Mother Tongue and The Origins of Nationalism
A Comparative Analysis of the Armenian and European Primary Sources [*]
By Armen Aivazian


In its systematic analysis and conceptualization of the multifaceted phenomenon of nationalism, Western social science has made many insightful, theoretical genera-lizations. However, this analysis, particularly of the origins of nationalism, has been based almost entirely on the European social-historical experience from the 16th to the 20th centuries. This focus has skewed the results somewhat and led to insufficiently inclusive conclusions.
The majority of Western scholars of nationalism are of the opinion, for example, that the first nations appeared in Europe during the 16-19th centuries. In this regard, Walker Connor, a “leading student of the origins and dynamics of ethnonationalism,” drawing upon the scholarship of Sir Ernest Barker, another well-known figure in the field, makes the sweeping claim that “the self-consciousness of nations is a product of the nineteenth century,” which may be true of Europe, but not sufficiently inclusive of the experiences of non-European peoples with longer histories of national self-consciousness. Another expression of this school of thought is Liah Greenfeld’s insightful study (Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity. Harvard University Press, 1992), which also over-extrapolates the European experience, stating:

The original modern idea of the nation emerged in sixteenth-century England,
which was the first nation in the world…

These views can be interpreted to be a reflection of the fact that the populations of European countries did indeed undergo a transformation of national consciousness in the 16-19th centuries. Thus, according to Western studies, “the vast majority of people living within France were not conscious of being French until long after the French Revolution [of 1789].” Likewise, “in mid-nineteenth century Italy… only 3 percent of Italians could speak the common language; most spoke highly distinct regional dialects, and most identified themselves as Sicilians, Romans, and the like. By the end of World War I, however, most Italian immigrants to North America identified themselves as Italians. The Italian nation had grown or developed within less than seventy-five years.”
Against this background, the Armenian experience is striking. Ancient, medieval, and early modern primary sources evidence a strong Armenian identity and nationalism well before the earliest manifestations of European nationalism cited by these scholars of European history. Even taking into account the acknowledged unique features of Armenian national identity, Armenian national consciousness exhibits many of the key characteristics of early modern and modern European nationalisms.
The intimate relationship between language and national consciousness has been established by various schools of historians, ethnologists, sociologists and social psychologists. In particular, it has been noted that a nation’s explicit pride in its national language coincides with the origin of nationhood itself. Mother tongues became the object of national pride for European nationalists only in the 16-19th centuries. This national pride was expressed in each case in like manner: the nation judged its language as far superior to all other languages. Armenian attitudes toward the Armenian language have not been thoroughly researched as a separate topic of history.
Nevertheless, by all accounts, the Armenian language was perhaps chronologically the earliest and most crucial determinant in the formation of Armenian identity and ethnic consciousness. A distinct and coherent language community was a necessary prerequisite for the early branching of Armenian from the other Indo-European speakers. The use of Armenian as mother tongue determined who is Armenian.
This study sets forth comparative historical evidence about the time and circumstances when a national language becomes an object of national affection and pride. It analyzes the Armenian sources of the 5-18th centuries and compares them with the English, French and Russian sources of the 15-18th centuries.

* This study is a chapter from the author’s unpublished monograph on The Making of Armenian Identity and Nationalism.

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Full text in Armenian

(This abridgement in English is published in Armen Aivazian, Mother Tongue and The Origins of Nationalism: A Comparative Analysis of the Armenian and European Primary Sources (in Armenian) (Yerevan, Matenadaran: “Artagers,” 2001), pp. 48-58.)


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