WHAT CAN A STATE DO WITH LANGUAGE?

Dr. Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei

Since I arrived in Albania by the end of 2010 I have followed the Albanian debate on the standard language, its enforcement, protection, and possible change, with interest. Last year, I prepared a long article for Dutch literary journal nY entitled “Staatstaal en taalstaat” (“State Language and the State of Language”), which was an investigation into the role of the unification of the Albanian language in the establishment of the Albanian state. One of my suggestions was that whereas in neighboring countries a common religion was a binding force for the establishment of nationalist movements, in the case of Albania there was from the beginning a strong emphasis on Albanian as the shared language. This dependency on a unified language as a safeguard for a unified nation still resounds in contemporary debates surrounding the Albanian standard language.

Recently, a group of twenty authors made an appeal to Prime-Minister Edi Rama not to change the Albanian standard language and enforce its correct state-wide usage. This can be seen as a response to proposals floated in the public arena, among others by the Academy of the Sciences, that argue among other things for an incorporation of so-called “Geg elements” into a new, supposedly more balanced, standard language. As the blog on which this text appears has devoted ample space and time to the language reform debate, it is not my intention to offer yet another opinion in the slipstream of other, much more qualified authors. Instead, I would like to offer somewhat of a brief comparative study with the language situation in the Netherlands, in order to arrive at a possible answer to the question that is the title of this text: “what can a state do with a language?” I think this is of the core issues that needs to be addressed in the current Albanian debate on language reform, and the Dutch language forms an interesting case study, in the sense that there are many parallels between the Dutch situation and the Albanian one. Spoiler alert: the answer is very little.

In the Netherlands, the standard language is called Standard Dutch. Standard Dutch is spoken and written in the Netherlands, Flanders (northern Belgium), Surinam, and a few left-over colonies in the Caribs. The norms of Standard Dutch are safeguarded by an institution called the Dutch Language Union,  by means of orthographical conventions, publication of word lists, dictionaries, and so on. This Standard Dutch may be compared to the standard language in Albania as decided in the Kongresi i Drejtshkrimit të Gjuhës Shqipe from 1972. Standard Dutch is the language spoken by for example newsreaders on national television, national politicians, and in the educational system. However, just like it is commonly assumed that Standard Albanian is based on the Tosk dialect, Standard Dutch is only “naturally” spoken in the province of North-Holland, around the city of Haarlem. Anywhere else in the Dutch language area, people grow up with different dialects, although everyone learns Standard Dutch in school. And, like in any language community, there are differences in grammar and vocabulary depending on social environment, education, ethnic background, etc.

Standard Dutch is very different from a group of dialects (some people even speak of a language) spoken in Flanders. These dialects, referred to as Flemish, differ as much from Standard Dutch as certain Geg dialects in Kosovo differ from Standard Albanian, and comic misunderstandings like the recent one between Rama and Thaçi (“A nirthte?…”) are equally common. Like Kosovo and Albania, the Netherlands and Belgium were a unified nation for a brief period in history, and, to make the analogy complete, like the Arbëresh in Italy, there is a group of Dutch colonists that a few centuries ago moved away from the Netherlands to South-Africa, where a separate form of Dutch, Afrikaans, is still spoken. There is also a small minority in the north of the Netherlands, like the Greeks in the south of Albania, who speak an altogether different language, Frisian. The rights of this minority are regulated by law, and Frisian may for example be taught in school, and it is allowed as a language in local courts.

Now let us try to set up a number of analogies related to the current Albanian language reform debate. The first one would address a certain “correction” of Standard Albanian, supposedly imposed by the Albanian government, to include “Geg elements” into Standard Albanian. A common example is the inclusion of the construction of me + participle as alternative for për të + participle, e.g.: me punue instead of për të punuar. Let us imagine that a group of Flemish intellectuals will rise up and suggest to the Dutch state that Standard Dutch ought to be supplemented with certain Flemish constructions, because they would have preserved the richness of the Dutch language, and because Standard Dutch is the result of the oppression of the rich northern provinces of the southern ones. Now in itself the two arguments presented by our Flemish intellectuals are in themselves valid; unlike Standard Dutch, Flemish has retained many “archaic” elements of the Dutch language, such as case inflection, and indeed Standard Dutch was based on the Amsterdam dialect, because during the Dutch Renaissance, Amsterdam was the most powerful city. However, neither of these would be arguments for the state to change the Dutch language. Not only are the “original” Flemish constructions foreign to most Dutch speakers because they are not taught in school, once one such adaption is accepted, it would set a precedent for many more changes to be included. For example, if we include accusative case in Standard Dutch, why not inflected relative pronouns (also in Flemish) or even tones (in the Limburghian dialect), or why not introduce a difference in pronouncing ch and g (above the main Dutch rivers and in Standard Dutch they are pronounced the same, below them differently). There would be no end in sight to satisfy the individual preferences of (groups of) Dutch speakers. Introducing such “radical” changes would thoroughly undermine the function of Standard Dutch, which is to provide a standard – through the educational system, through the national media – in which everyone who speaks a certain variant of Dutch is able to communicate with each other and the state. Even though we may not like this, a standard language is one of the most conservative things in the world. This however does not mean it cannot change. For example, throughout the Dutch speaking world, it seems that the neuter determiner het is slowly disappearing. So it could well be that in fifty or hundred years, when the large majority of Dutch speakers has stopped using het and has replaced it with de, this grammatical rule will be changed. But not before such a change of the official rules would hardly make a difference for the everyday language user. So change, however, could never be initiated by the state unless under severe oppression.166782921_39063dcf65_b

We could imagine another scenario, in which a certain linguist discovers a fantastic treasure of forgotten Dutch words that could easily replace all kinds of neologisms that have “polluted” the Dutch language over time. For example, this linguist finds the Flemish word wentelwiek, which refers to the object that in Standard Dutch is called helikopter. The linguist will argue that wentelwiek is “much more Dutch” than the Greek loanword (through French) helikopter. But he may be right in the sense that both wentelen (turning) and wiek (wing) are of Germanic origin, but different from wentelwiek the word helikopter is used in all classrooms in the country. So which word is in the end “more Dutch”? (Fun fact: the lemma “helikopter” in the Etymological Dictionary of Dutch literally states: “There have been unsuccessful attempts to introduce the purisms hefschroefvliegtuig and wentelwiek.“) This does not mean that Dutch is defenseless against the invasion of foreign words, even though as a language Dutch has been always very hospitable to loans from other languages. But a loanword stops being a loan at the moment it enters everyday speech and text; in this precise sense, helikopter is a Dutch word in spite of its Greco-French ancestry. For example, the Dutch word beamer is a loan from English, even though its meaning (“projector”) is completely different from how the word would be used in English. A similar Albanian case would be the now infamous word kinge, which is a loan from English but even adapted with an Albanian feminine ending. How would claim that kinge is not an Albanian word? Nevertheless, new “Dutch” words are invented all the time. Famous examples in Dutch are doemdenker (pessimist) and regelneef (fixer), and recently otofoto (selfie). (Fun fact: all of these words were coined by one and the same author, Kees van Kooten.) Linguists who find the names of rare plants or ancient parts of a windmill are not the ones who come up with new words, but poets, authors, politicians, and other public figures who raise their voice in the public debate and coin words that “stick”. No one else can do this, and especially not the state!

So we may suggest, based on this brief exercise in imagination, that:

  1. Introducing reforms of a syntactic or morphological nature potentially alienates a large part of the population from the language that they use on a daily basis in dealings with each other and the state; this undermines the core function of a standard language. Introducing a far-reaching reform such as including me + participle only has a chance of succeeding if already (nearly) everyone uses it on a daily basis on all levels of social interaction. This is clearly not the case.
  2. Introducing “lost” treasures or purisms as a replacement for “foreign” words cannot be imposed state-wide without the existence of specific sets of circumstances, such as small and constrained language community with little foreign influence (Iceland), or a well-respected state institution of impeccable stature such as the Académie française in France. The only other circumstance is a dictatorship, such as during the Kongresi i Drejtshkrimit të Gjuhës Shqipe. Otherwise, new words only stick when they fill a gap in everyday discourse that has not been occupied yet by another word or other words. These dynamics seem to be much more sensitive to notion of optimality than state imposition.

So what can the state actually do when it comes to language reform without being fully at odds with the community of language users? Well, it can fiddle a bit with orthography. In fact, arbitrary spelling reform has become one of the national pastimes in the Netherlands, with several “revised” spellings being introduced over the last twenty years. What do they reform? As one may expect, nothing that you can actually notice while using the language: whether to use a trema or a hyphen (zeeëend vs. zee-eend), whether to write an n in composite nouns or not (pannekoek vs. pannenkoek), all of this naturally with extensive lists of exceptions and counterintuitively formulated rules. This reform-mindedness has reached such a level of absurdity that in the Netherlands there are currently two (if not more) competing orthographies in use: one advocated by the state and the Dutch Language Union (called the “Little Green Book), and the other by major publishers and newspapers (called the “Little White Book”). Considering all of the above, it shouldn’t surprise us that the main Albanian spelling reform proposals that I have read about recently were on the matter of the mute ë. But whatever would be decided on it, we wouldn’t hear it!

However, make no mistake: even when it comes to such a seemingly insignificant letter as the (mostly) voiceless ë, this is a letter unique to Albanian and very dominant in its “word image,” the way in which printed text looks and feels. Here again it would be useful, before any rash decision is taken, to inspect examples from the recent history of (failed) orthographical reform in French and German. In France, only the suggestion that the circumflex accent on the ô in hôtel would be abandoned nearly caused a public revolt, and many are the Germans that still lament the loss of the elegant ß and refuse to accept its “updated” spelling as ss. These quirky letters have become part of a national identity, and something tells me the same holds for this Albanian voiceless ë.

So at the end of this text we arrive at a fascinating paradox: although a standard language is one of the most conservative forces of society, it is so conservative that even the state cannot change, nor, on the contrary, protect it. And rightly so; these are not the functions of the state with regard to a national language. What it can do is to use the standard language in a dignified and grammatically correct manner. This extends to political speeches inside and outside parliament, presidential addresses, press conferences, etc. What it can do is make sure there is an adequate educational infrastructure, that allows every Albanian citizen, no matter which variant of Albanian he or she speaks at home, to communicate with fellow language users in and outside the country, and employ their full rights as citizens in relation to the government and the juridical system. This has absolutely nothing to do with “love of the fatherland,” “correcting history” or a “holy duty,” but everything with the care of the state for society. Language is not something the state should care about, it’s its users.

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