catholic by birth; scientist by choice; sinner by merit. gaidhlig-speaking neuroscience student at oxford. likes to question everything! @di_macd

Language and National Identity

The Welsh have a saying: “a nation without a language is a nation without a heart.” Because it encourages cooperation, language – that most social of skills – becomes part of our collective identity. Is it any surprise then to suppose that language is what forms national identities? I shall focus on the historical relationship between the language we speak and our identity as members of a national community. I will explore, through historical examples, the two roles played by language in forming national identities – in the case of China and France, the creation of a standard national language to unite disparate peoples into a homogenous national identity; and, in fissiparous entities like Yugoslavia, the use of a peripheral language to differentiate a ‘new’ national identity from the norm. An important caveat will also be discussed: national identity is neither determined by nor dependent on the language people happen to speak.

            The Mandarin Chinese language, with 800 million speakers, dwarfs all rivals in terms of sheer numerical size but, what is most astonishing is its numerical concentration; nearly every speaker is found in China alone. The historical relationship between Mandarin and the ancient Chinese nation can be seen in what the language calls itself: guóyŭ – literally, national language.

First united in 221BC by Qin Shi Huang, and notwithstanding a civil war or two, China has remained so for over 2000 years. Yet the environmental historian Jared Diamond claims in Guns, Germs and Steel that the crude Mongoloid stereotype conceals a history of anatomic, geographic and linguistic diversity. He says civilization arose separately in both the northern Yellow River valley and the southern Yangzte River valley. The lush, wet south gave rise to a shorter darker people whilst the harsh northern climate selected for taller, paler bodies characterized by the epicanthic fold (or slanted eyes). How then were these two vast regions united?

            The history of the creation of a national Chinese identity and the fusion of north and south is told in the linguistic maps. Mandarin and its Sino-Tibetan siblings are a multitudinous sea, dotted in the south with islands of Austroasiatic, Mia-Yao and Tai-Kadai. This suggests that Mandarin’s ancestor arose in the northern region where there is far less linguistic diversity. The history of the Zhou Dynasty (100-221BC) mirrors this assertion. The northerners, inventors of agriculture, inundated the southern rice-growing region. The resultant population explosion of the northern physical type pushed the southerners into south-east Asia. Those who remained experienced language shift to Sino-Tibetan and the sinification of China was complete; two peoples, once divided by appearance and geography, were now united by a common language.

            The Chinese state pioneered the use of language as a national unifier. The Qin Emperor who brought about unity in 221BC was prescient enough to standardise the script. In continuous use up until the 20th century, it had the advantage of being pictorial. Thus, the Mandarin script was used for all Sino-Tibetan languages – nothing needed ever be translated, fostering national cohesion. Hence, a national literature (the classics: Confucius, Lao Tzu) preceded and assisted the spread of the national language. During the Sui and Tang dynasties (AD581-906) the state consolidated literacy in the ruling classes by expecting all to sit civil service exams concerning national literature, written in the national script, and whose oral element was conducted in the national language – after all, Mandarin has come to mean bureaucrat. China’s elite adopted Mandarin and, as the exams were open to all, Mandarin became the language of aspiration. It became the language of the Chinese.

            In Early Modern Europe, this process was repeated and the growth of national languages proceeded in tandem with the growth of the nation-state as a political entity. In France, according to Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution, the nation-state begot the national language. He tells us that prior to 1789 less than 13% of the population was fluent in French as we know it – the Parisian dialect (or langue d’oïl). In 1539 King Francois I had passed the Ordinance of Villers-Cottertês decreeing that all official business down to the parish level was to be conducted,

            “en langage maternel francois et non autrement.”

            The French state was constructed on the dream that there would be but one French language, which would eventually be spoken by every Frenchman as his mother tongue. As a consequence, the speakers of Provencal – the sweet words of the troubadours – lost over time the knowledge that theirs was the distinct literary langue d’oc; it became a mere patois, a broken peasant speech. A chasm was carved between the elegant French of the capital – the national French – and the grunting of the provinces. No Frenchman speaks with double-negatives but, when writing, he is obliged to graft a ne to his pas because, well, this is his national language. The state language is perfect, inalienable, and unchangeable; in 1694, the Académie Française produced the first ever French dictionary to promote this national standard. Tellingly, David Ogg dates the first appearance of the noun patriotisme to the 1777 Dictionary. The state-sponsored language is tied up with national identity because it created it – speaking in French defines a Frenchman. Stephen Pinker exposes the common conceit that only those of Gallic blood can ever truly master the language – so intimately is the language associated with their national identity that the French have come to believe that they possess a genetic propensity to speak it. As a result, the French are fiercely protective of their language; as recently as 1992, a line was added to Article 2 of the constitution which summed up in simple terms the centrality of language to French national identity:

            “La langue de la Republique est le Francais.”

            By elevating a particular dialect to the standard, the French state was able to coerce the population into speaking and writing it, creating a homogenous national identity. In the same way, after the Reconquista and political triumph of Castile, the Castilian dialect of ‘Iberian’ became the only contender for the national language of Spain. The grammarian Antonio de Nebruja was the first to understand that to create a national identity one had to create a Platonic form of the national language – a Queen’s English – from which any deviance would be considered debased and unpatriotic. In 1492 he presented Isabella with his Gramática de la Lengua Castellana: Europe’s first consciously national language which would be the foundation of Castile’s imperial future and Spanish (as opposed to Catalan or Castilian) national identity.

            In the case of French and Spanish, what marks a language out as immutably national is the support of the state, echoing Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich’s quip that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” This is reflected in the fact that Castilian has 500 million speakers, including every Spaniard, whereas Catalan barely manages 14 million. Moreover, the actual title of language is often dependent on it being a nation-state’s expression of national identity. Portuguese is more closely related to Standard ‘Castilian’ Spanish than Galician, supposedly a mere dialect. But thanks to long years of independence, Portuguese, the national language of Portugal, is considered a language in its own right.

            Linguist John McWhorter claims that throughout history languages have been manufactured for nationalistic ends. He cites the example of tiny Moldova, tacked onto Romania’s eastern border, whose dialect is no different to standard Romanian than any other rural Romanian dialect. In the course of the last century, the Soviets, in an effort to stop the Moldovans identifying with their Romanians neighbours, cooked up a new Moldovan language. By publishing schoolbooks which exaggerated grammatical quirks, Russian linguists were able to indoctrinate Moldovans into believing in an independent national identity which persists to this day.

            Whilst Moldovan was purposely used to sow divisions, many minorities have freely endorsed their language to differentiate themselves from the centre of power. In Yugoslavia, after the 1995 Dayton Agreement, Bosniak was born as a separate language to Serbo-Croat. Since Montenegro gained independence from Serbia, the inhabitants have, as if by magic, begun to speak Montenegrin. It would appear then that on the creation of new nation-states out of minority groups, the government takes two steps to assert its distinct national identity – seeking political recognition for its national language and losing badly in the group stages of the FIFA World Cup.

            In this way, minorities have used language to express what the anthropologist James W Fernandez calls our peripheral wisdom:

            “All problems of identity, both of citizens and of the national entities of which they are part, are problems of imposed coherence […] of homogeneity…”

            Thus the existence of a widespread potentially-national language does not necessarily presuppose national unity. Hindi and Urdu are mutually intelligible; in fact, they are the same language, the language of the Sultanate of Delhi. But in 1947 the division of the subcontinent into two states caused a conscious division of the language in order to foster two distinct national identities. In Pakistan, Urdu takes its higher-order vocabulary from Koranic Arabic sources, as a reflection of its Muslim identity. In India, Hindi borrows from Vedic Sanskrit, emphasising its Hindu identity. The twin languages have been altered to express the states’ respective religious identities, thus building two separate national identities and cementing the barriers between them.

            Nevertheless, although language as a unifying and differentiating force has the power to forge national identities, we must acknowledge that specific features of language do not directly cause national character. To return to French, McWhorter allows that no matter how sophisticated he thinks French culture, this is in no way a product of the language itself. The supposed refinement of the French language and its role in the mission civilisatrice arose only from its state-sponsored origin in Paris. The Frenchman can rightly take pride in the fact that the first major philosophical work to be published in a European vernacular was Descartes’ Discours de la Methode in 1637. But MacWhorter explains that the fact “je pense donc je suis” was first expressed in French does not stem from any particular superiority of the language as a vehicle of thought or a resultant penchant on the part of French speakers for philosophy. Indeed, Descartes wrote his tome in French for more prosaic reasons – to sell more copies!

This ‘linguistic determinism’ does, however, have some validity in explaining the historical relationship between language and national identity. Mandarin is an atomic language made up of monosyllables. As there are only so many sounds a human mouth can make, tone is used to convey meaning – this has an obvious effect on how a Chinese poet must operate. We can reasonably propose a link between national literature and the language it is written in, but some historians can easily go too far. In Mandarin the mountain is big translates to mountain big; Zhou Youguang claims that as a direct result of lacking a verb to be,

            “The Chinese did not develop the idea of identity in logic or the concept of substance in philosophy. And without these concepts there could be no idea of causality and science.”

            He argues that because the Chinese never say the mountain is big then they must have no concept of mountains possessing the quality of bigness. Thus, for the Chinese, induction from the material world is rendered impossible. This is absurd. The historical reasons for science not arising in China are myriad – centralized government, blinding respect for the classics – but Mandarin is not among them. A country’s literature must obviously reflect language but, in the case of whether a nation’s history favoured the development of scientific or philosophical national identity, vagaries of grammar and syntax are a moot point.

Moreover, language is not always necessarily the core factor in forming national identity. For instance, if a Welshman’s language is at the heart of his national identity then, linguistically, Scotland must suffer from a broken heart. In 1138 David I fought the English at the Battle of the Standard leading an army made up of “Normans, Germans, English, Northumbrians and Cumbrians, men of Teviotdale and Lothian, Galwegians and Scots.” Historians agree that these disparate peoples created a united national identity during the Wars of Independence. Yet at Stirling Bridge the spearmen most definitely did not shout “FREEDOM!” – Gaelic, Scots, French and Norse would have been heard; none of which were collinear to the realm. In fact, anthropologist Anthony Cohen says that Scottish identity did not arise from a unifying Scottish language but from the certainty that whoever the Scots were they were most definitely “not-English.” Thus, the Declaration of Arbroath, Scotland’s birth certificate, conceived national identity as ultimately that which was distinct from England.

            Early modern attempts to form a national linguistic identity for this not-England failed for the precise reason that, unlike Welsh, neither Gaelic nor Scots has historically been spoken all over Scotland. Mirroring the religious aspects of Hindi and Urdu, Gaelic and Scots, according to Celtic historian Victor Durkacz, came to represent respectively a Highland Catholic and a Lowland Protestant identity. Neither encompassed Scotland the nation; thus, civic national identity, as exemplified by the SNP, though not-English in design is thoroughly English-speaking in character. Because Scotland’s not-Englishness was asserted through the medium of English, the poet Edwin Muir claimed "Scotland can only create a national literature by writing in English.” Neither Scots nor Gaelic was a feasible means to form a modern Scottish national identity that bridged the Highland line. Even Hugh MacDiarmid, ardent proponent of Lallans as a synthetic national Scots, wrote:

            “Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?”

            French, Spanish and Chinese national identity was built from a Platonic form of the language. In the same way, in 1921, the Irish Free State quickly set about standardizing Gaelic, transforming it into a national language of education. But in Scotland, Standard English united the “multiform” languages of Scotland into a united not-English national identity. Scotland proves the historical picture is not always as simple as that of French or Mandarin. The Scotsman can know that his language, whether it is Gaelic, Scots or English, is independent of his national identity.

It is clear then that language, but not the properties of a language, forms national identity. The historical cases I have outlined above show that language has two major roles to play in the formation of national identities. Principally, in the case of French or Mandarin, the nation-state picks a language, standardizes, simplifies and preaches it, educating a new national identity into the nation. Conversely, minority groups on the periphery of a nation, such as the Bosnians, use their own language to express a distinct national identity arrayed against the centre of power. In conclusion, we can say language plays two roles in the formation of national identities but, as Scotland’s history shows, does not necessarily have to play any major political role.

  • 7 August 2011
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