LINGUIST List 13.3274

Wed Dec 11 2002

Review: Sociolinguistics: De Swaan(2001)

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  • Prisca Augustyn, De Swaan(2001), Words of the World

    Message 1: De Swaan(2001), Words of the World

    Date: Tue, 10 Dec 2002 13:25:32 +0000
    From: Prisca Augustyn <>
    Subject: De Swaan(2001), Words of the World

    De Swaan, Abram (2001) Words of the World: The Global Language System. Polity Press, paperback ISBN 0-7456-2748-X, vii+253pp, $31.95.

    Book Announcement on Linguist:

    Prisca Augustyn, Florida Atlantic University.

    Abram De Swaan compares five different language constellations (India, Indonesia, Africa, South Africa, and the European Union) in order to explain the dynamics of the global language system by combining 'notions from economics, linguistics, history, political science and sociology in a synthetic perspective' (xi). While the book is intended to merge the perspectives of multiple disciplines, its outcome may not inform all of the respective fields alike. The recurrent questions are 'Why the former colonial languages have persisted so tenaciously in these countries after Independence' [and whether] 'English [will] continue to function as the pivot of the global language constellation'(17). Even though De Swaan makes cautious references to socio-linguistic parameters, his focus is on political and economic patterns, because 'it is a book about competition and compromise' (ibid.).

    'This material is approached from a theoretical perspective that combines a political sociology of language with a political economy of language. The twofold theoretical approach allows us to compare and separate the language constellations within a common conceptual framework' (18).

    In his introduction, De Swaan employs the analogy of a 'galaxy of languages' in order to introduce the notion of 'supercentral' languages, and the 'hypercentral' language English, which illustrates his view of the global language system as a constellation of competing centers and peripheries. Chapters two and three continue his theoretical discussion. In chapter two, De Swaan defines languages as 'hypercollective goods' outlining the general characteristics of languages from the perspective of a 'political economy of language constellations'; he suggests that 'languages may be compared with standards, and with networks' (28). Central to this notion of languages as 'goods' is the communication value, or 'Q-value', of languages:

    'The interpretation of the Q-value is quite straightforward. The first component, the prevalence, is the proportion of speakers in a constellation that can be directly contacted with the languages in a given repertoire. The second factor, the centrality, indicates the number of connections, or multilingual speakers, that link the languages in this repertoire with all others, as a proportion of all connections between languages in a constellation' (36).

    In chapter three, de Swaan deals with the 'unequal exchange of texts'; his central questions are 'how does the theory of free trade vs. protectionism apply to language-bound cultural exchange, and what can be said on the collective aspects of the dilemmas of language loyalty vs. language defection?' (43) In this context, De Swaan discusses the 'dumping' of American Film and TV productions on the European market that is counteracted by petitions and campaigns for tariffs and quotas on American Films and government subsidies for European authors and performers. While this issue warrants considerations regarding the dynamics of cultural expression and national identity, De Swaan's discussion remains safely on the political-economic level, comparing the constellations of Europe and the former colonies. De Swaan notes repeatedly that sociolinguists have so far neglected the theoretical concepts of economic theory (cf. 28, 57) and laments that 'the rivalry and accommodation between language groups have so far only received scant theoretical attention' (57). Even though he invokes such notions as 'ethnic identity' or 'cultural heritage', he may be overly optimistic about their connection 'to the core concepts of social science' (59) when he promotes his political-economic perspective as a more general theory of cultural capital.

    'In this science of human societies, a very long-term, large-scale view of the human species in evolution provides the conceptual background for an analysis of competing (and therefore also collaborating) groups, composed of individuals who in the short run are alert in scheming in protecting their resources and realizing some of their opportunities, with and against each other' (59).

    Chapters four through eight discuss the language constellations of India, Indonesia, Africa, South Africa, and the European Union. Each chapter is divided into several thematic sections on the pertinent aspects of the particular language constellation followed by a discussion. While the situation in India is characterized by the rivalry between Hindi and English in a similar way French is competing with several languages in Africa, 'Gandhi's dream' of the triumph of an indigenous language over the language of the colonizers was realized in Indonesia with Bahasa Indonesia, a version of Malay. De Swaan attributes these developments primarily to the diverging policies of the former colonial powers, tracing the political, economic, and religious factors that contributed to the competition between indigenous and colonial languages. In post-Apartheid South Africa, language policies promoting African languages by grouping them into the concepts of Nguni and Sutu have actually weakened the position of individual languages against English and Afrikaans. De Swaan's dictum for the European Union (EU) is 'the more languages, the more English'. While he distinguishes between different levels of communication in the EU, his discussion remains on a general pan-European perspective, often making generalizations that leave the reader unclear which EU country they may apply to. In particular, the issue of language policy could have been pursued with more attention to the particular strategies and approaches in different EU countries. Instead, De Swaan discusses language policy in the EU largely in terms of 'ranking' according to Q-value and status:

    'Clearly, from the moment that it become [sic] an official language of the Community, English gained the edge over the other languages. French, still a strong option, was already on the losing end, but remained ahead of German in third position' (156).

    Even though De Swaan provides a fairly neutral presentation throughout his book, he closes his chapter on the EU language constellation on an optimistic note, pointing to the positive aspects of multilingualism in spite of the exorbitant costs of translation and interpretation (estimated at 700 million Euros) that continue to grow with every new member nation:

    'And yet the costs of translation from and into all official languages of the Union, for correspondence, the publication of major decisions, and interpretation of the full sessions of Council and Parliament, may be worthwhile. Its multilingualism is a visible and audible manifestation of the Union's respect for the equality and autonomy of the member nations. [] And finally, the formation of a corps of translators and interpreters [] is also an important investment in the cultural rapprochement between these nations, which so far have rarely communicated directly with each other' (173).

    Chapter nine includes a summary of all the important theoretical considerations introduced in chapters two and three as well as synopses of chapters four through eight. This makes the book somewhat repetitive in the presentation of facts and key notions. In particular, the chapters on the five different language constellations (India, Indonesia, Africa, South Africa, and the European Union) are often digressive, repeating information already stated in previous sections or chapters. All bibliographical references and footnotes appear at the end and are divided by chapter; the book also includes an index.


    Prisca Augustyn is Assistant Professor of German and Linguistics in the Department of Languages & Linguistics at Florida Atlantic University. Her research focuses on the semiotic implications of linguistic data of prime cultural significance. She is currently working on a project concerning the influence of Globalization on the German language.