I speak Welsh.
These days that means I speak a useless language that nobody thinks is cool, fashionable or worth saving. But the history of my country’s language is filled with times when it was not only not useful, but downright illegal.
The Welsh NOT
In the 18th and 19th Century, children at school were punished for speaking Welsh. English was considered the standard for education.
A piece of wood inscribed with the letters ‘WN’ would be hung around the child’s neck until they heard a classmate speak in Welsh. Whoever was left with it at the end of the day would be beaten.
For some areas of Wales, this persisted until the 1930s and 1940s.
Unfortunately, my country was not the only place to implement strict rules about language.
Hougenfuda — 方言札 Japan
Dialect Cards were present in several areas of Japan in the post-Meiji period as the government struggled to make everyone speak a standard form of Japanese. This eradicated local languages for Okinawa, Kyushu and later, Tohoku.
American and Canadian Indian Schools
The Residential schools set up to assimilate the local people in European Culture in the 19th and 20th Century forced children to adopt European haircuts, forcibly separating them from their families and giving them more ‘Christian’ names.
Of course, speaking their native language was forbidden, and anyone stepping out of line was subjected to sexual and physical abuse, manual labor and beatings.
Parlez Francais — Soyez Propes
This phrase, translating to ‘Speak French — Be Clean’ could be found across school walls in France during the 19th Century and was combined with a similar plaque — worn around the neck — known as Symbole.
Those found with this item at the end of the day were subject to organized mockery, beatings, extra homework and even manual labor.
Language as a Weapon
Throughout the world, people have been forced into alternate cultures — severely punished if they clung to any semblance of their upbringing or heritage.
Modern times brought Freedom of Religion and Culture to many regions around the globe. This has not happened without continuing tension. The innate need to bring someone into our world view is a difficult urge to ignore. And as we strive to be seen as an accepting, peaceful species on the surface, the violent sub-cultures have increased under our feet.
Now, we’re fighting between those who want diversity and those who do not. Until now, diversity has always been on the losing side.
It still might be. In which case I guess the question is — how similar do we have to be before we stop perceiving each other as a threat?
And if it comes to that, will the last person left please turn out the lights.