French History @IHR: Stewart McCain (St Mary’s), Language Question Under Napoleon

Date & Place: Monday 30th April, in the Wolfson Room NB02, IHR Basement, North block, Senate House

Speakers: Stewart McCain (St Mary’s, Twickenham), Michael Rowe (KCL), Professor David Hopkin (Oxford), Professor Jane Hodson (Sheffield)

Paper Title: Roundtable on The Language Question Under Napoleon (Palgrave, 2017)

To listen to a recording of the event, click here (right click to save as MP3)

Headlines today often seem geared towards discussions of language, of assimilation, and of the importance given to how society perceives different styles of speech. From moral panics around the degradation of language and education standards (as any fule kno), to tabloid polemics about immigration and the English language, the notion of linguistic diversity feels particularly acute. We welcomed the launch of Stewart McCain’s The Language Question Under Napoleon (Palgrave, 2017), which explores the concept of linguistic diversity in eighteenth century Europe.

McCain (St Mary’s, Twickenham) introduced his book, with a reflection on the intersections of language and power, and an explanation of how Napoleonic empire took tension around France’s language conflicts to the rest of the continent. We heard how language policy was not simply a product of the state, but rather represented a polyphonic debate with a variety of actors and influences at all levels accenting change. McCain pointed to the importance of administrators and authorities as mediators, operating a form of informal bilingualism, which positioned a new class of power broker within the Napoleonic empire.

Michael Rowe (KCL) took up this discussion of a ‘history from the middle’, that allowed the Napoleonic empire to be studied through a variety of lenses, switching focus between its core and its periphery to take in a whole chorus of different language communities. Languages, he said, could be seen as dialects with an army, and this informed the pragmatism of the Napoleonic empire in its periphery, where code-switching and bilingualism made clear the privileging of the exercise of justice over linguistic centralization.

Commenting on the importance of how the past sounded, Professor David Hopkin (Oxford) addressed the mediation of sources in history and by the historian. Pointing towards the opening anecdote in McCain’s book, Hopkin told how a group of bandits deceived some shepherds, using French to sound official and gain their trust. These subtleties often bleed through historical sources, but can be challenging to capture, producing ambiguities and uncertainty. The structures and representation of language and identity move through cultural, social, and bureaucratic structures, yet often the precise forms of language being used can be difficult to discern. Hopkin praised McCain’s work for being sensitive to these challenges, whilst analysing the realities of language policy across these different structures.

We also heard how representations of dialect could be understood by sociolinguists from Professor Jane Hodson (Sheffield). The intentions behind language use could give insight beyond the words spoken, and in fact contributed to a broader ‘linguistic ecology’ in which prestige, power, and authority all shaped language. Hodson praised McCain’s sensitivity to linguistic theory and his openness to considering how inter-disciplinary methods could inform different understandings of the past.

The book was widely praised, and the approach held as a model for working between different disciplinary approaches. Clearly, the topic holds contemporary relevance, whilst also speaking to wider questions of power and identity in the past, showing where mediation and negotiation can trump policy and pronouncement as better keys for unlocking historical problems


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