State agents and Structural hegemony

By: Abbas Mohammadi

In this paper I will discuss an article from The Encyclopaedia of Language and Linguistics, entitled ‘Linguicide’, by Tove Skutnabb-Kangas and Robert Phillipson. Using Cobarrubias’s (1983) categories Skutnabb-Kangas and Phillipson distinguish between overtly linguicide and covertly linguicide to identify the difference between language death and linguicide. They posit there is nothing ‘natural’ in language death. Rather it is the result of structured or ideological agents. This piece is particularly vital to speakers of minority languages under threat as it maintains that all language death is intentional. The article, however, confirms how linguistic diversity is neglected, mistreated or prohibited, especially by national and international institutions, it gives a new perspective to study the differences between the language death and linguicide.

Cobarrubias (1983) has written about official attitudes towards the linguistic minorities. He discusses the importance of the language rights and how language status issues are directly connected to political issues. In a taxonomy, he distinguishes between (A) attempting to kill a language, (B) letting a language die, (C) unsupported coexistence, (D) partial support of specific language functions, (E) adoption as an official language. According to Skutnabb-Kangas and Phillipson, from these policies (A) can be described as overtly linguicidal and the (B) and (C) as covertly linguicidal. Examples for overtly linguicide is Kloss’s work (1977) on the United States Protectorate Pacific island of Guam and Calvet’s work (1974) studying language in the French colonies in the twentieth century. In a separate article, Skutnabb-Kangas (2017, p, 4) writes, “Colonization and creation of state borders had a decisive role in formally minoritizing certain languages and, correspondingly, majorizing others”. The ongoing unsolved case of Kurds in the Middle East is an example which deserves closer examination. Its roots go back to Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916 when Kurdistan was divided and minoritized between a number of countries. Sheyholislamy (2015) states that, “Most of the Kurdish speaking areas have been divided among four countries: Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria (some scholars also include Armenia and other Caucasus and Central Asia republics in addition to Lebanon)” (p. 30). The division caused disconnection among the Kurdish speakers and minoritizing them in those countries.

In comparison between the linguicide, as “the extermination of language, an analogous concept to (physical) genocide,” and language death as, “the withering away of language by analogy with natural death”, it is pointed out that linguicide unlike the natural death of a language, there is an active agent (“attempting to kill a language”) or passive agent (“letting a language die”, or “unsupported coexistence”) involved in causing the death of languages. They identify intentional causes in the death of a language. It happens by plans of agents. To explain, Skutnabb-Kangas and Phillipson suggest studying the cases of linguicide from both structural and ideological aspects. They believe that structures and ideologies are used to legitimate, effectuate and reproduce an unjust division of authority and resources between groups which are defined based on language. For instance, for a structured agent, they bring the example of Turkey and the state suppression of Kurds.

In Skutnabb-Kangas and Phillipson’s view, however, to some extent linguicide and the question of endangered language are studied by international institutions such as the UN, UNESCO, ILO, OSCE, OAU, Council of Europe, but they raise the alarm that it is deficient. They criticise the United Nations for what has become International Convention for the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide. They say although linguistic and cultural genocide were discussed alongside physical genocide and were defined as a serious crime against humanity, they were voted down and only included in the final Convention of 1948 (see Encyclopaedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, 2005). In their view the result was an inadequate definition of linguistic genocide (Art. 3, 1), for example prohibiting the use of the language of the group in daily intercourse or in schools, or the printing and circulation of publications in the language of the group.

Skutnabb-Kangas and Phillipson argue that the definition of linguistic genocide needs further discussion and changed, especially the differences between the linguicide and language death. The authors explain in the contemporary world most linguistic genocides were executed openly and brutally. They refer to Turkey as a most blatant example in the contemporary world. In their view linguistic genocide today is covert and operates in sophisticated ways. In education systems, by ideological and structural means, the minority languages are prohibited from daily usage or being taught in schools. The example they chose is the Kurdish case in Turkey and in Europe. With minority children (i.e. Kurdish immigrants in Europe) in day care centres and schools to avoid linguicide, children must be taught in their native language by bilingual teachers. This is the situation with most immigrant minorities in the Western countries. Skutnabb-Kangas (1994) agrees that many minorities in the Europe are multilingual, the education system should support both the majority and the minority languages for multilingualism. Therefore, she concludes it is essential to recruit bi or multilingual teachers in the European education system, especially within the immigrant minority communities.

Hans-Jurgen Sasse, in an article (1992, p, 9) distinguishes between three type of phenomena relevant to the study of language death which must be considered, he writes “First of all, there is the entire range of extra linguistic factors: cultural, sociological, ethnohistorical, economic, etc., processes, which create, in a certain speech community, a situation of pressure which forces the community to give up its language.” According to Sasse, the ‘extra linguistic’ factors are the trigger for the entire process of language death.

The article alerts us that because of widespread ‘covertly and sophisticated’ linguicide, most commonly caused by State agents in passive and active forms, linguistic human rights are required to prevent linguicide. It is important to note that the concept of language death is a general term and it is crucial to be precise when studying and classifying the language death and linguicide.  Understanding the role of agents for death of languages may help to identify different aspects of the problem and find solutions to prevent the death of languages. Air Hassanpour in an article (1991) referenced Skutnabb-Kangas’s work Bilingualism or Not: The Education of Minorities (1984) and said how he was pleased to see a reference to the Kurdish case i.e. (as a minority community in Europe) the story of how the Turkish embassy in Copenhagen had tried to prevent the teaching of Kurdish to Kurdish immigrants in Denmark. It is important more linguistic, political and sociological studies engage with minority communities in multicultural countries.


Cobarrubias, J., Fishman, J. A., 1983. Progress in language planning: international perspectives. Berlin, Mouton Publishers.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T., 2017. Language Rights and Bilingual Education. [pdf] Available at: [Accessed 2 December 2018].

Sheyholislami, J., 2015. Language Varieties of the Kurds.


Available at: [Accessed 2 December 2018].

Sasse, H.J., 2012. Theory of language death. Language Death: Factual and Theoretical Explorations with Special Reference to East Africa. [e-book] Available through: [Accessed 15 December].

Hassanpour, A., 1991. The politics of A-political linguistics; Linguists and Linguicide. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 November 2018].

Encyclopaedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, 2005. Linguistic Genocide. [online] Available at: [Accessed 14 December 2018].

Skutnabb-Kangas, T., 1994. Linguistic Human Rights in Education. [pdf] Available at: [Accessed 6 December 2018].