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August 17, 2012 by totalityservices

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National identity, the sense of belonging to one state or nation, rather than another, is far from a natural phenomenon. It rather requires the presence of a number of symbols of various kinds, which people can identify with. These can include flags, songs, colours, the nation’s history (particularly the national creation myth), culture, food, etc.

A common language can be a very potent such symbol. For that reason, nations, particularly emerging ones, have often tried to encourage or even enforce use of the national language, with varying degrees of success.

La vergonha

One case study of the forging of a national language has been so successful that it is easy to forget altogether, namely France.

As late as 1860, native speakers of Occitan made up 39% of the French population, as opposed to 52% of French speakers. Starting with when schooling in French became compulsory in 1882, those numbers of speakers dropped rapidly to around 30% in the 1920 to under 7% in 1993. The result is that we consider France to be an essentially monolingual country, with a few isolated pockets of minority languages (Occitan, Basque, Breton, …)  around the edges. This uniformity has undoubtedly strengthened French national identity, and would therefore be considered a full success when viewed from a central government point of view.

That Occitan speakers called the various measures involved “la vergonha” (i.e. the shame) hints at the fact that this was at times quite a forced and brutal process, involving systematic public humiliation in schools for pupils caught speaking patois, as well as the Church only giving communion to French-speaking children.

Welsh Not

One of the more notorious episodes of educational linguistic nation building was the infamous “Welsh Not” campaign carried out in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was beautiful in its simplicity. A piece of wood with the letters “WN” was passed around in a classroom to any child that was caught speaking Welsh. Whoever was unlucky enough to be stuck with the sign at the end of the day received lashes. Not the most sparkling example of modern pedagogical measures, but it certainly seems to have worked.

So why the modern support of minority languages?

At first glance, it certainly seems like the attitude towards minority languages that may compete with the respective national language has changed quite dramatically: thus, the last few decades have seen considerable official government support and funding for Welsh, with subsidised TV and radio channels, as well as legislation supporting the official role of the language.

Even in France, the traditionally very hard-line policy towards other languages may be seen to be softening a little of late. While as late as 1992, the French constitution was actually amended to state explicitly that French is the language of the nation, a 2008 revision creates some limited recognition of regional languages, and Socialist politicians in particular have started talking about actively supporting minority languages in France.

Should we consider this as a general trend towards a more tolerant attitude, however? Probably not. The most likely explanation is that these nations, the UK and France, have since completed their nation-building phase, and are quite confident in their nationhood. They can therefore allow themselves to be more gracious and magnanimous towards what may be considered symbols of dissent and disunity.

That this is the case is supported by the much more traditionally aggressive approach taken by more recently established nations. One can for example cite the increasing official discrimination of the Russian language in the fledgling nation of Latvia, or the ongoing difficulties that Kurdish experiences in most countries with a significant Kurdish-speaking population.

As long as it’s over!

In general, we tend to condemn situations where the process of linguistic cleansing is still underway, but tacitly approve of situations and nations (like France and the UK), where it happened a sufficiently long time ago for us to forget the sometimes gory details of it.

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