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Language and nationalism: 19th century

At a time of increasing nationalism, during the 19th century, communal identity is often expressed through commitment to a language. Language is everyone's earliest personal acquisition. It is a secret territory shared with like minds, a refuge impenetrable by outsiders. It is the ideal weapon for resisting an invasive culture.

In some cases the language in question is already widely spoken and the political demand is merely for its use in official contexts. This is true in the Austrian empire. The Hungarian diet insists in 1844 that Magyar shall be the language of the state. In Bohemia there are similar demands for the use of Czech in the law courts and in schools. And in the British empire Afrikaner resistance is expressed in terms of Afrikaans.

Elsewhere the political crusade may be to revive a language. By the mid-19th century Catalan is spoken only in rural districts, but the separatist movement in Catalonia makes it an issue. Attempts are made to restore the language to widespread use by the establishment of Catalan festivals of poetry, a Catalan theatre and a Catalan newspaper.

In the Celtic areas of the British Isles, language has been a particularly important theme. Ireland leads the way, with the formation in 1893 of the Gaelic League. At first the campaign is largely to preserve Ireland's indigenous Celtic language, by this time spoken only on the west coast. But education eventually establishes Gaelic as one of the republic's two official languages.

In Scotland the first Gaelic pressure group is founded two years earlier, in 1891, as An Comunn Gaidhealach (The Highland Association). From 1892 it organizes the Mod, a national festival of Gaelic music and poetry inspired by the Welsh Eisteddfod.

Wales is the British region where the indigenous Celtic language has fared best. Welsh has remained the native tongue of a large proportion of the population. It is also the main expression of local political aspirations. All signs and official documents in the principality are in two languages. And the Welsh nationalist party proclaims its identity in characteristic manner through its name, incomprehensible to the English - Plaid Cymru, Party of Wales.

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