On the occasion of the Rugby World Cup, which will be held in England starting on September 18th this year, I noticed the very different approaches to the decision on and the performance of the national anthems of the participating countries. Some countries, bi- or multilingual in nature, are of particular interest. This further led to the question of, going by this measure, how much of a language of one’s own is needed to create an identity –and even if there is such a state as too many languages or in other terms, too much fragmentation.
While the 20 countries participating at the Rugby World Cup constitute a bit of a random sample, many of them do share some common features, mainly a former colonial background and English as the or one of the languages, which makes an interesting point of comparison and brings with it a certain innate tension regarding social and linguistic history and current situations.
While participant countries like Argentina, Uruguay or Italy are largely monolingual, beyond a certain dialect continuum, many of the countries involved show a complex system of sociolinguistic distributions, mainly based on colonialism from England and the British Empire. France is an exception in that it has its own strong language policies in place based on the notion of La Grande Nation and “one nation, one language”, virtually ignoring Breton, Catalan and Basque, and Occitan and other languages / dialects closer to French – although the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (of which France, tellingly, is not a signatory!) attempts to address such issues.
Wales, Scotland and Ireland were all at some stage annexed by (basically) England to form the Great Britain and the United Kingdom respectively, though Ireland has meanwhile regained its independence. The effects of English as a mighty competitor is nevertheless clear to see in all three cases. In Scotland, Gaelic, is just gaining some more recognition as a topic on the national agenda where before it was largely the language of the more or less isolated population on the Northwestern periphery. Interestingly, as recent research shows, (new) urban learners don’t share that identity of the “Gael”, while they still see Gaelic as an important element of their identity, partly in areas where it was hardly ever even spoken. It is no wonder due to the small number of speakers and the lack of long-term political support that Gaelic is not in any way represented in the Scottish national anthem Flower of Scotland, beyond a short reference to Scotland’s “hills and glens”, glen being a Gaelic borrowing into Scots and Scottish English. On the topic of Scots, it is in a way equally cursed and blessed by its linguistic proximity to English, being at the end of a North to South dialect continuum (strikingly similarly to Gaelic with Irish!) with some additional elements partly based on contact with other languages like Gaelic, Dutch and Norse languages. Scots, in a boiled down version, contributes to the English of Scotland without in its pure form having a strong standing with the younger generation. The use of “wee” in the anthem, more symbolic than natural in a sense, is a good example of this.
Ireland have chosen to have a combined anthem for the Republic and Northern Ireland in the Rugby, where both of the countries are represented by the same team. Meanwhile, the Republic uses the Irish language for its anthem (Amhrán na bhFiann) – translated from an English original (A Soldiers’ Song). The fact that the only time I remember hearing it rendered louder than the (actually musically much-maligned) English-language combined Rugby anthem (Ireland’s Call) was when England played Rugby – or any sport – at Croke Park for the first time in 2007. Croke Park was the scene of the killing of 14 Irish civilians by the Black and Tans in a stadium at a Gaelic Football game on the original Bloody Sunday on November 21, 1920. On the occasion, the English (British) God Save the Queen was well-respected and then the Irish anthem was sung vigorously and reverberatingly, while on other occasions the lack of true knowledge of the language in Ireland shows – also represented by the fact that not a single version as recorded by a native or native-like speaker appears to exist on youtube or on the manifold CDs in Dublin tourist shops.
Wales is palpably more connected to its anthem Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, which was originally written in Welsh by a father and son combination of poet and composer Evan and James James in 1856. About 20% of the Welsh population of 3Mio inhabitants still speak the language and many of them natively or native-like. Even non-speakers often know enough Welsh to sing the anthem, for example. This shows in the stadium where the rousing renditions of the Welsh anthem are a marvel to visiting teams and once described by Rugby’s greatest commentator, the late Bill McLaren, to be worth 5 points of a lead for Wales. This is one aspect that indicates that the language is more central to Welsh identity than for example Irish or Gaelic to their respective countries.
In Australia, despite language revival efforts now increasingly supported by universities, the Aboriginal languages do not enter the public perception much, with the anthem also being solely English.
In contrast, New Zealand not only does a lot for the Maori language and not only is the first verse of the anthem (God Defend New Zealand) in Maori, but the national flag is also currently being redesigned to represent the entire population better than the current one. In addition to that, arguably the most iconic cultural element in any sport, the All Black Haka, often imitated and much respected is based on traditional Maori war / welcome dances. And, unsurprisingly, going beyond the Maori language, which is a rare example of relatively successful language revival policies based on a strong identity, the Maori culture and sociological status has been on the rise in an open-minded and inclusive society.


Another interesting fact is that Fiji, though it would have a language of its own in the form of Fijian and though immigration from the British Empire was minimal, retained English as an official language after independence in 1970. Hence, and unlike island cousins Tonga and Samoa, it uses English in its anthem, too.
The biggest counter example, however, is South Africa: With the anthem consisting of two parts, namely the former anthems ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’ (God Bless Africa) of the Black Liberation movement and ‘Stem van Suid-Afrika’ (Call of South Africa), the former official anthem of the apartheid regime and representing the 5 biggest of South Africa’s 11 official languages: the African languages Xhosa (first two lines), Zulu (next two lines), Sesotho (second stanza) and the two languages of the European invaders, English and Dutch-based Afrikaans. The anthem issue was a huge point of contention in the 1990s and only resolved by Nelson Mandela himself. He saw the huge relevance of the choice of anthem for reconciliation due to the high emotional value of the anthem and its language to the formerly ruling population. The hybrid version of the song was a diplomatic and straightforward solution, representing both groups as one, also linguistically, in the new ‘rainbow nation’.

Mandela HF

However, in practice, the performance of the anthem once again represents the reality of the situation rather well: While the African languages are (by now) often sung by large parts of the audience, finally, there is still a clear rise in volume and passion from the predominantly white crowds when the Afrikaans part starts. This is often interpreted as a throw-back to apartheid practices and hence again a point of debate, despite the best intentions of Mandela in creating the hybrid version.
What does it tell us? Is there any correlation between anthems and sociolinguistic status of a language at all? Tentatively, I would argue there clearly is, as some of the examples show. However, it cannot be taken as paramount concerning its relevance to the role or status of a (minority) language.