Listen to the article

Language plays a pivotal role in shaping social paradigms as it determines both individual and collective cognition. Replacing the language of a community can alter its understanding of the world and its perception of itself. It can lead to a sense of belonging to a different society and the adoption of foreign causes, potentially resulting in its downfall.

A given culture can best express itself in its own language, whose lexicon has been shaped and molded according to its beliefs. In fact, etymologically speaking, at the heart of the concept of culture, one can identify the word “cult” around which it organically forms, nurturing its distinct means of expression, including language, script, music, art and architecture. André Malraux once said, “The essence of a civilization is what coalesces around a religion.” Therefore, language is not simply a tool of communication, but rather a matrix that transmits the socio-cultural paradigms from which it originates.


Since the 19th and 20th centuries, various studies have shown that language can be perceived as a distinct interpretation of the world and of oneself. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity suggests that the structure of a language influences the cognition of its speakers and their relationship with the world. Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein further expressed this concept when he wrote, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my own world.” In a reciprocal manner, language shapes both the worldview and the way to express it. This sociolinguistic complementarity is established between the idea and its expression, in other words, the signified and the signifier.

In this regard, in 1820, Wilhelm von Humboldt stated, “The diversity of languages is not a diversity of sounds and signs, but a diversity of views of the world.” Hence, language becomes the protector of identity and existence. By replacing a community’s language, we can transform the way it understands the world and the way it sees itself. We can convince it to belong to a different society and make it adopt foreign causes, to the point of causing its own ruin. Hence, language appears as a guarantor of identity and existence.

The languages of the Mediterranean basin in the 2nd century. ©Jacques Leclerc

Language and Culture

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the concept of culture linked to identity was developed by German philosophers like Friedrich Hegel, Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, and a French version embodied by Jules Michelet and Ernest Renan. French literature transmitted this mindset beyond Europe, extending its influence to the Ottoman provinces of Armenia and Lebanon. By giving rise to the concept of the nation-state, this approach, embraced by the Young Turks movement, resulted in the genocides of the Christians in the Ottoman Empire. But this notion also made its way into French-speaking circles, especially among Armenians and Maronites, therefore the importance of reflecting on this philosophy developed by the German Romantic movement.

The German Romantic philosophers were inspired by the Swedish Emanuel Swedenborg who wrote in 1771, “Germany is divided into more governments than the neighboring kingdoms… But common is everywhere among people who speak the same language.” This description emphasizes the connection between language and identity. Even when a community lacks political unity, its language remains the binding element. It is thus suitable to explore the relationship between identity and the language that serves as its main support. This approach was first pioneered in Germany by Johann Gottfried von Herder.

National Culture

While von Herder focused on the role of language in shaping cultural identity, Johann Gottlieb Fichte took this logic further by connecting it with the concept of the nation. He views language as the core of cultural specificity, and defines the concept of a nation-state founded on culture and expressed through language. Fichte’s spiritual revival in Prussia initially aimed to counter the Napoleonic hegemony. Therefore, what he referred to as Volkstum (or national culture) – which started as a resistance against French supremacy – can nowadays be perceived as one of the most effective tools against existential threats. Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope John Paul II), used this notion while actively promoting the Polish language in theater. In 1806, Fichte expressed the unity of language and nation in an address to the German nation, “The first, original, and truly natural boundaries of states are beyond doubt their internal boundaries. Those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds… It is not because men dwell between certain mountains and rivers that they are a people, but, on the contrary, men dwell together… because they were a people already by a law of nature which is much higher.  In the Levant, Arabia and North Africa, the presence of many mountains and rivers didn’t forge a specificity or autonomy the way it did in Lebanon. Here, it is not only about a mountain, but about a distinct religious culture that emphasizes a well-defined identity.

The Local Language

The evolution of a language over the centuries does not imply its demise. For example, Syriac is still somewhat present in the Lebanese dialect. Furthermore, the teaching of the Syriac language in Mount Lebanon’s schools until 1943, and intermittently until the 1960s, played a role in fostering a lasting awareness of cultural identity. According to the philosopher Charles Malek, what truly cemented this awareness was the ongoing use of the language in the Maronite liturgy. He thus recommended Syriac as the nucleus and the starting point to strengthen the national culture. He goes so far as assigning it an existential responsibility, stating that this language bestows upon Lebanon its raison d’être, acting as the third stabilizing pillar alongside Hebrew and Arabic.

As part of the nation-building process, this language was complemented by art, music, architecture, literature, history and a worldview. In the early 1980s, Charles Malek aimed to establish the spirit of a resistance based on these foundations. In fact, this linguistic approach was first adopted by other national experiences, especially during the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century. As the Turkish grip started to loosen up, oppressed populations launched their process of awakening and recovery. The first step involved reviving their vanishing languages, giving rise to modern forms of Greek, Hebrew, Armenian, Serbian, and even Syriac with Naoum Fayek in Upper Mesopotamia.

But Arabism was making its way among Christian intellectuals in the Levant, most of whom were working towards the Arab Renaissance, the Nahda, forsaking their language and consequently, their history. Bat Ye’or compared their marvelous contributions to the Nahda to the “last swan song,” as they neglected to feed and revive their own heritage.

The different branches of linguistics ©Wikipedia

Borrowed Languages

While some populations revived their former languages, others chose different methods. As such, Cyprus embraced Greek to express its identity, whereas Malta developed an analphabet for its arabised Semitic dialect, enriched much like Lebanese with Italian, French and English terms. Cypriots and Maltese realized that cultural identity is what grants a political entity the crucial immunity needed for its survival. The first thing East Timor did upon gaining independence in 2002 was to adopt Portuguese as its national language, strengthening its political independence from Indonesia and fully embracing its Catholic culture.

Unlike the common misconceptions perpetuated in Lebanon by some Christian intellectuals, language is undoubtedly a fundamental component of identity. As such, English stands as an inherent aspect of an American’s identity, irrespective of his origins, and carries the underlying Anglo-Saxon Christian Protestant influence.” Likewise, for a Brazilian, Portuguese represents an identity and a Latin Catholic culture. Brazilians, along with their Spanish-speaking neighbors, perceive themselves as being part of Latin America. Therefore, a language may be embraced as long as it authentically embodies the culture, faith, history and identity of a people.

Safeguarding one’s language is more important than defending one’s borders, as the latter are not immutable nor sacred. As such, borders were delineated to help humanity and protect its culture, not the other way around. A population shouldn’t be sacrificed for the sake of preserving venerated yet lethal borders. Language and history shouldn’t be abandoned for the sole aim of protecting ideological borders. Rémy de Gourmont once said, “When a people no longer dares to defend its language, it becomes ripe, ready for slavery.”

What better way to explain Lebanon’s demise than this analysis by Milan Hubl, as echoed by Milan Kundera, “The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have someone write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.”