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The Encyclopedia of Migrants

Montserrat Casacuberta Palmada

Doctor in language sciences, ERIMIT, Université Rennes 2, Rennes


Whenever a language dies, certain knowledge of its environment is lost and no longer forms part of mankind’s heritage (NETTLE & ROMAINE, 2000). This statement has often been taken as a cliché and challenged as being solely defended by inveterate Romantics opposed to a progress adjudged to be as necessary as it is inevitable. Perhaps there is something to the criticism, though we should ask ourselves what lies behind such a statement given that, all too often, for humankind, the difference of the other brings with it a reluctant view that can even lead to legal actions.

Language is a very visible sign of the expression of difference between social groups. In fact, people have been caught between two different impulses from time immemorial: the need to communicate effectively with others, and as a result longing after a single universal linguistic code, and the belief that the language that we each speak is the most wonderful of tools. If language, that codified system of vocal and written signs that enables us to understand the world in which we live, seems essential to us as a determining factor for the advancement of our species, how is it possible that it has manifested itself in such a diversity of tongues from the outset? How is it that we cannot all speak the same language and give up on all this nonsense?


This is a long-running debate. The metaphor of incomprehension between people that speak different languages, which create the chaos, already arises in Judaeo-Christian culture, as embodied in one of the most famous biblical texts: the Tower of Babel myth. Mankind, which spoke a single language in harmony, was punished by God to speak different languages, thus creating chaos in the building of the tower and giving rise to conflict. This social representation that tends towards the univocal is profoundly rooted in our beliefs. The truth is that though we know of no human community that has not developed language, it emerges as diverse, tends to change and displays itself as a living thing. No matter how much the myth of the common language persists, it is not reflected in the nature of our socio-linguistic reality.

People have long been imposing their respective languages on other groups in a struggle for power. During different historical stages we believed that this imposition was a boon for other groups, as is the case in the European-driven colonisation process. Wherever these peoples went to conquer territories, they were accompanied by their religion and their language to cultivate the poor uncivilised natives who had been unable to develop their potential. It is as if “culture” was only theirs, with their written code, their literature, their artistic expressions, their way of looking at the world and their way of managing power. This vision, which we may refer to as ethnocentric, has come down to use today by way of beliefs, representations and ideologies.

We will not deal here with the concept of “culture” (CUCHE, 2010), but it is important to highlight the background idea, that we come directly from that colonial age, which speaks to us of the supremacy of some cultures over others, and moreover, of the supremacy of their communication vehicles, namely, the languages of the European colonisers. This goes some way to explaining how, today, so many European languages are spoken by so many people around the world: French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, etc.

Nowadays, in our globalised world, these languages still remain as the practical vehicles of intercommunication between people. There is no denying it. However, the question is not so much whether or not these languages serve as external vehicles for a community of speakers, but rather that it must be possible to preserve other forms of linguistic and cultural expression as an intangible asset of humanity and the expansion of some must not be at the cost of others. How can the consideration that these other languages have come to have as being useless, of lesser importance, without contributing to the universal and their speakers as “poor uncultured” backward individuals, be combated? Of course languages are born, live and die, but the idea is to dignify the speaker of any language. No language can be a stigma for the individual that speaks it because the logical consequence of such a perspective is that the individual in question abandons that language in the belief that this will be better for the generations to come. As if becoming monolingual – but in the language imposed by the other – was, ultimately, the greater goal (BRENZINGER, 1993).

Let us have a look at just a few examples of the effects of imposing some languages over others: consider for a moment the words “patois” or “dialect” as not being neutral words. If we stick to the generalised social representations, patois is understood as referring to something that is spoken in the neighbourhood, not considered a language, which does not act as a cultural vehicle because it has to do with rural illiterate individuals and their slang, something related to self-enclosed communities. Likewise, the definition of dialect, which although the scientific community confines its use to the different geographical variants of the same language, politically speaking it has been employed to refer to those languages that are not held to be national, official or recognised by the legislation of certain countries where they exist. We can see, therefore, how the hierarchical structuring of the status of languages is still in force and can even serve to control socio-politically underprivileged social groups.

We can also point to some of the light and shade effects produced by colonisation on several African peoples: most African languages without a written tradition have ended up adopting an alphabetic written code, quite often the Latin one. On the one hand, adopting that alphabet makes it possible for these languages to access the written register, which itself is of extreme importance when it comes to securing social and cultural elements, but on the other hand, the adaptation of spelling to the different phonetic systems proves to be a complex issue.

The hierarchical vision of certain languages worsened in the heart of Europe during the 19th century when the groups in power in the recently founded European nation states realised that even within their borders there was an absence of the linguistic uniformity required to exercise maximum effective control over the population, leading them to intimidate these other languages. France is a case in point, and although it is not the only one, it was one of the most successful.

Yet what are the benefits of such a policy? Well, the fact is that we as human beings are endowed with marvellous abilities: in spite of the struggle for linguistic hegemony among social groups, we are born with the innate capacity for language, and moreover, with the innate capacity to learn languages. We are currently experiencing an explosion in the mobility of people around the world. Such migratory mobility is giving rise to contacts between different languages that would never have co-existed in previous centuries. Consequently, multilingual people are crossing the Earth in a cross-border dynamic that sees many of them becoming proficient in two, three or four linguistic codes. The language of the “other” stops belonging solely to that other and starts belonging to me a little as well, by way of a dynamic of linguistic and cultural identifications and not owing to less enriching reasons. This most definitely favours visions that overcome those inherited from previous centuries and see languages emerge as elements of participation and sharing. Languages are today synonymous with opportunity

Classifying languages

As we have said, language is universal but is born diverse. Different tongues are its materialisation; tongues that are in a constant state of change. Therein lies the difficulties of classification. What do we know of these artefacts we call languages? How many are there? Who speaks them? How do they appear, become successful and expand or die out? Today, there are some 6,000 spoken languages around the world according to UNESCO commissioned studies. We normally classify languages by families. A linguistic family groups together a series of related languages by way of shared features that lead us to a common root if we project this over space-time. Most languages can be classified into linguistic families. Each family is normally divided into subfamilies and these, in turn, into languages. There are also languages which arise from contact between two or more languages. Such languages are mixed ones, the so-called creole or pidgin languages. For example, this is the case of creole-speaking people, whose language arose from contact with French and English in some former colonies.

In spite of the fact that the classification of languages has not been completed and varies in the opinions of the experts consulted, there are some fourteen families among the most spoken ones, according to the Atlas of Languages. Consequently, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Sardinian are Latin languages, a subfamily of Indo-European ones. The Berber and Semitic languages are subfamilies that form part of the same Afroasiatic family, which accounts for a total of 240 languages (COMRIE & AL, 1996).

They are classified into the following by continent
Africa: Afroasiatic, Khoisan, Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Congo, Bantu families.
America: Amerindian, Eskimo-Aleut, Na-Dené families.
Asia and Oceania: Australian, Austric, Dravidian, Sino-Tibetan families.
Eurasia: Indo-European, Altaic, Chukchi-Kamchatkan, Uralic, Caucasic families.

Among the trend towards the most spoken languages, such as Chinese, English, Arabic, Spanish, Hindi, Portuguese or French, the supremacy of English as a language of international communication is evident. Approximately 95% of world languages at present are only spoken by 4% of the world’s population. Moreover, of the total of 6,000 languages, 500 are spoken by less than one hundred people. Papua New Guinea heads the language biodiversity ranking with its 860 languages. It is estimated that over 50% of the languages spoken by the most restricted communities are in danger of extinction and could disappear completely in the course of this century. European linguistic diversity, however, represents only 3% of the total of world languages.

Communities migrate. They are forced into displacement, losing shared spaces or founding new ones (diaspora) and are exposed to the effects socio-political impositions by other groups, etc. All of this can greatly impact on the linguistic history of each social group. Languages survive if the communities maintain and expand them, but not all are successful in this sense because there are no policies in place to protect them (teaching, cultural industries, legislation, etc.).

Contribution of the Encyclopedia of Migrants

Among the many good reasons that the Encyclopedia of Migrants came about was bound up with our reflections on our languages and the inherited visions of the past that still survive in us as a sort of internal colonisation. As exemplified in our stories of migration, it is also explicitly included in the legacy of our languages of origin, given that we write our letters in our mother tongue. Each letter is an example of the fact that our diversity is an embryo of fertile complexity. Each migrant, a language and a legacy for our project, has done their bit to construct new visions of the world. Is such a claim legitimate?

A non-hierarchical vision of languages should be the standard of our project: taking on management of diversity despite the added complexity. It changes the social representation that classifies us as speakers of useful or useless languages, whether prestigious or not, of languages that serve as vehicles for high culture or languages that cannot even be read because they cannot be written, of languages that many speak or languages that hardly anyone speaks, etc. It claims that all world languages must be treated equally. It claims that speaking a language is to bind one to another, is to try and understand the other’s vision of the world. It is to share, to access a knowledge that fosters the very “humanity” of our species. Is that simply Romanticism?