Every country in the world has a language. Some countries with multiple ethnic groups have many languages. Today, we generally associate each language with a country. However, could this change? Can a country adopt a different language? And if it can, how and why would it do so?
A country can change its language. There have been many countries that have changed or altered their languages at different times in history.
…but that’s just an overview, to really understand if, how and why a country changes its language, we need to look in a bit more detail.
Has A Country Ever Changed Its Language?
The first question we need to ask to understand if a nation can change its language is if there has ever been a country that officially changed the language that it uses?
Throughout history there have been many countries that have changed their languages. This could be because they were conquered, due to changing demographics or because of political changes within the country.
There are really two things to consider when asking if a country can change its language. The first is the official language of a state, the second is what ordinary people in a country speak on a daily basis.
A country’s official language is the dialect, or dialects, that are used by the state. Official languages are used in a country’s government, education, and legal system. Almost every country in the world has an official language, many have more than one. A nations official language is usually established by law.
For a country to change its official language, it can pass a law stating the official language is different. This rarely happens. However, many times throughout history countries have included additional official languages by passing new laws. This has meant that multiple languages can used in government, schooling, and the judicial system of the country.
Changing a country’s official language does alter what people necessarily speak. Also, often not every language in a country is included as an official language. Although a country can change its official language, it is very difficult to change the language people use every day as they go about their lives. However, there some ways this can be done…
How Would A Country Change Its Language?
The next point we need to discuss to better understand if a country can change its language is how would a nation actually alter the language its people speak? Really, there are three ways it’s been done in the past. These are:
- A country’s government chooses to adopt a new language
- A nation is conquered and forced to change its language
- A county’s language organically changes over time
Let’s briefly go over each of these…
A Country’s Government Chooses To Adopt A New Language
The first way a country can change its language is by the government officially adopting a new one. The most common way this has been done is by including a language that people within a country already speak as a nation’s official language.
All countries have official languages. These are dialects that are used in an official capacity within the country. Some nations, such as France, have only one official language. Others, such as Canada, have two. Some countries have many official languages. Switzerland has four official languages and India has fourteen.
When a government chooses to adopt an official language, it essentially changes the language that country uses by legally allowing the use of an additional dialect in official business of the state.
A Nation Is Conquered And Forced To Change Its Language
A second way that a country can change its language is when it is conquered by another power. When a nation is subjugated, often the new ruling class enforces the adoption of their language. Usually this begins with governments and businesses being forced to use the new language, but over time common people lose their own dialects and either voluntarily, or are made to, adopt the conquerors language.
A County’s Language Organically Changes Over Time
A third way that a country can alter its language is by a gradual change in the way people speak over time. All languages alter as time passes. People adopt new words, writing styles change, phrases from other languages creep in and meanings of sentences change. This has happened throughout history and is an inevitable result of how humans communicate.
Over hundreds and even thousands of years, languages can almost completely change. Some languages die-out and are almost entirely taken over by others.
Why Would A Nation Change Their Language?
Ok, so we know that a country can change its language and have looked at some of the ways languages have been altered in the past, but really, why would a country change its language? Actually, there are four main reasons:
- A country could change its language because of a political decision
- As an attempt to unite a country
- Because a language is forced upon a country by its conquerors
- A language naturally changes over time
Let’s go over each of these in-turn…
A Country Could Change Its Language Because Of a Political Decision
A first reason why a country may change its language is because of a political decision taken by the government. When this has happened, it has usually been to include another official language of the country that is already spoken by a part of the population but has not been used in government, schools, or the judiciary before.
The official language a country uses is a political decision taken by the government. Throughout history some governments have tried to exclude parts of their population by not adopting their language as an official state language. When this type of repression ends, a political decision can be taken to include another official language.
As An Attempt To Unite A Country
Another reason why a country may change its language is because it wants to unite the population with a single dialect. Many nations have more than one ethnic and linguistic group. Divisions can rise between communities if a common language is not adopted by a state. Throughout history countries have changed their languages to be one that multiple parts of the population can all speak, in order to unify the country.
Because A Language Is Forced Upon A Country By Its Conquerors
Throughout history, an often-seen reason why a nation changes its language is because it is conquered by another country. When a nation is taken over by another power often, over time, people begin to speak the language of their occupiers. This is especially true of colonial powers that held on to territory for sometimes hundreds of years.
A Language Naturally Changes Over Time
A final reason why a country changes its language is because overtime language organically alters. As people change how they speak and write countries need to adapt. In some countries, new dialects have been adopted by larger parts of the population over time and, as a result, these have become included as the official languages of the country.
Six Examples Of Countries That Have Changed Their Language
A great way to understand if, and how, countries change their language is to look at some examples. Let’s look at six different countries and go over how and why they changed the languages they used.
China is a huge country with a wide variety of languages and dialects. Both the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing (1644 – 1911) dynasties began adopting an official language in their courts. However, there were still major variations between the dialects used in government throughout these periods. There was also minimal success in having a wider national language adopted by the country’s population.
Following the establishment of the Republic of China in 1911. A further attempt was made to establish an official language in China. A committee was set-up and eventually recommended that the Beijing dialect of Mandarin Chinese be used. Throughout the 20th Century Mandarin Chinese, or Standard Chinese, became widely spoken and was adopted as the official language of China.
In 2018, Kazakhstan officially announced it was changing its alphabet from the Cyrillic script to the Latin. Although this does not actually change how the country’s language is spoken, it does significantly change how it is written.
The reason for Kazakhstan’s change in alphabet is an attempt to move away from its Soviet past (Cyrillic is Russian script), an attempt to forge a different national identity and the potential for economic benefits of using a Western scripture for the nation’s language.
When Israel was founded in 1948, a debate was had about what language the country should use. Jewish people coming from all over the world spoke many different languages. Yiddish was commonly spoken among a large portion of the Jewish community. However, a decision was taken to adopt Hebrew as the country’s language as this is the dialect used in the Torah – the Jewish holy book. A concerted effort was made to change people’s language and have Hebrew spoken widely by the population.
Before colonisation by the Spanish and Portuguese in the 1500s, there were hundreds of languages and dialects spoken across Central and South America. However, in the following centuries Spanish was adopted by most of the population with Portuguese being dominant in Brazil. Most of the native languages of the region were lost.
Iraq has a majority Arab population with a minority Kurdish population in the north of the country. For much of the nation’s history, Arabic has been the official language of the state. Kurdish people’s culture and language was violently repressed under the regime of Saddam Hussein. However, following the fall of the Saddam regime and the establishment of the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, Kurdish was adopted as an official language of Iraq.
Gaelic was the language of Scotland from the 5th Century until the 18th Century. The majority of Scottish people, especially in rural areas, would have spoken Gaelic for much of the country’s history. However, from the 1600s onwards, a concerted effort was made by the English to stamp out the Scottish language. Today, only a very small, and often remote, communities in Scotland still have Gaelic speakers and the language is officially at risk of dying out.
Is It Possible To Stop A Language Changing?
Finally, we know that countries can change their languages, we also know how and why some countries throughout history have chosen to adopt new ways to speaking, reading, and writing. However, could it go the other way, is it possible to stop languages from changing over time?
It is not possible to stop a language changing. Over time, how people speak, the words they use and what they mean naturally changes. Languages are influenced by others and people adopt new rules into their vocabulary over time. There is nothing that can be done to prevent this.
Although there have been attempts by countries to prevent languages changing, they have never fully worked. For example, in France by law French must be used in commercial and workplace communications. However, many people in France use other languages or use words not officially part of the French language in places of business. This shows that attempts to force language in order to protect it fail.
There are other countries that have also used the law to try and force people to use a language, or not to use foreign languages. There are also places, such as Wales in the UK, where the law is used to try and protect a minority language. Although some would argue these policies help, generally what and how people communicate cannot be governed by law. It’s impossible to stop a language from changing.