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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Race and Language
By Edward Augustus Freeman (1823–1892)
From ‘Historical Essays of Edward A. Freeman,’ First Series

HAVING ruled that races and nations, though largely formed by the working of an artificial law, are still real and living things, groups in which the idea of kindred is the idea around which everything has grown,—how are we to define our races and our nations? How are we to mark them off one from the other? Bearing in mind the cautions and qualifications which have been already given, bearing in mind large classes of exceptions which will presently be spoken of, I say unhesitatingly that for practical purposes there is one test, and one only; and that that test is language.  1
  It is hardly needful to show that races and nations cannot be defined by the merely political arrangements which group men under various governments. For some purposes of ordinary language, for some purposes of ordinary politics, we are tempted, sometimes driven, to take this standard. And in some parts of the world, in our own Western Europe for instance, nations and governments do in a rough way fairly answer to one another. And in any case, political divisions are not without their influence on the formation of national divisions, while national divisions ought to have the greatest influence on political divisions. That is to say, primâ facie a nation and a government should coincide. I say only primâ facie, for this is assuredly no inflexible rule; there are often good reasons why it should be otherwise; only, whenever it is otherwise, there should be some good reason forthcoming. It might even be true that in no case did a government and a nation exactly coincide, and yet it would none the less be the rule that a government and a nation should coincide. That is to say, so far as a nation and a government coincide, we accept it as the natural state of things, and ask no question as to the cause; so far as they do not coincide, we mark the case as exceptional by asking what is the cause. And by saying that a government and a nation should coincide, we mean that as far as possible the boundaries of governments should be so laid out as to agree with the boundaries of nations. That is, we assume the nation as something already existing, something primary, to which the secondary arrangements of government should as far as possible conform. How then do we define the nation which is, if there is no special reason to the contrary, to fix the limits of a government? Primarily, I say, as a rule,—but a rule subject to exceptions,—as a primâ facie standard, subject to special reasons to the contrary,—we define the nation by language. We may at least apply the test negatively. It would be unsafe to rule that all speakers of the same language must have a common nationality; but we may safely say that where there is not community of language, there is no common nationality in the highest sense. It is true that without community of language there may be an artificial nationality, a nationality which may be good for all political purposes, and which may engender a common national feeling. Still, this is not quite the same thing as that fuller national unity which is felt where there is community of language.  2
  In fact, mankind instinctively takes language as the badge of nationality. We so far take it as the badge, that we instinctively assume community of language as a nation as the rule, and we set down anything that departs from that rule as an exception. The first idea suggested by the word Frenchman, or German, or any other national name, is that he is a man who speaks French or German as his mother tongue. We take for granted, in the absence of anything to make us think otherwise, that a Frenchman is a speaker of French and that a speaker of French is a Frenchman. Where in any case it is otherwise, we mark that case as an exception, and we ask the special cause. Again, the rule is none the less the rule nor the exceptions the exceptions, because the exceptions may easily outnumber the instances which conform to the rule. The rule is still the rule, because we take the instances which conform to it as a matter of course, while in every case which does not conform to it we ask for the explanation. All the larger countries of Europe provide us with exceptions; but we treat them all as exceptions. We do not ask why a native of France speaks French. But when a native of France speaks as his mother tongue some other tongue than French, when French, or something which popularly passes for French, is spoken as his mother tongue by some one who is not a native of France, we at once ask the reason. And the reason will be found in each case in some special historical cause, which withdraws that case from the operation of the general law. A very good reason can be given why French, or something which popularly passes for French, is spoken in parts of Belgium and Switzerland whose inhabitants are certainly not Frenchmen. But the reason has to be given, and it may fairly be asked.  3
  In the like sort, if we turn to our own country, whenever within the bounds of Great Britain we find any tongue spoken other than English, we at once ask the reason and we learn the special historic cause. In a part of France and a part of Great Britain we find tongues spoken which differ alike from English and from French, but which are strongly akin to one another. We find that these are the survivals of a group of tongues once common to Gaul and Britain, but which the settlement of other nations, the introduction and the growth of other tongues, have brought down to the level of survivals. So again we find islands which both speech and geographical position seem to mark as French, but which are dependencies, and loyal dependencies, of the English crown. We soon learn the cause of the phenomenon which seems so strange. Those islands are the remains of a State and a people which adopted the French tongue, but which, while it remained one, did not become a part of the French State. That people brought England by force of arms under the rule of their own sovereigns. The greater part of that people were afterwards conquered by France, and gradually became French in feeling as well as in language. But a remnant clave to their connection with the land which their forefathers had conquered, and that remnant, while keeping the French tongue, never became French in feeling. This last case, that of the Norman Islands, is a specially instructive one. Normandy and England were politically connected, while language and geography pointed rather to a union between Normandy and France. In the case of Continental Normandy, where the geographical tie was strongest, language and geography together would carry the day, and the Continental Norman became a Frenchman. In the islands, where the geographical tie was less strong, political traditions and manifest interest carried the day against language and a weaker geographical tie. The insular Norman did not become a Frenchman. But neither did he become an Englishman. He alone remained Norman, keeping his own tongue and his own laws, but attached to the English crown by a tie at once of tradition and of advantage. Between States of the relative size of England and the Norman Islands, the relation naturally becomes a relation of dependence on the part of the smaller members of the union. But it is well to remember that our forefathers never conquered the forefathers of the men of the Norman Islands, but that their forefathers did once conquer ours.  4
  These instances and countless others bear out the position, that while community of language is the most obvious sign of common nationality,—while it is the main element, or something more than an element, in the formation of nationality,—the rule is open to exceptions of all kinds; and that the influence of language is at all times liable to be overruled by other influences. But all the exceptions confirm the rule, because we specially remark those cases which contradict the rule, and we do not specially remark those cases which do conform to it.  5

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