This is the first piece in our new series on ‘Radical History after Brexit’, exploring the challenges facing radical history after Britain’s departure from the European Union.
Before the current crisis left us all confined to our living rooms, I sat with maybe thirty or forty other people in the basement of a public library in the Tøyen district in Oslo for what they call a ‘language café’. Around plastic tables, a coffee urn on a trolley in the corner, we introduced ourselves in careful, halting Norwegian, explaining who we were and where we came from: Somalia, Ireland, Russia, Nepal, Eritrea, Spain, Ukraine, Australia, Peru. Norwegian-speaking volunteers led each group in activities around the week’s theme – like schoolchildren again, we’d read a piece of text together, talk about a picture, or play a card game.
In that library basement, I wondered how you’d go about writing a history of what was happening around me. Pens scratched new words into notebooks or onto handouts. Fingers tapped search terms into online dictionaries. Learners who shared a language other than Norwegian helped each other with translations. What archival trace would these actions leave? What will remain of the work being done in rooms like this around the world? I thought of Jacques Bellot, a sixteenth-century French refugee language teacher who wrote from experience about ‘what sorow is for them that be refugiate in a strange countrey, when they can not understand the language of that place in whiche they be exiled: and when they can not make them to be understood by speach to the inhabiters of that contrey, wherein they be retired’.
In 1996, Eric Hobsbawm argued that ‘multilingualism’, like ‘multiculturalism’, was a ‘historically novel’ concept. ‘Historically,’ he wrote, ‘the coexistence of peoples of different languages and cultures is normal; or, rather, nothing is less common than countries inhabited exclusively by people of a single uniform language and culture’. So it is perhaps strange that language has become so central to resurgent western nationalisms. The assaults on speakers of other languages that followed the 2016 Brexit vote are a grim counterpart to right-wing rhetoric that bemoans the very sound of other languages on Britain’s streets. They follow a logic that is deeply unhistorical, assuming that there is something natural, something eternal about the monoglot nation-state. To the historian, the idea of ‘national’ languages should seem profoundly strange, a recent emergence.
The idea that language can knit together a diverse polity, however, isn’t a new one. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, European writers liked to look back to the spread of Latin throughout the Roman empire, drawing analogies between the extent of Roman power and the international currency of their language. This led rulers and their advisers to think about the potential of language as a tool for creating and enforcing national feeling and imperial authority: in France and England, monarchs moved to impose the use of ‘national’ languages throughout the lands they ruled; in Italy, scholars and writers debated how to construct a truly ‘Italian’ language; as Spain’s global expansion began, language was explicitly framed as the ‘companion of empire’. But whatever the ambitions of monarchs and intellectuals, it would still be centuries before the majority of French people, for instance, spoke French as their first language. Europe’s nations, and Europe’s empires, were profoundly polyglot, a reality which has been all but erased by the rhetoric of today’s nation-states.
For an overwhelming number of the people we study in the past, multilingualism was simply part of the fabric of life. Hearing and using multiple languages was not an exotic experience but an everyday one. Relationships between people, communities, and authorities were shaped by the experience of linguistic difference. Some superb recent works of history have placed language and linguistic difference at the heart of their analysis – work by Rachel Leow, Alejandra Dubcovsky, Margaret Kelleher, and Natalie Zemon Davis (among others) has shown how questions of language and multilingual communication are central to historical change on the grand scale. These histories are challenging to research and write, but not impossibly so: language is far from the only historical phenomenon whose archive is marked by absence. It is too easy to avoid writing histories of the workings of language in everyday life simply because so much is lost to us.
A history that takes language seriously can be genuinely radical. It promises to transform our understandings of everything from local social relations to imperial dynamics. How did multilingual cities and polities function in the past? How did living between languages influence individuals’ experiences and life chances? How were empires shaped at the points where languages met, and how far was language a weapon of domination, or a tool of resistance? The most exciting language histories challenge us to use the lens of language to ask questions that are not really about language itself: they shift us away from thinking about the history of linguistic ideas or literary translation, in order to ask how linguistic difference determines access to justice, or the provision of healthcare, or the experience of migration. These historical perspectives help us see that, contrary to nativist rhetoric, it is monolingualism – not multilingualism – that is the elite imposition.
Yet the most pressing challenge to writing multilingual histories for a multilingual world isn’t the difficulty of finding the sources. It’s something much more boring: training, or the lack of it. In the anglophone academic world, and perhaps especially in Britain, we are catastrophically failing to train historians to work across multiple languages. We are not helped by the crisis in language learning at school level, while the attacks on our colleagues in university language departments should be seen as a potentially fatal threat to the academic humanities. The British Academy didn’t mince its words when it argued in a 2019 report that ‘[t]he UK is currently nowhere near to fulfilling its linguistic potential… There has been a drastic and continuing decline in the numbers studying languages at secondary school and consequently at university’.
While there are institutions and programmes in which language-learning is treated as central to the historical endeavour, they are few and far between – and increasingly in danger from short-sighted cuts. And where the infrastructure for serious language education exists, it too often privileges a small number of more ‘prestigious’ languages (often European ones), inadvertently suggesting that only some places and peoples deserve our full historical attention. Colleagues in British universities complain – rightly – that the ever-narrowing language pipeline makes it much more difficult to recruit students to study non-anglophone histories. Even where students have the will to learn a new language as part of further study, the funds and the facilities are too often lacking.
It’s depressingly common, in Britain in 2020, to see multilingualism portrayed as an elite signifier. This is, to put it bluntly, a whitewash. While it’s true that modern language provision in independent schools doesn’t seem to have taken the same hit as in the state sector, any idea of languages as the property of the elite risks erasing the multilingualism of so many in Britain today, and especially that of people whose families and communities have backgrounds in the migrations of the twentieth and twenty-first century. As academics, we live and work in communities that are alive with Urdu, Arabic, Spanish, Tigrinya, Bengali, Polish, Turkish, and others – not to mention Welsh, Irish, or Gaelic. What we need are ways of teaching and researching that value and nurture these skills, as well as supporting students and researchers to develop the language abilities that will enrich their work. Our students – and our potential audiences – are much more multilingual than our initial assumptions might suggest.
Thinking in, and about, other languages is a priceless skill for the historian, but it’s one which might help us to think radically in our everyday lives, too. Language-learning breeds insights into the past and solidarities in the present. At a time when the sound of other languages in a train carriage can set off an intemperate political debate, we should be foregrounding multilingual histories. If we agree that there’s more to history than the British and the anglophone, we owe it to our profession to advocate for serious, well-resourced language training at all levels – an imperative that might move us to show more solidarity with our colleagues in modern languages. As we increasingly question the colonial assumptions that underpin our field of research, it’s time to ask whether the logic of the monoglot European nation-state – that strange, new invention – risks obscuring the stories we need to tell, and the voices who can tell them.