Nation-states respond to such separatist tendencies by refocusing national identity either around a national language or around the concept of multiculturalism. Current efforts by the US English Movement in the United States to amend the Constitution by declaring English the official national language have to be seen as the attempt to ensure not only mutual linguistic intelligibility, but cultural homogeneity as well. In periods of social fragmentation and multiple identities, each clamoring to be recognized, language takes on not only an indexical, but a symbolic value, according to the motto 'Let me hear you speak and I will tell you who you are loyal to`. The link between the US English legislation and anti-immigration legislation has been frequently pointed out by critics.
Besides being used as a means of excluding outsiders, the use of one, and only one, language is often perceived as a sign of political allegiance. The remark 'I had ten years of French and I still can't ...' may be the expression not so much of bilingual failure as of monolingual pride. People who, by choice or by necessity, have traditionally been bi- or multilingual, like migrants and cosmopolitans, have often been held in suspicion by those who ascribe to themselves a monovocal, stable, national identity.
Standard language, cultural totem
The way this national identity is expressed is through an artificially created standard language, fashioned from a multiplicity of dialects. When one variety of a language is selected as an indicator of difference between insiders and outsiders, it can be shielded from variations through official grammars and dictionaries and can be taught through the national educational system. For example, in the times of the Ancient Greeks, any person whose language was not Greek was called a 'barbarian', i.e. an alien from an inferior culture. Hence the term barbarism to denote any use of language that offends contemporary standards of correctness or purity. In some countries that have a National Academy for the preservation of the national linguistic treasure against external imports and internal degradation, misuses of the standard language by its speakers are perceived not only as linguistic mishaps, but as aesthetic and moral offences as well (hence derogatory verbs like 'butchering' or 'slaughtering' a language).
Note that standard language is always a written form of the language, preserved, as we saw in the last chapter, through a distinct print culture serving a variety of political, economic, and ideological interests. But it is well known that even though educated people will display strong views about what 'good' language use is supposed to be like, when they speak they often themselves commit precisely those barbarisms they so strongly condemn. The desire to halt the march of time and keep language pure of any cultural contamination is constantly thwarted by the co-construction of culture in every dialogic encounter.
Language acquires a symbolic value beyond its pragmatic use and becomes a totem of a cultural group, whenever one dialect variety is imposed on others in the exercise of national or colonial power (France), or when one language is imposed over others through the deliberate, centralized pressure of a melting pot ideology (English over French in Louisiana, English over Spanish in New Mexico), or when one language supplants others through centralized deliberate planning or diffuse societal forces (the spread of English as an international language). The totemization of the dominant language leads to the stigmatization of the dominated languages.
Members of a group who feel that their cultural and political identity is threatened are likely to attach particular importance to the maintenance or resurrection of 'their language' (for example, Quebec, Belgium, Wales among many others). The particularly poignant death of Edmond Laforest is a reminder of the deeply personal association of language with one's self-ascribed cultural identity, especially when the recognition of that linguistic identity is denied. Laforest's despair was compounded by the intrans-igently literate view that the majority of educated French (or those who want to be seen as educated) hold toward their national language. By having learned and adopted the literate idiom of the colonial occupant, the Haitian poet may have felt he had betrayed not only his Haitian Creole identity, but also the rich oral tradition of his ancestors.
Linguistic and cultural imperialism
Laforest's death in 1915 acquired a new meaning when recounted in 1985, at a time when linguistic rights were starting to be viewed as basic human rights. The case for linguistic rights has been made particularly strongly with regard to the hegemonic spread of English around the world. Beyond the symbolic link frequently established between language and territorial or cultural identity, there is also another link that has more to do with the promulgation of global ideologies through the worldwide expansion of one language, also called linguicism. Linguicism has been defined as 'ideologies, structures, and practices which are used to legitimate, effectuate, and reproduce an unequal division of power and resources (both material and immaterial) between groups which are defined on the basis of language', as Phillipson says in his book Linguistic Imperialism (Oxford University Press 1991, page 47), in which English linguistic imperialism is seen as a type of linguicism.
From our discussion so far, one can see where the self-ascription to a given group on the basis of language might be the response to rather than the cause of the lack of material and spiritual power. It is when people feel economically and ideologically disempowered that language may become an issue and a major symbol of cultural integrity. However, in a world of signs where every meaning can proliferate ad infinitum, it becomes very difficult to distinguish what is the effect and what is the cause of linguistic imperialism. The spread of English is undeniable, and it is viewed by those who suffer from it as a totem for a certain Anglo-American 'culture' or way of life, but it is not clear whether the appropriate response in the long run is to make English and other languages into cultural icons, or to rely on the remarkable ability that speakers have to create multiple cultural realities in any language.
This is not to say that linguistic pluralism is not a desirable good in itself. The Babel threat is not the splintering off in mutually unintelligible languages, but the monopoly of one language over others. As in Babel's days, the complacent belief that people are working for a common cause just because they speak a common language is a dangerous illusion. Being human means working through the shoals of mutual misunderstandings across incommensurable languages. That is why linguistic rights, like anti-trust laws, have to be upheld, not because of the one-to-one relationship between culture and language, but because each language provides a uniquely communal, and uniquely individual, means by which human beings apprehend the world and one another.
Although there is no one-to-one relationship between anyone's language and his or her cultural identity, language is the most sensitive indicator of the relationship between an individual and a given social group. Any harmony or disharmony between the two is registered on this most sensitive of the Richter scales. Language is an integral part of ourselves—it permeates our very thinking and way of viewing the world. It is also the arena where political and cultural allegiances and loyalties are fought out. However, if language indexes our relation to the world, it is not itself this relation.
Because of the inevitable and necessary indeterminacy of signs, the same use of a given language can index both indenture and investment, both servitude and emancipation, both powerlessness and empowerment. Paradoxically, the only way to preserve the room for maneuver vital to any human communication is not by making sure that everyone speaks the same language, but by making sure that the linguistic semiotic capital of humankind remains as rich and as diversified as possible.