What is Language Imperialism?

Imperialism and its many forms - Thorsten Pattberg
Imperialism and its many forms - Thorsten Pattberg
What is Language Imperialism? - by Thorsten Pattberg
What is Language Imperialism? – by Thorsten Pattberg

What is Language Imperialism? (on Global Research TV)

BEIJING/TOKYO – Language Imperialism is the translation of foreign key terminology into familiar vocabulary of one’s own language tradition in order to claim deutungshoheit,* to diminish another culture’s originality, or to pretend to have full comprehension of a foreign topic by simply switching into one’s own lingua. (T. Pattberg – Live Interview on GRTV)

*Deutungshoheit is a German compound word consisting of “deutung”, meaning explanation, and “hoheit”, meaning sovereignty. It refers to the claim that a historical, cultural, or political issue or fact can only be interpreted properly by the people who make that claim. The deutungshoheit for ‘shengren’ (the Chinese sage) belongs to Chinese culture, until, that is, it falls victim to Language Imperialism and is translated as biblical “saint” or hellenic “philosopher”. Once Chinese ‘shengren’ is translated into Western terminology, Western culture takes effectively over this deutungshoheit.

The main difference between Linguistic Imperialism and Language Imperialism, I think, is whether or not translation is involved, namely the translating of foreign key concepts into one’s own language for the reasons given in the quotation above. Language Imperialism is a very distinct form of cultural imperialism, more subtle and subversive than just replacing an entire language by a dominant other (like dominant English replaced (almost) all other languages in North America, for example), but more like a surgical operation, a small readjustment of meaning, and it’s often done to a single key word at a time. In fact, another name for language imperialism would be word imperialism.

Thus, while Linguistic Imperialism is defined as the transfer of a dominant language to other people, Language Imperialism is the translation of another people’s language.

For example: Teaching English to children in India is linguistic imperialism but not necessarily language imperialism. The teacher may have no knowledge of Hindi at all; or the children learn the language without reference to a second one. However, translating dharma, a Sanskrit word and key concept in the Hindu tradition, as “cosmic law” for a textbook about India is Language Imperialism –not Linguistic Imperialism. The difference is the act of translation (of key terminologies).


Everyone who says “democracy in China” is by definition a language imperialist only if he refers to a term that supposedly exists in China that, in his mind, ought to correspond and translate as “democracy”. Since the Western word and concept “democracy” doesn’t exist in the Chinese language, but the speaker evidently needs it to exist in order for his observation “democracy in China” to be factfully correct, he must base his reasoning on the assumption that there is something in China (a Chinese word, a concept) that ought (in his reasoning) to translate into “democracy”. Consciously or not, he is superimposing a Western term over that a Chinese one (whether he knows the Chinese term or not). Accordingly, it is not Language Imperialism if the speaker refers to ‘democracy’ as a word and concept imported to China from the West.

Imperialism = Conquer and control another country (J. Downing & A. Mohammadi)
Cultural Imperialism = Superimpose one culture over another (H. Schiller)
Linguistic Imperialism = Transfer of a dominant language to other people (R. Phillipson)
Language Imperialism = Translation of another people’s language (T. Pattberg)

See article on Language Imperialism – ‘democracy’ in China (Japan Times)
See interview Imperialism, Culture and Languages on Global Research TV

Or, watch the GRTV Interview here:

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