“I’m always sorry when any language is lost,” Samuel Johnson told Boswell during their tour of the Hebrides in September 1773, “because languages are the pedigree of nations.” Linguistic pride is not a dead artifact of Romantic nationalism. It is alive and well today, among the Quebecois and among the supporters of a constitutional amendment to make English the official language of the United States, and it is flourishing in particular among the partisans of the little-noticed language wars now raging across Europe.
Take France, for example. No Western European country has striven more systematically to suppress regional speech in the name of national unity. With French history virtually synonymous with regional strife and cultural conflict (Charles de Gaulle fondly asked, “How can you make a country that has 215 varieties of cheeses behave as one?”) the Parisian policy for four centuries has been to condemn provincial tongues as vulgar and divisive and to impose a standardized French—the French of the north-central region—nationwide. The Revolution regarded linguistic diversity an “enemy of the people,” an enemy of egalitarianism, and France officially banned regional languages in 1886.
This governmental assault on regional dialect may finally have come to an end. According to a plan announced earlier this year, the French government has ordered public schools and teachers in regions with indigenous languages to prepare for bilingual education. To a certain extent, the Parisian establishment has merely acknowledged a fait accompli. As Marlise Simons recently reported in the New York Times, private schools in Beziers and Nfmes have long taught Provencal, the language of the troubadours of the Middle Ages. Radio stations in Toulouse and Marseilles have without official sanction broadcast news programs in Occitan, the family of dialects to which Provençal belongs. In the foothills of the Pyrenees, radio stations regularly offer children’s stories in Basque, and dictionaries in the Celtic language Breton are widely available to the residents of Brittany. Urging the rest of Europe to take heed and follow France’s lead, linguist Claude Hagege declared this summer that “European governments have an obligation to promote local languages and traditions because they are in danger of being forgotten and because the ‘Americanization’ of Europe has to be contained.”
Of course, not all Gauls are fervent Francophiles. The long-standing linguistic rivalry between French and Flemish in Belgium, for example, has heated up once again. This summer the executive government of Flanders banned the cable-distribution company Coditel from airing Tele-Bruxelles, a local French-language station, in two Flemish-speaking regions outside of Brussels, which is officially bilingual. The act was reminiscent of one taken last year by Belgium’s communications minister Paula D’hondt, who withdrew a French-speaking telephone directory service from the same area. The some 200,000 French speakers of the two districts have angrily denounced the moves as “attacks on our basic freedom of expression.”
Overijse, the principally Dutch-speaking greenbelt outside of Brussels, has taken the war against French one step further. Overijse’s town council proposed this August to allow communes in Brabant to refuse residency to anyone without tics to the Flemish community and who cannot speak Dutch. The measure is aimed not only at the French-speaking community, but also at the incessant waves of Eurocrats now flooding this beautiful area around the E.G. capital of Brussels. A British woman and her Armenian husband who were denied residency in Overijse complained that their “basic human rights” had been violated. “Every E.G. citizen has the right to live where they like in Europe,” they argued. Apparently’ no one told this to the bumpkins of Overijse, who still stubbornly cling to the quaint notion of local sovereignty.
Similar battles are raging through Scandinavia. Finland’s days as a bilingual country, in fact, may be numbered. Schoolchildren are currently taught both Swedish and Finnish, the country’s two official languages, for at least three out of the nine years of mandatory education. In primary schools along the coast, where the 6 percent Swedish-speaking minority principally lives, Swedish is taught for as many as seven years. What Finland’s education minister, Riita Uosukainen, recently proposed is to make Swedish-language instruction voluntary, thus placating the Finnish majority that resents being forced to study Swedish. The latter, reports Karin Sundstrom in the European, believes “Swedish-speaking people in Finland should not be entitled to rights that the Finnish-speaking people in Sweden do not have.”
Nor is all quiet on Norway’s linguistic front, where a language controversy has delayed the country’s application to the E.G. Norwegian, of course, is the official language of Norway, but there are two accepted forms of it. They are separate and equal in status and are both used in public documents. This is not a problem for Norwegians but for the E.G., which refuses to approve two official languages for a member country. The E.G. already complains about the growing number of languages it must accommodate even without the membership of the so-called FANS, the current acronym for Finland, Austria, Norway, and Sweden. When the FANS become members, the number of language combinations that E.G. interpreters will have to contend with will rise from 72 to 132. Some Eurocrats worry that the number of translators will eventually surpass the number of E.G. policymakers; there are currently 1,600 of the former and 3,900 of the latter.
Language controversies of graver consequence embroil the Slavic populations of the Baltics. Tensions remain high over the language requirements set by both Estonia and Latvia as conditions of citizenship for ethnic Russians, most of whom arrived after the Soviet invasion of the area in 1940. It was relatively easy to grant everyone citizenship in Lithuania, where only 20 percent of the population is non-Lithuanian. But, in Latvia, Russians comprise almost half the population and are the clear majority in the capital of Riga. Russians also constitute about 40 percent of the population in Estonia. Yeltsin and the Russian communities in these now-independent countries are naturally unhappy with the new citizenship requirements and mandatory language exams. Besides their complaint that the Estonian and Latvian languages are too difficult to learn, they have appealed to the United Nations as victims of “discrimination” and “ethnic cleansing.” Yeltsin has even suspended troop withdrawals from the region; the Russian communities have threatened labor strikes; the Russian-dominated border town of Narva—which provides Estonia with 97 percent of its electricity—has threatened a cutoff; and rumors are rife about a possible Estonian raid on the pivotal town.
Baltic natives are not blind to the hypocrisy of their former overlords leveling charges of “ethnic cleansing.” The New York Times, the Washington Post, and their internationalist ilk may wish the world to “live and let live” when it comes to remembering Soviet tyranny, mass murders, and acts of cultural genocide, but the native victims and their progeny are not as forgiving. Ukrainians remember the brutal and systematic suppression of pan-Slavism in general and of their culture and language in particular by both Russian and Soviet dictators, and Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians well remember the invasion of 1940 and the institution of Russian as the official language of the region, with everyone required by law to learn it. “After what the Soviets did to us,” said Mart Rannut, head of Estonia’s National Language Board, “for us to ask Russians to learn a little language as the cost of citizenship seems not too big a price to ask.”
Italian politics have played out in the linguistic realm as well. The growing secessionist movement, in particular, has spurred a revival of regional dialects. Of course, neither regionalism nor regional dialects ever really died in Italy, for the country has never been unified, linguistically or politically. The story about the Battle of San Martino and Italy’s subsequent “unification” speaks volumes about the country’s current linguistic state. “Today we have given the Austrians a good thrashing,” Victor Emmanuel supposedly said—in French to his officers, in dialect to his troops, and in Italian to Garibaldi. Following in this tradition, the regional constituents of the Lega Nord have attempted to revive the dialects of Northern Italy; Umberto Bossi has called for the compilation of dictionaries of local dialect; and some localities have even begun renaming their towns. Linguist and leghista Giancado Oli proclaimed this summer that “dialect, rather than Italian, is the country’s true language” and urged “dialects to be taught in primary schools.”
Southern Italy, too, has experienced a renewed interest in dialect, but under different circumstances. If the revival of dialect is cause for celebration in the North, it is a cathartic means of grieving and persevering in the violent South. This spring, for example, before an overflowing crowd at Palermo’s cathedral, a Requiem Mass was performed in honor and memory of Judge Falcone, Judge Borsellino, and their bodyguards, all of whom were assassinated in Sicily last year. The mass was arranged by seven young Italian composers who translated a Latin text by Sicilian author Vincenzo Console into Sicilian dialect and Italian, i.e., Tuscan. Amid the thousands gathered were the wife of Judge Borsellino, the sister of Judge Falcone, and row upon row of black-clad widows of murdered carabinieri. The Sicilian performance “expresses the new climate not only in this city but in all of Italy,” said Leoluca Orlando, leader of La Rete.
This “new climate,” as these many examples make clear, is noticeable not only in Italy but across the whole of Europe, and numerous other examples could be offered, from the Welsh to the Catalans. What is “new” is not the tie between language and rising nationalism. The modern conception, after all, of language as an expression of regional, national, or cultural distinctiveness goes back at least as far as Herder’s Volkgeist. Also not new is the rhetorical cudgel wielded by opponents of regionalism and of local autonomy. In a recent essay on “The Tyranny of Tongues” in History Today, John Geipel compared the current outbreak of nationalism, ethnicity, and linguistic pride in Europe with “the Nazis, [who] obsessed with the Aryan myth, strove to purge the German language of every obvious loan.” Believing the “legacy of this false equation between language, ‘race’ and nation has persisted to our own time,” he concludes that language, “as an expression of a nation’s singularity, is clearly as much alive today . . . and continues to carry with it the sinister, irrational and xenophobic implications which it always has.” That’s right, whether consciously or unconsciously, the proud people of Overijse are really racists and xenophobes, if not closet admirers of Chamberlain and Gobineau. Such epithets and canards have a familiar ring to many Americans.
What is striking, however, about this “new climate” in Europe is the timing and persistence. At the very moment when centralization, homogeneity, transnationalism, and universalism are the reigning impulses in the capitals of the West, at the very time that a common market, a common currency, and a common government a la Maastricht comprise the blueprint of Europe’s officially designated future, wars of nationalism, political autonomy, and ethnic identity arc spreading apace. The regnant elite may wish to believe that squabbles over Norwegian, Italian dialect, and local sovereignty are mere ephemeral remnants of an unenlightened past, but such “remnants” persist and hinder their plan for a uniform and unified Europe any time in the near future. The transnationalists in New York and Brussels may be speaking Esperanto, but the people have clearly opted for a “tyranny of tongues.”