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Back to the 19th century: how language is being used to mark national borders

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.

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