Bilingualism and national identity: Prestigious versus unprestigious languages
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H. Millas, 2 November 2019, in the meeting: Institute for Literature – BAS, University of Sofia “St. Kliment Ohridski” and Institut Français : “Bilingualism. The language as lieu de memoir.”

Published in Литературна Мисъл (Literary Thought), Bulgaria, 3/2019,

Bilingualism and national identity:

Prestigious versus unprestigious languages

Iraklis (Hercules) Millas


Languages which until the 18th and 19th century were only tools to communicate attained new roles with the appearance of the nation-states and nationalism. They were associated to national identity. It was assumed that every nation had a language and that every language group could claim a nationhood. Bilingualism was seen as a prestigious attainment provided the language next to the “language of the nation” is not associated to a nation or an ethnic group which is perceived as a threat to the nation. The unprestigious language which belongs to the “other” is suppressed or ignored. Cases from Greece and Turkey show that this preference/rejection practice is still experienced in our times as a problem of human rights.
Key words: Bilingualism, nationalism, Greece, Turkey, nation-state, language

The so-called common sense or self-understood truths are the most deceptive ones. We do not stop thinking about them, we do not question them and we do not discuss their validity since we do not doubt them. These supposedly obvious “truths” block all related discussions.

This was the case in the 18th and 19th century when language was considered the criterion of nationhood. Nation identity was associated with language but this was not seen as an issue in need to be demonstrated. It was conceived as a self-understood reality. These two terms – national identity and the language of the nation – operated as a tautology: Every nation had a language and every language group corresponded to a nation.

“Nations were now defined as groups of people identified by a common, separate language. To have one’s idiom classified as ‘a language’ meant also that the speakers formed ‘a nation’, and that realization either transformed or formed many national movements in the 19th century. Groups which until 1800 had primarily identified themselves by means of their legal constituents (current or remembered), religion, or historical inheritance, now re-defined their identity, indeed their ‘nationality’ by the criterion of language” (Leerssen 2018: vol. 1, 59).


The notion of a distinct national language was not void of unresolved contradictions, since the demarcation line between a language and a dialect was not clear but also because there were many language groups which did not or could not claim nationhood. Also groups that spoke the same language claimed a different nationhood and groups that were language-wise distinct could form a unity under the umbrella of a nation-state . These were some of the problems inherent in the nation=language equation; nevertheless this formula remained as part of the dominant ideology of the time.

Consequently, many citizens of the newly appearing nations claimed their national identity based on their language group. But what happened to those who were bilingual? Here below I will try to present a few cases that are related to the Greek and Turkish experience and bilingualism.

In the pre-nations era

In the Ancient World and in the Middle Ages the language used by an individual and his/her national identity were not associated. Firstly, because “national identity” is a modern concept, it did not exist then. The Greek Lucian of Samosata (Lukianos, 125-180), for example, was a Syrian whose mother language (native or first language) was Syrian, a language associated to Aramaic. Later in life he studied Greek and he became a famous satirist and rhetorician who spoke and wrote in perfect Ancient Greek of Atticized dialect. The question if he was a Greek or a Syrian did not come to the agenda. Such a problematic did not exist at that time. Philo(n) of Alexandria (20 BCE-50CE) is also seen as a “Greek” orator, even though he was a Jew who wrote often about the Old Testament.

Many Jews in the mid-3rd century BCE and in the 2nd century BCE started speaking Greek and could no longer read Hebrew. This was the Hellenistic period and Greek was the lingua franca of the time. So the Jews translated the Hebrew scriptures which today are known as the Old Testament into Greek. One can imagine the transition period when the Jews spoke Hebrew but starting using Greek, too, i.e. when they were bilingual. Their identity then was basically a religious one irrespective of their language. Religion was the core of the communal identity, not the language; religion superseded language.

The Jews are known to consist of three language groups: The Ashkenazi Jews who mostly spoke Yiddish (a Germanic language with elements of Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic languages); the Sephardi Jews who settled in the Iberian Peninsula and spoke Ladino (a Romance language derived from Old Spanish) and the Romaniote Jews, the oldest Jewish community in Europe who mostly lived in the lands of Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire, and who spoke Greek. These groups still exist and speak these languages but most of them identify themselves as Jews irrespective of the language they spoke. In the modern Israeli state the “official language” is Hebrew. The other languages used in the past tend to become part of history.

I think one is allowed to assume that all the “cultured” and “educated” people of the Middle Ages were bilingual: They spoke their “first language” and they wrote in Latin. The way Greek had become the common (koini) language of the “World” after the time of Alexander, Latin became the lingua franca after the Roman Empire.

Bilingualism has been a very old phenomenon but in modern times this term acquired different meanings, basically because the term “language” inferred a new concept: the nation.

When a language is associated with a nation

Once language became the symbol of nationhood, it turned to something more than a simple means of communication. It became the evidence of one’s national identity. Thereon, the way to claim membership in any nation passed through the testimony of a witness: the (supposed) language of the nation.

For example, the Greek language was the sign of one’s Greekness and Turkish language verified one’s Turkism. This does not mean that actually all people that spoke these languages united forming these nations. It only meant that the idea (the belief) that every nation had a specific and unique language was accepted as given, as a self-understood truth.

This belief had consequences. The practices of the Greek and the Turkish nation-states in the field of languages show that, in reality, the equation Language=Nation was not the starting point and the basis of nation-building. The unity of the nation and the language was only a vision. A target to be reached in the future: The nation and the national language ought to form a harmony, an agreement, a compatibility, a congruity. Nationhood and language together would form the national union. Or else the whole national enterprise would look awkward and doubtful.  

Once the national states took control of the country they operated nation-building in the area of language on two axes:

A) They tried to “purify” the ethnic language – i.e., the official language – from linguistic foreign influences and

B) to attain an ethnically homogeneous population, i.e., a population that spoke the “proper national language”.

This part of nation-building has been studied and described extensively for the cases of Greece and Turkey: Part of the “cultural history” of both Greece and Turkey, on one hand, consisted of forming of lexicons and grammar books, of language reforms, of related discussions and even social clashes, of state founded institutions to improve the so called national language, and on the other hand, of trying to get rid of “alien” populations by deportation, exchange of populations and/or massacres. To erase the traits of the other – its cultural monuments, its language etc- was part of this effort.

I will limit the scope of this article to the specific issue of the endeavor: What happened to the bilinguals of these new nation-states? I will first present some cases that are related to this question and then I will try to assess the phenomena.

Prestigious and unprestigious bilingualism

In both Greece and Turkey, but probably in many other countries, too, to be competent in a foreign or in a second language is a prestigious achievement. It is an indication of a good education, a cultural skill and an advantage in communication with a wider section of the world. In biographies the competence in a second and a third language is normally highlighted. Bilingualism and multilingualism is an asset.

However, not always. Bilingualism that is esteemed is a specific one: The one that does not create problems with the national identity. Bilingualists can be problematic in two cases:

A) When some citizens do not have the “official national language” as their first (mother) language and

B) When some citizens speak the “official national language” with an accent or with a choice of words that remind an “enemy language” thus giving the impression that they know that language. By enemy language I mean the language that is supposed to belong to another nation, the one whose traits are tried to be eliminated from the national body.

In these cases the undesired language is an unprestigious one, usually “excommunicated” and sometimes a secretive, crypto and even a taboo language. At the same time this prejudice, the discrimination and the related oppression is silenced and hidden. The national parties are not at ease when their nationalist inclinations and their related maltreatment are being reminded. Some cases of the Greek and Turkish experience will be illuminating.

The case of Greece

   One of the first plays in Modern Greece written and performed in the years 1836-1837, just six years after the Greek Liberation War, won against the Ottomans, is Babilonia by Dimitrios Vizantios. It is a comedy where a number of Greeks who come from different places of Greece but also from abroad, speak in their unique dialects and they have great difficulty in understanding each other. The play was a great success and it is still esteemed as a very funny play and as a representative of the situation of its time.

The heroes are a Cretan and a Cypriot each one speaking his own dialect, an Albanian who uses many Albanian words, an “intellectual” who speaks ancient Greek, a policeman from the Ionian Islands who uses many Italian words, an “Anatolian” who has come from central Anatolia and who often uses Turkish words, etc. The misunderstandings create funny situations.

It is interesting to see how the Anatolian is presented. At a certain moment the policeman calls the Anatolian “dirty Turk” and “baptized in yogurt”! The Anatolian objects saying “I am not a Turk, I am a Christian Orthodox… and how can one be baptized in yogurt?” (Βυζάντιος 2003: 65).

This scene needs an explanation. According the official historiography the Greeks lived for centuries under the “Turkish yoke”. The modern nation-state does not want to recognize any Turkish influence on Greek society. Turkish language is one of these influences and probably the most problematic one due to its affinity to the equation Language=Nation. The Turkish the Anatolian uses makes him a “Turk”! As for the baptism in yogurt: The Turks and the Greeks that lived in Anatolia used a lot of yogurt in their meals. “Baptized in yogurt” is a different way of calling one a Turk.

Two brief comments on this play before advancing to new issues.

A) The comic element arises from the “strange” situation that the Greeks spoke different dialects and they could not communicate properly. Indirectly this situation is perceived and presented as atypical, eccentric and abnormal.

B) The play is about Greeks and the languages they used: Greek with many foreign words but not a “foreign” language. They are not presented as being persons who speak a foreign language as their first language. Actually, the fact that at that time there were some Greeks who spoke other languages, for example Albanian and Turkish, is silenced. Indirectly, Greek – in spite of its variations – was shown as the only language in Greece. The play allowed only for dialects of Greek.

About hundred years later, in 1923 tens of thousands of Orthodox Christian Anatolians – the so called Karamanlis - reached Greece due to the forced population exchange and also because they were considered Greeks. However, a great number of them spoke only Turkish. These newly arriving Turkish speaking Greeks faced a problem in their new environment. They were discouraged to speak their mother language and they tried to hide their competence in Turkish. It is also indicative that the Karamanlis after coming to Greece did not establish societies or clubs that used Turkish or cultivated Turkish, their mother language.

The Albanian speaking Greeks, the Slavo-Macedonian speaking groups, too, did not publicize their first language until today. This language is not “recognized” in Greece, it is considered nonexistent. Naturally, the speakers of this language are not encouraged to cultivate their mother language. When these groups tried to bring forward the issue of their language there were serious reactions and protests by a part of the Greek population.[2]

The examples of cases of unprestigious and secretive “second language” can be extended. However, the prevalent understanding is clear: As Greeks are perceived those who speak Greek as their first (mother) language.

Τhe case of Turkey

In Turkey the case of languages is not different. The new nation-state of 1923 tried to promote Turkish ignoring, silencing and/or prohibiting the use of taboo languages. A paramount example is the Kurdish language. For decades this language which was spoken by millions was considered a variation of Turkish and was not taught in public or in private. The Kurds themselves were considered “mountainous Turks” and the use of their language was “discouraged”. This was the way the Turkish dictionaries defined the Kurds and Kurdish until the 1970s. At present the use of the Kurdish language is perceived as an expression of Kurdish ethnic identity and it is not welcomed by the Turkish state - and by the public in these days (October 2019).  

Also the Greek speaking Muslims of Kriti who came to Turkey through the population exchange of 1923 and who were located in Ayvalık and Cunda areas in Western Anatolia were “discouraged” to speak their first language. In the decades of 1940 and 1950, a campaign was conducted against the use of the languages of the non-Muslim minorities – Greeks, Armenians and Jews – with the threatening slogan “citizen, speak Turkish”.

The languages that were spoken in Turkey but were considered a threat to the newly formed Turkish national identity were silenced or hindered. Caucasian, Arabic, Albanian are three of these languages. In the years 1930s up to 1990s in the Department of Languages of the University of Ankara about twenty different languages were taught, Japanese and Korean included, but Modern Greek, Bulgarian and Armenian, the languages of the neighboring countries which were also spoken in the country were included into the curriculum only after 1990.  

These are a few examples of how some languages not only were not promoted but also were discouraged, their existence denied and/or prohibited. At the same time languages such as English, French and German were taught at various levels of the educational system. The discrimination of some languages is clearly seen. Bilingualism followed a specific course: Only a special kind of it is esteemed.

The bilinguals and identity in a nation state

In light of the above the bilinguals and the multilinguals in a nation-state can be separated into two categories:

A) Those who know the official national language plus an “approved” one, say English, French etc. For brevity I will call them “prestigious bilinguals”. These are the citizens who happened to have a good education or were the lucky ones to have grown up in a household where these languages were spoken.

B) Those who speak the official national language but also a first (mother) language which is not considered a “prestigious” language in their home country. This second group needs some further probing.

If the (first) mother language in a nation state is not perceived as a problem, as a threat or as a challenge to the state’s national identity, bilinguals freely reveal their bilingualism and make use of the languages they know. In the opposite case, however, i.e., when the mother language is seen as a “disturbing” reality and sometimes as a taboo – as it is with the cases of Greece and Turkey mentioned above - bilinguals are left with two choices:

A) To silence, hide, ignore or even reject their mother language and get integrated or assimilated to the wider national community both language wise and ethnic wise.

B) To reveal, exhibit even promote the mother language by making use of it.

These two alternative choices are the consequence of the role attributed to a language in a nation state. Once a language is seen as a basic constituent of a national identity, then any language will be judged and understood according to this perception. The languages will be judged as useful or as harmful to the nation. The languages will be instrumentalized, both by the nation state but also by the ethnic groups whose languages are discriminated. A language, i.e., the ancient tool of communication, will turn to a symbol of a political and ideological claim.

This issue of language is often associated to ethnic groups, minorities and ethnic disputes. The disfavored, even sometimes demonized languages are mostly used in private by groups that are not readily integrated in the “national body”. The efforts to transcend this language discrimination bears a political message. When the “taboo” languages are publicly promoted by relatively weaker and unprivileged groups they operate as a counterbalance to a dominant national linguistic dominance.

Politicized bilingualism

Bilingualism in the era of nation states may become a major political issue related to national claims. These may range from requirements for respect of human rights, such as the right to freely use a mother language, to demands of recognition of national rights.

From the point of national identity the language issue is a political one. When the nationalist ideals are in the rise, the bilingualism of the linguistically oppressed groups is a banner of their nationalist movement. As it was the case in the early times of nationalism in the 18th and 19th century, the use of a language may appear again a) as a justification for nationalist demands from the part of the minority groups, but also b) as a nationalist phobia from the part of the nation states and nationalists.

The importance given in Greece to the “language” when the (North) Macedonia issue was discussed and in Turkey when the Kurdish is being discussed can be explained within this nationalism/language framework. To deal with bilingualism by ignoring this nationalist dimension of the issue, means missing a great part of it.



Leerssen, Joep. 2018. Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam.

Βυζάντιος, Δ.Κ. 2003, Βαβυλωνία, Ζήτρος, Θεσσαλονίκη [Vizantios, D.K. Babilonia, Ζitros, Thessaloniki.] 


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