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Linguistic nationism


The association of one language variety with the membership in one national community has been referred to as linguistic nationism. For example, during the French Revolution, the concept of a national language linked to a national culture was intended to systematically replace the variety of regional dialects and local practices. Between 1790 and 1792 a questionnaire was sent by l'Abbé Grégoire to lawyers, clergymen, and politicians in the French provinces under the pretext of documenting and cataloguing the linguistic and ethnographic uses of the thirty local 'patois' spoken in France at the time. In fact, through this survey, the Jacobins established a blueprint for the subsequent systematic eradication of these patois. Historians have debated whether the conscious governmental policy of annihilation of local dialects in France at the time was done for the sake of national or ideological unity, or in order to establish the dominance of bourgeois Parisian culture over the uncouth peasant culture, or in order to break the strong cultural monopoly of the Catholic Church who catechized its faithful in the local vernaculars. Linguistic wars are always also political and cultural wars. Efforts by present-day France to cultivate a network of French speakers around the world, and link it to a francophone identity, or francophonie, must be seen as a way of countering the overwhelming spread of English by offering speakers a supranational cultural identity that is exclusively linguistic. French as an international language remains monitored by the Académie Franςaise, a French national institution that is seen as the guarantor of cultural purity - in the same manner as English as an international language is monitored in scientific circles by Anglo-American journals who serve as the gate-keepers of a certain intellectual style of scientific research (see Chapter 5).

As we saw in Chapter 1, it has been argued that the modern nation is an imagined community that originated in eighteenth century bourgeois imagination, and has relied heavily on print capitalism for its expression and dissemination. The modern nation is imagined as limited by finite, if elastic boundaries; it is imagined as a sovereign state, but also as a fraternal community of comrades, ready to take arms to defend their territorial integrity or their economic interests. This prototype of the modern nation as a cultural entity is, of course, a utopia. It has been mirrored by a similar view of language as shared patrimony, a self-contained, autonomous, and homogeneous linguistic system based on a homogeneous social world - in other words, a linguistic utopia. Such imaginings are tenacious and contribute to what we call an individual's national 'identity'.

When new nation-states emerge, such as more recently Belize, the mere category of national identity may, as a side effect, put a stress on other categories such as Spanishness or Mayaness, that in turn may acquire renewed importance, since the Spanish population and the Maya population do not coincide with the borders of Belize, but go beyond them to form new supranational alliances. This is what has happened in Europe with the Basque and Catalan identities that cross, linguistically and culturally, the national borders of France and Spain, and thus replace the nation by the region, and the national language by the regional language as units of cultural identification.

Nation-states respond to such separatist tendencies by refocusing national identity either around a national language or around the concept of multiculturalism. Current efforts by the US English Movement in the United States to amend the Constitution by declaring English the official national language have to be seen as the attempt to ensure not only mutual linguistic intelligibility, but cultural homogeneity as well. In periods of social fragmentation and multiple identities, each clamoring to be recognized, language takes on not only an indexical, but a symbolic value, according to the motto 'Let me hear you speak and I will tell you who you are loyal to’. The link between the US English legislation and anti-immigration legislation has been frequently pointed out by critics.

Besides being used as a means of excluding outsiders, as we saw in Chapter 1, the use of one, and only one, language is often perceived as a sign of political allegiance. The remark 'I had ten years of French and I still can't...' may be the expression not so much of bilingual failure as of monolingual pride. People who, by choice or by necessity, have traditionally been bi- or multilingual, like migrants and cosmopolitans, have often been held in suspicion by those who ascribe to themselves a monovocal, stable, national identity.


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