From An Claidheamh Soluis, 4 February 1905
It will be evident from what we have written in our last two leading articles that a nation’s language – fashioned as it is by the nation itself for the purpose of expressing its thought, conditioned by the nation’s peculiarities, mental and physical, which, in turn, are conditioned by the nation’s past history, expressive of the nation’s point of view, working by methods peculiar to the nation, and imposing that point of view and those methods on whomsoever uses it – it will be evident, we say, that this language is an essential part of the nation’s nationality.
Nationality we have defined as the sum total of the characteristics which mark off a people as a distinct entity, and we think the definition is both accurate and adequate. Of such characteristics there are many: some are physical, others mental; some are of great, others of minor importance.
It is sufficient for our purpose to predicate that language is one of these characteristics, – that is, that it is an element in the compound, nationality. Every element in a compound is an essential part of the compound: if one element be withdrawn, the compound is not what it was, but something else. Were the Irish language to disappear, then, the people which we should have in Ireland, whatever else it might be, would not be the Irish Nation.
But, from what we have said it is plain that the national language is not merely an element – that is, an essential – of nationality, but that it is the largest and most important of all the elements which go to make up a nationality. It is this partly in virtue of what it is itself – the main expression and record of the nation’s thought – and partly in that it is a preservative of most of the other characteristics of nationality which are not merely physical.
For instance, it is a preservative not merely of the literature and the folklore of the nation, but of the nation’s habits of thought, the nation’s popular beliefs, the nation’s manifold bents, prepossessions, idiosyncrasies of various sorts. It is a preservative also of nationalism in art, in industry, in pastimes, in social and civic customs. It is further, partly through its function in keeping the nation in touch with its past, partly through the fact of its enshrining the national literature and lore, the wellspring from which artists and industrialists and publicists draw inspiration.
What is meant by saying that the national language is a preservative of many of the other elements of nationality will be grasped at once by remembering how far those amongst us who have retained the national speech have retained the other notes of Irishism in comparison with those who have become English-speaking. How much of Irishism, in mind, in manner, in lore, in music, in song, in pastimes, in dress, in customs social and civic, does one not see in comparing a Donegal or a Galway or a Kerry countryside with a rural district in Meath or Kildare or Dublin!
Wherever the language has persisted all or nearly all of the characteristics – purely physical ones excepted – have disappeared, or are disappearing. And the extent to which they have disappeared is measured by the length of time which has elapsed since the language disappeared.
It has sometimes been said that “language is nationality.” That dictum we take to be merely a forcible way of stating the truth that language is, so to speak, the determining factor in nationality, – the largest and most important element in the compound. If it be meant that the terms “language” and “nationality” are co-extensive, – that they connote exactly the same things – we must dissent.
Nationality, in our view, is a complex thing, and language, whilst the largest and most important of its factors, is still only a part of the whole. We imagine that this is all the dictum means. Language is at once an important element itself, and a safeguard of other important elements, at once a test and a symbol, of nationality; so that, if the statement “language is nationality” be true only when regarded as a figure of speech, the statement “there is no nationality independent of language” is true absolutely and universally.
“What about the United States?” says someone. We shall say somewhat about the United States next week.