Final Word

Stellenbosch and the empire: going back a long way


The dominance of English presently being mooted amid much controversy at Stellenbosch University (SU) proves that throughout history language has been the most long-lasting result of imperialism.

In a way the threatening anglicisation of the SU can be seen as the final revenge of the erstwhile British Empire that had dominated South Africa for so long.

On the website of the SU we read that the university’s history dates back to 1685 when regular school education was initiated in the town. The establishment of the Theological Seminary of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1859 got higher education going at Stellenbosch. The Stellenbosch Gymnasium (precursor of the current SU) came into being a few year later.

In 1887 the dominance of the British Empire in the Cape Colony was proved when the institution was renamed the Victoria College in honour of Queen Victoria's golden jubilee on the British throne.

Linguistic imperialism

But English itself did not escape the effects of linguistic imperialism, or language imperialism as the phenomenon became known, especially since the publication of a book on the subject by Robert Phillipson in 1992.

The very existence of the word ‘imperialism’ in English is a reflection of the dominance Latin gained in the Western world on the back of the Roman Empire.

The ultimate root of ‘empire’, which arrived in English during the early 14th century via Old French, is the Latin word imperare (to order or prepare) which became imperium – a rule or command, authority and later supreme power.

Latin itself, in turn, carried many footprints of the cultural dominance of the Hellenistic (Greek) empires. Likewise there are footprints of the Persian empire in many modern languages.

‘Imperialism’ as an ‘advocacy of empire’ in foreign policy objectives, was first recorded in 1826 and in the sense of ‘one country’s rule over others’, was first recorded in 1878. However, the term British Empire was first recorded more than a century earlier in 1772.

‘Imperialism’ in the context of language made its appearance in the 20th century. Phillipson found denunciations of linguistic imperialism dated back to Nazi critiques of the British Council, and to Soviet analyses of English as the language of world capitalism and world domination.

It is hugely ironic that one of the prime drivers of the present manifestations towards the ‘linguistic imperialism’ of English in South African education is the leader of the South African Communist Party, Minister Blade Nzimande.

Wider perspective

In a wider historical perspective it is important to take note that not only military or political power has historically been the driver behind ‘linguistic imperialism’.

Long after it had disappeared as a spoken language, Latin remained the language of the Church and of learning. Until fairly recently Latin was a compulsory subject when studying towards a law degree in South Africa, and at one time even for medical studies.
The root of this is that scholars as far back as the early 17th century argued the need of an ‘international language’ for religion and intellectual debate.

Sir Thomas More’s 1629 book, Utopia, about a perfect society, published in Amsterdam, was written neither in Dutch nor English, but in Latin, long after its disappearance as a spoken language.

A German scientist recently said he knew of scientific conferences in Germany, attended by Germans, conducted in English.

As globalisation developed in the 20th century in the wake of two world wars fired by rampant nationalism and economic competition, international political institution like the League of Nations and the United Nations, were established. With it came ambitions to develop international languages to help promote world peace.

Most prominent among these was Esperanto, meaning ‘one who hopes’. It, however, never caught on sufficiently for the leaders of world powers to need or want to master it.

First truly global language

Meanwhile a number of historical developments conspired to turn English into the most successful ‘imperial language’ of all times and the first truly global language. It had a long international run-up since the 16th century, when the English started extending their influence and power over large parts of the world, via commerce and more often colonialisation. Next came Britain’s prominence in the Industrial Revolution, followed by the dominance of the United States on so many fronts, from military power to the world of entertainment (read, Hollywood), technology and commerce.

None of these have played a more prominent role than the development of the internet and the explosion in communication networks following in its wake.

In short, geopolitical, military and economic power plus technological innovation are important driving forces of ‘linguistic imperialism’.

Probably due to how some of the South African powers of the day interpret the tea leaves on these fronts, China’s dominant language, Mandarin, is about to become an optional subject in local schools.

In a 2007 paper for a master’s degree, Michael Bishop wrote: “The future for many languages looks bleak as we head into the 21st century. It has been estimated that of the six thousand languages still spoken around the globe, half … will disappear by the end of the 21st century.”

Final word of caution

The rulers of the day should, however, take note, because of cultural, historical and emotional factors associated with, especially, stronger local languages, they seldom lie down and die quietly.

In India, for instance, English is far from being a force for unity, and its continued existence is stressful. While much used in the media, administration, education and business, there are calls to curb its influence.

In response to English linguistic imperialism, de-anglicisation became a matter of national pride in some regions, especially in areas that had once been under colonial rule, with vestiges of colonial domination a sensitive subject.

South African policy makers will do well to study the 1969 race riots in Malaysia.

The country, after independence in 1957, even used English in parliament. After the riots it reverted back to Bahasa Malaysia in national schools and to mother-tongue education in 2012.

There are also lessons to be learned from the 1976 student riots in South Africa – language is an emotional subject to be handled with great care, also by the government of the day.

At the same time those fighting for the survival of Afrikaans should take note of the findings of a paper by Suzanne Romaine for UNESCO’s International Journal on Multicultural Societies.

“Looking to schools and declarations of official  status to assist endangered languages is much like looking for one’s lost keys under the lamp-post because that is where the most light appears to shine rather than because that is where they have been lost.

“Just as it is easier to see under the lamp post, it is far easier to establish schools and declare a language official than to get families to speak a threatened language to their children. Yet only the latter will guarantee transmission.”

by Piet Coetzer

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