Language and Nationalism in Europe, chapter 2 Britain & Ireland: The varying significance of language for nationalism

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Language and Nationalism in Europe, chapter 2

  • Britain & Ireland: The varying significance of language for nationalism

Political Structure vs. National Identity

  • UK (England, Scotland, & Wales) provides political structure

  • Britain provides national identity

  • But many citizens of UK (N. Ireland) consider their nationality to be Irish, not British

Territorial vs. non-territorial languages

  • Territorial languages -- were once majority languages in a given territory; these are the languages that lay claim to nationhood, and they include Germanic, Celtic, and Romance (French)

  • Non-territorial languages -- have never dominated any territory, and all except Romani arrived since 1800; include Indian languages, Cypriot Greek & Turkish, Cantonese, Caribbean Creoles, etc.

Celtic languages in Ireland & UK

  • Gaelic languages in Ireland and northwest Britain (Scotland) include: Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx (last native speaker died in 1970s)

  • Brythonic languages in Wales and Cornwall include: Welsh, Breton (exported to Brittany), Cornish (dead since 18th c, but being revived)

Germanic languages in Ireland & UK

  • English not widely spoken until 19th c

  • Derives from lang of Anglo-Saxon invaders from Netherlands, N. Germany, Denmark in 5th c

  • Norse invasions reduced non-Germanic languages, thus favoring English, and Old Norse had strong influence on English

Germanic languages in Ireland & UK, cont’d.

  • 1066 Norman Conquest -- French replaced English for the aristocracy for 250 years, resulting in strong French influence on English

  • Unification of English has resulted due to political unification; there has been some linguistic leveling of English, but class and regional differences persist

  • Only 3% of population uses standardized Received Pronunciation

Two tiers of national identity:

  • State level -- British national identity

  • Local level -- Welsh, Scottish, English identities


  • Lallans (Lowland language) is spoken by the Lowland Scots, aka Scots English (see sample on our webpage)

  • Generally not comprehensible to other English speakers

  • EU gives Lallans status of a minority language, recent renewed nationalist interest in Lallans

Gaelic of Highland Scots

  • Poverty and out-migration caused population reduction in 18th & 19th centuries

  • Strong sense of Highland identity persists, legacy of clan/feudalist system

  • Gaelic undergoing recent revival, used in schools, TV and radio

  • No move for independence


  • Historically there was an Irish-speaking underprivileged majority vs. English-speaking elite

  • Plantation system was designed to weaken dominance of Irish-speaking Catholic majority

  • Irish desire for independence for entire island

Irish, cont’d.

  • Britain granted independence to Republic of Ireland in 1922, but retained N. Ireland

  • Irish nationalists are often indifferent to the fate of the language

  • Famine, emigration, and English education have depleted the number of speakers

  • Ulster Protestants are Irish but identify themselves as British (due to Protestantism)


  • Welsh is the only living continuation of a Celtic language in Great Britain

  • Welsh speakers are in the majority in most of the area

  • Welsh was associated with poverty and banned in schools

  • Welsh suffered a decline in 19th & 20th centuries but is undergoing revival


  • Nationalism is linked to many things (especially religion), not just language

  • Nationalism/regionalism is now often linked to local varieties of English

Quote to discuss

  • “sometimes the memory that ancestors spoke a distinct language may suffice, given the marginal position in many regions of the traditional languages in everyday life”

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