Language in the Formation of Nation States

Maronitism bears a culture in all of its expressions. It constitutes a unity with its original Syriac language. This reality makes it difficult for a Maronite to embrace a different culture. Because his identity is inscribed within his language and spirituality.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SyriacPress.

By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon

Today’s Lebanese is a dialect of Syriac that was the language taught in our Mount Lebanese schools up till the 1940s. Many organizations and Maronite parishes are striving today for the revival of Syriac at a time when Lebanon is existentially vulnerable. Why is language such an important ingredient in the elaboration and building of a Nation?

The genesis of the concept of culture, as related to people’s identity, started at the end of the 18th century and evolved during the 19th century with the Romantic German philosophers. They developed the notion of Nationalism. Prominent figures were Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), Carl Schmitt (1888–1985), and a French version with Jules Michelet (1798–1874) and Ernest Renan (1823–1892) who organized a conference in 1882 entitled “What is a Nation?” (Qu’est-ce qu’une Nation?).

French literature helped spread these ideas to the rest of Europe and beyond, reaching the Balkans, Russia, Lebanon, and even all the way to Armenia. The large scale diffusion of this concept of Nation State in the Western World defined its political morphology based on its national cultures. For that, it is important to describe this philosophy as developed by the German Romantic movement.


Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg was among the first to inspire several German philosophers within the Romantic movement. In 1771, he wrote, “Germany is divided into more governments than the neighboring kingdoms … However, a common genius prevails everywhere among people speaking the same language” (The True Christian Religion). This description helps us notice the intimate relation that lays between language and identity. Even when a country is not politically united, language can become the cement that brings it all together.

Based on this observation, it was tempting to explore the relation between language and identity. This approach was first supported in Germany by Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803). He considered that one can only think if one has a language. For him, the striving of people and their mentality are intimately related to language. The needs, the beliefs, and the aspirations become one with culture. In that sense, language is revealed as the focal support and the main ingredient of identity.

Linguistics and Nation

Pushing further with this conception, another German, Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814), associated it to the idea of the Nation. He considered language as the most important component for cultural specificity, and therefore, for the Nation. He founded the concept of Nation State as based on culture and expressed by language. His nationalistic approach was conscious and intentional as his work on the Spiritual Revival in Prussia aimed to oppose Napoleon Bonaparte’s hegemony. Hence, the Volkstum (or National Culture) started in Germany as a way of resisting French supremacy. This Volkstum can be considered today as one of the most efficient weapons of resistance for any country under existential threat.

Fichte expressed the unity of language and nation in 1806, in his Addresses to the German Nation. He wrote:

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 by nature herself … and in the natural view of things it is not because men dwell between certain mountains and rivers that they are a people, but, on the contrary, men dwell together — and, if their luck has so arranged it, are protected by rivers and mountains — because they were a people already by a law of nature which is much higher.”

There are indeed other mountains and rivers in the Levant, in Arabia, and in North Africa, but they did not create the specificity nor autonomy like in Lebanon. Here, there is more than a Mountain, there is a language and a religious culture emphasizing a particular and specific identity.

Language is not a simple means of communication. It carries the cultural heritage of a people, its history and its lived experience, as well as its faith and spirituality. Each word carries a collection of meanings, images, and concepts that are unique and particular to that specific people.

Language and Worldview

In 1820, Wilhelm von Humboldt declared that, “The diversity of languages is not a diversity of signs and sounds but a diversity of views of the world.” In his humanistic understanding of linguistics, each language generates its own worldview in its particular lexical and grammatical categories and conceptualization. In that same perspective, Jean-Marie Klinckenberg noted in 1996 that, “To use a sign is to refer to a specific culture, a specific society.”

Consequently, by changing the language of someone, we can change his way of understanding the world and the perception he has of himself and of his own society. We can convince him that he belongs to a different society and make him adopt foreign causes and foreign battles as being his own cause. He can destroy his own society for the benefit of another.

We know how much language is important in our way of thinking, in our way of building our idea of the world, and of ourselves, thanks to several studies conducted in the 19th and 20th centuries. The hypothesis of linguistic relativity, also known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, was actually developed separately by Edward Sapir (1884–1939) and Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897–1941). Their independent approaches were later combined to form a synthesis in the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis. It states that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ cognition and relation to the world.

During that same period, the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (1889–1951) expressed strongly this vision when he wrote, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus).

Language as Bearer of Identity

Throughout these philosophical observations concerning the worldview and the individual as well as collective cognition, we recognize the central role of language. The relationship between Language and Nation becomes mostly explicit. Which one comes first? Nation or Language?

Let us consider the examples of Cyprus, that made the choice of Greek, and of Malta, that fixed its Arabized Cananean dialect full of Italian, French, and English words, exactly like that spoken by Lebanese. The people of Cyprus and of Malta began by fixing their linguistic identity to be able to establish for themselves the foundations of their political entity and immunity, an immunity that is clearly lacking in Lebanon. Language and Nation are so intimately related that one does not go without the other. A language without a country could disappear. But this is also the case of a country without a language.

Contrary to the prejudice that is common in Lebanon, contrary to the fantasy preached by some Maronite intellectuals, language is definitely a component of identity. It reflects identity, it defines it and allows it to flourish or perish with it. Contrary to what those scholars pretend, English is undeniably an identity for an American, and it caries in it an Anglo-Saxon Christian Protestant substrate. In the same logic, Portuguese is an identity and a Latin Catholic culture for a Brazilian. And Spanish is an identity and a Latin Catholic culture for an Argentinian. Hence, a language can be adopted as long as it reflects the culture, faith, religion, history, and identity of a country and of its people.

Maronitism bears a culture in all of its expressions. It constitutes a unity with its original Syriac language. This reality makes it difficult for a Maronite to embrace a different culture because his identity is inscribed within his language and spirituality. What better example than that of Boutros Boustany who had to abandon his Maronite faith and convert to Protestantism to be loyal to his adopted Arab culture? Often, this shift constitutes just the first step before the conversion to Islam, like the case of Fares Chidiac (who became Ahmad Fares Al Chidiac).

Maronite priest teaching Syriac to boys and girls.

Nation States

History has shown us that most languages were originate as dialects that developed their own spellings and fixed their grammar and syntax in codes and books. Max Weinreich (1894–1969), an American of Latvian origin, defines language as “a dialect with an army and a navy”. Without the self consciousness of a people, a dialect cannot evolve to become a language. And sometimes a language can degenerate into a dialect, or simply disappear, annihilating in the process its speakers.

Without a conscious willing to establish a Nation, a dialect doesn’t evolve to become a language the way it did in Malta and the way Syriac language was created consciously by the first Christians of the Levant to demarcate their identity. Lebanese and Maltese are the same. One of them however, was established as a language while the other was politically limited as a dialect (not even of its own Syriac origin) but as a dialect, or even a deterioration, of Arabic. Through its Arabization in the 20th century, and especially since it stopped being taught in schools in 1943, it lost more and more from its Syriac and Italian vocabulary, to end up looking effectively like an Arabic dialect.

1943 National Pact

The 1943 agreement on which the Lebanese Republic was founded was made with good intentions: the respect of all the cultural components. It was expressed by two layers: the Mithaq (the National Pact) and Al Sigha (its formula). The will of coexistence was certainly a noble idea, however the materialization of the formula was far from being respectful of the specificities of each of the country’s people.

German Romanticism opposes the thesis known as contractualism (contractuelles) developed by Frenchmen Jean Bodin (16th century), Jean Jacques Rousseau (18th century), Henri Benjamin Constant (18th–19th centuries), and even the German Emmanuel Kant (18th century). According to the contractualists, society organizes around the Social Contract (le Pacte Social) by a simple agreement between social components and the surrender of some freedoms. According to this thesis, to reach coexistence, it is necessary to abandon part of our cultural heritage, specificities, and even needs.

This is precisely the way the Mount Lebanese people surrendered their socio-cultural reality, their history, language and identity, in the Social Contract of 1943. After deserting their identity, they started forsaking their rights to have a space that expresses, reflects, and protects this identity. The Social Contract of 1943 lead, inexorably, to the Cairo Agreements of 1969 and the full surrender of Lebanon’s legitimacy.

How to build a Nation with several peoples, each one with its own myths, believes, faith, or Narrative known as “le Roman National”? It is worthy of attention that the republic for Aristotle is based on the community (KEINONIA) and not on a people (ETHNOS). This means that we need to have a people with the same faith, aspirations, and vision that is able to act as a cohesive community. In that matter, can we imagine establishing a republic with, not only several communities, but a multitude of peoples from different origins and backgrounds, each one with its particular views and its needs?

What happened in Lebanon, or in the Christian Levant in general?

What brought us to this impasse today, this deadlock situation?

The Ottoman Empire

During the second half of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was in serious decline, referred to as the Sick Man of Europe (l’Homme Malade). This is when the Judeo-Christian peoples under Ottoman occupation for centuries prepared once again to rise to the surface. The first step was to revive their dying languages. This is the reason why we have today Modern Greek, Hebrew, Armenian, Serbian, and even Syriac.

Indeed, in Upper Mesopotamia, Naoum Fayek (1868–1930) started a revival of this language with the printing of newspapers in Syriac. Modern words were added and schools provided for. A secular Syriac literature next to the traditional Christian heritage soon developed.

But Arabism soon took hold over many of the Christians of the Levant. Most of them started reviving Arabic instead of Syriac. They excelled and made its literature and culture flourish in the most beautiful way. They will always be remembered for this honorable achievement bequeathed to humanity. Only at the same time they forsook the language that could express more deeply and more genuinely their needs, their views, their aspirations, their identity, faith, and existence. This lead to what Bat Ye’or calls “Le dernier Chant du Signe”, the most beautiful swansong announcing a certain death.

Fortunately, despite that irresponsibility, most Mount Lebanese schools kept on teaching Syriac, and the Maronite Church kept on using it for all its Masses. The fatal rupture would only happen in 1943.

Schoolbook dated 1913 (just before the Great War which ended the autonomy of Mount Lebanon)

The Governorate of Mount Lebanon

It was only in the 19th century that the Nation States as we know them today began their emergence. The German Empire was declared in the Galerie des Glaces in Versailles in 1871, marking the existence of Germany as a Nation State. Italy had begun its modern formation as a Nation State in 1861. Mount Lebanon became an independent or autonomous country and recognized by the European powers in 1860.  It was even viewed as a Nation State by Prince Richards von Metternich (1829–1895).

Before him, his father, Klemens von Metternich (1773–1859), or Prince of Metternich, was the Austrian Empire’s Foreign Minister from 1809 and Chancellor from 1821 to 1848. He suggested the concept of Caimacamia in Mount Lebanon in 1841. But this partition of Lebanon into two separate entities was, as we know it, a total failure. It ended up in massacres of Christians in the entire Southern Caimacamia all the way to Syria.

A sustainable solution was found with the establishment of Mount Lebanon Governorate (Moutassarifia as named by the Ottomans). Its constitution was called “Règlement Organique” (Solution Based on Nations). It was developed by Richards von Metternich who was ambassador of Austria at the court of Napoléon III who’s army maintained security in Lebanon in 1860.

Richards von Metternich based the constitution of the Governorate on the cultural reality, designating it as “organic”. He furthermore noted the fundamental differences between the people of Mount Lebanon and the rest of Ottoman Syria. He talked about a clear cultural specificity, the base of the Nation State as defined during the 19th century. His proposal was a geographical and political system adapted to the demographic reality.

The signatories of the Règlement Organique were the Ottoman Porte and the ambassadors of the five Christian powers: Prussia, Austria, France, Great Britain, and Russia. They were joined later by Italy. Known as the Beyoglu Protocol, and valid for three years, it became final in 1864 with a federal system that makes clear use of the word Canton. Until its invasion by Ottoman forces in WWI (1914), the Mount Lebanon Governorate had eight governors starting with Garapet Artin Daoud Pasha and ending with Ovhannes Kouyoumjian Pasha. The autonomous entity became famous for its economic and intellectual prosperity.

The concept of “organic” in its constitution refers to the idea of nations based on cultural groups developed in 19th century Europe by the German Romantic movement. It reached Lebanon directly with Prince of Metternich and European powers, but also through the French culture of the Maronites and the Maronite Church. French writers also had a direct influence.

The National Narrative (Roman National)

As early as 1860, Ernest Renan arrived with the soldiers of Napoleon III. Renan, as well as Jules Michelet and others, played a predominant role in spreading the French idea of National identity. In 1864, Renan, well aware of the specific identity of the Mount Lebanese, wrote: “Sous le nom de Syriaque et identifié avec le dialecte des populations du Liban, le Phénicien traversa le Moyen Age” (Under the name of Syriac and identified with the dialect of the populations of Lebanon, Phoenician crossed the Middle Ages).

This fundamental understanding of the concept of historical continuity underlined by Renan, was rejected by the official history books produced under Bechara el Khoury who imposed a fraudulent identity and erased the genuine memory of the Mount Lebanese. He created an orphan society and suppressed the foundations of the Nation. He based his political activity on the ideology of a centralized Greater Lebanon with a unique character and an imaginary identity.

A French diplomat, Robert de Caix de Saint-Aymour, had noticed the cultural diversity of the populations of Greater Lebanon (Grand Liban, created in 1920). He warned of the danger that would result from the denial of this reality and he suggested a federal political system that is more adapted to it. Unfortunately, with Greater Lebanon, the Nations on which Richards von Metternich had based his organic solution, were simply erased. Their definition as Millet (Nations) by the Ottomans was translated into the pejorative word Sect. Semantically speaking, what was noble as a Nation became repulsive as a Sect and needed to be suppressed. Bechara el Khoury desired to melt everything into one single ideological identity.

What was unconscious during the beginning of the 20th century with the Nahda turned into a premeditated act in 1943. The Syriac language was sacrificed on the altar of Greater Lebanon. It was not recognized as one of the national languages of the new entity. As a result, mountain schools in the 1960’s stopped teaching Syriac when the last teachers of the language retired. The Syriac Maronite Church saw itself forced to hold Mass in Arabic because parishioners could no longer follow in the books printed in Syriac or Garshouné. Until our generation, schools refuse to reintegrate the teaching of Syriac under the pretext that is was useless. This is as if today proud countries like Italy or Poland would suddenly decide not to teach their own languages any more under the pretext that no other country in the world understands them or uses them. This is what happened in Lebanon.

Letter of 1946, by Raphael Bar Armalet, advocating Syriac as the official language for Lebanon

The Warning

However, in 1946, three years after the supposed independence of Lebanon, Patriarch Antonios Arida still opposed the drift of Bechara el Khoury and of his peers. He expressed his concern, desiring to safeguard the Syriac language in all Christian schools and universities. In a document drafted for him by Priest Raphael Bar Armalet, it is clearly requested that the Syriac language be spoken “not only in the monasteries and schools but also and above all in every house in Lebanon“. These warnings had no result. On the contrary, the Patriarch was slandered and denounced in the Vatican and lived out his life in forced isolation.

A serious awareness was tempted by Lebanese philosopher Charles Malik after the collapse of Lebanon in 1975. In his Two Letters to the Maronites, he emphasized the importance of language in safeguarding identity and in the elaboration of the Nation. He wrote:

“Who is more worthy then the Maronites to respect, honor, admire, study and perpetuate the Syriac language? It has been given to them. It is living in their quintessence. They — not others — are primarily accountable for it, and not only to study it historically, theoretically, and with the same curiosity as Europeans and Westerners. They are accountable for it; thus, tying them both culturally and spiritually to remaining elements of the Eastern civilization and living Diaspora around the world.”

This Greek Orthodox scholar holds the Maronites responsible for Lebanon because, as he said, they were able to preserve their Syriac language. He even associated this linguistic fact to their raison d’être, their very existence. Like his fellow German philosophers, he stressed the predominant role of language when he wrote:

Language is the most significant phenomenon of civilizations, because it is life in its deepest meanings; it determines the roots, origins, and heritage … Why have the Maronites preserved their Syriac heritage? Was it preserved simply by coincidence? … does not Providence have a hand in this matter? … is it not possible and even expected that the survival of the Maronites and their ancient Syriac heritage has an eternal purpose especially in these special times and in this special region … ?”

Mediterranean Lebanon

Lebanon has always been Mediterranean, since the Phoenicians, then the Greeks, the Romans, and the Byzantines. Lebanon’s Middle Ages flourished in a Latin State under the Franc crusaders, and its Renaissance was initiated by the Maronite College in Rome. Cutting these ties with Lebanon’s past is extremely perilous.

In these words, Paul Valery (1871–1945) defines the European territory: “Every race and land that has been successively Romanized, Christianized and as regards the mind, disciplined by the Greeks, is absolutely European.” And as we know, Lebanon has been Romanized (the school of law of Beryte), Christianized (since the Apostles), and disciplined by the Greeks (the Agora and Hellenism). But Ottomanism, and later Arabism, worked on the transformation of the Mediterranean or Levantine identity and reality of the Mount Lebanese people to drawn them in the new ideology of the Middle East. There is no doubt that Bechara el Khoury was backed by powerful Maronite parties and families. Indeed, as the historian Arnold Toynbee puts it, “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.” Mount Lebanon’s people were killed by the usurpation of identity.

If we refer to what Milan Hubl wrote, the current deterioration of Lebanon makes sense. He said:

The first step in liquidating a people, is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody 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.” — Milan Hubl by Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Mount Lebanon is the perfect illustration of this theory. Lebanese people learn in their schools and universities everything but their own history and language. What better way to annihilate a people but to make its language vanish? Once detached from their roots, people become a puppet tossed around by every new regional actor.

History never forgives indifference, recklessness, cowardice, and fear of sacrifice. The crime we are committing against our language and history is a crime against our own existence. Identity is not a cloth that can be replaced according to fashion and circumstances. This unworthy behavior jeopardizes a Nation’s future “because after all,” says Michel Serres, “language defines the genius of a people, and to abandon one’s language is an unforgivable crime.”

Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar is an architect and the former president of the Syriac Maronite Union: Tur Levnon. Amine Jules Iskandar has written several articles on the Syriac Maronites, their language, culture, and history.

For the article in French see L’orient le Jour

For the article in Spanish see Maronitas.org

Also Read:

“KAFNO”: The Genocide on the Christians of Mount Lebanon during the First World War

The Mysterious Origins of the Language of the Maronites