If you’re an A-level student and ever wondered what a university essay sounds like, today I have a little treat for you. This one did really well, although funnily enough the bibliography is extremely short! If that seeems crazy to you, then the +30 books I used for a 1500 word essay probably seems downright mad. Strangely enough, the grade wasn’t much different, and maybe what we can take from that is that it’s quality more than quantity that counts the most.
This is a linguistics essay, written by someone (me) who had, a few months before, never even known what linguistics was. Although it doesn’t compare to my Politics, History or Literature essays, surprisingly it got an amazing grade haha, so don’t be put off writing about something you’re interested in just because you know little about it!
If you’re ever in need of some proofreading or editing for your own essay, I can help; just click here. Otherwise, hope you enjoy this little read!
The Role of the Standardisation of Languages in the building of a Nation-State.
Standard Languages, in their symbolic function as a ‘unifying device’ between different groups of people, are arguably significant in promoting the building of a national identity, or nation-state, in that it is not the language itself, but its symbolic significance and the ideologies attached to that language, that has been utilised by certain political élites to encourage a national identity and social cohesion. Similarly to Anderson’s (2006) concept of “imagined communities”- nations being socially constructed by a group of people perceiving themselves to be part of that community, it could be seen that there exists an ‘imagined’ community of standard language speakers. In other words, the difference between the ‘standard’ language and other dialects is constructed. Max Weinreich famously wrote about how a language is “a dialect that possesses an army and a navy” (Weinreich, 2008, p.362) inferring that it is the different level of power that separates languages from dialects. This mentioning of power, however, paradoxically confirms the existence of a group of elites who have entrenched their power and social standing using the constructed idea that there is one privileged dialect, deserving of the status language, and they, possessing power, establish their dialect as this chosen language. It is this same group who, possessing political power, endorse the concept of the nation-state for the purposes of increased control, synonymizing their standard language- a symbol of the ‘unity’ of the state- with the nation in order to further entrench their own power and legitimize their control through a perception of being ‘on the same side’ as those they rule. This essay will, in discussing how it is that a nation-state is built, examine the function language, and language standardization, has in the construction of the nation.
In order to examine the role of language in the building of a nation-state, we must first discuss what constitutes a nation-state. While it is difficult to define the ‘nation-state’ because of the lack of any consensus on what it actually constitutes, generally there is a perception that the nation-state epitomizes the overlap of politics and nationalism, the latter concept being understood in this essay as “loyalty to [one’s] own ethnic or national community” (Brown et al. 2001, p.27). The creation and development of a state on the foundations of ideas of belonging and sharing, of being a large community composed of people similar to each other, and with similar values, aims, and possibly ethnicity or history, results in a search by political elites of symbols and icons that signify and cement the strength and unity of the state and the bond that connects the members of this large community. The use of language for purposes of nation building is explained substantially by Isaacs and Polese (2016), who write about how “The nation-state… [emphasises] the doctrine of ‘one nation, one country’- and… the common features among members of the nation (one important factor being that of a common language). Nation-building, then, is the process most closely associated with the creation or further legitimisation of a nation-state by promoting an overarching ‘national identity’ among its citizens. Promotion of a ‘national language’ is an important component in the nation-building process”
While it could be argued that language effectively aids nation-building, I would like to argue that it is not the language itself that does this, but, more specifically, the associations that are attached to the language, its symbolic importance. As Caviedes (2003) writes, “attitudes of the speakers and the sentiments and symbolism attached to the language”. Indeed, it could be argued that a synonymisation of language with nation attaches symbols of sharing and community, significant in demonstrating the role language of language as symbolising the unity of the state.
Ruzza (2000) quoting from Edelman (1977) writes about how “together with anthems, flags, oath-swearing ceremonies, and the vast array of symbols and historical myths that sustain national identity, languages are often the marker that communities utilize to differentiate insiders from outsiders”. “Languages” Ruzza (2000) asserts, “are among the most powerful symbols of national identity. Both historically and in the recent past, the feeling of common belonging that sustains nationalism has often been enhanced by a common language, which has, therefore, frequently been used as a means of identifying the community in question”. While these examples refer to the political role of language in the building of the nation, language also has social significance and symbolism in encouraging “group formation” (Wright, 1998, p.60) and a sense of community. As Wright (1998) explains, “The serbo-croatian example of corpus planning suggests that we still prefer our enemies to be of a different language group. The Welsh example suggests that we may manufacture enemies, or at least rivals, through linguistic exclusivity”. Wright’s comments are significant in suggesting how the purpose of distinguishing between different language varieties and standard languages may be to strengthen the bond between members of the community who speak the ‘desired’ language, or language variety.
It is important, however, to distinguish between the significance of language to the rulers- the political elites, and the ruled. For while language standardization and unity can be seen as contributing to the ‘unification’ of the state because of it’s symbol of coherence across social and geographical grounds, considering how the standardisation of language consists of the elevation of one dialect and the degradation of the others, it can be argued that although language has a significant role in the building of the nation, because the nation is under the control of a group of elites, it has another role in that it also cements the structure of social and linguistic prestige. If ‘standard’ languages are constructed, or ‘imagined’ it is important to ask, for what reason? And for the benefit of whom? While Hellinger and Pauwels (2007) describe how “the standardization and promotion of a common language was seen as an important symbol of the process of political unification… developed in part out of the need to create prominent ideological symbols of shared purpose, nationhood”, they also mention how “the models selected for codification were those current in capitals like Copenhagen, Paris and London- seats of the court, economic centers of power, and breeding places of the aristocracy”. While it has been argued that language standardization is important in constructing the idea of ‘shared unity’, the constructed nature of language status and levels of language and dialect prestige paradoxically suggests that it was used by elites to increase control and hide social differences behind philosophies of nationhood, because of the importance of who was constructing these levels of prestige and status- the privileged group benefiting from the increased status that speaking the more prestigious language variety honors them.
Indeed, this is a view echoed by Ana and González de Bustamante (2012), who write about how “language ideologies are embodied in societal and institutional discourses and practices, and are tied up with issues of power… Language ideologies serve as a link between language and broader social structures, and they are intertwined with perceptions of (imagined) speakers as well as ideologies about other social phenomena, such as gender, socioeconomic status, race and nation”. It is the connection between language and power that Ana and González de Bustamante (2012) hint at that is particularly interesting in terms of the fact that it is not only the language used in social interactions that is significant in suggesting the levels of power of the different speakers, but the language variety itself used by speakers of a nation. It is significant that Guha (1997) should write that “the very first language in which the dominated learn to speak of power is that of the dominant” (Guha, 1997, p.101) because the superiority attached to one language variety- the standardized language- is the one chosen by elites.
Thus we have seen that the role of language in nation-building “cannot be narrowly limited to its communicative function” (Bamgboṣe, 2000, p.30), particularly because the standardisation of languages has much to do with power. It could be seen that standard languages are a tool by elites to consolidate their own social standing, but it is important also to consider the social consequences of language standardisation- the way it can contribute to the construction of a national identity- a way of defining oneself as part of a collective- a large community with perceived shared beliefs, values, and comprising people similar to each other. Standard languages, it can be argued, deviate from dialects, among other reasons, because they define their speakers using ideas of geography and borders, uniting far away regions yet excluding ‘outsiders’ at the same time. This ‘divide and rule’ strategy often has the effect of binding its members together under ideas of ‘us and ‘them’, demonstrating how language plays a significant role in strengthening the nation both by attempting to conceal regional, social and economic differences through ideas of sharing, and also separating the national unit from outside states, using language as a means of differentiation and exclusion. It seems apt for me to conclude that standard languages, in acting as a ‘beacon of belonging’- are particularly important in unifying the collective under ideas of alliance, endorsing national sentiments and increasing loyalty to the nation, fulfilling the human desire of “needing to belong” (Kassin, Fein & Markus, 2013, p.340).
Ana, O & González de Bustamante, C. (ed.) (2012) Arizona Firestorm: Global Immigration Realities, National Media, and Provincial Politics. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Anderson, B. (2006) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York: Verso.
Bamgboṣe, A. (2000) Language and Exclusion: The Consequences of Language Policies in Africa. Hamburg and London: LIT Verlag Münster.
Brown, M et al. (2001) Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict. Cambridge, Massachusetts, London: MIT Press.
Caviedes, A. (2003) The Role of Language in Nation-Building within the European Union. Dialectical Anthropology. [Online] No.27, pp. 249–268. Available from: http://www.academia.edu/20393053/The_Role_of_Language_in_Nation-Building_within_the_European_Union. [Accessed: 15th April 2016].
Edelman, M. (1977) Political Language: Words that Succeed and Politics that Fail. New York: Academic Press.
Guha, R. (1997) Dominance Without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India. USA: Harvard University Press.
Hellinger, M & Pauwels, A. (2007) Handbook of Language and Communication: Diversity and Change. Germany: Walter de Gruyter.
Isaacs, R & Polese, A. (2016) Nation-Building and Identity in the Post-Soviet Space: New Tools and Approaches. London and New York: Routledge.
Joseph, J. (2004) Language and identity: National, ethnic, religious. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillian.
Kassin, S, Fein, S & Markus, H. (2013) Social Psychology. 9th Ed. USA: Cengage Learning.
Ruzza, C. (2000) Language and Nationalism in Italy: Language as a Weak Marker of Identity. In Barbour, S & Carmichael, C. Language and Nationalism in Europe. USA: OUP Oxford.
Weinreich, M. (2008) History of the Yiddish Language. USA: Yale University Press.
Wright, S. (ed.) (1998) Language and Conflict: A Neglected Relationship. Great Britain: Multilingual Matters.