Power and Potential: The Role of Language in State- and Nation- Building



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This research addresses the questions, how, why, and when does language become a catalyst for intrastate conflict? I approach language not simply as one dimension of complex ethnic conflicts, but as a specific catalyst for those conflicts themselves. My research tells the stories of two states, Cameroon and Sri Lanka, in which language became central to fights for autonomy and secession. In each of these cases, language need not have become a contested issue but was constructed as such due to political choices by state actors. This thesis specifically isolates language as an aspect of ethnic identity apt to be a driving force of identity-based mobilization due to its unique role in both fomenting nation and facilitating state. I trace the outbreak of conflict in these two case studies – Sri Lanka and Cameroon – to locate critical junctures in which language became an activated grievance. I find that it is specific moments of political exclusion which serve as a catalyst for linguistic conflict. I root my analysis in the claim that language difference is not inherently a precondition to conflict, but becomes a potential grievance when language is used to mediate power and resources. I find that in both Sri Lanka and Cameroon, colonization played a large role in creating the language policy and state structures which breed linguistic conflict. I conclude by proposing a framework on the development of linguistic conflict which offers lessons on the outbreak of conflict on an axis of language difference.



language, policy, conflict