Midway through Peter Burke’s Languages and Communities in Early Modern Europe it is troubling to see him assert that “deliberate acts by governments” to promote, mandate, or downgrade particular languages or dialects in favor of others “were as rare before 1789 as they were common after that date.” (p. 72) Then, citing Henri Peyre, he argues that official actions of this kind were not only rare, they were “rarely consistent,” more in the nature of unplanned “reactions” to particular circumstances and, therefore, that it would be “wise to avoid the term (language policy) in the case of Europe before 1789”.(p. 73)
This is startling because Burke’s own book is filled with what read like examples of official language policy in the centuries before 1789. It is disquieting to have a scholar give a clear summary of his findings that does not appear to be supported by the evidence he himself is presenting at book-length. And the unease that this generates is doubled in a case like Languages and Communities where the author overlooks or omits what is probably the largest body of evidence negating his conclusion.
Burke’s assertion that national language policies happen only post-1789, particularly the Epilogue, “Languages and Nations,” in which he asserts that, “rare instances of conscious language policy before 1789 – were not examples of nationalism in the modern sense,” is a carefully crafted intervention in the scholarly debate over the antiquity of nations, a broadside fired at the idea that nations or nationalism may predate Herder.
The evidence Burke himself presents in this book supports a far milder conclusion, that at particular times and places in pre-modern Europe (under Alphonso X of Castile or Alfred the Great of Wessex, or in the French administration of seventeenth century Alsace) there were official language policies, which become more common in the 18th century, and far more common in the 19th.