The Language of Dominion


We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

–William Shakespeare, Henry V

The nation is a fairly recent concept. It is a hybrid of the medieval feudal kingdom and the city state of Antiquity. So, vassalage and citizenship are in continuous contradiction. And equality is reduced to the formality of the ballot.

Trained for combat from the earliest age, European chivalry was either crusading against heretics and heathens, or warring over matters of suzerainty. Who believed what and who was whom’s vassal were the obsessions of the times. Suzerainty often opposed the sovereigns of England and France. A cross-Channel quarrel started by Norman William, that was to last eight centuries. And, on either side of this narrow stretch of sea, the two nations constructed themselves on the basis of this opposition to one another.

The historian G. Duby sees the first signs of an appeal to the French nation at the battle of Bouvines (1214) where Philip II of France beat English John’s continental allies, thanks to a large contingent of commons. This was turned around at Crecy (1346), when Edward III’s English longbows outshot the Genoese mercenary crossbows of Philip VI. Myth and poetry have glorified these alternate victories and have put words into the antagonists’ mouths. Heart-swelling harangues precede the onslaught and can seem to determine the outcome. This is habitual. Bolstering morale before a mêlée was already standard practice for the heroes of the Iliad. But, notwithstanding the poets’ rendering, there is always uncertainty as to the language actually used.

Some two hundred years after the event, Shakespeare had Henry V speaking Elizabethan English on St. Crispin’s day (Oct 25, 1415). That is the same as having Wellington speaking today’s idiom on the field at Waterloo.

At Crecy, seventy years before Agincourt, how did Edward address the yeomanry who were about to win the day? Among themselves, he and his court and his knights spoke the form of French that was their Norman and Angevin heritage. His archers, however, and the artillerymen firing the first rudimentary canons to be used in battle were composed of and manned by freemen, whose heritage was Anglo-Saxon and who spoke an evolving language similar to the English of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. If, as was the custom before battle, Edward said something to his army, it had to be understood by all. His appeal to common England would have been in English.

The French king at Bouvines faced a different situation. At the beginning of the 13th century, the kingdom of France was split by a linguistic North/South divide, named oïl and oc after the two different ways of saying yes. A split that can still be heard when French is spoken today. This was (is) due to the particular history of the Mediterranean coast. The Greeks settled in Marseilles in the 6th cent. BC, and later the Romans built cities in the South, long before Julius Caesar’s conquest of « hairy » Gaul. The South was more Latinized and more densely populated than the North and the Germanic influence was proportionally less.

Philip II’s Frank ancestors had been counts of Paris and Dukes of France (the region around Paris is still called Ile-de-France), before founding a kingdom and a royal dynasty. He would have addressed his freemen in his own Northern dialect.

The protracted dispute over who owed fealty to the other and the changing modes of warfare obliged the rulers of England and France to rely increasingly on the willing support of urban and rural commons. The result of this dependency was the recognition of a cultural and linguistic ascendancy. On the one hand, London, the surrounding counties and Anglo-Saxon English. On the other hand, Paris, the surrounding dukedoms and Frank langue d’oïl. Language and ethnicity became the basis of a new power structure. Christendom’s mythic unity of clerical Latin and the universal Church of Rome was shattered. The energy of numbers was perceived and harnessed, held by the mental reins of words. A control that was to intensify with the arrival of paper and the printing press, from China via Constantinople, and the invention of movable metal types by Gutenberg.

The permanence of the written word has long been recognized. Litera cripta manet. Printing was to multiply this permanence and the written word was to have an unprecedented impact on the human thought process. From the start, printing was competing with the monastic copyists. From the start, it involved entrepreneurship and mass production. From the start, the printed word showed a preference for the vernacular speech.

In his classic book The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan studies how a new medium changes the way reality is perceived. From the “hot” media of talking, shouting, singing and chanting, to the “cool” medium of the printed page read in silence, from hearing to seeing. The Athenian contemporaries of Plato were probably all literate. But under the Roman Empire and, consequently, in the Middle Ages writing was a specialized craft. And reading (deciphering) was practiced out loud for an audience. Printing broke what had become a carefully censored monopoly held by the clergy. The result was a radical transformation of society. Common people were reading for themselves and imagining the sounds and their signification. And, as much and more than the content, the form of the new medium was installing a new world order.

The Greeks and the Romans had been there before. McLuhan sees a chain of cause and effect going from the phonetic alphabet and literacy to the phalanx and the legion. The letters of the alphabet are all different, but each has its precise place in the written word. And, notwithstanding the first and the last or their frequency, each individual letter is equally essential to the whole. The poster, the handbill, the printed page in general with its perfect margins accentuates this impression. A motley crowd of equals joined together by language. The letters lined up in a rectangle are a representation of the citizen army. And, as the sequence of letters depends on the idiom used, their assembly depicts the nation.

The loose oral bonds of medieval Europe acquired the permanency of writing. And the language used was imposed by the centre of power. Latin was replaced by French for all official documents in 1539, by a royal ordinance of Francis I. Four years earlier, Henry VIII had declared himself head of the Church of England. This was nation building by absolute monarchs, reducing vassals to mere courtiers and annexing their semi-autonomous territories. Central control was then reinforced by imposing uniformity. One religion, one language, one kingdom, such was the end that justified the means. The ancient Celtic tongues were all but annihilated, while Occitanie, the land of troubadours and amour courtois, was dragooned and its inhabitants sent to the galleys or the gallows. Religion was often the pretext but absolute power was the goal.

The Divine Right of Kings is not in the bible. Though annointed, the Old Testament monarchs had at best a tenuous mandate from the heavens. Their legitimacy depended on decorum, success in war and peace, and the general well being of their subjects. Similarly, Greek and Roman citizens had opposed tyranny in writing and in acts. As printing made this known to a widening public, the status quo seemed ever less tenable. In Protestant England, Bible reading led to the Puritan movement and, ultimately, to constitutional monarchy and the rule of parliament. In Catholic France, where the Bible was proscribed, the belated Enlightenment referred back to Athenian democracy and republican Rome. And, while they remained opposed, both nations were convinced that their particular social model was universal. Monotheistic and humanistic values can both be perceived as identical for all mankind.

The struggles against despotism, in London and in Paris, had drawn their inspiration from different sources. The puritans had striven for a New Jerusalem, whereas the Enlightened referred to the Graccus brothers rather than the Maccabees. Both, however, had consented to colonial empires, showing thereby that their ideals were only ideas. Spreading the word, or the light, justified every conquest, as though Divine Right had simply been transferred from the monarch to his subjects, or, more precisely, to the idealised fiction imagined by the first circle of power, Britannia and Marianne, the commonwealth and the republic. A new despotism emerged, based on ethnicity. The nations of Europe (Spain had flowered and faded, Germany, Russia and Italy were finding themselves) were the chosen few. Their power epitomized their destinies as models for humanity.

The majesty of empire and the white man’s burden were exposed as a farce at Ypres and Verdun, at Auschwitz and Hiroshima, and at countless other places in between. Europe had given a spectacle of such beastly barbarity that it defied the wildest imaginations, while the subject peoples of the world looked on, incredulous. If the master race could do that to itself, it was disqualified. The exemplary façade was like a Potemkin village, a pretty screen to hide the vicious squalor of its natural inclinations. The tight hold had to loosen, but it could not let go. Empires may be reduce to rubble but their foot prints are too deep to be obliterated. This time the heritage for humanity was a criss-crossing of frontiers drawn by colonial map makers. The arbitrary lines of a planetary cadastre that had been fought and haggled over, bought and sold.

As in Europe, the national boundaries of a postcolonial world are the result of war and take no account of who should live together and who must be separated. Communities are divided by frontiers, or are obliged to cohabit with hereditary foes. The peoples of Europe had nationality imposed on them by force. They are slowly reclaiming the autonomy refused them for centuries. England, France, Spain, even little Belgium, are granting legislative and executive powers to their ethnic minorities. Ethnicity, however, is as tricky to handle as nitro-glycerine. It is only stable at very low temperatures. As soon as things warm up, the slightest shock can set off the most nightmarish processes. And, even if all stays cool, how can those nationals whose ancestors were Asian or African be identified as Welsh or Walloon?

A history book for primary schools and its multiple revised editions was the standard throughout France and its colonies, for at least half a century. It began by the celebrated phrase, “Nos ancêtres les Gaulois “. This mythic Gallic ancestry was hammered into heads across the empire, because of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and the subsequent loss of Alsace and Lorraine. These pseudo pre-Roman forbears were supposed to differentiate the inhabitants of France from the German hordes, their neighboring cousins-german. It helped raise the ethnic temperature on both sides of the Rhine and was not incidental in bringing about two world wars. But what did generations of children in Indo-China, North and West Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, make of this mind-boggling information? And what of the Bretons, who crossed the Channel in the 5th century, fleeing the Saxon invaders of Briton. And who managed to hold off the Franks for a thousand years. What of the Basques, whose language (Finno-Ugric) is anterior to the Indo-European ones. How could all their ancestors be Gauls? How could they accept such an incredible proposition? How could they be French?

Ethnicity is the power of demagogues, them opposed to us. The other is not allowed to be different, but he cannot be the same. Ethnicity is the instrument of domination. We are better, richer, more civilised, more powerful than they are, and God is on our side. Ethnicity turns superficial nuances into insuperable barriers. But the roots are there all the same, yet have nothing to do with cemeteries, or historical monuments, or even history. Roots have nothing genetic about them. Even members of the vegetable world aren’t born with roots. They grow and nurture them, as we do ourselves. And, if ancestry does have an influence, it is by the transmission of tradition and knowledge.

Divide and rule has always been the basic principle of control. And McLuhan has pointed out (Understanding Media) that the “cool” printed page representing an assembly of differences was suddenly submerged by the throbbing tribal sounds of “hot” radios and sound systems. After centuries of writing, Westerners in the 1920’s and 30’s were “sleepwalkers” fox-trotting to the brink. Television has brought the temperature down. But the sound media persist and TV is also radio. The sound of words carries an ethnic message. Intonations and accents are recognizable, whereas written words are (mostly) regionally neutral, a neutrality that stresses the class distinction of vocabulary. Speech divides as well as writing, but along different lines of fracture.

The kingdoms of Europe were the result of conquest. Ethnic minorities had imposed their suzerainty. This vassalage demanded tribute, military service and religious orthodoxy. But, as central control increased, a greater degree of uniformity was required. The tools to bring about this conformity were taxes and language. Literacy and the printed page diffused an image of space that corresponded to and confirmed the idealised nation. The tax-man knocks on every door.

A standard language produces ethnic and social discriminations. As Lindsey Collen explains in her Letter from Mauritius (New Internationalist 399, April 2007, p.35):

“When her (Anne-Marie’s) daughter goes to primary school next year, the teachers will completely ignore her already highly developed linguistic skills in Mauritian Kreol. They will systematically repress any spoken Kreol in the classroom, and never use a word of written Kreol. God forbid! They will attempt to teach her everything from the very first year of primary school through the medium of two languages she doesn’t know at all: English and French. Her cognitive development will be held back to the level of her painstaking formalistic learning of foreign language construction. Pedagogues call this kind of language policy a ‘”violence”, and say the damage done to children’s learning when they are taught through unknown languages (usually colonial or élite languages) takes some seven years post-secondary school to repair. And of course the emotional and psychological damage is difficult to quantify.”

And the Hawaiian Haunani-Kay Trask (ibid. p.33):

“It’s a kind of badge of imperialists that they ban the language. Part of their control is the control of your mind. And one way to control it is to take away the words you have for your own culture and your own people and supplant it with foreign words that don’t fit, that don’t match.”

The necessary conformity of the members of a citizen state stems from the equality of the homoios, equal duties and equal rights. This applied well to the xenophobic tribal city states of Antiquity, where ethnicity, language, ancestry and status were a shared heritage. The extension of this ideal to an assemblage of subject peoples can only result in ethnocide.

Identicalness can only be obtained by the destruction of other identities. At least, such is the lesson of the past. Reason, however, suggests that a fusion, an adding together, would gain in vocabulary and knowledge and understanding. But such reasoning supposes that these extensions are desirable. In fact, they are contrary to the accumulation of power, riches and control and are systematically repressed.

KENNETH COUESBOUC can be reached at