Imperialism, Linguistic Diversity, and Common Language

A few thoughts on occasion of Language Festival 2013.

By the mid first century AD, when the Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote his monumental Natural History, Rome had become an empire of global significance and enormous dimensions. It held territories around the Mediterranean, in Europe, Asia, and Africa, incorporating hundreds of peoples, tribes, and cultures across closer to five million square miles, who, in many cases, had little more in common than their being subjected to Roman rule.

When he describes the landscape and the peoples of the Apennine peninsula, in the third book of his Natural History, Pliny makes an interesting comment. Following a rough-and-ready account of but a few of the peoples who originally inhabited the Apennine peninsula (i. e. modern day Italy), he says that –

I am well aware that I may with justice be considered ungrateful and lazy if I describe in this casual and cursory manner a land which is at once the nursling and the mother of all other lands, chosen by the providence of the gods to make heaven itself more glorious, to unite scattered empires, to make manners gentle, to draw together in converse by community of language the jarring and uncouth tongues of so many nations, to give mankind civilisation, and in a word to become throughout the world the single fatherland of all the races. But what am I to do?

(Pliny, Natural History 3.29, transl. H. Rackham)

Pliny’s words express a remarkable pride in the achievements of the Roman Empire, originating in his native Italy: Rome is both the nursling and the mother of all other lands, and it has become the single fatherland of all the races, throughout the world. It has brought (or so Pliny chooses to think) gentle manners and unity to communities across the ancient world – the Latin text says congregaret imperia (‘to make empires flock together’) and ritusque molliret (‘to soften the conduct’). In short, it gave mankind civilisation – humanitatem homini daret, to provide humanitas, the very essence of human existence, to the humans.

And then there is that bit about the languages…

The Latin reads as follows: et tot populorum discordes ferasque linguas sermonis commercio contraheret ad colloquia – ‘and to pull together for mutual exchange such many disharmonious and unrestrained languages of peoples through the community of language.’

Rome, the parent of the ancient world, has taught her rumbustious (rather forcefully adopted) children a common language, a lingua franca, and it is by means of this tool that some of the less desirable aspects of the olden age appear to have disappeared: fruitful verbal exchange (colloquia) has replaced the disharmonious (discordes) and unrestrained (feras) linguistic landscape.

The Latin language knows a stylistic device called enallage adiectivi – the re-deployment of an adjective, to accompany  that one noun in a pairing of nouns that would not normally require such qualification. One may, of course, imagine the existence of disharmonious languages. But what would be the idea behind ‘wild, unrestrained languages’? It is thus not altogether implausible that these two adjectives, disharmonious and unrestained, should in fact be taken with tot populorum, i. e. ‘the languages of such many disharmonious and unrestrained peoples’.

The semantic shift may seem minimal. But it radically highlights the underlying issue: imposing the use of a single language on the peoples of the Roman Empire (at least as far as the Apennine peninsula is concerned – Pliny does not pretend that this applies to the entire Roman world) is an act of imperialism, suppression, and violence, disguised as the arrival of civilisation in an otherwise cruel, wild environment. And this process is a reduction – it is hardly accidental that the forceful act is described with the verb contrahere, ‘pulling together’, ‘restraining’.

What Pliny in his romanticising view of the nature of Roman imperialism does not mention is the cost of this: would the peoples, however disharmonious and unrestrained they were before they had become part of Rome’s empire, agree with the idea of Rome’s language as a bringer of civilisation and peace, or would they have felt that something worth preserving had been lost? Was Rome’s rule not but a form of linguistic and cultural hegemony, a rather unilaterally taken decision as to what would be good for everyone else?

Pliny’s narrative is simplifying (as he himself admits), romanticising, and not an accurate representation of the complex linguistic landscape of the Roman world, as research on the widespread multilingualism of the ancient world has shown. Yet, it is an intriguing testament to a thoroughly imperial mindset, and a mindset that sounds both worrying when detecting it in the past and strangely familiar with a view on our own times.

In that respect, it may be of interest to those who feel strongly about their own language(s) to consider how the story ended. The Latin language disintegrated and gave birth to a great variety of diverse new languages and cultures, drawing on the diverse substrates of older, local traditions, on the heritage of the Roman Empire, and on creative, cultural innovations and influences from elsewhere.

Is the force behind the imposition of a lingua franca ethical? What will the fate of the current lingua franca be, considering just how far and wide it is spread – will it implode, as Latin did? And should all of that imply for modern approaches to language policies? It may not be good enough to take Plinian pride in the achievements of empires, old and new. On the other hand, it may be about time to be less glossy and gloomy in one’s pessimism over the linguistic abilities of the native speakers of the current lingua franca, too – or one is likely to fall for a similarly distorted narrative as the one offered by the Elder Pliny.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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