Language has long been equated with cultural clout - the "perfect instrument of empire," as Spain's Queen Isabella was said to have been told by an adviser.
Today, the world's empires may be in retreat but active movements to leverage language for power have surged worldwide.
The number of spoken languages, (6,500 by one estimate) has been slowly dwindling, with half said by linguists to be endangered or close to extinction. But new-style "imperialists" and revolutionaries have made language a key weapon in their political arsenals.
And so, China moves to push English out of Hong Kong schools and rid the territory of its old colonial master, Britain; a proposal in California to teach "black English" (or "ebonics") touches off a firestorm among Americans; Quebec looks for ways to force English-speaking Canadians to honor French; and France tries to keep the mother tongue alive in its former African and Asian colonies.
"There is now a popular thesis on the clash of civilizations or cultures replacing the geopolitical rivalry of nation-states," says Francis Beer, a professor who teaches about language and politics at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
"One could reformulate this as the 'clash of languages,' since these are the major vehicles that carry cultures. The politics of language is being played out everywhere," he says.
The battles form on many lines, from ethnic groups reaching back to old dialects to stake out distinctive identities, to proponents of "political correctness" weaving a complex language of euphemism.
Some of it is simple semantics: One person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter.
But language politics runs much deeper than that. Nationalities and ethnicities have a great deal at stake. Their existence can be on the line.
"Language has always been political," says Alvino Fantini, director of bilingual and multicultural education at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vt. "We have everything invested in the language we use and speak as 'official' or 'important.' "
Consider the Francophone world. "Franglais" is an unwelcome variation on the mother tongue that has taken root as English has crept in.
It's tough to separate language and cultural identity. And the influx of foreign words, widespread in Canada's separatist province of Quebec, is widely viewed as an invasion.
There, legal limits have been set to shore up pure French, which many Quebeckers use tenaciously, hoping to fend off assimilation by the English-speakers who surround them.
"Linguists often define [language] as a tool for communication," says Dr. Fantini. "But the other side, seldom discussed, is that it is also used to excommunicate. It's a question of who we enfranchise and who we disenfranchise."
It can also be used to gain cultural inroads, though there is no guarantee against roadblocks. Last month, the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi was "all smiles," as one US newspaper reported, as representatives from some 50 French-speaking countries poured into the former capital of French Indochina for the 7th Francophone Summit, the first French-speaking summit held in Asia.
Still, the city had to scramble to find French-speakers to play host efficiently. France may be Vietnam's best Western trading partner, but less than 1 percent of Vietnamese reportedly have a "satisfactory command" of French.
In the largely monolingual United States, debates over language have long raged in schools. The children of 19th-century immigrants were given instruction in any number of languages.
But by the turn of the century, immigrants from eastern and southern Europe raised fears of "a babel of tongues," as Iowa Gov. William L. Harding put it. Resistance began to grow.
The two world wars and the increased presence of Spanish-speakers had their own to-and-fro effects in the ensuing decades: a tilt toward xenophobia, a tilt toward grudging acceptance. Currently, second-language education is fairly widely encouraged, though its abolition is still mulled over by states from time to time.
There are other skirmishes. A language-politics maelstrom was stirred up when, in 1996, Oakland, Ca. schools decided to recognize - and teach - the black English known as ebonics. The term combines "ebony" and "phonics," and was coined in the 1970s during research into the structure of black English and its roots in West African languages.
Proponents maintain that it ultimately helps students learn standard English. Opponents say it drags English down.
English, like French, has its battles abroad. This month in Hong Kong, a move to drastically cut the number of schools that teach classes in English was announced by the territory's education department.
Three quarters of Hong Kong schools will have to conduct classes in the local Cantonese dialect beginning next September, down from half of schools before Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in July.
Language as identity
Unsurprisingly, those who would roll over lingual diversity face resistance movements.
As Europe moves haltingly toward a common currency and other forms of unity, for example, the Dublin, Ireland-based European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages works to preserve minority cultures and languages.
"Our job is simply to ensure that language continues to reflect the linguistic mosaic that is Europe," says Diar Breathnach, a spokesman for the organization, which, according to its stated purpose, "rejects linguistic and cultural conformity" and envisions "a 'unity in diversity' in Europe."
"If language is lost, that means losing parts of common heritage," Mr. Breathnach says. "There are 11 official languages [in the region], but also languages spoken that are indigenous [within] member states. These we promote and defend."
Some have staunch defenders of their own. "It's true that language can be politically hijacked," Breathnach allows. "But we deal with language purely in the cultural domain."
Western Europe enjoys relative stability - its hard-core separatist movements are limited to the Basques in Spain, who use their own language, and republicans in Northern Ireland, who sometimes use Gaelic as a kind of phonetic demarcation from their English-speaking rulers.
But as his organization weighs extending its coverage to states now applying for membership in the European Union, Breathnach says politics play an increasingly large role.
"We'd have to carefully consider the political instability. We'd have to be cautious," he says, citing the example of strife between Greeks and Macedonians.
Greece refuses to recognize the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, preferring to call it Skopje, after its capital. It worries about its northern neighbor's claims to parts of the historic empire of Macedonia, including much of northern Greece
In Serb-controlled Kosovo, splinter of the former Yugoslavia, riot police this fall fought ethnic Albanian students who were protesting for the inclusion of instruction in their native language.
Minority speakers, says Fantini, often see the political advantage of learning more widely spoken languages. "But when the shift is forced, that's something else. [Adopting another language] doesn't mean they're neccesarily willing to give up their own. Language is so much who they are."
Persecution over speech
There are plenty of examples of language politics giving rise to brutality - even an Old Testament precedent exists.
In the book of Judges, Jephthah, armed with the knowledge that the Ephraimites could not pronounce the "sh" sound, asked that they say "shibboleth" - ear of corn in Hebrew. Those who said "sibboleth" were slain - an early example of "ethnic cleansing."
During armed ethnic conflicts centuries later, language remained a tool for persecution. In the late 1970s during ethnic riots in Sri Lanka, Sinhalese forces at makeshift roadblocks stopped cars and forced passengers to say a phrase or two in Sinhalese, the majority language.
Physically, they could not distinguish between Sinhalese and Tamils. But they could tell by word choice, accent, and intonation. Anyone who spoke in an identifiably Tamil manner could be hauled out of his car and beaten up.
Shades of ethnic difference were also magnified during the violent breakup of the former Yugoslavia, where having the wrong license plates - or the wrong dialect - could mean trouble.
In his campaign for secession from the former Yugoslavia, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman strove to promote a national identity for the Croats different from that of their Slav brethren in Serbia.
This included establishing Croatian as a distinct language from Serbian. Croatian nationalists argued that in their domination of former Yugoslavia, majority Serbs had forcibly supplanted many Croatian words with their own, creating a hybrid tongue known as Serbo-Croat.
The Croatian effort went as far as including publication of a dictionary of differences between Croatian and Serbian, akin to a dictionary of differences between American English and British English.
Battles in former Soviet states
The differences are not always so subtle. Across the territory of the former Soviet Union, where secessionist movements in recent years were often played out in linguistic battles, some 130 languages are spoken, more than 100 of them within present-day Russia itself. Russian is the only common tongue.
In the former Soviet Union, the sharpest language issue today is in Estonia and Latvia, Baltic republics that have substantial Russian minorities and are eager to reassert their national identities after 50 years of rule from Moscow.
As part of this effort they have introduced difficult local language tests as part of the citizenship process, effectively denying almost all ethnic Russians citizenship and the things that go with it, like the right to vote.
In Uzbekistan, elderly citizens sometimes complain about the way written language has been altered in this century. When many of them were born, Uzbek was written in Arabic script. In 1924, Latin script was officially adopted.
In 1940, Stalin decreed that Cyrillic should be the official script. And as of this year, Latin has become the official script again.
How language moves
But language may move as often by stealth as by decree, sometimes serving as a culture's Trojan horse.
More than 100 years ago, an attempt was made to break down world communications barriers by inventing the culture-bridging, nationality-neutral language Esperanto. Another creature of the times, technology, may prove the most effective leveler of language barriers. Or the most ruthless imperialist, depending on one's view.
Internet access offers the world a common portal. It also gives English another foot in the door. But more intricate language politics are at play, too.
There is an emerging "digerati" culture that uses the language of computers and the Internet to the exclusion of those who know little of the technology. Thus, "RAM," "one-gig," "html," "URL," and other terms are used among those in the know.
The advances of technology give a kind of perceived power to those who first adapt to them. Eventually, these come into the mainstream - e-mail, Web page - when the technology becomes mainstream.
And the mainstream does drive the pace of change. In insular Japan, whose language already bears the influences of many others, American pop has reportedly made an inroad by way of a dialect called ko-gyaru-go, roughly meaning "high school gal-talk," in which English words are injected and spoken in something that approaches a secret code, as in cho beri gu for "ultragood."
Of course, in the end, a culture needs its language, its currency, to hold sway.
Take the Francophones, besieged in Quebec and shrugged off in such former old-empire outposts as Vietnam. There, it is often said that French lessons are free, courtesy of the French Embassy and consulates or the Alliance Francaise, but that Vietnamese stand in line to pay money to study first English and then Japanese.
Sometimes language politics means outright rejection. Congo President Laurent Kabila boycotted Hanoi's Francophone summit altogether, because to him, as leader of the former Belgian Congo, it smacked of "neocolonialism."
"Language matters," says the University of Colorado's Beer. "It isn't the only thing. But it is an important dimension of political power."
* Staff writers Peter Ford, Jonathan Landay, Laurent Belsie, and Cameron Barr contributed to this report.
First-language-speaker estimates, in millions.
Mandarin Chinese 726
Source: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language