Linguistic imperialism The world according to Putin
WHEN Vladimir Putin justified his annexation of Crimea on the ground that he owed protection to Russian speakers everywhere, this newspaper took a dim view of his line of argument, pointing out that since linguistic borders do not match those of states, it would lead to chaos. We now recognise that this approach to international relations betrayed a deplorable conservatism. Since we pride ourselves on pushing the boundaries in search of a way to clamber out of the box and reach the summit of blue-sky thinking, we reckoned we should grasp the nettle of radical Putinism and run with it. We have, therefore, redrawn the world’s boundaries according to Mr Putin’s principles. We think readers will agree that the resulting map has considerable appeal. Under Mr Putin’s dispensation, things look up for the old colonial powers. Portugal gets to reclaim Brazil, Spain most of the rest of Central and South America and France most of west Africa, which would probably be fine by the locals, since many of their current governments are not much cop. A mighty Scandinavian kingdom comes into being—including Finland, although Finnish is very different from the Scandinavian tongues. Since Swedish is Finland’s second language, the Vikings would have strong grounds for bringing about the sort of peaceful merger based on shared cultural values for which they are famous. A unified Arabia would stretch from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. There might be the odd squabble between Sunnis, Shias, Christians and adherents of archaic notions of nation; but united by a common tongue, the Arabs would be sure to get along fine, especially if they teamed up to smite the Persian-speakers on the other side of the Gulf. The two Koreas would become one, which might be a good thing—or not, depending on which system prevailed. Since Hindi and Urdu are both a mutually intelligible mixture of Sanskrit and Persian, India could make a claim for Pakistan—and vice versa. The existence of nuclear weapons on either side would bring added spark to the debate over linguistic precedence. Best of all, Britain would regain its empire, including—since it spoke English first—the United States. It would, obviously, give Barack Obama a prestigious position—Keeper of the Woolsack, say—and a nice uniform. Britain might, however, have to surrender some of London’s oligarch-dominated streets, as well as Chelsea Football Club, to Russia. A sizeable minority of The Economist’s staff also speaks Russian and would like to claim Mr Putin’s protection in advance of the next pay negotiations. There is, however a hitch. Consolidation would be undermined by linguistic independence movements. Dozens of segments would peel away from Mandarin-speaking China. Mayaland would agitate for autonomy in Central America. Swahililand would demand independence in Africa. The world’s 7 billion people speak more than 7,000 languages; in Russia alone there are more than 100. Perhaps, on second thoughts, Mr Putin should quit while he is ahead.