Language and Conflict

Sasha Maksymenko/Flickr

Sasha Maksymenko/Flickr

Language differences have underscored conflicts around the world–so, what is the nature of the relationship between language and conflict?

This February, newly appointed government officials in Ukraine revoked laws that had allowed regions within the country to designate Russian as an official second language.

This move has been called a “violation of ethnic minority rights” by Russian diplomats, according to Russia Today, particularly poignant words in the wake of escalated conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

The political situation in Ukraine is complicated. But, politics aside, Russian-speaking Ukrainian civilians will suffer as a result of the sanctions imposed on the use of their mother tongue.

Try Ukraine says that, despite the tensions, most Ukranians are bilingual; do you speak Russian as a second language? Try our Russian Level Test to gauge your skill.

In the essay, ‘Language Conflict and Violence‘, David Laitin of Stanford University observes that, “the unjust underpinnings of language laws are often said, even by the combatants themselves, to induce violent rebellions.” War often means the clash of two or more languages, and the clashing of languages often spells war.

What Laitin calls “the politicization of language” is nothing new; language has been a focal point of countless conflicts throughout history. Why is this the case? And, if language is the problem, could tolerance be the answer?

Perhaps in theory. However, the fact is that language differences often represent greater and even more complex cultural differences.

Conflict centers around issues of politics, passion and demands, things not easily translatable. Within the context of war, language often emphasizes matters of cultural divergence. In Laitin’s words, “cultural issues of this sort unleash irrational passions.”

What can be learned from recent examples of language-based conflicts around the world?

A Divided Quebec

Holding 90 per cent of Canada’s Francophone population, Quebec is the only Canadian province where French is the sole official language.

Quebec’s turbulent history has been deeply tied to issues of language. In the 1960s, the Quebec Liberation Front (FLQ) carried out over 200 acts of terrorism in English-speaking neighborhoods as a part of their quest for independence.

In 1970, FLQ gunmen seized the British Trade Commissioner at gunpoint. The FLQ was condemned for these actions, but Quebec’s problems would continue. In 1974, the Official Language Act was implemented in the province. Also known as Bill 22, the act made French the sole official language of Quebec.

The subject of independence looms large in the region’s politics. Referendums concerning sovereignty were held in 1980 and 1995. Although these notions were overruled, the House of Commons of Canada passed a symbolic motion in 2006, recognizing the “Quebecois as a nation within a united Canada”, according to The Guardian.

Recently, Quebec has seen a resurgence of what one BBC article terms its “bitter language wars.” The province’s ruling Parti Quebecois is currently trying to push through a law that would reduce the use of English in private businesses and public services, including schools and hospitals.

Harry Schick, a shopkeeper in Point Claire, expresses frustration with these laws, saying that his Anglophone customers “deserve equal rights and equal billing.”

With reports of language-based prejudice appearing in the Canadian press virtually every day, it is clear that Quebec’s language war is far from over.

The Sri Lankan Civil War

As BBC reports, Throughout the twentieth century, Sri Lanka witnessed intense political strife, a great deal of which was rooted in language-based differences. British colonial rule conflated issues relating to the official language of Sri Lanka, with many believing that English should be spoken on formal occasions.

Following Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, a struggle rose between the two predominant demographic groups on the island, the Sinhalese and the Tamil people.

Supported by the Sinhalese majority, The Sinhala Only Act was bundled into the country’s newly drafted constitution in 1956. As the name suggests, this act signified the replacement of Sinhala over English as the official language of Sri Lanka, failing to recognize Tamil as a legitimate language. From this point on, speaking Tamil was a political act.

While some parts of the Sinhala Only Act were relaxed in 1958, tensions between the two groups rose until eventually, civil war broke out in July 1983.

To make clear the sincerity of their demand for an independent Tamil state, the Tamil people launched a violent attack on the Sri Lankan army. This war raged for nearly 30 years, eventually claiming the lives of between 80,000 and 100,000 people.

The Iraqi Kurdish Civil War

Over its course, the Iraqi Kurdish Civil War drew in Kurdish factions from Iran and Turkey as well as Iraqi, Turkish, Iranian and even American forces, as BBC reports. Over three years of fighting, there were between 3,000 and 5,000 deaths.

Following many years of civil between the Iraqi people and the Kurds of Iraqi Kurdistan, fighting broke out in the mid 1990s. At this time, the Kurdish language was increasingly used in the regional administration and educational systems of Iraqi Kurdistan as a signifier of the region’s autonomy.

According to Laitin, language was a “principal motivating factor for [this] war”. He refers to Abdulla Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdish rebels in Turkey, who stated rigid language laws “give birth to rebellion and anarchy.”

More than Words

An unfamiliar language can be heard, seen and grasped. Because of this, it can be attacked in ways that other cultural differences cannot, often in the form of a language ban. As in Canada and Sri Lanka, attempts to ban a language rarely, if ever, work. Officials in Ukraine should take note: suppressing a language is almost certain to lead to civil unrest.

The question of language in conflict is often related to matters of independence. The promotion of a separate language often indicates a group’s desire for recognition as a distinct demographic, prepared to take responsibility for its own cultural and political future.

Conflicts that revolve around languages can highlight profound differences: of political agendas, religious ideologies and general lifestyles. Where cultural issues are conflated, language becomes a scapegoat.

While universal tolerance is a pipe dream, accepting that other cultural groups are entitled to their own means of communication is an enormously significant step towards understanding.