LINGUIST List 14.1502

Fri May 23 2003

Review: Sociolinguistics: Stevenson (2002)

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  1. Pratyush Chandra, Language and German Disunity

Message 1: Language and German Disunity

Date: Fri, 23 May 2003 11:27:35 +0000
From: Pratyush Chandra <>
Subject: Language and German Disunity

Stevenson, Patrick (2002) Language and German Disunity: A
Sociolinguistic History of East and West in Germany, 1945- 2000,
Oxford University Press.

Announced at

Pratyush Chandra, Indian Institute of Marxist Studies (Delhi Chapter),
New Delhi (India).

''Language is a convenient metaphor for social difference, because of
its materiality, because it is abundantly available in its concrete
realizations in spoken and written texts, and because it is the one
common resource that a society has at its disposal.'' (237-38)
Perhaps, the genesis of language politics in general cannot be more
succinctly expressed. Further, recognizing this basic socio-linguistic
truth unravels before us the reality within the so-called 'Global
Village', which we are supposedly encountering today. After the end of
the cold war, it was solemnly declared that it marks a beginning of
peace and togetherness throughout the world. But the truth can never
be more dissonant to this as it is today. Not a single day passes
without war cries of the hegemonic forces, and voices of protest
against them. The political economic crises breeding this are easily
eluded by looking for explanations in apparent attitudinal
differences, which are comprised essentially of discursive and
linguistic components (which together constitute the basic socio-
linguistic issues). We do not need to go much back in history to find
this - this is inherent in the talk of 'clash of civilizations' and
rationalization of 'post-cold war' wars. In this regard, the present
book is very contemporary and relevant not only to understand the
present German reality but has a hermeneutic value in general too,
since the German unification is in fact a ''wende'' (turning point) in
the world history of which the present scenario is a product.

The author hopes ''to capture both the historicity of the east-west
issue and the complex web of questions underlying the central problem:
why, and in what ways, is language repeatedly (perceived as) a source
of both unity and disunity in the German speech community.'' On this
particular theme, he distinguishes himself by trying to trace the
genesis of discord in the ''four decades of division'' and ''in the
context of the role that the idea of the 'German language' has played
in the construction and contestation of national identities over the
last 200 years.'' (3)

The book is divided into two parts to lead the discussion
chronologically. Part 1 traces the 'Question della Lingua' up to the
'wende' including the wende and the second part narrates it for the
first decade after the unification.

Both the parts are divided into two chapters each. The first part
starts with by dealing with a theoretical and empirical exposition of
symbiotic relationship between linguistic change and social dynamics
(Chapter 2). It relates the linguistic debates in the 19th century
Germany from Herder and Humboldt. The relationship between language
and national identity in German discourse draws from the ideas of
these philosophers. Arndt in the early 19th Century and Kluge just
after the first world war represent characteristically how early
German perceptions on language became expressions of nationalist
ideologies - ''the mother tongue is the symbol of the fatherland'' and
''cultivating the mother-tongue means cultivating Germanness'' (Kluge
quoted on 19)). It is noted that these views and many other
perceptions (''the chauvinist discourse of purity'' and ''the
emancipatory discourse of purity'') politicizing the language question
are generally expressed at the time of socio-political crises. The
author rightly finds explanation to this conjunction in the works of
the Italian Marxist Gramsci who always took the ''linguistic fact as a
political act'' (Salamini 1981) - ''every time the question of the
language surfaces, in one way or another, it means that a series of
other problems are coming to the fore'' (quoted on 19). The author
substantiates further how the ideologico-political values attached to
the language continued in later days. In the post-1945 political
changes he traces the trajectory of debates, and finds major ''turning
points'' by situating the various shifts in these debates ''in the
process of political and academic development within and between the
two German states.'' (42) Chapter 2 closes with an empirical account
of linguistic (lexical contrasts) and sociolinguistic differences
(discursive oppositions) and finds that ''one of the most potent
linguistic devices in the arsenal of political and ideological
opponents was the symbolism of naming practices.'' (49)

Chapter 3 focuses on the extent and ways the German Democratic
Republic (GDR) was 'talked into existence' and then 'talked out of
existence'. It stresses on the patterns of formation and regulation of
communicative realm in the GDR, and the forces that perpetuated the
formation. The chapter begins by examining the ''Byzantine
architecture of official discourse'' manifested in ''the highly
ritualized nature of the linguistic forms and textual patterns: the
constant repetition of formulaic expressions, the emphasis on the
collective historic mission, the recycling of apodictic statements
asserting the rationality of official doctrine, the legitimization of
Party policy.'' (69) Then the author studies the effect of rituality
in various types of quasi-public discourse especially in the
educational domain, which ''constructs itself through the texts it
generates, processes and consumes.'' (80)

The author finds a subaltern protest through ''private rehearsal of
alternative modes of articulation, of ironic 'language games' in which
the language of official texts was manipulated to humorous and
subversive effect.'' (93) According to him the ''the polyphony of
wende discourses'' was the heightened realization of this
'de-ritualized' language of accumulated alienation, a ''language
revolt''. ''The explosion of linguistic creativity that characterized
the mass demonstrations in the autumn of 1989 was therefore a public
continuation of a private tradition.'' (109)

I feel the GDR like any state whether totalitarian or democratic was
based on the system of ''masses represented by leaders'' and hence
needed hegemonizing structures to legitimize it. In this regard we can
once again go back to Gramsci who viewed that ''every relationship of
'hegemony' is necessarily an educational relationship'' (Gramsci 1971)
and that ''the hegemonic educational relationship is mediated through
the various institutions of 'civil society': in particular, the
church, the school, labour unions, and the press'' (Entwistle
1978). Further, I contend that the author's analysis is a bit weak
when he stresses simply on the ''talking out of existence'' of the
GDR, not on the politico-economic processes within and without, which
contexualised such a talking-out. It is quite interesting to see that
in most of the countries in the erstwhile Soviet bloc, it was the
elements in the hegemonic intermediate class controlling the
bureaucratic machinery that gained most in the phase of
''post-Wendes'' everywhere. They had accumulated a sufficient
politico-economic power to sustain and prosper themselves in the
''post'' phase. In fact the Wende also represents a phase where these
elements could not pursue this accumulation further, and had to
abolish the structure which mothered them. Hence, it could also form
a task for further sociolinguistic research where one can study how
hegemonies were reformed and reproduced in ''wende discourses''.

The second part relocates 'East' and 'West' in the 1990- 2000
phase. It starts with Chapter 4 studying the evolution of new speech
ecology and how the new sociolinguistic scenario evolved with relative
responses of the East and West Germans to the challenges in this new
context. The chapter begins by elaborating on the ''linguistic
'rationalization', which took place after the unification. The
easterners were obviously on the receiving end as they were the people
to be incorporated. They faced on the one hand, ''the anxiety and
uncertainty that was bound up with the demands of the market economy
and expressed in the requirement to be 'flexible and dynamic''' and on
the other, they tried hard to avoid the old ''shibboleths''. (124) The
chapter then goes on to examine the performance of Easterners in the
Western communicative genres like job interviews etc. The author finds
a general relationship between social and linguistic mobility in
Germany after unification, which derives from the established language
attitudes determined in turn by different social expectations. The
author finds these attitudes fuelling language ideologies. Through
evaluations of vernacular speech and standard forms in Berlin, he
shows how the ideology of standardization, 'verbal hygiene' and the
disparagement of linguistic varieties function as tools of social

Chapter 5 begins by showing in what ways 'communities of memory' are
formed by individual reflections on past linguistic experiences and
''the narrative processing of individual biographies''. (198) The
author reflects on personal experiences of many individuals in
establishing their image of others, while consequently forming their
own self-image. These binary stereotypical images are always
antithetical. These images congeal into identities of 'eastness' and
'westness'. This manufacturing of identities hierarchizes the
inter-community relationship. This hierarchy is essentially a product
of already existing social inequality, which is reinforced through
it. It becomes a mechanism for hegemonic identities to preempt their
affinity to institutional and social power structure, while alienating

I would add to the author's well-versed arguments that this alienation
is not exclusion but 'differential inclusion', which is realized by
allocating the 'other' identities somewhere in the base of the
hierarchical structure of socio-political formation. This is made
possible by the so- called 'democratic set-up' ''for it simultaneously
enshrines the principle of popular inclusion and that of popular
exclusion.'' (Miliband 1982) Democracy functions by regrouping the
fundamental social relations by horizontal reconfiguration of the
society. Numerous identities are re- formed, legitimated and qualified
as majorities and minorities, mainstream and margins, etc. This
minimizes any vertical reconfiguration of the society, and the state
poses itself as victorious and invincible, and above the society and
neutral too. People are segmented and homogenized in identities for
'political mart' and their grievances are represented through 'lobby'
leaders accommodated in the reified apparatuses of the state.

The author rightly sums up his elaborate and convincing discussion in
Chapter 6 ('Conclusions') by seeing ''an unequal distribution of
power'' as the single decisive factor in establishing the cultural
norms. He calls it a 'hegemonic contextualization' which creates a
''double bind'' by which communities are hierarchized in a society
where the dominants can ''establish and police the parameters of
discourse'' challenging the marginal communities to submit to the
norms or be called 'deviants' by resisting them. This is the cultural
state of affair prevailing in unified Germany, according to the
author. And this inequality does not arise through any linguistic and
communicative difference, but ''since communicative interaction is the
primary site of self-representation and for forming and developing
perceptions of others, the burden of achieving social integration and
of explaining the failure of this goal of unification, is frequently
transferred onto this level.'' (236)

This book definitely provides a very succinct historical survey of the
east-west problem in sociolinguistic terms and correctly derides any
deterministic narrow reading of the same. In doing so, it essentially
delimits the dimensions of socio-linguistic study of such problems
setting the parameters for success of such study. Stylistically the
mastery of the subject by the author is reflected in his language and
the confidence and aptness with which he utilizes the examples from
everyday and textual discourses. This book is ideal for not only the
students of socio-linguistics but for everyone who is interested in
studying language politics and understanding a linguistic fact as a
political act.


Entwistle, Harold (1978) 'Antonio Gramsci and the School as
Hegemonic', Educational Theory 1: 23-33. Reprinted in James Martin
(ed.) (2002) Antonio Gramsci: Critical Assessments of Leading
Political Philosopher Vol. III, Routledge, London.

Gramsci, Antonio (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks,
International Publishers, New York.

Miliband, Ralph (1982) Capitalist Democracy in Britain, Oxford
University Press.

Salamini, Leonardo (1981) The Sociology of Political Praxis: An
Introduction to Gramsci's Theory, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.


Pratyush Chandra is associated with the Indian Institute of Marxist
Studies (Delhi Chapter) and has worked on identity question in India
with relation to Hindi-Urdu conflict.
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