Barbarians and others

Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice,

I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.

—1 Cor. 14:11


Lying at the crossroads of a number of disciplines within what are traditionally called “the social sciences” is a mental building that has been under construction by practitioners of those disciplines for at least 250 years. The building has been erected through the conscious collaboration of those practitioners, but it has always received the enthusiastic help of persons and institutions that do not normally travel the roads of the disciplines themselves. Historians of the social sciences are uncertain as to when construction first began, but they are generally in agreement that it has not yet been completed. The building has not been erected by the side of one of the roads leading to the disciplines themselves, but in the middle of the square formed by the confluence of roads. The building has been given a name, the “nation-state”, and the roads leading away from the square lead to sociology, political science, religion, linguistics, history, anthropology, economics and law, to name the most obvious.

Critical interest in how the building has been (and indeed is still being) constructed seems to be a rather recent phenomenon and was begun by the philosopher, sociologist and social anthropologist Ernest Gellner in his book Nations and Nationalism in 1983. The critical thread was taken up in the same year by political scientist Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. In 1987 sociologist and social anthropologist Anthony Smith turned his attention from nationalism as a process (1971) to focus on the ethnic origins of the building, and has continued researching in this field ever since (see, e.g., Smith 1991, 2004). In 1990 historian and political scientist Eric Hobsbawm contributed his own critical assessment of the construction in his book Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, and it is in this book that the term “myth” appears in this connection for the first time. Ali Khan, professor of law at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, prophesied the dismantling of the building in his 1992 book The Extinction of Nation States: A World without Borders. His argument was that the building had become dysfunctional and should be superseded by free movement between states in an increasingly globalised society. This argument is taken up by Philip White in an article that, like Hobsbawm’s book, declares that the building of the nation-state is nothing more than a myth (“Globalization and the mythology of the nation state”, 2006).

To take leave of our extended metaphor just for a moment, the idea of the nation-state, as we understand it today, is that of a state (i.e. a political entity or polity) deriving its legitimacy from the political representation of an ethnic group or a nation. So the territory occupied by that nation, the square on which the building stands (that is, if the building is ever completed), ideally represents the extent of sovereignty of that type of state. We have here the geographical fusion of a cultural, ethnic notion (the nation) with a political notion (the state). A classical nation-state would thus be a political entity which, in a one-to-one fashion, coincides geographically with an ethnic group, and since this is a rare situation indeed in the modern world (aside from, e.g., Iceland, Tonga, Tuvalu), perhaps the building will never be completed after all. Population movements have always tended to erode this imagined and longed-for unity, sometimes shaking the foundations of the building like an earthquake. There is some discussion in the literature of whether the concept of nation historically precedes that of the state or vice versa, indicating that more thought should have gone into planning the building before construction began. The term “nation” in reference to an ethnic unity does seem to precede that of “state”, but different forms of state, such as political sovereignty over territory, certainly preceded the nation-state, even if the term “state” itself was not commonly used. Hobsbawm, for example, maintains that the French state, as this was envisaged in the early stages of the French Revolution, preceded the French “nation”, a term which had to be discursively constructed after the event, as it were, and a similar point may also be made about Britain and the tendentious notion of a British nation.

Creating a state that was coterminous with a nation demanded a considerable amount of discursive ingenuity, and it is hardly surprising that myths played a major role in squaring this particular circle. Foremost among the myths that were used in creating the imagined community of the “nation-state” was the myth of homogeneity. If the state and the nation were bounded by the same geographical borders, the characteristics of the nation had to be uniform. Social institutions had to be created that were unique to the state, and in particular one variety of language was needed to serve as the uniform language. Following in the wake of language and closely associated with it, both religion and racial characteristics also had to conform to the demand for homogeneity.

In states in which minority languages existed, every effort needed to be made, largely through education systems, to impose the national standard language over those minority languages and other varieties closely related to the standard. Unfortunately, attempts to impose a uniform religion were apt to produce cataclysmic consequences, and it is hardly surprising that, in the name of the edifice “nation-state”, religion has sometimes been reduced to a level of insignificance, only to return at a later stage of history in all its destructive power (as the fate of former Yugoslavia attests).

A nation-state that is in every respect homogeneous would have a uniform state religion, one ethnicity, one political system, uniform state institutions and one homogeneous language. But what would a homogeneous language be? It would have to be a totally standardised variety of language admitting of no variability and no change. It would be a language variety which has been elevated above the level of a local variety and is therefore usable and used by the whole population of a nation-state. It would serve all the communicative functions of the state in the written and the oral media. It would be the cultural carrier of history, education, religion, politics, law and literature. In other words, it would be an impossible, unworkable form of human language. But this is just what the homogeneity myth, when applied to language, entails—a language of total uniformity in both written and oral form, a language of stasis, and yet one that could be adapted (or rather manipulated) to cover the communicative needs of the future, largely in the expansion of its lexicon.

Curiously enough, though, this was the aim of nation-state builders throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and I will deal with the problems that this ideal has raised in more detail in chapters 8, 9 and 10. In the nineteenth century, the German language had a word to refer to this ideal of the homogeneous language—Kultursprache (loosely translatable as “language of culture”; cf. the discussion of this term in chap. 2). Vetter (2003: 282) defines a Kultursprache as “a language of significant cultural heritage”, and she gives the example of German in the Austrian part of the late-nineteenth- century Habsburg Empire. She characterises the Kultursprache German as “the language of science”, “the language as a political instrument”, “the language which unifies the Empire” (i.e. in terms of the nation-state, the language that allows an equation to be made between state and nation within the same territory), and as “the dominant literary language of the Empire” (2003:

283). Put differently, a Kultursprache is always a written language with a significant body of written texts, both fictional and nonfictional, literary and nonliterary, which enshrine the cultural values of the nation-state.

The Kultursprache ideology promotes the dominance of one language variety over others. It is imposed through specific media, first and foremost the education system, but also the press from the eighteenth century on, in the twentieth century the broadcast media, radio and television and, most recently, the Internet. At least since the eighteenth century, standard English[1] has also been imbued with the same aura of cultural domination over nonstandard varieties of English (and also over Irish, Welsh and Scots Gaelic). In this sense, English can also be seen as a Kultursprache. Ironically, however, emphasising the assumed cultural superiority of one variety of language over others does not always lead to a strengthened sense of national unity, just as in the mid-nineteenth-century Habsburg Empire it did not lead to a “powerful Empire”. The Kultursprache ideology is oblivious of the simple fact that the faculty of language, rather than a specific language variety, is acquired by all of us as a cognitive system that becomes part of the set of social identities that each of us develops.

The discursive creation of the idea of a Kultursprache is a way of imposing that language on the citizens of the nation-state, which will be the topic of later chapters. But the myths that constitute the homogeneity myth must be identifiable, and they must also have a long history allowing them to be used over the course of time to lay the foundations for the unbuildable and unfinished edifice of the nation-state from the eighteenth century on. In this chapter I will investigate into the origins of those myths, and attempt to show how they coalesce in the linguistic homogeneity myth. In the following section I shall present arguments that oppose the notion of homogeneity in language, after which I shall search for the myths I am looking for in what I call the “other” chronicle tradition and locate those myths in the most popular Latin chronicle of the fourteenth century, Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon.

  • [1] Since I am hesitant to accept that there is such an entity as “standard English”, I prefer to write “standard” lowercase in the rest of this book.
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