Linguistic imperialism is violence

It’s time to reclaim identity from colonial narratives

PHOTO: Khalid Alshehri / Unsplash

By: Sude Guvendik, Staff Writer

Content warning: mentions of colonialism and generational trauma. 

The dance of language and power is a historical saga of dominance that’s often sugarcoated with euphemisms. Nowhere in history is this more apparent than when colonialism started, where language was used as a form of cultural suppression. Language is the essence of culture and identity, shaping how we perceive our place in the world. This is where linguistic imperialism rears its ugly head — a form of violence as insidious as it is lasting. Look back into the past, and the aggressive manipulation of language leaps off the pages of history, bleeding into the present. 

Language carries the stories, memories, and experiences of generations. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a prominent Kenyan writer, academic, and social activist, argues the wounds inflicted by linguistic violence fester long after colonizers depart, leaving scars that disrupt cultural identity. Under colonialism, original languages and cultural practices are twisted, changed, or lost. The colonial order disrupts the natural evolution and continuity of a culture. These changes are more than surface-level; they strike at the core of cultural identity, causing confusion, identity crises, and a sense of disconnection from one’s heritage.

Imposing colonial languages was, and continues to be, a deliberate strategy to maintain cultural dominance. The push to replace Indigenous languages with colonial ones wasn’t just convenient, it was a power move. Prohibitions on Indigenous languages were a declaration of supremacy. This cultural colonization aimed to erase entire ways of life.

In Canada, the imposition of English and French, and the suppression of Indigenous languages have a profound and lasting impact. A breakdown in communication between generations within Indigenous communities damaged cultural ties. Elders, who hold vital oral knowledge and stories, often still struggle to connect with younger generations. This communication barrier not only disrupts intergenerational cultural transmission but also weakens the fabric of community bonds.

Systemic barriers emerged as Indigenous children were barred from using their languages in schools and official settings. Schools became institutions of cultural erasure, where Indigenous languages were banned, and students were forced to embrace the language and culture of colonizers. The colonial education system upheld the colonial order. This calculated suppression contributed to the suppression of Indigenous identities.

Replacing Indigenous languages with colonial ones amounted to more than just linguistic change; it encompassed a deliberate strategy of cultural colonization and heritage erasure, and diminished the richness of entire ways of life.

Frantz Fanon, a central figure in the fields of post-colonial thought, psychiatry, and activism, captured the essence of existence with his assertion that “to speak is to exist.” Within this framework, language can be used as a tool of colonial violence, yielding a trail of widespread devastation. The act of erasing languages translates to the erasure of entire histories, struggles, and narratives. 

We need to break the chains of linguistic colonization, and we should have done it by now. This requires the dismantling of systems that perpetuate linguistic oppression to nurture cultural diversity. By exposing these systems, we strike at the walls of history with a metaphorical sledgehammer, reclaiming our identities. 

It is a collective responsibility to engage in self-reflection and dismantle linguistic colonization. This shared commitment includes creating an environment that celebrates a mosaic of cultural identities.

When faced with the widespread impact of harmful systems, Ngugi wa Thiong’o suggests revitalizing language through stories and literature — which uniquely capture diverse experiences. This can extend to Indigenous knowledge here in Canada, to return a sense of balance by reconnecting with their heritage.

Decolonizing language and education isn’t a mere suggestion; it’s a rallying cry for reclaiming identities and restoring the vibrant tapestry of cultures that have been trampled upon. This isn’t just about linguistic liberation; it’s about rewriting narratives, reclaiming agency, and carving a space in a world that’s rightfully ours.

When we peel back the layers of linguistic imperialism, we uncover a tangled web where language, culture, and power are intertwined. By confronting these complexities head-on, we inch closer to a world where language ceases to be a tool of control and becomes a bridge that celebrates the glorious diversity of human cultures. The journey to linguistic decolonization is a journey of self-discovery, reflection, and unyielding commitment — a journey that holds the promise of a world that’s more just.