It was a cold, still morning when English invaded your homeland. It did so swiftly, under the cover of product placement and modern slang. Like everything worthwhile in the art of war, English struck viciously and without mercy. There were a few prisoners. (Though they called themselves bilingual, they were more like POWs with job prospects.) But as we all know, English is a mongrel army at best. A motley regiment that rarely obeys rules and indentures its captives to fight for it, turning them into words or phrases that their homeland wouldn’t recognise. Linguistic imperialism is a double-edged sword, and using it makes for the most complex fog of war ever.

Obfuscating language during wartime has a history longer than the Hundred Years’ War, but less obvious, and perhaps even more insidious, is the regulation and criminalisation of other languages.

During World War I, America was the scene of an ambitious linguistic genocide of the German language. This was all the more ambitious because, at the time, German was the second-most commonly spoken language in the United States. Despite this, eliminating the language was seen as a way to put a stop to spies. Just like any good warfare tactic, undermining German was achieved through a pincer movement, though this one used legislation and educational assaults.

Initially it was just a ‘phasing out’ – and in ways that might seem ludicrously patriotic. Streets were renamed, publishers were urged not to produce German titles, and even everyday items such as ‘sauerkraut’ morphed into the far more logical ‘liberty cabbage’. (This would happen again later with ‘Freedom Fries’ – petty revenge for France’s opposition towards the Iraq War). As a German speaker in wartime America, you might well have felt uncomfortable, and may have complained quietly in your mütter tongue, but once laws were introduced your feeling of being an unwanted alien would have crystallised.

In June 1917, the Trading with the Enemy Act was passed. The aim of this act was, ostensibly, to impose embargoes on Germany and its allies, but the result was a suppression of foreign language productions – making it illegal to mail non-English printed matter without a certified English translation.

On May 23, 1918, Iowa governor William Harding banned the use of any foreign language in public. In the end, 18,000 people were charged in the Midwest with violating the various new English-only statutes. The casualties of war were not simply the number of students studying German in high schools, which dropped from 25 to 0.8 percent, but foreign language studies as a whole, with immigrant languages throughout America falling into decline.

Obfuscating language during wartime has a history longer than the Hundred Years’ War, but less obvious, and perhaps even more insidious, is the regulation and criminalisation of other languages.

Of course, two can play at this game. Robert Phillipson, in his work Linguistic Imperialism, demonstrates how the advance of the English language was blamed by the Nazis during World War II and the Soviets during the Cold War “for the destruction of western civilisation”.

It would be nice to think that linguistic racism stopped in America after World War I, but whether due to continued tensions, the flow-on effect of wartime laws, or as part of a growing hostility towards non-Americans, there continued to be legal penalties and restrictions for bilinguals living in the United States. In 1921, at least four US states passed laws making these aliens ineligible to own property, buy stock in American corporations, or to work in government offices or on public works projects – though these laws were sadly not recent inventions. That same year New York entertained a law to ban public speech in any language other than English, while also instituting English literacy tests for voters. ‘Literacy tests’ has a worryingly familiar ring to it, even today.

Forcing language use in this manner – whether in a totalitarian state to keep out unwanted enemies, or in WWI America – can have the duel effect of marginalising unwanted ‘others’ while at the same time striking a blow at their culture, which a government might seek to suppress. All in the name of patriotism.

Language as a basis for militaristic movements is not at all limited to the past. Recently, Vladimir Putin justified his annexation of Crimea on the grounds that he owed protection to Russian speakers everywhere. While the actual reasons are likely to be far more complex, his comment still inspired a world of redrawn linguistic borders scathingly crafted by The Economist.

Just as borders shift, so too does meaning – especially when related to military language. In the US, ‘enhanced interrogation’ of terror subjects involves techniques such as ‘rectal feeding’ and a ‘series of near drownings’. Only now has The New York Times decided it will actually use the word ‘torture’ for these acts. This raises the question as to whether definitions have any bearing on past events, and whether our understanding of the atrocities of war shift as our means of expressing them does too. This change may be a long time coming, considering the United State Department of Justice has announced it won’t prosecute those involved with the interrogation program.

Subjugating, stigmatising and repurposing language are common examples of linguistic imperialism. As a bloodless invasion technique, its effectiveness has been proved over several centuries and several unfortunate cultures. And it is here where I think rests one of the most striking concerns of how language might evolve – into warfare.

Latin, the lingua franca of the Roman Empire, was forced on most of Europe. Mandarin has almost entirely consumed Tibet and minority Chinese languages. There are plenty historical examples of language being suppressed, and in many cases this mirrors the culture and people being subjugated.

That said, language use is never simple, and there are historic counterexamples to the idea of linguistic imperialism. In 1976, up to 20,000 schoolchildren in the Soweto township of South Africa staged a protest against being taught in Afrikaans. This wasn’t so much a preference for any particular language, as it was a refusal to speak the language used by apartheid authorities to control and monitor them. As described by Desmond Tutu, Afrikaans was seen as “the language of the oppressor” and a way of discouraging critical thinking – where the students had to exert their energies simply on understanding the language rather than the subject. Somewhere between two hundred and six hundred children died in their refusal to speak Afrikaans.

This may sound excessive, but if language can enslave, it stands to reason that it can also set you free.

Rafael S. W. is a graduate of creative writing and one of the founding members of Dead Poets’ Fight Club. He has been published in Voiceworks, Going Down Swinging and Dot Dot Dash. He also competes in poetry slams and giant-sized chess games.