LINGUIST List 14.3371

Sun Dec 7 2003

Review: Sociolinguistics: Ager (2003)

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  1. Shelley Tulloch, Ideology and Image: Britain and Language

Message 1: Ideology and Image: Britain and Language

Date: Sat, 6 Dec 2003 21:15:15 -0500 (EST)
From: Shelley Tulloch <>
Subject: Ideology and Image: Britain and Language

Ager, Dennis (2003) Ideology and Image: Britain and Language,
Multilingual Matters.

Announced at

Shelley Tulloch, Department of Anthropology, 
Saint Mary's University, Halifax, Nova Scotia.


In Ideology and Image: Britain and Language, Dennis Ager presents an
overview of the motivations in language policy and planning in Great
Britain. This book complements Ager's previous work on motivations in
language policy and planning in two important ways. First, it
illustrates the applications of the theoretical model developed in
Ager (2001). Secondly, this book expands understanding of the scope of
language policy and planning by shedding light on such processes in a
country which may be popularly viewed as having no need or no interest
to plan language.

Ager's thesis, as evident in the title and indeed obvious throughout
the book, is that approaches to language issues in Britain are
primarily motivated by ideology and image concerns. In the
introduction, Ager challenges the popular view that 'we', as
English-speakers, implicitly control the development of English
through 'our' exercise of liberty and innovation in 'our' use of the
language: ''There has long been a na�ve and romantic belief that in
Britain language, like culture, is, or ought to be, a simple
reflection of mysterious social consensus'' (p.1). He suggests, on the
contrary, that in fact language has been managed and controlled in
Great Britain as it has been elsewhere (France being the prime
example). Data relevant to this position are presented and discussed
in the book's nine chapters, each chapter presenting one aspect of
language policy and planning in Britain, and representing the how and
the why of the interventions.

The first chapter introduces the reader to the linguistic communities
and sociopolitical make-up of Britain and shows how such an
understanding of linguistic communities is an essential starting point
for analysis of the evolution of the linguistic situation in
Britain. Variation within British English is discussed based on
regional and class distinctions. England, Scotland, Northern Ireland
and Wales emerge as unique communities within Britain for reasons
including but not limited to linguistic differences. The contributions
of other, non-indigenous languages to the linguistic composition of
Britain are also discussed.

Chapter Two discusses speakers' attitudes toward varieties of British
English, ''territorial'' languages (i.e. Welsh, Irish and Scottish
Gaelic), as well as ''non-territorial'' languages (i.e. Hindi). This
chapter focuses on the concept of a standard British English, and
examines the evolution of the definition of such a standard. Ager
suggests that attitudes of archaism, elitism, xenophobia, and
especially purism, have motivated attempts to define ''good'' English
and to manage languages other than English in Britain.

Having established this background of linguistic communities and
prevailing language attitudes, Ager contextualizes the current
linguistic situation in Britain in Chapter Three, giving a history of
language in Britain from 880 to the 1950s. He shows how an attitude
linking morality to 'proper' speech emerged early in Britain's
history. The motivations behind language policy and planning according
to Ager were mainly political until 1800, then increasingly social and
economic, targeting the 'civilization' and material advancement of
British citizens.

In Chapter Four, ''Non-Political Language Planning'', Ager argues that
language planning has continued in recent years as non-political,
effected by individuals (including Members of Parliament and authors),
private societies (including publishers) and the media, driven by
purist motivations. The focus remains the perpetuation of 'good'
English, as modeled by the 'best' speakers. Motivations in
''non-political'' language planning, as discussed in Chapter Four,
include resistance to American influence, elitism, reform
(simplification), altruism and snobbism.

In Chapter Five, Ager turns to discuss issues of language rights. He
shows how the promotion of non-discriminatory language, as well as
recent laws facilitating communication within the justice system for
individuals who do not speak English, have protected human
rights. Ager suggests that, in these cases, official intervention
preceded popular attitudinal changes in Great Britain.

Chapters Six and Seven focus on English as a resource both for
individual citizens and for the State. Recent attempts to empower
individuals through increased access to English include adult literacy
movements, ''Plain English'' and ''Better English''
campaigns. According to Ager, such efforts are motivated, once again,
by purist attitudes and the desire to maintain a high standard of the
English language. Chapter Seven shows how Great Britain has also
exploited English as a resource for the State, promoting and teaching
English internationally in connection with the promotion of the United
Kingdom abroad.

In contrast to the preceding discussions of English as a resource,
Chapter Eight suggests that language has also been a political problem
in Great Britain. Language-related challenges discussed include how to
teach and evaluate standard English in the schools, how to manage
multiculturalism, as well as language issues emerging from the
devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Ager
suggests here that multiculturalism is an Anglo-Saxon ideal (p. 151),
and the discussion suggests a tension between a willingness to
maintain minority languages and the desire to increase access to
Standard English as the language of socioeconomic advancement.

Finally, in Chapter Nine, Ager broadens his discussion, showing how
language policy and planning in Great Britain fits into a broader
international context. The linguistic climates of France, India,
Canada, Australia and the United States are discussed as points of


Ideology and Image: Britain and Language is a fascinating and thorough
book. An advantage of Ideology and Image is that it is widely
accessible, and will interest readers with little previous knowledge
of linguistics or British politics and history, as well as students
and researchers in the field of language planning. In an era of
globalization and the threat to minority languages due, in part, to
the spread of English, it is pertinent to consider how the country
which initiated this spread of English has dealt with language issues
internally. The book is short (208 + x pp.) and easy to read. Ager
avoids extensive use of jargon, and provides the historical,
political, and linguistic background necessary for understanding his

The disadvantage of accessibility, however, is that some issues are
over-simplified. Two examples that come to mind are the treatment of
''territorial languages'', i.e. Welsh, Irish and Gaelic (Cornish is
given only brief mention), and the comparisons made between language
policy and planning in the United Kingdom and the countries which were
former British colonies. The comparisons with Canada, for example,
emphasize language laws in Quebec (promoting the French language), and
the official policy of bilingualism in Canada. However, Canadian
language planning with regard to other minority languages (i.e. the
Canadian Multiculturalism Act, Canada 1988), which would be directly
comparable to planning in Great Britain, is not discussed.

Overall, Ideology and Image is convincing in its stated intention to
debunk the myth that Anglophones are indifferent, or have a
laissez-faire attitude toward their native tongue. It is of interest
to specialists of language planning and policy as it paints a broad
picture of the consistent evolution of language planning and policy in
Great Britain. Undergraduate and graduate students will also find this
book useful, whether it is used as a case study to introduce students
to principles in language policy and planning or as a resource for
more in-depth research on language planning and policy in Great
Britain, particularly with regard to English. At the same time, the
book offers the general public an accessible, entertaining and
intriguing resource for understanding language issues in Great
Britain; issues, which, as demonstrated by Ager, seem to interest the
British public more than the myth of English linguistic
disinterestedness may suggest.


Ager, Dennis (2001) Motivation in Language Planning. Clevedon:
Multilingual Matters. Reviewed in

Canada. House of Commons (1988) Canadian Multiculturalism Act. LR
1985, chap. C-18.7.


Shelley Tulloch teaches linguistic anthropology at Saint Mary's
University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Her research focuses on
language issues and language planning in Canada, particularly with
regard to Aboriginal languages. Her current research examines needs
and possibilities for language planning among Inuit youth in Nunavut.
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