Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Effectiveness of States over Time, Measured by Language Death

On his Facebook page for Fooled by Randomness, Nicholas Nassim Taleb advances a theory that the rapid expansion of Islam (and Arabic-speakers) in North Africa in the seventh century was aided by a remnant population of Punic (Phoenician) speakers, whose language and culture would be more similar to Arabs than to their other neighbors. This, despite the fact that Carthage had been erased by the Romans in the second century BC, 800 years before; literally delenda, in the words of Scipio Aemilianus. Taleb says:

Many Greek Cypriots still speak the language called "Cypriot Maronite Arabic", that is, 12 centuries after their settlement and integration in the Greek side of the Island. Languages are stickier than we think (People tend to associate languages with states, when the correlation was low before 1917: around the Mediterranean, particularly in Asia Minor, languages had no link to the rule (Armenians spent thousands of years in the area between Cilicia to Aleppo, way past the lifetime of some "Armenian State";etc.).

There's more at the link, where I left a comment that I've expanded into this post. His argument is certainly an interesting parallel to the theory that Hellenistic Alexander unknowingly paved the way in the Near East for early Christianty. But what's really interesting about this is his observation that before the 20th century, state vs language correlation was very low. Something changed to allow states to become more effective at assimilating minorities, linguistic or otherwise, forcibly or otherwise. What was it?

For one thing, authoritarian states prior to the modern era didn't favor the development of patriotism. Why did it matter to autocrats if peasants liked being French or Chinese?   The autocrats and peasants were in different worlds, and the illiterate peasants would spend their entire lives within ten miles of where they were born all their lives, knowing the same hundred people.  In the same way, isolation of rulers from ruled as well as the fact that states didn't really transform the ruled's lives economically or socially, meant that languages and culture persist, despite swapping out rulers that look or talk differently.   Sure, today Spanish has a hard jota and some al- prefices, but that's not much to show for 750 years of Moorish occupation. And how many Mongol words are there in modern Russian? Hardly any, despite 250 years of rule.

Carthage. Ironically, the tourists walking around the ruins
are actually walking around the re-built Disneyland-Carthage
replacing the one leveled by the Romans - then
re-built by the Romans, ironically in part for Roman tourists.

That is not how it works today.  To put it bluntly, Yiddish has largely disappeared from Europe, for obvious reasons.  Why were the Nazis so much faster than than the Moors and the Mongols?  What changed is that in the 20th century, states starting putting in place the tools of the industrial age; not just weapons, but systematic organization and instruction. In the U.S., Native American children were shipped to Catholic schools that methodically removed their native languages from them (this idea in broad outline dates to Jefferson, who like Luther ministering to the Jews, found his disappointment in Indian disinterest in cultural conversion turn to full-on anger). Mass exterminations began, sometimes actually triggered by a spasmodic lurch toward modernity by a centralized authority, as in Turkey and Cambodia, although the latter didn't "disappear" an ethnic minority, but rather a socioeconomic class. Today the Chinese government is quite deliberately overrunning Tibetans and Uighurs with Han families. The power of the state has become much more transformative.  If you're American, ask how many conversations in native languages you've ever heard.  Just over four centuries ago those are the only languages you would have heard.

Whether Taleb's thesis about Punic-speakers' facilitation of Islam is correct, his observation about the relative persistence of culture in the ancient and modern worlds is well-taken. The effectiveness of states - that is, the amplification of ruling classes' ambitions that the technology of modern statehood allows - is not all positive. The Romans may have erased Cartharge but they didn't have the technology or ideas that allowed them to erase their culture. But the social engineers reporting today to Beijing that Lhasa delenda est don't need to signify their subtle conquest with a plow over the city's fallen walls, because success is clear in the measurable dilution of Tibetan culture with modern tools.

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