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presentation about Language and Politics

June 12, 2013

Language and Politics


14.1 Beginnings: The Politics of Linguistic Correctness and Persuasion

The study of language and politics is aimed at understanding the role oflinguistic communication in the functioning of social units, and how this role shapes language itself. From early in the history of western thought, language and politics have defined what it is to be human. Aristotle’s Politics famously describes man as by nature a political animal, and his On Interpretation, read in the context of his History of Animals, shows that what essentially separates man from beast is articulate language signifying by convention. The fact that the word “politics” derives from Greek polis ‘city’ is significant. The city as an organized social unit depends on linguistic communication for its functioning, and urban life places functional demands on language that are substantially different from those in a sparsely populated rural setting. Country folk depend on the land for their living, city folk on one another. Politics is the art, and language the medium, whereby they position themselves to get what they need, and beyond that, what they want.

14.2 The Structuralist vs. Marxist Divide

Posthumously assembled and published in 1916, the Course in General Linguisticsby Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) would within a decade and a half assume the status of foundational text for structuralist linguistics. Saussure declared that langue, a language, is a social fact, and that social force holds thesystem together so powerfully that no individual can change the language.Changes occur in parole ‘speech,’ and if eventually the social communityaccepts the change, the system moves to a new state, a new langue. But the social space which language occupies for Saussure is not political: every member of the speech community possesses the language, he says, in identical form. There is no scope for one speaker to manifest power over another, for langue has no individual dimension – that belongs entirely to parole. Despite the apolitical nature of his analysis, the shadow of Saussure would loom large in subsequent attempts at a political account of language. If not reacting against Saussure’s idealization of a homogeneous speech community, such attempts are likely to be based on a methodology deriving from the structuralism Saussure is credited with founding, or perhaps reacting against that very structuralism.

14.3 Politics in Discourse: Approaches in the Marxist Line

In the English-speaking world, the connection between language and politicswas first brought to general attention in a 1946 article by George Orwell (the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair, 1903–50), that anticipates the core problem of language he would address so memorably three years later in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration . . . This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases . . . can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain. (Orwell, 1946, pp. 252–3, 263)

The linguistic “bad habits” consist of strings of words that form well-worn patterns, coercing their users to think in certain ways. “Clear thinking” demands that one start from mental images, visualizing things then finding words to describe them. Starting with words is likelier to produce purely abstract thinking.

In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Newspeak is English re-engineered through massive vocabulary reduction and shifts of meaning. It is controlled by the Party, whose head, Big Brother, is a symbol rather than an actualperson. A small Inner Party use Newspeak to control the minds of the largerOuter Party. The aim of Newspeak is “to make all other modes of thought impossible.” For instance, according to the Party, 2 + 2 = 5. The hero of the novel, Winston Smith, realizes from the evidence of his own eyes that this is wrong, but the Party already has enough control over his thought and language that he cannot put together the argument he intuitively knows would prove its falsity. The same is true with the Party’s operation for rewriting history, in which Winston himself is engaged, and indeed with its three slogans, “WAR IS PEACE / FREEDOM IS SLAVERY / IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”

Propaganda can only be combated by rational analysis and argument. This entails rephrasing propagandistic statements in a different form. If such rephrasing were made impossible through the loss of alternative words inwhich the same idea might be given a different linguistic shape, then it might no longer be possible to question the truth of any statement. As the ultimate language for the suppression of thought, Newspeak represents the horrific end of the road that Orwell (1946) describes English as traveling, where standardization of language goes hand in hand with standardization of thought.

In the nineteenth century, the ideology of Standard English was part of a wider ruling-class project to extend its hegemony over a growing working class and to meet the demands of mass education on its own terms. However, this ruling class ideology ran up against the narrowness of its social base, which, in the case of language, could be seen in the reality of the continued existence of nonstandard forms used by the vast majority of society. (Holborow, 1999, p. 185)

In continental Europe, significant contributions to a Marxist account of language would be made by Ferrucio Rossi-Landi (1921–85) and Michel Pêcheux(b. 1938) (Rossi-Landi, 1975, 1983; Pêcheux, 1982). However, the most important turn in the Marxist line has been that of someone who is clearly post-Marxist, Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) (see Habermas, 1998). He was trained in the Frankfurt School, which took as one of its intellectual starting points the reformulation of Marxist theory by Georg Lukács (1885–1971). By rethinking the relationship of theory to practice, Lukács led the way to a less deterministic and mechanistic form of Marxism than Marx himself had instituted. Linking theory to practice has been at the center of Habermas’ thinking, not least in what has been described as his “leading idea,” namely “that human language and human communication in general already contain implicit intersubjectivenorms” ( Jarvis, 1999, p. 435). In these norms of everyday language use, Habermas argues, lie the grounds for universal values and principles – in short, for truth. Habermas’ contribution has been less in analyzing the political content of language use than in establishing why it should be the central topic of philosophical concern. Since the Middle Ages philosophers have sought universal truth in logic-based theories of propositions and grammatical structures, while dismissing what people do with language as trivial. In arguing for the primacy of practice, Habermas has remained in the Marxist line, where the politics of language use is real, and its analysis trivial insofar as it is abstracted away from this reality.

14.4 Politics in Grammar and Discourse: Approaches in the Structuralist Line

In the 1920s the mainstream of linguistics shifted from the historical enquiry ofthe nineteenth century to the “structuralist” analysis of language systems at a given point in time, following the inspiration of Saussure. It was not therefore congenial to a political understanding of language, and the linguists who occasionally touched upon the subject, such as Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897– 1941) and Alan S. C. Ross (1907–80), did so in popular writings rather than in articles for linguistics journals. Not until the 1950s did structuralist enquiry start to find a place for the political content of language.

In France, this was the period in which structuralism ascended from alinguistic method to a general intellectual paradigm, propelled by the great success of Lévi-Strauss (1955) (see Joseph, 2001). The two French structuralistswho would have the most profound and lasting impact on language and politics, Michel Foucault (1926–84) and Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002), would seem on the surface to have as much in common with the post-Marxist line represented by Habermas as with linguistic structuralism. There are indeed important points in common with Habermas, especially in Bourdieu’s case. But what essentially distinguishes Foucault from his Marxist counterparts is his belief that the objects of knowledge, including language as well as the concepts that constitute its signified, are not produced by subjects thinking, speaking, and acting intersubjectively. Rather, they are produced by “power”itself, with which they have a mutually constitutive relationship.

14.5 The Politics of Language Choice

Within the structuralist linguistic tradition, the cultural politics of languagewas introduced by Charles Ferguson (1921–98) in a 1959 article entitled “Diglossia.” Ferguson originally proposed a “narrow” definition of diglossia.

The core examples Ferguson examines are Arabic, Modern Greek, Swiss German, and Haitian Creole. Other examples which he cites are Tamil, Chinese, and Latin in relation to the emerging Romance languages in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. He specifically excludes the standard-language-plus-dialects configuration familiar from western European languages as not encompassing the same level of “divergence” either structurally or functionally. Standard French is used for “ordinary conversation” in France, where it is not therefore in a diglossic relation with non-standard French dialects. Whereas, in Haiti only Haitian Creole is used in ordinary conversation, and therefore it is in a diglossic relation with Standard French. In such a case he calls Haitian Creole the L (“low”) and Standard French the H (“high”) language.


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