The Impact of Language on Nationalism

Updated: Oct 16, 2018

Accents and languages are fascinating things. In America, our regional accents are dependent on the immigrant groups that formed them. The Appalachian accent (West Virginia is pictured), as well as the bluegrass the region is known for, stems from the English, Scottish, and Irish immigrants that filtered into the area in the 17th - 19th centuries. The New York/New Jersey has the cadence of the Italian immigrants it stems from. My own accent from Minnesota comes from the vowel-loving Scandinavians that settled the area.

As for differences to our British cousins: prior to the 19th century, language was written but not entirely cemented. It wasn't until the introduction of the dictionary that our two countries began to really diverge from a spelling standpoint. Noah Webster, an American, changed many words while he was creating his ubiquitous dictionary - "defense" should have an "s", not a "c", because that's how it sounds. Centre became center, because that's how it sounds, etc. As his dictionary became prolific around the US, we changed with him while the UK remained with the old ways.

But that's all just fun rambling, not what this post is actually about.

In older countries, language - and with it the modern concept of a nation itself - was formed a little differently. I learned about this process in grad school and it so fascinated me that I managed sneak it into every single paper I wrote.

Around the turn of this millennium, a flurry of publications printed lists of the most important inventions of the last 1,000 years. The orders of things varied somewhat, but I don't think I ever found a list that did not have the printing press at the top.

Let's take England for our example. Prior to the mid-15th century, people not only stayed in their villages their entire lives (hence why there are a billion accents in a nation smaller than Minnesota) but they also had very little interaction with anyone or even any concept away from that village. It wasn't until the printing press came along that they began to learn about other villages in England. And of course, it took until the 19th century and mass schooling for the average person to be able to read those newspaper and stories to link them to other members of the English nation. Thus, nationalism! Prior to that, there might have been loyalty to the Church or to the king, but not to our modern concept of a nation.

The printing press not only connected members of nations to one another, but it also made language much more stable. It is why today we are still able to read Shakespeare with relative ease, while the Tudor-era Englishman would have struggled to read a poem from the same amount of time back (so, the late 12th/early 12th centuries). Language has not evolved at nearly the same rate as it used to, because it has been captured.

When I lived in Senegal, I learned the Mandinka language. It is an oral language, which means the rules that applied to Medieval English still apply there. My village was 1.9 miles (3 km) from another Mandinka village, and the language there was the exact same. But when I went to another Mandinka village 9.3 miles (15 km) away, there were different words for some things. I remember specifically the word for watermelon was different (my village said "yaagewo, I don't remember what the other village called them). When I visited a Mandinka village 167 miles away (269 km), I struggled to communicate with the residents. They could understand my Mandinka, but I needed a translator into French to understand a lot of theirs.

I went to grad school right after Peace Corps, and it was fascinating to read about the printing press's impact on spoken language because I had experienced this first-hand. In a later post, I will discuss nationalism in Senegal, as it is markedly different to that of the West (and, in my opinion, much less toxic).

If you're interested in a more in-depth discussion of this topic, what follows is a section of my master's dissertation (subject: the impact UKIP's anti-immigrant rhetoric had on the Brexit result...for non-Brits, UKIP is an anti-EU party in the UK) that discusses this topic.

Identity, nationalism, and immigration have played major roles in recent UK elections. Given the importance of these issues, it is crucial to establish a firm understanding of what nationalism is and how UKIP used its own definitions of British identity to gain votes. This paper will take a constructionist approach and follow the phrase coined by Anderson when he called nations “imagined communities” (1983). As Gellner wrote, “nations as a natural, God-given way of classifying men, are a myth. Nationalism is not the awakening of an old, dormant force, though that is how it does present itself” (1983, p. 48-49). Yet if the nation is myth rather than fact, imagined rather than tangible, why does it play such an important role in today’s British politics?

A nation is an imagined community because the individual will never meet every other member of his or her nation but yet feels a comradery with them (Anderson, 1983; Keating, 2001). “I am British” is a sentiment that can be stated by tens of millions of individuals, thereby creating a community of people who view themselves as “One” even though they will never interact. While there are differences between how a Londoner views their Britishness compared with someone from rural England, not to mention the differences in comparison to those from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, in the past this British sentiment overcame the differences to fuse them together into one community (Anderson, 1983; Jones & Desforges, 2003). Gellner went so far as to proclaim the nation to be the most important indicator of one’s identity (1983). Today, however, that claim is questionable. The Scottish held an independence referendum in 2014, feelings of non-British identity are higher amongst the Northern Irish than they are among any second-generation immigrant group (Manning & Roy, 2010), and there is growing division between the white, working-class against those viewed as the elite (Gest, 2016; Hodge, 2016). In 2015 and 2016, UKIP exploited these growing rifts by targeting both the elite and Scotland in order to stoke nationalism sentiments in its working-class English base, as will be further examined in Chapter Four.

The sense of Oneness amongst the British still exists, albeit not as strong as Gellner claimed, and was achieved by connecting members of the community to their supposed long, tradition-filled past (Anderson, 1983; Gellner, 1983; Hobsbawm, 1983; Jones & Desforges, 2003). In reality, the modern concept of a nation is relatively new, emerging largely in the 19th century following the secular ideals of the Enlightenment, the democratic values of the American and French revolutions, and modernization through the Industrial Revolution (Anderson, 1983; Gellner, 1983; Hobsbawm, 1983; Smith, 1991; Keating, 2001). While the modern understanding of the British nation is barely two centuries old, its origin can be dated back to the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, which captured the English language on paper (Anderson, 1983; Keating, 2001). Prior to this, every valley in England spoke a different dialect. This meant that a traveler from Northumberland who found himself in Cornwall would have had a difficult time understanding his fellow countrymen (Anderson, 1983). Once language was written down, however, it became more sedentary. Today it is relatively easy to comprehend a Shakespearian play performed in its original wording, something that surely would not have been possible without the widespread written word (Anderson, 1983). The ability to understand centuries-old English makes the language appear to be older and more fixed than is reality, which psychologically connects the modern Briton to their ancestors (Hobsbawm, 1990). This can explain the importance of the English language to many in the nation, something UKIP utilized during its campaigns - “anyone comes to this country need[s] to speak the language,” was just one of two tweets regarding the topic that UKIP sent on January 22, 2016, for example.

The creation of a (relatively) standardized language through writing allowed for the spread of mass information. For the first time, people in London received the same information as their peers in Winchester, Durham, and Canterbury, thereby connecting them all to the existence of one another (Anderson, 1983). What is especially important to note is that this birth of mass media coincided with the dawn of the Age of Exploration. Thus, not only were the British coming together through language but they were doing so while learning about the existence of other nations elsewhere. However, in 1500 approximately 95% of English citizens were illiterate (Mitch, 2004) and therefore the printing press cannot be deemed the creator of the modern nation, as few were able to harness its power. Mass education was necessary to cement the imagined community (Anderson, 1983; Gellner, 1983; Hobsbawm, 1983; Smith, 1991; Steiner, 1991; Aughney, 2004) and no entity was powerful enough to manage this save for the British state (Gellner, 1983; Keating, 2001).

The coupling of the nation to the state through written language and education has been so successful that colloquially the two terms are often used as synonyms. As children began to attend school en masse in the 19th century there was a dramatic increase in literacy rates – by 1900 only about five percent of British citizens were illiterate (Mitch, 2004). This era coincided with the British Empire. Thus, the British state was setting standards for what to teach members of the nation within its borders while colonizing millions in distant lands. By including these conquests in their education platform, the state instilled a feeling of superiority in its citizens over those they had colonized (Said, 1977; Lucassen, 2005; Painter & Jeffrey, 2009). Thus, the printing press and mass education both coincided with eras when the British nation was learning about other nations, solidifying the ideas that not only was the British nation cohesive but there existed differences between it and others, with the British being superior. While the Empire is long gone, this superiority remains embedded within the nation’s psyche (Keating, 2001; Simms, 2016). This has an important impact on anti-immigration sentiments, as who would want perceived inferior peoples coming into their nation?

There are two main views of nationalism in modern Britain. Ethnic nationalism, as its name implies, focuses on the ancestral ties of members and therefore admission to the nation is rather limited (Smith, 1991; Keating, 2001). Civic nationalism, meanwhile, focuses on the institutions that safeguard the state whose role in turn is to protect the nation inside. This allows for immigrants as long as they uphold these institutions (Gellner, 1983; Smith, 1991; Keating, 2001). The UK has tended to gravitate towards civic nationalism in the modern, globalized era (Keating, 2001). However, based on the impact that antiimmigration had in recent elections, ethnic nationalism still has a significant role to play. One must bear in mind that a main component of nationalism is that every nation is finite; no nation believes that every person in the world can be a member (Gellner, 1983). This inherently limited membership distinguishes nationalism from other socially assigned groups; Christianity, for example, hopes to add every person to its congregation (Anderson, 1983). Immigration raises the question of who can or cannot be a member of the imagined community (Kaya, 2012). Through this understanding of nation there must always be an “Other”, defined by those who are outside of the nation and who may or may not ever join. It is the last aspect – whether or not an outsider may join – that is the most contested component between civic and ethnic nationalists.

While polls indicate that immigrants and their descendants feel British - with second-generation minorities polling at a 90% British identity rate (Manning & Roy, 2010) - what is difficult to overcome is the “refusal of the majority population to see minorities as British” (Manning & Roy, 2010, p. 97). Immigrants do not share the traditions and histories that are so important to nationalism. To many, the inclusion of immigrants into British society can be seen as treasonous, as fellow members of the nation are letting the Other in, thereby putting the entire community at risk (Huysmans, 2000). During the 2015 GE, UKIP exploited this sentiment by repeatedly connecting Labour and Conservative governments to increased immigration rates, followed by the promise that UKIP would decrease these numbers (ITV, 2015; BBC, 2015; UKIP, 2015).

What is noteworthy about the British nation today is that members have received the same mass education and yet have begun to diverge immensely from one another in regards to their understanding of British nationalism. This is largely due to a dramatic change in the mass media that once cemented the nation together (Hern, 2017). Since the writings of Anderson, Gellner, and Hobsbawm the number of media outlets has expanded drastically. While historically there were a set number of newspapers and television channels, today there are numerous options that are available not just through those classic means but also through the use of social media accounts. Prior to the internet and 24/7 news channels, the mass media was able to establish a sense of Oneness throughout the nation because it was consumed by everybody within. Now, an individual can tailor their media intake to their viewpoints. An ethnic nationalist need only unfriend someone on Facebook who posts too often about the benefits of immigrants, whereas a civic nationalist can choose to not follow those who espouse ethnic nationalism on Twitter. Thus, both sides use mass media to entrench their own views of what the nation is. This trend is unlikely to ebb - in a Capitalist society, the media benefits from sensationalism because it sells (Gest, 2016). Meanwhile, political parties such as UKIP approve because the subsequent outrage brings in votes (Gest, 2016). For both sides, this means facts are often manipulated to better fit their narrative. Thus, the next section establishes the true situation regarding immigration in the UK before examining UKIP’s anti-immigration rhetoric.