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LINGUIST List 24.2897

Mon Jul 15 2013

Review: Historical Linguistics; Sociolinguistics: Steinmetz (2011)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <rajivlinguistlist.org>

Date: 21-Jun-2013
From: Maryam Borjian <mborjianrci.rutgers.edu>
Subject: Political Languages in the Age of Extremes
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/24/24-529.html

EDITOR: Willebald Steinmetz
TITLE: Political Languages in the Age of Extremes
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2011

REVIEWER: Maryam Borjian, Rutgers–New Brunswick


The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) once challenged the
foundation of modern linguistics set by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) as:
“The entire destiny of modern linguistics is in fact determined by Saussure’s
inaugural act through which he separates the ‘external’ elements of
linguistics from the ‘internal’ elements, and, by reserving the title of
linguistics for the latter, excludes from it all… the political history of
those who speak it, or even the geography of the domain where it is spoken,
because all of these things add nothing to a knowledge of language taken in
itself” (Bourdieu, 1991: 33). Drawing on insights of his Russian predecessor,
Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), Bourdieu argues that language is neither a means
of communication alone nor is it a system of ‘internal’ rules alone. Situating
language within society, Bourdieu perceives language as a mechanism for power
and pleas for linguists to go beyond the ‘internal’ elements of language to
equally take into account its ‘external’ elements and explore the interaction
of language with many other variables within society such as power, politics,
and ideology.

The volume under review, ‘Political Languages in the Age of Extremes’, can be
taken as a response to Bourdieu’s call. Its fourteen papers were delivered at
the conference of the German Historical Institute in London in March 2004.
Blending scholarship on history and linguistics, the volume examines the
relationship between language and political power in the ‘age of extremes’, or
the ‘short twentieth century’, a term coined by Eric Hobsbawn (1917-2012), the
British Marxist historian, to refer to the period between 1914 and 1991, which
begins with the First World War and ends with the fall of the Soviet Union.
Thus, the short 20th century refers to a long epoch, in which the world
witnessed not only several wars, but also the rise and fall of many short- or
long-lived political ideologies, such as Bolshevism, Communism, Fascism, and
Nazism. The central question of the book is: To what extent and in what ways
was language used by those in positions of political power, or those fighting
them, to achieve certain goals and objectives across various localities in the
West—both in nations under totalitarian regimes and in those under democratic
rule. The topics covered deal with a diverse range of subjects, with some
examples being: leadership cults under Stalin and Mussolini, depictions of
enemies in BBC broadcasts and a poster campaign in the USA, secret diary
writing under Nazism, and the defense strategies of Soviet party members and
Gestapo prisoners.


The volume is organized in four parts, roughly corresponding to various time
periods in the long course of the ‘short 20th century’.

Part I, “Introduction”, comprises two chapters, with language and power as the
underlying theme, but with different methodologies. The first contribution, by
Willibald Steinmetz, the volume’s editor, investigates language in its
relationship to political power through a political-historical lens. It
introduces this topic, sets the scope and framework of the volume, and
provides a run-through of its major themes.

In the second paper, Angelika Linke provides a brief introduction to the
volume’s main topic through a linguistic lens, with an emphasis on pragmatics.
She touches on a number of concepts, such as politics as linguistic
performances, the function and magic of communicative practices, and
linguistic performance and identity, among others. Taken together, both
studies offer introductory insights to the overall theme of the volume.

Part II, “The Rise of the Dictators and the Semantics of Leadership”, covers
two papers on political language in the cults of Mussolini and Stalin. The
first contribution, by Emilio Gentile, challenges the idea that fascist
political language can be examined through a linguistic analysis alone, such
as by classifying it as manipulation, deception, and demagogy. Arguing that
fascism consisted of three dimensions—military, bureaucracy and religion—the
author compares the patterns of language use among fascist propagandists with
those of the Catholic Church in order to reflect on their commonalities: the
central place of a supra being (God vs. the leader), the importance of
homeland (the Holy Roman Empire vs. the glorious nation), the absolute truth
(Catholic vs. fascist), and morality and family values as central themes. This
religious dimension of fascist political language, as argued by Gentile, was
the main impute behind its popularity. A dimension that survived the fall of
fascism and its traces can be found in the discourse of neo-fascists and
post-fascists in today’s Italy.

The second contribution, from Judith Devlin, examines the Georgian art
exhibition that was held in Moscow in 1937 for the twentieth anniversary of
the October Revolution. Narrowing down her focus on the posters, paintings,
and films of the exhibition, Devlin explores the ways in which Stalin was
portrayed by Georgian artists, whose portrayals, nonetheless, were carefully
controlled by Stalin’s private office. Despite official suppression of
religious beliefs in the Soviet Union, Devlin’s findings suggest that
Bolsheviks, like their fascist counterparts, recognized the importance of
religious myths, symbols, and narrations, judging by the way Stalin was
portrayed: “Stalin had been transformed from the General Secretary of the
Party… into a mythical figure, a sort of supra-historical persona, who
transcended the constraints of historical circumstance and the limitations of
individuality to become the Father of the Peoples, the embodiment of the
Revolution, the State, and its inhabitants” (p. 102). In sum, the two studies
of this part reveal that in both contexts, attempts were made to borrow from
religious language as a means to transfer legitimacy from former, traditional
beliefs to newly emerged cults. Whereas the borrowing was explicit in fascist
political language, it was implicit in that of their Bolshevik counterparts.

Part III, “Mind Your Words! Policing Linguistic Boundaries (1920s -1940s)”,
consists of five chapters. The first two deal with the representation of
‘self’, with the central question being how the powerless ‘self’, under
exclusion, purge, imprisonment, etc., represents oneself to the omnipotent
‘other’, who is not only the absolute authority, but also the judge who
provides a framework for and decides the ‘appropriate’ forms of behavior and
verbal expression. Igal Halfin explores how the Russian intelligentsia adapted
itself to one-party rule during the 1920s. Through a close examination of
archival documents, Halfin concludes that the Bolshevik’s plan was far more
ambitious than consolidating power. They were, in fact, determined to
construct a new identity on the part of Soviet citizens—an identity not shaped
by a sacred text or past tradition, but rather by rationality, intellectual
rigor, inspiration, agency, and above all, a profound devotion to the
brotherhood of the elect and the cause of proletarian.

The second contribution of this section is Isabel Richter’s paper, which draws
on transcripts of Gestapo interrogations and clemency pleas found on high
treason trails in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. While writing their confessional
statements or clemency pleas, these prisoners, as argued by Richter, conformed
to certain narrative patterns and patterns of arguments as a means to meet
certain purposes, including being pardoned from death.

The next two chapters deal with the concept of representation of the
‘other’—the depiction of the enemy in the US and UK during the Second World
War. Sian Nicholas examines BBC’s coverage of Germans and Nazis in the UK, and
Olaf Stieglitz examines the portrayals of Japanese and Germans in the American
media. Although in both contexts, government did not claim a center-stage
position, it, nonetheless, coordinated the process. Both papers offer insights
on the power of words, images, sounds, and tones of propaganda during

Part III concludes with Heidrun Kämper’s paper on diaries written by
dissidents in Nazi Germany. In addition to their strong commitment to telling
the truth, or offering a counter-truth to those of the Nazis, the authors of
the diaries saw their act of writing like having a conversation, which is
regarded as an example of a ‘communicative act’ by Kämper. Taken together, the
five studies of this section offer interesting insights on political
languages, including individual agency, the function and purpose of language
use under conditions of extreme ideological confrontation and terror, and the
representation of ‘self’ and ‘other’, to name but a few.

Part IV is “The Growth of Linguistic Awareness in the Cold War Era”. Its five
chapters analyze political language between the American-led West and the
Soviet-led East from 1940s to 1980s. It begins with the contribution by Thomas
Mergel, who offers a comparative analysis of the discourse of anti-Communism
as the basis of political culture in the US and West Germany. The two nations
differed substantially in sketching the Communist ‘other’—the unknown,
faithless enemy in the US vs. the familiar enemy in West Germany—but their
rhetoric converged over time.

On the other side of the Berlin Wall stood the East Germany, the subject of
Ralph Jessen’s chapter. Narrowing down his focus to popular humor and jokes,
Jessen demonstrates the limits of imposed official propaganda and the
resistance of ordinary citizens of East Germany to such an imposition. If
official propaganda of promoted a particular language and defined relations of
inclusion and exclusion, popular jokes and humor served a similar purpose for
those who refused to accept the state’s highly top-down, ideological,
homogenized, scandalized, and territorialized identity, and thus, sought to
construct their own counter-discourse.

In the next chapter, Martin Geyer takes on the fear of a rapid language change
that arose among West Germans in the 1970s. They feared not only the widening
language gulf between the two Germanys, but also the profound number of
leftist terms and jargon introduced to the language of public discourse
throughout the rise of the student movement. The outcome was the state’s
intervention through a language purification strategy, removing all ‘unwanted’
leftist terms and jargon from German. The official justification for this
action was the removal of ‘language barriers’ that blocked governmental
communication with people.

The fourth chapter, by Gareth Jones, examines the impact of language on the
field of history. It begins with a brief overview of the evolution of the
field of linguistics in the 20th century, notably, Saussure’s descriptive,
Wittgenstein’s empiricist, and Chomsky’s rationalist approaches to language.
What all these approaches had in common, as Jones maintains, was the premise
that there were no facts outside of language and no reality other than that
which presented itself under some linguistic description. Their impact was
notable on every area of the humanities, and in particular, on the field of
history. Narrowing down his focus to British historiography from the 1960s to
1990s, Jones argues that academic disputes about the ‘linguistic’ turn in
historiography are interconnected with the political struggle of the Age of

In the concluding chapter of the volume, Ruth Wodak examines the
revival/continuity of anti-Semitism in post-WWII Austria. Using discourse
analysis as her method of inquiry, Wodak argues that the new form of
anti-Semitism in Europe, though it is built upon the old form, has new
features, including a move away from past guilt. This is, in turn, due to many
reasons, including the current crises in the Middle East and the formation of
a new rhetoric in Europe, which, in Wodak’s view, equates Israeli policies
with those of Nazis. Taken together, the contributions of the last part of the
volume present insights on the growth of linguistic awareness during the long
course of the Cold War in areas that include language change, language
purification, communicative acts, communicative spaces, and the discourse of
inclusion and exclusion, to name a few.


I believe that the volume as a whole has several noteworthy merits. First, it
is interdisciplinary, as it blends scholarship on history, political science,
and sociolinguistics, resulting in a rich collection of essays that introduces
new perspectives to the study of language and power. Second, notwithstanding
its focus on the West, the volume has a transnational focus and is enriched by
its comparison-across-space approach. Many patterns of language use and
function have been examined across various localities with antagonistic
political ideologies. Third, the concept of ‘agency’, meaning the ability of
individuals or institutions to act freely and independently, has received a
balanced treatment in the book. Over the past two decades or so, agency has
often been used as a means to assign power to bottom-up forces, the victims,
or the ‘subalterns’, especially by postmodern scholars. Such a tendency has
often led agency-oriented research to overlook the agency of top-down forces.
Yet, we find in the volume under review the assignment of agency to both
sides: to those in positions of power, such as politicians, state prosecutors,
judges, chief ideologues and propagandists; and to those without political
power, including opponents, dissidents, and even prisoners. And last but not
least, the studies presented in this volume are mostly based on primary
sources such as archival documents and records, autobiographies, and
confessional statements. As such, they offer a fresh interpretation of old
documents, which offers new dimensions to the study of political languages.

A word needs to be said about the types of language that are the objects of
study in this book. What is meant by ‘language’ here is not precisely the type
of device Saussure had in mind, i.e., a system of ‘internal’ rules, involving
phonology, morphology, and syntax, that is an object of investigation for
structural or generative linguists. It is, rather, the type of language Pierre
Bourdieu, Jack Derrida and Michel Foucault had in mind. In this sense,
language is a system of ‘external’ rules, or a mechanism of power. Thus,
language, as studied in this volume, is a broad device that includes not just
written and spoken forms, but also visual and audible signs, images and
symbols. Another point that merits attention is the interdisciplinary nature
of the book. Although it is the volume’s intention to blend scholarship on
history and linguistics, the major contributions of the volume comes from
historians rather than linguists, judging by the academic backgrounds of the
authors. Eleven of the fourteen chapters are contributed by historians who
crossed academic borders to apply a linguistic approach to examine language
through a historical lens.

The volume is very well edited and provides a wealth of new ideas and
information on political language. It is beneficial to anyone with an interest
in language, politics and power, not only in the Western world of the 20th
century, but also around the world in its global phase of the 21st century;
after all, totalitarian and fundamentalist regimes are still ruling many


Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and Symbolic Power. (edited and introduced by
John Thompson and translated by Gino Raymond & Matthew Adamson). Cambridge,
Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.


Maryam Borjian is an Assistant Professor in the Department of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Literatures and the Coordinator of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian Language Programss at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Her research interests are in the areas of educational linguistics, sociolinguistics, and language policy and planning in the contexts of colonializtion, modernization and globalization. She is the author of English in Post-Revolutionary Iran: From Indigenization to Internationalization (Multilingual Matters, 2013).
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