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Some languages survive colonialism, while others go extinct

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Chinese newspapers with front-pages showing Chinese President Xi Jinping attending the sixth plenary session of the 19th CPC Central Committee, at a newspaper stall in Beijing, China, on Nov. 12. EPA-Yonhap
Chinese newspapers with front-pages showing Chinese President Xi Jinping attending the sixth plenary session of the 19th CPC Central Committee, at a newspaper stall in Beijing, China, on Nov. 12. EPA-Yonhap

'Speak Not' underscores community members' determination to protect their languages as a vital factor for its survival


By Kang Hyun-kyung

"Speak Not: Empire, Identity and the Politics of Language" by James Griffiths
James Griffiths' new book, "Speak Not: Empire, Identity and the Politics of Language," released on Oct. 21 by Zed Books/Bloomsbury, deals with the rare but grave topic of the survival and extinction of minority languages in times of historical turmoil.

The fate of minority languages, to a large extent, hinges on the determination of people to protect their language and their persistent, unwavering efforts to make that happen, as seen in the Welsh nationalists' successful movements to preserve their language, the book argues.

According to the author, colonialism and imperialism are two formidable forces behind the killing and dying out of minority languages. "The loss of linguistic diversity is not merely an intellectual tragedy but a continued consequence of colonialism and imperialism as groups are forcibly assimilated and their diverse histories, cultures and tongues wiped out," Griffiths observes in the book.

Examining the challenges facing three minority languages ― Welsh, Hawaiian and Cantonese ― and their communities' respective responses to these challenges in his thorough analysis and interpretation of the relevant historical events that resulted in the endangered status of those languages, Griffiths reaches the conclusion that "language revitalization" is the result of community members' coordinated, tenacious and willful endeavors to keep using their tongue against all odds.

Griffiths discusses three Welsh nationalists of the 20th century, namely, Saunders Lewis, Lewis Valentine and D.J. Williams, whose actions for change contributed to saving the Welsh language from the English government's efforts to Anglicize its colonial territories.

The three served prison terms in return for their action to preserve their mother tongue, and their sufferings later led to the Act of 1942, which secured the right of Welsh-speaking people to testify in the Welsh language in courts in Wales.

The specter of colonial education haunts Koreans, too.

Like the Welsh language, Korean was once an endangered language, owing to forceful colonial education imposed by the Japanese imperialists.

In 1942, Japan forced Korean students to speak only in Japanese in classroom. The use of Korean was banned, and those who violated the ban were subject to persecution. The members of the Korean Language Society, who were arrested in 1942 while working on a Korean dictionary project, were Korean equivalents of the three Welsh nationalists. Like the Welsh nationalists, the Korean linguists were sent to prison because of their action to preserve their mother tongue.

While both the Welsh and Korean languages were once endangered amid colonialism, the future of Cantonese, which is spoken in Hong Kong, has become murky, due to mainland Chinese leader Xi Jinping's crackdown on protestors who have taken to the streets to resist mainland China's influence in Hong Kong through the National Security Law. In Hong Kong, Griffiths writes, "those promoting Cantonese are increasingly viewed with suspicion by the authorities in Beijing who see them as crypto-separatists," as Cantonese is linked to the movement for Hong Kong's independence.

As the author states, "Speak Not: Empire, Identity and the Politics of Language" is the result of Griffiths' several-year journey to answer the question of "why some languages succeed while others are driven to minority status or even extinction."

Hailing the merits of bilingualism or multilingualism for his readers, Griffiths proposes that policymakers introduce supportive policies and set aside budgets to encourage minorities to keep using their languages.

Through his new book, Griffiths proves himself to be a talented storyteller.

The topic he chose to discuss may not sound intriguing to everyone at first, due to its specialized nature. But once readers become open-minded enough to pick it up and turn the pages one after the other, they'll find the book to be hard to put down.

The way he delves deeply into his topic and guides his readers to his conclusion is persuasive.

"Speak Not: Empire, Identity and the Politics of Language" is thoroughly written, informative and relatable to many countries and communities that have their own languages.

It's an enjoyable read even for people having no linguistics background or little knowledge of the histories of the specific three communities mentioned ― Wales, Hawaii and Hong Kong ― because the author provides sufficient related historical facts and events as background.

Born in Wales, Griffiths is currently based in Hong Kong and works for the Canadian news media outlet, The Globe and Mail.

"Speak Not: Empire, Identity and the Politics of Language" is his second book, following "The Great Firewall of China," published in 2019.


Kang Hyun-kyung hkang@koreatimes.co.kr


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