Languages ​​and national identity

When studying foreign languages, the correspondence between the idiom used in a given area and its national identity is often taken for granted. However, if you think better about it, this relationship is not at all immediate nor is it easy to explain due to the many implications implied. Contrary to what you may be led to think, in fact, language alone is not a sufficient tool to define national identity, but it is certainly the most concrete external sign of this belonging, as it represents a factor of cohesion of the community which, sharing it, feels part of a unitary reality and expresses its vision of the world. Furthermore, if the meaning of the term “language” is easily understood by everyone, the same cannot be said for the concept of “identity” which takes on different meanings. The most suitable definition for this analysis is certainly the romantic one that sees identity as the set of historical, cultural and thought traditions shared by a people who express them through a common language by sharing a defined territory.

The close connection between the language and the culture in which it expresses itself would therefore be evident . The languages, representing belonging to a community (in this case, a national unity), allowing communication between individuals and the creation of a common exchange ground that allows you to overcome particularisms, are actually counted among the symbols of ‘identity.
Each language, in fact, expresses the character of the people who speak it, its vision of the world, its culture and is therefore a strong instrument of unification for those who live in a specific territory and who share specific traditions. At the same time, however, it can be transformed into a yardstick to judge the distance and the difference between the culture defined as “proper” and one considered “other” as different.

By conveying a precise vision of the world, the languages ​​differ substantially from each other and this can clearly be seen in the  translation of some simple sentences , for example the French “apprendre par coeur” (literally: learning from the heart, which is equivalent to Italian to: memorize) or “donner sa langue au chat” (literally: give the language to the cat, in Italian: throw in the towel / surrender), in which the two completely distinct images show the cultural difference expressed through the two languages . For this reason, unlike what you can think of when learning a foreign language, there is not always a total correspondence between a sentence and its translation .
Unfortunately, the national geo-political entity does not always correspond to one language and one culture and this can cause violent clashes.

Significant, in this sense, is the example of Belgium, which, far from being a culturally uniform territory, encompasses as many particularisms as the provinces that are part of it, which have each kept their own tradition, their exclusive style of life and one’s own language. To the regional diversities, from the end of the 18th century, and especially at the beginning of the following century, a differentiation between Flemish provinces and Walloons marked by the linguistic frontier is added. With the affirmation of the identity of the Belgian nation as opposed to the Dutch one, affirming the national language becomes an imperative. For some, Flemish, being the only language of the provinces to represent an alternative to that of neighboring and rival France, is considered the best choice. However, with the spread in Belgium of the French model of nation articulated around the idea of ​​a national language in a homogeneous territorial entity in which all populations that use the same language come together, the linguistic unity becomes inseparable from the harmony of political society.

This is why French begins to emerge as the language of freedomwhich must be widespread throughout the territory, arriving to impose itself in the aftermath of independence and to be used in all official areas and, in particular, in the administration, in the parliament and in the army. At the same time, the Flemish continues to live above all in the daily life of the inhabitants of the Flemish provinces. This coexistence, however, has caused, over the years, serious accidents due to mutual misunderstandings to the point of bringing Flemish forces to the streets to put an end to the problem. But it is only from 1873 that multilingualism is admitted by the Constitution, declaring the end of Belgian unilingualism and the affirmation, both of the equality of languages, and of the diversity of the two “races”.

The linguistic contrasts, however, seem to be overcome with the rise, in the years preceding the First World War, of that national pride, which is called “âme belge”, for which, beyond any distinction of language, religion or race , it is the glories of a common past that determine the existence of only one people. Dwelling too much on regional differences, therefore, would lead to denying the existence of any nationality, on the contrary, enhancing national affinities seems to be the best choice for the moment. It is not, however, so easy to overcome the particularisms, in fact, a Walloon and a Flemish soul is immediately opposed to the national soul , reaffirming the indissolubility of the language by the identity of the group of speakers.

Contesting the principle of linguistic identity , in which the homogenization of the country under the same language, Flemish or French, was the indispensable term, Belgium, with the constitution of 1993-94, affirms that its national character is no longer based on linguistic unity, but on diversity. This is why there are currently three official languages: French, south; Flemish, to the north; and German, to the southeast. Although the separation situation of Belgium shows two communities, whose aspiration for independence was based on linguistic difference, and whose relationships often result in mutual indifference, the desire to continue living together seems to resist, as the diffusion shows, in 2006, of the false news concerning a separation of Flanders, which gave rise to a demonstration, in Brussels, in favor of the unity of the nation.

Further demonstration that the use of a language alone does not serve to determine belonging to the linguistic community that uses it , it is the affirmation of the specificity of Belgian French-language literature (since there is no Belgian language, one cannot speak exclusively of “Belgian literature”, but it is necessary to specify the language in which it is made) compared to the French literature of France. Reducing, therefore, literature to the language in which it is produced is extremely incorrect, as it would represent the negation of the importance of the author’s legacy, folklore, education, customs and roots, which are the extra-linguistic elements on which the same literature is based.

The case of Belgium therefore clearly shows how language, which should be a factor of cohesion and integration, can also isolate and separate. Starting from the linguistic uniqueness of two peoples inhabiting the same territory, their diversity and incompatibility has in fact been enhanced, leading to a clear split which results in a nation split in half where tensions are still strong. At the same time, however, the Belgian French-speaking population has shown that language does not determine membership of a nation; if it were not so, it would have had to become an integral part of France with which it shares the language, yet the different culture, history, traditions and customs have prevented its assimilation. This shows that language is, for them, a means of expressing something “other” which represents the true factor of diversification of identities.

According to their ideologies, therefore, each group of people can choose the vision of the language that is most appropriate to them, considering it, therefore, as a strictly cultural factor or as a simple means of expression linked, at the same time, to their traditions.
From these different visions derive completely different consequences: the former will separate their linguistic group from the others despite sharing cultural traits with them, while the latter, flying over linguistic differences and sharing the same culture of another group, will promote the union between the two, or separation in the event that there is no cultural affinity.
However, it must be remembered that, despite the diversity, all languages ​​are born as means of communication and that, like all tools, can be used in a positive way, to unite and allow reciprocal exchanges even between different realities, overcoming contempt and fears, or negatively, to fuel conflicts and divisions.

Personally, I like to think of languages ​​as vehicles that allow openness towards othersand that, although it is necessary to defend each of these communication tools from the pushes that want to erase diversity, it is essential not to devalue and learn other idioms, so that, together with them, respect for other communities, especially minority ones, is spread, and there can be a constant dialogue in mutual understanding and appreciation, because, only by communicating amicably can we solve the problems that increasingly torment the community, not only in Europe, but also and above all worldwide. What remains to be done, therefore, is to accept reality in its diversification and to become increasingly tolerant and open towards the other, in the awareness that it is only thanks to the diversity that there can be progress and evolution. Indeed, it is in the continuous tension and in the faculty of creation due to exchanges with other idioms that a language can survive, if it loses its assimilation and innovation abilities it will die. For this reason, influences are critical for individuals to maintain broad freedom of expression.

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