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.