The Fallacy of National Studies

The studies of national specificity, usually focused on this or that national language originated in the 19th-century central Europe. They grew out from two kinds of pursuits. On the one hand, philologists discovered languages, that is, national languages, or speech communities that were quickly equated with nations. While on the other hand, folklorists (ethnographers) discovered peasantry, seen as the forgotten soul and the true body of the nation. Philologists put themselves to the task of endowing their (usually native) languages with ‘scientific’ dictionaries and grammars, while folklorists were collecting a given peasantry’s songs and customs which they saw as equal in quality or even transcending the ancient Homeric tradition. Both groups of scholars soon propounded that the language of an elite (nobility) was ‘impure,’ due to ‘foreign’ influences, usually from Latin, French or German. But an ethnically correlated peasantry’s speech extolled as an epitome of the ‘pure’ national language posed a problem of easily observed spatial variability. The ‘peasant language’ differed from village to village, from region to region, and not at all was free of ‘foreign impurities,’ either. These problems was ‘explained away’ by nobles’ long-century oppression of peasants through the system of serfdom. As a result, the supposedly pristine culture and language of peasantry were corrupted, and the putative early medieval or even ancient nation was fragmented, as serfs were not allowed to leave their villages or parishes. Simultaneously nobility ‘unjustifiably’ separated themselves from their ethnically kin ‘peasant brethren’ (‘betrayed the people’), by allowing a succession of (nationally) foreign monarchs to assume the throne of the (national) kingdom, and by marrying foreign nobles.

This corruption almost destroyed the nation and its language, which nearly ‘died.’ But not, a ray of hope remained, because in actuality both nation and language just ‘fell deeply asleep.’ National activists ‘awoke’ the nation from its heavy slumber, aided in this difficult task by philologists and folklorists. When the ancient state of the nation has been successfully ‘re-established,’ peasants have been freed from the chains of serfdom, and nobles have given up their elevated status and rejected foreign rulers in the name of national love with their peasant brethren, at long last it was time for the ‘re-purified’ (proper, correct) national language to be taught to all (peasant and noble sons and daughters) in compulsory elementary schools. Because the national language is the sole medium of instruction and the main subject of study in such schools, in no time it became the basis of national unity.


This is a typical paradigm of the ‘national history’ of the Norwegians, Latvians, Poles, Slovaks, Croats, Macedonians or Greeks, that is, of central Europe’s ethnolinguistic nations that achieved the goal of their own unshared nation-states. The national master narrative is developed, maintained and transmitted by national philology and history. The latter is represented by the History of Germany, History of Poland, History of Slovenia or History of Bulgaria, while names of the nationally-inflected philologies are coined from the Latin or current names of nations, for instance, Germanistik for the German nation, Polonistyka for the Polish nation, Slovenistika for the Slovenian nation, or Българистика (Balgaristika) for the Bulgarian nation. Both national history and philology are the leading departments of the social sciences at national universities. Graduates of these departments transmit at schools the ‘correct’ national message to the successive generations of citizens in this or that nation-state. The national message is posed as the ‘historic truth.’ If it is questioned by pesky foreigners, this national truth must be defended as much as one’s own country, because the nation’s honor is at stake. If an argument posed by an ‘anti-nationalist’ cannot be logically refuted, the last line of national defence is to say that foreigners with inherently imperfect knowledge of ‘our’ language and history ‘by nature’ are unable to see in full ‘our national truth.’


In Japan this division between national insiders and ‘ignorant foreigners’ (外人 gaijin, literally ‘outside person,’ but often employed to mean ‘overseas devil’) is even more pronounced. When Japanese learn their Japanese at school it is known as 国語 Kokugo (national language), while the subject of study for foreigners who want to learn this language is referred to as 日本語 Nihongo ([limited] Japanese [as accessible to foreigners’ equally limited minds]). The assumption is that non-Japanese are inherently unable to fully master the Japanese language (Kokugo), so they are compelled to settle for the language’s insipid reflection, namely, Nihongo. A racist ‘scientific’ explanation of this ‘fact,’ as developed during the first half of the 20th century proclaims that the Japanese brain is biologically different (‘better’) from the (‘inferior’) brains of foreigners. Only the Japanese brain can ‘get’ all the intricacies of Japanese language and culture. ‘Poor foreigners, they don’t understand and even cannot hope to properly speak our language and ever understand our culture.’


Likewise, the nationalist distinction between Kokugo and Nihongo is duly reflected at universities. Future school teachers of the Japanese language for Japanese schools study at the departments of 国語学 Kokugo-gaku, while those who want to teach this language to foreigners study in the departments of 日本語学 Nihongo-gaku. Kokugo-gaku is a counterpart of central Europe’s Germanistik or Polonistyka, that is, nationally-inflected philology.


The logic of such national studies focused on language as the mystic essence of nationhood is inherently circular: A is B, because B is A. Foreigners (A) do not understand our national culture (B). Why is it so? Because our language and culture (B) are so sublime and specific only to us that foreigners (A) with their biologically limited brains are inherently unable to master our language, which is the sole gateway to the transcendental truth about our nation. Or: our language (A) is the best in the world (B), because all other languages (B) are naturally inferior to our language (A). Or: our nation-state is ancient, at least one millennium old (A) though it was established only in 1918 (B). It was evil foreign powers (B) that for nine centuries suppressed our state unjustifiably incorporated into the monstrous empire.


An opening of the discussion is possible in line with the facts on the ground as reflected in available sources. But this means an acknowledgement that the concept of nation is a Western creation, which appeared in the 18th century. Afterward populations of non-national kingdoms (for instance, France) and ethnolinguistically defined speech communities (for example, German-speakers) were overhauled into nations with the use of political decisions as implemented through bureaucracy, universal elementary education and the ubiquitous press (‘print capitalism’). Likewise the concept of ‘a countable and discrete language’ (Einzelsprache) is a western invention, dating back to around the First century CE. The Reformation brought about the replacement of Latin as the sole ‘official’ written language of western Christianity with vernacular languages. In the 18th and 19th centuries the norm emerged that a ‘proper language’ should be accurately ‘delimited’ from all other languages and properly ‘developed’ by (national) scholars who would endow this language-in-making with a ‘scientific’ grammar and dictionary. ‘Scientific’ means here ‘large and extensive’ and in emulation of such grammars and dictionaries as initially compiled and written for the ‘leading’ languages, first Latin in the 16th century, and afterward for Italian, French, German or English, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries.


However, most nationalists prefer to stick to the circular logic of the national studies, rather than face the imminent danger of disenchantment by consenting to the unravelling of their cherished national myths, from which the national master narrative is woven. With so much time, money and emotions invested in the nation, it is extremely difficult for those involved to acknowledge that both nations and national languages are human creations of a recent date. This emotionally motivated reluctance contributes to the lasting vibrancy of nationalisms, and the nationally-inflected approach to research.


May 2017