Imagined Communities, Imagined Languages

[Find out more about this column, “the Menu is not the Meal” by Sophie Morris]

Anderson’s “Imagined communities”: the concept that nations are merely made up of people who believe themselves to be part of them, and it is this belief that creates the nation in the first place and keeps it alive.

Anderson’s explanation of the role of language in his conception of the nation, while not perfect, is quite interesting. Print capitalism, according to Anderson, is crucial to ‘imagined communities’. What is print capitalism? In a nutshell, it means that after the invention of the printing press, those selling books wanted to appeal to the widest market possible. This meant not just printing in Latin anymore, since the common people couldn’t read Latin. If they could read at all, it was only in their native vernacular, of which hundreds could be found in Europe. But which reasonable entrepreneur would be willing to translate and print their manuscripts into hundreds of different versions? Instead, the dialects closest to each other were grouped together, allowing books to be translated and printed in those new ‘languages’. These languages later on came to form the nations we know today. Essentially, capitalists wanting to be as efficient as possible with their resources played a small, yet important part in the formation of the European nation-states that we know today, such as Germany, France and Italy. The nation-state was built on print capitalism, and, consequently, the concept of a nation is deeply intertwined with monolingualism. The modern state cannot function well with messy multilingualism and confusing dialects: they undermine and weaken its authority.

Anderson’s theory, though famous, has not been received without criticism. While I do fundamentally agree with his idea of imagined communities, I agree it is far from perfect. He drastically overemphasizes the importance of written language as opposed to spoken language. Wogen, for example, sees this dichotomy between print and orality as a fundamental problem in Western academia, and to a growing extent, Western common sense.

Despite such problems, I think Anderson can help us understand the way that the European conception of the nation-state has been shaped by the way that ‘national print- languages’ were grouped together. He can help us understand that the languages that we see as such fixed, distinct entities are ‘imagined’, just as Anderson’s communities.

However, we should remember that when Anderson uses the word ‘imagined’, he is not implying that communities are fake, just as I am not implying that languages are fake. I think we can apply what Dumbledore said to Harry:

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Nations and languages have been imagined into existence and have been artificially fixed due to print capitalism and the creation of the nation. They are indeed real, but just because we have made them so. Fixed languages, each with fixed rules that resist change, are not natural. Language naturally flows, dialects become intertwined and move apart again, but print capitalism and the nation have frozen them in time, only begrudgingly allowing a new word to be added to the dictionary or the spelling of a word to be changed. They have placed more emphasis on the written word than the spoken one, giving more importance to the rigid rules of grammar and spelling than the natural flow of phonological and syntactic change.

What I think we can learn from this is that the lines that have been drawn between different languages are far more political and unnatural than we often think. Just as we have drawn lines between the colours in order to be able to identify them more easily, we have similarly drawn lines between languages. The line between red and orange is so recognisable to everyone because we have become accustomed to classifying colours rigidly rather than seeing colour as a flowing spectrum. In the same way, we have become accustomed to thinking of language as a set of distinct, fixed languages, rather than seeing their continuity.

In my first article in this series I talked about how the way we label things can (or can’t) affect our perception. Often, dialects within countries can be as different – or even more different – from each other than two neighbouring languages. However, since the two dialects are spoken on two sides of a border we label them differently. Then, because of print capitalism, dialects spoken within the same nation become more similar while those spoken on different sides become more distinct.

I think most of us can accept to an extent that communities – nations – are imagined. They have been constructed for political and economic purposes, and imagined by the people. What we often forget is that language has been similarly manipulated: just like the people of Europe have been sometimes arbitrarily classified into different nations, the dialects of Europe have often been grouped together into different languages for simplicity, capitalism, and political motives. It is not so much that the French nation is a nation because they share a language, they share a language because they are part of the French nation. Language – and languages – has been a tool to group people together.

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