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Linguistic Construction of Ethnic Borders

Edited By Peter Rosenberg, Konstanze Jungbluth and Dagna Zinkhahn Rhobodes

This volume focuses on the linguistic constructs involved in ethnic borders. Ethnic borders have proven themselves to be surprisingly long-lived: in nearly all European countries and beyond, border demarcation, exclusion of foreigners, and minority conflicts are some of the most persistent challenges for nations and societies. Which linguistic factors play a role in the formation of these borders, especially those drawn along ethnic lines? Which linguistic constructs contribute to the negotiation, establishment and maintenance of ethnic groups and identities? Under which conditions can processes of linguistic convergence, hybrids, or transcultural identities be observed?
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Linguistic borders – language conflicts. Pleading for recognition of their reality

Harald Weydt


Linguistic borders – language conflicts. Pleading for recognition of their reality.

Abstract: Schon bei oberflächlicher Betrachtung zeigt sich, dass Sprachgrenzen und Konfliktlinien in engem Zusammenhang stehen und weitgehend zusammenfallen. Wir möchten das Konfliktpotenzial, das Sprachunterschieden innewohnt, als eine unausweichlich auftretende Gefahr charakterisieren, die quasi automatisch aus dem Sprachgegensatz entsteht, als eine vorfindliche Realität. Damit stehen wir im Gegensatz zu Interpretationen, die Sprachkonflikte als unverständlich auffassen, allenfalls als künstlich von oben oder außen geschürt. Zwei solcher Sichtweisen werden kurz angesprochen: der marxistische Ansatz und eine jüngere Variante; letztere reduziert Sprachgrenzen und die sich daraus ergebenden Folgen auf rein mentale Konstruktionen, die typischerweise von Eliten instrumentalisiert werden. Gegenüber solchen Auffassungen behaupten wir, dass Sprachkonflikte als reale Fakten anerkannt und ernst genommen werden müssen. Erst wenn man die Natur von Sprachunterschieden versteht, wenn man den Prozess erkennt, in dem Konflikte entstehen, und wenn man sich vor Augen führt, wie sie die Harmonie zusammenlebender Gruppen bedrohen, erst dann kann man Wege finden, das Konfliktrisiko zu minimieren und sogar die Vorteile sprachlicher Vielfalt zum Wohl der Gemeinschaft entfalten

Schlagworte: Sprachkonflikte verstehen- Konfliktpotential – sprachliche Vielfalt – Sprachkontakt

Keywords: Linguistic diversity – conflict potential – understanding language conflicts – language contact

1.  (Mis)Understanding language conflicts

In the course of my life, I have experienced many ethnic and linguistic conflicts. It was particularly in the time when I taught in Montréal at the French-speaking Université de Montréal from 1969 to 1971 that I could see up close the arguments and actions of the people of Québec. These occasionally violent events prepared me for perceiving conflicts; in the ensuing time period, I was able to see linguistic tensions, hostilities and political dissents where other people – above all people from outside and especially people from monolingual states – would not have seen them. I saw that the world was far from being linguistically peaceful. I am personally most influenced by the situations I experienced in the province of Québec, Kazakhstan, (Kirgizstan, Tadzhikistan), Belgium and Catalonia. In addition, my ← 131 | 132 → perception was sharpened because I found very often myself in a minority situation, where all the people around me spoke their mother tongue and did not care much about me. There, I was exposed to the situation that a minority non-native speaker undergoes every day: I experienced how easily you can be overlooked, and how difficult it is to be taken seriously as an equal partner.

In the areas with ethnic/linguistic conflicts, I took great interest in understanding what happened. Most of the time I had friends on both sides of the conflicts; at the very least, I found people who explained their points of view to me. One concomitant question that I never let out of my mind was how one could mitigate or solve these conflicts. Another question I asked myself and the people involved was how and why these tensions and conflicts between the groups had arisen. I must underline that I came to know my discussion partners on both sides as people who were personally peaceful, just, and considerate. I further admit that in most of the cases, I could perfectly understand both sides and would have been able to defend and to explain their cases to others. This impression stands in blatant contrast to the bitterness of the linguistic conflicts in which they were involved. The contradiction between the amiable and peaceful character of these people and their intransigent behavior gives rise to a widespread astonishment, and is probably one of the sources of misunderstanding. Brubaker and many sociolinguists conclude that these people (speaking mostly of members of minorities such as Hungarians in Romania, in the days of Russians of the Crimea and in the Ukraine) are seduced, incited, exploited, and misled by leaders. “Here, as elsewhere, the protagonists of the conflict have been organizations, not groups.” (Brubaker 2002, p. 179).

2.  Groups

Ethnic groups are a subset of groups. Groups can have other foundations than ethnicity. There are even groups that come into existence without showing particular features – except that their members belong to the same group.

Groups without characteristics

Sherif’s experiments: As early as in the late 40s and early 50s of the last century, Muzafer Sherif, professor at Oklahoma State University who had immigrated from Turkey, conducted his famous “summer camp experiments”.

1st  Phase: Boys were split into two equal different camps, contrary to existing friendships.

2nd  phase: They developed a very narrow intensive consciousness of a we-group. ← 132 | 133 →

3rd  phase: They developed a consciousness of superiority towards the other group, they liked competition against the other group, and there were even acts of group specific aggressiveness.

4th  phase: both groups could be reconciled if they saw:

  a common enemy,

  common needs (like lack of water),

  shared advantages,

  friends they had in common.

This example shows prototypically the origin of groups and of group conflicts. Note that these groups were composed of members who had nothing in common with what is normally attributed to a group: they had not known each other before, had no common history that could be invoked, nor did they share common economic interests, values nor any beliefs that would incite opposition toward the other group. New conflicts came into being almost automatically; no leaders incited them.

School classes:

The next example of this category are classes of high school students belonging to the same class. Most German readers might know such groups, who, many decades after their Abitur1, still gather in celebration of its anniversary. In other countries, “homecoming events” are also very popular. Again, the respective class members don’t share any characteristics beyond belonging to the same school class. In most of these classes, one can find great internal differences in parents’ wealth, predilection for certain subjects (mathematics, sports, literature), there are good students and those who are not quite so good, and they have diverse political opinions. It is interesting to see that such groups establish their own distinct identities. Teachers confirm that they like class A, find class B boring, class C interesting and so on. The groups persist, often for their entire lifetimes.

These two examples underline that, in order to come into being, to persist, and to compete with others, groups need neither leaders nor commonly shared features that oppose them to other groups.

3.  Language Conflicts

But this is not to say that all group borders are arbitrary and insignificant. There are indeed defining borders based on features that are very important for the groups and for their survival. ← 133 | 134 →

In contrast to the aforementioned holiday camps, school classes and “alumni cohorts” stand linguistic groups, the members of which speak different languages. Linguistic borders are among the most consequential ones, as their members do have a decisive feature in common (namely the usage of a common language) that distinguishes them from other groups.

3.1.  The inferiority of the non-native Speaker

In this discussion, I concentrate on the most frequent type of linguistic conflicts: Two languages, A and B, are spoken in the same region; most speakers of language A are monolinguals, though some may have limited proficiency in B; on the other hand, almost all speakers of B are bilinguals. As a consequence, the speakers of A are privileged in two respects (see 3.1.1 and 3.1.2).

3.1.1  Profession and public life.

As it is extremely difficult and rare that people maintain their mother language at a satisfying level while simultaneously developing a high level of language proficiency in another language, the non-native B speakers will be less perfect in A, though they have to invest much more time and energy into learning it. Their imperfect proficiency will hinder them decisively in many respects, of which only some selected examples will be given.

  B speakers do worse in job interviews,

  they need much more time to write ambitious texts, including proposal writing (and they still need editors),

  they will be less convincing on the telephone or in business conferences.

  They will read more slowly and with a lesser degree of quick and exact understanding.

  The same holds for their oral understanding, above all when there is background noise or when the discourse is dialectally influenced.

3.1.2  Discourse structures.

Much more subtle are the disadvantages that B speakers have to face on the conversational level. To enumerate only some of the ordinary non-native’s handicaps, he/she:

  faces word-finding problems, i.e. he as more difficulties than his partners in finding adequate expressions and grammatical constructions for what he wants to say, ← 134 | 135 →

  must – besides thinking of the content of his speech – permanently control and monitor his correctness in grammar, idiomaticity, and vocabulary, an effort that absorbs a great part of his intellectual potential.

  The non-native speaker, struggling with the foreign language, is aware of his own deficiencies; he recognizes his partner’s superior command of the language, which weakens him in defending his own position.

  In the turn-taking game, he gets fewer turns. As he speaks slowly and hesitates while searching for his words, the others tend to interrupt him easily.

  He is much less fluent and eloquent.

  He can do little to work on his own face or on that of his partner – or at least considerably less than the native speaker.

  His turns are not linked to the preceding ones, so that his counterparts assume that their content has been accepted, as they were not contradicted.

  Contradiction, if necessary, requires great effort and the speaker has to be prepared for a certain amount of conflict.

  Very often, B speakers will have to suffer from the native speakers’ patronizing attitudes, for example when they help them when they search for words, or when they correct their oral utterances.

  His competence in establishing compromises is very limited, i. e. in establishing them and following through with them. He has to work with a sledgehammer instead of a scalpel, so to speak. –

  In short: for B speakers, it is more difficult to contradict the preceding turn without struggle.

Here, I would like to introduce a striking example of the non-native speakers’ inferiority. It stems from an experience at an international congress which took place in Lyon (France) in 1994, a sociologists’ and social workers’ congress, with the title “Quartiers en danger”, “Endangered neighborhoods”, organized by the European Community. There were two admitted conference languages, French and English, and there were simultaneous translations from each of these languages into the other. The first day of the conference and the morning of the second one was devoted to working groups. Each working group determined one person for the task of reporting the results to the plenary session. The participants were more than happy that they could pass this job to the native speakers2. On the second day, a Plenary Session was held where speakers of each working group presented ← 135 | 136 → their results and discussed them with the audience. I kept record of the discussion in just noting

  the country that the speaker represented,

  the language used (French or English),

  the lengths of the contributions in minutes and seconds.

For example: 3) F, f, 2:35 would mean: ‘Third speaker, French native speaker, French language, two minutes and 35 seconds’. The discussion went as follows:

1) I (Irish) e 3:15; – 2) F f 2:50, – 3) P (Portuguese) e 0:15; – 4) E e 4:16 (relaxed, eloquent and humorous); – 5) G (Greek) e 0:10; – It f 0:34; and so on, and so on.3

It costs the non-native speakers quite some will power to rise to speak. The audience did not give much attention to their stammered contributions.

Anyone can observe that similar events happen very often in international public debates, and she/he will realize that the native speakers have much longer turns; their utterances are more convincing, wittier, and it is more fun to listen to them.

As the reports they made emphasized their own view, the natives controlled the plenary session much more than the non-francophone or the non-anglophone Europeans.

It goes without saying that the picture would have been completely different if the congress’ languages had been, say, Italian and Danish. The Italian and the Danish participants would have dominated the congress; they would have shown great expertise in the subject and would have been admired by everybody for their rhetorical excellence and the humorous and brilliant way of presenting their experiences and ideas. They would have used the floor to expose their ideas. The native speakers of French and English would have been sitting silently in the audience, eaten up by inferiority complexes and would have been unable to contribute to the opinion-forming, let alone to control it.

The constellation of two people who decide on the common language is comparable to that of two friends who decide to go in for sports together; one is, physically and genetically, a marathon runner, the other one is more of a weightlifter. Whoever of these two agrees to take part in the other’s sport, is doomed to be forever in an inferior position. ← 136 | 137 →

3.2  Why and how language conflicts emerge

As people with two high-level mother tongues are extremely rare, the prevailing group holds the so called “definition power” (Esser 1996, p. 80 ff.); the speakers of B face – and they recognize it very clearly and rationally – immense losses in what everybody aspires to: physical well-being, material goods and social esteem. Esser (1996) proposes a gradation of conflicts: On his 6-point scale, the sharpest conflict is the zero-sum conflict, where whatever is won by one party is won at the expense of the other. Language conflicts are such null sum conflicts. „The winner takes it all“ (Mamma mia).

This iniquity is the source and the origin of most, if not all, language conflicts. B speakers perceive their inequality as unjust because they feel that they have to carry the full burden of learning, maintaining, and further developing an additional language, and they know that instead of gaining a reward, they are penalized for their extra effort. –

Not always will this unequal distribution of rights lead to the outburst of an open conflict. Before the B speakers will revolt against their situation, at least two more conditions (a and b) have to be fulfilled. They must consider the situation a) unjust and b) changeable.

A schema, modified from Giles/Bourhis/Taylor’s well-known article on group behavior (1977, table 3, p. 332), shows a cluster of four cells (A – D).

Figure 1:  Feelings of the B-group towards the fairness and the changeability of the situation (modified from Giles/Bourhis/Taylor 1977)


Cell 1: This case is somewhat problematic and not very common. We may think of indigenous populations who adopt the former colonists’ language.

Cell 2: This is the field where conflicts burst out. Good examples are the Baltic nations after acquiring independence. They had always felt that the Russians imposed their language and way of life upon them, and considered this as very unjust. When they acquired their independence, they reintroduced their respective languages in their countries as privileged means of communication. The same ← 137 | 138 → holds for Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tadzhikistan, as I have personally observed, but also in Georgia.

Ukraine: The most recent example of a global crisis caused to a large extent by language conflict is the situation in Ukraine. February 2nd 2014, two days after the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, had tried to flee from Ukraine as a consequence of the “Maidan Revolution” (or “Euromaidan”), and days before the parliament elected a new president (Jazenjuk), the Parliament decided to repeal the language law of 2012 (Law “On the principles of the state language policy”). This law guaranteed the Russian language an official status, together with Ukrainian. As a consequence of this amendment, Russian would lose its status as co-official language. Although this amendment was immediately vetoed by the acting president of Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchynov, it caused an uproar among the ethnic Russian population, and especially in the Eastern parts of the Ukraine, including the Crimea. This factor contributed to the outbreak of a political crisis4. On June 29th, 2014, however, the new president, Petro Poroshenko, reversed the repeal, declaring that “The only official language of Ukraine was, is, and will be the Ukrainian language” (German Press Agentur (dpa) from: Der Tagesspiegel, Berlin, June 30th, 20145), a statement that will make it very difficult for the Russian population of Ukraine to accept peace conditions. The linguistic aspect of the conflict seems to me to be underestimated in foreign politics and in the media.

Belgium is another relevant example. Both of Belgium’s main linguistic regions, Wallonia and Flanders, consider the other side’s demand to abstain from using their own language for intra-national communication as very unfair. Since the beginning of the 20th Century, the country has undergone major alterations: the state, culturally and economically dominated by speakers of Walloon (French), developed into a country whose majority speaks Flemish and has become economically dominant, while the capital, Brussels, has become francized. The linguistic tensions between the two regions make the country almost ungovernable. Belgium has been without a government for quite some time. The Flemings insist on equal rights for both languages, and as the Walloons refuse to speak Flemish, the Flemings decline to use French. If a third language has to be used, English, the Flemish are privileged because of the linguistic similarities between English and Flemish. ← 138 | 139 →

Another example seems to be the situation in Romania described by Brubaker (2002), namely the Hungarian-speaking minority, Cluj-based and organized in the DAHR (Democratic Association of Hungarians of Romania) in conflict with the Romanian nationalist parties. Brubaker interprets this conflict as being instigated by elites (especially the Romanian nationalistic mayor of Cluj Funar on one side and the Democratic Association of Hungarians of Romania on the Hungarian side) and their organizations. Whether this is an unprejudiced interpretation is doubtful. It could be influenced by an idealistic a priori conviction that there is primarily interethnic harmony which is disturbed from above. Contemporary witnesses of the Romanian situation tell a different story. The German singer Peter Maffay was raised in Borsov (Kronstadt, Romania). The following excerpt from his biography is illustrative:

„Ab dem 10. Lebensjahr, um 1959, nahmen die Prügeleien zu, radikalisierten sich die Einstellungen: rumänische Jugendliche gegen deutsche Jugendliche, deutsche Jugendliche gegen ungarische Jugendliche und andersrum. Jeder gegen jeden, und eigentlich wusste niemand genau warum überhaupt. Oder doch! Da die Eltern unter dem System litten, erschien es den Kindern wie ein Akt stillschweigender Solidarität, auf der Straße ebenfalls unmissverständlich ihre Meinung zu sagen – egal, in welcher Sprache. Messerstechereien waren bald an der Tagesordnung, insbesondere, wenn Ungarn beteiligt waren. Auch wenn zunächst nur bedroht wurde, gab es in späteren Jahren häufig Verletzte. Wenn der Musiker Maffay bis in die Gegenwart stets ein Klappmesser in der Hosentasche bei sich trägt, stammte diese Angewohnheit aus jener Zeit.“6 (Harsch/Maffay 2009, p. 25)

This is definitely not a conflict evoked by authorities. – Cell 2 contains cases such as the aforementioned French-speaking Quebecois and the other French-speaking minorities in other provinces of Canada. In Spain, only after Franco’s death language rights were openly claimed, as – in the Catalans’ understanding – the moment for change and for claiming their rights and even independence had come. One could cite as further examples the languages of former Yugoslavia, for example the separation of the mainly Albanian-speaking Kosovo. ← 139 | 140 →

Cell 3: The cases that belong in Cell 3 are quite unproblematic. B speakers migrating into a monolingual state, for example Europeans who nowadays emigrate to the United States. They know in advance that the language of their new country is English and that they have to learn it. There is nothing they can do about it, they agree with it and they do not perceive it as unfair.

Cell 4 represents the numerous cases where the non-native speakers don’t think that the situation can be changed. This was the case for Kazakhstan at the time of the Soviet Union. As many Kazakhs resigned and accepted their fate as inevitable, Kazakhstan became the most russified non-Russian Republic of the Soviet Union, an attitude which changed after the decline of the Soviet Empire. The Kazakhs moved toward cell 2.

This systematization is still too schematic; to be accurate, the values should be represented as continua rather than binary dichotomies.

More adequate would be this presentation:

Figure 2


Figure 2 takes into account the gradual character of the parameters: in the view of the people involved, a situation can be more or less just, and the chance of bringing about a change can be higher or lower.

Linguistic conflicts can be sharpened. This happens regularly when linguistic borders coincide with other borders – with lines that separate religions or with lines that divide economic classes. One example is the Province of Québec, where traditionally the speakers of French are Catholics and relatively poor, less educated and traditional, while English speaking Protestants or Jewish Anglophones are much wealthier, more educated and more progressively-minded. In Belgium, the ← 140 | 141 → economic situation has been reversed: in recent decades, the economic power has shifted from Wallonia to Flanders, a change which is difficult for the Walloons to accept.

3.3.  Explanations we don’t believe in

A short look at explanations we don’t believe in:

The history of linguistic thinking offers three typical and influential examples.

First: the myth of the building of the tower of Babel. A wrathful God sent humanity the curse of diglossia as a punishment for their haughtiness. This suspicion towards the coexistence of several languages was – at least in part – revoked in the event of Pentecost, where God conferred upon future missionaries the ability to speak foreign languages.

Second: The Marxist tradition contains the idea that multilingualism is an impediment to progress. Pure Marxist ideology considers history a process of vertical conflicts, the driving force being the struggle of the classes, a conflict from bottom to top and vice versa. Logically, vertical lines that separate nations, languages, cultures, and religions are all negligible; whoever takes them seriously into consideration in politics is somewhat backward and reactionary7, this in spite of the fact that the Soviet Union was, in its self-concept, a multicultural and multiethnic state (Rom-Sourkowa 2004). In the former Soviet Union, I met old people who would still tell you that it was very dangerous if documents written in the Arabic language were found in their house.

In both examples (Babel and Marxism), the idea of natural harmony in monolingual societies is central; disturbance of this harmony is seen as a fall of mankind, a punishment or as an unfair and reactionary act.

In monolingual societies, the animosity against serious coexistence of languages is widespread. There is a chorus of outrage like: ”How is it possible that in our century there are still these chauvinist people who don’t want to speak the common language and who make a lot of fuss about their language”, together with the self-praise of being very tolerant like: “We do not want to prevent them from speaking their language. Let them speak what they want at home, but when speaking with us, they should be understandable”. ← 141 | 142 →

On the side of monolingualism are peace, harmony and progress; on the side of diglossia are guilt, disturbance and culprits.

Third: In line with these conceptions there is a mainstream of modern sociolinguistic approaches. One representative is Brubaker; he describes language conflicts as initiated by elites, by persuaders, by chauvinist culprits. Adherents take for granted that conflicts are caused by troublemakers, and do not even consider the idea that linguistic conflicts emerge from a highly unfair distribution of rights and chances, and that they can be mitigated.

4.  How can linguistic conflicts be avoided?

As coexistence of languages tends to lead to tensions, one must try (to speak in Esser’s 1996 terms) to convert the resulting zero-sum conflicts into lower level conflicts. One must try to distribute the costs of language differences to both sides.

An important first step, maybe the most important one, is to wake up the A speakers’ awareness of the immense costs the B speakers encounter in inter-lingual communication. In other words: it is necessary to convince the A speakers of the costs that B speakers face if they use language A in their common conversation. I have often observed a complete lack of awareness of the imposition, for example in the Anglophone community in Québec, in the Francophone community in Belgium, in Russophone communities in the former Soviet republics, among Spaniards in Catalonia and in the Basque provinces. The A speakers argue:

  it is so much easier to communicate in A as everybody speaks it,

  speakers of A have – most unfortunately – less talent for foreign languages and are therefore unable to learn B,

  in contrast to A, language B is so complicated that it is practically impossible to learn,

  the practical value of B is so limited that the discrepancy of costs and achievement forbids one to learn it,

  besides: nobody forbids speaking B. At home and in private surroundings, everybody is free to speak it: “Let them speak what they want”.

  The costs of bilingualism are too high.

There can’t be a solution as long as there is no awareness. As a general rule: To tone down the conflict, compromises must be agreed upon.

There is a wide range:

  Bilingualism as a precondition for eligible positions as a good incentive (see South Tirol), ← 142 | 143 →

  acquisition of the other language as an important school subject,

  high weight of language proficiency in the other language in high school graduation exams,

  equal recognition of certificates in both languages,

  creation and maintenance of public and private esteem for the minority language,

  above all: cultural and social recognition of bilingualism,

  establishment of regions of different linguistic dominance.

One can also refer to the fact that learning the less prestigious language brings advantages which are often not thought of. Walloons who learn Flemish will have considerable advantages when acquiring the more important Germanic languages English and German (and in general other foreign languages); learning French, the Canadian Anglophones gain access not only to the Francophone areas in Europe and overseas, but also to the gigantic Spanish-speaking and Portuguese-speaking territories because of the common lexical, morphological and syntactic features of the Romance languages.

5.  Prospects

It should be in the interest of all parties involved to prevent linguistic conflicts and to avoid their negative consequences. However – apart from calculating the political necessity – there is an ethical aspect that should not be concealed. Learning, speaking and using a foreign language is much more than a rational decision intended to assure maximum political profit. Those who use languages that are not their mother tongues open their views, leave their narrow perspective behind, they demonstrate respect and solidarity for others, for the variety of cultures and ways of expression. They receive a double reward.


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Weydt, Harald (forthcoming): “Sprache oder Dialekt?” ← 145 | 146 → ← 146 | 147 →

1  Abitur: Graduation examination at grammar school required for entry into higher education.

2  There was one exception, a German woman. I saw her writing her report word-for-word, while all the others enjoyed their leisure time.

3  As I don’t have my notes of the conference any longer, which was held 20 years ago, I have invented a prototype of this discussion. It could be reproduced under similar conditions.

4  Comment of The Christian Science Monitor (Febr. 28, 2014): “The [adoption of this bill] only served to infuriate Russian-speaking regions, [who] saw the move as more evidence that the antigovernment protests in Kiev that toppled Yanukovich’s government were intent on pressing for a nationalistic agenda.“

5  This story occurred on the day I wrote this.

6  From his 10th year onwards, the fighting increased and the attitudes became more radical: Romanian youngsters against German youngsters, German youngsters against Hungarian youngsters, and vice versa. Everybody against everybody, and nobody really knew exactly why at all. Or did they? As the parents suffered under the system, for the children it was an act of tacit solidarity to unambiguously assert their opinion in the streets, in whatever language. Stabbing became quite frequent, in particular when Hungarians were involved. While at the beginning there were mostly threats, in later years injuries occurred frequently. The fact that, up to now, the musician Maffay always carries a switchblade in his pocket stems from that time (own translation, H. W.).

7  Remember that Max Weber (1922) predicted that the evolution of modern societies would entail a weakening of ethnic communities and so contribute to dissipate ethnic conflicts, an unfulfilled prophecy. See Popova (in print).