CREDIT: <a href="">Darwin Bell</a> (<a href="">CC</a>).
CREDIT: Darwin Bell (CC).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: Globalization of Language Will Muzzle the Nation-State

Sep 10, 2008

In "Ending the Nation-State Myth," Devin Stewart recently argued that the nation-state is past its sell-by date. I wholeheartedly agree. Here I offer some insight into the reasons for its existence, and the coming reasons for its nonexistence.

Human beings have a hard-wired drive to associate with each other in groups, which intensified during the evolution of Homo sapiens from primate ancestors. The need to belong operated originally at the kin-group level, or the tribe or village. And as the size and complexity of human settlements increased, this innate sense of belonging attached itself to the larger units that developed—cities initially, and entire polities later on ("we Roman citizens," as Cicero noted).

The sense of belonging is flexible in a human: As Stewart points out, you can be both French and from the Loire Valley. In modern cultures, group membership also forms a key part of self-identity.

But while evolution equipped humans to cooperate with each other in groups, it also provided for competition between groups; in fact, the two processes are inseparable as a social adaptation. Humans are naturally xenophobic—people belonging to different groups tend to compete, often through bloodshed, and this tendency scaled up with the formation of bigger groupings.

Language was not necessarily one of the original cognitive innovations that accompanied the emergence of the group, but when it arrived it certainly sharpened the differences between competing groups. Indeed, much of the power of the nation-state resides in the linguistic concepts that define it: National culture is embedded in its own particular language. The attachment of the French to their language, noted by David Singh Grewal in "Speaking Fairly" (Policy Innovations, June 2008), is based on the fear that their treasured culture will disappear along with their language.

For the nation-state to acquire and exercise power over its citizens, a means of communication between state and people was necessary, and this was lacking in medieval Europe, where elites spoke French or Latin and the peasantry spoke vernaculars. Education and proselytizing required laborious copying of manuscripts and was restricted to a small proportion of the population. To a large extent, the church acted as moral arbiter and educator of the masses.

The nation-state, therefore, didn't really coalesce until the invention of printing allowed monarchs or governments to educate their citizens in what Benedict Anderson calls national print-languages (Imagined Communities, Verso, 1983). The nation-state, in its modern form, can therefore be said to have emerged during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It is reasonable to interpret the nation-state during its heyday as steering the group-centered loyalty of its citizens for its own purposes, initially benign for the most part but culminating with the genocides of the 20th century which have given nationalism a bad name.

So what will stop it? Globalization, of course. There can be debate over the degree of fairness of globalization, but there can't be any dispute that it is happening. The most important globalization of all is language, driven by technology—radio, satellites, mass travel, and above all the Internet.

As Grewal points out, it is just an accident of history that English is the likely global language of the future. The process has now probably gone too far to be reversed and will even accelerate as machine translation is perfected. It is likely that one day we will all have Babel fish in our ears or cognitive language implants, allowing perfect, immediate communication between any two human beings on the planet. At that point, nation-states will have lost their main mental weapon and even their raison d'être. Without a national print language, there is no nation.

People worry about a flattened global culture, with Chinglish elbowing out literary expression; but that won't happen. Just as the gentleman from Loire sings valley folk songs one moment and "La Marseillaise" the next, so will the global citizen of the future celebrate his local village and culture ever more fiercely. The Internet will play a major part in this: Never was there such a medium for forming groups. Facebook, Friends Reunited, HiPiHi, and thousands of similar networking sites will offer unlimited opportunities for people to satisfy their need to belong.

David Grewal points out the possible unfairness of asymmetric linguistic situations, although the Babel fish or its equivalent would appear to remedy this: If it becomes cost free to translate from Chinese to English, the reverse will also true. So in what culture (language) will children be educated? The answer may be many. The global citizen with her English-based environmental and economic agendas could be at the same time an expert in fourteenth century French poetry and a veterinarian in Cambodia.

And the nation-state? Many of its competencies will be taken on by global bodies or organizations, a process that can already be seen at work in trade, finance, and political governance. At the other extreme, people in their local groups and cross-border associations will be increasingly eager and able to govern themselves, courtesy of the Internet.

It won't happen tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow, but eventually the nation-state will just wither away, more or less gracefully, reduced to the status of a municipal council, worrying over what color to paint the streetlamps.

Michael Bell heads the research blog Groups R Us.

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