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Language and nationhood

by Dave Riley
Elsewhere in my political universe there's been an attempt to argue that West Papua didn't qualify to be included under the slogan of 'national self determination' leading to nationhood. These are some of my comments from a thread on the GLW eList. The discussion raised 'the problem'(!) that West Papua did not have a national linga franca
Here's a note below on the very many languages of Bougainville -- a island whose history is rich in the struggle for independence.

So because Bougainville cannot get its polyglot shit together are we then to assume that any pretense to independence and national self determination has to wait until the Bougainvillians -- some 175,160 people -- get the kosher nod from the registered nationhood specialists among us?

The irony is that Bougainville is one of the most linguistically various regions on earth. So no speaker da same -- no right to go it alone?

You'll also find mixed language groups in many regions that have been a tad keen on independence such as....Timor Leste.

[At least sixteen distinct languages are indigenous to East Timor, some of them closely related, others completely unrelated to each other. These can be divided into more than 30 groups of "dialects"].

So should it then follow that until such time as the Scots or the Irish can get all their tongues twisted around Gaelic they are mistaken in their long held desire for independence?
"There are several indigenous languages in Bougainville. These include both Austronesian and Papuan languages.

The most widely spoken Austronesian language is Halia and its dialects, spoken in the island of Buka and the Selau peninsula of Northern Bougainville. Other Austronesian languages include Petats, Solos, Saposa/Taiof, Hahon and Tinputz, all spoken in the northern quarter of Bougainville, Buka and surrounding islands. These languages are closely related. Banoni and Arawa are Austronesian languages not closely related to the former, which are spoken in the coastal areas of central and south Bougainville. All these languages are part of the Melanesian sub group of Austronesian languages.

In the nearby atolls of Mortlock Islands, an Austronesian language of the Polynesian sub group is spoken

The Papuan languages are all confined to the main island of Bougainville. These include Rotokas, a language with a very small inventory of phonemes, Eivo, Buin, Keriaka, Nasioi, Motuna, Usiai and several others. These languages are part of the East Papuan language family.

None of these languages is spoken by more than 20% of the entire population of Bougainville, and the largest languages such as Nasioi, Motuna, Buin and Halia are split into dialects that are not always mutually understandable. For general communication most Bougainvilleans use Tok Pisin as a lingua franca, and at least in the coastal areas Pisin is often learned by children in a bilingual environment. English and Tok Pisin are the languages of official business and government.

Basically, the technical definitions don't tell us everything we need to know.

You bet they don't! I've often thought that the Lenin definition was rather rigid and formalistic.

But it is a complex and important issue.The work that Lev Vygotsky did on language is interesting in this regard. He argues --as a 'historical psychologist' -- that language is a core mediator that both empowered and shaped the human brain such that 'culture' and 'identity' (as a human) was rooted in the acquisition and exercising of language skills.

That seems fine as language is the primary mediator which is utilized to define and name your environment socially. So having one language as distinct from another must therefore be a primary source of one's identity.

Fair enough it seems.

But, of course, it can never be that simple. Dogs have one "language" and a dog from China can communicate seemlessly with another from Botswana or Chile. So groups of dogs, if we were in Animal Farm mode, are very unlikely to get into national self determination despite the fact that greyhounds are separate breed from fox terriers.

My dogs don't care whose butt they sniff. They even think I'm canine.

But the language/identity/'nationality' issue really comes to the fore I think in regard to those among us who are hearing impaired.If you have ever been exposed to Deaf Culture you'll know that communicating with sign rather than with voice is something that sharply defines their language -- of "seeing voices' -- from the language of non signers and hearers. This issue is very politically charged and Oliver Sacks book on the topic (Seeing Voices)is well worth reading in regard to identity, culture and language.

My point is that Sacks -- a dedicated Vygotskian -- embraces signing as a standalone and separate culture and language in the same way that Lenin (& Stalin) would have argued in regard to nationality. And I'd think the Deaf Culture community would agree with that aspect of separation or difference.

The primary languages of those who identify themselves as Deaf are signed. Deaf communities also often possess social and cultural norms that are distinct from those of surrounding hearing communities. So why can't it be said that these Deaf communities have a greater 'right' to self determination than a group of Bougainvillians or West Papuans who speak many different languages but not so much one together that they can call their own?

They share the same language don't they? They are often cross generational too. So on a pecking order who has more 'right'?

So the argument over language becomes a bit schematic does it not? While its evident that localised deaf communities do have their own often enclosed and self contained culture driven by language (and such communities do actually exist where hearers and non hearers all sign)it no way follows that they could share a "national" identity. They have a very strong language identity and cultural one but that's it-- thats' as far as language can take them (despite the oftentimes radical separatism that occurs in the Deaf Culture community).

Nonetheless, in Quebec, where the population is predominantly French-speaking language goes a long way to determining both identity and your right to self determination and separation. (And the traditional Marxist view has been to support Quebec separatism)

That may seem OK in the Marxist sense that has been argued here.

But as I understand it there exists a law that if your mother tongue is French -- regardless of where you live in the world -- you can migrate to Quebec. This is akin to the Zionist credo that if you're Jewish -- Israel is your homeland regardless of where you may live.

Israel does not insist on migrants knowing Hebrew. I'm not suggesting that being Jewish gives a a group automatic right to 'national self determination'(as the Zionists argue) or to kick out Palestinians -- but I point out that there are many horses for courses; and even in the formal instance to rest your argument on the attainment of a national language is to project a very narrow reading of what constitutes the dynamics of nationhood.

No one for instance seems to ask the question that if the East Timorese were so keen to foster national self determination what about those Timorese in the West of the island?

No: nationhood, identity, and the desire for self determination is rooted in the ongoing dynamic of the historical experience of oppression which can in (as it turns out) most instances bring people, from different cultures and languages together.I think thats' so self evident that it hardly warrants being referenced in regard to West Papua or anywhere else.

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