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Has The Significance Of Nationalism Been Exaggerated In Explaining The Choice Of One Language Over Another In The Process Of Language Standardisation Notes

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Jonathan Lindsell


Has the significance of nationalism been exaggerated in explaining the choice of one language over another in the process of language standardisation?
The significance of nationalism in preferring one language for standardisation has not been exaggerated. With the exception of Zimmer and Gellner, few historians of nationalism do not even credit it as a significant factor. Instead, having a chosen language in common is possibly a prerequisite, and sometimes even a cause for a burgeoning nationalist movement. Language standardisation arises for a number of different reasons outside of nationalism, such as an absolutist ruler attempting to increase the efficiency of his control, or the people on the peripheries adopting the predominant language of the centre for better economic prospects. In addition, nationalistic separatist sentiments actually contribute to a retardation of standardisation, or a delaying of the choice, for example in the Basque region of Spain. 'Nationalisation' is a concept that many have struggled to define, the term being harnessed by different peoples in different circumstances across the globe. At its simplest, it is an ideological social movement that focuses on the nation. Very few historians attribute the preference of one language over another for standardisation to nationalism, and those that do are not so hyperbolic as to be accused of exaggeration. Weber notes that after the French Revolution, "French (language) came in and spread by newspaper and barracks even more than school"1 and explains that knowing Parisian French became a matter of pride. However such elevated language was only to be used on formal occasions2 so the patois dialect continued unabated and standardisation was not achieved until after the First World War. Weber notes this incidentally however, not arguing that nationalism consciously chose to attempt to standardise French. At most, he sees standardisation as a byproduct of the post-revolutionary nationalist sentiments. Such an assessment is neither outrageous nor an exaggeration, and leaves leeway for the possibility that French would've standardised even without nationalism. Zimmer goes further than Weber with the French case, arguing that "at the centre of the (French) nationalising programme was language instruction"3. However, he concedes that the process, begun in 1870, had not achieved success even by 1914, when one French soldier from the South was shot as a spy for being unable to speak French. Zimmer does not exaggerate the overall role of nationalisation in the choice of language standardisation since he does not unquestioningly extend this assessment to nationalism worldwide. Also, he concedes that there were other motives for the people of France to learn the bourgeois language. Members of the periphery saw French as a means of "social mobility" and came to realise that "their own language was synonymous with poverty, a symbol of ignorance"4, since they were unable to prosper in the capital with their regional dialects. Gellner is one of the few other historians who more palpably argues that nationalism advances linguistic standardisation. He writes, "We can interpret nationalism as a basically linguistic movement"5. However he is mistaken in his assertion. The example of Polish nationalism, which embraces not only Polish speakers but also the peasants who predominantly spoke Lithuanian or Ukrainian, and the Jews who spoke 1

Peasants into Frenchmen, Eugen Weber, p.84 Ibid, p.87 3 Nationalism in Europe, 1890-1940, Oliver Zimmer, p.31 4 Ibid, p.32 5 Theories of Nationalism, Anthony D Smith, p.143 2


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