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One idea I've heard from time to time is that if we all spoke one language, we wouldn't have war any more.

I can think of counter-examples to this. For example, the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq (both Arabic-speaking) as an international war, and countless civil wars such as Somalia.

However, does sharing the same language play any role in the likelihood of war, either by decreasing or, perhaps counter-intuitively, increasing it?

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    Sounds like a spin off of the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis. I'm wonder if this answer could be better answered in the Cognitive Sciences or History stack exchanges. Oct 31, 2013 at 10:22
  • How would you test this hypothesis? You also have a title and body mismatch. Do you want to know if language plays any role, or if it reduces the likelihood of war? Additionally, are you asking if people in a single country are more/less likely to support war with any other country if they all speak the same language (nationalism), or if language differences between nations makes them more/less likely to go to war. (You example leads me to believe the latter)
    – user1873
    Oct 31, 2013 at 14:11
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    There are a lot of confounding factors to take into account, governing structure for declaring war, what constitutes a war, economic conditions, etc.. Are either of the nations a dictatorship or are they a republic? (what influence does the number of people you need to convince to go to war have, and how do you adjust for that variable). I think you will find the greatest deterrent to war is trade not language, because everyone loves money, but I am unsure how you could test/quantify either. If your question is, does it have any role, the answer is yes (just like with AGW).
    – user1873
    Oct 31, 2013 at 14:25
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    Relevant Hitchhiker's Guide section May 9, 2022 at 13:38
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    @Punintended, not to mention the poor Babel fish, which by eliminating all the barriers to communication between different species, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of the Universe. May 9, 2022 at 19:59

3 Answers 3

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Generally speaking, the answer is no, sharing the same language doesn't play a sound role in the likelihood of war.

Richardson's (1960) Statistics of Deadly Quarrels provides the earliest systematic treatment of the impact of cultural similarity on international conflict. Analyzing more than 300 wars and disputes from 1820 to 1929, he finds that, in the main, common language did not predict either increased or decreased bellicosity among warring parties (pp. 223-30). However, for the major language groups that he studies (N = 13), Chinese dyads tended to be less war prone, whereas Spanish dyads were more likely to fight one another. Contrary to the belief of the advocates of universal languages, such as Esperanto, that common language across states would increase the likelihood of peace through more effective communication, similarity or difference in language between states seemed to have little effect on the occurrence of war. (cited from Errol A. Henderson, Culture or Contiguity (1997) [1])

Most of the contemporary conflict studies prefer investigating the effect of ethnicity on the likelihood of armed conflicts, and though ethnicity and language are strongly related to each other, ethnicity is believed to be a better explanatory factor than any merely linguistic factors.
Nonetheless, the importance of language as a means of communication and as an identity factor makes it a convenient instrument of propaganda both for conflict escalation and for conflict resolution. For conflict escalation, Ranko Bugarski [2] investigated Yugoslavia's case,

stressing the close connections between language and nationalism and showing how language played different roles in the events leading to the disintegration of the federation and warfare on its territory.

Paul A. Chilton [3] offers a broader theoretical discussion of the role played by language and discourse in conflict resolution, focusing

on the issue of who talks to whom (or who is permitted to talk to whom), and, on the other hand, the practices in such communication that contribute to or impede conflict or its resolution.

[1]: Henderson, E. A. (1997). Culture or Contiguity: Ethnic Conflict, the Similarity of States, and the Onset of War, 1820-1989. The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 41(5), 649–668. http://www.jstor.org/stable/174468

[2]: Bugarski, R. (2001). Language, Nationalism and War in Yugoslavia. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 2001(151), 69-87. https://doi.org/10.1515/ijsl.2001.048

[3]: Chilton, P. A. (1997). The Role of Language in Human Conflict: Prolegomena to the Investigation of Language as a Factor in Conflict Causation and Resolution. Current Issues in Language and Society, 4:3, 174-189, https://doi.org/10.1080/13520529709615497

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    Can you identify the articles you linked to, or describe their findings, so we can search for them now that the links are dead? This is a great example of why hyperlinks should never use the word "here."
    – phoog
    May 9, 2022 at 10:51
  • @phoog Links fixed.
    – I.M.
    Jun 2, 2022 at 14:29
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One well-known source of this idea is Dr. Zamenhoff, the inventor of Esperanto language, who indeed believed that most conflicts, including the armed ones, originate from misunderstanding:

Zamenhof's goal was to create an easy and flexible language that would serve as a universal second language to foster world peace and international understanding, and to build a "community of speakers"

As mentioned in the comments by the @LateralFractal, this is closely related to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (aka Linguistic relativity), which essentially suggests that language determines the way we think and the other way around. Note that in Linguistics this view has been largely supplemented by the Generative Grammar approaches, which suggests that all the languages share the same underlying structure, likely hard-coded in human brain.

The argument ultimately boils down to whether the wars results from decisions or viewpoints of particular personalities (or peoples) who cannot agree with each other OR whether they result from the underlying structural conflicts, like getting a hand on natural resources, pushing competitors from a market, gaining independence from an oppressive regime, boosting arms sales, etc. One recent incarnation of such thinking is, e.g., dismissing "Russian psyche/mindset", as unjustly suspicious of other people's intentions - suggesting that the western politicians are motivated by high goals, such as peace, human rights, exterminating poverty.

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If we understand language as a common discourse and shared cultural references, I believe that the likelihood of war will be significantly smaller. In the modern era, I can't think of a European war between nations who shared the same language. Perhaps the likelihood that such states remain independent is also smaller. I think of the 'Anschluß' on the eve of the 2nd world war.

The American independence war took place when American culture was already several centuries old and the British lived in a different cultural realm.

Interstate wars between formerly colonized nations (such as the terrible La Plata war in Latin America) are an exception, but generally, I claim that speaking the same language in the fullest sense of shared cultural references, does decrease the likelihood of war.

Here is a map of the neighboring country's language: https://www.mapsofworld.com/world-language-map.htm

Here is an interesting update on the Richardson study: "The one social factor that does have some detectable correlation with war is religion." https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/6e9c/de40cb861ac28c735748837650b9a40425d9.pdf

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    In Europe, there's a tendency for different countries to have different languages. Even so, there were German speakers on both sides of the war of 1866 (if nothing else, Bavaria allied with Austria-Hungary against Prussia). Jan 30, 2019 at 17:08
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    There have been civil wars, in the twentieth century, where both sides spoke the same language Jan 30, 2019 at 19:36
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    Many Ukrainians speak Russian as a first language, Russia and Ukraine are usually regarded as European, and they’re pretty much at war with each other.
    – Golden Cuy
    Jan 30, 2019 at 19:50
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    "The American independence war took place when American culture was already several centuries old": that's a huge overstatement. The colonies were mostly established in the early 17th century, less than 175 years before the revolution began. I don't see any way in which 175 years can reasonably be thought of as "several centuries." Also for "European war between nations who shared the same language" consider Yugoslavia, where nationalists will tell you that Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin are separate languages, but linguists (and common sense) will tell you that they are not.
    – phoog
    Jan 30, 2019 at 21:04
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    The US Civil war, or the Spanish one? The Irish war of independence, and the subsequent Troubles? Sunni/Shite conflicts in Iraq, ISIS, the current mess in Syria? Seems as though it is not rare to have bloody wars between groups that share a language, and a considerable amount of culture.
    – jamesqf
    Jan 31, 2019 at 4:42

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