Columns

Language and Nation Now

Stephen Henighan

Do shared languages form the natural boundaries of any nation in the world?

The Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Weimar, Germany, is an innocuous-looking building of whitewashed walls and dark, vaulted roofs. The church resembles anything but the cauldron from which modern ideas of nationalism spilled into the world. Yet it was here that the philosopher, theologian and literary critic Johann Gottfried von Herder preached from 1776 to 183, the period during which he refined his praise of ancestral folk-cultures as the source of human identity, and languages as the natural boundaries of nations.

Herder’s ideas, and the place where he propounded them, are rife with contradictions. Herder opposed Prussian nationalism, the strongest German-language political force of his day, on the grounds that it divided German-speaking people. After his death, when Romanticism spread his belief in essential differences between peoples to minorities elsewhere in Europe, the revival of half-forgotten peasant tongues such as Czech and Slovenian, and their elevation into aspiring national languages that were used to write books and newspapers, diminished the influence of German, the former educated lingua franca of those areas. This development, which reduced German’s scope as a language that straddled cultures, had tragic long-term consequences. Herder’s ideas underlay Adolf Hitler’s justification of his invasion of Central and Eastern Europe to bring German-speaking minority populations “back inside the Reich.” One of the many disastrous consequences of this assumption that all speakers of a language must live in the same country was that after 1945, Germany was divided, reducing Herder’s beloved Weimar to a provincial outpost in rural East Germany that was cut off from Western Europe.

This was not the only occasion when Herder’s claim that language and nation strode arm-in-arm would be contradicted by history. If Herder’s ideas were problematic in Europe, where their long-term repercussions continue to be felt in forces such as the Catalan separatist movement in Spain, or sometimes emerged in unpredictable ways, as in post-1989 former Yugoslavia, where Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and Montenegrins defined themselves as irreconcilably different from one another on the basis of speaking local variants of a common, mutually comprehensible tongue, their coherence dissolved utterly when applied to nation-building on other continents. Spanish America’s Wars of Independence, between 186 and 1824, were continental in scale and led to a rupture into many nations, which regarded themselves as irreconcilably different even though they all spoke the same language. Ghana, the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence from modern colonialism, in 1957, built national unity across ethnic lines and adopted the colonial language, English, as its common currency. Most other African countries followed suit. In Portuguese-speaking Angola and Mozambique, for example, African languages are called “national languages,” to distinguish them from the international language that holds the nation together. The paradox that the nation is united by a global language, such as English, French or Portuguese, that did not originate in the country, while the languages that are called “national” are, in fact, regional and tribal—those which Herder saw as the core of a nation—is shared by those parts of Asia that were extensively colonized by Europeans. In India, the Philippines and Singapore, various languages percolate beneath an overarching concept of national belonging. China, Japan, Korea and Thailand, by contrast, which resisted European colonization, adhere to Herder’s concept of an ancient, uniform national language charged with resonances of an immemorial past (even though the realities on the ground may be more complex, particularly in China, where southern regions of the country spurn the official language of Mandarin, or in Korea, a country divided by history in spite of sharing a common language).

This sketch, of course, is incomplete: nations and their languages cannot be cleanly divided into Herderian and anti-Herderian camps. What to make of Swahili, the rare African language that has become “national” in the way Herder understood the term (as the co-official language of Tanzania and Kenya), while it also remains a transnational lingua franca—as German was in the eighteenth century—that facilitates communication across East Africa? How would Herder classify the innate bilingualism of the Arabic-speaking Middle East, where the dialects used on the street remain influenced by ancestral languages that prevailed prior to conversion to Islam, and the Modern Standard Arabic of the mosque, the newspaper, documentary television and national literature is, in fact, the language of a supra-national religious tradition? And, finally, what would Herder make of countries where two languages of colonization overlap?

The four major national languages of the Americas—English, Spanish, Portuguese and French—are all imported and international, and possess limited power to evoke ancestral belonging to our soil. By returning to Herder, we can see the error of the common shorthand of equating Canada with Belgium or Switzerland, where the official languages that overlap are ancestral to the nation, or even with Cameroon, which is also bilingual in the colonial languages of French and English, but where indigenous languages are much stronger than they are in Canada, and immigration is not a significant factor.

As with many countries, Canada’s linguistic composition is in perpetual flux. For nearly a century, our two most important unofficial languages were German and Ukrainian. Western Canada, in particular, was awash in local newspapers, churches and community organizations that functioned in these languages. By the 198s, though, fewer young people spoke German or Ukrainian; Chinese languages emerged as the new third force. Now these languages, too, are beginning to dissolve through assimilation. The 211 Census identifies Tagalog, from the Philippines, as the emerging champion of unofficial Canadian languages. Even as globalization bolsters immigrant languages by allowing children to talk on Skype with their grandparents in the old country or watch satellite television in their parents’ language, increased urbanization heightens the imperative to adopt the language of the street. If Herder returned to preach in the St. Peter and Paul Church in the twenty-first century, he might remark that each nation is characterized by its own unique yet transient medley of languages, and that in most of the non-European world it is international languages that define the nation and ancestral languages, whether those of immigrants or aboriginal inhabitants, that challenge the unity of language and nation.

Tags
No items found.

Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan’s most recent novel is The World of After. Over the winter of 2022–23, Monica Santizo’s Spanish translation of Stephen’s novel The Path of the Jaguar will be published in Guatemala, and Stephen’s English translation of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The Country of Toó will be published in North America. Read more of his work at stephenhenighan.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHenighan.

SUGGESTIONS FOR YOU

Reviews
Anson Ching

Further Years of Solitude

Review of "Black Sugar" by Miguel Bonnefoy.

Reviews
Patty Osborne

Teenaged Boys, Close Up

Review of "Sleeping Giant" directed by Andrew Cividino and written by Cividino, Blain Watters and Aaron Yeger.

Reviews
JILL MANDRAKE

Part of the Crowd

Review of "Crowded Mirror" by Sheila Delany.

Contest

The 19th Annual Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest

The writing contest whose name is almost as long as the entries! Deadline is May 20, 2024.

Contest

The 19th Annual Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest

The writing contest whose name is almost as long as the entries! Deadline is May 20, 2024.