The plight of minority languages in the modern world has been well documented. Many are threatened by the ever-encroaching inroads of the more powerful medias in other languages. Despite this, experience has shown that it is possible not only to preserve a minority language, but to reverse the tide of decline.
Some examples come to mind. The Celtic languages, while not coming close to replacing English as the means of everyday communication in Wales and Ireland, at least have held their ground as literary languages. Irish and Welsh are part of the curricula of these two nations, and remain potent symbols of national identity.
In the last century, Hebrew became the living medium of communication for Israelis. Contrary to popular belief, the language had never actually “died out”; it had existed as a language of liturgy, commerce, and poetry for a great many centuries, and a reading knowledge of the language was required for religious purposes. The dedicated efforts of 19th century scholars, however, grafted new life onto its ancient trunk.
A less well-known, but equally impressive, example is found in the revival of Czech in the 19th century. A highly inflected Slavic tongue, it had enjoyed regional prominence in the medieval period with the ascendancy of Bohemia as a central European power. A standard orthography was promoted by Jan Hus in the fourteenth century; and the founding of Charles University by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV ushered in a new era of good fortune for the language. In the late sixteenth century, the publication of the Bible in Czech (the “Kralice Bible”) ensured that a written literary standard could be referenced when needed.
But the language’s fortunes took a turn for the worse with the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 (Ironically, the war had allegedly begun with the so-called “defenestration of Prague” three decades earlier). The Peace of Westphalia drastically curtailed the power of Bohemia. As Bohemia declined as a political entity, so did its language. Czech lost ground thereafter to German as Czech lands became submerged into the German-oriented empire of Austria-Hungary under the Hapsburgs.
By the eighteenth century, Czech had lost so much prestige that was in danger of being relegated exclusively to ranks of the peasantry. What turned this around were the incredible efforts of two men: Josef Dobrovsky and Josef Jungmann. Dobrovsky helped found the Royal Czech Society of Sciences in 1784, and was a tireless advocate for the Czech language as a vehicle for modern ideas.
Perhaps even more incredible were the achievements of Jungmann. He was a pupil of Dobrovsky, but perhaps exceeded him in zeal for reviving the old language. He churned out many translations of works into Czech, thereby proving to doubters that Czech was just as efficient as any other language for the requirements of modern society.
His crowning achievement was a massive five-volume dictionary of the Czech language, which he issued in the years 1834–1839. Jungmann employed a variety of techniques in coining neologisms that did not yet exist in Czech: he used old Savonic words in new ways, he imported words from other languages, and he invented new ones.
Fortunately, his work did not remain on the musty shelves, but was enthusiastically taken up by educated Czechs, of which there were a good many. After several generations, the language’s future was secure. Political independence of Czechoslovakia after 1918 ensured that these hard-won gains were institutionally made permanent.
Why do some languages succeed and thrive, and some die out? The question is a complicated one, but from my observations, the following conditions need to be present in order to preserve or revive a minority tongue:
1. There must be some written body of literature that can be used as a normative standard. Ireland, Wales, Israel, and the Czechs all had this. Written literature, grammars, poems, and the like all act as foundations for linguistic stability.
2. There must exist some sort of intelligentsia that works to revive or preserve the language. The people that are going to do the “grunt work” of language revival are the artists, writers, professors, teachers, scholars, and idealists who are imbued with a love for the language.
3. Political independence is not absolutely necessary, but it helps. What language a person uses is mainly about prestige. Prestige is linked with power and influence. A minority language has a better chance of survival if it is able to attach itself to a political entity, and thereby become the official medium of that political entity.
4. The speakers of the language must want to speak the language. This may sound self-evident, but there is a subtle psychological dynamic going on here. When the speakers lose confidence in themselves, they often lose the desire to speak their language. They seek out the dominant language, and begin to lose confidence in themselves. This loss of confidence is fatal to language preservation. When a people is crushed by defeat or occupation, they slowly lose faith in themselves and in their culture.
In the end, when all is said and done, language revival is about willpower. Only the force of collective will can transmit the cultural legacy of a people.
If they themselves do not take up this task with zealous energy, then their languages will sink into oblivion.
Read More: The Country Of The Mind