Linguistic Diversity in the Shadows of Empires: On James Griffiths’s “Speak Not”

Oliver Farry hears out “Speak Not: Empire, Identity and the Politics of Language” by James Griffiths.

By Oliver FarryDecember 21, 2021

Linguistic Diversity in the Shadows of Empires: On James Griffiths’s “Speak Not”

Speak Not: Empire, Identity and the Politics of Language by James Griffiths. Zed Books. 264 pages.

EMPIRES SINCE THE dawn of civilization have had varying attitudes toward linguistic diversity. The Persians were famously tolerant of the languages and mores of the peoples they governed, from Egypt in the West to present-day Tajikistan in the East. The Romans were more insistent on Latin being used in their protectorates, leaving a lasting legacy in the Romance languages spoken across Europe today. This was replicated in turn by the post-Columbian European empires who imposed their national languages in far-off colonies.

That historical practice probably drove the somewhat misguided rush in recent decades to learn Mandarin for business purposes in certain Western countries, where people assumed that a Chinese-dominated world would be Chinese-speaking. China, however, has been a bit more realistic and is happy to use a perfectly serviceable existing lingua franca, International English, to do business, supplemented by interpreters where necessary.

Similar to other European colonial powers, England and, later, Great Britain, made the English language a vector of domination. The proving ground was its oldest colony: Ireland. Though the English Crown had nominally ruled over the neighboring island since the Anglo-Norman invasion in 1169, its authority was partial at best for the next 500 years, even in those parts of the island where English rule was secure in the Middle Ages. The Anglo-Normans settled in Ireland and, as every Irish schoolchild (myself included) learns, “became more Irish than the Irish themselves,” marrying into local society, their traces visible today in Irish family names such as Fitzgerald, Barrett, Burke, Roche, and Browne.

Such enthusiastic assimilation, still commonplace in Elizabethan times, was the bane of colonial administrators. Edicts decreed land be allotted only to English speakers, but these were blithely ignored by English settlers who learned Irish and blended in with the locals. William Gerard, the Crown’s representative in Ireland, wrote in horror in 1578 that all the English in Dublin spoke Irish. In 1600, another visiting English functionary, Fynes Moryson, complained that even the “Irish-English” refused to speak English to him. (These choice tidbits come from Hell or Connaught!: The Cromwellian Colonisation of Ireland 1652–1660 by Peter Berresford Ellis.) The plantation of Ireland with English and Scottish colonists picked up pace when the Irish aristocracy fled for mainland Europe in 1607 following their defeat at the Battle of Kinsale. The Cromwellian wars, which spilled over into Ireland in 1652, saw the first robust enforcement of English, a process that would, through a series of legal proscriptions of the Irish language and the devastation wrought by the Great Famine of 1845–’49, see it almost die out completely three centuries later.

Wales, home to one of the three languages that gets close attention in the engaging book under review, was pulled into the orbit of its English neighbor in the same era as Ireland, being annexed in 1284 and incorporated under the English Crown in 1536. Welsh became increasingly marginalized during the Industrial Revolution, as English workers poured into Welsh coal mining communities; unlike their earlier compatriots who settled in Ireland, they had little interest in learning the local language. In the 19th century, the country was subject to a drive by improvers to turn everyone into English speakers. One of the chief proponents of this was a Welsh Radical member of parliament, William Williams, who believed his country’s native language was retarding development. His speech in the House of Commons in 1846 led to a government inquiry into Welsh education that would in turn lead to the teaching of English in Welsh schools.

The three-part report is still reviled in Wales as “The Treachery of the Blue Books,” and has become a touchstone for language activism and Welsh nationalism, as James Griffiths, Welshman and Hong Kong–based Asia correspondent for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, details in Speak Not: Empire, Identity and the Politics of Language. The Blue Books episode is also of a part with other instances of language loss and decline brought about by misplaced concerns of progressivism and supposed backward languages. In many cases, it was effected with the complicity of well-intentioned native elites, which was also the case with the decline of Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Breton.

Despite the book’s subtitle, Griffiths is more concerned with how language supremacy and resistance to it has played out on the peripheries of three metropoles — Britain, the United States, and China. And while each case might contain echoes of wider linguistic domination, they are not all analogous. In the United Kingdom, Welsh was marginalized, as other Celtic languages had been before it; in the United States, American missionaries overthrew the monarch of an independent Hawai‘i and imposed English before inviting Washington to annex the archipelago; in Hong Kong, the future of Cantonese is uncertain, after several decades of being under attack in neighboring Guangdong Province.

Griffiths relates the modern history of Welsh language activism, which has often been tied to resistance to a blasé heavy-handedness by British authorities. The first instance was protests in 1936 against turning Ynys Enlli, an island off the Llŷn Peninsula, into a bombing range for the Royal Air Force. The protests, in which an air force installation was burned down, were carried out by a trio of language activists, including the founder of the nationalist Plaid Cymru party and lecturer in Welsh at the University of Swansea, Saunders Lewis. After a failure to convict the three in a Welsh court, the case was moved to England, where the defendants insisted on being tried in Welsh, for which at the time there was no legal stipulation. They were duly convicted but returned to Wales on their release as heroes.

Lewis would remain the key figure in the struggle for Welsh language rights over the coming decades, setting in motion the modern language movement with an impassioned speech on BBC Wales in February 1962. Entitled “Tynged yr Iaith” (“The Fate of the Language”), the speech warned that Welsh could die out by the end of the century if immediate action was not taken. Lewis called for a campaign of civil disobedience, asking his compatriots to withhold rates and taxes if they were not permitted to conduct official business in Welsh. The result was a generational rise in the number of people learning the language. Welsh was pulled back from the brink of extinction and is currently in better shape than Irish is after a century of independence.

The revival of Welsh is not without parallel in contemporary Europe — Basque, Catalan, and Galician have thriven in a similar fashion — but it is remarkable for having happened in the face of official indifference, if not hostility, that lasted until 1988 when Margaret Thatcher’s government made Welsh a compulsory language up until the age of 14 in Welsh schools. Many Welsh people, including Griffiths’s own family, have enthusiastically embraced the language after generations without speaking it. Even immigrants and refugees learn it alongside English.

The language has acquired a cultural cachet that would have surprised William Williams and his contemporaries, being sung by rock bands such as Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Catatonia, and Super Furry Animals. Welsh-language films have been nominated for Oscars, and Welsh is now closely associated with the Wales national soccer team, which has enjoyed unprecedented success in recent years. The country is still far off from being bilingual, as many champions of Welsh would like it to be, though the government hopes that 40 percent of Wales’s schools will be Welsh-medium by 2050.

Another notable aspect of Welsh’s success is that, for long, it did not translate into a rise in support for Welsh independence. Unlike in Scotland, independence held little appeal in Wales, even after devolution of powers to a Welsh Assembly in 1997. Earlier in this century, polls rarely showed more than 15 percent of the population in favor of independence. But in the five years since the Brexit referendum (in which, ironically, a majority of Welsh voted leave), that figure has risen, with one in March this year showing 39 percent in favor. Welsh secession from the United Kingdom, which has always seemed to be the unlikeliest of all the Union’s possible permutations, is all of sudden not such a distant prospect.

Supposed progress was also the driver of the decimation of Hawaiian, which followed the overthrow of Queen Lili‘uokalani by white settlers, or haole, in 1893 and the archipelago’s subsequent annexation by the United States, first as a territory, and then as the 50th state. Hawai‘i had weathered the challenges of imperial powers fairly well until then and was able to absorb a first wave of Christian missionaries, who learned the local language. It would be the descendants of these missionaries who mounted the fatal putsch.

Not unusually for their day, they were unbridled white supremacists — Griffiths says coup leader Lorrin Thurston believed that to treat native Hawaiians “with forbearance and courtesy is like trying to disinfect leprosy with rose water.” Voting rights in the new Hawaiian republic were to be restricted to those who could read and write English. This, along with education system’s punishment of children speaking their native language, would spell doom for Hawaiian.

Hawai‘i has been maintained as an exotic outpost of the United States while its culture has been largely occulted, in tandem with the dwindling of its indigenous population to only about 10 percent of the modern state’s total. Griffiths relates the history of hula, which was misunderstood by white settlers as a lascivious dance and banned from Hawaiian schools. Native folklorist Winona Beamer, who had herself been expelled from the elite Kamehameha Schools for performing the dance, almost singlehandedly revived the ancient hula in the mid-20th century.

This led to a resurgence in interest in the Hawaiian language, which had all but died out after decades of official neglect and repression. Griffiths interviews ’Ekela Kani’aupio-Crozier, a teacher of Hawaiian and an advisor at the Kamehameha Schools, where the language was once forbidden. While Hawaiian has been saved from extinction and now enjoys a protected status under the 1990 Native American Languages Act, it can hardly be said to be fully revived, with only around 20,000 speakers. It has, however, enabled a rising Hawaiian consciousness, which culminated in the protests in 2014 against the Thirty Meter Telescope at Mauna Kea Observatories, located on a mountain considered sacred by native Hawaiians, which Griffiths relates in the section’s concluding chapter.

Cantonese, at first glimpse, might seem to be in strange company here, given that it is spoken by between 70 and 80 million people on the Chinese mainland, in Hong Kong, and across the world. But a shift in official Chinese language policy in recent decades has many worried about its fate. China had for long been less absolutist than many Western countries in its language policy, promoting Putonghua, or Mandarin, as a national language while allowing regional languages, be they Chinese or otherwise, to coexist (though the pendulum did swing back and forth from time to time, particularly in Tibet). Lately, however, the central government has been more aggressive in ensuring the linguistic supremacy of Putonghua, eroding the standing of regional variants of Chinese and other languages, such as Mongolian and Uyghur.

Cantonese has suffered in its historic heartland of Guangdong Province, with local television switching to broadcasting in Putonghua a decade ago and a younger generation of locals preferring to speak the Mandarin they learned in school to their own native tongue. The onslaught against Cantonese has often verged on caricature — Griffiths tells us that posters around Guangzhou promoting Putonghua urged people to “use a civilized language — Be a civilized person,” while state media reported on a study that supposedly showed that speaking Cantonese could cause nasal cancer. (Needless to say, it was unfounded and, in any case, the study related to food, not language.)

The vast majority of Hong Kong’s population is descended from migrants from mainland China. The early arrivals were from the new colonial city’s hinterland and spoke Cantonese or other Yue Chinese languages, thus establishing it as the city’s main language (though it took the British colonial rulers until the 1980s to afford Chinese official status). In the 20th century, migrants from elsewhere in China, particularly Shanghai and Fujian, arrived in Hong Kong, fleeing a succession of wars and revolutions. Like the English settlers in Elizabethan Ireland, they learned the local language, even those whose loyalties lay more with the government across the border.

Since the 1980s, migration from the mainland has continued apace, its flow regulated not by the Hong Kong government but by Beijing. Hongkongers and longtime residents report that Putonghua has become increasingly noticeable on the city’s streets in recent decades, but it is still a long way off being a dominant language.

Since the Occupy Central protests in 2014, Cantonese has become a badge of identity tied to defiance of Beijing. A concomitant rise in anti-mainland sentiment has had some mainlanders expressing fears about speaking Mandarin in public, a phenomenon that peaked during the 2019 protests, though in most of the known instances of government supporters being attacked, the victims were Cantonese speakers. Some mainland visitors, such as Chinese state TV anchor Liu Xin, complain about having to use English to converse with Hongkongers who cannot understand Putonghua, though recourse to a third language is a courtesy afforded to few Hongkongers when traveling in Beijing or Shanghai, who have little choice but to use Mandarin. With Beijing and its proxies in Hong Kong now characterizing multiple expressions of Hong Kong identity as evidence of separatism, it is not fanciful to think that Cantonese will soon find itself in the line of fire.

The death of Cantonese has been much foretold and even sometimes pronounced prematurely. Certainly, developments in language policy elsewhere in China, which Griffiths outlines in chapters on Tibetan and Shanghainese, give reason to worry. Eighty million speakers is a figure that dwarfs many secure languages worldwide but it also one that can diminish very quickly in a country as vast as China. It is also significant that the city most beholden to Cantonese — Hong Kong — is home to less than 10 percent of its speakers. And even there, as Griffiths notes, Cantonese enjoys no legal protection — though it is the de facto language of government and administration, in law only Chinese in an undefined variant is an official language, alongside English. Changing the language of official business to Putonghua would not even require a legal formality, and the track record of the Hong Kong government suggests it would be only too happy to comply with any directives to that end from Beijing.

The exodus of pro-democracy Hongkongers since the enactment of the National Security Law also threatens the language’s future (though Cantonese has previously survived fairly well among diaspora Chinese). Aggressive promotion of Putonghua, as portrayed in the dystopian 2015 portmanteau film Ten Years, combined with compulsory national security education could also erode the language in the city. And if Cantonese were decimated, reviving it could be difficult. Civil society usually provides the impetus for language revivals after official repression, as has been the case with Welsh and Hawaiian. The Hong Kong government is currently in the process of rapidly destroying any civil society in the city, much of which is viewed as being too hostile to the Party. In the distant future, giving classes to reacquaint Hongkongers with the language of their grandparents might well have to be a clandestine activity.

But it’s hard to see the Hongkongers who stay in the city giving up Cantonese without a fight. A people that was already distrustful of authority has become all the more so over the past decade, and Cantonese is at this point so politicized, so inextricably linked to Hong Kong identity, that a generational decline of the language seems unlikely. A mass replacement by Putonghua speakers from the mainland is possible, but there are already signs that the appeal of Hong Kong to mainlanders is on the decline. Making Hong Kong more and more like the mainland might, ironically, hasten that process.

An alternative scenario might be Hong Kong becoming an island of Cantonese on the edge of an increasingly linguistically uniform China, disfavored by Beijing for its past disloyalty, in much the same way South Korea’s dictatorship wilfully neglected Gwangju after the student uprising of 1980. Whatever the fate of Cantonese, it can no longer count on official protection, pending major changes in the PRC’s polity.

Griffiths also provides two “interludes” — single chapters, brief but far from cursory — on Afrikaans and on Hebrew and Yiddish that provide an elegant discursive counterpoint to the main sections. Each examines languages of peoples that have been by turns dominated and dominators, and which have at various stages of history faced uncertain futures — Hebrew is, of course, the most celebrated resurrected “dead” vernacular language, while Yiddish, despised by certain establishment Zionists, has seen its speakers dwindle in recent decades. Afrikaans, meanwhile, is irrevocably tainted by its association with apartheid (that most famous of Afrikaans words), even though a majority of its speakers today are nonwhite. The chapters are sympathetic if critical excursions and a reminder that linguistic hegemony exists outside the great centers of power.

Speak Not is an astute, well-researched, and often scholarly meditation on the forces that drive marginal languages out of existence in favor of dominant metropolitan tongues. I have just two criticisms. The book’s section on Hawaiian lacks the richness of those on Welsh and Cantonese. And it lacks an overarching central thesis — though this is unsurprising, as its three case studies are, though sharing some commonalities, quite disparate. These are, however, minor quibbles about what is, overall, a stimulating work on the politics of language.


Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist, and broadcaster in Hong Kong, where he reports for France 24 and Radio France Internationale.

LARB Contributor

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist, and broadcaster in Hong Kong, where he reports for France 24 and Radio France Internationale.


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