Language Choice in Enlightenment Europe: Education, Sociability, and Governance

By Vladislav Rjéoutski

The publication Language Choice in Enlightenment Europe is one of the outcomes of a research project on the history of language learning in 18th-century Russia. The project was realized between 2014 and 2016 at the German Historical Institute in Moscow (please find more information on the project here.)

The field of research to which this publication contributes is often described as a ‘social history of language’. The term was coined in the late 1980s by Peter Burke, however  – strictly speaking – it is not a very new field. Already the pioneer work of Ferdinand Brunot about the French language published in the first half of the 20th century can be considered a work on social history of language. Together with Roy Porter, Burke published an edited volume entitled “Social History of Language” in 1987. In his introduction, he stressed four main points which historical sociolinguists consider to be the corner stones of this approach:

  • Different social groups use different varieties of language.
  • The same people employ different varieties of language in different situations.
  • Language reflects the society (or culture) in which it is spoken.
  • Language shapes the society in which it is spoken.

These statements echo the famous question which was formulated by Joshua Fishman: “Who speaks what language to whom and when?”[1] In general, as Burke highlighted, a social history of language reflects the understanding of linguists, that it is necessary to take the historical context more into account, and the understanding of historians, that they need to study language as a social and cultural institution and develop a sensitivity to linguistic conventions.

In recent years this field developed very actively in Europe. There are learned societies that conduct research on the social and cultural history of language. Such societies exist for example in the United Kingdom or in Germany. There, the University of Bamberg has been particularly active in this field with a series of publications in the Harrasowitz publishing house. Additionally, there is a European research network on the history of French as a foreign and second language (SIHFLES) which organizes annual conferences. In Russia, this field is still underdeveloped, and one of the goals of this project was to encourage Russian research in this area of studies.

The volume does not ‘cover’ all of the European continent, but the chapters allow the reader to look at various national cases (France, Holland, the Habsburg Monarchy including Hungary and Croatia, the Russian Empire) and various levels of linguistic practice: education, sociability and governance or administration.

Cover of the book „Language Choice in Enlightenment Europe“

All of the articles converge on one idea: in the 18th century, European societies were not monolitic from a linguistic point of view. In spite of this linguistic diversity, we find certain patterns across the continent or, at the very least, in the major multi-ethnic states such as the Habsburg Monarchy and the Russian Empire. One common trend is the usage of languages for social and ethnic unity. From today’s point of view, a nation can only use its own national language for such a unifying purpose. And yet, in 18th-century Croatia it was not the vernacular, but Latin which was used as a means to achieve ethnic unity. This use of Latin clashed, however, with its role in the Habsburg Monarchy. While Latin was one of the two official languages of the Holy Roman Empire, along with German, the Habsburgs finally chose German as their main language for bureaucratic correspondence. The same attachment to Latin existed in Hungary which, together with a low proficiency in German among Hungarians, complicated the plans of Maria Theresa and Joseph II to rationalize and to improve the uniformity of official correspondence in the monarchy which was regarded as an element of state consolidation.

In Russia, both the Russian and German language were supposed to have played a unifying role, but the idea that Russian could become an important element for the construction of the national identity developed slowly. During the reign of Catherine II, the Russian language’s status improved, the language having been raised to the same level as the two other languages that were culturally important in the eyes of Russian elites: French and German. German was proposed by the Russian monarchy as a means of cohesion within the Russian Empire. By learning each other’s languages, the two main ethnic groups of nobility in Russia – Russian and Baltic German nobility – were supposed to contribute to the consolidation of the state. Whether the German  language really played this role is however a moot point.

Another common trait, which is discussed in this volume, is the search for cultural legitimacy through language choice. Croats clearly used Latin as a tool for this purpose throughout their early modern history. In Russia, Latin was used in the same way by orthodox clergy. It helped them destroy the image that they were ignorant priests, an image that was widespread among Russian elites. However, Russian nobles themselves symbolically denigraded Latin. It is unlikely that the language’s difficulty was the main reason. Instead, the period of time when the Russian nobility began to fashion itself as a European social group is critical to the explanation. By this time French had established itself as the language of nobility and a pan-European language of cultivated people, while Latin was increasingly associated with the Church and with the scholarly profession. Shortcutting Latin, the Russian nobility made French their instrument of cultural supremacy.

In fact, being critical of Latin was a pan-European trend in the 18th century and in this respect Russia was well connected to the processes occurring elsewhere in Europe. Across the continent, such criticism was not only triggered by the nobility’s resistance to the study of Latin, but also by ideas of the didactic role of one’s native language. These ideas helped to limit the role of German and French as languages of instruction in Russia and to support Russian as a possible and desirable medium of instruction.

Accompanying the ‘fall’ of Latin in eighteenth-century Europe was the rise of French. This rise concerned not only the field of sociability, but some professional fields as well, diplomacy being a case in point. Although this also was a European trend, it was not a simultaneous process for all European countries, as the examples of the Dutch, Russian, and Croatian elites, discussed in this volume, clearly show. In the regions where French obtained a real success as a kind of ‘universal’ language, the language’s adoption quickly gave rise to a nationalistic reaction often referred to as Gallophobia, which is not discussed in this volume.

I have provided a few examples of comparisons made on the basis of the essays published in this volume. As you will see in all of the articles, the authors draw extensively on both published and unpublished sources, and this use of rich archival materials makes these studies very informative and detailed. I hope that this book will be of interest for specialists of different cultural areas in Europe and will be useful for historians of Eastern Europe in particular.


Language Choice in Enlightenment Europe: Education, Sociability, and Governance, ed. by Vladislav Rjéoutski and Willem Frijhoff (Amsterdam University Press, 2018), 234 p., ISBN 978 94 6298 471 4.

Vladislav Rjéoutski is a Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute in Moscow.

Willem Frijhoff is an Emeritus Professor of Modern History at VU University, Amsterdam, and is now G.Ph. Verhagen Professor of Cultural History at Erasmus University, Rotterdam.

[1] Title of an important article published by Fishman in 1965.

 Citation: Vladislav Rjéoutski, Language Choice in Enlightenment Europe: Education, Sociability, and Governance, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 26.07.2018,

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