Return of Virulent Nationalism: how language is being used to mark national borders

Mario Saraceni | (The Conversation) | – –

According to a series of newspapers, immigrants will apparently change the English language in Britain beyond repair over the next 50 years. The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express have all run alarming stories on this topic. Language will change “because there are so many foreigners who struggle to pronounce” certain sounds, such “th” as in thin or this.


These claims follow a recent report by sociolinguist Dominic Watt at University of York and accent coach Brendan Gunn on how the English language is likely to change in Britain in the next few decades. The report suggests this will happen due to the increased use of technology and the growing cultural influence of London and the US. The report, however, didn’t mention immigration at all, let alone suggest that it may be the cause of English changing. So how were these newspapers able to turn a report on language change into anti-immigration pieces?

The answer lies in the way languages are understood, especially in the West. Consider the names of European languages such as English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, for example. Now consider the names of the countries where these languages are spoken: England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain. And now consider, also, the names of the people living in those countries: the English, the French, the Germans, the Italians, the Spanish. All these names suggest that there is an obvious and entirely natural bond between specific languages, their speakers and the territories that they inhabit.

Says it on the tin.
Joseph Calev/Shutterstock

Old-school thinking

But this idea is far from obvious and hardly natural. In fact, it has its roots in 19th-century European nationalism. This ideology sprung from Romanticism, and at its centre was the conception that language was the most important factor that marked the identity of peoples. “Those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds by nature herself,” wrote Johann Gottlieb Fichte in his Address to the German Nation in 1806. This concept was later instrumental for the establishment of independent nation-states in post-Napoleonic Europe in the second half of the century.

But these forming nation states had a problem. In order for language to be the principal marker of national identity for them and their territories, they needed to be understood as having existed in those territories with their own recognisable and distinct characteristics (rules, words and sounds) for a very long time. But this is very far from the truth: languages are dynamic, in constant flux, and mix with one another very easily.

So, towards the end of the 19th century, at the height of European nationalism, histories of languages were created in order to demonstrate their primordial existence. For example, it was in the 1880s that language historians began to use the term “Old English” to refer to the assortment of languages used in Britain before the Norman Conquest. The obvious advantage of “Old English” over, say, “Anglo-Saxon” is that it clearly suggests that what is spoken now and what was spoken well over 1,000 years ago is fundamentally one and the same language.

But, as any English speaker attempting to read any of the texts supposedly written in “Old English” will immediately realise, what the people living in England spoke 1,000 years ago was so different from contemporary English that it feels just like a foreign language to modern speakers. Yes, we may recognise the odd word here and there, but then so can we when we read contemporary French, Dutch or German. And yet, that strange-looking language began to be called “Old English”, in order to demonstrate linguistic continuity – and, with it, national identity – through the centuries. That 19-century understanding of languages has never really left us.

The fear of multiculturalism

For this reason, as many in Europe are looking for a firmer re-establishment of national borders, language is once again being used instrumentally to mark boundaries between people. And this fits perfectly well with the anti-immigration agenda of some newspapers. Their A-B-C logic goes something like this:

a) The English language is the language of the English, and it has been so since time immemorial.

b) Now, suddenly, it’s changing, and that can only be caused by non-English people (immigrants).

c) Consequently, by living here and speaking English (badly), immigrants are changing not only our language but the very essence of our national identity.

It is by drawing on this 19th-century, and still deep-rooted idea of national languages, that these newspapers have been able to fuel what is essentially a xenophobic position.

And this is despite the fact that the report they refer to not only does not even mention migration but also portrays changes in the English language as being part of the normal and physiological process of language evolution.

This hard-headed association of language with national identity was at the core of an extreme version of nationalism that led Europe to two world wars. But we can turn this on its head: if we understand how fluid languages are by their very nature, if we appreciate the way they evolve and mix, we will also find it easier to live together and multiculturalism will no longer be so scary.

The Conversation

Mario Saraceni, Senior Lecturer in English Language and Linguistics, University of Portsmouth

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

10 Responses

  1. Language will change “because there are so many foreigners who struggle to pronounce” certain sounds, such “th” as in thin or this.

    What? I can’t count the number of dyed-in-the-wool English people I’ve heard talk about “vis or vat” or who have an “Aunt Miwdred.” “Wha’evah!” Pot, meet kettle.

  2. My great-grandmother, born next to Bow church in 1876, used to sing “forty fahzen fevvers on a frush” to show she was a genuine cockney…

  3. English, a language that has been described as “not so much borrowing words from other languages, but following them down dark alleys, mugging them and rifling their pockets for vocabulary”? THAT language is going to be ‘irreversibly damaged’ by immigrants?

    That’s possibly the silliest thing I’ve heard all week!

  4. Meanwhile, virulent multiculturalism can be traced to 20th century hippies. Cxu ni devus interparoli uzante esperanton ?

  5. A shame really that immigration changes language so much. Must be why no Brit can understand an American these days. Centuries of immigration just totally bend that language out of shape. Nobody in the states can pronounce these pesky th’s any more. Sad.

  6. Here in England, I’ve not heard complaints about novel vocabulary or accents, but rather complaints about (seemingly) separatist non-English-speaking communities.

  7. “English” is a misnomer for a language of this green and pleasant land, it comes from the Angles, a refugee Germanic tribe, who then uprooted a language full of immigrant words from the Romans. Why use words of Latin origin, a bloodthirsty bunch of warriors who had to borrow most of their culture from the Greeks?
    So, I say, we must recover the language of Boudica. Let the Scots return to pure Pict language, the Welsh speak Welsh, each to their own true root, and get rid of all these immigrant influences.
    And fie on Beowulf! He came from the south of Sweden, and the story takes place in Europe, a place called the land of the Danes, which many think is modern Frisia, now partly German and partly Dutch lands. Beowulf is an epic from alien invaders. Give that legend of blood and monsters back.

    [This being the internet, I suppose that I must write that the above is satire.]

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