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Printing: The era of mass-mediated language use

The age of mass communication begins with the diffusion of printing in Modern Europe. Before the invention of writing some six thousand years ago, language communication depended on face-to-face interaction. For thousands of years, the spread of written communication was effectively restricted by social and economic obstacles such as highly polarized class structure, monopolies of literacy, knowledge and political power, inefficiency of handwritten duplication and other factors. The mass-mediated use of language was first made possible through the medium of printing.

Early printing in Europe "had a profound effect on national languages and literatures. It began at once to create, standardize, and preserve them" (Unwin and Unwin 1987:464; cf., also, Steinberg 1974: 117-27; Febvre and Martin 1979:319-32). Some students of media history relate the rise of nations, nationalism and national languages to the technology of printing (Innis 1971:29; McLuhan 1969: 142,282). According to McLuhan (1964: 155), "the printed word [is] architect of nationalism. "

The claim that nations and nationalism are by-products of printing is not, however, supported by the history of this technology. Printing was invented at the end of the second century A.D. in feudal China. By eleventh century, movable type was developed. Typography appeared in neighbouring Korea by the first half of the thirteenth century. Both countries had already produced paper and ink. By contrast, typographic printing began in Western Europe much later in mid-fifteenth century (cf., among others, Lechene 1987:69-70). However, in contrast to Europe, printing in China and Korea was unable to transform Chinese and Korean into national languages, although both languages had a long history of literary development and had undergone extensive codification. Neither did Chinese and Korean societies emerge as nations and nation-states. It is, therefore, no accident of history that the widespread diffusion of printing occurred not in its birthplace, feudal China, but rather on the ruins of feudal society in Modern Europe. The (almost) complete transition from scribal to print culture in Western Europe was, thus, a product of the "modernization" or the rise of capitalism.

The transformation of European vernaculars such as English and French into national standard languages undoubtedly depended on access to the technology of printing. However, the technology in itself and by itself does not transform a "vernacular" into a standard language. The proliferation of this technology requires a social and economic base. As a major cultural phenomenon, printing has been the arena of ideological, political and economic struggles even in Western Europe where a powerful social base, the middle class, was emerging with the advent of this technology. Compared with Europe, the impact of printing on the Kurdish language has been equally striking, although its full utilization has been handicapped by continuing political restrictions, and by the retarded social and economic development of Kurdistan. The focus of this chapter is the struggle of the Kurds for the use of printing in promoting their language and national cause.

Source: Dr. Amir Hassanpour, "Nationalism and Language in Kurdistan 1918-1985", 1992.

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