Cultural Nationalism and Agency
De taal is de ziel der natie, zij is de natie zelve; that is, ‘language is the soul of the nation, it is the nation itself’. So reads one of the mottos of what is often considered to be the largest dictionary in the world: the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal, or ‘Dictionary of the Dutch Language’. From the first instalment (1864) through the first volume (1882) to, finally, volume XXIX (1998), the dictionary's opening pages were adorned with this motto. The dictionary itself is one of the great achievements of nineteenth-century linguistic nationalism, not unlike Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's Deutsches Wörterbuch or the Oxford English Dictionary. It is thus no coincidence that one of the mottos chosen for it captured the ethnolinguistic essentialism of the age.
One useful framework for analysing eighteenth and nineteenth-century scholarly activities in the fields of language and literature has been proposed by Leerssen. Following Hroch's well-known tripartite division of the development of national movements into the phases A, B and C, which roughly correspond to the respective cultural, social and political concerns of the nationalists involved, Leerssen argues that ‘nationalism is always, in its incipience at least, cultural nationalism’. In this volume, we focus on early ‘phase A’ cultural nationalism in a specific place and time: the Low Countries in the final decades of the eighteenth and the first decades of the nineteenth century. From c. 1750 onward, the study of the Dutch language and of the literary history of the Low Countries intensified, and was increasingly justified as a national enterprise. There had been calls, for example, for a dictionary comprising all the words of the Dutch language since the 1760s. The publication of the first instalment of the national dictionary in 1864 was the long-awaited result of more than a century of nationalistically-inspired lexicographical debates.
What, then, is cultural nationalism? In the context of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Europe, its core activity is the cultivation of culture: ‘the new interest in demotic, vernacular, non-classical culture, and the intellectual canonisation process that constitutes such vernacular culture, not merely as a set of trivial or banal pastimes, or as picturesque ‘manners and customs’, but as something which represents the very identity of the nation, its specificity amidst other nations.