Linguistic Tolerance Policies:
Can a Viable Model be Constructed for Moldova?

Paper for Roundtable Discussion
"Educating Tolerance in Multi-cultural Societies"

Chisinau, Moldova, October 4-6, 2001


Harold F. Schiffman
South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania




The notion of ‘tolerance’ as an attribute of language policies can probably be traced back to the German sociologist of language Heinz Kloss (Kloss 1977) who was writing about the concept in terms of American policy towards its linguistic ‘nationalities.’ This paper reviews his ideas and attempts to evaluate how tolerant US policy in fact was and/or is, and then compares notions of tolerance with the concept in other spheres, such as in the realm of religion. It concludes with some proposals and caveats for the issue as it applies to Moldova.


  1. Introduction: What is the history of Linguistic Tolerance Policies?

The concept of tolerance as it applies to language policies is not as well delineated historically as it is when it applies to religious or racial policies. In his 1977 work, The American Bilingual Tradition, Kloss defined tolerance policies according to a number of parameters or spheres: I take these ‘spheres’ to be equivalent to what one would call today sociolinguistic domains, but he also defines tolerance in terms of differences accorded to specific groups. That is, he defined population groups in terms of their time of arrival in the US, and in particular whether they arrived in a territory before the war of independence, or before a territory was admitted to statehood Thus Anglo-Americans and/or a any other group that preceded them, or arrived at the same time, were Pioneers ("Erstsiedler") and received the most tolerance as a group: Dutch in New Netherlands, some Germans in Pennsylvania, French in Louisiana, Hawaiians in Hawaii, some Hispanics in the Southwest.

Next were groups who arrived after the Pioneers, but if before Independence and/or Statehood, received a certain degree of tolerance, such as Germans in the Midwest. As we will see, tolerance for these groups declined over time.

Late settlers arriving after statehood received the least tolerance. This would be the case for anyone arriving in any state after statehood, which became increasingly the case as the ‘boundary’ of statehood moved further and further west, since most immigrants were arriving via Atlantic ports. In the west, immigrants arriving from Asia were allowed some tolerance at first but this quickly declined, and with various exclusion acts aimed specifically at Asian immigrants, even citizenship by naturalization was denied them until after World War II.

Another measure of tolerance (he also uses the term acquiescent) was by the scope (which Kloss refers to as sphere) of the tolerance:

  1. Broad scope (or ‘widest sphere’ of human civil and political rights) would be language used in all domains, public and private, secular and religious. Broad-scope tolerance was probably limited to Pioneers.
  2. A Wide Sphere would be the right to use language in all domains, public and private, secular and religious. Wide-sphere tolerance was probably limited to Pioneers.
  3. Narrow Sphere: right to assemble and organize especially in religious domains, such that Anglo-Americans never have to hear it spoken in public. This usage is non-threatening to Anglo-Americans. Or, it is used in "Little Tradition" domains, and is considered quaint, cute, or fun for tourists (French in New Orleans, German in Pennsylvania ‘Dutch’ country.)
  4. Narrowest scope: right to a ‘private nationality school’ ... one conducted in a language other than English.

Kloss also notes a kind of Expedient tolerance: the dominant society tolerates use of other languages in non-serious domains (humor? self-deprecation?) or for special purposes of interest to the US at large:

Kloss considers US tolerance policies to be among the most generous found anywhere in the world. While he admits that there were occasionally abuses, even grievous abuses, of linguistic minorities, he notes that ‘even if we should later uncover isolated early cases of encroachments in one of these three spheres [1-3], they would hardly be important.’(Kloss 1977:44) It was only in the fourth, or narrowest domain, he says, that rights were encroached upon, as this right became more and more controversial toward the end of the nineteenth century, and of course after America’ entry into World War I. Wide-sphere rights, he notes, are protected by the first ten amendments to the US constitution, and at times when encroachments did occur, they were declared red unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court. Even the banning of German language in various domains during the xenophobia and anti-German feeling in 1917-18 was eventually declared unconstitutional (Meyer v. Nebraska, 1923), though the damage from the five-to-six year ban had permanent effects, since many German-Americans simply switched to English, and then did not switch back.

Kloss’s 1977 work catalogues in almost encyclopedic detail all of the Narrowest Sphere usage of languages other than English in the US, and of the many attempts to abrogate these rights. He concludes, however, that the massive shift to English, usually within two generations, of almost all immigrant groups, did not come about because of laws or restrictions circumscribing these rights. His summary of this is worth quoting in full:


"As our study shows […] the non-English ethnic groups in the United States were Anglicized not because of nationality laws which were unfavorable toward their languages, but in spite of nationality laws relatively favorable to them. Not by legal provisions and measures of the authorities, not by governmental coercion did the nationalities become assimilated, but rather by the absorbing power of the highly developed American society. The nationalities might be given in numerable possibilities for systematic language maintenance; the manifold opportunities for personal advancement and individual achievements which this society offered were so attractive that the descendants of the "aliens" sooner or later voluntarily integrated themselves into this society." (Kloss 1977:283) [italics his, hfs]

Kloss’ analysis of tolerance, therefore, is that the US was basically and generously tolerant towards linguistic minorities, except in times of war, or in extremely isolated instances of xenophobic acts directed at individuals who also, he claims, were in most cases not Caucasian. That is, linguistic intolerance was linked with racial and/or ethnic intolerance, but alone, there was not much linguistic intolerance. Kloss even goes so far as to say that the decision in Meyer vs. Nebraska, which overturned various state statues and decrees legitimizing intolerance and oppression of non-English languages (1923) established a precedent for and legitimized or enshrined tolerance. Kloss refers to this decision, in fact, as the Magna Carta (Kloss 1977:73) of American private nationality schools. He sees it as legitimizing rights that were temporarily abrogated, and giving linguistic minorities freedom to continue this Narrow Sphere right. What he does not see, and in fact does does not understand, is that though the Supreme Court overturned the statutes and restrictions, it did not (nor could it) do anything to nullify the intolerance that existed in American society, and was the original root cause of the anti-German bans during the war period.

He does admit that cultural and societal attitudes did much to discourage retention.

‘Derision was, and still is, in store for those who master English imperfectly. […] thus not only achievements of American society are responsible for the shrinkage of communities of non-English speech, but also societal attitudes displayed towards (an d sometimes against) members of linguistic minorities.’ (Kloss1977:284)

It does seem clear to me that Kloss’ perception is that language rights, as enshrined in Supreme Court decisions, can trump societal attitudes, whereas I believe that we cannot talk of language policy in terms of constitutional and judicially- protected rights only, but must see what kind of cultural attitudes and milieus these rights are embedded in. This is true not only for linguistic rights, but as must be obvious to any visitor to the US, to attitudes about race and racial intolerance. We must also recognize that in the US, rights are conceived as belonging to iindividuals and not groups; Supreme Court decisions on discrimination, including discrimination against speakers of various languages (as in Meyer v. Nebraska) always emphasize that while citizens may not be singled out for discrimination because they are members of a particular group, it does not mean that that group therefore has certain inalienable rights. No such ‘special’ rights are established in such cases, and Meyer v. Nebraska only delineated that parents had been deprived of their right to decide what material their children could be taught, and teachers had been deprived of their livelihood. But children were not declared to have a right to a language; in fact only adults are seen to have such rights.

Kloss failed to see that tolerance can and did diminish and lessen over time. He noted that US was tolerant early in its history, but tolerance didn't result in language maintenance, even after Meyer v. Nebraska. When Kloss referred to this case as the Magna Carta of American Nationality Rights, he failed to see that the victory was Pyrrhic: during the years between 1918 and 1923, children had switched to English medium schools, and "a loss to English is never regained" so the rights he sees as gained here were vacuous.

Lesson 1: Kloss failed to understand, even after Meyer v. Nebraska, that tolerance policies can expire and that intolerance policies can kill a language. The weakness of tolerance policies is that they are often 'unofficial' and poorly orly specified, so they can be eliminated by a rise in intolerance (xenophobia, nativism, etc.) Since language policies tend typically to be underspecified, tolerance policies tend to be implicit and covert, with no mention of domains and usages, t thus making it easy to abrogate any "rights."


II. Religious Tolerance.

Let us now examine other kinds of tolerance policies, such as religious tolerance policies. Tolerance in France for religious minorities is an issue that is well documented. The Protestant Reformation did not have an overwhelming success in France , but some conversions did lead to the kind of religious strife that occurred elsewhere in Europe. The Edict of Nantes was signed in 1598, which ordained religious tolerance for Protestants, was rescinded and revoked in 1648, and Protestants had to flee France, either to other European havens, or to go abroad, to the New World, or even South Africa.

The Edict authorizing religious tolerance for Protestants was signed by Henri IV of France at Nantes on April 13th, 1598, and put a temporary end to the ferocious religious wars between Roman Catholics and Protestants which had been going on since the 1560's. The impetus for the revocation was the end of the religious wars and the Treaty of Westphalia, which in fact authorized a religious status quo (known in Latin as cujus regio, ejus religio) based on the preferences of individual rulers.

Then the grandson of Henri IV revoked the Edict of toleration, in the following words:

Be it known that for these causes and others us hereunto moving, and of our certain knowledge, full power, and royal authority, we have, by this present perpetual and irrevocable edict, suppressed and revoked, and do suppress and revoke, the edict of of said grandfather, given at Nantes in April, 1598, in its whole extent, together with the particular articles agreed upon in the month of May following, and the letters patent issued upon the same date; and also the edict given at Nimes in July, 1629; we e declare them null and void, together with all concessions, of whatever nature they may be, made by them as well as by other edicts, declarations, and orders, in favor of the said persons of the R.P.R., the which shall remain in like manner as if they ha d never been granted; and in consequence we desire, and it is our pleasure, that all the temples of those of the said R.P.R. situated in our kingdom, countries, territories, and the lordships under our crown, shall be demolished without delay. (Encycloped Britannica.)

Thus the Treaty of Westphalia revoked religious tolerance and authorized religious intolerance. Cujus regio, ejus religio. or "The ruler's religion in his own Region" meant that in all of the areas where this treaty applied, there would be no to tolerance for religion other than that of the ruler, and people who did not agree with this had to leave that territory, or be forced to convert.

Many writers have noted a rise in a similar kind of language policy, which we could call cujus regio, ejus lingua or "The ruler determines the language" with no tolerance for languages other than that of the ruler. This kind of policy has proliferated tolerated since the French Revolution, and has almost come to be the standard policy in many emergent nations. With the rise of nationalism and the nation-state, it has often become axiomatic that a nation needs only one language, and that modernization and industrialization and all their benefits require that nation-states support only one language, whether it is termed official, national, or whatever. This has been more or less the pattern for every newly-emergent former colony, as colonialism ended after World War II, and now seems to be arising in many post-Soviet and post-Apartheid regimes as well.

Lesson 2: Tolerance can be revoked, rescinded, cancelled, or annulled.

Case 3: India.

In India, linguistic tolerance is widespread in areas with long-standing linguistic minorities/populations, especially where division of labor means little or no economic competition between groups. Minority groups are typically multilingual , speaking the dominant language as well as their home language, and perhaps also English and Hindi. In the linguistic states that emerged after reorganization in post-Independence India, language was recognized as a territorial right, and provisions ns also existed to deal with linguistic minorities within the linguistic states; but in fact, the rights of such minorities outside their own linguistic homelands, or of linguistic minority groups that are very small, are not well cared for, and this must be viewed as a serious weakness of Indian language policy. Similarly in newly diverse areas, such as many urban centers such as Bombay and New Delhi, with egalitarian rights and intense economic competition, linguistic tolerance may be low because it may become a marker of difference and of labor competition .

Lesson 3: Linguistic Tolerance is not portable


    III. What kind of solution can we propose for Moldova?

The old situation was of course the Soviet system, with territorial rights for languages in various jurisdictions (republics, autonomous republics, regions, districts, autonomous areas), with Russian having universal rights, i.e. portability.

The new situation is a reversal of old. The old majority, where Russian was primus inter pares, with portable rights, is now the minority. They are resentful, and perhaps revengeful; they don't wish to adapt, and they would like Russia to in intervene and set things straight.


  1. Will Territorialism work? Can territorial rights (within Moldova) be granted for Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, and Gagauz? Will these minorities accept Moldovan/Rumanian as the new primus inter pares language?

  3. Can the usefulness of Russian as a lingua franca be recognized? Will this be accepted? Would it help (or hinder) to set a time-limit placed on the status of Russian as lingua franca?
  4. Would it work to put all languages on an equal basis?
  5. Could it work to recognize different domains or different scopes of tolerance for different languages, i.e. not territorial, but social/professional domains?
  6. It must be recognized that
  7. Could a language policy be developed with grass-roots decision-making? Have people at local levels decide what would work for them?
  8. Note how racial tolerance is the official policy in the US, but still racism lives on, undercover, feeding on resentment over 'quotas', favoritism, linked to regional loyalties, and other issues.



References Cited

  1. Bourdieu, Pierre. 1982. Ce que parler veut dire. Paris: Fayard,
  2. Crawford, James. Language Loyalties. A Source Book on the Official English Controversy. 1992. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  3. Debates and Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of the State of California, 1878-1879 (Sacramento: 1880-1881), vol. 2, pp. 801-2.
  4. Encyclopedia Britannica. ‘Edict of Nantes.’
  5. Kloss, Heinz. The American Bilingual Tradition 1977. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House.
  6. Schiffman, H. 1996. Linguistic Culture and Language Policy. London and New York: Routledge.