“A Language with a Name is an Idea, Not a Fact”

Bruegel's "Tower of Babel"

In 1995, Michael Billig published a book called Banal Nationalism, in which he argued that the ideology of nationalism has penetrated the modern mind more deeply than we commonly realize.  I haven’t read the book, but I might soon, since a remark about it on Ingrid Piller’s blog at  “Language on the Move” has been preying on my mind for several weeks.  In a post called “Sociolinguistics 2.0,” Piller wrote:

Michael Billig (1995) coined the term “banal nationalism” to describe all those mundane forms of nationalism that produce and reproduce the nation – such as the daily weather forecast on TV, which even in the smallest landlocked nation is presented against the background of a national map as if the weather was tied to national boundaries. Irritatingly, for any critical sociolinguist, the ToC of many journals in the field reads like a list of textbook examples of banal nationalism: study after study of this, that and the other thing in this, that and the other national language. Bourdieu (1991, p. 45) says it all:

To speak of the language, without further specification, as linguists do, is tacitly to accept the official definition of the official language of a political unit.

Sociolinguistics 2.0 can and must do better! Let’s stop pretending that English, German, Japanese or any other language with a name have some kind of primordial existence and are not in need of further explanation. The interesting questions are around language as “a cause, a solution, a muse for the national self, and a technology of the state” (Ayres 2009, p. 3).

(Follow the link above for the full citations.) 

The sentence “A language with a name is an idea, not a fact” is the heading Piller gives these remarks.  The more I think about that sentence and these remarks, the more puzzled I become. 

Certainly it is up to people to decide the boundaries that separate one language from another.  These boundaries do not exist in nature, as things that scientists working in a laboratory can discover and reveal to an unknowing world.  So to ask whether Flemish and Dutch, for example, are separate languages is to ask who does and does not believe that Flemish and Dutch are separate languages, and how those beliefs affect their linguistic behavior.  I think this is what Piller means by “A language with a name is an idea, not a fact”, but I’m not sure- who believes what and how those beliefs show in their behavior are questions of fact, after all. 

The references to Billig and Pierre Bourdieu suggest to me that the “idea” Piller has in mind is the modern nation-state.  If that is so, then I’m not sure how broadly she means her assertions to apply.  The idea of languages as individual entities with names was thousands of years old before the nation-state emerged.  Doubtless the emergence of the nation-state and of nationalism as an ideology has given us a different understanding of this idea than the ancients had.  So when we read, for example, an ancient Roman like Ennius claiming that he had three hearts because he could speak three languages, Latin Greek, and Oscan, we may well attribute thoughts to him that a man of the third century BC could not have entertained. 

Still, an idea of a language as an entity distinct from other languages and capable of bearing a name seems to be very widespread and very old.  Perhaps very old indeed; in 2008, I posted a link to an argument to the effect that when language was first spoken, more than one language may have been spoken.  If so, the idea of “a language” may already have been familiar to the first generation of language speakers.   

This is mere speculation, of course.  But I wonder how deep the idea that there are multiple languages in the world goes in the practice of language.  Perhaps the very act of speaking is always the act of speaking a particular language, as opposed to any other language.  So if Ennius spoke Oscan as a boy in a mostly Greek-speaking town in Calabria, he was, among other things, asserting his identity as a non-Greek.  If he spent his adult life in Rome speaking Latin, he was, among other things, signaling his intention to assimilate to Roman social norms.  Of course, in those days “identity” and “assimilation” were very different things than they are in a world where they are mediated by the modern state and its ideologies.  But perhaps something recognizable as identity and something recognizable as assimilation have existed from the dawn of language.

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1 Comment

  1. cymast

     /  January 5, 2010

    Yeah, the “idea, not a fact” quote is puzzling. Perhaps Piller is redefining “fact.”

    I am always irritated when I see weather stopping at the US borders. As if it didn’t have its exit Visa. This somehow reminds me of the mentality of sports fanatics who are obsessed with a particular team.

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