The contest of language: Before and beyond nationalism

The contest of language: Before and beyond nationalism. Ed. by W. Martin Bloomer. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005. Pp. 274. ISBN 9780268021917. $30.

Reviewed by Pramod K. Nayar, University of Hyderabad

A collection of essays that deals with the links between language and national–cultural identity, The contest of language is a useful, if disconcertingly eclectic, volume. It is useful to study the political history of a language when nationalism (or the nation, as we know it today) did not exist. The opening essays, dealing with Latin, Syriac, and the Irish lexicon, locate the modes through which certain languages acquired dominance—modes that involve institutional, academic, and textual politics in social, political, and cultural realms. Thus, while Latin humanistic culture was the cornerstone of the debates over Italian in Dante’s time, Syriac’s negotiations with Greek (and emergent Christianity) and the Irish-Gaelic lexicon’s working with contemporary ideas of kingship and sovereignty both point to very complex engagements with structures of political, mercantile, and theological power. Nationalism, these essays demonstrate, was often peripheral in communities, even though strong views of ethnic identities or popular (and vernacular) culture did exist. Language and imperial divisive politics have often gone together.

Studying late antiquity, Dimitri Gutas shows how non-Arabs were initially excluded from the ambit because Islam was rooted in Arabic, and it took the Abbasid dynasty to use Arabic culture, based on the language, to unite the empire. Haun Saussy demonstrates that philosophers who wrote language manuals actually invented social communication by drafting rules of linguistic conduct. Susan Blum’s essay shows how the Chinese rarely worry about linguistic difficulty and how most people acquire multiple varieties of language—her argument ties in with Suzanne Romaine’s idea of discrete languages as a European invention. Thus, Blum shows, linguism and nationalism don’t always go together. Tony Crowley explores both the Irish resistance to and support for the English language in the early modern period, and also the ways in which Gaelic has survived.

Richard Hunter returns to classical Greece to explore, in great detail, the link of language evolution with literary genres. Looking at Greek poetry, Hunter explores debates over authenticity and purity with the appropriation of genres into the classical scheme. Martin Bloomer’s fascinating essay shows how literary figures as diverse as Robert Browning and Seamus Heaney have retained Latin as a source of memory, pointing to the fact that Latin is not really a dead language because it is the stuff of memory itself. The battle against English and the compulsory enshrinement of Gaelic, Seamus Deane argues, has caused its own slow demise. Vittorio Hösle argues that a process of inversion is taking place, where English is essaying the role of Latin as the new academic lingua franca.

The volume’s focus on national and cultural identity as they are shaped by language is very welcome. The book’s organization, which returns to antiquity and classical times, shows how debates about languages have often excluded the nation from their focus. In other cases, nationalism has directly affected the ‘shape’ of language. The collection’s range, both temporal and geopolitical, provides an overarching view of these debates. This is a useful historical study of languages and the many ways they interact with politics.