Warring states (2)

by Terence MacNamee

In his report to the Institut Jacques Delors on identity and myth in Europe, Canadian history professor Gérard Bouchard laments the lack of any real emotional or mythic unity in the European Union. He believes that a European mythology should be consciously developed, like the mythology that presides over the patriotism of nation-states. There is one gaping hole in his discussion. He doesn’t even consider the issue of language. Yet the plethora of languages, symbolizing national identities, is what has kept Europe divided for so long.

Once Europe did have a common language: Latin. Even after the Roman Empire collapsed, the language of that empire was kept up as the language of administration, education, and indeed most writing. When the universities were founded, they too operated in Latin. When printing was invented, the vast majority of printed books were for a time in Latin. Even Martin Luther, who struck a blow for vernaculars with his German Bible, and the other Reformers wrote in Latin most of the time. Unfortunately, with the rise of the nation-states and their languages, people who should have known better, like Descartes and Galileo, could not resist the temptation to write in the vernaculars, and made it fashionable to do so. This meant that to keep up with the movement of ideas in Europe, you needed to know several languages. Still, learned books continued to be written in Latin up till the end of the 18th century, and for a Dutchman like Spinoza, or a Swede like Linnaeus, it was the only way they could be sure of reaching an international audience.

Today the struggle for a common language has been lost, for Latin is ceasing to be taught in the schools, and indeed for generations it has been little more than a fossil. Due to external factors (the power of the USA in the world), English has been making headway in Europe and is now widely used as a vehicle of communication between people who do not speak each other’s languages. Yet it really can’t be a pan-European language any more than French or German can, for in Europe it happens to be someone’s language (embarrassingly enough, the language of someone who has just announced they’re leaving). Latin throughout the millennia of its widest use, was safely “dead” and thus not a national language at all.

Consider, in contrast, China and its history. Classical Chinese with its huge, ingenious writing system became a means of nationwide communication, at least written, between people who could not understand one another’s spoken dialects. Classical Chinese has found a workable successor in the official Putonghua variety of Mandarin.

The single most decisive factor for uniting a huge area like China or Europe is having a common language. Otherwise you’re doomed to be just a bunch of Warring States – when you could have been a Middle Kingdom.