Language as a proxy for conflict

Andrew writes:

Language seems to be a theme of Gary Younge’s recent book, Who Are We – and Should It Matter In The 21st Century?. I chanced on an extract in a recent Guardian, and there are a couple of good quotes from it which seem to reflect the theme of our project. Of course, he has visited Belgium:

Belgium’s linguistic divide mirrors a reversal of economic fortunes whereby the once wealthy, industrial French-speaking Walloonia has now been eclipsed by a far more productive, hi-tech Flanders.

Language, then, all too often becomes the most intimate proxy for broader societal conflicts that have little to do with what people actually speak. “National languages are . . . almost always semi-artificial constructs and occasionally . . . virtually invented,” writes Eric Hobsbawm in Nations and Nationalism. “They are the opposite of what nationalist mythology supposes them to be, namely the primordial foundations of national culture and the matrices of the national mind. They are usually attempts to devise a standardised idiom out of a multiplicity of actually spoken idioms, which are thereafter downgraded to dialects.”

And a relevant historical observation from later in the same piece:

The notion that a British monarch would speak English as their native tongue – if indeed at all – is a relatively recent one, and the barons responsible for the Magna Carta, who are today hailed as the among the first patriots, did not speak English. Hobsbawm estimates that only 2.5% of Italians spoke the national language at the time of unification. … At the time of the French revolution, half of France didn’t speak French and only 12-13% spoke it correctly; while for Spain the issue is still far from resolved. The official language is Castilian, but roughly a quarter of the country also speaks one of the three main co-official regional languages – Catalan, Basque or Galician.

In other words, the use of language as a form of identity is a modern invention.

There’s also an interesting review-cum-reflection by a British writer of Pakistani background.


About thenextwavefutures

Andrew Curry is a consultant who specialises in futures for The Futures Company, based in London. All views are personal, etc.

One comment

  1. Some stray thoughts on this…

    Thorlac Turville-Petre’s book England the Nation: Language, Literature and National Identity 1290-1340 provides an interesting history of the emergence of the ‘national language’ idea (and the associated idea of a national vernacular literary culture) in England in the later middle ages. Even Turville-Petre is thought to be a bit future-focused in his narrative, though, and to miss a lot of evidence of divergence from the ‘national language’ line of thought. Arguably it took conflict – specifically trade and diplomatic rivalry with France – to unseat French as the lingua franca (ahem) of court and law (cf. the 1362 Statute of Pleadings), a process which accelerated in the mid-to-late fourteenth century. That’s the same period you see the production and copying of self-consciously ‘big’ works of English vernacular literature – Piers Plowman, Confessio Amantis, the Wycliffite Bible, Canterbury Tales, etc.

    Many other, and older, societies were pretty relaxed on the subject. Akkadian was retained as a lingua franca when the Persians took over the Babylonian empire’s old territories, for example, and only really died out with the Greeks, when the centre of economic activity in the Hellenistic world shifted westward. (These ‘trade shifts’, interestingly, also seem to have seen off Greek in the Western Roman Empire quite quickly.)

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