Review of The Politics of Language: Conflict, Identity, And Cultural Pluralism in Comparative Perspective
|Date: Sun, 28 Mar 2004 15:39:42 -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 Press.
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
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
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 States.
3. Immigrant Exclusion and Language Restriction in the Twentieth Century
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 restriction.
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 Pluralism
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" (178).
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
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.
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
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.