Whereof We Can Speak: Evo Morales, Osbern Bokenham, and SLE


Last month, the government of Bolivia rolled out new plans for literacy programs in 36 of the country’s indigenous languages. The move isn’t out of character for president Evo Morales. About a decade ago, he made training in Quechua or Aymara, the two most widely-spoken indigenous languages, standard practice for civil servants. But a widespread literacy program focusing on indigenous languages which are for the most part significantly less widespread than Quechua or Aymara is something else entirely. By coupling literacy drives with language revitalization, Evo has woven language revitalization into that patchwork quilt of global objectives about which any credible international actor must at least pretend to care — literacy, clean water, education, stability. And now language. It’s easy to dismiss such news from the Andes as nothing more than an idiosyncrasy of South America’s only majority-indigenous nation. And to some extent that’s fair: weaponized linguistic chauvinism still runs rampant.

For centuries, it was thought in the west that one’s language proficiency could be more or less objectively measured. Language separated the educated from the vulgar just as much as it separated human from beast. As a corollary to this, it was believed that languages could be “superior” or “inferior” inasmuch as they conformed to an ideal of how a superior communicator ought to communicate. In practice, of course, this meant that the tongues of dominant nations past and present were fetishized – first Greek and Latin, later French, German, and even Old English. When colonial governments sought to promote education in the colonial language, freeing children from the burdens of speaking an inferior language was seen as an act of altruism. When the Stolen Generation was taken, a key component of Australian government policy was forbidding the children from speaking in their original languages. A great many Chinese nationalists after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912 even blamed past defeats at the hands of the West to possessing an inferior language, in some cases making seemingly absurd arguments – that China needed to adopt Esperanto or that Germany was such a strong country because its language featured more consonant clusters than Chinese.

In the past half-century, attitudes have slowly shifted. Polyglots the world over have always recognized the social and intellectual value of speaking multiple languages, but governments and civil society are in truth only just getting on board.

One of my favorite quotes about language is an excerpt from the writings of a 1440 work by Osbern Bokenham. It reads, in part:

…þat þey myghte semyn þe more worschipfull and honorable and þe redliere comyn to þe famyliarite of þe worthy and þe grete, leftyn hure modre tounge and labouryd to kunne spekyn Frenssh: and thus by processe of tyme barbariʒid thei in bothyn and spokyn neythyr good Frenssh nor good Englyssh.

Bokenham is complaining that the English-speakers of his day were bastardizing their speech by allowing Norman French to influence their tongue. Read today, this is Kafkaesque and comical; the strong influence of French is simply part of the story of the historical development of ‘correct’ English, and Bokenham gives little real argumentation as to why the ‘pure’ version of 15th century English was actually better than anything else.

Bokenham’s myopia, though, is still with us. Despite the gradual shift of governments and international organizations towards cultural relativism, including as regards recognizing the importance of linguistic diversity, chauvinistic attitudes that set one language or certain languages above others are still very much with us. We see them in political campaigns to establish particular specific languages, in the often limited selection of language courses offered by educational institutions, in popular epithets and stereotypes directed against those from a particular linguistic background.

To me, SLE is so special because it represents a bottom-up complement to the top-down changes in governmental attitudes represented by programs such as Morales’. Leveraging the unique nature of modern tertiary education, wherein students from an incredible variety of linguistic backgrounds form a single community, SLE compensates for the lingering influence that linguistic chauvinism still holds in our governments, curricula, and society.

We are in the midst of a sea change, and SLE, and all the students who’ve given labor and love to SLE, are a part of that. History is being written, and, gradually, more and more is being written in a universal language – the language of progress.


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