LINGUIST List 13.1405

Mon May 20 2002

Review: Sociolinguistics: Oakes (2001)

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  1. Cece Cutler, Oakes, Language and National Identity: Comparing France and Sweden

Message 1: Oakes, Language and National Identity: Comparing France and Sweden

Date: Sat, 18 May 2002 00:40:59 +0000
From: Cece Cutler <>
Subject: Oakes, Language and National Identity: Comparing France and Sweden

Oakes, Leigh (2001)
Language and National Identity: Comparing France and Sweden.
John Benjamins Publishing Company, x+305pp, hardback ISBN 1-58811-116-4,
EUR 90, Impact, Studies in Language and Society 13.
Book Announcement on Linguist:

Cecilia Cutler, New York University

This book is particularly timely in light of the recent presidential
elections in France. Although National Front party leader Le Pen
ultimately lost the final election to RPR candidate Jacques Chirac, Le
Pen's success in the primary election may be an indication of a change
in the way many French people, indeed many Europeans, are thinking
about issues of language and identity in light of the growing number
of immigrants living within their borders. This is a clearly written
and highly readable book based on the author's doctoral
dissertation. It provides a detailed comparative case study approach
to explore questions of language and national identity in two European
countries. The author chose to look at France and Sweden because they
ostensibly represent two countries with very different conceptions of
identity and attitudes towards language within the European Union. He
provides an overview of the historical, cultural, and modern day
political events that have shaped attitudes towards identity and
language in France and Sweden, and supplements it with empirical data
from a survey of 421 French and Swedish high school students on issues
of language and identity.

Chapter 2 provides an overview of how the author defines terms like
ethnicity, nationalism and linguistic variation. He makes an important
distinction between ethnic and civic nations as a way to frame his
analysis. So-called ethnic nations like Sweden, Germany and Japan are
conceived of as extensions of the ethnic group whereas in civic
nations like France or the USA, people are united around common laws
and rights.

Chapter 3 sets up several theoretical frameworks including language
attitude theory, social identity theory and ethnolinguistic identity
theory. The author then critiques social identity and ethnolinguistic
theory and provides a revised synthesis of these two approaches by
incorporating accommodation theory (Giles et al 1987) and the concept
of linguistic versus non-linguistic boundaries (Giles 1979).

Chapter 4 examines language attitudes and national identity strategies
in France and Sweden, particularly with regard to the historical
development of the relationship between language and national identity
in those two countries. The author provides a brief history of the
emergence of French linguistic consciousness in the 9th century
following the declaration at the Council of Tours when it was stated
that the use of the vernacular was permitted in sermons and
homilies. Although a standard emerged first in the south (langue d'oc)
by the end of the 11C, it was the langue d'oil, later known as the
King's French or francois that eventually took hold and began to
challenge Latin from the 13C-16C. Francois became the official
language of the courts in 1539 and was codified in a number of
documents in the mid 1500s. The Academie francaise was established in
1635 around the time that French emerged as the literary language of
Europe. Although the leaders of the French Revolution were
initially tolerant of multilingualism, concern emerged in the early
19th century about the fact that as many as 50% of Frenchmen did not
speak French. Efforts were made to establish French as the only
language of instruction in the schools. The rise of Napoleon and the
subsequent colonial expansion led to the emergence of a more ethnic
conception of French identity. This tendency developed further during
the period of mid-19th century Romanticism. Gradually, the connection
between the French nation and the French language grew stronger during
the period of industrialization and subsequent migration of people
from the countryside to the urban centers.

The emergence of Swedish ethnolinguistic and national consciousness
gets much shorter shrift, but the historical situation there largely
mirrored that of France for many centuries. Swedish emerged as a
distinct language in 1300. National consciousness grew in the 16th
century during the Reformation. Language purism movements and efforts
to standardize Swedish characterized the 17th and 18th centuries and
by the 19th century, Swedish emerged as the language of the nation.
Mass emigration to the USA and the psychological effect of the union
crisis with Norway led many to believe in the need to strengthen
Swedish identity in the early 20th century. But by the 1930s,
nationalism and the idea of national identity had been discredited and
the belief that Swedes lacked national consciousness or had a negative
or "inverted" nationalism gained currency. A new kind of nationalism
arose in the 1980s during which time Swedes saw themselves as the
world's conscience, as a model of socioeconomic equity, and high
standards of living for the rest of the world. The recession of the
late 1980s and early 1990s dealt a heavy blow to Swedish national
pride, but a resurgence of nationalism and interest in Swedish culture
has characterized the late 1990s. In recent years, Swedes have even
witnessed the rise of extreme right-wing political parties.

Chapter 4 concludes with a discussion of contemporary manifestations
of prescriptivism and general attitudes towards language in France and
Sweden. France and Sweden can be said to contrast with respect to
their respective approaches to language planning, tolerance of
linguistic variation, and efforts to democratize the language through
spelling reform, the simplification of official language, the
introduction of feminism forms. France of course has a long tradition
of language planning at the official level and has long resisted
efforts to reform or democratize the French language. Sweden does
engage in some language planning but in a much more low-key
manner. There have been many governmental efforts to adopt plainer
official language, simplify the spelling system, and adopt feminine
forms for professions, titles, and positions in line with the liberal,
progressive ideology of the political elite.

Chapter 5 looks at contrasting national identity strategies in Sweden
and France and the role that regional and immigrant ethnolinguistic
minorities have played in the construction of French and Swedish
national identities. The author suggests that the identity that
characterizes the national area is founded on that of the dominant
ethnic core and this ethnic core relies on the presence of the Other
(traditionally regional minorities and more recently immigrant
minorities) to act as contradistinctions. Both France and Sweden had a
laissez faire attitude towards regional minorities until the 18th
century when they began engaging in covert and sometimes overt efforts
to suppress ethnic and linguistic difference within their borders. The
denigration of regional languages and dialects helped dominant groups
maintain a positive ethnolinguistic identity. France is described as
the most multilingual state in Europe with seven regional languages
and a number of dialects. Certain regions were considered to pose
a security risk to France (e.g. Alsace-Lorraine because of its
linguistic and cultural ties to Germany, Brittany's open collaboration
with the Nazis during WWII, and separatist movements in Brittany and
Corsica). The response was a rejection of the notion of regional
minorities and minority rights. Historically, immigrants from other
parts of Europe assimilated quite easily into French society and the
notion of assimilation was touted as a solution. But after WWII, the
influx of immigrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa and Asia caused
many to talk about "insertion" or "integration" as opposed to
assimilation as a way of acknowledging the rights of immigrants to
preserve aspects of their own culture. Nevertheless, immigrant
minorities, especially those from francophone countries, are often
discriminated against on the basis of language because many speak a
non-standard variety.

The situation in Sweden with regard to language variation is somewhat
different. Sweden has only two regional languages; Sami and
Tornedelian Finnish. These minority languages were tolerated up until
the 19th century when efforts were made to assimilate the Tornedalians
through instruction exclusively in Swedish rather than both languages.
The Sami were subjected to a form of segregation due to the belief
that they were unsuited for modern life. Eventually, Swedish became
the official language of instruction for Sami children as well. In
the 1950s, a more humanitarian approach led to the elimination of the
ban on speaking Finnish and Sami in school and the decision to allow
Sami children to choose between nomad schools and general
comprehensive schools. Immigration to Sweden up until the 19th century
consisted mainly of Germans, Finnish and later Walloons and Estonians.
Immigration waned until the inter-war period when Estonian and Jewish
refugees from the Soviet and Nazi expansions sought refuge in
Sweden. Post-war immigration from Yugoslavia, Turkey and Greece and
the even larger waves of immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s from Iran,
Iraq, East African and Central America posed a much greater challenge
to Swedish identity than previous groups had. The official policy of
assimilation was abandoned in the late 1960s in favor of a policy of
multiculturalism, which promised immigrants equal rights and freedom
to retain their homeland culture if they chose. But like in France,
the idea that immigrants speak an inferior variety of the national
language serves to reinforce psychological distinctiveness for ethnic
Swedes. This leads the author to predict that language will come to
play an increasingly important role in the construction of Swedish
identity in years to come.

Chapter 6 looks at the French and Swedish responses to the idea of a
new European identity and the role of language and language policy
within the EU. There are understandable differences in the way France
and Sweden view the European Union (EU). France was one of the
founding members whereas Sweden only joined in 1995. But for the
French, European integration has been viewed primarily as an extension
of French nationalism and as a way to strengthen the French
nation-state. The de facto role of French as the official language of
the EEC until 1973 when the UK, Ireland and Denmark were granted entry
has slowly been supplanted by English. The growing importance of
English globally and within the EU has been more of an issue for
France than it has for Sweden. Nevertheless, both the French and the
Swedes have taken active measures to promote their respective
languages within the European arena. In terms of identity, the
ability the French to generate a positive identity for themselves
within the EU has diminished, and fears about the potential loss of
sovereignty have given rise to anti-European sentiments, particularly
among political right-wingers. Swedes, although they have experienced
a heightened awareness of their identity in recent years, generally
have a positive attitude towards the EU. However they also have little
expectation about any change in the minority status of Swedish within
the EU and they have different attitudes than the French towards

Chapter 7 compares the language attitudes and national identity
strategies of France and Sweden in the global arena. It looks in
particular at how globalization and the spread of English play a role
in diminishing a sense of psychological distinctiveness among the
French and the Swedes. The decline of French as the international
language of diplomacy and culture has led France to concentrate its
efforts on building ties to "la Francophonie" where it can easily
dominate. This allows the French to generate a positive sense of
identity and to create a market that can compete with English as a
world language. The Swedes, in contrast, have embraced English. The
extent to which English has come to dominate certain domains in Sweden
such as politics, education, business, culture, and entertainment is
quite remarkable and has caused some real concern about the strength
of the language. Yet the Swedes take great pride in their ability to
speak English better than people from other nations such as France or
Spain and this fact allows them to maintain a sense of
distinctiveness. Unlike France, Sweden has embraced internationalism
(and even the Anglo-American dominance) as an identity strategy by
trying to play an active role in global organizations such as the UN.

Chapter 8 interprets and summarizes the results of a survey
questionnaire conducted among 421 upper secondary school students in
France and Sweden. The author tests four hypotheses that follow from
the historical evidence and prior research presented in Chapters 4, 5
and 6. It was predicted that national and linguistic consciousness
would be high in France and low in Sweden, and that attitudes towards
minority languages would be negative in France and positive in
Sweden. A second set of hypotheses proposed that the French generate a
positive identity in the European arena and in the global arena
through strategies of divergence whereas in Sweden this is
accomplished through strategies of convergence.

The results were quite different than what the author
predicted. National consciousness among French high school students,
although high, was not as high as predicted. Nor was it as high as it
was in Sweden. Sweden also had an unexpectedly high degree of
linguistic consciousness and the author concludes that language is an
important part of Swedish identity. With regard to minority
languages, it was found, contrary to expectations, that attitudes were
by and large positive among young people in France but somewhat
negative (particularly towards Sami and Arabic) among young
Swedes. The hypothesis that within the EU and at the global level, the
French gain a positive sense of identity through divergence while the
Swedes achieve this through convergence was also rejected on the basis
of the survey results. Swedes were found to have quite a robust sense
of national consciousness. Young people in France felt that it was
possible to create a European identity more than young Swedes. 
While students in both France and Sweden rejected the idea of a
single European language, the proposal that English could play this
role was viewed negatively by the French and positively by the
Swedish. Many of these findings point to a gap between the attitudes
and policies of the elite and the intelligentsia versus in both France
and Sweden. The finding that the French generally have favorable
attitudes towards English confirmed the results of a previous study
mentioned by the author, Flaitz 1988.

Chapter 9 concludes the book with a synthesis of the findings
presented and provides suggestions for future research. The author
notes that language attitudes, like certain linguistic markers, could
be age-graded. Longitudinal studies of the way s in which language
attitudes change as people age would certainly complement this type of
comparative case-study approach. Finally, the author suggests that
enlarging the number of respondents beyond the 421 involved in the
study, looking at other variables such as sex, ethnicity, and
location, and including other countries would be logical ways to
extend this research.

This book offers a very comprehensive look at language and national
identity in France and Sweden and provides a useful model for
conducting similar comparative analyses. One question that emerges
from this research is to what degree highly fluent foreigners are
tolerated and the extent to which this is a reflection of a certain
type of national identity. The Swedes, like the Japanese, often become
highly suspect of outsiders who master their language whereas the
French seem delighted by the efforts of foreigners to speak
French. Finally, from a theoretical standpoint, it would be very
interesting to expand this analysis by examining the semiotic
processes that bear on language attitudes and ideologies such as
indexicality, fractal recursivity, and erasure (cf. Irvine and Gal


Flaitz, J. (1988) The Ideology of English: French Perceptions of
English as World Language. Berlin/New York/Amsterdam: Mouton de

Giles, H. (1979) "Ethnicity markers in speech." In Social Markers in
Speech, K. R. Sherer and H. Giles (eds), 251-89. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Giles, H., Mulac, A., Bradac, J. J. and Johnson, P. (1987). "Speech
accommodation theory: The next decade and beyond." In Communication
Yearbook. Vol. 10. Newbury Park: Sage.

Irvine, Judith and Susan Gal (2000). "Language Ideology and Linguistic
Differentiation." In Paul V. Kroskrity (ed.), Regimes of
Language. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research. Press. Pp. 35-83.


Cecilia Cutler received her Ph.D. in linguistics from New York
University in May 2002. Her interests include sociolinguistic
questions pertaining to language and identity, language ideologies,
and the dynamics of outgroup language use.
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