What Is the Link Between Language and Nationalism?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Imagined Communities" by Benedict Anderson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How did language and literacy impact the growth of nationalism? What indirect impact did the advent of the printing press have on nationalism?

According to Benedict Anderson’s theory, nationalism is a modern and “unnatural” social construct that quickly expanded after the rise in literacy. Language and nationalism are connected because one of the primary bonds that link strangers is their shared language.

Continue reading for more on the link between language and the rise of nationalism.

Language and Nationalism

Anderson argues that language and nationalism are linked because one of the key factors in the rise of nationalism was the explosion of literacy in Europe beginning in the 14th and 15th centuries.

He writes that the new reading public that began to emerge in most European countries was able to absorb written ideas and communicate with one another in the languages they spoke every day. This, in turn, formed a crucial link that sparked national consciousness and forged key bonds of commonality between previously disunited political communities within European countries.

Literacy Initially Cemented a Ruling Class

Anderson argues that one of the primary bonds that had linked otherwise disparate political and religious elites together before the rise of the nation-state was their shared use of ancient sacred languages.

According to Anderson, liturgical languages like Latin, Classical Chinese, and Koranic Arabic helped to join the tiny educated elite (an infinitesimal fraction of the overall population, the overwhelming majority of which was completely illiterate) together across vast stretches of time and space. The fact that these were dead tongues—read and written, but not used in ordinary conversation—gave them a unique power.

Because they existed almost entirely in writing, these languages were relatively unchanged throughout the centuries or across countries. In Europe, this meant that those scribes, scholars, and monks from Ireland to the furthest reaches of the Holy Roman Empire who possessed a shared understanding of Latin could cement their solidarity as Europe’s educated elite—regardless of what country they were from.

Anderson also notes that these languages were used almost exclusively in the context of either sacred religious ceremonies, legal contracts, or royal proclamations. This gave them a weight and gravity that common languages didn’t possess and positioned the small community of princes and churchmen who had mastered them as intermediaries between the common masses and the realm of the sacred.

Challenging Latin Supremacy in the Middle Ages

The Latin Vulgate—a Latin translation of the Bible that dates back to Late Antiquity—was the Catholic Church’s officially endorsed translation of Scripture in use during the Middle Ages. Although it has gone through subsequent editions and revisions, it is still in use in the Roman Catholic Church today. 

But even during the long period of Latin’s ascendancy in Western European Christianity, there were a number of groups (whose leaders were often branded as “heretics” in their time) that challenged the ecclesiastical elite’s stranglehold on the interpretation and dissemination of the Bible by pushing for the translation of Scripture into local languages. They believed that Christians should have a more direct relationship with the holy written word instead of having it intermediated by the Latin-educated elites of the Church—and that one of the best ways to achieve this was to have the Bible printed in languages that laypeople would be more likely to understand. 

The Lollards, a proto-Protestant movement in England during the 14th and 15th centuries, led by the reformer John Wycliffe, were strong proponents of the printing, reading, and instruction of the Bible in English. Likewise, the 12th-century Waldensians—a group led by former wealthy merchant-turned-ascetic Peter Waldo, whose adherents demanded a return to Christ-like poverty and simplicity—commissioned scholars to translate the Bible into local languages then spoken in the Alpine regions of France and Italy.) 

The Printing Press Democratized Literacy

But literacy rates would eventually come to soar in Europe, paving the way for vernacular languages to supplant Latin as the dominant language of written expression.

Anderson argues that the massive growth in literacy beginning in the 14th and 15th centuries was made possible by the printing press. For the first time, books and pamphlets could be mass-produced by machine rather than painstakingly hand-copied—making them much more inexpensive and widely available. Indeed, Anderson writes that 20,000 titles were published in Europe by the year 1500, an increase many orders of magnitude beyond what had been possible before.

This gave the European general public far greater access to the world of words than they’d ever had before. The emerging bookselling and publishing industry naturally sought the broadest possible market for its products. Since only a tiny educated minority of the population was literate in Latin, it took very little time to saturate this market. Simple economic logic therefore dictated that books be printed in the vernacular—the languages that people spoke and used every day.

This helped to boost literacy rates, because it was easier for people to learn to read and write in languages they already spoke. Within a few generations, according to Anderson, there was a genuine mass reading public in Europe.

In addition to its effect on nationalism, the printing press also had a momentous impact on global political, intellectual, scientific, economic, social, and religious developments. The new ability to print religious tracts questioning the practices and dogma of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe, for example, made the success of the Protestant Reformation possible. 

The Protestants—who advocated a more direct connection between congregants and Scripture, without the intermediaries of Latin-trained Catholic priests—found a powerful weapon in this new tool that allowed them to mass-print and widely disseminate copies of the Bible, translated into local languages for ordinary people to read. This encouraged the growth of local national cultures based on a shared language, with the emerging states often making their Protestantism a defining feature of their national identity. The Reformation also contributed to the breakdown of the medieval idea of transnational Christianity—with firmer national identities gradually taking its place.

The Rise of Vernacular Brought About New Linguistic Identities

According to Anderson, the explosion of books printed in the vernacular helped to dethrone Latin as the transnational language of literature and written expression. With Latin no longer acting as a barrier to the written word, the mass public in countries from England to Sweden began to cultivate a new language-based identity and heritage. Gradually, the growth of a class of literate professionals able to consume news and literature printed in their own languages created new bonds and fostered an idea of nationhood—a community of people bound to one another by their shared recognition that they spoke, wrote, and thought in the same language. 

The demands of the new print market helped to forge these new linguistic identities. Beyond just printing in the vernacular, booksellers sought to appeal to their customers by printing works in standard or uniform versions of a vernacular language—rather than having to adapt each book to suit each local or regional dialect.

Over time, this process smoothed out the differences between regional dialects to create standard versions of languages like French, English, Spanish, and Italian. By transcending local speech, Anderson argues that these new print cultures fused and cemented the idea of a national linguistic community.

In The Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson explores this process of language standardization in greater detail. His discussion of the standardization of English, in particular, illustrates this process in action. 

He writes that the emerging printing industry in England naturally centered itself in the nation’s commercial, cultural, and political capital—London. As printed works produced by London printers began to spread across the country, London spelling conventions gradually began to supplant local variations. The sheer weight of London’s gravity proved decisive—by the dawn of the 18th century, English had become far more unified in its spelling than it had been just a generation before. Bryson further notes that this period also coincided with a major change in the morphology and pronunciation of spoken English known as the Great Vowel Shift.
What Is the Link Between Language and Nationalism?

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  • An exploration of the phenomenon of nationalism throughout history
  • Why the idea of "the nation" is purely a political innovation
  • How the rise in literacy and the printing of books fueled nationalism

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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