To this question, Anderson lays out a threefold response. The first owed to the establishment of an intermediate or intermediary field of communication:
First and foremost, they created unified fields of exchange and communications below Latin and above the spoken vernaculars. Speakers of the huge variety of Frenches, Englishes, or Spanishes, who might find it difficult or even impossible to understand one another in conversation, became capable of comprehending one another via print and paper. In the process, they gradually became aware of the hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people in their particular language-field, and at the same time that only those hundreds of thousands, or millions, so belonged. These fellow-readers, to whom they were connected through print, formed, in their secular, particular, visible invisibility, the embryo of the nationally-imagined community.
In sum, the knowledge that there existed others with whom people qua readers (as opposed to speakers) shared a language brought on a heightened state of awareness and sensitivity in the reader and created the potential for a relationship in which the reader might address that other as an interlocutor. More simply, the other became imaginable for and available to the reader as a fellow human in a way not previously possible.
Anderson locates the second of these factors in the stability which print-capitalism lent language. The author elaborates:
Second, print-capitalism gave a new fixity to language, which in the long run helped to build that image of antiquity so central to the subjective idea of the nation. As Febvre and Martin remind us, the printed book kept a permanent form, capable of virtually infinite reproduction, temporally and spatially. It was no longer subject to the individualizing and ‘unconsciously modernizing’ habits of monastic scribes.
Central to the idea of the nation is its longevity, the way in which the nation precedes the individual and will subsist after her passing. In being able to access the thinking of previous periods in unadulterated, non anachronistic form, the reader proves able to project herself back into a past which is neither wholly alien nor recognizably her own. There results instead a continuity in the discourse, and continuity of this kind lends itself well to imaginative projections.
The third of Anderson’s three factors turns on the proximity between certain dialects and the languages which arose from the work done by print-capitalism. Consider that:
Third, print-capitalism created languages-of-power of a kind different from the older administrative vernaculars. Certain dialects inevitably were ‘closer’ to each print-language and dominated their final forms. Their disadvantaged cousins, still assimilable to the emerging print-language, lost caste, above all because they were unsuccessful (or only relatively successful) in insisting on their own print-form.
Again, arbitrariness plays a key role in the elevation of one synthesized language above another. The national identities which emerged from the creation and stabilization of a intermediary field of exchange could have been other than they were. At the same time, these identities could not have encompassed a broader swathe of the European population if for no other reason than the synthetic or intermediary quality of print-capitalism’s efforts. Anderson recalls just such limitations when he affirms:
We can summarize the conclusions to be drawn from the argument [ . . . ] by saying that the convergence of capitalism and print technology on the fatal diversity of human language created the possibility of a new form of imagined community, which in its basic morphology set the stage for the modern nation. The potential stretch of these communities was inherently limited, and, at the same time, bore none but the most fortuitous relationship to existing political boundaries.
Limitations of other kinds impose themselves when it is a question of mapping national identity onto the bedrock of national languages. For certain languages are shared between nations or limited only to a nation’s elite:
Yet it is obvious that while today almost all modern self-conceived nations—and also nation-states—have ‘national print-languages,’ many of them have these languages in common, and in others only a tiny fraction of the population ‘uses’ the national language in conversation or on paper. The nation-states of Spanish America or those of the ‘Anglo-Saxon family’ are conspicuous examples of the first outcome; many ex-colonial states, particularly in Africa, of the second. In other words, the concrete formation of contemporary nation-states is by no means isomorphic with the determinate reach of particular print-languages.
By extension, we can conclude that national identity never proves wholly isomorphic with the extent of national languages or vice versa. Wherefore four important considerations for an approach to identity as a construction through linguistic means.
- Identity becomes shared or, at least, cognitively to a person when her interlocutor loses an abstract quality and takes on a concrete existence, often in the form of a potential interlocutor.
- If identity is a question of continuity between persons, then the continuity stability lent by a shared language lends itself well to the imaginative projections at work in identity construction.
- There are no essential forms of identity, for certain forms prevail due to external considerations of viability, such as here a dialect’s proximity to the emerging written standard. Internal considerations of viability, such as logical consistency, cannot account for all.
- A shared language does not necessitate one-to-one correspondence between one person’s identity and that of another, for other considerations and materials come into play, on which that language will undoubtedly work but for which it will provide no predetermined mold.
In a word, while necessary to the articulation of identity, the specific structures of a language are but one factor among many in the development of an identity.