Language and nationality

I just finished reading the Lonely Planet guide to Eastern Europe.
This big book includes every European country that was in the former Soviet bloc. Since I live in Prague, I am very interested in this information--so far, Jarda and I have traveled mainly to Western Europe, and I'm fascinated to read about the countries to the east.

One fact that leaped out of the pages was the relationship between language and nationality. Sometimes nationality and language go hand-in-hand. French is spoken by the people of France, for example, and is the official language. This is simple and straightforward.

But when you move east, where people have moved and been moved from nation to nation for millennia, it's not so simple. For example, the people of Moldova speak Moldovan--why not? But according to the book, Moldovan is really just Romanian. Stalin made Moldovan a language when he created Moldavia as an autonomous Soviet republic. Giving the language a new name was a way to differentiate Moldavia, a Soviet republic, from Romania, a Soviet satellite (and an erratic one, at that).

The same is true in Macedonia, where they speak a language that's pretty much like Bulgarian, which Macedonia was part of over the centuries. Is the language Macedonian or Bulgarian? It's certainly not Greek, though Greece objects to Macedonia's name, citing the Greek region of Macedonia as the REAL Macedonia.

Croatian and Serbian are essentially the same language, but the two countries wouldn't like to hear that. They have been enemies and rivals more often than brothers and friends. Croatian is written in the Roman alphabet, and Serbian in the Cyrillic alphabet, so they look different but (so the book says) sound the same.

And Americans speak, not American, but English! This is startling, given that they fought a bloody war to become separate from England. So why didn't they change the name of the language?

In fact, it's quite ironic that a very small country, on an island, have given its name to the language used in 80% of the world's internet communications. English is not the most widely spoken language in the world, as more people speak a Chinese language than speak English, but English is the language of choice for young people who want careers in academia, government, law, business and the arts. It's the common language for people from different countries, even married couples--we have friends who are French and Finnish, and speak English to each other. Strange, when you think about it.

In Slovakia, for example, under 900 years of Hungarian rule, the Slovak language nearly died. It was illegal to teach in Slovak at different periods in Slovak history. The same is true in the Czech Republic, where official German nearly extingished Czech. National revivals of the late 19th century resurrected and legitimated many languages that were nearly dead.

People learn their native tongue at a time when their brains have little else to define their identity. Thus your native tongue becomes a solid part of who you are. Nationality as a concept comes later, when you are old enough to understand some history and politics. Combining language and nationality is a great idea, but not always so easy to do.


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