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The Humanist Roots of Linguistic Nationalism

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The paper argues that modern 'linguistic nationalism' has intellectual roots in Renaissance humanist thought. In their study of classical antiquity, the humanists found a powerful model of the relationship between language and politics, one which had eloquence as its central concept and theorized language as a source of social and political power and as a vehicle for glorifying the deeds of statesmen. This model was originally revived by the humanists in the context of their belief that the Latin language had been badly degraded and corrupted since the fall of Rome. Emphasizing the power and glory that would accompany a return to Latin eloquence, they advocated a programme of Latin revival. By the sixteenth century, poets and intellectuals who were immersed in Renaissance humanism, and who were oriented to the political problems of emerging European nation-states, began applying this model to the vernacular. The view eloborated here suggests a factor that is ignored by both modernist accounts of nationalism and their critics: the importance at the threshold of modernity of a specific pre-modern conception of language and politics that had been retrieved and adapted to contemporary circumstances by Renaissance humanists.
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Keywords: Academie Francaise; Bembo; Bruni; Cicero; Du Bellay; Medici; Mulcaster; Nebrija; Petrarch; Valla; eloquence; glory; humanism; language; language revival; latin; memory; nationalism; renaissance; vernacular

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Assoc. Professor of Politics, Corwin Hall, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08540., Email: apatten@princeton.edu

Publication date: 2006-01-01

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