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Linguistic nationalism: an interventionist alternative to the liberal conceptions of the linguistic market, by Henri Boyer


It is difficult not to subscribe to the viewpoint according to which “as researchers we can and must help those who want to defend their linguistic heritage, but we do not have the right to judge those who choose not to do so” (ibid, p. 78).The whole question turns on knowing the extent to which there is real choice, that is to say, freedom of choice. Experience has shown, particularly in the European area, that it is not appropriate to speak of deliberate choice in this matter, but of a violence (not always symbolic) perpetrated on a dominated linguistic community and of a stigmatising representational process that results from it, at the end of which the community in question almost entirely experiences rather than chooses the disappearance of the normal usages of its historical language, although it should be pointed out that the disappearance only occurs in the long, or indeed very long term.

On this issue, D. Nettle and S. Romaine observe that “many […] examples of transition from one language to another illustrate the difficulty of coercion and deliberate choice” (Nettle and Romaine 2003: 102).Indeed, and this is the crux of the ecolinguistic positioning, “language change results from a change in the national or social environment” (ibid, 106).And for example “on closer examination, one realises that, although the speakers of Celtic languages, faced with the conscious or unconscious choice between the metropolitan language [= English] and the peripheral language [= Cornish, Irish, Welsh], often appeared to favour the metropolitan language, this was not always a deliberate or easy choice. The Hawaiians for example […] made this choice within a framework defined and limited by systematic political and cultural dominations”: “During [the] long conflicts between peripheral and metropolitan languages, the peoples of the periphery often had no real choice” (ibid: 152 and 158; my emphasis).

One of the basic principles of linguistic ecology links up with the very foundation of all ecological concerns: “the preservation of a language in its wider sense involves the conservation of the group that speaks it” (ibid: 192). And this preservation clearly needs “top-down strategies” that aim to integrate “language preservation within the general activist movement in favour of the environment” and to “set in motion linguistic policies at a local, regional and international level that are part of a political and general resource management planning” (ibid: 213). Yet they also need “bottom-up strategies” since “granting too much attention to the official policies can be counterproductive in the absence of other activities at lower levels” (ibid: 191).Thus, “the preservation of a language must first begin in the community itself, arising from voluntary efforts, and be financed bottom-up by community resources” (ibid: 2002). This reminds us of the bilingual association-based schools that follow linguistic immersion methods (for example, the Calandretas in the Occitan area) set up by activists from languages under domination.

In conclusion, the ecolinguistic position considers that “it is not possible to assure a political, economic or social development without prioritising linguistic development” (ibid: 185).

3. The linguistic nationalism

This interventionist position is clearly noticeably different from another, also interventionist, position: linguistic nationalism. I now consider in rather more detail this second type of interventionist pole that has motivated a great deal of discussion in recent times. To do so, I refer to a number of discourses, both from the social sciences and others of a more engaged type, all concerning essentially linguistic nationalism. The spirit of the times is in fact somewhat reticent towards this specific nationalism. In fact, alarmist statements on the risks of separatism caused by the cultural or ethnic nationalisms that would threaten States otherwise considered solidly national (4) have abounded following the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.A distorting prism is at work, ready to demonise all nationalisms, especially if they come from theperiphery of a historically established nation-state (see for example Lacoste 1998).Here and there, in the specialised literature, there is a tendency to impose a desirable distance from “nationalist ideologies that, over past centuries and until recently, includedone or another part of the [European] continent” and from the “mechanism” that enables “nationalist passions to focus on languages” (Crépon 2001: 28 and 33). These may be analyses where confusion seems to be maintained by various positionings that do not necessarily link up with each other: autonomism, nationalism, independantism (Lacoste 1998).

Like all ideologies, nationalism is a specific socio-cognitive construction, formed by the association of shared representations, with the aim of legitimising performative discourses and generating a number of opinions and collective actions (see Boyer 2003: 9-19). We can thus talk about nationalisms with a racialist dominant, an ethnic dominant or a cultural dominant, a category to which what I call linguisticnationalism is clearly related.

The position of E. Hobsbawn, a specialist in this area, on this type of nationalism is interesting precisely in that it reveals the difficulty that some specialists seem to have in dealing calmly (without a prioris) and rigorously with a topic that must be considered controversial, since it is situated within the political and military turmoils of the two last centuries. It is equally interesting in that it tends to minimise the (socio)linguistic dimension of the nationalist ideological construction, and therefore to relativise the existence of linguistic nationalism.

For example, if it is evident that, for “French theoreticians” (on the Revolution), nationality was “determined by French citizenship”, it is excessive to state that the same theoreticians “had to obstinately fight against all attempts to make the language spoken a criterion for nationality” (Hobsbawn 1992: 31-32) for, as the same author admits, “there is little doubt that, for most Jacobins, a French person who did not speak French was suspicious” (ibid: 33): very early on in fact, the Revolution made a major political issue for the French nation out of linguistic unification of the national territory in favour of French alone (Schlieben-Lange 1996, Boyer 1991: 52-71, Boyer 2003 :49-57).G. Kremnitz also points out that the French revolutionary nation “very quickly begins to define itself in terms of a culturally unified practice” (Kremnitz 2000: 25; see also Hermet 1996).

4. The linguistic nationalisms in Spain

Likewise, the history of peripheral nationalisms in Spain refutes Hobsbawn’s claim that “there is an obvious analogy between the way in which racists insist on the importance of racial purity and the horrors of inter-racial exchange, and the way in which so many forms of linguistic nationalism –if not all of them- insist on the need to cleanse the national language of its foreign elements” (Hobsbawn 1990: 139-140). In fact, while the emergence was observed in 19th century Spain of a racialist type of nationalism in the Basque Country, two other peripheral linguistic (and obviously also cultural) nationalisms, Catalan and Galician, have proved their ability, on the one hand to organise community resistance to the a State programmed linguistic assimilation, most specifically the Francoist state (5), and on the other to integrate societal complexity and diversity within their objectives, first and foremost in their linguistic policies. Moreover, Hobsbawn pays passing homage to Catalanism which “[has] attained much more spectacular success than the Basque movement with the assimilation of immigrants (essentially workers) in the country” (Hobsbawn 1992: 180).Precisely, as regards Basque nationalism, L. Joly has adeptly shown that in the Basque Country “even the nationalism from the beginning of the century, of a more clearly racialist nature, granted the language an important status.Within leftist nationalist theories, Basque takes on the role of national language and there is a widespread belief that learning it, using it and defending it are acts of rebellion against Francoism”, although “today, the link between Basque nationalism and language [is] very heterogeneous.Even if all Basque nationalists agree to defend the Basque language, there exists a Basque (and basquophone) nationalism for which the language is the quintessence of“basquitude”, and to speak it is, as far as possible, an obligation. In contrast, there exists a nationalism that solely protests with respect to the language [...] for which the relation between Basque nation and language works in a single direction: a basquophone is Basque, but it is not absolutely necessary to know Basque to be Basque” (Joly 2004: 87-88).

However, it is not a matter here of turning language into the greatest foundation for all nationalisms, Basque in particular which is of a rather complex nature. An honest evaluation of course leads one to consider that “if specific cases are left out, there is no reason to think that the language is anything more than one criterion among others by which people indicate their membership to a human group” (Hobsbawn 1992: 83; my emphasis).But it is precisely “the specific cases” in question that interest me here, as a sociolinguist.

Thus, what follows will (briefly) deal with this so often disparaged nationalism that could, nevertheless, in these times of “globalisation”, aspire to a second youth (in relation to the ecolinguistic concern dealt with above, which is often present in contemporary sociolinguistic discourse), especially when it concerns “Stateless nations ”, that is to say, minority nationalities that are culturally, socially, economically dynamic,as M. Guibernau indicates:

Democratic nationalisms in stateless nations may to a certain extent be considered as a reaction to an ever-increasing globalisation that transforms the traditional nation-state. Through their capacity to create identity in a world where advanced modernity has filled us with doubt about the rational method, considered infallible from the times of the Enlightenment, stateless nations find a specific place and function. These become manifest in the defence of individual rights by claiming the right to keep and develop their cultures without falling into exclusivism, while demanding acknowledgement and respect, and at the same time offering it to those who are different  (Guibernau 2000 :103).

Spain clearly shows two cases of linguistic nationalism (the cases of Basque nationalism and especially that of Spanish nationalism being somewhat removed from the centre as far as what concerns us here, despite certain points of convergence) in which two Romance languages are concerned: one in Catalonia (which can be considered a model of this kind), the another one in Galicia.Although the nationalist political option (represented by the Bloque Nacionalista Galego) in the Autonomous Community of Galicia is a minority player in the Community, it has to date played a majority role in Catalonia: the nationalist coalition Convergència i Unió enjoyed undivided power in the Autonomous Community for over twenty years.Within the leftist coalition that took over following the 2003 autonomy elections, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, the second component in terms of the electoral force it represents, claims to be not only nationalist but also independentist.

In Galicia, nationalism did not have any difficulty in proclaiming the primacy of the Galician language as a feature of its identity: it is the main language for 46% of the Galician people (against 37% for Castilian) and one of the two main languages for 17% (Siguan 1999). R. Máiz notes that, in the seminal work for Galician nationalism, Sempre en Galiza by Castelao “it is repeatedly said that Galicia is a nation because a series of objective discriminant features converge there; there are essentially three diacritical features: language, land and culture, of which the first stands out as the key factor” (Máiz 2000: 189; my emphasis).

The main problem encountered by Galician nationalism over the language today, following the implementation of an institutional language policy by the Xunta (the autonomous government), is that of a sociolinguistic antagonism between a tendency known as «reintegrationist» or «Lusista» that advocates the conspicuous integration of Galician into lusophony through the orthographic use of Portuguese, and an «autonomist» or «isolationist» tendency that follows the orthographic norms of the Instituto da Lingua Galega (approved by the Real Academia Galega) and made official by the Direcció Xeral de Política Lingüística of the Xunta (Galician autonomous government), official norms which the reintegrationists or Lusistas therefore consider as over-dependent on Castilian (Alén 2000) (6).This is in fact a dilemma for the nationalists: either Galician is not a full Romance language, but rather a dialect of Portuguese and nationalism is then deprived of linguistic individuation, or Galician is a full Romance language (mother/sister of Portuguese) and despite its graphic relationship with Castilian, it fully constitutes a differentiating national quality. The debate is far from over.

Whatever happens to the sociolinguistic debate, and this handicap is in my view redhibitory, «there are few signs of any effective mobilisation amongst the bourgeoisie in favour of Galician that may be analogous to the Catalan movement in favour of Catalan in its day. It should not be forgotten that the cultured bourgeoisie was a decisive factor in the “battle for Catalan” (Coseriu 1987 : 135).

5. The ideological construction of a linguistic nationalism in Catalonia

In fact, it is surely in Catalonia that the ideological construction of a linguistic nationalism has gone further from a theoretical and sociological standpoint (the bibliography in this field is considerable and is increasing daily through new books, magazines, seminaries, symposia, round tables, debates, dossiers and press articles). Although massive internal immigration (of Spanish speaking origins) modified the demolinguistic equilibrium during the post-war period, while lower than those of Galicia, the figures on the use of Catalan as the main language or one of two main languages remain high: 41% and 16% respectively (Siguan 1999).

Nationalist proclamations of primacy of the Catalan language over the other constituent elements in the definition of the Catalan nation are abundant in the vast nationalist corpus.One of the founding texts of Catalan nationalism at the end of the 19th century, the well-known Bases de Manresa (1892-1893), clearly proves that (in its 3rd Base): “The Catalan language will be the only language of an official nature in Catalonia, and in this region’s relations with the central Power” (Assambleas catalanistes (primera), Manresa, Barcelona 1893, in Bases de Manresa 1992: 229). The language is well defined amongst Catalan nationalists as the “central element to represent the collective identity” that fills a “symbolic and participative function” (Tejerina Montaña 1992: 52-72).

The 20th century has therefore seen the development of a linguistic nationalism “model” which has continued to consolidate itself in the two last decades through a nationalist political power at the head of the autonomic institutions. It may also be said that the language has been the subject of a metonymisation/symbolisation process within the nationalist discourse from a simple representation within a political ideology to the central, driving, representational element of the ideology in question.

One of the political actors behind the flourishing of Catalan linguistic nationalism is without question Jordi Pujol. For more than twenty years he presided over the Generalitat de Catalunya (the autonomous government) with a flair for appearing as the champion inflexible defender of the Catalan language while contributing to the establishment of an important language policy machine in autonomous Catalonia (Boyer and Lagarde dir. 2002: 96), through a legislation that spread to the other Communities in Spain with their “own language”, and while maintaining a public discourse with a consensual vocation but inspired by an indisputable nationalist positioning.

In one of his more solemn interventions on the matter, a lecture given on 22 March 1995 at the Palau de Congressos de Montjuïc in Barcelona entitled «Què representa la llengua a Catalunya?» (What does the language mean in Catalonia?, Pujol 1996), the then President of the Generalitat delivered a detailed, emphatic explanation of the Catalan “model” of linguistic nationalism.To summarise my reflections, from this long exemplary speech I only highlight the articulation among the various constituent elements of the identitary representation of the Catalan language that Pujol proposed to/imposed on his audience, according to an argumentative construction oriented towards the necessary defence of Catalan, considered to be in a precarious position:

  • The Catalan language is the foundation of the Catalan nation.(7)
  • The Catalan language is the only historical, patrimonial language of Catalonia
  • This language was the victim of a merciless persecution that aimed to destroy it. The Spanish state (specifically the Francoist state) is responsible for this.
  • Fortunately, Catalans showed their fidelity (from loyalty) to their language and withstood this destructive intention
  • Nevertheless, the persecution left serious repercussions: the Catalan language is in a state of weakness.
  • This weakness, due to the initiative of persecution, legitimises collective action in its favour: both an institutional linguistic policy and also Catalanist political activism.

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