Globalization of Language Will Muzzle the Nation-State

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Sep 11 12:43:29 UTC 2008

Globalization of Language Will Muzzle the Nation-State
By Michael Bell

September 10, 2008

Will a global language say "nevermore" to the nation-state? Photo:
Darwin Bell (CC).

In "Ending the Nation-State Myth," Devin Stewart recently argued that
the nation-state is past its sell-by date. I wholeheartedly agree.
Here I offer some insight into the reasons for its existence, and the
coming reasons for its nonexistence. Human beings have a hard-wired
drive to associate with each other in groups, which intensified during
the evolution of Homo sapiens from primate ancestors. The need to
belong operated originally at the kin-group level, or the tribe or
village. And as the size and complexity of human settlements
increased, this innate sense of belonging attached itself to the
larger units that developed—cities initially, and entire polities
later on ("we Roman citizens," as Cicero noted).

The sense of belonging is flexible in a human: As Stewart points out,
you can be both French and from the Loire Valley. In modern cultures,
group membership also forms a key part of self-identity. But while
evolution equipped humans to cooperate with each other in groups, it
also provided for competition between groups; in fact, the two
processes are inseparable as a social adaptation. Humans are naturally
xenophobic—people belonging to different groups tend to compete, often
through bloodshed, and this tendency scaled up with the formation of
bigger groupings.

Language was not necessarily one of the original cognitive innovations
that accompanied the emergence of the group, but when it arrived it
certainly sharpened the differences between competing groups. Indeed,
much of the power of the nation-state resides in the linguistic
concepts that define it: National culture is embedded in its own
particular language. The attachment of the French to their language,
noted by David Singh Grewal in "Speaking Fairly" (Policy Innovations,
June 2008), is based on the fear that their treasured culture will
disappear along with their language.

For the nation-state to acquire and exercise power over its citizens,
a means of communication between state and people was necessary, and
this was lacking in medieval Europe, where elites spoke French or
Latin and the peasantry spoke vernaculars. Education and proselytizing
required laborious copying of manuscripts and was restricted to a
small proportion of the population. To a large extent, the church
acted as moral arbiter and educator of the masses.

The nation-state, therefore, didn't really coalesce until the
invention of printing allowed monarchs or governments to educate their
citizens in what Benedict Anderson calls national print-languages
(Imagined Communities, Verso, 1983). The nation-state, in its modern
form, can therefore be said to have emerged during the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries. It is reasonable to interpret the nation-state
during its heyday as steering the group-centered loyalty of its
citizens for its own purposes, initially benign for the most part but
culminating with the genocides of the 20th century which have given
nationalism a bad name.

So what will stop it? Globalization, of course. There can be debate
over the degree of fairness of globalization, but there can't be any
dispute that it is happening. The most important globalization of all
is language, driven by technology—radio, satellites, mass travel, and
above all the Internet. As Grewal points out, it is just an accident
of history that English is the likely global language of the future.
The process has now probably gone too far to be reversed and will even
accelerate as machine translation is perfected. It is likely that one
day we will all have Babel fish in our ears or cognitive language
implants, allowing perfect, immediate communication between any two
human beings on the planet. At that point, nation-states will have
lost their main mental weapon and even their raison d'être. Without a
national print language, there is no nation.

People worry about a flattened global culture, with Chinglish elbowing
out literary expression; but that won't happen. Just as the gentleman
from Loire sings valley folk songs one moment and "La Marseillaise"
the next, so will the global citizen of the future celebrate his local
village and culture ever more fiercely. The Internet will play a major
part in this: Never was there such a medium for forming groups.
Facebook, Friends Reunited, HiPiHi, and thousands of similar
networking sites will offer unlimited opportunities for people to
satisfy their need to belong.

David Grewal points out the possible unfairness of asymmetric
linguistic situations, although the Babel fish or its equivalent would
appear to remedy this: If it becomes cost free to translate from
Chinese to English, the reverse will also true. So in what culture
(language) will children be educated? The answer may be many. The
global citizen with her English-based environmental and economic
agendas could be at the same time an expert in fourteenth century
French poetry and a veterinarian in Cambodia.

And the nation-state? Many of its competencies will be taken on by
global bodies or organizations, a process that can already be seen at
work in trade, finance, and political governance. At the other
extreme, people in their local groups and cross-border associations
will be increasingly eager and able to govern themselves, courtesy of
the Internet.

It won't happen tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow, but
eventually the nation-state will just wither away, more or less
gracefully, reduced to the status of a municipal council, worrying
over what color to paint the streetlamps.

Michael Bell heads the research blog Groups R Us.
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