Does it take a nation to be a language?

“A language is a dialect with an army and a navy” is a quote published by linguist Max Weinreich (1894-1969) and one that is often cited when scholars debate, how to define what a language is. The quote argues that the capacity of “language” lies not within distinct lexical or grammatical features, or an associated cultural heritage, but in political and territorial power.

Max Weinreich was a Yiddish scholar, and the quote was originally used to argue against Yiddish being recognised as a language. The idea was that Yiddish should be regarded as a dialect of German, since there never was (and will likely never be) a place called “Yiddistan”. Nevertheless, Yiddish is widely recognised as a language in its own right with a rich cultural tradition and heritage practised by Jewish communities all over the world. One might say that Yiddish is a language without a nation.

On the other hand, we have languages that are so similar that the different speakers, without (too much) trouble, are able to communicate. Danish, Swedish and Norwegian are all North Germanic languages and though there are some differences in vocabulary and, most significantly, in pronunciation, it is possible for a Dane to buy a cup of coffee in Sweden, for a Swede to ask for directions in Norway, or for a Norwegian to read a Danish magazine, without making too much of an effort. So why don’t these three nations just join forces as the new Scandinavian super power and set out to conquer Europe? Norway has oil, Denmark has wind power and Sweden has… well… IKEA. The possibilities are endless! So why not? The answer lies in history. From 1397-1523 Norway, Denmark and Sweden were joined in the Kalmar Union, a personal union with a single monarch ruling the three countries, and to say the least, this did not end all too well for either of the involved parties, so no real chance of that happening again in the near future. But had the union endured, chances are that Norwegian, Swedish and Danish today would simply have been dialects of the same language.

So, does it take a nation to be a language? Is Austria any less of a nation because the people speak the same language as their neighbour Germany? And are Gaelic, Basque and Ladin not languages because they are not immediately associated with a political nation?

What do you think?


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