Linguistic identity and nationalism

This post expands some of the ideas from my last post and is based on part of an essay I did for an Open University course a few years ago.

On the OU course Christina Chimisso (2003:50) underlined the importance of language as a component of personal identity,

“it is generally assumed that people have a special relationship with one language, their mother-tongue. Moreover, people might find a sense of community with others with whom they can easily communicate, who share the same language”.

Pittaway (2003:149) takes this further, for him language “defines and shapes personal identity” and this makes it “one of the most obvious fields in which European cultural identity is manifested”.

In his classic monograph ‘Language and nationalism’ (1973) Joshua Fishman describes how communities often regard language as “the most undeniable indicator of uniqueness” (p 53) and even more importantly “a nationality-contrastive or continuative device”. As communities find contrastive (i.e. against some linguistic ‘other’) self-identification via language language identity is often closely linked to nationalism. Language identity, as  Pittaway (2003:158) again expresses it,

“came to form a key plank of the cultural and political nationalism that emerged across Europe during the nineteenth century…it can define a group – a nation – and form the basis of its claim to have a state of its own” (2003:158).

The idea of a community defined and legitimised in terms of a shared language is however a fairly modern social construction.

May (2003) claims the ideal of political organisation based on the linguistically homogenous nation originated with the 1789 French revolution. Hitherto linguistic uniformity had not been particularly important to rulers. According to Benedict Anderson (1983) the industrial revolution via the mass printing of books and newspapers and of course education and literacy consolidated the hegemony of an “imagined” linguistic community. To Fishman (1973:43) mass literacy was essential for a modern society and a common code was simply a consequence of this. Nevertheless in the ‘community’ one language or variety of language usually became dominant, acquiring “a hegemonic position because it was spoken by the ruling class or was the preferred written language” (Chimisso 2003:51).  Pittaway, notes that non-dominant groups in nation states are usually faced with a stark choice “they are either assimilated or develop their own nationalism” (2003:176). As he observes language is “a means of inclusion, yet also forms a means of exclusion” (p 149).

Exclusion and discrimination fuel the formation of linguistically-driven nationalist movements. Heller (1999:7) points out the irony of this process; “linguistic minorities are created by nationalisms which exclude them. At the same time, the logic of linguistic nationalism is available to minorities as a way to resist the power of the majority”. As we shall see later with reference to education linguistic conflicts are therefore at their root power conflicts. Marxist linguist Marnie Holbrow (1999:151) reminds us that ideology is embedded not only in language itself, but how we think about it and the “profoundly social aspect of language means that ideas held about language are interlaced with wider views about society.”

Phillipson (1992) addresses the aspect of ideology he terms ‘linguistic imperialism’. Like Heller he accuses the “ideologues of the French Revolution” who “believed that their ideals would best be achieved by imposing a single language on all, a linguicidal policy” (p 20). Thus French “the international language of the of the European ruling groups” but still a minority language in the France of the 18th century was imposed on speakers of Occitian, Basque, Catalan, Breton, Alsatian etc. He notes ruefully that in France “this policy is still largely in force”. Pittaway (2003:175) concurs with Heller; “the acquisition of and competence in official French became a marker of social stratification.” As an early form of globalisation, linguistic imperialism embeds similar prestige notions of ‘progress’ or ‘modernisation’, generally meaning compliance with currently hegemonic views of economic and social organisation.

Phillipson notes that linguistic discourse often reveals discriminatory and even neo-colonial attitudes.

“Two of the most central labels in colonialist cultural mythology are tribe and dialect. They both express the way the dominant group differentiates itself and stigmatises the dominated group. They therefore form part of an essentially racist ideology. The rule is that we are a nation with a language and they are a tribe with a dialect” (p 38).

He cites Calvet (1974:54) who concludes that traditionally linguistics has failed to define rigorously enough such concepts as language and dialect in relation to social power, thus

“a dialect is never anything other than a defeated language and a language is a dialect that has succeeded politically”.

Power structures are therefore the primary source of linguistic conflict through the imposition (consciously or carelessly) of linguistic uniformity. English has now moved centre-stage and “the dominance of English is asserted and maintained by the establishment and continuous reconstruction of structural and cultural inequalities between English and other languages” (Phillipson 1992:47). We can see in Scotland how such hegemony is “advanced by such cultural activities as film, videos and television” (p 59) and is characterised an overwhelming asymmetry of the interaction with mass broadcast from the centre and only a trickle in the other direction.


Anderson B (1983) Imagined communities, Verso, London
Chimisso C (2003) What is identity? in Exploring European identities ed C Chimisso, The Open University, Milton Keynes
Fishman J A (1973) Language and nationalism, Newbury House Publ., Rowley, Mass.
Heller M (1999) Linguistic minorities and modernity, Longman, London
Holborow M (1999) The politics of English, Sage Publications, London
May S (2003) Language, nationalism and democracy in Europe in Minority languages in Europe eds Hogan-Brun G and Wolff, S, Palgrave Macmillan, London
Phillipson R (1992) Linguistic imperialism, Oxford University Press, Oxford
Pittaway M (2003) Language, identity and nation in Exploring European identities ed C Chimisso, The Open University, Milton Keynes



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