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The Peoples of Eastern Europe and National Identity: Problems of Definition by Charles Wukasch

Thursday 05 March 2015 at 01:26 am.

This is a paper which Dr. Wukasch delivered at the 2006 South Central Modern Language Association conference in Dallas in 2006.

Terms like state, nation, ethnic group, language, and dialect defy simple definition. Although most of us probably have a working definition of these concepts, the problem lies in applying them in specific instances. When I say that most of us probably have a working definition of these concepts, I'm reminded of the remark attributed to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren: "I can't define pornography, but I know it when I see it." And Gerald Stone remarks in his excellent study of the Sorbs, The Smallest Slavonic Nation (100): "The terms 'a language' and 'a dialect' have never been satisfactorily defined, though everyone, whether linguist or layman, has a fairly clear impression of their meaning and use. There is certainly not much doubt about their inter-relationship.

A dialect is a local variety of a language." (I assume that at a gathering of Slavists, the term Sorb need not be explained and won't be confused with the Serbs of former Yugoslavia.) Also, consider the following statement by Denitch: "It [nationalism] defines the nation, the ethnic group, as the most relevant community." The implication is that nation and ethnic group are for all practical purposes interchangeable.

And as I point out in my recent study A Rock against Alien Waves: A History of the Wends: "When examining the interrelationship between language and nationality/ ethnicity, one must be careful not to fall into the trap of engaging in inadvertent circular reasoning. This type of circular definition takes the form of 'A Lower Sorb is someone who speaks Lower Sorbian; Lower Sorbian is the language of the Lower Sorbs.' One must obviously define one of the terms independently of the other."

I've also encountered this type of reasoning among Macedonians: A Macedonian is someone who speaks Macedonian; Macedonian is the language of the Macedonians. Or consider Walzer's definition of nationalism in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy (603): "A doctrine which holds that national identity ought to be accorded political recognition, that nations have rights (to autonomy, self-determination, and/or sovereignty), and that the members of the nation ought to band together in defense of those rights." The problem with this definition is its circularity: It begs the question of "What is national identity?"

One is also reminded of the humorous riddle: When does a dialect become a language? Answer: A language is a dialect with an army and a navy. Or as my friend and colleague, John Kolsti, jokes: "It all depends on who's holding the gun." Also, in a review I did for the Slavic and East European Journal several years ago, I asked half-seriously, half-jokingly about Bosnian, "How many Turkish loanwords does a dialect have to have before it's considered a language?" And if I may pass on one more humorous quotation, an acquaintance of mine who is a retired Foreign Service officer and had postings in Yugoslavia joked that he had learned a new language in one day: Bosnian. (He was referring, of course, to the new "politically correct" definition of the Bosnian dialect of Serbo-Croatian as a language of its own.)

But to leave humorous definitions and anecdotes for the moment and to return to a more scholarly discussion, the problem is further compounded by the fact that the terminology used in a given language does not always translate neatly into another language. For example, Richard Holbrooke states in his book To End a War: "'Republic' does not necessarily connote an independent country in the Balkans and eastern Europe" (361). And as I point out in my discussion of the early Germans in A Rock against Alien Waves: A History of the Wends, "Stamm can have various English translations: stem, race, family, clan, tribe, breed, etc." Or take the term which the German Democratic Republic borrowed from the Weimer constitution to describe the Sorbs: fremdsprachige Volksteile ("non-German-speaking ethnic groups"). Further, terms can have negative connotations: Before the reunification of the two Germanys, a colleague from the GDR cautioned me about using the term Volksdeutsch because of the negative connotations it had acquired as the result of Nazism. During the period of the recent Balkan wars, commentators said things like "the warring tribes are at it again," by using the term tribe, they conjured up an image of "uncivilized" and pre-technological groups in violent conflict.

In discussing in this paper the problem of the definition of these concepts, I will emphasize the peoples and languages of Eastern Europe, in particular the Slavs and their languages. However, the problem also exists in trying to come up with definitions to fit other countries and other groups. For example, some refer to the different tribes of Native Americans as "sovereign nations." This term, however, isn't accurate. After all, the Sioux, Navajo, etc. of the United States, or what are called First Nations in Canada, don't have seats in the United Nations; they don't issue passports to their members; etc. Danforth (14) states that nation and state are frequently confused; e.g., when people say the United Nations, they are really referring to states. In the Eastern European context, examples of the difficulty of definition involve differentiating the Upper and Lower Sorbs of Germany, the Czechs and Slovaks of former Czechoslovakia, the Bulgarians and Macedonians of the Balkans, and the Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians of former Yugoslavia.

For example, Berdichevsky (165) in his excellent study Nations, Language and Citizenship calls the Serbs and Croats ethnic groups , but then three pages later (168) states that "[they] considered themselves nationalities rather than ethnic groups." In differentiating a nation from an ethnic group, Danforth adduces three distinctions: size, degree of politicization, and relationship to a specific territory. In other words, nations, in contrast to ethnic groups, either exercise, or hope in the future to exercise, sovereignty over the territory which they inhabit. Thernstrom (vi) admits that "ethnicity is an immensely complex phenomenon," and adduces fourteen characteristics of an ethnic group (e.g., language or dialect; shared traditions, values, and symbols; an internal sense of distinctiveness). (Limitations of time do not allow me to go into his criteria in detail.)

I wish to emphasize that in this brief study, I won't attempt to offer any definitive conclusions as to how we should define these terms. One can think of this paper as merely a call for further research. And sadly, these fine distinctions are not merely topics for us academics to discuss at conferences. They sometimes result in bloodshed and thus result in tragic consequences. To paraphrase the way one political columnist put it in a guest editorial on the justification for secession, "All this is in the final analysis purely academic. The principle of secession in our own country wasn't decided by professors at a conference, but rather on the battlefields of Gettysburg and Antietam."

A related area of investigation is the interrelationship between ethnicity/nation and language. Are the two intrinsically bound up together? Berdichevsky feels that the two do not necessarily go together. He states: "... a common language is neither a necessary nor a sufficient requirement in 'nation-building'." (1) and disagrees with "... the common misconception that the political map is almost identical to the linguistic map and that 'nationality has become almost synonymous with language'." (1) Berdichevsky remarks in his discussion of Czech and Slovak: "Both [Czech and Slovak] . . . are considered different languages today only for political and historical reasons." (171)

Over a decade ago, I saw an interesting segment on the evening news on the attempts by some in Israel in revive the use of Yiddish. One member of the "revive Yiddish" movement was frustrated that his children didn't want to learn it; they only wanted to speak Hebrew, the official language of Israel. When the interviewer asked him why he was so insistent that his children learn Yiddish, he replied "I don't want them to forget that they're Jewish." In other words, he differentiated between Israelis and what he felt were true Jews, Israel containing many secularized Jews, or what some Orthodox Jews call "half Jews." (I might add that this is a common phenomenon in our society,

too. I often hear parents say things like "I speak to my children in German (or whatever language), but they answer in English.")

My chief area of expertise is Sorbian studies. The similarities and differences between the Upper and Lower Sorbs furnish a textbook example of the problem of defining terms such as nation, ethnic group, language, and dialect. Are there really two distinct groups of Sorbs, each with its own language? In actuality, one can differentiate three groups of Sorbs: the Lower Sorbs, the Catholic Upper Sorbs, and the Lutheran Upper Sorbs.

One of Van Den Berghe's many valuable contributions to the study of ethnicity is his adducement of what he terms ethnic markers (ways by which one can recognize to which ethnic group someone else belongs): 1) genetically transmitted phenotype (e.g., skin pigmentation) 2) man-made ethnic uniform (e.g., clothing or circumcision) 3) behavioral (e.g., speech). Applying these ethnic markers to the Sorbs, the second is applicable in some cases (e.g., the traditional Sorbian dress worn by Catholic women), whereas the third is more widely applicable.

Before going further, I will take it as a given that scholars consider the Sorbs at least an ethnic group, a group different from the Germans of the dominant society. Concerning the Sorbs, above all they have a language which is clearly distinct from German (one is Slavic and the other is Germanic). Another aspect of culture which differentiates the Sorbs from the Germans is folk traditions.

Are the Sorbs then a nation? The problem with the criteria of size and degree of politicization is that these are relative terms. How large does an ethnic group have to be for it to be considered a nation? What do we mean by "degree of politicization" and how do we measure it? Relationship to a specific territory is a more objective criterion. The Sorbs do not constitute a majority in Lusatia as a whole, even though they outnumber the Germans in certain villages. Equally as important, the Sorbs do not exercise, nor do the vast majority of them probably have any desire to exercise in the future, sovereignty over the territory which they inhabit.

In summary, although defining terms like ethnic group and nation involves arbitrariness and subjectivity, most scholars would undoubtedly not consider the Sorbs to be a distinct nation. This is not to denigrate even in the slightest the justifiable pride which they have in their culture, merely to recognize the reality of their relatively small numbers and degree of politicization.

Charles Wukasch

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