Language and the nation state

Traditionally, the European idea of the nation state has been closely linked to having a single language. In order to create a strong unified national community, the unifying force of language was deemed essential. A people not united through language was a recipe for a failed nation state, so to say. Where no such unity existed, such unity was created from above. Think for example France. The state set out to promote the unification of the various languages and dialects spoken by the French people in one French language, spoken and understood by all. Especially the military proved to be a fertile vehicle for promoting both France and French.

These Western European ideas about what a nation state should look like from a linguistic perspective were taken home by non-European elite educated in the West in the nineteenth century. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, in Turkey this resulted in a Turkish nation state which allocated minority languages a place only at the fringes. Although roughly 1/5 of the Turkish citizens today does not have Turkish as its mother tongue, those wishing to go about their official business in another language than Turkish face major difficulties. Only in recent years increased space has become available for the promotion of minority languages, but the battle for linguistic equality is still very much ongoing in Turkey.

Closer to home a reverse trend is visible. As the Dutch nation state is no longer questioned, attention for preserving local heritage and languages has been growing since the 1980s. This is by no means limited to Frisian, the second official language of the Netherlands – spoken in the northernmost province Friesland, where Dutchization has been replaced by ‘re-Frisianation’. Associations promoting the various Dutch dialects can be found in practically every province. A dire necessity, as many of these local languages and dialects will face extermination in a few generations’ time, should things continue as they are today!

The Western view of ‘one nation, one language’ is however by no means the only available option. Although our European mind has some problems coming to terms with it, there are also strong states without this unifying language. India is probably the most fascinating example. India’s constitution acknowledges over 20 official languages, with Hindi being the first among equals. But despite its privileged position, a large number of Indians does not speak Hindi. Can you imagine being Dutch or German without speaking the official language of the country? Well, such a thing is both perfectly possible and acceptable in India. Challenging every Western preconception about what a good state should look like, India is almost 70 years old and still going strong!



You might also like: