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Review of  Language and National Identity. Comparing France and Sweden.

Reviewer: Cecelia Anne Cutler
Book Title: Language and National Identity. Comparing France and Sweden.
Book Author: Leigh Oakes
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): French
Issue Number: 13.1405

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Date: Sat, 18 May 2002 00:07:29 -0400
From: Cece Cutler
Subject: Oakes, Language and National Identity: Comparing France and Sweden

Oakes, Leigh (2001) Language and National Identity: Comparing France and Sweden. John Benjamins Publishing Company, x+305pp, hardback ISBN 1-58811-116-4, EUR 90, Impact, Studies in Language and Society 13.

Cecilia Cutler, New York University

This book is particularly timely in light of the recent presidential elections in France. Although National Front party leader Le Pen ultimately lost the final election to RPR candidate Jacques Chirac, Le Pen's success in the primary election may be an indication of a change in the way many French people, indeed many Europeans, are thinking about issues of language and identity in light of the growing number of immigrants living within their borders. This is a clearly written and highly readable book based on the author's doctoral dissertation. It provides a detailed comparative case study approach to explore questions of language and national identity in two European countries. The author chose to look at France and Sweden because they ostensibly represent two countries with very different conceptions of identity and attitudes towards language within the European Union. He provides an overview of the historical, cultural, and modern day political events that have shaped attitudes towards identity and language in France and Sweden, and supplements it with empirical data from a survey of 421 French and Swedish high school students on issues of language and identity.

Chapter 2 provides an overview of how the author defines terms like ethnicity, nationalism and linguistic variation. He makes an important distinction between ethnic and civic nations as a way to frame his analysis. So-called ethnic nations like Sweden, Germany and Japan are conceived of as extensions of the ethnic group whereas in civic nations like France or the USA, people are united around common laws and rights.

Chapter 3 sets up several theoretical frameworks including language attitude theory, social identity theory and ethnolinguistic identity theory. The author then critiques social identity and ethnolinguistic theory and provides a revised synthesis of these two approaches by incorporating accommodation theory (Giles et al 1987) and the concept of linguistic versus non-linguistic boundaries (Giles 1979).

Chapter 4 examines language attitudes and national identity strategies in France and Sweden, particularly with regard to the historical development of the relationship between language and national identity in those two countries. The author provides a brief history of the emergence of French linguistic consciousness in the 9th century following the declaration at the Council of Tours when it was stated that the use of the vernacular was permitted in sermons and homilies. Although a standard emerged first in the south (langue d'oc) by the end of the 11C, it was the langue d'oil, later known as the King's French or francois that eventually took hold and began to challenge Latin from the 13C-16C. Francois became the official language of the courts in 1539 and was codified in a number of documents in the mid 1500s. The Academie francaise was established in 1635 around the time that French emerged as the literary language of Europe. Although the leaders of the French Revolution were initially tolerant of multilingualism, concern emerged in the early 19th century about the fact that as many as 50% of Frenchmen did not speak French. Efforts were made to establish French as the only language of instruction in the schools. The rise of Napoleon and the subsequent colonial expansion led to the emergence of a more ethnic conception of French identity. This tendency developed further during the period of mid-19th century Romanticism. Gradually, the connection between the French nation and the French language grew stronger during the period of industrialization and subsequent migration of people from the countryside to the urban centers.

The emergence of Swedish ethnolinguistic and national consciousness gets much shorter shrift, but the historical situation there largely mirrored that of France for many centuries. Swedish emerged as a distinct language in 1300. National consciousness grew in the 16th century during the Reformation. Language purism movements and efforts to standardize Swedish characterized the 17th and 18th centuries and by the 19th century, Swedish emerged as the language of the nation. Mass emigration to the USA and the psychological effect of the union crisis with Norway led many to believe in the need to strengthen Swedish identity in the early 20th century. But by the 1930s, nationalism and the idea of national identity had been discredited and the belief that Swedes lacked national consciousness or had a negative or "inverted" nationalism gained currency. A new kind of nationalism arose in the 1980s during which time Swedes saw themselves as the world's conscience, as a model of socioeconomic equity, and high standards of living for the rest of the world. The recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s dealt a heavy blow to Swedish national pride, but a resurgence of nationalism and interest in Swedish culture has characterized the late 1990s. In recent years, Swedes have even witnessed the rise of extreme right-wing political parties.

Chapter 4 concludes with a discussion of contemporary manifestations of prescriptivism and general attitudes towards language in France and Sweden. France and Sweden can be said to contrast with respect to their respective approaches to language planning, tolerance of linguistic variation, and efforts to democratize the language through spelling reform, the simplification of official language, the introduction of feminism forms. France of course has a long tradition of language planning at the official level and has long resisted efforts to reform or democratize the French language. Sweden does engage in some language planning but in a much more low-key manner. There have been many governmental efforts to adopt plainer official language, simplify the spelling system, and adopt feminine forms for professions, titles, and positions in line with the liberal, progressive ideology of the political elite.

Chapter 5 looks at contrasting national identity strategies in Sweden and France and the role that regional and immigrant ethnolinguistic minorities have played in the construction of French and Swedish national identities. The author suggests that the identity that characterizes the national area is founded on that of the dominant ethnic core and this ethnic core relies on the presence of the Other (traditionally regional minorities and more recently immigrant minorities) to act as contradistinctions. Both France and Sweden had a laissez faire attitude towards regional minorities until the 18th century when they began engaging in covert and sometimes overt efforts to suppress ethnic and linguistic difference within their borders. The denigration of regional languages and dialects helped dominant groups maintain a positive ethnolinguistic identity. France is described as the most multilingual state in Europe with seven regional languages and a number of dialects. Certain regions were considered to pose a security risk to France (e.g. Alsace-Lorraine because of its linguistic and cultural ties to Germany, Brittany's open collaboration with the Nazis during WWII, and separatist movements in Brittany and Corsica). The response was a rejection of the notion of regional minorities and minority rights. Historically, immigrants from other parts of Europe assimilated quite easily into French society and the notion of assimilation was touted as a solution. But after WWII, the influx of immigrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa and Asia caused many to talk about "insertion" or "integration" as opposed to assimilation as a way of acknowledging the rights of immigrants to preserve aspects of their own culture. Nevertheless, immigrant minorities, especially those from francophone countries, are often discriminated against on the basis of language because many speak a non-standard variety.

The situation in Sweden with regard to language variation is somewhat different. Sweden has only two regional languages; Sami and Tornedelian Finnish. These minority languages were tolerated up until the 19th century when efforts were made to assimilate the Tornedalians through instruction exclusively in Swedish rather than both languages. The Sami were subjected to a form of segregation due to the belief that they were unsuited for modern life. Eventually, Swedish became the official language of instruction for Sami children as well. In the 1950s, a more humanitarian approach led to the elimination of the ban on speaking Finnish and Sami in school and the decision to allow Sami children to choose between nomad schools and general comprehensive schools. Immigration to Sweden up until the 19th century consisted mainly of Germans, Finnish and later Walloons and Estonians. Immigration waned until the inter-war period when Estonian and Jewish refugees from the Soviet and Nazi expansions sought refuge in Sweden. Post-war immigration from Yugoslavia, Turkey and Greece and the even larger waves of immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s from Iran, Iraq, East African and Central America posed a much greater challenge to Swedish identity than previous groups had. The official policy of assimilation was abandoned in the late 1960s in favor of a policy of multiculturalism, which promised immigrants equal rights and freedom to retain their homeland culture if they chose. But like in France, the idea that immigrants speak an inferior variety of the national language serves to reinforce psychological distinctiveness for ethnic Swedes. This leads the author to predict that language will come to play an increasingly important role in the construction of Swedish identity in years to come.

Chapter 6 looks at the French and Swedish responses to the idea of a new European identity and the role of language and language policy within the EU. There are understandable differences in the way France and Sweden view the European Union (EU). France was one of the founding members whereas Sweden only joined in 1995. But for the French, European integration has been viewed primarily as an extension of French nationalism and as a way to strengthen the French nation-state. The de facto role of French as the official language of the EEC until 1973 when the UK, Ireland and Denmark were granted entry has slowly been supplanted by English. The growing importance of English globally and within the EU has been more of an issue for France than it has for Sweden. Nevertheless, both the French and the Swedes have taken active measures to promote their respective languages within the European arena. In terms of identity, the ability the French to generate a positive identity for themselves within the EU has diminished, and fears about the potential loss of sovereignty have given rise to anti-European sentiments, particularly among political right-wingers. Swedes, although they have experienced a heightened awareness of their identity in recent years, generally have a positive attitude towards the EU. However they also have little expectation about any change in the minority status of Swedish within the EU and they have different attitudes than the French towards English.

Chapter 7 compares the language attitudes and national identity strategies of France and Sweden in the global arena. It looks in particular at how globalization and the spread of English play a role in diminishing a sense of psychological distinctiveness among the French and the Swedes. The decline of French as the international language of diplomacy and culture has led France to concentrate its efforts on building ties to "la Francophonie" where it can easily dominate. This allows the French to generate a positive sense of identity and to create a market that can compete with English as a world language. The Swedes, in contrast, have embraced English. The extent to which English has come to dominate certain domains in Sweden such as politics, education, business, culture, and entertainment is quite remarkable and has caused some real concern about the strength of the language. Yet the Swedes take great pride in their ability to speak English better than people from other nations such as France or Spain and this fact allows them to maintain a sense of distinctiveness. Unlike France, Sweden has embraced internationalism (and even the Anglo-American dominance) as an identity strategy by trying to play an active role in global organizations such as the UN.

Chapter 8 interprets and summarizes the results of a survey questionnaire conducted among 421 upper secondary school students in France and Sweden. The author tests four hypotheses that follow from the historical evidence and prior research presented in Chapters 4, 5 and 6. It was predicted that national and linguistic consciousness would be high in France and low in Sweden, and that attitudes towards minority languages would be negative in France and positive in Sweden. A second set of hypotheses proposed that the French generate a positive identity in the European arena and in the global arena through strategies of divergence whereas in Sweden this is accomplished through strategies of convergence.

The results were quite different than what the author predicted. National consciousness among French high school students, although high, was not as high as predicted. Nor was it as high as it was in Sweden. Sweden also had an unexpectedly high degree of linguistic consciousness and the author concludes that language is an important part of Swedish identity. With regard to minority languages, it was found, contrary to expectations, that attitudes were by and large positive among young people in France but somewhat negative (particularly towards Sami and Arabic) among young Swedes. The hypothesis that within the EU and at the global level, the French gain a positive sense of identity through divergence while the Swedes achieve this through convergence was also rejected on the basis of the survey results. Swedes were found to have quite a robust sense of national consciousness. Young people in France felt that it was possible to create a European identity more than young Swedes. While students in both France and Sweden rejected the idea of a single European language, the proposal that English could play this role was viewed negatively by the French and positively by the Swedish. Many of these findings point to a gap between the attitudes and policies of the elite and the intelligentsia versus in both France and Sweden. The finding that the French generally have favorable attitudes towards English confirmed the results of a previous study mentioned by the author, Flaitz 1988.

Chapter 9 concludes the book with a synthesis of the findings presented and provides suggestions for future research. The author notes that language attitudes, like certain linguistic markers, could be age-graded. Longitudinal studies of the way s in which language attitudes change as people age would certainly complement this type of comparative case-study approach. Finally, the author suggests that enlarging the number of respondents beyond the 421 involved in the study, looking at other variables such as sex, ethnicity, and location, and including other countries would be logical ways to extend this research.

This book offers a very comprehensive look at language and national identity in France and Sweden and provides a useful model for conducting similar comparative analyses. One question that emerges from this research is to what degree highly fluent foreigners are tolerated and the extent to which this is a reflection of a certain type of national identity. The Swedes, like the Japanese, often become highly suspect of outsiders who master their language whereas the French seem delighted by the efforts of foreigners to speak French. Finally, from a theoretical standpoint, it would be very interesting to expand this analysis by examining the semiotic processes that bear on language attitudes and ideologies such as indexicality, fractal recursivity, and erasure (cf. Irvine and Gal 2000).

Flaitz, J. (1988) The Ideology of English: French Perceptions of English as World Language. Berlin/New York/Amsterdam: Mouton de Gruyter.

Giles, H. (1979) "Ethnicity markers in speech." In Social Markers in Speech, K. R. Sherer and H. Giles (eds), 251-89. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Giles, H., Mulac, A., Bradac, J. J. and Johnson, P. (1987). "Speech accommodation theory: The next decade and beyond." In Communication Yearbook. Vol. 10. Newbury Park: Sage.

Irvine, Judith and Susan Gal (2000). "Language Ideology and Linguistic Differentiation." In Paul V. Kroskrity (ed.), Regimes of Language. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research. Press. Pp. 35-83.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER Cecilia Cutler received her Ph.D. in linguistics from New York University in May 2002. Her interests include sociolinguistic questions pertaining to language and identity, language ideologies, and the dynamics of outgroup language use.