S·P·I·N - Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms

Philology and national culture

– Situating and mapping cultural nationalism in Europe –

The need to apply a comparatist and Europe-wide view is obvious if one wishes to trace the emergence of cultural nationalism in Europe. Primarily, however, the parameters themselves ("Europe" and "cultural nationalism") need to be clarified. Often, cultural nationalism is presented as an unspecified miasma affecting minds and attitudes indiscriminately in various respects, and spreading like a cloud or ink-blot over the European intellectual sphere. In order to dispel this conceptual haziness, and to get a more specific grip on the topic, a specification of both parameters is in order.

What specifically does “Europe” consist of, and which activities make up for that stance we now call “cultural nationalism”? A clearer apprehension of the specifics which are addressed by those generic terms will do much to bring our topic into clearer focus. It will not simplify or remove complexities, but it will make them recognizable.

This outline of how to situate and map the specifics of cultural nationalism in Europe consists of three parts:

  • the first detailing the taxonomy of the languages of Europe
  • the second detailing the specifics of those initiatives, interests and endeavours we consider part of cultural nationalism
  • the third outlining how one may be mapped against the other into a complex, but workable matrix, and what perspectives for research suggest themselves as a result of that operation. What emerges in particular is the need for an epidemiological approach.

Parameter 1: Specifying Europe

Europe may be circumscribed, in its outer margins, as the field where nationalism was driven primarily by intellectuals and their discovery of the vernacular cultural roots of the nation. This includes Iceland, Finland, Russia, Bulgaria, Greece but excludes the Americas, the Maghreb, the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia. (Turkey, from the Ottoman Tanzimat reforms to the Young Turks and to Atatürk, is a marginal case, as are Armenian and Jewish (Zionist) nationalism.)

Within the European area so demarcated, the arena of developing nationalism can be, and has been, divided in East and West, or between independent states and emerging minorities. However, the historical record suggests that these differentiations are less obvious or useful than was once thought, and that the most neutral taxonomy may be that of language, since language itself was the premier criterion of establishing one's national and ethic identity.

The carrier languages "Carrier languages" I call those languages or language variants, whose cultivation in the nineteenth and twentieth century has turned them into a vehicle or focus point of national, autonomist or separatist consciousness-raising of emerging national thought in Europe number somewhere between thirty-five and sixty: that approximative nature of that number is itself a reflection of the blurriness of the taxonomy of cultural identity and of the concept of "nationality" itself.

Pragmatically, some 40-45 languages/linguistic categories can be specified, which does at least serve to give greater and more differentiated specificity to the various traditions where we encounter nationalism. (A fuller list of carrier languages "Carrier languages" I call those languages or language variants, whose cultivation in the nineteenth and twentieth century has turned them into a vehicle or focus point of national, autonomist or separatist consciousness-raising with abbreviations used for them, can be found by clicking here.

Albanian (Alb, It)




Basque (Sp, Fr)


Norwegian (variants)



Frisian (NL, Ger)

Netherlandic (NL, B)













other: Germanic, Romance, Slavic language variants and remaining European languages; pan-German and pan-Slavic movements.








Italian (incl. dialects)


English (Eng, Sc, Ire)



French (Fr, B)



A few comments:

  • • Some smaller carrier languages "Carrier languages" I call those languages or language variants, whose cultivation in the nineteenth and twentieth century has turned them into a vehicle or focus point of national, autonomist or separatist consciousness-raising, even though they have attracted status or activism as national identity markers, have been grouped under "others", so as not to clutter the list unduly. A more inclusive list of these "others would include:
    1. – Pan-Germanic, and other smaller (less widely cultivated) German languages/dialects, e.g. Färoerese, Luxemburgish. Plattdeutsch, Limburgish, etc.
    2. – Pan-Latin, and other smaller (less widely cultivated) Romance languages/dialects, e.g. Galego, Asturian, Aranés, Corsican, Sardinian, Ladin, Rhaeto-romance, Friulian, Arumanian/Vlach, Walloon, etc.
    3. – Pan-Slavic, and other smaller (less widely cultivated) Slavic languages/dialects, e.g. Sorbic, Ruthenian/Rusyn, etc.
    4. – Remaining smaller (less widely cultivated) European languages/dialects, e.g. Maltese, Saami, Sinti/Roma, Turkish (within Europe), etc., as well as smaller Celtic languages (Manx, Cornish) and Pan-Celtic.
  • • However, these cases lead us to the grey zone between nationalism and regionalism, language and dialect. The intractable taxonomic conundrums that this leads to can only be mentioned here, not resolved. In each case, the criterion has been, not to give a list of "European languages", but of European carrier languages "Carrier languages" I call those languages or language variants, whose cultivation in the nineteenth and twentieth century has turned them into a vehicle or focus point of national, autonomist or separatist consciousness-raising. That cultivation process is not inself determined by the degree of linguistic "separateness".
    1. – Irish Gaelic and Scots Gaelic are linguistically very close but have been separated in wholly different polities and have as a result obtained wholly different role and status as identity markers in Ireland and Scotland. Similarly for closely related languages with different ideological or political cultivation trajectories, such as Serb and Croat, Bulgarian and Macedonian.
    2. – In the cases of Albanian/Arberësh, Basque, and the status of French in France and in post-1830 Belgium's "official" elite culture, the political separation (even though often reinforced by regional differentiation) is less pronounced than an overriding sense of cultural solidarity across the political frontier.
  • • Conversely, in the case of English, Frisian, and Netherlandic (Dutch/Flemish) such distinctions are so profound or pronounced as to warrant separate treatment of the various cultural-nationalist accretions involved.
    1. – The status of the English language in English national feeling, Irish nationalism, or Scottish regionalism or separatism, respectively, is in each case quite distinct.
    2. – Despite a strong sense of kinship, the Frisian language is rooted differently in the Netherlandic context than in the German one, as regards its dialectal variation, its sociolinguistic status and the nature and importance of its language movement.
    3. – The case of Netherlandic is particularly complex. "Dutch" and "Flemish" have, despite important dialect differences in the spoken demotic vernacular, a shared standard for educated speech and for written form; they also share by and large a joint literary canon. However, the subaltern status of Flemish in nineteenth- and twentieth century Belgium (as opposed to the long-standing, unquestioned acceptance of the Dutch language's official status in the Northern Netherlands) meant that the two variants functioned in wholly different political and ideological circumstances, and attracted wholly different forms of national (Dutch vs. Belgian/Flemish) patterns of national consciousness-raising. This combination of linguistic contiguity and political disunity means that in certain instances we can register a strong pan-Netherlandic national awareness embracing both "Flemish" and "Dutch", and in other instances a strongly particularistic sense of difference.
  • • "German" covers a very large language area with important dialect differentiations, separated over different states which a historically volatile process succeed each other in various shapes and forms of aggregation. The language nonetheless forms an ideological continuum, in that it had a strong written standard, joint literary canon and institutional underpinning. Something similar applies to the case of Italian.
  • • Precisely where the emergence, cultivation or emancipatory ambitions of language variants like Ruthenian/Rusyn, Corsican, Sardinian, Galego, Ladin or Luxemburgish stand in the sliding transition between nationalism and regionalism is a matter of debate (and indeed the debates themselves are there, as a matter of historical record). Although Frisian and Provençal have not become the carriers of serious autonomist or separatist claims, they have been included here because of the cultural and philological importance attached to them by Germanists, Romance scholars; similarly, Sorbic is important in the history of cultural nationalism, not because there were any separatist national movements focused on that language enclave, but because it had been given a symbolical and philological importance in early Pan-Slavism far in excess of the number of its speakers. Other languages again, while definite and highly distinctive markers of ethnicity, have not become the carriers of nationalist movements or territorial-autonomist claims: Swedish in Finland, German, French and Italian in Switzerland, Saami, Roma/Sinti, Vlach/Arumanian, and Yiddish (whose speakers tended to express nationalist feelings in the form of Zionism, and focusing primarily on their other "own" language, Hebrew).

Parameter 2: Specifying "Cultural Nationalism"

What, precisely, did the activities involve which we now consider typical of the rise of national thought and interest? "Cultural nationalism" comprises a number of activities and initiatives, in a variety of cultural and social fields, and ranges from the revival of traditional sports to language purism, from the editing of medieval texts to the building of historical monuments. The list below gives an idea of the variety and diversity of markers of cultural nationalism, here grouped into some fourteen categories:

"I" Institutional infrastructure: -- the foundation of libraries, archives, museums, universities or university chairs, certain government agencies like academies, folklore surveys, archeological committees etc.;

"S" Social ambience: -- the foundation of associations (learned, cultural or otherwise), city academies, and publishing ventures such as periodicals, book clubs and reading societies;

"L1" Language retrieval and inventorization: -- the compilation of dictionaries and grammars;

"L2" Language cultivation and activism: -- debates and initiatives in the fields of orthography, standard and dialect forms, and language purism;

"L3" Language propagation and assertion in the public sphere : -- activism, planning, education;

"D1" Discursive/literary retrieval and inventorization: -- editions of olderliterary, legal and historical texts and documents;

"D2" Discursive/literary cultivation and activism : -- translation of the Bible and of world classics into the vernacular; national history-writing; national/historical dramas, poems and novels;

"D3" Discursive/literary propagation and assertion in the public sphere: -- history education, historical pageants, commemorations;

"A1" Artefacts retrieved and inventorizated: -- classing of monumental and archeological remains, and of symbolically or historically invested sites;

"A2" Artefacts cultivated or perpetuated: -- monument protection ("Denkmalschutz"), restoration, public collections in museums;

"A3" Artefacts inspiring propagation of identity in the public sphere: -- erection of monuments, dedications/naming of public space; historicist architecture; traditionalist or historicist decorative arts/design;

"P1" Practices retrieved and inventorized: -- collections/editions of oral literature, of proverbs, superstitions; folklore studies of manners and customs, pastimes; folk dances; folk music;

"P2" Practices cultivated and perpetuated: -- literature written in rustic-demotic mode; revivals of traditional sports/pastimes; composition of national music;

"P3" Practices propated in the public sphere: -- revived and invented traditions, cultural, folkloristic and sporting events/festivals.

They can be arranged into the following scheme:


cultural fields

salvage, retrieval, inventory cultivation, perpetuation, inspiration propagation, assertion, proclamation
language L1 L2 L3
discourse D1 D2 D3
artefacts A1 A2 A3
practices P1 P2 P3
I: institutional infrastructure
S: social ambience

For a graphically better version, click either of these options:

PDF format | JPG format

3: Mapping the Coordinates of Cultural Nationalism in Europe, and Three a priori Results

We have now a more specific, differentiated idea what the concepts "Europe" and "Cultural nationalism" stand for. This makes it possible to plot the latter (the fourteen categories of activities marking cultural nationalism) against the former (the 40-or-so European linguistic traditions). In so doing, one obtains a finely-meshed grid for charting the growth of cultural nationalism in Europe and the role of scholars and scholarly network in that process.

A graphic image of the matrix involved by clicking on either of these options:

PDF format | JPG format

This matrix, complex as it is, may be useful in order to differentiate and situate our ideas concerning cultural nationalism in Europe. It may help to give different types in different parts of Europe their coordinates of longitude and latitude, so to speak, and to place them vis-à-vis each other. It should be stressed that such a matrix is not in itself the framework of research, or an encyclopaedic sum-total of the various aspects to be "filled in", but rather a facilitating instrument for situating concrete historical research projects, by giving the topic involved a "longitude and latitude" on the mental map of how we can conceive of its context-at-large.

Thus, folksong-collecting in Serbia or in Latvia can be meaningfully positioned against Latvian language revivalism or Serbian history-writing; the rise of the historical novel can be aligned across Europe; within a given context (e.g., Flanders) the links between monumental restorations, editions of medieval chronicles, and language activism can be brought into focus in what otherwise would appear as an amorphously general and diverse "Flemish Movement".

In the first instance, this is useful to rescue the topic of cultural nationalism from a vague “all that sort of background stuff” status. More importantly, in the second instance, it is indispensible if we want to trace developments, influences and networks across cultural fields and across the European map.

Three a priori results emerge from this thought experiment, as working hypotheses with a high degree of plausibility:

1. that it is legitimate to encompass all of European cultural nationalism into a single, albeit differentiated working model. The processes mapped in this manner transcend earlier divisions of the European working field into sub-fields like "eastern and western nationalism" or "old states and emerging nationalities", majority and minority nationalism, etc. It makes continuities and traffic between all those intra-European variants visible for further investigation.

2. that there is reason to single out European cultural nationalism as a specific moment and field in the wider area of the history and theory of nationalism. If we accept that Europan cultural nationalism is rooted in the specific field of philology and facilitated by institutional ambience of universities, libraries and suchlike institutions of learning; that from there it radiated both into the world of cultural production and of political opinion-making, then that position is specific to Europe, not found in other parts of the world (certainly not in this period), not comparable to processes of decolonization or primarily politically-motivated state-formation. Moreover, the process seems to affect all of Europe, from Iceland to Bulgaria and from Finland and Russia to Portugal. It may be, then, an intriguing instance of a historical experience which is common to all of Europe and also specific to it. [That hypothesis would have to be tested by taking a closer comparative look, on the basis of the programme as outlined here, at adjoining cases (e.g., Turkey, Egypt, India, Mexico), tracing both the similarities and the dissimilarities.]

3. that influences, contacts and networks in cultural nationalism can be traced as vectors within this European matrix, and that therefore the spread of cultural nationalism across the European map, across the various cultural fields, may be traced in "epidemiological" terms. Epidemic systems can be defined as models in communication and transmission, which have no rigid role-division between sender and receiver, or between source and target, but where any actor targeted by a certain "contagious" impulse (be this a germ or an item of information, opinion or discourse) can itself become a relayer to transmit it further. To see cultural nationalism spreading as a "contagious impulse" would account for its occurrence in different parts of Europe, often in very short distances, and in often widely dissimilar contexts.