The Primordial Roots of Czech "Language Nationalism"

Jason Pontius, University of Chicago

In the final chapter of his posthumously published book Nationalism, Ernest Gellner makes a distinction between modernist and primordialist theorists of nationalism. The difference is clear: Gellner sees himself as a modernist, and the "modernist viewpoint" is presented as a restatement of his own thesis (that nationalism is an "inherently modern phenomenon" (1997: 92)). He continues:

A primordialist is a man [!] who repudiates the suggestion that "nations", and the idea that they are at the root of political obligation, have been invented (even if not consciously) in modern times. The primordialist refuses to accept that the attribution of an immemorial antiquity to nations is an illusion. (ibid.: 93)

I would like to suggest that Czech history can be characterized by its construction of a "language nation" through the foregrounding of language as a marker of identity (in fact a central element of that identity). I will argue that this nation is consistent in form, and that it may be of something like "immemorial antiquity." As such, this would make me a "primordialist"; however, the clear repudiation by Gellner of primordialism (which is implicitly linked to self-delusion) necessitates a defense of this position.

My essay will seek to demonstrate that "language nationalism" has been a feature of Czech history since its very beginning; to this end, I will present relevant texts from early modern Bohemia, including chronicles, epics and theological writings, that illustrate the operation of a nationalist ideology in the early "imagining" of the Czech language speech community. In addition, I will suggest some of the ways this language nation has developed to the present day (the subject of my doctoral dissertation).

The 'resemblances' between the "language nationalism" I will posit here and "modernist nationalism" as constructed by its leading twentieth-century theorists may draw our attention to those aspects of the nation that transcend the existence of a centralized form of political government. I would thus suggest that we would do well to hesitate before accepting wholesale any restrictive, "modernist" definition of nationalism.


Gellner, Ernest. 1997. Nationalism. New York: NYU Press.