The Tyranny of Tongues

Let us at the outset avoid the error of confusing community of language with identity in race. (William Z. Ripley: 'The Races of Europe', 1899)

'A little learning,' said Pope, 'is a dangerous thing', and seldom has this been more true than in the field of comparative linguistics, a speciality, like psychoanalysis, in which every layman considers himself an expert.

The revelations of the pioneers of this discipline – Rasmus Rask, Franz Bopp, Jacob Grimm – about the historical relationships between languages were eagerly appropriated, though ill-digested, by such nineteenth-century nationalists as H.S. Chamberlain in Germany and the Comte de Gobineau and Fustel de Coulange in France, who exploited them to their own political ends. Such findings were selectively incorporated into a political philosophy which owed much to Herder's concept of Volksgeist and employed Social Darwinian theories to buttress a Romantic vision of the Tribal State, and added a veneer of scientific credibility to the notion of linguistic elitism.

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