Recent Focused Series »

Indo-European Origins
Northern California
The Caucasus
Imaginary Geography
Home » Linguistic Geography, Myth of the Nation-State, Nationalism, World

Afghanistan and the Ethnolinguanymic State

Submitted by on November 12, 2011 – 8:57 pm 46 Comments |  
Map of Ethnolinguanymic StatesA recent GeoCurrents post noted that Afghanistan is not a nation-state, lacking the requisite solidarity. Yet the very name of the country might lead one to expect a relatively high level of cohesion derived from a common ethnic background. To coin a term, Afghanistan is an “ethnolinguanymic state”—that is, a state named after a dominant ethnic group that speaks a distinctive language and maintains a sense of common identity. Most ethnolinguanymic countries can make credible claims to nation-state status, founded on ethno-national solidarity. To be sure, such solidarity is routinely compromised by resistant minority groups, contested ethnic boundaries, and so on. But the case of Afghanistan is extreme. The identification between the Afghan people and the country of Afghanistan—“land of the Afghans”—is both tenuous and troubled.

Before delving into the Afghan situation in the next GeoCurrents posts, it seems worthwhile to spend some time on the admittedly idiosyncratic idea of the “ethnolinguanymic state.” Here is my working definition: an ethnolinguanymic state is an independent country whose official name (in English) incorporates the name of its dominant official language, spoken as mother tongue by more than half of its population. Some countries fit the definition quite well; in others the situation is more complicated, as the map indicates.  The patterns that appear here are perhaps best explained on a region-by-region basis.

As can be seen on the map, most European countries are unambiguously ethnolinguanymic. This is to be expected, considering the long European history of nationalism, nation-building, and ethnic cleansing. Yet not all countries in the region qualify. Switzerland and Belgium are multi-ethnic states without languages of their own.* Austria and Kosovo are more ethnically unified, yet they also lack their own languages (although many Americans, including the current president, often become confused on this score). Ireland and the UK are also out. Irish may be the first official language of the Republic of Ireland, but few speak it. English is the language of Britain, yet England has not been sovereign since it united with Scotland in 1707. A few other European states are of insecure ethnolinguanymic status. Fewer than seventy percent of the people of Estonia, for example, are Estonian-speaking ethnic Estonians; the same holds for Latvia. Almost all citizens of Luxembourg do speak Luxembourgish, which is also an official language of the country, but by linguistic criteria it is generally classified as a dialect rather than a language. The same is true of Moldovan, a dialect of Romanian. Serbian, Croatian, and Montenegrin were considered to form one language before the break-up of Yugoslavia, and they are still linked by a dialect continuum. Bosnia is in the same group, yet Bosnia is unmarked on the map, as fewer than half of its people speak “Bosnian.” By the same token, Macedonian can be taken to be a western Bulgarian dialect—and only about sixty-five percent of the people of Macedonia are Macedonian-speaking ethnic Macedonians.

The Western Hemisphere, by contrast, is virtually without ethnolinguanymic states, reflecting its deep heritage of European colonialism and the imposition of European languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French and English). The only exception is Haiti, where Haitian Creole, along with French, is an official language. The list would expand, of course, if other “creole-speaking” Caribbean countries were to elevate their own local patois to official status.

Like the Americas, Sub-Saharan Africa also has few ethnolinguanymic countries, again reflecting the history of European colonialism and boundary-making. Several indigenous African polities based on particular ethnic groups, however, did endure the colonial period to reemerge as sovereign states. Almost eighty percent of the people of Botswana, for example, speak Tswana (or Setswana), which has official status in the country along with English. By the same token, Swaziland is closely identified with the Swazi (or Swati or siSwati) language, just as Lesotho is indentified with Sotho (or Sesotho). The situation is a bit more complicated in Rwanda and Burundi, where two ethnic groups, Tutsi and Hutu, have historically shared a dialect continuum; the dialect deemed national in Rwanda is Kinyarwanada (or Rwandan) while that in Burundi is Kirundi (or Rundi). The situation is similarly complex in Madacascar, where one language (Malagasy) prevails, yet numerous ethnic groups, with distinctive dialects, divide the land. Somalia, on the other hand, is ethnolinguistically united around the Somali language, yet is a sovereign state only in theoretical terms.

A number of ambiguous situations are also encountered in Asia. Cambodia is an ethnolinguanymic country to the extent that Khmer is interchangeable with “Cambodian,” as it is generally taken to be. A similar situation obtains in Bhutan (Dzongkha =Bhutanese) and the Maldives (Dhivehi=Maldivian). It is more of a stretch, however, to regard Hebrew as synonymous with “Israeli,” and as a result I remain uncertain as to how Israel should be classified. China is also a difficult case; “Chinese” is actually a family of related spoken languages (deemed dialects) that share a written but not an oral basis. “Standard Chinese” (Mandarin, or Putonghua), to be sure, is a single language, albeit one spoken by less than seventy percent of the people of China as their mother tongue. Other Asian countries are coded to show the presence of large minority groups speaking non-national languages. Only about half the people of Nepal speak Nepali as their mother tongue, just as only about half the people of Malaysia claim Malay (Malaysian) as their first language. For Burma and Kazakhstan, the comparable figures are closer to two-thirds. The Philippines and Indonesia are excluded because fewer than half of their people speak Filipino and Indonesian, respectively, as their mother tongues. Iran is trickier, as it is an ethnolinguanymic country only to the extent that Persia is considered synonymous with Iran, and Farsi is reckoned synonymous with Persian. And even so, only about half the people of Iran speak Farsi/Persian as their first language.

But it is Afghanistan where the situation is most difficult to parse out, as we shall see in the next GeoCurrents post.

*Although one could argue that Swiss German and Flemish do qualify.


Previous Post
Next Post

Subscribe For Updates

It would be a pleasure to have you back on GeoCurrents in the future. You can sign up for email updates or follow our RSS Feed, Facebook, or Twitter for notifications of each new post:

Commenting Guidelines: GeoCurrents is a forum for the respectful exchange of ideas, and loaded political commentary can detract from that. We ask that you as a reader keep this in mind when sharing your thoughts in the comments below.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Very, very interesting post and the idea of an “ethnolinguanymic state”! Several comments:

    1) The linguistic status of Luxembourgish is actually debatable. At least according to the Ethnologue (,  it is “as distinct from Standard German as is Dutch; not inherently intelligible with it” (does the latter “it” refer to Standard German or Dutch, I wonder?). If that’s true, then by linguistic standards it is a separate language. Still, the dialect continuum among continental West Germanic varieties complicates the situation… But clearly one should afford Luxembourgish the same status as Swiss German.

    2) On the language situation in Latvia, see:

    3) And as for the issue of whether Hebrew is synonymous with “Israeli”, to make a long story short, Modern Hebrew was clearly “revived” (or “created from scratch”, depending on who you ask, see below) with creating a new national identity in mind. To what extent the intentions to create such national identity in Israel have been successful and what exactly unifies its (Jewish) citizens — language? ethnicity? religion? — is of course a very thorny question. There are some scholars (most notably, Paul Wexler and Ghil’ad Zuckermann) who promote the view that “whatever-you-call-the-language-that-people-in-Israel-speak” is not at all a version of same language as Biblical Hebrew. In fact, Ghil’ad Zuckermann even goes as far as calling this language “Israeli Hebrew” or even just “Israeli” (check out the titles of his books here: While I don’t agree with Zuckermann that “Israeli Hebrew” has no linguistic connection (except perhaps a superficial, lexical one) to Biblical Hebrew, I think he is largely correct in treating “Israeli Hebrew” as the language of (Jewish) Israelis. By the way, most (Jewish) Israelis do speak Modern/Israeli Hebrew to some extent, but how many of them speak it natively, I don’t know.

    • Amizoarr

      According to the Israel Bureau of Statistics, over 70% (and rising) of the Jews in Israel were born there, so that gives you the number of people who speak Hebrew natively.
      Wexler and Zuckermann support really a fringe theory that seems to me more ideological that based on science and facts. Any reader of modern Hebrew can read Biblical Hebrew more easily than an English speaker can read Shakespeare today. 

      • Maju

        Not really because 20-30% of the population of ‘Israel’ is Palestinian Arab living under semi-Apartheid conditions (I’m not talking of West Bank and Gaza but of Israel as officially recognized by most non-Muslim states). I’m not sure how “native” are these re. speaking Hebrew. If they are considered like Azeris in Iran (who learn and speak Persian but also Azeri which is more “native” to them), then 70% of 75% is just 53%.

        The issue of bi-/multilingualism is one of the matters that is not even explored in this concept, map and article. If you mix that with the very exceptional case of Israel/Palestine, then the matter totally goes crazy.

        • Kevin Morton

          Good points, and can surely be extended to my reply to you below. The map then is perhaps too driven by “native language” *data*, in your eyes? And perhaps “native language” data is too simplified a concept…

          • Maju

            The “native language” concept is not even defined as concept. Nowhere in the article a definition is even attempted, yet it’s central (not my only criticism but an important one indeed).

            This allows the trick to make similar ethno-linguistic situations such as Spain and Iran appear different, reinforcing biases on what the situations of Europe and West Asia are, which is way too convenient for the imperial discourse of the USA-NATO not to be suspicious: Divide Spain? No way, it’s a NATO member (and a quite strategical one allowing control of Gibraltar strait, etc.). Divide Iran? Why not? It’s a named foe whose oil could be given to Exxon, BP, Chevron, Texaco, Shell, Total and the rest.

        • Martin W. Lewis

          Good point regarding bilingualism. The assumption here is that the vast majority of people have a “mother tongue,” regardless of how many languages they speak fluently. But it is true that some people learn two or more languages from infancy, and continue to speak them on a more or less equal basis. But such people are relatively rare.   

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            I agree completely on the point about bilingualism, but it applies not only to Israeli Arabs (who speak Arabic natively and Hebrew as a second language if at all), but to many Jewish Israelis too (see also my comment above; one thing I didn’t mention there is that Hebrew is non-native not only to foreign-born Israelis and their children but also to a significant proportion of Haredi population that speaks Yiddish).

            @openid-112533:disqus : What evidence do you have for claiming that “Palestinian Arab live under semi-Apartheid conditions”?!

          • Maju

            I almost prefer not to insist here in that matter (not to divert the discussion too much) but it is a well known fact for those who follow the events in the region: segregated schools, segregated neighborhoods, growing ethnic hostility by the colonial ethnic group, Jewish religion and identity are imposed (Israel is NOT a secular but a religious state where even marriage can only be religious), etc. Long story: you better tune yourself with even Jewish pro-Palestinian sites or directly Palestinian ones if you want to know the daily details.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            I do know the details and perhaps even better than you as I’ve actually lived there for a long enough time, while you seem to get your “facts” from pro-Palestinian propaganda (seemingly also mixing up Palestinians from the territories and Israeli Arabs). But you are correct that there is no need to divert the discussion. I am just pointing out that once again you through out offensive claims without being able to substantiate them by facts.

          • Maju

            “But such people are relatively rare”.

            Not really, much less today, much less in multilingual Europe. They are specially common in minority contexts: they typically speak, say, Catalan on daily basis and use Castilian for other purposes like talking to some categories of Spanish bureaucrats (like judges or police agents) or people who does not speak any Catalan. They switch easily between both languages but often suffer from disglossia (occasional confusion of what’s the correct word/form in this or that language). Many are likely to be reasonably fluent in a third language like English.

            In other countries like the Netherlands, the situation is that they actually speak very well one or more foreign languages because their country is so small that it is extremely impractical to live only in Dutch. For example your typical Dutch will speak English and maybe German and possibly a romance like French or Spanish as well.

            The rule could well be that the smaller your linguistic sphere, the more important that you learn other languages (and the younger, the better). In cases like Spain it is constitutionally obligatory, in cases like the Netherlands it is just a practical need (almost nobody speaks Dutch but the Dutch and Flemish).

            This trend is of course highly unfavorable for smaller languages, which can only support themselves on emotional solidarity, but that’s what happens with “globalization” at all scales.

            Whatever the case bilingual and multilingual people from childhood are not that rare, they are fairly common in the appropriate contexts, be these imposed legally (Catalonia, Southern Azerbaijan, Brittany…) or just because of pragmatism (Netherlands, Estonia, Montenegro…)

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            While bilingualism (or multilingualism) in the sense of speaking more than one language, even fluently is fairly frequent around the world, true bilingualism in the sense of having two native languages in the linguistic sense (“sharing native intuitions about various grammatical points”) is relatively rare. The matter is further complicated by the fact that testing for true bilingualism is difficult to do so many people can be best classified as fitting into the grey area in between.

      • Asya Pereltsvaig

        Indeed, about 70% of Jewish Israelis are Israel-born, but only about 54% of the total population (4.03 million out of approx. 7.5 million). And even some of those born in Israel acquire a different language as their first one, whether they also acquire Hebrew early enough to count as true bilinguals or not — that’s another question. That’s really why I said that I am not sure how to determine it.

        Wexler’s theory makes some sense (undoubtedly, Modern Hebrew has had much grammatical influence from Slavic languages, directly or through Yiddish) but I do think that he makes a conclusion that goes too far, given the facts.

        Finally, as for the idea that “any reader of modern Hebrew can read Biblical Hebrew more easily than an English speaker can read Shakespeare today”, that’s not entirely true either. First of all, many Modern Hebrew speakers learn in school how to read Biblical Hebrew, and second, they may THINK that they read (and understand) Biblical Hebrew whereas in truth their understanding of the text is far from correct. Linguistically speaking, Elizabethan English is much more similar to Modern English than Biblical Hebrew is to Modern Hebrew.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Thanks, Asya, for the insightful comments.  So do think that I should change the color category of Luxembourg? (It is almost impossible to see on the map, at any rate). Any other countries that should be changed?  (I just reposted the map, as in the initial version I did not included Laos in the “less than 70% category.)

      • Asya Pereltsvaig

        I am not sure about the color scheme, but I think Luxembourg and Switzerland should be the same color (assuming that “Swiss German” is synonynous with “Switzerland”).

  • Anonymous

    Anyone care to comment on Indonesian Bahasa in respect to this “ethnolinguanymic” tongue twister.  According to Wikipedia and my own experience almost everyone speaks Indonesian Bahasa as well as their local local dialect/language.  It must be post colonial because it uses the Latin script.  Quite a few schools in Australia teach it, as supplementary language.

    • Kevin Morton

      Phil, Someone interested in the history or current composition of Estonia would probably find the statistic useful. It has also prompted the question from yourself–”Who are the other 30%?”–which may lead you to researching the answer, which may prove useful in itself.

      • Anonymous

        Thank you Asya, Maju, Kevin

        Its not me I’m concerned about.  Its others who might stumble on the blog as I did, I originally found my way here via a search.

        I should probably point out that during my professional life I saw too many people die in ethnic conflicts, including Yugoslavia in the 1990s and S.E. Asia in  the 1970′s. 

        The last phrase of my 2nd question “and what what might they do with it?” is the critical one – potential for use as “agitprop material”.  Some of the people charged, tried & convicted for Crimes against Humanity in the ICTR in Arusha was on the basis of radio broadcasts – see “Trials Against Hate Media” section.

        Asya – thanks for the link and the detail on Estonia.  I was using it to illustrate my point – I guessed most of the other 30% were Russian speaking re ” de-facto official language” surely that should be “dic-tato official language” ;) 

        Kevin – I only glance at the maps, that’s not to say they are not useful, but for me they’re an adjunct to the words.

        Martin you seemed to have opened Pandora’s Box, Can of Worms and let loose a Herd of Cats ;)

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          I like your term “dic-tato official language”, although at least in the case of Latvia and Estonia (not to mention Kazakhstan), it was both de-facto and dic-tato, as Russian-speakers simply overrun the local populations in many cases…

    • Maju

      It is important to know, as it does affect the politics and sociology of Estonia and by extension, its neighbors, notably Russia, which is the origin of most of those non-ethnic Estonians. Of course the interest is lesser if you don’t care at all about Estonia or Russia or about geography at all… but then why would you visit this blog?

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      According to the Ethnologue (, non-Estonian languages in Estonia are: Armenian (840), Baltic Romani (460), Belarusan
      (8,840), Chuvash (560), Eastern Yiddish (570), Erzya (500), Finnish
      (4,930), Latvian (1,390), Lithuanian (1,610), North Azerbaijani (870),
      Polish (600), Russian (407,000), Rusyn (5,200), Standard German (1,250),
      Tatar (2,250), and Ukrainian (12,300). I would also strongly suspect that many of the people listed as speaking languages other than Russian in this list also speak Russian, which was a de-facto official language in Estonia until the 1990s.

  • Maju

    That map is useless: first the description of ethnolinguanymic (first time I heard that name) is arbitrary, confuse and slippery. The use of English as reference is extremely misleading of course. For example the language of Spain is officially and historically known as Castilian (castellano), although for simplicity or chauvinistic reasons the name ‘Spanish’ (español) is also used. It’s like saying ‘Iranian’ for Persian or ‘British’ for English but it’s a bit more established… in foreign languages specially (here in the Basque Country almost nobody says “español”, which is considered by many a “bad word” that should be avoided, as it hurts the heart, on the other hand in Latin America they surely use more the name “español”, even if “castilla” is also known to exist).

    Second I absolutely question that less than 70% of Iranians are fluent/native in Persian. I am almost certain that the figure is in the order of >95%. Just as in Spain (with Castilian). IF you wish to count speakers of another language as not speakers of Persian (even if they are perfectly bilingual), you must do the same in Spain and take off maybe 16 million people who speak other “Spanish” languages such as Catalan, Galician or Basque, what leaves c. 65% of Castilian monolingual speakers, possibly even less.

    So you either use one criterion or the other.

    Your analysis seems full of prejudices in other aspects:

    “… the long European history of nationalism, nation-building, and ethnic cleansing”.

    Uh? Ethnic cleansing has been very rare in European history, the main exceptions being WWII (notably Holocaust) and post-war (specially the very radical Polish border adjustments but also the expulsion of the Germans from all the East) and the Bosnia/Krajina war. You can add Turkish genocides (Armenian, Greek forced “exchange”), although placing Turkey, Armenians and Anatolian Greeks in Europe is a bit forced.

    Before that we have to reach to forced conversions, which are only so much comparable to ethnic cleansing (more like ideological cleansing in fact).

    There has been much more ethnic cleansing in the USA, for example: 200 years ago most of the country was in the hands of natives, now they are a residual minority. So I think that there is a mixture of prejudice and projection in such statement.

    Some of the European nation-states like Germany and Italy were built by popular and political design out from subnational fragments. Others, notably in Central and SE Europe were built by detaching ethnically homogeneous (???) fragments from the Austrian and Ottoman (and later Russian) empires. Oddly enough (excepted the cases mentioned above) they have not performed genocides on their minorities, which are at times numerous (Hungarians, Roma, Turkish, Vlach…)

    There are also a few nation-states (Scandinavian realms, Netherlands, Portugal), which have been that way since their constitution, more or less. But in West Europe the main drive of ethnic integration has been to force-feed the “national” language and identity to a heterogeneous bunch, assimilating them into the central ethnic group. France has been very successful in this (although Brittany, Corsica and other smaller areas like the Northern Basque Country and Alsace may still keep secessionist ambitions), while Spain quite less so and is a bit like Austria-Hungary was a hundred years ago. England/Britain has a similar but more eclectic and pragmatic approach to nationality/statehood, however, as the Irish case shows, it’s not exempt of imposition and violence.

    I am astonished at this lack of understanding on your side (and I ratify my impression that the idea of ethnolinguanymic (in English of all languages!) is a fraud, at least as explained here and depicted in that map.

    • Kevin Morton

      I would debate your use of the word “useless”. If nothing else it says a great deal about colonialism, state formation, and, like you allude to, the way that the English language itself may influence the native-English-speaker’s perspective on geography. Your criticisms are perhaps part of the point of the map.

      Furthermore, as this site consistently points out, the hole-less, perfect map does not exist. A map necessarily simplifies by its very medium. This post was clearly a step out into open space, exploring a novel idea and looking for some intellectual discussion on the issues it raises. As such, I don’t think it merits the defensive backlash you jump to provide.

      • Maju

        Vagueness only is what you say, Kevin. I was going to reply but then I realized: what to?

        “Your criticisms are perhaps part of the point of the map”.

        Unless you think the map as useless and misleading, my criticisms have nothing to do with the false impression of “a reality” that the map tries to convey.

        I do not feel that in this matter Spain is closer to France than to Britain, but I rather think these three are closer among each other (and with Iran, for example), than they are with Germany or Italy or the Central-SE European “true nation-states” born in the last 100 or 200 years.

        My whole feeling is that a good understanding of nation-statehood has been corrupted by this approach and map, and this is sadly reflected in the article, which makes a blank slate of European states, as if all would be roughly the same in linguistic homogeneity and alleged genocidal history.

        “… the hole-less, perfect map does not exist”.

        Of course but there are still good and bad maps, and very good and very bad ones, and honest and misleading maps. This map is very bad and highly misleading and the accompanying article is of no help.

        • Kevin Morton

          Maju, to be more direct: So far I chalk your criticism of the map to the certainty of Spain’s depicted status when there should be ambiguity, and the <70% status given to Iran.

          The first is fair given your perspective of affording "Castilian" priority over "Spanish". But, seeing as the map is written in the perspective of the English language, and "Spanish" is the more common descriptive term in English for the language spoken in Spain, I can see why such status was given to Spain. This is not to discredit the complexity you raise. However, this seems like one such simplification the map medium forces a cartogropher to make, either way that Spain is colored. If it were left uncolored, we could criticize the map for neglecting the most widely practiced English term for the language of Spain and call its lack of color an oversimplification. It seems like a judgment call. One that the cartographer might have made informed.

          On this note, it would be interesting to see how a ethnolinguanymic map written from the perspective of another language would differ.

          Your criticism of Iran's status, though, is perhaps misguided. The CIA World Factbook has Persian as the native language of 53% of Iran's population. Undoubtedly, a higher percentage speaks Persian, but the map is only concerned with native languages. The World Factbook lists Azeri and other Turkish dialects as the native language of around 18% of Iranians, Kurdish for 10%, and on down the list. By the same standard, Castilian Spanish is said to be native to 74% of Spain's population.

          Other than these two points, your criticism of the map thus far mostly involves taking exception to MWL's mentioning "ethnic cleansing" as being a part of Europe's history, which to me hardly seemed like a central point of the article or of the map. In fact, by stating "There has been much more ethnic cleansing in the USA, for example…" I think you have extrapolated too much from the author's sentence, as his sentence had nothing to do with ethnic cleansing in the US, and thus he had no reason to preempt your criticism by comparing the two. Perhaps the author's sentence should have been worded with more nuance, but I think your criticism of it is rather besides the value of the map.

          • Maju

            The use of English as reference for this concept is essentially wrong: the native/official language would be the obviously correct reference. Often countries, and even ethnicities and languages, get exonyms which are different from the official or local names and using English for reference is so arbitrary that it makes no sense whatsoever.

            The very idea that language name and country name must be cognates or that such thing has any special meaning is silly. The cases of Iran, Israel but also Egypt or Yemen or even Britain or Brazil render this claim pointless. (And, by the way, why is not Saudi ARABIA colored in dark blue?)

            “The CIA World Factbook has Persian as the native language of 53% of
            Iran’s population. Undoubtedly, a higher percentage speaks Persian, but
            the map is only concerned with native languages”.

            In that case the same must apply to Spain, where Some 16 million are native speakers of other languages (and I’m not counting Asturian or Aragonese, neglected distinct romance languages, Andalusian, argued by some to be distinct from Castilian, or even all those legal immigrants who speak Arabic or Chinese everyday). This leaves the native Castilian-speakers at 64%.

            But well, what is a native speaker? What happen with native bilinguals and multilinguals, who learn several languages in childhood? A school friend who was thrown into Spanish-only schooling out of a Basque-only town at the age of 5, must be considered Basque native, of course, but Spanish native as well?

            If different criteria is used to define what is a “native speaker”, then we (or the CIA WFB) will get different results for each country, what is pointless, confusing and misleading – totally useless from a scientific viewpoint (it may serve as propaganda tool however). For that reason coherence in the method is necessary when you draw such a map.

            “I think you have extrapolated too much from the author’s sentence” [about ethnic cleansing].

            I have not extrapolated anything: it illustrates a creole and specially “Gringo” misconception about Europe and in general the Old World. A lack of knowledge and probably also a lack of genuine interest.

          • Kevin Morton

            So then, at the least, this map shows us how vastly English has taken more exonyms and language names together in Europe and (a bit less so in) Asia than in the rest of the world. That split is not interesting to you? As a native English speaker, I find it pretty interesting.

            Like you say, it would also be good to see a map of “ethnolinguanymic states” with the singular defined as an “independent country whose official name (in its official language) incorporates the name of its dominant official language (in its official language)”.

            Good points about “what is a native speaker.”

            Your last paragraph shows even more that you *clearly* have extrapolated much more than was contained in that sentence.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            Quite a bit has been said here about the vagueness of the concept “native speaker”. Actually, linguists are quite clear on what that means. Native speakers of a language (and dialect) share implicit intuitions about various grammatical issues, even if they don’t realize that they have those intuitions. So in theory, determining if a certain “bilingual” is a native speaker of a language X is not that difficult: just test his/her intuitions and compare to those of monolingual speakers. Of course, doing so on a massive world-wide scale is more than impractical, but that doesn’t make the concept of “native competence” any less compelling.

          • Martin W. Lewis

            I have, I hope addressed most of these matters in my response to your initial comments, but there are a few other issues raised here that deserve response. The Saudi ARABIA issue is especially interesting, as the naming of the country is unique: “Saudi” refer to a family, which essentially controls the country as its personal domain. My understanding, which may not be correct, is that the name of the country (whether in English or Arabic), refers to that section of the Arabian Peninsula controlled by the house of Saud. It is thus far enough removed from any “Arab” or “Arabic” ethno-linguistic designation to avoid being mapped in the  ethnolinguanymic category. Certainly the Saudis make no claims that their country represents in any way the Arab people; in fact, they have always been hostile to the idea of pan-Arabism and Arab nationalism. It was a different story, however, with the United Arab Republic,which had a fairly short existence  

            You are right that it is difficult to determine who counts as a “native speaker” of any language.  But that is true across the board in linguistics, and ultimately in any aspects of human identity  Such matters are intrinsically fuzzy. But that does not mean that any discussions of such issues are useless or even non-scientific (although I certainly make no claims to be engaged in scientific analysis). 

            Take, for example, the science of taxonomy. The boundaries between species and sub-species, for example, are often highly contentious, Some taxonomists are lumpers and other are splitters, and they debate each other intensively.  Supposedly, there is a clear criterion: breeding can and does occur naturally within species (hence across sub-species) but not between species — except when it does. Dogs and wolves are different species, yet they readily interbreed. 
            The “species” is thus an intrinsically messy category.  So do we abandon it in the interest of scientific precision?  Of course not, as we need to use it to speak scientifically about life in the first place.  

      • Asya Pereltsvaig

        @kevinmorton:disqus : I like your point above that “the English language itself may influence the native-English-speaker’s perspective on geography”. But this point does not detract from the value of the map (and the concept behind it), IMHO. It would be interesting to make an alternative map based on the name of country/language in the main local language itself. For one thing, Russia would be colored differently, as the name of the country (in Russian) is Rossija, whereas the language is called “russkij” (not “rossijskij”).

        @mwlewis:disqus : I will be more than happy to help with working out such a map…

        • Kevin Morton

          Indeed it does not detract from the map’s value, IMO as well. My point was that it adds to it.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            I agree completely. In fact, it’s just part of a much bigger picture: the language we happen to speak “nudges” us to think and see the world in certain ways. I’ve recently taught a class on that, although we’ve looked on the more basic aspects like colors or spatial terms. The point that you’ve made above is a more subtle yet also compelling example of the general principle that we see the world through the “looking-glass” of our language.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      In defense of the concept of an ethnolinguanymic country: even if in some cases it may be slippery and difficult to define or determine (and indeed, names of many countries in their own language differ from those in English, see e.g. Martin’s earlier post on Russia and Russians), it doesn’t make it a bad or an uninteresting concept. Besides, even if only 65% of Spaniards speak Modern Castillian Spanish, that’s still more than 50% (which is what counts according to the definition).

      As for the history of ethno-linguistic cleansing in Europe, much of it is not typically named as such, but it is indeed a long-term situation that is not limited to WWII and the post-war period. In Russia alone many ethnic groups have been driven out of existence or almost (e.g. Martin has written a series of very interesting posts on the Finnic-speaking groups). The same is true of the rest of Europe, where the mosaic nature of the ethnolinguistic map used to be much more pronounced. Many languages once spoken in Europe are now extinct (e.g. Polabian, Meschera, Merya, Murom are the first ones that come to mind) or about to become so (as with many languages in France). In fact, in my forthcoming book I (controversially!) put the section on language extinction in the chapter on European languages.

      And as for your passage on the ethnic cleansing in the US, “200 years ago” (1811) 17 states were part of the Union and most of the rest of the country was not in the hands of the natives either. If you meant 400 years ago (1611), you should have said so before you through around accusations of imprecision and confusions to others.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Wow!  I thought that this post might be provocative, but I had no idea that it would elicit such strong reaction. First, I would like to thank you, Maju, for taking so much time to react to this post, although I am taken-aback by the hostility in your comments. 

      The map and post make very limited claims about the names of countries in English and the relationship between those names and ethnolinguistic groups within those countries, which is itself a limited topic. This has nothing to do with the legitimacy of existing state boundaries, claims to nationhood, etc. As far as GeoCurrents is concerned, I simply do not take sides in such issues. 

      It would, of course, be much better to map out the names of countries in the indigenous languages of those countries, but I did not have the time to do so. In most cases, however, the map would not change by much, although some countries would be placed in different categories. 

      Spain is a difficult case, and I hesitated in categorizing it. Wikipedia claims that 89 percent of people in Spain speak Spanish (I agree, that Castilian is the better term)  as their first language.  Ethnologue, however, puts the figure at only 65 percent. As Ethnologue linguists are rather extreme “splitters,” I determined in the end that the “right” figure was something between 65% and 89%, and thus likely over 70%. The other problem here is the fact that many non-Basque speakers in the southern Basque countries identify themselves as members of the Basque nation, not the Spanish one, despite the fact that Castilian is their mother-tongue. Ethnic, national, and linguistic categories are intertwined in many complex ways, which does compromise any classification scheme. But I don’t think that we should therefore abandon the effort. 

      Whether or not ethnic cleansing has a long history in Europe, it is undeniable that it has an intense 20th century history. The Greeks not only expelled all Turks, but they also forcibly “Hellenized” many Albanians, Vlachs, and others. 120 years ago, the area that is now northern Greece has no ethno-linguistic group that even came close to majority status. Greeks, Turks, Ladino-speaking Jews, Bulgarians, Albanians, Vlachs, Roma and others lived in complex interspersion. Today the area is mostly Greek. Most Jews were slaughtered and most of the rest fled; other groups were expelled, voluntarily left, or were Hellenized (whether voluntarily or not). 

      After World War II, moreover, some eight million Germans were expelled from their homelands in east-central Europe. Poland today has a massive Polish majority because the Jews were killed and the Germans expelled. Before that happened, however, almost all Lithuanians in Poland were either “Polonized” or left, semi-voluntarily in most cases.      

      I agree that the United States has experienced ethnic cleansing on a massive scale; although infectious disease killed most native Americans, forcible removals and campaigns verging in genocide were common, as in the “Trail of Tears.” But I don’t see any connection between this issue and the post. The United States is obviously not an ethnolinguanymic country, and hence it was not analyzed. The US, at any rate, has always staked its claims to nation-state status on civic rather than ethnic grounds, but that its another topic altogether, and highly complex one at that!.  

      I largely agree with what you write about the formation of nation-states in Europe, but I don’t agree about ethnic homogeneity in central and SE Europe (although it doesn’t seem that you do either, based on your question marks).  It is important to note that roughly one third of Hungarians were excluded from Hungary, and that the presence of large Hungarian populations in Slovakia, Romania, and Serbia present challenges to national identity in those countries.  But I am sure that you already know this. 

      I largely agree with your comments on the development of nation-states in Europe.  But even in well-established, seemingly “organic” nation-states in the region, complications are still encountered, as in regard to Sami in Norway, Sweden, and Finland, Swedes in Finland, Frisians in the Netherlands and so on. I don’t find it reasonable to regard nation-statehood as a yes/no proposition. Few if any countries make ideal nation-states (Iceland perhaps?), but some approach the status much more than others. But again, such issue are only tangentially related to the post, which explores only the English-language naming system for sovereign states. 

      • Asya Pereltsvaig

        Indeed, Iceland comes closest to being an ideal nation-state, with the only complications being Icelandic Sign Language, which is not a manual rendition of Icelandic (spoken) language.

      • Maju

        First of all I want to apologize for my rashness. If I do follow GeoCurrents it is because I think that in general you do a good to very good work. But there are exceptions and this is one. Also because of my personality I tend to express myself more when I have objections or criticisms than when I agree and like. I’m somewhat grumpy, admittedly, and very critical as well.

        I have been interested in geography and history since roughly puberty and, as I say, I generally like your blog. However, without noticing,you may be falling in ethnocentric political bias. I first noticed that when you discussed Venezuela and I notice now when you discuss Afghanistan, Iran and the highly controversial concept of nation-state.

        Knowingly or not you are sometimes falling into very lame-topical US-centric imperialist ideas. Careful there, please.

        Ethnic cleansing is a very Balcanic and Central-Eastern European thing. In Western Europe is almost unheard of (the only exception I can find is the Irish famine and enslaving probably but it’s very peculiar and a long term failure). It is also something that has mostly happened in the early 20th century, in some very specific contexts: Russia (dating to the 19th century intermittent genocides of minorities), Turkey post-WWI (the expulsion of Turks from Greece was, ironically, imposed by Turkey after the Greek-Turkish war for Thrace and Smyrna), WWII (Holocaust/Porajmos) and post WWII (German expulsion, Polish borders) and Yugoslavian wars: totally induced madness IMO (and I know the matter almost first hand).

        What has happened in West Europe mostly has been more or less forced assimilation, which is quite different from genocide at least in the usual sense of democide. This has included more or less forced colonization. So you have Basques with no Basque ancestry who may not speak Basque natively and yet feel Basque and want nothing to do with Spain or France and inversely people with strong Basque ancestry (and even Basque-speakers in rare cases) who feel primarily Spanish/French. This is because the “Latin” (but also Anglosaxon probably, and that of other successful assimilating ethnicities like Arab or Chinese) concept of nationality is more about identity than about blood and ancestry.

        So when I found myself with the Yugoslavian wars told first person by refugees from Krajina or Bosnia, etc. I was flippant. It’d be like a war between Mormons, Catholics and Baptists in the USA but with most of them being in fact atheist (their grandparents… blah, blah). All speaking the same language and even the same dialect… And all that because that was the backup plan of the Serbian-dominated Yugoslavian Army in case of secession, a backup plan conceived it seems just after WWII.

        Of course I am aware of the issues with Hungarian and other ethnic minorities (locally majorities here and there) but I do not think this is any issue. I am also aware of the Saami minority in Northern Fenno-Scandia but I could not go into every detail. My problems are that I think that the 70% line is totally arbitrary (why not 50% or 90% or… Yugoslavia and the USSR broke apart with less than 30% ethnic minorities, in principle), that how you measured it is also arbitrary and that the concept of ethnolynguamic (in English of all languages) is pointless because what matters is how many people feel identified with the ethnic state regardless of trivial naming issues.

        I think that one such map would be much more useful by merely noting the apportion of (a) speakers of the dominant/official language and (b) speakers of the minority/non-official languages. Complementarily a map of secessionist claims with some real support could be interesting, even if it’s probably a rather overwhelming and undoubtedly controversial task.

        But in any case, thanks for your effort, we do not have to agree in everything. In fact I enjoy a good heated (but intelligent) debate now and then, don’t you?

  • Martin W. Lewis

    I would like to thank everyone for adding to this contentious discussion. It takes time and effort to do so, and I appreciate that. The give-and-take is informative, and perhaps entertaining. As I mentioned in a comment below, the original post mentioned my own uncertainties about the very idea of the “ethnolinguanymic state,” and asked for criticism. That line was unfortunately edited out — although the criticism has certainly been forthcoming! 

     But I would also like to reiterate the fact that GeoCurrents is a non-political blog. I am not concerned here which side of any moral or political issue is right or wrong, and I do not address “should” questions. Should Spain be divided into separate sovereign states?  Should Iran? Should Somaliland be recognized as a sovereign state? These are important issues, but there are hundreds of websites in which one can debate them. 

     “Is Spain a nationally united state?” is another question altogether, as it rests on an empirical basis. From what I understand of the situation, the answer  is “no” or perhaps “not very,” as most Catalans and Basques reject membership in the Spanish nation. But such rejection has no bearing on the question of whether the country of Spain shares a name, in some form, with its majority linguistic community. I could well be wrong in my mapping of Spain, however, as less than 70 percent of its people might not speak Spanish as their first language, which would mean that it should be depicted in light blue. I am not yet ready to make that change, however, as I do not feel that I have adequate information. And perhaps I should have mapped Spain in green (dark or light), to the extent that its “national” language is Castilian, not Spanish. If I were to devote more effort to the issue and examine, as has been suggested, how countries are named in their own official language(s), then such a change would probably be warranted.  But the topic does not seem important enough to pursue at such a level. This post was designed only to introduce the ambiguities surrounding the name Afghanistan, which is the topic of the next post, now delayed.  As a result of such issues, I would ask readers to try to avoid reading more political or ideological content into these posts than is warranted. Also, I would ask that readers try to avoid imputing ill-will or surreptitious motives to either the posts or the comments made by others. We are trying (I hope!) to learn together, and that task is not made any easy by hostile attitudes.

  • James T. Wilson

    I hesitate to comment on such an overly commented issue, but I don’t think anyone has discussed the Haitian matter you bring up.  There may have been some creole language spoken in Saint Domingue, but certainly nobody would have called it Kreyol Ayisien (sp?).  The country, in that case, might be seen as coming before the language.  Could we say the same of Indonesia?  I even wonder a bit about China and Chinese, though my early Chinese history is not strong enough to comment on that and I’m sure it would open a bigger can of worms than Spain would.

    • Maju

      I think you hit on a key issue, which is that the exact relation between national language and national state varies. For example, Latin was the national language of a number of states, none of which was ever called Latium, even if Latium existed as country=region and there was a nation=people which spoke that language and was often known as Latins. So the “requirements” of the notion of ‘etnolinguanymic’ state are arbitrary and extreme.

      One would need to meditate much more in depth about the history of the, often intricate, relations between people/nation/ethnicity, territory/country, language and state. There was a time when peoples gave names to countries (which however were often divided or conquered by external empires), Gauls gave their name to Gallia for example. But there have been many other cases in which a land has given their name to a people, for example Italy (and if someone says that Italy is a “new nation”, I can easily reply that it was forged by Rome as nation with legal and ethno-political meaning much earlier than the efforts of Cavour and Garibaldi, although it initially excluded Cisalpine Gaul). You even have cases where a language gives its name to a people/nation, which is for example the case of Basques in our own language (euskaldun=Basque person means literally Basque-speaker, from euskara=Basque language – there’s no other traditional word).

      None of these different circumstances seem to allow for any sort of preferential qualification in the rank of nations: there is unity in diversity.

      • Asya Pereltsvaig

        While you are correct in noting that the relationship between the names of a country, its people and their language is a complex issue, the notion of “ethnolinguanymic state”, as far as I understand it, is meant to draw a distinction between countries that do have such a relationship (including both those where the country name is extended to the people/language and those with the reverse situation) and countries with no such relationship at all (e.g. Unites States of America or Democratic Republic of Congo).

        • Maju

          But the USA is closer to France than Congo is to either because in both France and the USA most (almost all) people is native speaker of the official and most important respective language, while in Congo they learn French (the official language) only at school (or otherwise but not at home most of the time).

          Most of my contempt is that I cannot care much if the Netherlands and Dutch language are cognates or not or if this circumstance was altered when the country changed its name to Batavian Republic for example. What if France tomorrow changes its name to Gaul but all the same remains unchanged? Would it matter at all? What if the D.R. Congo decides that French should from now on be called “Congolese”. I know it’s weird but such things happen: I think it’s Nebraska where the official language is “American” (or used to be).

          I do not think that this issue of naming conventions is of any true importance: what matter is how many people speak the dominant language (at all, with preference, natively…)

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            Maju, what you say is not without merit, but what you propose to look at (“how many people speak the dominant language”) is a different matter — no less or more important or interesting than what Martin proposed to consider. Naming conventions are interesting, fascinating even, in the sense that they reveal something about our (English speakers’) views/perception of those countries. As such, they are as valuable as the map you’ve proposed to draw.

            Now, what you say in the first paragraph of your comment is absolutely true, but it has to do with the concept that you proposed to examine (“how many people speak the dominant language”), not the one that Martin examines. There are many ways indeed in which USA and France are more like each other than either is like DRC (GDP is one of them!), and they are all valid geographical notions, but that doesn’t detract from the validity of Martin’s observation that there is a way in which DRC is like USA and France is different! It’s a different way of looking at the world… that’s all.

  • Guararapes1648

    Brazilian Portuguese is a strong case of an Ethnolinguanymic State. In 1640 Brazil was the mains support of the Portuguese restauration and the Lusophones could defeat the Castilians in South America and in Iberia !

  • PHguy

    I agree on these terms. Albeit, I would also like to share a few more information if you wouldn’t mind :P

    Bahasa Indonesia is based on Bahasa Melayu (Malay), being an exogloss, to avoid ethnolinguistic domination by a privileged group, with certain lexical, prosodic and syntactic variations influenced by Javanese (dominant non-national language) and other Indonesian languages. 

    Filipino, on the other hand was constitutionally designated to be a new language out of all existing languages in the Philippines (they wanted to validate the unity of a “Philippine state” by promising the people a new unifying language out of a creole from 150 indigenous languages). However, aside from being horribly delusional, Filipinos were also good at being unconstitutional that the prior national language, Tagalog (being renamed to “Pilipino” [notice the P] before shift to the “Filipino language”), remained the base for grammar and much of indigenous lexicon, so technically, Filipino is Tagalog.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for sharing this information.

      As far as Bahasa Indonesia goes, I wouldn’t say that it is “based on” Bahasa Malay, but they are certainly based on the same source, and each has developed certain peculiarities due to external influences, conscious standardization efforts, etc.

      As for Filipino, yes, it is largely Tagalog, but there’s been some differences introduced, as far as I understand. I am not sure about the degree of similarity, but it’s not unlike the situation in Italy, where many people speak local dialect natively (rather than Standard Italian, which is thus not unlike Filipino in its status).

      • PHguy

        I do think they keep on shoving to everyone’s mouths that Italy is a huge dialect continuum in the form of a geographic boot :P

        But Italian nationalism was however thoughtful enough to administratively divide the provinces into the original approximation of the then-thriving languages around Tuscan (AKA Italian), though some sources insist that Po Valley is a stronger candidate to be considered to really have different languages. 

  • Liam

    Saudi ARABia