LINGUIST List 24.2897

Mon Jul 15 2013

Review: Historical Linguistics; Sociolinguistics: Steinmetz (2011)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 21-Jun-2013
From: Maryam Borjian <>
Subject: Political Languages in the Age of Extremes
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Willebald SteinmetzTITLE: Political Languages in the Age of ExtremesPUBLISHER: Oxford University PressYEAR: 2011

REVIEWER: Maryam Borjian, Rutgers–New Brunswick


The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) once challenged thefoundation of modern linguistics set by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) as:“The entire destiny of modern linguistics is in fact determined by Saussure’sinaugural act through which he separates the ‘external’ elements oflinguistics from the ‘internal’ elements, and, by reserving the title oflinguistics for the latter, excludes from it all… the political history ofthose 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 initself” (Bourdieu, 1991: 33). Drawing on insights of his Russian predecessor,Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), Bourdieu argues that language is neither a meansof communication alone nor is it a system of ‘internal’ rules alone. Situatinglanguage within society, Bourdieu perceives language as a mechanism for powerand pleas for linguists to go beyond the ‘internal’ elements of language toequally take into account its ‘external’ elements and explore the interactionof 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 betaken as a response to Bourdieu’s call. Its fourteen papers were delivered atthe conference of the German Historical Institute in London in March 2004.Blending scholarship on history and linguistics, the volume examines therelationship between language and political power in the ‘age of extremes’, orthe ‘short twentieth century’, a term coined by Eric Hobsbawn (1917-2012), theBritish Marxist historian, to refer to the period between 1914 and 1991, whichbegins 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 worldwitnessed not only several wars, but also the rise and fall of many short- orlong-lived political ideologies, such as Bolshevism, Communism, Fascism, andNazism. The central question of the book is: To what extent and in what wayswas language used by those in positions of political power, or those fightingthem, to achieve certain goals and objectives across various localities in theWest—both in nations under totalitarian regimes and in those under democraticrule. The topics covered deal with a diverse range of subjects, with someexamples being: leadership cults under Stalin and Mussolini, depictions ofenemies in BBC broadcasts and a poster campaign in the USA, secret diarywriting under Nazism, and the defense strategies of Soviet party members andGestapo prisoners.


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

Part I, “Introduction”, comprises two chapters, with language and power as theunderlying theme, but with different methodologies. The first contribution, byWillibald Steinmetz, the volume’s editor, investigates language in itsrelationship to political power through a political-historical lens. Itintroduces this topic, sets the scope and framework of the volume, andprovides a run-through of its major themes.

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

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

The second contribution, from Judith Devlin, examines the Georgian artexhibition that was held in Moscow in 1937 for the twentieth anniversary ofthe October Revolution. Narrowing down her focus on the posters, paintings,and films of the exhibition, Devlin explores the ways in which Stalin wasportrayed by Georgian artists, whose portrayals, nonetheless, were carefullycontrolled by Stalin’s private office. Despite official suppression ofreligious beliefs in the Soviet Union, Devlin’s findings suggest thatBolsheviks, like their fascist counterparts, recognized the importance ofreligious myths, symbols, and narrations, judging by the way Stalin wasportrayed: “Stalin had been transformed from the General Secretary of theParty… into a mythical figure, a sort of supra-historical persona, whotranscended the constraints of historical circumstance and the limitations ofindividuality to become the Father of the Peoples, the embodiment of theRevolution, the State, and its inhabitants” (p. 102). In sum, the two studiesof this part reveal that in both contexts, attempts were made to borrow fromreligious language as a means to transfer legitimacy from former, traditionalbeliefs to newly emerged cults. Whereas the borrowing was explicit in fascistpolitical 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’, underexclusion, purge, imprisonment, etc., represents oneself to the omnipotent‘other’, who is not only the absolute authority, but also the judge whoprovides a framework for and decides the ‘appropriate’ forms of behavior andverbal expression. Igal Halfin explores how the Russian intelligentsia adapteditself to one-party rule during the 1920s. Through a close examination ofarchival documents, Halfin concludes that the Bolshevik’s plan was far moreambitious than consolidating power. They were, in fact, determined toconstruct a new identity on the part of Soviet citizens—an identity not shapedby a sacred text or past tradition, but rather by rationality, intellectualrigor, inspiration, agency, and above all, a profound devotion to thebrotherhood of the elect and the cause of proletarian.

The second contribution of this section is Isabel Richter’s paper, which drawson transcripts of Gestapo interrogations and clemency pleas found on hightreason trails in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. While writing their confessionalstatements or clemency pleas, these prisoners, as argued by Richter, conformedto certain narrative patterns and patterns of arguments as a means to meetcertain 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 WorldWar. Sian Nicholas examines BBC’s coverage of Germans and Nazis in the UK, andOlaf Stieglitz examines the portrayals of Japanese and Germans in the Americanmedia. Although in both contexts, government did not claim a center-stageposition, it, nonetheless, coordinated the process. Both papers offer insightson the power of words, images, sounds, and tones of propaganda duringwartimes.

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

Part IV is “The Growth of Linguistic Awareness in the Cold War Era”. Its fivechapters analyze political language between the American-led West and theSoviet-led East from 1940s to 1980s. It begins with the contribution by ThomasMergel, who offers a comparative analysis of the discourse of anti-Communismas the basis of political culture in the US and West Germany. The two nationsdiffered substantially in sketching the Communist ‘other’—the unknown,faithless enemy in the US vs. the familiar enemy in West Germany—but theirrhetoric converged over time.

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

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

The fourth chapter, by Gareth Jones, examines the impact of language on thefield of history. It begins with a brief overview of the evolution of thefield 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 premisethat there were no facts outside of language and no reality other than thatwhich presented itself under some linguistic description. Their impact wasnotable on every area of the humanities, and in particular, on the field ofhistory. Narrowing down his focus to British historiography from the 1960s to1990s, Jones argues that academic disputes about the ‘linguistic’ turn inhistoriography are interconnected with the political struggle of the Age ofExtreme

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


I believe that the volume as a whole has several noteworthy merits. First, itis interdisciplinary, as it blends scholarship on history, political science,and sociolinguistics, resulting in a rich collection of essays that introducesnew perspectives to the study of language and power. Second, notwithstandingits focus on the West, the volume has a transnational focus and is enriched byits comparison-across-space approach. Many patterns of language use andfunction have been examined across various localities with antagonisticpolitical ideologies. Third, the concept of ‘agency’, meaning the ability ofindividuals or institutions to act freely and independently, has received abalanced treatment in the book. Over the past two decades or so, agency hasoften been used as a means to assign power to bottom-up forces, the victims,or the ‘subalterns’, especially by postmodern scholars. Such a tendency hasoften 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 bothsides: to those in positions of power, such as politicians, state prosecutors,judges, chief ideologues and propagandists; and to those without politicalpower, including opponents, dissidents, and even prisoners. And last but notleast, the studies presented in this volume are mostly based on primarysources such as archival documents and records, autobiographies, andconfessional statements. As such, they offer a fresh interpretation of olddocuments, 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 ofstudy in this book. What is meant by ‘language’ here is not precisely the typeof device Saussure had in mind, i.e., a system of ‘internal’ rules, involvingphonology, morphology, and syntax, that is an object of investigation forstructural or generative linguists. It is, rather, the type of language PierreBourdieu, 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 justwritten and spoken forms, but also visual and audible signs, images andsymbols. Another point that merits attention is the interdisciplinary natureof the book. Although it is the volume’s intention to blend scholarship onhistory and linguistics, the major contributions of the volume comes fromhistorians rather than linguists, judging by the academic backgrounds of theauthors. Eleven of the fourteen chapters are contributed by historians whocrossed academic borders to apply a linguistic approach to examine languagethrough a historical lens.

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


Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and Symbolic Power. (edited and introduced byJohn 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).

Page Updated: 15-Jul-2013