One of the early works of Jan on nationalism (1994)

Anti-establishment, anti-immigrant and anti-EU are common messages threading together the ongoing phenomenon of the upsurge of far-right parties all over Europe. We are by now accustomed to hearing in mass media but also within academia (e.g. Bosco & Verney 2012; Halikiopoulou & Vlandas, 2015) that the success of such political parties or extremist organizations is a direct consequence of the combined global financial and refugee crises. This remarkable appeal and popular support for fascism has instigated much research to explain and interpret the causes of electoral and political attractiveness.

In the southern fringe of the continent, a small country seems to epitomize the problem with Europe. I happen to come from that country, Greece, and spent two and a half months this year doing ethnographic research on the field with members of the currently third biggest Greek political party, Golden Dawn.

GD rally getty
Golden Dawn rally in Athens

‘Laos, Stratos, Ethinkismos’ (meaning “People, army, nationalism”) ‘Antepithesi, Ethinki antistasi’ (meaning “Counter attack, National resistance”) or ‘I Ellada aniki stous Ellines’ (meaning “Greece belongs to Greeks”) are just a few indicative of the many ultra-nationalist (see Griffin, 2013, p. 118), anti-establishment and authoritarian slogans shouted in their gatherings, voiced also in my interviews and making up the party’s fascist extremist profile, as identified by recent sociological research. In September 2013 its leaders faced arrest and prosecution for setting up a criminal organisation. According to Lamprianou & Ellinas (2016) “half of its parliamentarians and dozens of party functionaries were imprisoned for months and, since April 2015, have been facing trial for setting up a criminal organisation. Despite the criminal investigation launched against it, GD received 6.3 per cent and seven per cent of the vote, respectively, in the snap January and September 2015 elections, becoming the third biggest Greek political party” (p. 4).

Language and nationalism

‘What could language possibly have to do with this?’…I can hear you thinking already. Long before I even thought about it, linguists Ruth Wodak and Martin Reisigl have shown us that a powerful starting point to understand such complex phenomena as racism and nationalism is language and, more specifically, a useful analytic tool called ‘discourse’. Now what is ‘discourse’ you may again be wondering…I will refer you to a response unlike that given by most other linguists.

To do this, however, I first need to introduce Professor Jan Blommaert, as he has written an entire book under this title.


In the third page of Jan’s book we find Hanks‘ (1996) definition of discourse as being “language-in-action”. To fully grasp this you may want to think of language ‘as it is actually used’ and not as an abstract system or structure that we call ‘language’. Jan illustrates how this relates to nationalism: Certain patterns of language use help us recognize nationalist ideology more quickly.

Does this mean we can identify nationalism just by hearing a few words? Unfortunately, Jan’s own findings show that it’s a bit more complicated than that. If we want to understand the success of such (extreme-right nationalist) ideologies and parties, it is equally important to analyze the global and local context, along with the concrete discursive actions, just like the slogans I mentioned before, within that context.

For the past few years the Babylon Center for the Study of Superdiversity led by Professor Jan Blommaert has been doing research in order to find out, among various other things,  explanatory theories and answers to some of the questions raised by the specific role which language plays in the overall picture of current nationalist ideologies.

I met up with Professor Jan Blommaert to discuss some of his research (see Box 1). Since the 1990’s he has been doing research on linguistic anthropology and nationalism. In his article that sparked my interest in researching this subject, entitled ‘The role of language in European nationalist ideology’, he found, by means of a pragmatic analysis of patterns of wording, that language serves as a distinctive feature that creates identity and discontinuity, it unites and divides.

Box 1 – Researcher Biography

 Jan Blommaert is Professor of Language, Culture and Globalization at Tilburg University and director of the Babylon Center for the Study of Superdiversity. His research focuses on historical as well as contemporary patterns of the spread of languages and forms of literacy, and on lasting and new forms of inequality emerging from globalization processes. Before turning to linguistics, he studied African History and Philology. When asked what sparked his interest in the study of language and nationalism he replies: “It’s very simple, it’s Belgium”, and continues, “living in a country in which one of the biggest drivers politically but also socially in terms of identity, is identity and is nationalism, very quickly turned my gaze towards it. It’s very hard to escape it in a country like Belgium, so either you’re in or you’re out, there is no neutral position”. His earlier work in Africa, provided him the main basis of the repertoire of instruments and academic arguments and the historical conjuncture during which his research took place, namely the early nineties, after the end of the Cold War, made the issue of revived nationalisms very prominent and worthy of academic attention.

…it never stops, the interesting thing is the non-stop morphing of the system.

The interesting thing Jan remarks about what we call ‘nationalism’ now, in 2017, is that “…it never stops, the interesting thing is the non-stop morphing of the system”. So, of course, nationalism or the particular shape, the particular referent of the word nationalism over the past 140-150 years has undergone at least three or four massive changes, massive redefinitions if you wish, most of which have hardly been identified as changes”, he explains, “But…the fact that the thing we now call ‘populism’ used to be called in the early nineties ‘nationalism’ means that a specter has moved, and that another type of nationalism has now (appeared). And he continues, “…so in the early nineties it was negative nationalism, now it’s become a new word: populism. So what we’ve seen is that the space of nationalism has now been acquired, or invaded, by so-called centrist parties. And, interestingly, for this new form of centrist nationalism we now also use another word: identity politics. So in that sense you see an amazingly interesting phenomenon, in the sense that you see it morphing through history all the time, it never stops”.

Morphing nationalism

“The remix of a very old beat”: Nationalist rhetoric from the margin to the mainstream

“If you take Mr. Trump, so the sort of statements he now makes really have no word for the moment, people are very hesitant to use the word nationalism for it, they use patriotism or some…Americanism that is ingrained in the notion of patriotism. If you listen to (Emmanuel) Macron, but also if you listen to the EU, for instance, when they talk about their external borders, all of this is directly traceable to marginal rhetoric, marginal argument, marginal political imagination from 1950s, 1940s, 1930s, 1880s, 1890s. So you see a direct line. And it is just the space that it occupies within the political spectrum that changes. What used to be marginal and also seen and perceived as being dangerous, as threatening to the unity of a country, is now mainstream, I mean Theresa May and the Brexit of course. When I started working on the field of nationalism, early nineties, that sort of rhetoric was ultra-nationalist and now it is the rhetoric of one of the biggest parties in Europe or at least definitely the biggest one in the UK”.

The story above illustrates, as Jan points out, that this sort of political logic was established at one point and it used to be confined to “extremist little margins”. “In most European nation states”, he continues, “there was always a radical sort of margin, left but also right, so it’s always been there, the right would mostly be a nationalist right”. If we follow these transitions throughout the 20th century and also the 21st century, he argues, we would see that exactly the same arguments are now being used mainstream. Indeed, a potent illustration of this trend comes from the adoption of extremist right-wing rhetoric against immigrants by the ruling parties. As such, in our example from Greece, Ilias Panajotaros, a leading member of the ‘Golden Dawn’ organization, in an interview with an Athens newspaper, openly issued the following threat just a month before the local elections in 2010: “If Golden Dawn wins a seat on Athens city council, there will be a pogrom.” He claimed that the organisation’s goal was to “purge” several of the public squares in the city center of immigrants.

Discourse analysis: any power?

Striking as such a statement may be to my ears, for now, a popular belief remains that things such as discourse analysis, or examining language, cannot possibly have any impact and real power in countering such phenomena as nationalism. I ask Jan to respond to this.

“Well, the thing is that ….how should I say, that it is hardly attempted. So, most of the books that I’ve read lately on for instance new forms of right-wing populism, there is a flurry now, they pretend to look at the discourse, they don’t look at the discourse at all, they never analyze one single sentence in some level of detail. And it is of course when you begin to look at discourse not just as an appearance in the here and now but as a thing that…Let me explain this. Whenever we speak, our mouths are basically in a way filled with all sorts of words that have already been used, so whenever we produce meaning now, we have to do it because there’s a history to that meaning. They (recent books on populism) overlook that very very simply. And as a consequence they very often miss the point. Now, it is not easy to persuade people of the value of discourse analysis, because discourse analysis is about the stuff we all use, right?

We all produce discourse non-stop, as a consequence everyone has an opinion about it.

We all produce discourse non-stop, as a consequence everyone has an opinion about it, not everyone has an opinion about DNA or about nuclear science and so we are inclined to listen to the experts when it’s about DNA and about nuclear science but when it is about language we all have, you know, very very strong opinions, so there is some serious resistance against the idea of doing systematic discourse analysis, which is then transformed into political analysis.