasons, the model of multilingualism in the larger European languages which then shaped all classes of society is no longer appropriate to the times.

In place of a fairly Eurocentric model of elites who were multilingual in several cultural languages has stepped a model consisting of one native language and international English. This is to do with the fact that language use no longer concerns only the geographical area covered by the Euro-American languages. Three things remain unclear in the current transitional period to such a model. One is that world-wide use has made English, which is one of the European cultural languages, a linguistically overarching frame that has been detached from the cultural traditions of English by being reduced to the function of international communication. Another is the question of how a reasonable multilingualism on this basis could look; what the role of the other cultural languages, alongside and under English as the language of international communication, might play. And finally it remains to be clarified anew how we are to envisage a reasonably functional interaction among the various types of language.

Prof. Dr. Ludwig M. Eichinger
is director of the Institute for the German Language and Professor of German Linguistics.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V, Online-Redaktion
August 2006

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