LINGUIST List 13.3274

Wed Dec 11 2002

Review: Sociolinguistics: De Swaan(2001)

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  1. Prisca Augustyn, De Swaan(2001), Words of the World

Message 1: De Swaan(2001), Words of the World

Date: Tue, 10 Dec 2002 13:25:32 +0000
From: Prisca Augustyn <>
Subject: De Swaan(2001), Words of the World

De Swaan, Abram (2001) Words of the World: The Global Language System.
Polity Press, paperback ISBN 0-7456-2748-X, vii+253pp, $31.95.

Book Announcement on Linguist: 

Prisca Augustyn, Florida Atlantic University.

Abram De Swaan compares five different language constellations (India,
Indonesia, Africa, South Africa, and the European Union) in order to
explain the dynamics of the global language system by combining
'notions from economics, linguistics, history, political science and
sociology in a synthetic perspective' (xi). While the book is intended
to merge the perspectives of multiple disciplines, its outcome may not
inform all of the respective fields alike. The recurrent questions are
'Why the former colonial languages have persisted so tenaciously in
these countries after Independence' [and whether] 'English [will]
continue to function as the pivot of the global language
constellation'(17). Even though De Swaan makes cautious references to
socio-linguistic parameters, his focus is on political and economic
patterns, because 'it is a book about competition and compromise'

'This material is approached from a theoretical perspective that
combines a political sociology of language with a political economy of
language. The twofold theoretical approach allows us to compare and
separate the language constellations within a common conceptual
framework' (18).

In his introduction, De Swaan employs the analogy of a 'galaxy of
languages' in order to introduce the notion of 'supercentral'
languages, and the 'hypercentral' language English, which illustrates
his view of the global language system as a constellation of competing
centers and peripheries. Chapters two and three continue his
theoretical discussion. In chapter two, De Swaan defines languages as
'hypercollective goods' outlining the general characteristics of
languages from the perspective of a 'political economy of language
constellations'; he suggests that 'languages may be compared with
standards, and with networks' (28). Central to this notion of
languages as 'goods' is the communication value, or 'Q-value', of

'The interpretation of the Q-value is quite straightforward. The first
component, the prevalence, is the proportion of speakers in a
constellation that can be directly contacted with the languages in a
given repertoire. The second factor, the centrality, indicates the
number of connections, or multilingual speakers, that link the
languages in this repertoire with all others, as a proportion of all
connections between languages in a constellation' (36).

In chapter three, de Swaan deals with the 'unequal exchange of texts';
his central questions are 'how does the theory of free trade
vs. protectionism apply to language-bound cultural exchange, and what
can be said on the collective aspects of the dilemmas of language
loyalty vs. language defection?' (43) In this context, De Swaan
discusses the 'dumping' of American Film and TV productions on the
European market that is counteracted by petitions and campaigns for
tariffs and quotas on American Films and government subsidies for
European authors and performers. While this issue warrants
considerations regarding the dynamics of cultural expression and
national identity, De Swaan's discussion remains safely on the
political-economic level, comparing the constellations of Europe and
the former colonies. De Swaan notes repeatedly that sociolinguists
have so far neglected the theoretical concepts of economic theory
(cf. 28, 57) and laments that 'the rivalry and accommodation between
language groups have so far only received scant theoretical attention'
(57). Even though he invokes such notions as 'ethnic identity' or
'cultural heritage', he may be overly optimistic about their
connection 'to the core concepts of social science' (59) when he
promotes his political-economic perspective as a more general theory
of cultural capital.

'In this science of human societies, a very long-term, large-scale
view of the human species in evolution provides the conceptual
background for an analysis of competing (and therefore also
collaborating) groups, composed of individuals who in the short run
are alert in scheming in protecting their resources and realizing some
of their opportunities, with and against each other' (59).

Chapters four through eight discuss the language constellations of
India, Indonesia, Africa, South Africa, and the European Union. Each
chapter is divided into several thematic sections on the pertinent
aspects of the particular language constellation followed by a
discussion. While the situation in India is characterized by the
rivalry between Hindi and English in a similar way French is competing
with several languages in Africa, 'Gandhi's dream' of the triumph of
an indigenous language over the language of the colonizers was
realized in Indonesia with Bahasa Indonesia, a version of Malay. De
Swaan attributes these developments primarily to the diverging
policies of the former colonial powers, tracing the political,
economic, and religious factors that contributed to the competition
between indigenous and colonial languages. In post-Apartheid South
Africa, language policies promoting African languages by grouping them
into the concepts of Nguni and Sutu have actually weakened the
position of individual languages against English and Afrikaans. De
Swaan's dictum for the European Union (EU) is 'the more languages, the
more English'. While he distinguishes between different levels of
communication in the EU, his discussion remains on a general
pan-European perspective, often making generalizations that leave the
reader unclear which EU country they may apply to. In particular, the
issue of language policy could have been pursued with more attention
to the particular strategies and approaches in different EU
countries. Instead, De Swaan discusses language policy in the EU
largely in terms of 'ranking' according to Q-value and status:

'Clearly, from the moment that it become [sic] an official language of
the Community, English gained the edge over the other
languages. French, still a strong option, was already on the losing
end, but remained ahead of German in third position' (156).

Even though De Swaan provides a fairly neutral presentation throughout
his book, he closes his chapter on the EU language constellation on an
optimistic note, pointing to the positive aspects of multilingualism
in spite of the exorbitant costs of translation and interpretation
(estimated at 700 million Euros) that continue to grow with every new
member nation:

'And yet the costs of translation from and into all official languages
of the Union, for correspondence, the publication of major decisions,
and interpretation of the full sessions of Council and Parliament, may
be worthwhile. Its multilingualism is a visible and audible
manifestation of the Union's respect for the equality and autonomy of
the member nations. [] And finally, the formation of a corps of
translators and interpreters [] is also an important investment in the
cultural rapprochement between these nations, which so far have rarely
communicated directly with each other' (173).

Chapter nine includes a summary of all the important theoretical
considerations introduced in chapters two and three as well as
synopses of chapters four through eight. This makes the book somewhat
repetitive in the presentation of facts and key notions. In
particular, the chapters on the five different language constellations
(India, Indonesia, Africa, South Africa, and the European Union) are
often digressive, repeating information already stated in previous
sections or chapters. All bibliographical references and footnotes
appear at the end and are divided by chapter; the book also includes
an index. 


Prisca Augustyn is Assistant Professor of German and Linguistics in
the Department of Languages & Linguistics at Florida Atlantic
University. Her research focuses on the semiotic implications of
linguistic data of prime cultural significance. She is currently
working on a project concerning the influence of Globalization on the
German language.
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