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The role of language in national identity

“A court of human rights cannot allow itself to suffer from historical Alzheimer’s. It has no right to disregard the cultural continuum of a nation’s flow through time, nor to ignore what over the centuries served to mould and define the profile of a people…No supranational court has any business substituting its own ethical mock-ups for those qualities that history has imprinted on the national identity”. These are the words of Giovanni Bonello, on the European Court of Human Rights, ruling in the Lautsi vs Italy case. 

Believe it or not, the case was about the presence of crucifixes in Italian state classrooms. In certain countries, including my own, crosses with this disfigured and weird-coloured depiction of a man (Jesus is often white, but I’ve even seen green ones!) mean something. Within that image is a significance which goes beyond the religious. The crucifix is a symbol of our nation’s past, of revolutionary instances in our common history, of events which have shaped what we call “national identity”. A cross is not much, yet nonetheless, it does indeed mean very much, at least to us. 

And a crucifix is just a symbol; it doesn’t do anything other than act as a symbol. Apart from artistic modifications along the ages, it hasn’t really changed. Its shape and form is somewhat static, unalterable. A crucifix is a dead thing. 

But a language. A language is a mess, a bit more complex. A language is not an inanimate religious icon that we have seen too many times. Neither is it boring, rigid or ‘useless’. I use my language constantly; to think, to describe my sorrows and joys, to pray, to swear. A language is the masterpiece of every speaker, it is a form so beautiful, sculpted by the hands (or better, tongues?) of every soul that speaks it. A language has been shaped for as long as it has been, and is, at every moment it is wielded. 

If a crucifix, two pieces of wood and a pale figure produced from a mould, can encapsulate within itself a piece of our national identity, then what does a language? A language is the child with as many parents as it has speakers. It is moulded by our ideas and experiences. Part of it is part of us, on the individual level, but all of it is part of the history and present being of a nation.

Allow me to use some biological jargon; if a crucifix is a feature of national identity, then maybe a language should be its diagnostic feature. Some diagnostic features can be quite revolutionary, take bipedalism. Others quite insignificant, having 22 not 23 segments. Yet that 23rd segment sets that taxon apart just as much as the two legs do; a language does serve a function, and a brilliant one indeed, but its role in national identity is not just one of ‘doing’, but one of ‘being’. May we never fall into the trap of believing that the worth of a language is equated solely to its utility. It is what it is; it is part of our history, culture and identity, and not much can be done to change that. It would be irresponsible, if not wrong, to voluntarily succumb to this “historical Alzheimer’s” and let our languages wither away.

Image: Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr