The Power of Language

By: Ana Carolina Sardinha

Language as a Tool

Communication is essential for humans. Not only does it allow for the exchange of ideas, but it also allows people to build connections with one another which is critical for the human race. Language is at the foundation of culture and identity because language is formed through history and tradition. The earliest forms of human life all have proof that some form of language was being used in order to accomplish what needed to be done and to document history. For centuries language has been used as glue to unite nations, as a weapon to force communities to lose their personal identities, and as defiance from minority groups fighting to have their voice heard. Whether it is being used by individuals or government, language can be used as tool that can cause good or harm to societies as a whole.

Language as Glue

Historically, language has been used by governments in order to create a unified identity for nations. By establishing a singular language for a country, it allows there to be a standard of reference and a common ground. According to Modern Italy’s Changing Language and Its Role in Nationalism by Abby Thomas, the Italian language has been used “as a tool to purposefully create or shape society and to try to create a sense of identity or homogeny” (Thomas 2). This paper also mentions that Italy is not the first country to do this. “European nationalists have consciously employed language as a tool and a means for creating a national identity for centuries” (Thomas 15). Forming a national identity is important because it allows the world to be able to address that nation more directly to a singular government that represents all of the different parts of the nation. According to the Italian Sons and Daughters of America article, “Hand gestures are the unspoken language that brought Italy together”. After the unification of the Italian state many individuals began to use gestures as a way to communicate because they were accustomed to speaking different dialects. This is how a simple hand clench could mean whatever. Furthermore, having a singular language representing a nation allows for there to be unity and patriotism. For example, English in the United States is an important common ground because it is a melting pot nation where many heritages are represented. Without this common ground there would be no nationalism or belief in the country. On the other hand, in countries such as Italy, having a singular language represent the whole country can also mean that minority languages are being suppressed after the unification of the nation.

Language as a Weapon

In life, there is never only one side to a story. Perspectives exist from multiple angles and thus, what is viewed as a positive thing from one group can be viewed negatively from another. This double-sided sword means that although having a unifying language can be used to unite a nation it can be the root of anger. For example, in Italy when deciding what the national language would be the two options were “modern Florentine vernacular” or the “archaic, fourteenth-century literary form”. This meant that no matter which one was picked individuals were going to be forced to change their way of life and their common tongue in order to adapt to what the nation expected them to do. Individuals were expected to conform to society. This meant that individuals would lose their personal identities and cultures. Another example of how language can be used as a weapon was during Italy’s fascist era. During Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime “nothing besides the accepted language, the accepted culture, or the accepted ideology would be tolerated because it could undermine the powerful homogeny that was needed for the Fascist state to thrive” (Thomas 9). This is what ultimately lead to racism during the World War 2 era according to the article in Life in Italy. Individuals were harmed for speaking their mother tongue because it was seen as defiance. This was the root of racism during the fascist era because people who were seen speaking another language besides the national language were seen as the minorities. Furthermore, “Italian, even before unification, had been the language of the wealthy and of the ruling class, therefore it was associated with power and prestige (Thomas 11). Individuals speaking anything else were discriminated against and this ideology caused there to be an us vs. them mentality. The purpose behind a national language was to unify a nation, but implementing it caused induvial cultures and traditions to be dismissed. This idea continues to happen to this day when it comes to outsiders and foreigners. No matter the nation, when people migrate to new places language is used as a weapon because there is a pressure for them to conform to society. Although in some cases immigrants are known to retain their cultural language as a way of defiance.

Language as Defiance

Language can represent many things, but at times it symbolizes home. This is why in most major cities today there are clusters of communities that share cultural identities and thus share languages. “Little Italy” and “Chinatown” are just two pockets in Boston in which people who identify with a particular identity live in cohorts or close proximity in order to be close to what they are used to. Additionally, these areas can be perceived as small defiance in order to not use the national standard language. These people can honor their history and culture from another country they once called home. Another example of language being used as defiance is that Italian dialects are independent languages because “in each of which it is possible to study the linguistic background, the cultural and political history and other factors which may have been important in shaping the development of the vernacular” (Thomas 19). This means that by choosing to not use the national language or go to a school that only speaks their particular language they are being defiant and not willing to conform. A great example of this is South Tyrol. According to OpenDemocracy.net, South Tyrol is a “predominantly German-speaking province in Italy” (Roggla & Larin). After World War 2, the 1948 Autonomy Statute was supposed to protect the German speakers, but instead it gave power to the Italian dominant speakers. Still to this day, South Tyrol is fighting to stop being part of Italy because they do not align with the national language or feel patriotic towards the nation. They continue to speak German as a way to defy the government and rebel. Also, many attend schools in which the predominant language is German and not Italian. Defiance is a powerful weapon because whether it is small or large it never goes unnoticed and can make an impact over time.

This image was taken in South Tyrol, Italy and demonstrates all of the languages that are used in this province.

Conclusion

Communication is essential for history to be remembered, the present to function, and the future to happen. Communication can only happen through the use language. This is why language is such a powerful tool that can be used as glue, a weapon, and defiance. More than that, language is a major reason for identity, whether it is national or individual. This is why when government tries to control language through laws and regulations it is so powerful. In general, language is powerful tool no matter the context.

Resources

Demetri, Justin, et al. “Italy World War 2 – History – Italian Military and Life in Italy during WW2.” Life in Italy, 6 Apr. 2021, http://www.lifeinitaly.com/history/italians-in-world-war-ii-2/. 

Marc Röggla Stephen J. Larin, et al. “South Tyrol Is a Success Story at a Difficult Time for Majority‒Minority Relations.” OpenDemocracy, 14 Oct. 2017, http://www.opendemocracy.net/en/can-europe-make-it/south-tyrol-is-success-story-at-difficult-time-for-ma/.

Modern Italy’s Changing Language and Its Role in Nationalism. scholarlycommons.obu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1009&context=history. 

Perrino, Sabina. “Exclusionary Intimacies: Racialized Language in Veneto, Northern Italy.” Language & Communication, vol. 59, 2018, pp. 28–41., doi:10.1016/j.langcom.2017.02.006. 

Riley, Philip. Language, Culture and Identity: an Ethnolinguistic Perspective. Continuum, 2008. 

STERGIOS, JAMES. “Language and Nationalism in Italy.” Nations and Nationalism, vol. 12, no. 1, 2006, pp. 15–33., doi:10.1111/j.1469-8129.2005.00228.x. 

Vadaj, Rachel. “Hand Gestures: The Unspoken Language That Brought Italy Together.” Italian Sons and Daughters of America, 23 July 2019, orderisda.org/culture/language/hand-gestures-the-unspoken-language-that-brought-italy-together/.

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