Still pondering Europe in the run-up to the EU referendum, I came across an interesting essay (my added italics):

The history of multinational ventures in Europe is not a good one. Over four hundred years, the Habsburg Empire was unable to cement a workable enterprise. It only held together in the nineteenth century by striking bargains between the various national groups and by keeping them all, in the words of one Austrian prime minister, ‘in a condition of even and well-modulated discontent’. It is the same in the European Union today. The European Council brokers between national governments. ‘European policy’ is not European at all, but an amalgam and compromise between contending national policies.

The Habsburg Empire was not alone in being divided by local identities. Before Bismarck, the German lands were split between states with their own different political complexions, religious affiliations and regional allegiances. They were successfully brought together after 1870 because a larger pan-German sense of belonging had taken root, having been actively promoted in literature, folklore collections, and high scholarship. In the German lands, poets, historians and lexicographers made political union possible.

France went down a different route in the nineteenth century. At its start, less than a half of France’s population spoke the French language. The Marseillaise, sung in 1792 by volunteers from the Provençal south, was incomprehensible to most Parisians. Over the course of the century, the French state made a nation of Frenchmen—coercing a sense of national belonging and a single language through the schoolroom, bureaucracy and army. A similar pattern of cultural impressment took place in nineteenth-century Bohemia. Peasants from Moravia and Austrian Silesia were made into Czechs.

A political union will only prosper if its peoples feel some sense of common belonging that makes them willing to make sacrifices for one another.

In 1800, less than a half of France’s population spoke the French language? I knew that there were several fringe languages, but I thought that the French had all been speaking French for ages. Not so. I dug up an historical map of French languages:



The medieval Italian poet Dante, in his Latin De vulgari eloquentia, classified the Romance languages into three groups by their respective words for “yes”: Nam alii oc, alii si, alii vero dicunt oil, “For some say oc, others say si, others say oïl”. The oïl languages – from Latin hoc ille, “that is it” – occupied northern France, the oc languages – from Latin hoc, “that” – southern France, and the si languages – from Latin sic, “thus” – the Italian and Iberian peninsulas.

“Oïl” is the French oui.

I suspect that nations are largely defined by their languages. A language is a shared possession, perhaps much more than the land itself. And it’s easier to get along with – and do business with – someone who speaks your own language; much harder with someone who doesn’t. So it’s easy for the English to get along with Americans, Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders in the Anglosphere, because regardless of all other differences they at least all speak the same language.

If there’s resistance in Britain to immigration, it’s probably largely because the immigrants very often can’t speak English, and this creates an impediment. If they all arrived speaking impeccable English, they’d probably be welcomed as brothers and sisters. And I suspect the same is true elsewhere in Europe (with English replaced by whatever national language applies).

And English seems to have recently become the principal language of international discourse – which used to be French. I’m not sure why this is, but it probably firstly reflects the fact that English was spoken throughout the extensive British empire, and secondly it is also the principal language of the USA. I sometimes wonder if there has been a further push given by the fact that most computer languages (Basic, Fortran, Java, etc) are based upon English ( e.g. If… Then.. Else… statements) and anyone learning them is in effect learning a little English.

When I worked in the 1980s in France for a French company with branches in several different European countries, the “company language” was English, and everyone spoke English, even though we were on the outskirts of Paris. And when I spent a lot of time in Spain, I was speaking English 99% of the time, because mi amiga spoke perfect English.

I sometimes wonder what any future “world language” might be. If the present ubiquity of English is a consequence of the political power first of Britain and now of America, then the eclipse of that power might well see the rise of another language – like Mandarin Chinese.

And I sometimes wonder what language they speak at G8 conferences. You sometimes see Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande talking with David Cameron, but never hear what they’re saying. Do they speak in English? Or French? Or German? Or do they all have interpreters standing in the background? Or are they just pretending to talk?

Anyway, here’s part of the postal ballot that British voters have been given, which very


helpfully shows them where to place their cross.

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12 Responses to Language

  1. Smoking Lamp says:

    Redefining identity is part of the evolution of politics.

    The single European state is such a project but as this article recounts, the elite view ignored popular opinion in the constant states:

    “‘Specter of break-up haunting Europe’: EU chief Tusk blasts ‘illusions’ of bloc’s unity”

    It appears anti-smoking is part of the attempt to reconfigure political space. But is seems it isn’t working as well as the Antis would like…

    “China back-pedals on tough national smoke-free law”
    Changes to draft legislation would let people light up in restaurants, bars, hotels and airports

    Attempts to quell smoking through smoking bans are failing elsewhere as well:

    “Majority of Israelis ignore illegal public smoking”

    “Nothing Has Changed, Montrealers Continue To Smoke On Terrasses”

    Finally, the hypocrites in cancer research have been investing in tobacco to secure their pensions:

    “Revealed: cancer scientists’ pensions invested in tobacco”

  2. waltc says:

    Applying that theory of How To Forge a Nation to American history, I was thinking of the squabbles going back to the Continental Congress and the forging of the Constitution about the maintenance of states’ rights–and their eruption (four score and three years later) in our Civil War. It took a lot of propaganda/ education/ indoctrination to repair the idea of Union and to forge a genuine American identity. True, we were not always kind to strangers–“No Irish/ Italians/ Chinese/ Mexicans/ Jews need Apply”– but over time we seemingly got over that, too. (“One nation, indivisible…”) But I wonder, as I look at the Red State-Blue State divide, if a union still exists on the street level, if the efforts of Washington to force uniformity isn’t, in reality, eroding unity. We may be “indivisible” in any practical sense, but we sure are divided.

    • Frank Davis says:

      I discovered in passing yesterday that the first clause in the French constitution defines France as “one nation, indivisible”, and the second clause defines French to be its language.

      What seems to me to be the principal difference between the USA and Europe is that US states are mostly artificial constructs, with straight-line borders like the Sykes-Picot borders in the Middle East (this is less true along the eastern seaboard). But European states are real entities with their own languages and with very irregular borders which have been fought over for centuries, yard by yard. The powerful US federal government also seems to do a job of holding the Union together at all times, whereas the EU central government is an afterthought – a large dollop of custard on top of the pudding beneath -, which is trying to emulate the US federal government.

      And of course the other principal difference is that English is the language of every state in the US Union. And that more than anything unites Americans.

      And another difference is that the USA (and all the countries of the Americas) are historically new countries. The US border with Canada is pretty much another straight line drawn on the map.

    • Harleyrider1978 says:

      Walt the civilwar was over big domineering govmnt and taxes they kept imposing on southern goods aka South Carolina for one. Nothing was ever solved Lincoln just established the federal govmnt as the tyrant it is today

  3. waltc says:

    Brilliant, illuminating (long) article on tne anatomy of current British politics. Though it centers on , and favors, Brexit, I liked the incidental characterization of Cameron’s philosophy as “redemption through wussification.’ See what you think:

    • Frank Davis says:

      A very interesting article, from a US perspective. But I found myself disagreeing with some of it. I don’t think that David Cameron is comparable to Hillary Clinton in lacking charisma. He’s the most charismatic Conservative leader since Margaret Thatcher (perhaps more so). He won the job purely through charisma. He’s much more like Tony Blair in this respect, because Early Blair was even more charismatic (even if now he’s tarnished goods).

      The most charismatic of all of them is Boris Johnson, needless to say.

      Are there any charismatic politicians in the USA? Obama seemed rather charismatic when he started out, but now also seems pretty tarnished. The shine always seems to wear off after a while.

      And now, of course, there’s The Donald. He has great charisma as well.

  4. Rose says:

    Electoral Commission contacts all counting officers in UK to ban ‘biased’ postal voting referendum guides as council pulps 5,000 leaflets
    30 May 2016

    “The Electoral Commission is hurriedly contacting all counting officers in the UK telling them not to send out a controversial “biased” guides to postal voters which suggest they should support the Remain side in next month’s referendum.

    The news came after the regulator told Bristol City Council – which has already sent the leaflet to 47,000 homes – to stop sending out the leaflet and launched an investigation into whether the issue was more widespread.

    Other voters across the country last night said they too had received the same guides, suggesting that hundreds of thousands of voters might have been unfairly encouraged to back Remain.”

    “The Telegraph established on Monday that voters in Kent have received the same form as voters in Bristol, while there were reports of the forms being sent to voters in Greater Manchester, West Sussex and Hertfordshire.”

  5. nisakiman says:

    That’s a very interesting language map of France. I had no idea there were so many languages there. I knew about Breton (very similar to Cornish, I believe), and my ex-wife’s mother came from Alsace, and although she was essentially French could speak a dialect peculiar to the region, but all the others are news to me.

    Language is a fascinating subject, and one I’m quite interested in, despite not being a linguist myself. There are some odd connections floating around. Most European languages stem from the Indo-European roots, but there are a few which don’t, like Hungarian, Estonian and Finnish, which are from Uralic roots. Finland and Estonia, being close to each other are understandable, but Hungary is in the centre of Europe, so how did they end up speaking a language so different to the countries that surround them and so similar to countries thousands of miles away?


    • Frank Davis says:

      so how did they end up speaking a language so different to the countries that surround them

      As best I understand it there were large westward migrations of entire peoples towards the end of the western Roman empire: Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, etc. They seem to have moved as units and came to a stop in one place or other (e.g. Visigoths in Spain). And they had their own languages, which then merged/blended with the Latin of the Roman empire. I know little about Hungary, but I’d guess that they were probably another people on the move, who came to a stop in Hungary.

      In Roman times, most people in France spoke a Celtic language. But (apart from in Britanny) the incoming peoples pushed them out. The same happened in Britain with the invasion of Angles and Saxons a few centuries later.

  6. Furtive Ferret says:

    Slightly O/T for this posting but I have just noticed that our local tax spongers are rolling out a “voluntary” outdoor ban in play parks. Seven to start with but no doubt others will be incorporated in time.

    There is a link to a survey at the end of the first bullet list to let them know your feelings :-)

    And an email correspondence address at the end. Please do let them know your views as I have.

  7. prog says:

    Shame he doesn’t have a wider audience..

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