Nationalism is seemingly inescapable. From politics, to popular culture, to food, we are constantly reminded of the fact that, as humans, we are somehow organised into nations. Being a member of a particular nation is a key element of our identity, and not showing allegiance to our nation is seen as, at best, somewhat remarkable, and at worst, downright suspicious or even treasonous. I’m looking out over the city of Bristol, in the South West of England. It is a location with a strong link to the West Country, with its traditional connotations of apple harvests, cider making and Cheddar cheese. But it also has a strong and controversial history as a port city that participated in the ‘triangular trade’ of slaves, sugar and tobacco.
Today, Bristol is home to a varied and multi-ethnic community of people who speak a wide variety of languages, as well as English, and would perhaps identify as being from Bristol, England, Britain and a place linked with their ethnic background all at the same time.
So where does this concept of nation come from? And how does it persist and thrive on a global level? Today, we’ll be examining the ideas of nation and nationalism, focusing in on one particular
tool that is arguably indispensable in distinguishing one nation from another: language. But before we turn to language, let’s see where this idea of nation came from, in Europe at least. For millennia, Europe has been divided between different ruling powers. From the Roman Empire, the Kievan Rus and the territories colonised by the Vikings, all the way through to the modern states we are familiar with like France, Spain and Italy. But this doesn’t mean that people living in these areas have always felt an affinity to their country at large. For centuries, authoritarian governments ruled without consulting their citizens, and as such, engagement between people and their nation was very limited.
We start to see a shift in this popular sentiment in the late eighteenth century with an event
that was to change the way countries were run from then on: the French Revolution. The new French government was to (at least in theory) take into account the voice of the people, and so a sense of national belonging on the part of citizens was suddenly of greater importance than ever before. In the 19th century, various small duchies and states united to form larger nations like Germany and Italy.
In order for these new nations to thrive, all citizens needed to feel a sense of belonging: in other words, nationalism. It is for this reason that we refer to the period between the French Revolution and World War One as the Age of Nationalisms. But, how was such nationalism created? Well, a key tool was language. In places such as France, Germany and Italy, millions of people covering vast swathes of territory, who (for the most part) had had nothing to do with one another, were now required to show some form of allegiance to one nation. But, how do you convince somebody from Sicily that they have anything in common with someone from Milan?
Or somebody from Hamburg that they were part of the same nation as somebody from Munich? Well, what if they spoke the same language? In his addresses to the German nation of the early 19th century, Johann Gottlieb Fichte told the people that ‘those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds, by nature herself.’ Never mind that the people he was talking to spoke a broad range of, at times mutually unintelligible, dialects. But the idea of linguistic unity, that everybody in the nation spoke the same language, a language that was truly theirs, proved indispensable to the creation of modern European nations.
In 1793, just after the French Revolution, Abbé Henri Grégoire claimed in a famous report that ‘the language of freedom’, that’s to say, French, ‘must be used in a singular, unified way, in a republic that was to be one and indivisible.’ This idea of national linguistic unity was to be pushed yet further in 20th-century Spain by General Francisco Franco.
A central tenet of Franco’s fascist dictatorship was ‘España: una, grande y libre’.
Spain: one, great and free. All internal diversity was to be quashed, be that political or linguistic. Slogans abounded like ‘Don’t bark like a dog, speak the language of the Empire’, or ‘Speak Christian’, referring to Castilian Spanish. This overlooked the wide range of languages spoken in 20th-century Spain, including (among others) Galician, Basque and Catalan. Speakers of Galician and Catalan were told that they spoke mere ‘dialects of Spanish’, while Basque speakers were also told that the way they spoke was inherently inferior to Spanish, the one true language of Franco’s Spain.
It’s taken Spain decades to recover from such treatment of its minorities, and there are many who claim that there are still differences in power between Spanish and the other languages of Spain. In this very brief snapshot of language and the nation, we have seen how historically language has been a key tool in constructing a sense of commonality among diverse people. In the changing Western European nations of the 19th century, linguistic unity equated to national unity. In many respects, very little has changed. In the 21st century, many nationalist leaders insist upon the linguistic homogeneity of their countries.
So I want this to get you thinking: what purposes does such national unity serve? How is the language we speak tied to our own sense of identity? And to what extent are we all far more than the nations we come from?