Australian Books

Speaking Our Language

9 January 2021

9:00 AM

9 January 2021

9:00 AM

The Linguistic Roots of Nationalism: How Language Makes and Breaks Nation States Sherry Sufi

Connor Court, pp.242, $34.95

The Australian language is one of the few bonds that still binds together the Australian nation. And, heaven knows, we need it — so many other bonds are breaking or fraying at the edges. When state governments behave like sovereign nations in the face of Covid, the bonds of federation start to look decidedly thin and worn. With the ABC continuing its long crusade to only represent Green-Left ideology (and completely ignore the majority that elected the Morrison government) its role of binding the nation together has largely dissolved.

What other bonds are left? Respect for the Anzac tradition? The Left often mocks that. The national anthem and the flag? They want to change them. Respect for the pioneering settlers who carved a modern nation out of a wilderness? Dismissed as racist. Today the Australian language is the rather lonely glue that holds us together as one people.

These thoughts are provoked by Sherry Sufi’s new book The Linguistic Roots of Nationalism. His thesis is that for a nation state to achieve something approaching cultural, as well as political, identity it needs a shared language. He sketches the story of ancient city states becoming medieval empires which were integrated on the basis of a common political form and little else. When those global empires began collapsing into modern nation states, politics alone came to be seen as an inadequate basis to hold a society together. In that context, he says, ‘shared language… became the most viable tool for parallel nation-building at the cultural level and state building at the political level.’

Sufi then looks at three different attitudes towards the use of language by three different nationalist movements, which resulted in three different outcomes. In Case Study 1 he looks at the formation of the modern nation of Israel, built on the shared history of Zionism, with Hebrew as the unifying language for a (largely) immigrant population from many different countries. This, he says, has been a great success.

Case Study 2 tells the story of Pakistan which, at the time of Indian independence and partition, had two components, East Pakistan and West Pakistan. The failure to survive as a single nation, Sufi argues, was not just because of geographical separation, it was driven largely by different languages they spoke (Urdu and Bengali). Shared religion (Islam) and political union were not enough to hold them together.

Case Study 3 shows that the break-up of the old Soviet Empire was facilitated by the absence of a unifying language. It was a political unit and nothing else. Far too late in the day, the Soviet rulers made a belated attempt to impose Russian as a common language.

All of this interests me because of the role of the Australian language in our cultural cohesion. If that looks like a big claim allow me to paint the picture.

First, the distinctively Australian dialect of English developed very early – within the first half-century following the 1788 settlement. By around 1830, it had a distinctive accent and vocabulary. In The Story of Australian English (NewSouth Books, 2015) I showed how it grew out of four foundations: convict slang, indigenous languages, military terms and regional English dialect words, which took root in local soil and flourished. This made the Australian language rich. It is a mistake to think it consists exclusively of slang. We have some of the most inventive, amusing, and colourful slang in the world. But there is a long list of standard words coined in Australia. If you talk about a ‘home unit’ or an ‘in-ground-pool’ or call your assistant your ‘offsider’ or the man who shifts the furniture a ‘removalist’ you are using non-slang Aussie English. You’ll find more than 10,000 of our words in the Australian National Dictionary. Also, even the most sophisticated city dweller has an Australian accent (whether they realise or not) — plus there are distinctions in both morphology and syntax in Australian grammar — making it distinctive, powerful and worth celebrating. Unfortunately, we are unaware of our linguistic culture although we instinctively take some care in choosing our words with overseas visitors or business contacts, using relaxed vernacular around the barbecue.

Will the Australian language continue to hold us together? We must never be complacent. Singing the national anthem in Eora is a symbolic gesture but given how many indigenous languages there are, and how few are spoken, it is the Australian language that unites us. Immigrants generally embrace it as a key to becoming part of the country. The only serious threat is the Woke warrior who wants to control our thoughts by controlling our words. They find ‘bloke’  an offensive term and ‘blokiness’ an odious quality. They want to censor our larrikin humour and stop us encouraging our favourite sporting team in the classical way (‘Have a go ya mug!’) We need to stop taking the Australian language for granted and to value the way it brings us together in subtle, culturally cohesive ways.

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