The connection with history and the nation-state

The beginnings of linguistics as an academic discipline go back roughly to the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, and it is important to note that it was first conceived as a historical discipline. This corresponds neatly with the emergence of history itself as an academic discipline at around the same time. Both disciplines also coincided with the development of the concept of the nation-state, particularly in the wake of the French Revolution. Hobsbawm (1990) made the pertinent point that the concept of the French state, constructed in the early stages of the revolution, preceded that of the nation-state, in the sense that a nation-state relied (and often still does rely) on the concept of “homogeneity”. A state must show homogeneity in its political system, but it does not need to show homogeneity in terms of religion, race and language. The nation-state, however, demanded a homogeneous national language, a homogeneous religion and, wherever possible, a homogeneous history.

The conceptual basis of homogeneity is grounded in abstract cognitive blends such as purity, perfection, symmetry and positive moral values. If, for the moment, we focus on the ideal of “purity”, a little thought will lead to the conclusion that this quality in human beings is a metaphorical construction. In the previous section, we looked briefly at the ways in which the abstract concept life is constructed cognitively. The representation of the source of the journey metaphor to conceptualise the lexeme time in figure 1.1 makes use of a frame of embedded schemata concerning the movement of objects. Obviously, experiences with objects in the environment, from a very early age on, include other aspects of objects than what is involved in moving them (e.g. their size, their shape, the material from which they are made).

One of the most obvious bodily experiences made with objects is that human bodies themselves are also objects, and that, like all other objects, they, too, can be clean or unclean. In addition, objects have physical substance and are composed of different kinds of material. At a later stage in our lives, we also learn that substances themselves can be unblemished, untarnished, clear and so on. Those substances can thus be either pure or impure. At a much later stage than this, long after the acquisition of language, we learn that human bodies have an internal mental/moral substance as well as an external physical substance, allowing the metaphorical projection of the cognitive concept of purity to human beings. So when we say that a human body is clean or unclean. this is not a metaphorical conceptualisation. But when we say that a human being is pure or impure, it most certainly is.

Let’s turn to history. If history traces out a path through time along which humanity moves towards the goal of achieving homogeneity in human actions,[1] then the ultimate goal of all human communities must be to achieve such abstract metaphorical states as purity, perfection, symmetry, or even much more complex metaphorical constructs like decorum, grace and moral goodness. History in the early nineteenth century thus attempted to construct a teleology of human progress (see Jules Michelet’s early work, particularly Michelet 1833) . Unfortunately, however, the metaphor A human being is pure/impure was also carried across to the nation-state through the conceptual metaphor The nation-state is a human being, leaving the way open for the conceptualisation of the nation-state as being either pure or impure, and by implication perfect or imperfect, homogeneous or non-homogeneous. Since the nation-state ideology promoted competition between states, the vast majority of nineteenth-century historians applied this teleology not to human progress in general but to the progress of the nation-state of which they were citizens.

If the metaphor The nation-state is a human being is accepted, a whole range of “true”[2] statements can be set up, which are derived from the metaphor, such as the following:

The problematic comparison here is with the concept of death. Even though it is patently clear that previous civilisations have, in a sense, “died”, it would

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not have suited nineteenth-century historians to have stretched their teleology to the extent that their own nation-states might someday die.

 
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