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 both because Burke’s own book is filled with what read like examples of official language policy in the centuries before 1789. But 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.
Of equal concern in a book with this sweep a scope is the absence of the phrase “prayer book”, a term that I began to look for with some care after Burke’s first, startling assertion that there was no such thing as a pre-1789 language policy. What are we to make of a boon on language and community in Europe that appears unaware that beginning on a particular Sunday morning in 1549 in every church in England, every pastor – all of them answerable to a new, national church – was to take up the new Book of Common Prayer and henceforth conduct all public services in English. It is hard to interpret the replacement of the Latin Mass by the Book of Common Prayer, mandated by Parliament as the Act of Uniformity of 1549 as anything other than part of an official language policy. More especially as it was paralleled by similar policies in newly Protestant Sweden and Denmark.