The Importance Of Linguistic Nationalism


I read this weekend an article in the BBC that I interpreted as a good thing.  The article was discussing a recent decision of Pakistan’s Supreme Court to replace English with Urdu as the official language.

I should say at the outset here that I have never been to Pakistan and know nothing about its languages.  So why was I happy to see the Pakistan elevate Urdu as the official language?  This is the reason:  it shows that the dominance of English can be challenged.

I take it as self-evident that languages are repositories of unique ways of thinking, culture, and expression.  It is good that we have thousands of them in the world.  In order for nations and peoples to preserve their identity, it is absolutely critical to see that native languages are elevated and promoted.

Nothing sickens me more, when I travel, than to see the constant deference that is made to English.  I don’t want to see English wherever I go.  I don’t feel comforted by it.  I feel oppressed by it:  it is a constant and ever-present reminder of the mass media “world culture” that some countries are foisting on others.

I understand that people think that they are “helping” travelers when they do this, but I don’t agree. They are undermining their own cultures in very subtle ways.  It is difficult for me to respect a people which does not respect itself.  Subservience to English says, to me, a lack of self-respect.

I understand that there are many people who don’t see things this way.  They say:  “we want the education and opportunity that English gives us.  The only way to connect us with the outside world is through English.”

And that’s fine, as far as it goes.  But my response to this is:  why can’t you just learn English, but not surrender your native language’s authority?  Why do you have to sell-out to English?

If I travel in your country, I should have to learn your language.  I should have to make the effort.  I should see everything printed in your language.  Travel is not about making me feel good.  It’s about being confronted with something different.

That’s how I see things, anyway.  I know I’m in the minority on this, but so be it.  Every country, in my view, should promote its own language.  English should not be the official language–or even used–by any country unless it’s part of the British commonwealth or the United States.

When a nation surrenders its linguistic identity to English, it becomes part of the US cultural sphere.

But let us return to Pakistan.  According to the BBC article cited above, the language breakdown in Pakistan is the following:

  • 48% speak Punjabi, mainly in eastern Punjab province
  • 12% speak Sindhi, mainly in south eastern Sindh province
  • 10% speak Saraiki, a variant of Punjabi
  • 8% speak Pashto, in west and north western Pakistan
  • 8% speak Urdu
  • 3% speak Balochi, mainly in Balochistan
  • English is the most popular among government ministries

Several other minor languages are spoken by small segments of the population, including Brahui, Burushaski and Hindko.

What I really objected to in the article was the writer’s evident opinion that emphasizing Urdu was somehow misguided or a bad thing.  It is actually a good thing.

Please keep in mind here that it does not matter to me what language Pakistan uses for its various purposes.  That is their business, not mine.  It does not matter to me which language on that list is used.

My only wish would be that it be a language other than English.  It should be something that comes from the soil and mountains of that proud country, and not something imported by an alien nation 250 years ago.

Zaki al-Arsuzi:  Language As The Spirit Of A Nation

Reading the article brought to mind some of the ideas on linguistics and nationalism that I had learned from the Syrian philologist and nationalist Zaki al-Arsuzi.  He is nearly unknown in the West, but along with Michel Aflaq and Salah ad-Din al-Bitar,  he played a major role in the founding of the Ba’ath Party in Syria in the twentieth century.


There is something powerful and resonant in his ideas that is not easy to describe.

Arsuzi expounded his ideas on language and nationalism in his 1943 treatise The Arabic Genius in its Tongue  (عبقرية العربية في لسانها).  According to Arsuzi, languages were mystical repositories of the “spirit” of a people.  He says:

Our language, which is the most articulate manifestation of the genius of our ummah, is the reservoir of our cultural heritage.

A people could only preserve and promote its unique identity through a recognition of this fact.  Some his theories about the development of Arabic are unusual, but still thought-provoking.  He maintained that the development of Arabic derived from visual “sound images” from nature; that the development of Arabic was linked to the special psyche of the people; and that the language is able to manifest a higher deity through intuition.

For him, a language was not just a medium of communication:  it was a nation’s way of connecting mystically with a higher deity.  Culture, in his view, was the primary “component” of a human being.  Without culture, a man is nothing.  The Arabic language was that mystic force which pervaded and bound together the speakers of Arabic, and had enabled it to achieve great things in the past.

Arsuzi’s ideas are not those that are held by most linguists today, but he at least makes a case for the preservation and promotion of native languages.  It is a lesson that too many countries today have forgotten, in their haste to embrace the mass-media English world culture.

I hope Pakistan will press forward on its plans to replace English with Urdu.  I hope this example is followed by many other nations.  Only by adopting an uncompromising, dedicated language policy will a nation and culture be able to resist the inroads of English.

For once a people loses their language, they lose everything.


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