LINGUIST List 15.1031

Mon Mar 29 2004

Review: Sociolinguistics: Schmid (2001)

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  1. David Golumbia, The Politics of Language

Message 1: The Politics of Language

Date: Sun, 28 Mar 2004 17:37:10 -0500 (EST)
From: David Golumbia <>
Subject: The Politics of Language

Schmid, Carol L. (2001) The Politics of Language: Conflict, Identity,
and Cultural Pluralism in Comparative Perspective. Oxford University

Announced at

David Golumbia, University of Virginia


The author (S), a sociologist and sociolinguist, provides a compact
and useful guide to many of the issues rising in several modern
societies where more than one language exists in conflict or in
harmony with one or more others. Her approach is firmly
sociolinguistic, in that little attention is paid to issues of syntax,
morphology, or phonology; but it is fair to say that it is a
qualitative approach to sociolinguistics, in that the emphasis is on
the political and social consequences of various historical
developments surrounding the deployment of various languages and
dialects, their promotion or suppression, and so on. Less attention is
paid, then, to some aspects of the sociolinguistic data that might be
found in a Labovian approach. In general her method is empirical but
also descriptive, tending more toward anecdotal accounts that are at
the same time quite broad in scope and toward descriptions of larger
social movements.

There is extensive use of what must be called quantitative
sociological data, focused on the prevalence of different languages in
S's examples. These are used to bolster S's general view, one that
might be emphasized somewhat in the text, which is that strong
national emphases on monolingualism often go hand-in-hand with what
she calls cultural ''xenophobia'' and racism, and that there is no
reason to believe that multilingualism is anything but an ''asset'' to
social grouping, despite opposing political views that cannot generate
the kinds of data S musters.


1. Introduction: The Politics of Language, National Identity, and
 Cultural Pluralism in the United States

S's goals are specifically to examine the role of nationhood and
perhaps even more specifically of national legislation in the creation
of language policy and the maintenance of language politics. She is
specifically interested in official movements and policy developments,
such as the development of English-Only movements in the US.

2. Historical Background of Language Protection and Restriction 

S reviews the early history of the US, demonstrating that there is a
''basic political (and linguistic) inequality between white citizens
and non-white citizens''. Throughout its history, in fact, the US has
been highly intolerant of alternative language practices, so that only
''conquest and immigration'' are seen as acceptable models for
inclusion. This is especially seen with regard to intolerance of
Spanish in the territories now called the Southwest and Western United

3. Immigrant Exclusion and Language Restriction in the Twentieth

S reflects on the high degree to which American society has relied on
immigrants and immigration for labor and no less for culture. This
reliance on immigration has coexisted with waves of anti-immigrant
feeling and also waves of what S calls Americanization of immigrants,
especially insisting that immigrants learn and speak English
exclusively. S uncovers many surprising facts about immigration during
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, not least the place of
''symbolic clash[es] of lifestyle'' (55) as one force behind language

4. Language Rights and the Legal Status of English-Only Laws

In this chapter S surveys English-Only movements in the US and
specifically examines the status of Official English laws, whose
status she finds unclear. ''They are mostly of symbolic value''
according to the courts, she writes, but if enforced could effectively
deprive many immigrant (and domestic) groups of language rights. S
thus sides clearly against such movements, although this position
emerges indirectly.

5. Attitudes toward Language, National Identity, and Cultural

S. notes that in the US the official status of English has been widely
assumed by the general public, and that recent efforts have been
largely on the side of intensifying such efforts, often in newly
direct fashion. She locates the development of strong English-only
views in religious and other social practices that have also been
widespread in the US recently. S notes a range of attitudes and
contradictions in Hispanic and white attitudes toward bilingualism,
and notes that the ''feeling that immigrants, especially Spanish
speakers, do not want to learn English... is a fallacy'' (98).

6. Language and Identity Politics in Canada

S contrasts the language history Canada with that of the United
States, noting that French maintained a historical presence in Canada
throughout colonial history, in contrast to the persistent and
sometimes successful of the US to eradicate the speaking of Spanish
(and all other non-English languages). She suggests that
''bilingualism has a very different meaning in Canada and the United
States'' and that despite the ongoing political struggles in Quebec
Canadians are in general less immediately phobic about bilingualism
than are those in the US.

7. Identity and Social Incorporation in Multilingual Switzerland

S's example of a multilingual society is modern Switzerland, a society
that has long fascinated sociolinguists for just this quality. S calls
the Swiss situation an ''enigma'' (124) but carefully traces
historical developments in the early part of the twentieth century in
their relation to multilingualism, especially World Wars I and II. In
the contemporary setting, the Swiss overwhelmingly support
multilingualism, and S draws our attention to the 75% public support
for the 1996 referendum that promoted minority languages beyond the
four national languages (German, French, Italian, and
Rhaeto-Romansch). S associates Swiss multilingualism with its
tradition of direct democracy (142).

8. The Politics of Language in the Late Twentieth Century

S draws conclusions from the previous chapters by introducing three
contemporary debates in US society around issues of language: what she
calls ''the Ebonics debate, the discussion about Puerto Rican
Statehood, and the bilingual controversy in California'' create hard
challenges for the dominant American myth of a cultural ''melting
pot'' (144).

9. Conclusion: The Future of Language Politics in the United States

In her conclusion S turns from the past to the future, to some degree
lamenting the policy future for language politics in California. In
this chapter a more synthetic view of language politics emerges, and S
briefly suggests that a ''defensive nationalism'' has emerged in the
US, despite the fact that ''bilingualism should be seen as a
complement to American pluralism rather than a challenge to English''


This is an important, often surprising, and thoughtful book. S's
command of the facts about American immigration and no less about
contemporary multilingual societies is impressive.

At the same time, this book frustrates, perhaps due to a title that
may not have been the author's choice. That title trumpets a subject
that the book does not manage to fully address: the politics of
language. While this is a general phrase that could have many
meanings, the fact is that this subject matter has become
widely-studied over the past few decades from many perspectives, and
many of these perspectives are not addressed at all in S's book. Of
particular note is the virtual lack of discussion of so-called
''minority'', ''endangered'' or ''indigenous'' language situations.
While S does mention briefly, for example, the situation of aboriginal
peoples in Canada, in general this material receives extremely scant
attention in the book.

Since the topic of the book is the politics of language, which is in
fact embraced by S herself several times through the book, it is hard
not to read the almost exclusive focus on modern languages and modern
societies as important but also as symptomatic. Many writers on this
subject, including Joshua Fishman himself, continually draw attention
to the lack of attention minority languages receive in modern
society. By paying so little attention to these situations, S helps to
reinforce the impression that, for example, contemporary American
language politics are all or mostly about Spanish/English
bilingualism, or that Swiss-style multilingualism represents the limit
of intra-group language interaction (as discussions of areas such as
the Amazon basin and Salishan Sprachbund would show). Due to the
highly specialized situation of modern languages such a focus cannot
help but obscure issues that come up in broader discussions, but for
those seeking an up-to-date guide to the contemporary policy and
sociological issues involved in US and European language politics,
this is a fine volume.


Baker, C. (1992). Attitudes and Languages. Clevedon, England:
Multilingual Matters.

Fishman, J. (1989). Language and Ethnicity in Minority Sociolinguistic
Perspective. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.

Fishman, J., ed. (2001). Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity. New
York: Oxford University Press.


The reviewer teaches digital media, cultural studies and theories of
language. He is Assistant Professor of Media Studies and English at
the University of Virginia.
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