I’ve just run a search for the terms “multilingual” and “multilingualism” in the National Library of Australia’s archive of Historic Australian Newspapers, 1803-1954. In the process, I have learnt that the adjective “multilingual” was used for the first time in an Australian newspaper on October, 25, 1882 in the Tasmania-based The Mercury in a review of the then-most-recent issue of The Calcutta Review. This is the sentence in which “multilingual” appears for the first time in an Australian newspaper:
[T]hough individually weak in mind and body, [they] were numerous. They were barbarous multilingual worshippers not so much of many gods as of many devils.
Doesn’t sound good! Not what I’d hoped that “multilingual” would collocate with. It’s clear that “multilingual” is anathema to the author and devoid of any positive connotations.
Curious what this is all about? Well, the author asks why the “Aryans” (i.e. Indo-Europeans) of India are so much less civilized than their European counterparts despite the fact that they were “the cousins of our European forefathers” some millennia ago. Well, it turns out to be the fault of the “barbarous multilingual Aborigines” of India who lived there before the “Aryans” arrived on the subcontinent and in the “fusion” that followed they dragged those fine Aryans down to their level.
The text is a typical specimen of the prevalent colonial European worldview of the time, which was based on the assumption that cultures formed a cline, and that each culture was located somewhere on a specific point on a general path of human development from savagery to civilization, with Europeans sitting pretty on top of that hierarchy.
While the 19th century pyramid of cultures is well-known, this example was the first time I’d come across a text where multilingualism served as a criterion for savagery as opposed to civilization. Civilization, by implication, can be assumed to be monolingual.
To me, this little exercise in corpus linguistics is a stark reminder of the wider colonial system in which the monolingual mindset developed. While monolingualism may not exist theoretically, practically the belief in monolingualism is part of the chronicles of colonial and post-colonial hierarchies and exploitative systems.