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November 2015

Nations that have unified their language by conquest

Throughout history, conquerors have used language to unite their people

Canada's 59,500 Inuit people have nine different writing systems; they're currently looking to combine it into one (see The Economist on Nov 7, 2015). History is peppered with people united under a standardized language. But it has always come with great difficulty. In many cases, and unlike the Inuit example, such unity came at the end of a sword. Today we'll take a look at several civilisations that have used a single language to bring its people together.


In 230 BC, Qin Shi Huang, the King of the Chinese state of Qin, began conquering all the other independent kingdoms of China, eventually unifying the warring states under one rule. But he didn't just unite the kingdoms politically, he also standardized units of measurements, transportation systems to fit a single road system, and the currency. Understanding that keeping his new nation together meant also unifying methods of communication, he also standardized the script of the many dialects, essentially creating one written language for all of China. But to unify such a large expanse of territory came with much turmoil, and while history may see his actions as a milestone in the formation of a country, those he conquered no doubt saw him as a monster. The conquest took nine years to compete and was a big first step toward the modern country of China we know today.


During the height of the Muslim conquests in the 750s, the Arabian empire stretched from the Middle East to Western Africa and Spain. The people were unified under the laws of the Quran, and Arabic was adopted as the official language. This was the time of the Umayyad Caliphate, which, at its peak of power, covered 15 million square kilometres, the largest empire the world had yet seen (the fifth largest that ever existed in history). Abd al-Malik, the leader who also oversaw the construction of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, centralized control over the caliphate, established the official language, and unified the currency. Like many great empires throughout history, the Umayyad Caliphate faced administrative and cultural problems with such a large expanse of territory to control. Though the last surviving Muslim Empire, the Ottoman Empire, fell in 1918 after World War I, the influence of the Muslim empires can still be seen throughout its former territories.


After 700 years of occupation by the Moors (originally part of the aforementioned Muslim expansion), the Spanish eventually drove them out of the Iberian Peninsula and united their country politically. But one thing threatened the cohesion of the new nation: there was still a diversity of languages, something that the sovereigns felt threatened stability. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella adopted Castilian, the precursor to modern Spanish, as the new official language. This unification spread outside of Spain to the nation's imperialistic conquests in the Americas (language was used as a tool to control the Native Americans, with mixed results). While the Spanish Empire spread, the language did not follow as initially hoped. Still, evidence of Spain’s expansion is evident today with the ubiquity of the Spanish language in many countries around the world, from Mexico to Venezuela.

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Picture (c) Fotolia, Vertigo Signs