Linguistic Geography

Insurgency in Paraguay – and Genocidal Agitation Against Brazilians in the Country

Wikipedia’s “list of on-going armed conflicts” (see the previous post) had some surprises for me, as it includes a few insurgencies that I had thought were over. One example is that of the Paraguayan People’s Army, or EEP Rebellion (from the Spanish label, Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo). Wikipedia gives a 2023 death toll of seven for this conflict, and a cumulative count of 145+ since its beginning in 2005. These figures do not seem to be reliable, however, as the listed source for the 2023 figure is from 2022. I was not able to find any information on deaths this year in an admittedly cursory internet search. The Wikipedia article on the EEP, however, emphasizes its continuing activity, claiming that it can field up to 1,000 militants. As the article notes:

[T]he EPP has millions of dollars collected in kidnappings, extortion, expropriations and even contributions from neighbors and supporters. To this day, they continue to gain followers in the area, given the void left by the Paraguayan State.

The EEP is in many respects a typical Latin American Marxist-Leninist insurgency. It aims its attacks on wealthy landowners and security official, both private and public. Its operations have been focused in the central-eastern part of the country not far from the boundary with Brazil (see the map below), a restive region that has seen the development of large, mechanized farms over the past few decades. A few years ago, the EEP gained some global notoriety for kidnapping Mennonite farmers, one of whom was killed when his family was unable to come up with the $500,000 demanded for his release.

Conflict over land use and ownership in eastern Paraguay is an issue of the political far-right as well as the far-left. In Paraguay’s April 2023 general election, the populist and self-described nationalist-anarchist candidate of the National Crusade Party, Paraguayo “Payo” Cubas, surprised many observers by coming in third place, taking almost a quarter of the votes cast. In 2019, then-senator Cubas was impeached after he called for the genocide of Brazilians living in his country. As reported by Folha de São Paulo:

Brazilian bandits, bandits! Invaders! Now deforesting the country,” he shouts. “At least 100,000 Brazilians must be killed here,” he continued, mentioning that 2 million Brazilians are living in the country. The Brazilian government estimates that there are 350 thousand.

Following his failed bid for the presidency, Cubas was arrested for “disturbing the peace” after he refused to accept the election results and led anti-governmental protests. This was not the first time that he found himself in legal trouble. In 2016, Cubas was arrested “after hitting a judge with a belt and defecating in the office of the judge’s secretary.”

The large Brazilian presence in eastern Paraguay dates to the 1960s. These so-called “Brasiguayos” (“Brasiguaios” in Portuguese), many of whom were born in Paraguay, are now thought to number around half a million, a little less than 10 percent of the country’s population. They form the dominant group in several border towns, which are now mostly Portuguese speaking. This fact is almost never noted on language maps of Paraguay, although I did find one somewhat dated example (posted below). This map, not surprisingly, comes from the extensive archives of Reddit’s “Map Porn” community.

The initial Brazilian immigrants in Paraguay were mostly landless peasants who cleared the land for agriculture. They were later followed by well-off farmers who developed mechanized, commercial agriculture, usually focusing on soybeans. As commercial farmers moved in, many of the earlier migrants were forced back to Brazil, where they often found themselves unwelcome. Settling mostly in the new agricultural areas of Matto Grosso do Sul, their plight gained the attention of Amnesty International, which claimed in a 1992 report that were the victims of “illegal detentions, allegations of excessive use of force by the police, intimidation and a possible extra judicial execution.” The irony inherent in the situation has been noted. As one author put it, “Brazilians living in Paraguay wound up being expelled by their own countrymen.”

Anti-Brazilian agitation in Paraguay over the past few decades has generally focused on landownership issues. It seems to have reached a peak between 2008 and 2012, when Paraguay was under a leftwing government, an unusual condition in that country. As noted in a 2012 article in Gazeta do Povo:

The epicenter of the most recent agrarian conflict in Paraguay is located 75 kilometers from Foz do Iguaçu, in the department of Alto Paraná. A group of 6,000 landless Paraguayans, called “carperos”, have been camped for almost a year in the municipality of Ñacunday, on the border between two rural properties owned by producers of Brazilian descent. They threaten to take by force an area of 167,000 hectares spread across the departments of Alto Paraná, Canindeyú and Itapúa on the border with Brazil and Argentina. Armed and willing to radicalize the movement, they claim that the lands occupied by Brazilians belong to the Paraguayan government and should serve the agrarian reform project undertaken by President Fernando Lugo.

Cultural and even racial issue are also at play. As reported in a 2001 New York Times article:

They complain that the only television available locally is Brazilian and that their children grow up rooting for Brazil’s national soccer team instead of their own and speaking Portuguese as their second language instead of the Indian language Guaraní [Note: Paraguay is almost completely bilingual in Spanish and Guaraní].

Radio broadcasts in Guaraní urging landless peasants to rise against the Brazilians continue to be heard here. About 80 percent of San Alberto’s 23,000 residents are of Brazilian descent, and by voting as a bloc they have succeeded in electing one of their number, Romildo Maia de Souza, as mayor. …

One source of friction, all sides agree, is racial. Many of the Brazilians are blue-eyed, fair-skinned descendants of the German, Italian and Polish immigrants who flocked to Brazil’s three southernmost states a century ago. Many of the native-born Paraguayans most resentful of the Brazilian presence are of [indigenous] Indian stock.

Finally, geopolitical implications further complicate the situation. A 2019 scholarly paper by Andrew Nickson warns that Paraguay might be a Brazilian “protectorate in the making,” which seem a bit exaggerated. A big up-coming issue in this regard is the renegotiation of the Itaipú Treaty, which covers the shared Itaipú dam, the third largest hydroelectric facility in the world.

Insurgency in Paraguay – and Genocidal Agitation Against Brazilians in the Country Read More »

Afghanistan’s Language Policies and the Cartographic Marginalization of Persian (Farsi)

A fascinating recent article in The Diplomat (“Decoding the Taliban’s Anti-Persianism” by Javeed Ahwar) outlines how the new government of Afghanistan is attempting to sideline the country’s dominant Persian language in favor of Pashto, the main language of its Taliban rulers. As Ahwar writes, “One of the first things that Taliban did after taking over in August 2021 was to remove Persian from public billboards,” noting that the new policy “came at the cost of marginalization of the Persian-speaking population and undermining their rights to political participation.” As he further argues, the drive against Persian is rooted in a quest for Pashtun political dominance and reflects the overriding influence of the harsh South Asian Deobandi school of Sunni Islam, which favors Urdu over Persian. It also stems from the desire of the Taliban to disconnect the people of Afghanistan from the extraordinary riches of the Persian literary tradition, much of which is too cosmopolitan and secular for their taste.

Although the word “Afghanistan” literally means “land of the Pashtuns” – the Pashto-speaking people – Persian is still the country’s first language. As can be seen in the table posted above, roughly half the people of Afghanistan speak Persian as their mother tongue, with more than three quarters speaking it as either their first or second language; the comparable figures for Pashto are 40 and 48 percent. Persian is clearly the country’s main language of interethnic communication.

The importance of Persian in Afghanistan, however, is commonly obscured both in written depictions and especially on maps. Consider, for example, the Wikipedia map “Languages of Afghanistan,” posted below. Although it purports to be a language map, it is actually a map of ethnic groups that are only partly based on linguistic affiliation. Importantly, the term “Persian” does not appear on the map. Instead, the Persian-speaking population of Afghanistan is divided into three ethnic groups: Hazara, Aimak, and Tadjik [Tajik]. Although minor dialectal differences separate these groups, they are mostly divided by religion (the Hazaras being Shia) and traditional lifestyle (the Aimaks being pastoralists). The map also minimizes the extent of the Tajik people, especially in western Afghanistan. The second map rectifies these problems, but still avoids the term “Persian” in favor of “Dari,” following the long-established usage of the Afghan government. But Dari is merely the main variant of Persian spoken in Afghanistan, and in written form is essentially identical with Farsi, as Persian is labeled in Iran. The terms Persian and Farsi denote the same language and are themselves variants of the same word, “Persian” being “Farsi” as translated into Greek; the term “Dari,” on the other hand, is generally thought to mean “court,” implying the “language of the court.” Occasionally one finds a map that portrays most of northern Afghanistan as Farsi-speaking, such as the Deviant Art map by H.G.[TRKM_JOSE] posted below. Such depictions, however, are relatively rare in scholarly and journalistic sources. Finally, some maps, like the last one posted below, do  show northern Afghanistan as Persian speaking.

According to the erudite scholar Nile Green, current holder of the Ibn Khaldun Endowed Chair in World History at UCLA, “the impulses behind renaming of Afghan Persian as Dari were more nationalistic than linguistic.” The Wikipedia article on Dari summarizes Green’s argument as follows:

Afghanistan’s Persian-speaking population still prefer to call their language “Farsi”, asserting that the term “Dari” has been imposed upon them by the dominant Pashtun ethnic group as an effort to detach Afghanistan from its deep-rooted cultural, linguistic, and historical connections with the wider Persian-speaking world, encompassing Iran, Tajikistan and parts of Uzbekistan.

The broader context and consequences of Afghanistan’s anti-Persian/Farsi policies will be considered in the next GeoCurrents post

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Religion Trumps Language in Turkey’s Hatay Province in the 2023 Presidential Election

Turkey’s Hatay Province, which forms a small “panhandle” extending southward along the eastern Mediterranean, is one of the most distinctive parts of the country. Hatay is characterized by linguistic and ethnic diversity. It has the highest percentage of Arabic speakers in Turkey. It is also home to several Christian communities (Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Maronite, Antiochian Greek, and Armenian Apostolic) and minority Muslim sects (Alawite and Alevi). As noted by Wikipedia, “Unlike most Mediterranean provinces, Hatay has not experienced mass migration from other parts of Turkey in recent decades and has therefore preserved much of its traditional culture.”

Hatay did not join Turkey until 1939, having previously been part of the French-ruled Mandate of Syria. When the French departed Syria, a referendum in Hatay led to union with Turkey, which was the outcome favored by France. Many observers, however, question the legitimacy of the vote. Many Syrians, moreover, reject the Turkish annexation of the region.

In the 2023 Turkish presidential election, incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won the vote in Hatay by a relatively small margin. As the map below indicates, Erdoğan took some of Hatay’s districts handily, while his challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu won others by an overwhelming majority. What might account for these differences? Following to the Wikipedia language map posted above, language does not seem to be the main factor, as some Arabic-majority districts voted heavily for Erdoğan and others for Kılıçdaroğlu.

The language map in question, however, is imprecise. Another Wikipedia map, limited to Hatay, provides a much better depiction, although it does not take population density into account (see the second map posted below). Here Arabic-speaking areas are noted with green markings, with Turkish speaking areas marked in red. Three districts in Hatay have Arabic-speaking majorities, which I have indicated on the paired electoral with the letter “A.” As can be seen on this map, one of these districts overwhelmingly supported Erdoğan, one overwhelmingly supported Kılıçdaroğlu, and the either had mixed results.

The key to explaining this seeming discrepancy is found in religion, which is also noted on the Wikipedia map in question. Here Arabic-speaking Sunni areas are marked with green squares while Arabic-speaking Alawite districts are marked with green circles. As can be seen by comparing these maps, the Alawite-dominated areas strongly supported Kılıçdaroğlu, whereas the Sunni-dominated areas strongly supported Erdoğan – as did Arabic-speaking Sunni areas elsewhere in Turkey.

Alawites should not be confused with Alevis, although they often are, and they do have a number of similarities. Both are members of highly heterodox Shia offshoot sects who generally favor a resolutely secular political order. The Turkish-speaking population of Hatay includes some Alevis, although they are not indicated on the map posted above, or on any other map that I have found. Alawites, in contrast, are almost entirely Arabic speaking. Most Alawites live to the south, in the coastal area of Syria, where they form the majority population. The Assad government of Syria is dominated by Alawites, although they have been long disparaged and are often despised by their country’s Sunni majority. Alawites in Turkey’s Hatay province show pronounced hostility to Erdoğan, who supported the “Arab Spring” movement to overthrow Syria’s Alawite-dominated Assad regime. Erdoğan also gave sanctuary to millions of Syrian Sunni refugees, who tend to exhibit hostility towards Alawites.

This situation was depicted by Soner Cagaptay in a 2013 article:

Warning signs of this have been evident for months. For example, local Alawite groups such as the “Platform Against Imperialistic Interference in Syria” have been organizing pro-Assad rallies for some time — the largest, held last September, drew over ten thousand people. As one Alawite put it during an interview with Aljazeera, “Western imperialistic powers, along with Sunni-led regimes, are trying to topple a legitimate regime in Syria.” Minor tensions between Sunni refugees from Syria and Hatay Alawites have been reported as well. Alawite business owners and civil servants complain of Syrian refugees questioning them over their sectarian identity, with some claiming they have been blacklisted and harassed by Sunni Arab emigres.

For more information on the similarities and differences between Alevis and Alawites, see Cagaptay’s interesting but no doubt controversial 2012 article, “Are Syrian Alawites and Turkish Alevis the Same?”

Religion Trumps Language in Turkey’s Hatay Province in the 2023 Presidential Election Read More »

Georgia’s Three Unique National Scripts

Although many writing systems have been developed over the years and across the world, relatively few are still in use. As the Wikipedia map posted below shows, most countries today use either the Latin, Arabic, or Cyrillic scripts for their own national (or major regional) languages. Only a handful or countries have their own unique scripts that are used to write their own national and official languages. Determining which countries fall into this category – shown on the second map below – is somewhat tricky. The Hangul script, for example, is unique to the Korean language and nation, but that nation is divided into two states: North Korea and South Korea. The Greek alphabet is essentially limited to the Greek language, but Greek is the national tongue of two countries, Greece and the Republic of Cyprus (although the break-way Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus uses the Latin alphabet). The Ethiopic script, or Ge’ez, is employed for official purposes only in Ethiopia, but is also used extensively in neighboring Eritrea (along with the Latin and Arabic scripts). I have included all three of these scripts in the map below. I did not, however, include the Chinese writing system, because it is also used in three countries other than China (exclusively in Taiwan, alongside the Latin and Tamil scripts in multi-lingual Singapore, and in combination with two indigenous scripts [hiragana and katakana] in Japan).

Other than Israel (which uses the Hebrew script), the remaining countries with their own unique scripts used to write their national languages are located either in mainland Southeast Asia (Burma/Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia) or the Caucasus (Georgia and Armenia). In the Caucasus, the Georgian language stands out for having three separate scripts of its own: Mkhedruli, Asomtavruli, and Nuskhuri. Mkhedruli was at one time the country’s “royal script,” but is now used for almost all secular writing. The Georgia Orthodox Church, however, still uses the other alphabets in “ceremonial religious texts and iconography.” As a result, the “living culture of three writing systems of the Georgian alphabet” was granted the national status of intangible cultural heritage in Georgia in 2015 and inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016” (direst quotation from this Wikipedia article).


(The Wikipedia table above above shows only 14 of 33 letters in the 33 letters of the current Georgian  alphabet.)

Today, the Georgian script (Mkhedruli) used mainly for the Georgian language, but it is also sometimes employed for the three related Kartvelian languages of northwestern Georgia and northeastern Turkey: Mingrelian, Svan,* and Laz. When the Georgian script is used to write Mingrelian and Svan, three additional letters are employed. Svan and Laz are rarely written, however, and Laz is now also expressed in a modified Latin alphabet and may at any rate be dying out as a spoken language. In earlier times, Georgian scripts had been used for several unrelated languages of the Caucasus, including Chechen, Ossetian, Abkhazian, and Avar. As this example shows, Georgian culture was historically influential over a much larger area than that currently included within the Republic of Georgia.


*Despite their different languages, Mingrelian and Svan speakers are counted as ethnic Georgians, and almost are fluent in Georgian and generlly employ Georgian when writing.

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The Ethnic Roots of the War in Ethiopia and the Paradox of Tigrayan Ethnic Identity

The horrific and under-reported Tigray War in Ethiopia hinges largely on tensions between ethnolinguistic identity and national solidarity. Under both the Ethiopian monarchy during the Haile Selassie era (1930-1974) and the communist Derg regime (1974-1991), the government foregrounded the minority (30%) Amhara ethnic group and its Amharic language, pushing a harsh “Amharaization” program in many areas. Partly as a result, ethnic militias proliferated and eventually prevailed, toppling the brutal Derg government in 1991. Leading the fight was the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which represented the minority Tigrayan people, constituting only around six percent of Ethiopia’s population. The TPLF had allied with other insurgent groups in an umbrella group called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPLF). After coming to power in 1991, this formerly Marxist-Leninist organization revised its political stance, dropping communism in favor of center-left ethnic federalism. Ethiopia’s old provinces were soon wiped off the map as the country was re-divided into semi-autonomous regions defined primarily on ethnolinguistic grounds.

Ethiopia’s new government performed well. By the early 2000s the country was booming, posting the world’s third highest gains in per capita GDP between 2000 and 2018. But ethnic problems continued to plague Ethiopia. Smaller ethnolinguistic groups, concentrated in the southwest, were unsettled by being amalgamated with other groups in composite regions. This was a particular problem in the linguistically fractured region called Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples. Owing to such ethnic pressure, the Ethiopian government eventually created several new autonomous regions. Elsewhere, ethnic groups clashed over regional boundaries, and anger was provoked when the government tried to shift internal borders. Critics argued that Ethiopia was undermining itself by insistently politicizing ethnicity.

After coming to power 2018, prime minister Abiy Ahmed sought to reorient Ethiopia away from ethnic federalism and toward civic nationalism. In 2019 he disbanded the ruling multi-ethnic coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPLF), replacing it with the non-ethnic Prosperity Party, which currently holds 454 out of 547 parliamentary seats. The Tigrayans were not pleased by this maneuver. They were already angered by their loss of prominent positions within the government and they now feared that they would eventually lose their regional political autonomy. As a result, they rebelled against the government in 2020, precipitating the current war.

The Tigrayan rebellion thus shows the continuing power of ethnic identity in multiethnic Ethiopia, as well as the relatively weakness of national bonds in many parts of the country. But the current conflict also ironically shows the limits of ethnolinguistic identity and the potential power of national bonding to unravel ethnic ties. The Tigrinya linguistic community that has historically underpinned Tigrayan ethnicity has long been spilt on geopolitical grounds, divided between Ethiopia and Eritrea ever since Italy successfully colonized the latter region in the late 1800s. Although Tigrinya speakers form a relatively small portion of Ethiopia’s population, they constitute roughly half of that of Eritrea, arguably forming the country’s dominant ethnic group. Most Tigrinya speakers in both countries also follow the same “Oriental” Orthodox Christian religion, although it was split into Ethiopian and Eritrean branches in 1991. Despite such cross-border ethnic ties, in the current conflict Eritrea is closely allied with the Ethiopian government against Ethiopia’s Tigrinya-speaking population. Eritrea has militarily occupied a small slice of Ethiopia’s Tigray Region and has reportedly attacked local people with brutality. No evidence of any pan-Tigrinya-speaking ethnic solidarity is readily available. In this case, it would seem that national identity has easily trumped language-based ethnic identity.

It is perilous to make such a claim, however, precisely because little information is available. Eritrea is one of the world’s most repressive and militarily dominated countries, sometimes put in the same category as North Korea. Its government has worked hard to generate a solid sense of Eritrean national identity and has perhaps succeeded. Its quest to do so was facilitated by its long war of independence against Ethiopia (1961-1991), followed by periodic border conflicts with the same country. But it must also be noted that many Eritreans chafe under their brutal government, prompting vast numbers to flee. As of 2016, an estimated 321,000 Eritrean refugees were living in Europe, with another half million in Ethiopia and Sudan, out of a total national population of roughly six million. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to come to any solid conclusions about ethnic and national identity in Eritrea.

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The Growing Commonwealth of Nations

Unlike the Commonwealth Realms, the Commonwealth of Nations (formerly the British Commonwealth) is expanding, now counting 56 members. Almost all are former British colonies, and most former British colonies belong to the organization. If, as is expected, most Caribbean Commonwealth Realms drop the monarchy and become republics, they will almost certainly remain part of this international organization, mow headed by King Charles III.

The Commonwealth of Nations is not a particularly strong or effective organization, but it does play an important role in cultural, scientific, and intellectual exchange. Member states evidently value their membership. The only countries that have withdrawn are Ireland and Zimbabwe, and Zimbabwe submitted an application to rejoin in 2018. Originally, only countries that had been directly under British authority, or were constitutionally linked to a country that had been, were eligible to join. In 1995, however, the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique was admitted. A more controversial admission was Rwanda, a former German-then-Belgian colony, which gained membership in 2009. In 2022, two additional former French colonies in Africa, Togo and Gabon, joined the organization.

The admission of Rwanda in 2009 was highly controversial, but not because the country lacked a historical connection with the British Empire. The issue here was Rwanda’s human-rights record. As was noted at the time in the “Report and Recommendations of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative”:

Among the key Harare Principles [of the Commonwealth] are commitments to the protection of human rights and to democracy. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) believes that overwhelming evidence, conveniently ignored by leading Commonwealth states, demonstrates that the government of Rwanda is not sufficiently committed to these values.

But it must also be recognized that most African members in the Commonwealth do not have well-consolidated democracies and often fail to protect human rights. Also significant is the fact that Rwanda has made significant strides in both human and economic development. The CHRI acknowledged this fact (“Rwanda has what appears to be a well-deserved reputation for governmental efficiency and for being less corrupt than a number of other countries”), but proceeded to dismiss it as largely disingenuous (“The Rwandan government has excellent public relations machinery. Its leaders are astute, and effectively play upon the conscience of the world…”) But whatever one makes of this controversy, Rwanda’s position in the Commonwealth is now secure. The Commonwealth Chair-In-Office, one of the organization’s key positions, is currently Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda since 2000.

The movement of French-speaking African countries into this English-using organization is based on several factors. One is a desire to forge closer connections with their Anglophone neighbors. Another is a wish for their people to gain more facility in the English language. Rwanda pioneered this path, switching most of its schools from instruction in French to instruction in English in 2007. English is widely seen as bringing more international advantages than French, both across the world and in Africa. Finally, many countries in western and central Africa are keen to move out of the French geopolitical orbit. The CFA Franc, a currency* backed by France and used by most former French colonies in Africa, is widely seen as benefitting the metropolitan core at the expense of local economies, which are not able to adjust the valuation of their currencies to match economic conditions. French military action in the Sahel, the zone just south of the Sahara, is also unpopular. It will be interesting to see if other Francophone African countries join the Commonwealth and move in an Anglophone direction.

* Actually it is two closely linked currencies, the West African CFA Franc and the Central African CFA Franc

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The Development of National Languages in the Germanic Zone of Northern Europe

As was largely the case across the world, the development of national languages in the Germanic zone of northern Europe was more the product of state consolidation than the reflection of preexisting ethnolinguistic communities. As this process is most clear in the North Germanic region of Scandinavian, we will begin there.

The North Germanic Languages

At the dawn of Viking Age, circa 800 CE, the core area of Scandinavia (most of today’s Sweden, Norway, and Denmark) was linguistically unified, its people speaking Old Norse. A single language found over so large an area in pre-modern times indicates the rapid expansion of the people speaking it. Norse expansion would continue for several centuries, taking its speakers, as both settlers and conquerors, to Iceland, Greenland, Britain, and beyond, although only in previously uninhabited Iceland would their language persist. At the same time, Old Norse was gradually differentiating, eventually forming a complex dialect continuum. Neighboring dialects remained easily understandable, but those located at further distances had reduced mutual intelligibility.


Yet even today, the national languages of mainland Scandinavia come close to mutual intelligibility. The ability of individuals to make sense of other North Germanic languages, however, is not necessarily reciprocal; Norwegians can supposedly understand Swedish and Danish much more easily than Swedes and Danes can understand each other (see below). More to the point, the everyday spoken dialects that persist, especially in peripheral rural areas, tend to cut across political boundaries (as can be seen on the map posted here). As this map indicates, the Scanian dialect of southern Sweden is regarded by most linguists as a form of Danish rather than Swedish. Swedish linguists, however, usually analyze it as a variant of their own language. Caught between contending national forces, some local activists have campaigned for Scanian to be recognized as a distinct language. Some even view Scania as a separate nation that deserves independence.

States began to emerge in Scandinavia during the Viking age, as local leaders enhanced their power and expanded their domains. By the year 1000, the precursors of the region’s modern countries had come into existence as the Kingdoms of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. (Note on the map posted here that Denmark originally included Scania, which only became part of Sweden in 1658.) Cultural affinity and worries about the power of the Hanseatic League of the north German cities led to a loose merger of the three kingdoms in the Kalmar Union, created in 1397. This union dissolved with the exit of Sweden in 1523, but Denmark prevented the Kingdom of Norway from doing the same. Norway finally seceded in 1814, but it was soon annexed by Sweden as a semi-autonomous kingdom. It would not gain independence until 1905.


The development of national languages in Scandinavia arguably began with the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, when Lutheranism spread quickly across the region. As Latin was displaced as the language of religion, the Bible was translated into the dialects used in the core regions of both Sweden and Denmark. The process of national language development intensified during the nineteenth century as popular writers nurtured national consciousness. In Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen, noted for his fairy tales, is often regarded as exemplifying this trend.[i] The nationalistic focus on the Danish language received a further boost in the 1860s with the kingdom’s loss of its largely German-speaking southern regions, Schleswig and Holstein, to Prussia. (This was a crucial event for the subsequent unification of Germany).

Norway, lacking independence, did not experience the early development of a national language. Danish long served as its written language, while most of its people spoke dialects that are sometimes regarded as intermediate between Swedish and Danish (as the American linguist Einar Haugen put it, “Norwegian is Danish spoken in Swedish,” referring to the pitch accents found in both Swedish and Norwegian dialects). While the independence movement of the late 1800s prompted efforts to forge a national tongue, competing schemes foiled the quest. When Norway at last gained sovereignty in 1905, it was confronted with the “Norwegian Language Controversy,” called målstriden, språkstriden, or sprogstriden, depending on which would-be national tongue is used. Currently two written languages have official standing, Bokmål (“Book Language”) and Nynorsk (“New Norwegian”).[ii] Nynorsk tends to be used more in rural areas and in the west, whereas Bokmål is more prominent in the east and north.

A different North Germanic language, Icelandic, is spoken Iceland, a country that did not gain independence from Denmark until 1944. Not inhabited before the medieval period, sparsely settled Iceland experienced minimal dialectal diversification. Its language remained close to Old Norse, and even today Icelanders can read their medieval sagas with relatively little difficulty. The language most closely related to modern Icelandic is Faroese, spoken in the Faroe Islands, an autonomous area under the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Denmark. Faroese is the official language of the islands, but Danish is taught in schools and is often used for public purposes. The long-standing Faroese independence movement evidently still has some support.

The German Language

The story of the German language is distinctive, as it emerged centuries before the creation of the German state. Rather than arising from a particular dialect, its foundations were laid by authors who wanted to reach a broader audience than their own parochial dialects would allow. As in Scandinavia, religion played a significant role, with Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible being of crucial importance. Luther partly based his translation on the language used by the government of the Electorate of Saxony, a middling German state in the Holy Roman Empire whose dialect is roughly midway between the High German of the south and the Low German of the north. But Luther also drew on other central German dialects, essentially crafting a new language in the process.

Although this written language spread widely over the Germanic areas of the Holy Roman Empire, even those of Roman Catholic faith, it did not displace the region’s many dialects. Only in the nineteenth century did Standard German emerge as a common spoken language. As it did, it helped impel the German national ideal, which in turn paved the way for political unification. But such processes generated a persistent quarrel between those who sought a Großdeutschland, or Greater Germany – covering the entire contiguous zone where German was spoken – and those who advocated instead a Kleindeutschland, or “lesser Germany.” Advocates of Kleindeutschland wanted to exclude German-speaking Austria on political grounds; as the core of the multilingual Habsburg Empire, its inclusion would have threatened the ethnonational unity of the envisioned new country. Although this “Lesser Germany” idea triumphed, the outcome remained uncertain and contested until the mid-twentieth century. Hitler viewed it as an abomination, annexing Austria as soon as he could. Another ethnonational problem stemmed from the millions of Germans who lived further to the east, found in scattered communities extending to Russia’s Volga River and beyond. After Hitler’s failed bid to encompass these areas within the Third Reich, almost all their ethnic German inhabitants either moved to Germany or adopted the languages and national identities of the countries in which they lived. Some 175,000 German speakers, however, still reside in northern Kazakhstan.

After German unification, spoken Standard German spread relatively smoothly over the linguistic continuum that encompassed the Low, Middle, and High German dialects. Today, local dialects continue to be used, but most are in rapid decline. Only in Switzerland does a regional dialect – Schwiizerdütsch – retain full vitality, spoken ubiquitously in daily life. The country’s national language, however, is Swiss Standard German (along with French, Italian, and Romansh), a slightly modified version of Germany’s national language. In Switzerland, unlike in Germany and Austria, this standardized form of the language is used mostly for written communication. Austrian Standard German is also almost identical to German Standard German. Local dialects in Austria are still used in casual conversations, but the most important of these, Central Bavarian, is most closely identified with Bavaria in southeastern Germany.

Dutch and Luxembourgish  

The one area of the German dialect continuum that resisted Standard German, as both a written and spoken language, is the far northwest. There the Nederlands language – Dutch/Flemish – was already politically entrenched, both in long-independent Netherlands and in neighboring Flanders, which formed the northern half of Belgium after 1830. As a result, its speakers resisted the idea, favored by many German nationalists, that their language was a mere dialect of German.[iii] The Dutch language derives from the Germanic Franconian dialect, which is viewed by some scholars as the language of the early medieval Franks, who established the Kingdom of France but abandoned their own tongue in its lands. Franconian dialects still extend beyond the Dutch-speaking zone into Germany’s northern Rhineland. In northeastern Netherlands, contrastingly, local dialects belong to the Low German group, closely linked to northern Germany. The separate Germanic language called Frisian, the closest relative of English, is discontinuously distributed in the northern Netherlands and extreme northwestern Germany. The three existing dialects of Frisian are all classified as endangered or threatened, as their speakers increasingly switch to Dutch or Standard German.

Along with standard Dutch, one other dialect in the Franconian Germanic group has a secure future, again linked to its official status in an independent country. This is Luxembourgish, the French-influenced national language of Luxembourg. Luxembourg is an unusually multilingual country; according to a Wikipedia article, “as of 2018, 98% of the population was able to speak French at more or less a high level (usually as a second language), 78% spoke German, and 77% Luxembourgish (which is the most common native language).” Fluency in English is also widespread. After World War II, Luxembourg’s government created a regulatory body for what had previously been regarded merely as a local German dialect, elevating it to national status. The limited number of its speakers, coupled with Luxembourg’s ubiquitous multilingualism, has thwarted the development of Luxembourgish literature. Luxembourg’s rightwing Alternative Democratic Reform Party, however, champions the tongue, trying to install it an official language of the European Union and seeking to make knowledge of it necessary for the naturalization of foreign-born residents.

As we have seen, the development of national languages in Germanic zone of northern Europe has been a deeply political process. The situation regarding English, also classified as a Germanic language, is similar yet distinctive, as (I hope), we shall see in a later post.

[i] Some scholars, however, disagree; see  Thomsen, T. B. (2019). Funen Means Fine: Andersen the Anti-nationalist. In A. K. Bom, J. Bøggild, & J. N. Frandsen (Eds.), Hans Christian Andersen and Community (pp. 243-258). Syddansk Universitetsforlag. Publications from the Hans Christian Andersen Center Vol. 7

[ii] Two others have unofficial status, Riksmål (“State Language”) and Høgnorsk (“High Norwegian”).

[iii] Kedourie (1960, 123).

The Development of National Languages in the Germanic Zone of Northern Europe Read More »

Language and Nationalism, Part 2: State and Language in Europe’s Romance Zone

The connection between language development and state consolidation is clearly evident in Western Europe, usually regarded as the birthplace of the nation-state. Such linkages undermine the ethnonationalist assertion that nations are natural reflection of language-defined communities. We will examine this phenomenon in several posts, beginning today with the Romance zone, composed of countries whose official and national languages derived from Latin. We begin with France, which is often viewed as the quintessential nation-state.

French, as spoken today, was not the language of the early medieval kingdom that evolved into modern France. Latin was used by both the church and state, while the precursor of French was the dialect of the Paris Basin, originally regarded as merely the local spoken form of Latin (or “Romance,” the language of Rome). That dialect would eventually be standardized and politicized by the evolving state, spreading widely both by both imposition and emulation. But south of the Loire River, dialects generally grouped together as Occitan long maintained their grip; in Brittany and the Basque region, non-Romance tongues continued to hold sway. In the romantic age of the nineteenth century, language was politicized in France, as it was elsewhere in Europe, for nation-building purposes.[i] But it was not until the late 19th century, or even WWI, that standard French gained dominance across the country. Service in the military was crucial to this development. In the memorable words of historian Eugen Weber, this was part of a broader process of turning “peasants into Frenchmen.”[ii] That process is by no means fully complete today, especially in the increasingly independence-minded island of Corsica, where the local language is more closely related to Italian than to French.




National consolidation worked out differently in the other Romance-speaking countries. Spain, also regarded as one of the world’s first nation-states, first appears on historical maps in 1469, with the marriage of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon. But but it long functioned as a composite monarchy, joining together diverse groups of peoples, places, and polities under one crown.[iii] Efforts to forge a closer union prompted resistance, starting with a failed Catalan revolt (the Reaper’s War) in 1640 and intensifying under the Bourbon dynasty (beginning in 1700). At that time, the Castilian dialect (castellano) began to be referred to as Spanish (español), reflecting the increasing dominance of Castile within the state. Both terms, however, are used to this day, with Article III of the Spanish constitution stipulating that “El castellano es la lengua española oficial del Estado.” (Intriguingly, in some Latin American countries the language is called “Castilian” and in others “Spanish.”) In Spain, many Catalans take umbrage at the political pretension that they see as inherent in the term “Spanish.”





As was true elsewhere in Europe, linguistic standardization in Spain proceeded slowly as local Romance languages like Leonese and Aragonese declined in favor of Castilian. Today, only a few tens of thousands of people speak either of these once-important tongues. Resistance to Castilian was more pronounced in the Basque country, noted for its non-Indo-European language (Euskara, or Basque), and in Catalonia, where the local tongue (Catalan) is arguably a variant of Occitan. Dictator Francisco Franco (r. 1936-1975) tried to force linguistic unity across the country, compelling a Spanish identity on the Basques and Catalans and prohibiting their languages in the public sphere. This policy resoundingly backfired, prompting both groups to intensify their own national projects. Across the border in France, by contrast, more lenient policies and more attractive inducements to nationalism have rendered Basque and Catalan separatism largely moot.[iv]






Faced with the incomplete success of their nation-building efforts, Spanish officials have tried to maintain the integrity of their nation-state by making allowances to linguistic minorities and provincial populations. After Franco’s death, the new Spanish constitution (1978) granted limited self-rule to all the country’s main political divisions, which were henceforth deemed “autonomous communities.” The Basques and Catalans are further allowed to claim the status of “nationalities” (nacionalidades). They cannot, however, officially define themselves as nations (naciones), as that would supposedly compromise the unity of Spain.[v] Such concessions have not fully succeeded in bringing either group into the larger national fold. Intriguingly, the Basque national project appears to have weakened itself by embracing violence, whereas that of the Catalans has been better maintained through its peaceful but persistent resistance. But Catalan nationalism faces potent challenges. It is viewed with suspicion by most inhabitants of Barcelona (many of whom have non-Catalan backgrounds) and infuriates many residents of Valencia and the Balearic Islands, people who speak Catalan dialects but spurn Catalan identity.[vi] “Catalanophobia” has become widespread in Valencia, where, ironically, calls to boycott Catalan products are issued in the Catalan language.



Galicia, in northwestern Spain, defies these generalizations. Its language is more closely related to Portuguese than Spanish; whether Galician is a separate language or a dialect of Portuguese is a matter of much debate. Like Catalan in Catalonia but unlike Aragonese in Aragon, Galician is still the majority language of the region. And like both the Basque Country and Catalonia, Galicia is officially granted the status of “historical nationality.” But while Galician regionalism is a potent political force, Galician nationalism has never gained widespread support (although nationalist candidates did receive 19 percent of the vote in elections in 2005). Desire for union with Portugal, on the other hand, is rare. A few Portuguese nationalists in Portugal, however, do dream of a Greater Portugal, or “Portugalicia.”










In Italy, which did not become a state until the 1870s, linguistic consolidation was delayed and remains far from complete today. Owing in part to Italy’s belated state formation, its national language derives not from the dialect of its capital, but rather from that of culturally prestigious Florence, whose Tuscan dialect was popularized through the works of Dante. Many Italian dialects are not mutually intelligible and are thus classified by linguists as separate languages. The “Gallo-Italic” dialects of the north are more closely related to Occitan than to standard Italian, while the Friulian language of the northeast groups with the Romansh language of southeastern Switzerland. The Sardinian language is even more distinctive, having emerged from Latin before the linguistic divergence that gave rise to the other Romance languages. In addition, several non-Romance languages are scattered across parts of the Italian peninsula, including dialects of Greek and Albanian.




The Italian government has granted official recognition to a score of regional languages and dialects, most of which are spoken in the north. The country’s most widely used local languages, however, are denied such status, regarded instead as mere dialects of Italian. Many of these “dialects” retain spoken vitality. The Piedmontese language of the northwest, for example, is still used by some two million people, about half of the population of Piedmont. The ability to read and write in Piedmontese, however, has almost vanished. Although the government of Piedmont gave the language official regional status in 2004, it is seldom taught in schools, upsetting local language activists.






In general, the regional dialects/languages of Italy have experienced little politicization, and thus pose no threat to the nation-state. Whatever their mother tongue, almost all young and middle-aged Italians are fluent in the national language and use it on a daily basis. Although secession movements have considerable support in the north, economic grievances outweigh those of language. But if northern Italy (“Padania”), or some portion of it, ever were to separate from the rest of the country, it would be interesting to see what language policies governments would be enacted.






The main exception to these generalizations about language and national identity in Italy is South Tyrol, or Alto Adige, located in the far north. This mostly German-speaking region was annexed by Italy after World War I, in violation of the ethnonational self-determination principles championed by the U.S. delegation at Paris Peace Conference. Ignoring linguistic geography, Italy demanded and received a border at the crest of the Alps. This maneuver quickly spurred a Tyrolian independence movement, which engaged in occasional acts of violence though the 1960s. Although Italy has granted the region limited autonomy, support for secession remains widespread. Polling shows that more than half of the region’s German speakers would prefer to secede. Intriguingly, quite a few of its Italian speakers agree. South Tyrol is Italy’s most prosperous region, and many of its people, regardless of their native language, think that membership in the country comes at too large of an economic cost.



Europe’s other national Romance languages, Portuguese and Romanian, have fewer political complications. The dialects of Portuguese are all easily interintelligible; the main issue here is status of Galician in northwestern Spain, discussed above. Romanian also has relatively little dialectal diversity, with all its dialects being mutually interintelligible. This is a rather curious feature, given Romania’s relatively large size and complex history of political division and rule by other states. (The “Vlach” languages that are scattered over the southern Balkans outside of Romania, however, are sometimes classified as highly distinctive Romanian dialects.) Within Romania, the main issue of linguistic politics concerns the speakers of unrelated languages, particularly Hungarian.













Romanian, however, is not just the national language of Romania, as it has the same status in neighboring Moldova, a former Soviet Republic. Under Soviet rule, Moldovan was classified as a separate language on political grounds, but its differences from standard Romanian are minor. Although one does find a “Moldavian” dialect in Moldova, this form of the language is also spoken across northeastern Romania (and in a few pockets of Ukraine). Given this linguistic environment, it is not surprising that that many Romanians and Moldovans advocate unification on ethnonational grounds. Economic and political complications, however, limit its appeal. According to early 2022 polling, “only 11% of Romania’s population supports an immediate union, while over 42% think it is not the moment.” In Moldova, support for unification is also a minority position, but it rose markedly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Polls asking the question “if a referendum took place next Sunday regarding the unification of the Republic of Moldova and Romania, would you vote for or against the unification?” showed an increase in agreement from approximately 20% in 2015 to 44% in 2022.

The relationships between language, politics, and geography are highly complicated across the Romance zone of Europe, challenging any facile stories of natural language-based ethnonational solidarity. The same situation is true in the Germanic language zone, as we shall see in the next post.

[i] According to Kedourie (1960, 60), “It was literary men, with literary preoccupations, who … enowed language with political significance.”

[ii] Weber 1976

[iii] Henry Kamen, Empire; How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763. Harper Perennial, 2004

[iv] Thomas D. Lancaster, “Comparative Nationalisms: The Basques of Spain and France,” European Journal of Political Research, 1987, 15: 561-590.

[v] “A Nationality, Not a Nation,” The Economist, July 1, 2010.

[vi] Martin W. Lewis, “Valencia and the Països Catalans Controversy,” GeoCurrents, Oct. 13, 2015.


Language and Nationalism, Part 2: State and Language in Europe’s Romance Zone Read More »

Language and National Identity, Part 1

(Author’s Note: This is a preliminary draft of a chapter that might be included in a forthcoming book, tentatively entitled Seduced by the Map: How the Nation-State Model Prevents Us from Thinking Clearly About the World. It includes some bibliographical citations, but they are woefully incomplete.)  

There are good reasons why students of nationalism often emphasize language.[1] Building a community, even an imaginary one, requires communication. For ethnonationalists, language has even greater significance, as it is seen as a key indicator of the deeply rooted relatedness that supposedly generates strong and stable nations. Up to the mid-1900s, scholars often used language as a proxy for genetic bonds; many maps of “race” made at the time actually depicted languages or language families. In the ethnonationalist discourse of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Europe, people who speak a single language that originated in the territory that they inhabit were often viewed as forming a cohesive ethnic group that, if large enough, deserves to have its own state.

Such ideas are no longer easily supported. It is now obvious that languages can spread independently of genes, but it is less commonly realized that they have done so for millennia. The ethnolinguistic communities that supposedly form the age-old bedrock of national solidarity are not as clearly separated from each other as they have been imagined to be, and in many cases their emergence has been relatively recent. As we shall see, the national languages that underpin contemporary ethnonational states were in almost all cases politically molded or even created to enhance state cohesion and national solidarity. They were not, in other words, natural features of preexisting populations.

In countries founded on extensive immigration from distant lands, traditional ethnonationalism is not applicable. The American, Australian, and Brazilian nations, for example, cannot be depicted as rooted in local ancestral populations united by cultural and genetic ties. But that does not mean that language plays no role in their national imaginations, nor does it make them immune from ethnonationalism. But the neoethnonationalism found in some extremist quarters in the United States and other immigration-based countries necessarily rests on different foundations from the older creed. It generally turns to race as the key indicator of relatedness while framing language and religion as cultural adhesives necessary for national bonding.

As a result of this disparity, the racism inherent in the “white ethnonationalist” fringe in United States and a few other immigration-based countries differs markedly from the racism that generally accompanied traditional European ethnonationalism. The notion that the Germans and the Poles, or the English and the Irish, could find political solidarity in their common “Caucasian” racial identity would have struck most nineteenth-century observers as absurd. In the era’s popular wisdom, each linguistically defined national community formed its own race. Scholars of the time, in contrast, distinguished broader races ostensibly based on such physical attributes as head shape and skin color but often linked for convenience to language groups. Until the post-WWII era, however, the emphasis was on dividing Europeans by race, not uniting them. This situation changed, however, in the late twentieth-century as diverse immigration streams began to transform European demography.

To understand the linkage between language and nationalism it is therefore necessary to differentiate countries that have potential grounds for traditional language-based ethnonationalism from those do not. States in the first category have clear majority populations that speak a single language that originated (or is perceived as having originated) within its national territory. As can be seen in the map posted here, such countries are clustered in Europe, East Asia, Mainland Southeast Asia, and Central Asia. But as we shall see, many complications intrude on this simple binary classification. This map shows one such problem: situations in which more than one state can lay claim to the same ethnolinguistic legacy.

The present chapter takes on countries linked to a particular locally rooted ethnolinguistic group. As we shall see, the correspondence between state and language does not reflect ancient conditions but is instead a feature that has been politically engineered over the past several centuries. The more complicated situations faced by countries that have no indigenous ethnolinguistic core group are taken up in the following chapter. Both discussions explore how language has been used to invoke the imagined communities that lie at the heart of the nation-state project. As we shall see, the relations between nation and language can be intricate indeed.

Before delving into specific cases, it is worth noting that most Americas are probably perplexed by the subtleties and importance of language politics in the rest of the world. Distinctions that matter passionately elsewhere may seem arcane or even moot from the standpoint of the speakers of the planet’s key international language. It takes time and patience to drill down into these emotionally charged histories and geographies to appreciate their continuing significance.

            The Deep Historical Development of National Languages

Language is usually imagined as the most important factor in separating “them” from “us” in early human societies, delimiting discrete social groups that conceptualized themselves as a single people denoted by their own ethnonym. The noted linguist Mark Baker has suggested that this differentiating facility is one of the main reasons why languages diverge from each other as quickly as they historically have.[2] But such separation by language is only one side of the coin. Many individuals have always learned the tongues of neighboring peoples, while trade languages have long enabled communication across ethnolinguistic lines. Some evidence suggests that such practices were widespread before the development of agriculture. In some contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, particularly those of Australia, some individuals cross multiple language lines while wandering over vast distances, generally finding themselves accepted into tiny but often multilingual bands.[3] Somewhat similar dynamics may have been at play in the Paleolithic Age over most of the world.



As sedentary social organization emerged and spread, languages probably tended to become more firmly fixed in place. Before the advent of the state and other institutions of broad social integration, local languages tended to be restricted to small territories and were spoken by groups seldom numbering beyond the tens of thousands. To be sure, some languages expanded relatively quickly over vast areas through the demographic expansion and social domination of the peoples who used them. Such a process was usually propelled by some technological advantage, such as the crops and iron tools and weapons of the Bantus in Africa, the seagoing boats and navigational techniques of the Austronesians in the Pacific and Indian oceans,[4] and the horses of the early Indo-Europeans in Eurasia. But the expanding languages of such linguistic “spread zones” were simultaneously differentiating into different dialects and then into separate languages, undermining any linguistic unity that the initial process seemed to promise. To sustain a single, standardized language over an area the size of most modern countries requires integrative mechanisms, which have usually relied on governmental power. In a word, most ethnonational states substantially built the languages that supposedly serve as their primordial glue.






This drive for political-linguistic coherence is relatively new. Not all states have historically sought to disseminate the language of their ruling elites. Pre-modern polities, especially large ones, were often strikingly multilingual. Elites and commoners, moreover, often spoke different languages. A clear example from the early modern period is the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a vast and powerful polity whose leaders never sought to govern through their own tongue; even in their capital city of Vilnius/Vil’nya, “the dominant administrative language was Slavonic ruski, not Baltic Lithuanian.”[5] Many early states employed multiple languages of administration, often including “extinct” classical tongues of high prestige. Latin was the official language of multi-lingual Hungary until 1844. The earliest known polities of Southeast Asia apparently employed Sanskrit rather than their own tongues. Later, other languages gained prominent roles. The Burmese kingdom/empire of Pagan (849-1297), for example, seems to have used Burmese, Pyu, and Mon, employing the classical Indian language Pali, as well as Sanskrit, for religious purposes. Similar examples are legion in the ancient Near East, as recounted in Nicholas Ostler’s insightful Empires of the Word.[6] The Achaemenid Persian Empire (550-330 BCE), for example, used Elamite, a little-know but once important language, and then Aramaic as its main administrative language, downplaying the Old Persian of its ruling elite.[7] (In the empire’s grand stone inscriptions, the texts are written in Elamite, Akkadian, and Old Persian.) Ostler concludes that “the life and death of languages are in principle detached from the political fortunes of their associated states.”[8]













To be sure, some ancient empires did spread the language of their ruling class widely, generating something like a national tongue in the process. Latin was originally a minor language limited to a small area in west-central Italy, but by the fourth century CE it was spoken over most of the western half of the Roman Empire.[9] Similarly, Arabic was originally restricted to the central Arabian Peninsula, but after the conquests of the Umayyad Caliphate in the early seventh century it spread over much of Southwest Asia and most of North Africa. In South America, Quechua was similarly disseminated far beyond its small homeland in the southern highlands of Peru by the Inca Empire, a process that continued under Spanish authority well into the eighteenth century.


















Despite these precedents, a close fit of state with language is generally a feature of the modern world. To be sure, state-level centralization coupled with linguistic consolidation has proceeded in a fitful manner, but it eventually yielded scores of countries that are closely associated with their own language. This pattern mainly characterizes the Eurasian rimlands of Europe, East Asia, and mainland Southeast Asia. Let us now look at each of these regions in turn.

[1] Elie Kedourie, Nationalism. 1960. London: Hutchison and Co. Page 68.

[2] Mark Baker, The Atoms of Language: The Mind’s Hidden Rules of Grammar. 2002.

Basic Books.

[3] See the discussion in David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. 2021. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[4] In many parts of their expansion zone, including Madagascar and Polynesia, the early Austronesians were the first people to settle the lands.

[5] Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe. 2011. Allen Lane. Page 261. Ruski refers here not so much to Russia as to the language ancestral to modern Belarusian.

[6] Nicholas Ostler, Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. 2005. Harper Perennial.

[7] Ostler, pages 47, 57

[8] Ostler, page 63

[9] Local languages, however, persisted in odd corners, as attested by the survival of Welsh and Basque, while the eastern half of the empire mostly used Greek and Aramaic/Syriac. The spread of Latin is attributed not merely to its administrative functions, but also to the emulation of local elites and the widespread experience of service in the Roman army. Its final fillip may have been the spread of Christianity, which reached deeper into everyday life than the empire ever had.

Language and National Identity, Part 1 Read More »

Tatarstan: A “Hostage of Freezing Relations between Russia and Turkey”?

[Many thanks to Ekaterina Lyutikova for most helpful discussions of some of the issues discussed in this post, as well as for the photos, some of which are used as illustrations below. I’m also grateful to Martin W. Lewis for helpful discussions and edits and for modifying the Wikipedia map of Percentage of Ethnic Tatars, used below.]


Tatarstan has not been much of a geopolitical hotspot in recent years and has largely remained “under the radar” for most mainstream Western media. This may soon change, however, if the present trends continue. Rapidly worsening relations between Russia and Turkey, as well as Tatarstan’s ambivalence in relation to both, lead experts such as Rais Suleimanov to doubt its continued peaceful existence; the quote in the title of this post is from Suleimanov’s recent article titled “Tatarstan can not decide: is it a part of Russia or a governorate of Turkey”. (All translations from Russian in this post are mine.)


As can be seen from the maps in the previous posts (see here, here, and here), Tatarstan is one of the most economically and socially developed regions of the Russian Federation. Although it lags in per capita GDP behind such resource-rich yet sparsely populated regions as Nenets Autonomous Okrug or Chukotka, Tatarstan registers lower alcoholism and crime rates, as well as longer life expectancy for both genders. According to maps reposted from, an average resident of Tatarstan receives a reasonably balanced diet (blue map), and the overall obesity rate in the republic is relatively low (orange map).



According to the data from the Federal State Statistics Service, Tatarstan ranks 9th of 83 regions by the percentage of university students (4.7% of total population). Two of the country’s three dozen national research universities are located in Kazan, Tatarstan’s capital: Kazan State Technological University (founded in 1890) and Kazan State Technical University named after A. N. Tupolev (established in 1932). Moreover, Kazan (Volga region) Federal University, founded in 1804, is Russia’s second oldest university. The eminent mathematician Nikolai Lobachevsky served there as the rector from 1827 until 1846, and the list of the university’s famous students includes Vladimir Lenin (expelled for revolutionary activity), Leo Tolstoy (quit his studies), and composer Mily Balakirev (graduated in 1855).

Kazan, TatarstanKazan, Tatarstan 2Further contributing to its livability is the extraordinary cleanliness of Tatarstan’s cities, towns, and villages, including its capital Kazan, a metropolis of nearly 1.2 million, as can be seen from the photos of city center on the left. The striking cleanliness of the Tatars, noticeable particularly in the lack of rubbish on the streets and the general appearance of houses and yards, has caught the attention of many a traveler to the region. A good example is Jonas Stadling, who wrote an account of the famine in Eastern Russia in 1892, published in The Century magazine (volume 46, p. 560). As Stadling wrote: “The Tatars made a very favorable impression by their cleanliness and politeness”. Similar mentions of exceptional cleanliness are made also in David Lewis’ After Atheism (p. 126), Paul William Werth’s At the Margins of Orthodoxy (p. 164), and in many other sources. dvornik-2The character of a Tatar yardman/caretaker, sweeping the grounds of some large building in Moscow or Saint Petersburg, makes frequent appearance in Russian 19th-century fictional and memoir literature, including Dostoyevsky’s works.* (The Volga Tatars’ ethno-linguistic “relatives”, the Crimean Tatars, made the same impression on travelers such as German explorer Gustav Radde, who traveled to Crimea in 1850s and noted the “special care about cleanliness of [Crimean Tatar] homes and bodies” in his ethnographic treatise about the group.)

Not only does Tatarstan manage to optimize economic and social development, but its economy is more balanced than that of Russian regions with higher per capita GDP. In the 1970s-80s, Tatarstan was one of the largest oil producing areas in the USSR, but starting in the mid-1990s, the Republic has managed to diversify its economy. Tatarstan’s overall GDP is less than a third of that of Tumen or Sakhalin oblast, but much less of it, only 21.3%, comes from natural resources (chiefly unrefined oil), compared to 54.6% in Tumen oblast, 61.6% in Sakhalin, or the whopping 71% in Nenets Autonomous Okrug. According to Deputy of the State Council of Tatarstan Rafael Khakimov, “since 1996 … we switched to the deep processing of oil, to the development of industry as a whole, to the high-tech manufacturing, aeronautics and IT‑technologies. We succeeded in doing that and today we depend on crude oil exports only minimally.” A substantial share of Tatarstan’s GDP comes from manufacturing (18.3% in 2012), trade and real estate operations (24.1%), construction (10.4%), and agriculture (6%). Several sources note a 5% growth in Tatarstan’s agricultural output in 2015, particularly in crop and milk production. (The latter makes sense since Tatarstan has the highest dairy consumption rate in Russia, 364 kg, or over 800 lbs, per capita per year.) Tatarstan was also ranked highest in “innovation activity” in 2015, well ahead of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, and Novosibirsk.

But Tatarstan’s economy may take a serious hit in the near future as a result of rapidly worsening relations between Russia and Turkey. A significant contributing factor to Tatarstan’s prosperity in recent years has been investments by Turkish businesses, to the tune of $1.5–2 billion, according to different sources (see here and here), which constitutes one fourth of all foreign investments in Tatarstan, and one sixth of all Turkish investments in the Russian Federation. Among those Turkish investments are “about a dozen of major enterprises built by Turkish investors … located in the Alabuga special economic zone” in north-central Tatarstan, notes Russian News Agency TASS. Unlike the case with many Chinese-owned business in Russia’s Far East, “98% of workers [in Turkish-owned businesses in Tatarstan] are Russian nationals”.

For the last 15 years, the relationship between Russia and Turkey has generally been very productive. But on November 24, 2015, the relations between the two countries took a nose-dive after Russia’s Su-24 bomber was shot down in Syria by an air-to-air missile fired from a Turkish F-16 fighter jet. Russia’s President Putin responded harshly, calling the attack “a stab in Russia’s back delivered by terrorists’ accomplices”, according to Russian News Agency TASS. Two days later, Russia introduced economic sanctions against Turkey, which prohibited “the imports of many Turkish food products including fruits, vegetables, poultry and salt and imposed a ban on hiring Turkish nationals”, as reported in The Moscow Times. According to an early RBC report, other measures considered by the Russian government include freezing of economic cooperation programs, restrictions on financial operations and commercial transactions, the revision of customs duties, and “interventions” in tourism, air transportation, and shipping. Several large-scale cooperative projects also fell under these restrictive measures: for example, the proposed “Turkish Stream” natural gas pipeline was suspended by Russia and subsequently terminated by the Turkish side. Similarly, the fate of what was to become Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, located in Akkuyu in southern Anatolia, is now unclear. The abovementioned RBC report concluded that these measures would “unavoidably hit both Turkish and Russian businesses”. Because of Tatarstan’s extensive economic ties with Turkey, it is liable to be among the worst-hit regions of the Russian Federation.


However, Tatarstan’s relations with Turkey go far beyond their economic ties. Speaking of Turkey in December 2015, Tatarstan’s President Rustam Minnikhanov (note the title, more on that below!) reportedly said: “We are in the same language group, of the same religious identity”. The Republic’s titular ethnic group, the Tatars (or more precisely, the Volga Tatars), who constitute 53% of Tatarstan’s population, speak a Turkic language. According to the 2002 census, moreover, 96.3% of Tatars still speak their ancestral language, making them one of the most successful minority groups in Russia in preserving their linguistic identity.** Although little-known outside Russia (and indeed to many people in Russia), Tatar is the 7th largest Turkic language globally and the largest Turkic language in the Russian Federation. In fact, with over 5.3 million speakers, it is the 2nd most widely spoken native language in Russia. The Tatar and Turkish languages are traditionally classified as belonging to different branches of the Turkic language family (Kipchak and Oghuz, respectively); nonetheless, there are many linguistic similarities between them and the internal classification of Turkic languages remains controversial. While I disagree with Bernard Lewis, who wrote in The Middle East. A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years that “the differences between these various languages were no greater than between the vernaculars spoken in the Arab lands from Iraq to Morocco”, similarities between Tatar and Turkish are much greater than those between languages from different branches of the Indo-European family, such as English and Russian.

Another link between Tatars and Turks is that of religion: both groups are Sunni Muslims. Rais Suleimanov, an expert on influences of foreign Muslim groups within Russia, particularly in the Middle Volga region, has written extensively on how “Turkish emissaries for decades influenced the minds and hearts of our [Tatar] compatriots” (his multi-part article can be read here and a shorter version here). Moreover, the Grand Mufti of Tatarstan Kamil Samigullin studied in Turkey under Mahmut Ustaosmanoğlu, the leader of influential İsmailağa Jamia.

Yet historical and cultural links between Tatarstan and Turkey go deeper still. Symbolic of this connection is the planned installation of a monument to the prominent statesman and scholar Sadri Maksudi Arsal, a Tatarstan native who moved after the Bolshevik Revolution to Turkey where he worked as an advisor to the first President of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The monument was supposed to be opened in Kazan’s Istanbul (!) Park in December 2015 by Turkish President Recep Erdoğan. After the events in late November, Erdoğan’s visit was cancelled. Around the same time, the Yunus Emre Institute for Turkish Studies at the Kazan Federal University, opened as a Turkish “soft power” initiative in 2012, was closed. As part of the anti-Turkish measures, the Russian Ministry of Culture circulated a “recommendation” to all republics with Turkic titular populations, including Tatarstan, to break off relations with the International Organization of Turkic Culture (TÜRKSOY).***

As a result of this confrontation between Russia and Turkey, Tatarstan found itself between Scylla and Charybdis, and its response has been rather cautious and ambivalent. According to Rais Suleimanov,

most federal subjects [in the Volga region] exhibited solidarity with the federal center. The only exception was Tatarstan, which adopted a not-completely-loyal attitude in relation to the federal center, preferring not to spoil its relations with Turkey, simultaneously sending clear signals to Ankara: “we are not on the side of Moscow”.

Moreover, Suleimanov points out that Tatarstan’s “run with the hare and hunt with the hounds” position has been in marked contrast to that of Bashkortostan, a neighboring region that also has a substantial Turkic-speaking Muslim population (in addition to its Turkic titular ethnic group, the Bashkir, Bashkortostan also has a significant Tatar population and a smaller group of Chuvash, which combined constitute 57.6% of the republic’s population). Yet, Bashkortostan’s authorities, Suleimanov says, “have chosen not to depart from the political line of the federal center”. After adopting a wait-and-see position for some time, Tatarstan ultimately refused to follow Minister Vladimir Medinsky’s “recommendation” regarding TÜRKSOY, and the Republic’s officials questioned whether the federal Ministry of Culture can “dictate” to regional cultural authorities. Tatarstan’s cultural authorities certainly have good grounds for their resistance, which can be understood through a brief historical excursion.

The Expansion of Russia

Tatarstan has a long history of being under Russian rule. After a brutal siege and assault, Kazan was taken in 1552 by Ivan the Terrible (Saint Basil’s Cathedral at the edge of Red Square in Moscow commemorates the event). The conquest of Kazan marked the second wave of non-ethnic-Russian territories annexed by Moscow (shown in green on the map on the left). (The first wave, shown in purple, included Finnic-speaking groups, such as Merya, Meschera, Murom, and Veps, which were largely absorbed in the 11-12th centuries, as well as the still-surviving Komi and Nenets populations.) Although technically a sovereign tsardom in personal union with Russia, Tatarstan was henceforth administered from Moscow. In 1708, in the course of Peter the Great’s administrative reform, the Kazan tsardom was transformed into a gubernia (governorate), to be administered by a governor sent from Saint-Petersburg. The first governor was Peter Apraksin, a close associate of Peter I, handpicked to oversee the strategically important area. At the time, Tatarstan supplied timber for naval use and horses for the cavalry, and its workshops on the Volga River built ships for Peter’s new navy. Revealingly, the Wikipedia list of governors contains no Tatar names. Quite a few of the region’s governors, however, were of German descent. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Tatarstan became an Autonomous Republic within the Russian Union Republic, but despite this title, it had little real autonomy. Several proposals were considered to upgrade its status to that of a union republic, but all were rejected. But despite their lack of self-rule for over four centuries, the Tatars managed to retain a sense of ethnic and cultural identity, and, as mentioned above, their indigenous language (nearly all Tatars speak it as their mother-tongue, compared to only less than half of the Khanty people, a quarter of the Mansi, and 12% of the Itelmen, according to the 2002 census).

On the eve of the fall of the Soviet Union, in August 1990, Tatarstan issued a Declaration of State Sovereignty, and after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 it continued on the course for separation from Russia. In a referendum conducted in March 1992, over half of the votes were cast for the independence, and in November of the same year a Constitution of the Republic of Tatarstan was adopted, declaring it a sovereign state. However, the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation declared those documents to be illegal. In February 1994, Russia offered an autonomy agreement to Tatarstan, promising a broad range of rights and policy-making abilities, but stopping short of full independence. (The same agreement was offered to Chechnya, which did not accept it.) Tatar authorities accepted the deal, giving Tatarstan many of the institutions of a full-fledged sovereign state, including a constitution, a legislature, a tax code, a national bank, and its own citizenship system. The Kazan government can conduct its own relations with other subjects of the Russian Federation and even foreign states, and can set its own foreign economic policy and trade relations. But it remains to be seen how much actual economic independence will be allowed by Russia.

Tellingly, the head of state in Tatarstan is called “President”, again in marked contrast to Chechnya and other ethnic republics within Russia. (This would be analogous to having a “President of California” who would nonetheless be under the power of President of the USA.) While it may seem a trivial matter, labels can matter a great deal, and Tatarstan fought tooth and nail to preserve its right to call its head a President. A Russian law adopted in 2010, however, allowed for only one president—that of the Russian Federation. All internal republics, except for Tatarstan, switched to calling their heads of state glava, “head”. Tatarstan has ever since been lobbying to keep its “President”, most recently by using the 94.4% vote in favor of President Minnikhanov in the September 2015 election. (These election results may have been falsified, claims Rais Suleimanov.) While the issue has not yet been closed, it appears that Tatarstan has more leeway than Russia’s other federal subjects. This unbalanced situation “allows one to consider Russia an asymmetrical ethno-federation”, according to Suleimanov, thus forming another example of the “myth of nation state”, which GeoCurrents has written about extensively.

Kazan Kremlin

The currently brewing confrontation between the Kremlin in Moscow and the Kremlin in Kazan (see photo of the latter on the left) is not the only issue threatening Tatarstan. Suleimanov and other experts talk about a possibility, even likelihood, of exploding terrorist activity in the region. The most frightening scenarios involve an expansion of radical Islamism in Tatarstan and further forging of connections between such home-grown groups and extremist organizations based elsewhere in the Muslim world, including Hizb ut-Tahrir and ISIS.


As indicated in ISW map of ISIS activity, discussed in an earlier GeoCurrents post, Russia has been one of the main sources of ISIS recruits. While many of them have come from the Caucasus region, a substantial number—over 200, according to some sources—are from Tatarstan and the rest of the Middle Volga region. Ironically, ISIS recruitment for the war in Iraq and Syria is said to be the chief reason for the sharp decrease in terrorist attacks within Tatarstan: while several brutal attacks shook the Republic in 2012 and 2013, there has been a relative calm in 2014-2015. But some of these ISIS fighters are now coming back from Syria to Tatarstan. Moreover, according to Suleimanov, in November 2015, ISIS propagandists released two videos in which Tatarstan is explicitly mentioned as a target of radical Islamists. Future developments in the conflict in Syria will, no doubt, have a critical impact on the situation in Tatarstan, which remains for the time being “a place to watch”.

*One source even claims that the entire cleaning staff of the Winter Palace, over 100 people, consisted of Tatars.

**According to the same census, 96% of Tatars also know Russian to some extent.

***Although some anti-Turkish protests occurred across Russia, even in the Middle Volga region, many people felt that the Russian government’s reaction was too strong, leading several journalists and bloggers to post tongue-in-cheek proposals to “prohibit” or “rename” Turkish coffee, Turkish sweets, the espionage thriller (book and film) titled “Turkish Gambit” (set in the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War), Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca, and even the music group Turetsky Choir (whose director’s last name means “Turkish” in Russian).


Tatarstan: A “Hostage of Freezing Relations between Russia and Turkey”? Read More »

Chavacano: A Spanish-Based Creole Language of the Philippines

Language FamiliesLanguage-family maps, like the one posted here, generally show Austronesian languages blanketing the entire Philippine archipelago. But such a depiction is not accurate, as the mother tongue of the majority of the inhabitants of the tip of the Zamboanga Peninsula on the island of Mindanao is definitely not Austronesian. Perhaps as many as 700,000 people here speak Chavacano (alternatively, Zamboangueño or Chabacano* de Zamboanga), a Spanish-based creole language that has been influenced by a number of Philippine languages. Zamboangueño speakers are, moreover, scattered in minority communities across much of the southwestern Philippines and even into northeastern Borneo (in the Malaysian state of Sabah).

Language Families of the Philippines MapOther Chavacano dialects are found elsewhere in the Philippines, counting several hundred thousand speakers among them. The most important of these is Caviteño (or Chabacano de Cavite), found in the city of Cavite on Manila Bay, near the capital of the Philippines. Before World War II, Cavacano also dominated an important neighborhood in Manila itself, but this dialect, Ermiteño (named after the Ermita district), is apparently extinct.



Chavacano Language MapChavacano is interesting from both linguistic and historical-geographical perspectives. To begin with, it is widely considered to be one of the world’s oldest creole tongues, with a history dating back some 400 years. It is clearly based on Spanish, which is quite a rarity; although many creole language are Portuguese-based and many have been influenced by Spanish, the only other Spanish-based creole tongue is Palenquero, spoken by only a few thousand persons in a small area of Colombia. (See John McWhorter’s The Missing Spanish Creoles for an extended exploration of this topic.) The presence of words borrowed from Nahuatl indicate that Chavacano derives more from Mexican Spanish than from pure Castilian. Different dialects of the language show distinctive borrowing patterns from various Philippine languages. Other languages have contributed vocabulary elements as well. In the Chavacano dialects of southeastern Mindanao (Davao), the influence of Chinese and Japanese is marked, giving rise to “two sub-dialects, namely Castellano Abakay Chino and Castellano Abakay Japón.”

As mentioned above, one Chavacano dialect is extinct, and others may be diminishing. (Not surprisingly, the number of speakers and the current status of the different dialects is hotly disputed.) But Chabacano de Zamboanga is a healthy language, forming both the main mother tongue and the lingua franca of Zamboanga, the sixth largest city in the Philippines, with more than 800,000 residents. Efforts are being made to ensure the health of the Cavacano media. A recent article in the Philippine Inquirer, for example, highlights a Chavavano radio drama produced locally by a Canadian Catholic priest. As Christopher Sundita, writing a comment on a 2011 Language Hat post, claims:

[T]he Zamboanga variety is the healthiest variety of Chavacano. It has experienced exponential growth since the 1940s with Keith Whinnom (1957) reporting 1,300 speakers to the 2000 Census reporting around 380,000 (with the usual caveats). There is ample media in Zamboanga Chavacano and its local prestige ensures its survival. The future doesn’t look too great for the Cavite & Ternate varieties. And Ermita Chavacano is already gone, if its sole speaker hasn’t passed away yet.


The linguist John M. Lipski goes further than Sundita, dismissing the low estimate of Whinnon. He argues strongly against:

[T]he mistaken notion among creolists (beginning with Whinnom 1956) that the largest Chabacano-speaking population, that of Zamboanga City, is small and moribund, when in fact it is a thriving first- and second-language speech community of perhaps half a million speakers. Frake (1971) was the first to provide more accurate information on Zamboangueño, but to this day many scholars in the Philippines and abroad are unaware of the true strength of the Zamboanga Chabacano community.


The geographical distribution of Chavacano sheds light on the distinctive historical geography of the Philippines. Although Spain ruled the Philippines for more than 300 years, Spaniards never settled in large numbers and did not seek to impose their language on people of the archipelago. The two most important places of Chavacano development were of particular military significance to Spain, and thus housed many soldiers and other Spanish-speaking personnel. One of these was Cavite, located on Manila Bay, which housed the all-important shipyard (the Astillero de Rivera) in which most of the storied Manila galleons, which sailed annually to Acapulco Mexico, were constructed. After the galleon trade was discontinued in 1815, the shipyard was transformed into the Spanish Arsenal.

Zamboanga, quite in contrast to Cavite, was situated at the far extremity of the Spanish imperial possessions in the Philippines. But that gave it great significance in the never-ending war between the Spanish Empire and the Muslim sultanates of southwestern Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago. Fort Pilar in Zamboanga long served as the bulwark of Spanish power in the region, albeit an insecure one that demanded constant reinforcement. Mexican soldiers, masons and other workers from Cavite, and laborers from the Visayas Islands in the central Philippines rubbed shoulders in the fort and adjoining town. In due time, the creole language of Chabacano de Zamboanga emerged, allowing these disparate groups to easily communicate with each other.


Philippine Languages MapThe map that I constructed to illustrate this post shows not merely the two main area of the Chavacano language in Zamboanga and Cavite, but also the main divisions of the indigenous languages of the Philippines. Several of these groupings are, however, controversial, particularly when it comes to the Batanic languages of the extreme north. But there is wide consensus that virtually all languages of the archipelago belong to the Philippine sub-family, a linguistic group that extends into a small slice of northeastern Borneo in Malaysia and a significantly larger swath of northern Sulawesi in Indonesia. The languages in this family are relatively closely related to each other, leading some scholars to suggest that they all derived from a language that spread long after the original Austronesian settlers reached the archipelago. As to Wikipedia puts it, “Although the Philippines is near the center of Austronesian expansion from Formosa, there is little linguistic diversity among the approximately 150 Philippine languages, suggesting that earlier diversity has been erased by the spread of the ancestor of the modern Philippine languages.”


Langauges of the Philippines Diagram MapFinally, I have posted an interesting hybrid map-diagram of the languages of the Philippines made by, “a physicist who is in dire need of a stress reliever.” I would be interested in comments on this map from professional linguists.

* Controversies arise over the use of “Chabacano” versus “Chavacano.” As the author of one article notes, “In Zamboanga City, the old-timers will be offended if you tell them that their language is chabacano instead of chavacano. To the new generation the words chabacano and chavacano are interchangeable.” The Wikipedia explains the origin of the word in this manner:

Chavacano or Chabacano originated from the Spanish word chabacano which literally means “poor taste”, “vulgar”, “common”, “of low quality”, or “coarse”. During the Spanish colonial period, it was called by the Spanish-speaking population as the “lenguaje de la calle“, “lenguaje de parian” (language of the street), or “lenguaje de cocina” (kitchen Spanish to refer to the Chabacano spoken by Chinese-Filipinos of Manila, particularly in Ermita) to distinguish it from the Spanish language spoken by the peninsulares, insulares, mestizos, or the elite class called the ilustrados. This common name has evolved into a word of its own in different spellings with no negative connotation, but to simply mean as the name of the language with that distinct Spanish flavour. However, most of its earlier speakers were born of mixed parentage – Hispanized urban natives, Chinese migrants and Spanish or Latin American soldiers and civil servants during the Spanish colonial period.


Chavacano: A Spanish-Based Creole Language of the Philippines Read More »

Base-Maps of the Philippines & Linguistic/Regional Controversies in the Archipelago

Philippines Provinces MapGeoCurrents is continuing its distribution of customizable base-maps, constructed in easy-to-use presentation software. (The files are found at the bottom of this post, in both PowerPoint and Keynote [preferred] formats.) Today’s contribution is a province-level map of the Philippines. This map is available in several versions (with province names and without them, in color and in grey, aggregated into regions, and so on). A forthcoming GeoCurrents post will feature several thematic maps of the Philippines that were made with these base-maps.

Several complications of the provincial structure of the Philippines merit discussion. The first is the fact that the National Capital Region (Metro Manila, essentially) does not belong to any province. To a significant degree, the same thing is true in regard to the country’s 38 “independent Philippines Regions Mapcities,” but the situation here is complicated, and as a result this distinction is generally ignored on the GeoCurrents customizable maps. Deeper issues arise, however, when the provinces of the Philippines are aggregated into the country’s 18 regions, divisions that “serve primarily to organize the provinces of the country for administrative convenience.” In the case of the Philippine’s only autonomous region—The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao—the independent cities of Cotabato and Isabella occupy particularly ambiguous positions. Consider, for example, the Wikipedia’s description of Cotabato City:

Cotabato City is the regional center of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) but the city is administratively part of the SOCCSKSARGEN [region]… . For geographical purposes, it is grouped with Maguindanao [province], or for statistical reasons sometimes grouped with the Cotabato province, and does not belong to the ARMM. Cotabato City is distinct from and should not be confused with the province of Cotabato.  https://

Owing to these complications, I have mapped Cotabato City as if it were a province.

Isabella City on the island of Basilan is another special case. As again summarized in Wikipedia:

Isabela … is a 4th class city and the capital of the province of Basilan, Philippines. …While administratively the island province of Basilan is part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), Isabela City itself is in not part of this region and is placed under the Zamboanga Peninsula region.

Owing to these complications, I have mapped Isabela City as part of Basilan on the province-level map, but I have separated it from this province on the region-level map, appending it instead to the Zamboanga Peninsula region.

Additional complexities arise from the frequently shifting roster of Philippine provinces and regions. As a result of such changes, the maps that I have made will almost certainly become outdated quickly. Consider, for example, the adjustments that were made in the provincial structure of the Philippines just from 2006 to 2013:

October 28, 2006: Plebiscite approves the separation of Shariff Kabunsuan from Maguindanao by virtue of Muslim Mindanao Autonomy Act No. 201 enacted on August 28, 2006.

December 2, 2006: Plebiscite approves the separation of Dinagat Islands from Surigao del Norte by virtue of Republic Act No. 9355 approved on October 2, 2006.

November 18, 2008: MMA Act No. 201 declared void by the Supreme Court, Shariff Kabunsuan reverts as part of Maguindanao.

February 11, 2010: RA No. 9355 found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, Dinagat Islands reverts as part of Surigao del Norte.

March 30, 2011: Supreme Court reverses its decision on Dinagat Islands and became a province once again.

October 28, 2013: Plebiscite approves the separation of Davao Occidental from Davao del Sur by virtue of Republic Act No. 10360 approved on January 21, 2013.

Proposed Philippines Regions MapNot surprisingly, several new provinces have been proposed, as can be seen on the Wikipedia map posted here.

The Philippine’s structure of administrative regions has also changed frequently, with new regions added and with provinces transferred from one region to another. An executive order in 2015, for example, created a new region composed only of the two provinces on the island of Negros, which had previously been divided between the Central Visayas and the Western Visayas regions. This division reflected the island’s cultural and linguistic affinities, but evidently caused problems in planning and developmental initiatives. The new region is officially designed to “further accelerate the social and economic development of the cities and municipalities comprising the provinces of Negros Occidental and Negros Oriental and improve the delivery of public services in the aforementioned provinces.” The linguistic division of the island, however, presents a challenge to its regional unification. As outlined in an article in the Philippine Inquirer:

“The Constitution provides that the region should have a regional language that shall serve as the auxiliary official language in the region, the auxiliary medium of instruction,” said Maxino, dean of Silliman University’s College of Law. “So in this Negros Island Region, what would be the regional auxiliary official language?” he asked.

For Negros Oriental Vice Gov. Mark Macias, the solution is simple: Transactions will be done in English.

English is one of two official languages of the Philippines, along with Filipino. Filipino, which is based on Tagalog, is also the country’s sole “national language.” The Philippines has an additional 19 officially recognized “auxiliary” languages, which are used regionally but not nationally. The majority of the people of the Philippines speak English fluently, a situation that has brought considerable economic benefits to the country. Still, the idea that English should serve as a Philippine regional language strikes many Filipinos as a step too far. But then again, profound controversies also persist about the role of Filipino as the language of national integration. Those who retain strong loyalties to their own regional languages sometimes view Filipino/Tagalog as an imposition from the center and often favor English for inter-ethnic communication. This attitude is reflected clearly in a comment by Randy Derigay to an 2014 article in the Manila Bulletin entitled “Filipino Is ‘Foreign’ To Many Pinoy* Students”:

Why call it Filipino where in fact it’s TAGALOG? It’s ironic that you guys are promoting the speaking of Filipino but the majority of FILIPINOs are Visayan speaking. Why not make it plain English to be fair to everybody? I mean fair to Cebuano, Waray, Hiligaynon, Bol-anon, Ilocano speaking people, etc. Did you ever wonder why Filipinos don’t unite at all? That’s probably because of that………. Language. We tend to be regionalistic. So don’t expect people from Mindanao to speak the FILIPino language per se.

Other commenters on the same article, not surprisingly, disagree vociferously. It is interesting to see how Philipmon seeks to refute Randy Derigay:

It is unfortunate that the educational system still instills colonial mentality to students and graduates. And, businesses including advertising support it. (Just look at the billboards, telly advertisements, etc., which are mostly in English.)

By forcing students to use English even after class, it subconsciously emphasize the “superiority” of the colonial language to Filipino. Additionally, Pinoy parents in the “upper” echelon of society encourages their children to speak English rather than Filipino to get ahead. And, these children are sent abroad for their further education/indoctrination. However, in the process, these children lose their nationalism. Unfortunately, these are the same children who will lead our country.

And finally, consider the rejoinder to Philipmon by Mssn:

Go and work in call center using Tagalog. Let’s see if you will survive one day…. Internet and social media use English… English will be the language of the Internet… and THE FUTURE is the INTERNET economy…. if you don’t know English you are dead…

Comments sections of newspaper articles may not give representative data, but they can be revealing and they are often very diverting. I probably spend too much time reading them.

*“Pinoy” refers to any native resident of the Philippines. The Wikipedia article on the term claims that it is “considered by most Filipinos as a racial slur and derogatory,” but I am not convinced. The same article states that “the word is formed by taking the last four letters of Filipino and adding the diminutive suffix -y in the Tagalog language (the suffix is commonly used in Filipino nicknames: “Ninoy” or “Noynoy” for Benigno …, “Totoy” for Augusto, etc.).

Philippines Customizable Maps (Keynote)

Philippines Customizable Maps (PowerPoint)

Base-Maps of the Philippines & Linguistic/Regional Controversies in the Archipelago Read More »

Maritime Linkages in the Linguistic Geography of the Philippines

A crucial if often overlooked issue in world historical geography is whether seas and other waterways serve to separate or to unite human communities found on opposing shores. The answer, of course, is “it depends”: it depends on the distances entailed, the physical characteristics of the seas (and lands) in question, the maritime technology and orientation of the people involved, and so on. In some circumstances, even relatively narrow waters can form profound barriers, whereas in others seas provide easy linkages to distant lands.


Indian Ocean MapPerhaps the best example of waterways forming barriers comes from the western Indian Ocean. Madagascar and especially the Comoros are not particularly far from eastern Africa, the probable homeland of humankind, yet they were not peopled until the Common Era (the time period staring at the year zero)—and when Madagascar was settled it was initially by way Southeast Asia, not Africa. The fertile and sizable Mascarene Islands (Mauritius, Réunion, and Rodrigues), were not discovered until much later and were not inhabited until the modern era.





Largest Philippines Islands MapThe best example of seas connecting opposing shores is probably the Philippines, a quintessentially archipelagic country composed of more than 7,000 islands. The Austronesian migrants who came from Taiwan to the Philippines some 4,000 years ago were superb sailors with a well-developed maritime technology, and in the archipelago they found rich and inviting Central Philippines Google Earthseas sprinkled with a profusion of islands. In this environment, waterways tended to link peoples found on the opposing shores, whereas the mountainous interiors of the larger islands tended to form barriers. It is not coincidental that the smallest administrative division of the Philippines is the “barangay,” a term that originally meant “village” but is actually derived from “balangay,” an indigenous watercraft.

Maritime Linkages Philippine Languages MapThe fact that seas have historically connected, whereas uplands have tended to divide, the human communities of the Philippines is best illustrated by a language map of the country. One can see such patterns on any such map of the country, but one does have to look closely to perceive them. To clarify the situation, I have made a new linguistic map of the archipelago that highlights such maritime connections. This map is based on several sources, relying heavily on language maps published in Wikipedia and Ethnologue. Note that I have mapped both individual languages and minor language families and dialect clusters, doing so in order to highlight maritime linkages. I have, however, left out some minor languages that have clear maritime geographies, such as Asi.



Central Philippines Language MapAs the title of my map specifies, only those Philippine languages that span more than one significant island are considered. As a result, important languages such as Kapampangan and Pangasinan are excluded, as they are essentially confined to one island. But as can be seen, most of the major islands of the country are divided among two or more languages. Even some relatively small islands, such as Tablas, Burias, and Biliran, are linguistically split. In the central Philippines in particular, the central points of distribution for most languages are found at sea, not on land.


Visayan Languages MapThe sea-based distribution of Philippine languages map was probably even more pronounced in earlier historical periods. Three Philippine languages expanded greatly over the course of the 20th century: Tagalog, Cebuano, and Ilocano. Before that time, for example, Cebuano was not spoken in southeastern Mindanao, as it was largely confined to lands bordering the Bohol and Camotes seas. The oddly discontinuous distribution of the Southern Visayan languages, shown on my map as wrapping to the south of Mindanao, stems in part from the modern southward expansion of Cebuano. Before the Spanish conquest, languages in this group may have extended across much of northern Mindanao. The reduction of the geographical extent of the Southern Visayan languages may have been related to the eclipse of what had been the important city and state of Butuan in northern Mindanao, a decline that was itself closely linked to the Spanish imperial project. The Butuanon language survives to the present, although just barely. But at one time, Butuan was a very significant place indeed. As described in the Wikipedia:

Pre-Hispanic Philippines MapButuan, before its colonization, was known as the Rajahnate of Butuan, an Indianized kingdom known for its metallurgic industry and sophisticated naval technology. The rajahnate flourished at the 10th and 11th centuries CE, and had an extensive trade network with the Champa Civilization and the Srivijayan Empire.

On 1001 CE, the rajahnate had established contact with the Song Dynasty of China. The annual Song Shih recorded the appearance of a Butuan mission at the Chinese imperial court, and the rajahnate was described as a small Hindu country with a Buddhist monarchy, which had a regular trade connection with Champa. The mission, under a rajah named Kiling, asked for equal status in court protocol with the Champa envoy, but ultimately was denied by the imperial court. However, under the reign of Sri Bata Shaja, the diplomatic equality was eventually granted to the Kingdom, and as a result the diplomatic relations of the two nations reached its peak in the Yuan Dynasty.

(The pre-Hispanic history of the Philippines is vastly more complex and important than what is indicated by most historical accounts. I am pleased that Wikipedia has finally put up a decent pre-Hispanic historical map, posted here with Butuan emphasized.)

Finally, it must also be noted that distinguishing the various languages and dialects of the Philippines is a difficult task, as a great deal of linguistic mixing has long occurred. Consider, for example, the situation in the Bantayan Islands, found to the northwest of Cebu. I have left this small archipelago blank on my language map, following the Ethnologue in classifying its tongue, Bantayanon, as a separate language. The Wikipedia description of Bantayanon is brief but intriguing:

The Bantayan dialect is mostly a mixture of Visayan languages: principally native Cebuano, Hiligaynon (Negros), Waray-Waray (Samar), Masbatenyo (Masbate) and Boholano (Bohol). However it has words it can call its own such as “kakyop, sara, buwas” (yesterday, today, tomorrow).

(Note that in my language map, Boholano is classified as a dialect of Cebuano.)

(UPDATE: Customizable maps of the Philippines are posted here.)



Maritime Linkages in the Linguistic Geography of the Philippines Read More »

The Recent Gilbertese Settlement of the Line Islands

Map of KiribatiIt is difficult to convey the immensity and emptiness of the Republic of Kiribati. The country extends across more than 3.5 million square kilometers (1,351,000 sq mi) of oceanic space, an area considerably larger than India. The distance between its western and eastern islands is comparable to the distance across the United States. Yet Kiribati contains only 800 square kilometers (310 sq mi) of land, an area slightly larger than the city-state of Singapore, and considerably smaller than the city of Los Angeles.

With some 103,000 inhabitants (in 2010), Kiribati has only a moderately dense population. Its 135 people per square kilometer of land (350 per sq mi) places it in the 73rd position among the world’s 244 sovereign states and dependent territories, well below Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom. But such figures are misleading, as the population of Kiribati is by no means evenly distributed over its far-flung expanse. Most of its residents live on the 16 atolls of the Gilbert Archipelago in the west. Here more than 85,000 people are crowded into roughly 281 square kilometers of low-lying land. On the main atoll of Tarawa, a fast-growing population of some 55,000 is limited to 31 square kilometers. Tarawa’s highest point is three meters above sea level.

The Phoenix Islands in central Kiribati are a different matter. These islands contain 84.5 square kilometers of land but their population is negligible. Only Kanton Island is inhabited, and its population in 2010 was all of 24, having declined from 61 in 2000. Although archeological remains indicate that some of the Phoenix Islands had once been settled, they had no human inhabitants when they were first sighted by Europeans. In the late 1930s, major efforts were made to populate the Phoenix Islands, described by the Wikipedia as “the last attempt at human colonisation within the British Empire.” Imperial agents wanted to reduce over-population in the southern Gilbert Islands and to forestall potential U.S. attempts to gain territory under the Guano Islands Act. The colonization project was abandoned in 1963, however, with the settlers returning to the Gilbert Islands. Low prices for copra, the islands’ only significant export, along with recurrent drought, undermined the scheme.

Pacific Rainfall MapDrought is also a problem in many of the Line Islands, which form Kiribati’s eastern archipelago. The central and southern Line Islands fall within the low-rainfall region of the eastern Pacific, which is generated in large part by the cold waters of the Humboldt Current that are deflected into the equatorial region by the shape of the South American landmass. Partly as a result of meager and uncertain precipitation, the Line Islands—which themselves stretch over 2,350 kilometers of sea-space—were also uninhabited at the time of European discovery. They were all claimed by the United States under the Guano Islands Act, but the U.S. relinquished all of its claims in 1983, with the Congressional ratification of the Treaty of Tarawa (more formally known as the “Kiribati, Treaty of Friendship and Territorial Sovereignty, September 20, 1979,” with a subtitle reading “Treaty of Friendship Between the United States of America and the Republic of Kiribati”).

Line Islands Population growthToday, three of the Line Islands are inhabited: Teraina, or Washington Island, with 1,155 residents (2005), Tabuaeran, or Fanning Island, with 2,539 residents (2005), and Kiritimati, or Christmas Island, with 5,115 residents (2005). The populations of all three islands have increased rapidly in recent decades, owing in part to official Kiribati relocation schemes designed in part to reduce crowding in the Gilbert Islands. Teraina Island was first settled after WWII through the agency of the Burns Philip Copra Company, but its population expanded significantly only after 1990. As noted in an official publication of the Republic of Kiribati:

The population of Teeraina in the 2010 census was 1,690. Compared to the 2005 population of 1,155 and the 2000 population of 1,087, the population is growing very rapidly. The population of Teeraina grew by 535 people between 2005 and 2010, an annual population growth of 7.9%. In percentage terms, Teeraina is the fastest growing island in Kiribati, although the growth is much less significant in terms of absolute numbers.

Kiritimati Island MapGrowth on Kiritimati Island, the giant of not only the Line Islands but also of Kiribati as a whole, has been even more dramatic, its population jumping from 3,431 in 2000 to 5,115 in 2005. With some 388 square kilometers of dry land, Kiritimati Island has a larger terrestrial extent than any other coral atoll in the world.

The vast majority of the people now living in the Line Islands are originally from the Gilbert Archipelago and speak Gilbertese, also known as the Kiribati Language.* As noted in the Wikipedia, “Unlike many in the Pacific region, the Kiribati language is far from extinct, and most speakers use it daily. 97% of those living in Kiribati are able to read in Kiribati, and 80% are able to read English.” Gilbertese has also expanded into nearby countries, with some 5,000 people speaking the language in the Solomon Islands and perhaps another 1,000 doing so in Vanuatu.

Kiribati Fertility LevelThe expansion of the Gilbertese-speaking area has been driven largely by population growth. Although Kiribati’s fertility rate has declined in recent years, it is still well above the replacement rate. Given the small size of the Gilbert Islands, migration to other areas is not surprising. The government of Kiribati is also keen to establish permanent populations in its distant islands in order to cement its control over areas that had been tenuously held. Kiribati also views Kiritimati Island as a potential refuge in the event of a catastrophic sea-level rise. The European Union agrees, and has thus pledged substantial development funds. As noted in a February 2015 article in Radio Australia:

The European Union has just announced a 23 million Euro grant for Kiribati, money that will be used to develop the nation’s largest atoll, Kiritimati Island.

Although it makes up 70 per cent of the country’s landmass, Kiritimati Island was virtually uninhabited for decades and is relatively undeveloped.

By improving facilities on the island, the EU Ambassador to the Pacific Andrew Jacobs says the aim is to reduce the threat posed by climate change to the main population centre of Tarawa.

Kiribati is also concerned about its elevated fertility level. As noted in a World Culture Encyclopedia article on the country:

Population has been growing rapidly since the early 1900s, and overpopulation is a serious concern of the government. While family-planning methods were introduced in 1968 and are delivered free, fertility remains moderately high and large families are culturally valued. Despite government efforts to maintain and improve life on the outer islands, there has been substantial migration to the capital on South Tarawa. There are several thousand I-Kiribati in other countries, most serving as temporary workers.

* The word “Kiribati” itself means “Gilberts” in the Gilbertese language. It is unclear what the indigenous word for the archipelago is, although “Tungaru” has been suggested. Note that in Gilbertese orthography, a “ti” is pronounced as an “s” sound, giving the preferred pronunciation of the country as “keer-ə-bahss.” By the same token, the island of “Kiritimati” is rendered as “kuhris-muh s” or “kəˈrɪsmæs,” the local pronunciation of “Christmas.” It is unclear why the “s” sound in Gilbertese is written as “ti”; I dimly recall reading that the first missionaries brought a typewriter with a broken “s” key, and hence used “ti” as a substitute symbol, but I have been unable to find confirmation


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The Lost World of the Sago Eaters

Sago PalmThe previous GeoCurrents post mentioned the Manusela people of the Indonesian island of Seram, who evidently incorporate elements of Hinduism, animism, and Christianity in their religious beliefs and practices. The Manusuela rely on the sago palm for their dietary staple, as do many other peoples of eastern Indonesia and the lowlands of Papua New Guinea. (I am referring here to the true sago palm, Metroxylon sagu, not the unrelated cycads [genus Cycas] that are unfortunately given the same common name.) Sago is a most unusual foodstuff, as it is derived from the pith found in the center of the palm’s trunk. Sago boles accumulate starch that is used to support massive flowering blooms; after the seeds are formed, the starch content is exhausted and the trees die back, although new shoots later emerge from the roots. To harvest the edible carbohydrates, the trees must be cut and then the pith must be pulverized and thoroughly washed out with water. This process removes the starch from the fibers, allowing it to be collected in relatively pure form.

The process of extracting sago flour is laborious, but overall sago production requires relatively little work. Sago palms either grow wild or under conditions of “semi-domestication” that entail little care, and they produce large quantities of carbohydrates. Sago groves are, in general, more productive than agricultural fields. They also produce a number of other useful products. The dried petioles (the stalk that attaches the leaf blade to the stem), for example, are widely used to make walls, ceilings and even rafts. Owing to these advantages, sago is being intensively studied by agricultural researchers who think that it has promise as a potential crop in many humid tropical areas.*

sago palm mapAccording to the conventional view, the use of sago as a staple food is essentially limited to Melanesian people, particularly those of New Guinea but including as well some of the mixed “Papuan” and Austronesian societies of eastern Indonesia. Botanical maps and descriptions paint the same picture. According to a map produced in association with the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens (reproduced here), the true sago palm was originally limited to New Guinea and a few eastern Indonesian islands, including Seram, Buru, and Halmahera. The same map also indicates that the plant has been introduced to western Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Other maps show the same general pattern. So too does the Wikipedia description, although it claims that the sago palm is also native to Malaysia and possibly the Philippines.


Other lines of evidence, however, indicate that the sago palm has (and had) a much wider distribution and, more importantly, that it once played a much larger role in human sustenance. In a 2013 PLOS One article, for example, a team of scientists claim that sago had once been a staple foodstuff of southern China. As the abstract of the article puts it:

Poor preservation of plant macroremains in the acid soils of southern subtropical China has hampered understanding of prehistoric diets in the region and of the spread of domesticated rice southwards from the Yangtze River region. According to records in ancient books and archaeological discoveries from historical sites, it is presumed that roots and tubers were the staple plant foods in this region before rice agriculture was widely practiced. But no direct evidences provided to test the hypothesis. Here we present evidence from starch and phytolith analyses of samples obtained during systematic excavations at the site of Xincun on the southern coast of China, demonstrating that during 3,350–2,470 aBC humans exploited sago palms, bananas, freshwater roots and tubers, fern roots, acorns, Job’s-tears as well as wild rice. A dominance of starches and phytoliths from palms suggest that the sago-type palms were an important plant food prior to the rice in south subtropical China. We also believe that because of their reliance on a wide range of starch-rich plant foods, the transition towards labour intensive rice agriculture was a slow process.

Although sago apparently no longer grows in southern China, that is not the case in regard to northeastern India. In a number of remote villages in Arunachal Pradesh, sago is still an important source of food, although its use seems to be declining. As reported in a recent paper by Robert Blench:

The only other region [other than New Guinea and eastern Indonesia] where [sago] is exploited extensively is in NE India, where the Puroik [=Sulung] of Arunachal Pradesh still process it (Stonor 1952; Deuri 1982; Sharma 1984; Gangwar &Ramakrishnan 1990). Peoples such as the Milang prepare it to feed to pigs but will no longer eat it for everyday consumption (Modi 2008), although it is acceptable as a famine food (Photo 5). Peoples such as the Idu also remember the processing of sago in the recent past (Bhattacharjee 1983:57).

Puroik people mapThe Puroik people, who are the main remaining sago-eaters of Arunachal Pradesh, are themselves a most intriguing group. To begin with, they were traditionally hunter-gatherers, unlike all the other people of the region, although they have recently adopted some basic forms of cultivation. Their language, moreover, is highly distinctive. It has generally been assumed to be a member of the Sino-Tibetan family, like those of most neighboring groups, but it had been little studied. Current thinking tends to regard it either as an aberrant member of the Austroasiatic family (which includes Khmer and Vietnamese), or as a linguistic isolate, not provably related to any described language family. Roger Blench, who as we saw above traces the origin of the Sino-Tibetan family as a whole to the eastern Himalayan region, thinks that Puroik is probably a linguistic isolate, based in part on the subsistence activities of the people who speak it: “The past of the Puroik as foragers, the distinctiveness of their language, and the low incidence of CTB roots suggests that it may best be considered a language isolate.”

The social position of the Puroik people, formerly called the Sulung, is itself unusual, as the entire group had been essentially enslaved by members of neighboring tribes. As the Wikipedia article puts it, “Earlier forming the bonded labour of other tribes such as the Nishi, the term Sulung indicates slavery, and they were renamed as Puroik to rid their name from this association.” The situation in earlier times was rather complicated, as conveyed in this passage from Rann Singh Mann’s The Tribes of India: On-Going Challenges (M.D. Publications Pvt. Ltd., 1996, page 389):

In their marriages, they traditionally had and still have to pay a heavy bride-price, and the people are not that sound economically to pay toward their bride-price. For obvious reasons the people had to borrow mithuns (Bos frontalis), which formed an essential part of the bride-price, from neighboring tribes… . These tribes, subsequently, started establishing supremacy over the Sulungs as they were never able to pay back the amount borrowed. Indebtedness is hence a major cause for which the Sulungs had to remain as thralls and that too for generations. …. A Sulung has developed the habit of tolerating all sorts of torture [that] his master, known as Ato, does to him because he is a Nyeru (thrall). In recent years, the Sulungs have expressed an intention to change their name to Puroik as they think Sulung is a derogatory term.

The role of the mithun, or gayal (Bos frontalis), a semi-domesticated bovine, in the economy and culture of Arunachal Pradesh was nicely depicted in Frederick and Elizabeth Simoons’ 1968 book, Ceremonial Ox of India: The Mithan in Nature, Culture, and History. This work, coincidently, help convince me to pursue a Ph.D in geography at the University of California at Berkeley, as Fred Simoons was a product of the same department. A first-rate scholar, his work never received the attention that it deserves. I would especially recommend his 1961 book, Eat Not This Flesh: Food Avoidances from Prehistory to the Present.


* As argued in the abstract of a 2008 Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety article:

The common industrial starches are typically derived from cereals (corn, wheat, rice, sorghum), tubers (potato, sweet potato), roots (cassava), and legumes (mung bean, green pea). Sago (Metroxylon sagu Rottb.) starch is perhaps the only example of commercial starch derived from another source, the stem of palm (sago palm). Sago palm has the ability to thrive in the harsh swampy peat environment of certain areas. It is estimated that there are about 2 million ha of natural sago palm forests and about 0.14 million ha of planted sago palm at present, out of a total swamp area of about 20 million ha in Asia and the Pacific Region, most of which are under- or nonutilized. Growing in a suitable environment with organized farming practices, sago palm could have a yield potential of up to 25 tons of starch per hectare per year. Sago starch yield per unit area could be about 3 to 4 times higher than that of rice, corn, or wheat, and about 17 times higher than that of cassava. Compared to the common industrial starches, however, sago starch has been somewhat neglected and relatively less attention has been devoted to the sago palm and its starch. Nevertheless, a number of studies have been published covering various aspects of sago starch such as molecular structure, physicochemical and functional properties, chemical/physical modifications, and quality issues. This article is intended to piece together the accumulated knowledge and highlight some pertinent information related to sago palm and sago starch studies.

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