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Review of  Voices of Modernity

Reviewer: Noriko Watanabe
Book Title: Voices of Modernity
Book Author: Richard Bauman Charles L. Briggs
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 15.3295

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Date: Tue, 23 Nov 2004 10:17:02 -0500
From: Noriko Watanabe
Subject: Voices of Modernity: Language Ideologies and the Politics of

AUTHORS: Bauman, Richard; Briggs, Charles L.
TITLE: Voices of Modernity
SUBTITLE: Language Ideologies and the Politics of Inequality
SERIES: Studies in the Social and Cultural Foundations of Language
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2003

Noriko Watanabe, Baruch College of the City University of New York


This book traces the genesis of the linguistic construction of modernity
by scrutinizing linguistic ideologies of philosophers, philologists,
folklorists, and anthropologists beginning in seventeenth century England
and Europe. The authors believe that by mining the three hundred years of
intellectual history of modernity, they will elucidate the systematic
oppression and marginalization of voices through what is legitimized as
language. The book is critically important to any linguist, because it
demands a reexamination of what it means to conduct linguistic research in
light of their insight, no matter what current theoretical stance one
takes. It is a meta-theoretical and philosophical evaluation of academic
scholarship on language in the modern era. Further, it addresses the
issue of representation of language and culture that often is ignored or
which remains unquestioned in some linguistic projects. In this sense, the
volume belongs to the body of work in sociology that reflexively examines
the practices of the academia itself. In this book, these two well-
respected scholars with lifelong experience working with language propose
an ambitious and daunting task for all linguists.


The volume consists of nine chapters, including an introductory chapter.
The introductory chapter outlines the role of language in the construction
of modernity. The authors point out that the language ideology of
modernity places legitimacy on purified, scientific, and printed language,
thereby demoting the status of and marginalizing language that falls
outside of these circumscribed categories. It is a systematic oppression
of voices that are constructed as Other, often under the rubric of

Chapter two traces the roots of modernity in the works of Francis Bacon
and John Locke and their views of language. Bacon initiated purification
of language that is essential to his concept of knowledge, whereas Locke
promoted the idea of creating language free from ornamental excess and
social indexical meanings that produce discursive and reflexive
dimensions. The privilege to acquire such purified language is by
definition bestowed upon 'gentlemen' and their circle, thereby
marginalizing and discrediting the language of people other than the
selected group.

Chapter three examines the roles of antiquarians and philologists,
including John Aubrey, Thomas Blackwell, Robert Wood, Robert Lowth and
others, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the
construction of modernity, or rather construction of Other as opposed to
the civilized, intellectual and authoritative modern man. Antiquarians
contributed to the portrayal of the past as vulgar, ignorant, and lacking
sophistication, and linked orality with the major vehicle of
conservatism. In turn, orality is also assigned to the domain of women
through old songs and other speech genres and activities. Therefore,
Bauman and Briggs (B & B hereafter) point out that language of modernity
is gendered and temporalized.

In Chapter four, the construction of the Ossian epic by MacPherson and the
subsequent analysis of the epic by Hugh Blair against the backdrop of the
Scottish Enlightenment are examined. McPherson's entextualization of the
Ossian epic unfortunately involved reconstruction of the oral epic.
Blair's analysis of the epic as it was texualized by McPherson attempts to
link the epic with established textual reference, attributing to it some
characteristics of Homeric verses.

Chapter five studies the language ideology of Johann Godfried Herder, a
German scholar of philology. In contrast to Locke's view of language,
Herder celebrates social dimension of language instead of demonizing
rhetoric, orally transmitted culture, and ambiguity as the enemy of
reasoning that is necessary for clarity of thought. His romantic
nationalism idealizes the oral texts of common people as the essence of
their culture. The idealization, however, casts the people's language
into the past under the rubric of 'tradition'.

Chapter six interprets the entextualization process involved in the
Brothers Grimm work "Kinder und Hausemärchen", a collection of spoken
narratives told by the people, 'Volk'. Their claims of authenticity,
purity and fidelity of the written text are in fact ensured by their
efforts to select and edit the text in compliance with their imagining of
the nation and what constitutes tradition in the nation. Their
articulation of a language ideology that poses three developmental stages
of language depict poeticity in the light of the past and in the realm of
the disappearing tradition of the people, who cannot recognize the value
of the language themselves. B & B further interpret the commercial success
of the Grimms' publication in relation to other studies of modernism,
including the works of Pierre Bourdieu and Benedict Anderson.

Chapter seven describes the works of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft on collections
of Ojibwe narrative texts. B & B point out that Schoolcraft believed in
the value of the stories as signs of intellect and creativity of the
native mind, and he followed Grimms' footsteps in editing some features of
the narrative to fit his idea of presentable texts on par with literary
texts he deemed important and valuable in the publishing market of the
time. Schoolcraft considered his collections to be windows into the mind
of the natives, and he cast himself in the role of the mediator of the
purified form of culture.

Chapter eight is a critical examination of Franz Boas's works. B & B
acknowledge that Boas advocated social justice, promoted cosmopolitanism,
aimed to expel xenophobia, and struggled against imperialism and
colonialism. He believed that every language is unique and rejected the
evolutionary view of language and culture. Nevertheless, like Herder and
the Grimms, Boas links tradition with culture, and therefore placed a
great emphasis on collecting texts in the native languages. In his view,
tradition contrasts with rationality of the modern world, and the carriers
of the tradition do not possess the ability to represent themselves in a
conscious, scientific and rational way. The distrust of the natives and of
their representations of their own cultures ensures inequality: as B & B
put it, "The difficulty is that the fundamental modernist move of claiming
consciousness and rationality for oneself and one's followers and denying
it to others was embedded deeply within the concept of culture that lay at
the heart of this project"(p.298).

In the conclusion chapter, B & B discuss contemporary issues related to
the 'modern' view of language, including the English only movement in the
U.S., the controversies surrounding Ebonics and its role in education, the
United Nations' attempt to "protect(ing)and safeguard(ing) folklore", and
the UNESCO's recommendations for a similar goal. The authors, however,
are determined not to give answers to the burning question of how can we
scholars be free from the filter of modernity and the reproduction of
inequality in our research. Instead, B & B lays out several suggestions
for research practice.


The volume is an impressive piece of scholarship whose contribution is to
integrate the study of language with the research on modernity in other
social science and humanities disciplines. It relates their project to key
works in the study of modernity, e.g., Anderson (1991), Z. Bauman (1987),
Chakrabarty (1992, 2000), Chartterjee (1993) and Latour (1993). It also
provides a perspective on the history of linguistics in a broader context
of intellectual history of the modern era.

Although reading the critique of works that encompass a wide range of
disciplines and time periods was a challenging task at times, I enjoyed
reading B & B's focused arguments. In particular I was struck by the
valorized yet devaluing meanings that were ascribed to oral narratives by
a number of thinkers who are discussed in the book.

As I have mentioned earlier, B & B refuse to provide answers to the
question of how to avoid the danger of modernity, which is so pervasive
that it becomes very difficult to sort out. "It seems clear that two white
middle-class North American men are not in a position to dictate what
would constitute an enlightened position on language and tradition for all
readers of this book" (p. 316). Instead, the authors offer six
suggestions for critical examination of research practice. I agree with B
& B that providing simplistic answers will not be wise. I wish, however,
the authors would examine contemporary approaches to anthropological and
linguistic research more extensively. For example, in what ways and how
successfully have the authors been able to circumvent the problems of
modernity in their own research projects? The readers will benefit from
more discussions of applications of the wisdom that derives from the book.

I believe the book is an important piece that provides the missing link
between language and politics of modernist culture. It spells out the
role of language in our society, culture and research practice which is
deeply embedded in the shadow of modernity.


Anderson, Benedict. 1991[1983]. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the
Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Revised edition. London: Verso.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 1987. Legislators and Interpreters: On Modernity,
Postmodernity and Intellectuals. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 1992. Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History:
Who Speaks for Indian Pasts? Representations, 37:1-26.

-----. 2000. Deprovincializing Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University

Chatterjee, Partha. 1993. The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and
Postcolonial Histories. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Catherine Porter, trans.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Noriko Watanabe teaches at Baruch College of the The City University of
New York. Her research interests include discourse analysis, oral
narrative, language ideology and Japanese naming practice.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0521008972
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 374
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