Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Restoration and Invention: The role of language in the invention of the Irish and Norwegian Nations.

Nations are not such new phenomena. The concept of Irish and Norwegian Nations dates back to medieval times. What is relatively new however, is an acknowledgement on the part of the general population of their membership of the Nation. Humans are social animals and have since earliest times tended to define themselves as X, son of Y, from Z. Up to early modern times, this inherent sense of community and sense of place saw no greater expression than attachment to the local place and allegiance to the local lord. The birth of the modern state, however, saw the horizons for sense of place grow from local to national. At that scale the nation became, of necessity, an “imagined community” 1 as Benedict Anderson has entitled it, because the members, while not knowing all the other members, feel a sense of community with them.

As with that other great imagined community, Religion, devotion to the nation needs to be supported and sustained by the belief that all the members share common bonds. The selection and promotion of what are deemed to be common bonds is what might be referred to as the invention of the nation. People have rallied to the cause of nationalism under a variety of banners; shared territory, religion, ethnicity, history and also shared language. In some cases one or other of these elements are deemed to be prerequisite to membership of the nation, while others can be seen as reinforcing the common bond. Looking at Ireland and Norway, it will be seen that in neither case was the national language a prerequisite to membership of the nation, as in both cases it had been supplanted by the language of the dominant neighbour state. Nor was the national language required to provide a common means of communicating the message of nationalism, for that need was already met by English and Danish, respectively. In both countries however, language did prove to be a potent force in the process of inventing the nation and language was used as a political tool to propel the Irish and Norwegian states to independence. Examining how the process differed in the two countries will reveal how nationalism takes different forms, placing greater or lesser emphasis on differing elements of invention from one country to the next. More interestingly, examination reveals parallels in how nationalism was experienced in the two countries. It will be seen that the tenets of cultural nationalism were acquired from the same source and if the application of these tenets differed, it would appear that cultural nationalism evolved similarly in both countries, with the politicisation of the language question having as much to do with competition for power as with striving for essential Irish or Norwegian identity. If the nation is the imagined community, it might be argued that nationalism came to be the art of getting people to imagine it your way. Looking at language post independence is also illuminating. In both countries a paradoxical situation is revealed whereby the struggle, which purported to be defining the essence of nationality, a national language to bind the citizens of the nation together, provided instead a focal point for division that has continued to the present day.

In Germany, the ideas of Herder and Fichte inspired a sense of national self-esteem, which began to develop there in the years following the French occupation of the early nineteenth century. This growing sense of German national identity focused heavily on common bonds of language. Herder wrote that“without its own language, a Volk is an absurdity, a contradiction in terms”. That German nationalism looked to language is not altogether surprising as it was possibly the only common denominator in an otherwise fractured assemblage of states. From Germany this language centred cultural nationalism spread through Europe and, while language may have been central to inventing the German nation, it also made inroads in countries such as Ireland where the national language was the minority language and in Norway where no trace of it remained. Among its adherents, romantic nationalism was an emotive and powerful force. The nation was seen as primordial and from a glorious past its history was seen as unfolding over the centuries in a teleological progression towards renewed greatness. The past was trawled for myths and sagas and a glorious and heroic past was invented for the nation with its own language providing an unbroken link to that past. Romantic, heroic, and glorious, this nationalism appealed to poets and patriots and was the stuff that would inspire people to fight and die for their idealised country. It was not, however, going to take that direction until it came to the centre of the political stage. The extent to which the language issue became politicised in Norway and Ireland varied in both timing and intensity but it may be argued that in both instances it was tied to the development of party politics and a move to a more exclusive brand of nationalism.