From Caveman to Countrymen: The Linguistic Roots of Nationalism

Author(s): Sherry Sufi PhD


Language is a uniquely human phenomenon. It enables sociability, cooperation and preservation of cultural content. It assisted the transition of nomadic cavemen from the hunter-gatherer age to fixed political territories with written laws. From ancient city-states to medieval empires, rulers have long sought to integrate masses into common political forms in order to rule them. Since dynasties ruled by divine right in a ‘might makes right’ world order, the politically facilitated mobilisation of the masses into common cultural forms was not strictly necessary. Yet the last two centuries of industrialisation have seen a gradual transition out of this landscape. Large multiethnic, multireligious empires began to fracture into compact nation-states. Nationalism, as a political concept, assumes that the rulers in fixed political territories should be of the same cultural community as those they seek to rule. As a result, the masses now need to be mobilised into a common cultural form (nation) in order to be integrated into a common political form (state). Still, human populations who share the same geographical territory are too often divided along ethnic, linguistic, religious, or sectarian lines. How then can this integrated cultural-political form (nation-state) be best achieved? As laid out in this book, my argument is that a shared history-and-language remains the most efficient formula for nationalists, not the alternative route of exclusive appeals to ethnicity, religion, sect, or ideology. This book surveys and compares three very different cases of the use of language by three different nationalist movements, each of which resulted in a different outcome. 


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“A language is not just a medium for sharing our thoughts, it’s also a signal of who we are. Here, Sherry Sufi deeply explores a use of language that every historian appreciates: nationalist movements use a common language, invented if necessary, to forge diverse people into a single nation-state.”

Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and the author of ‘Enlightenment Now’.

General Fields

  • : 9781925826869
  • : Connor Court Publishing
  • : Connor Court Publishing
  • : books

Special Fields

  • : Sherry Sufi PhD