LINGUIST List 28.432

Fri Jan 20 2017

Review: Corsican; Irish; Welsh; Sami; Socioling: Coupland, Kelly-Holmes, Jaffe, Pietikäinen (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 03-Nov-2016
From: Sven Leuckert <>
Subject: Sociolinguistics from the Periphery
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Sari Pietikäinen
AUTHOR: Alexandra Jaffe
AUTHOR: Helen Kelly-Holmes
AUTHOR: Nikolas Coupland
TITLE: Sociolinguistics from the Periphery
SUBTITLE: Small Languages in New Circumstances
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Sven Leuckert, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


In the first chapter of their book, entitled “Small languages in new circumstances?”, Sari Pietikäinen, Helen Kelly-Holmes, Alexandra Jaffe, and Nikolas Coupland introduce both the languages they will analyse and some of the major concepts and theoretical issues of relevance to the book. The four languages under scrutiny – Sámi, Corsican, Irish, and Welsh – are ‘small languages’ in the sense that they do not have many speakers compared to the major languages of the countries they are spoken in, and in the sense that there is a diminished number of speakers of these languages who claim a shared cultural identity. This concept of ‘smallness’ is the first of three introduced concepts, the other two being ‘new circumstances’ and ‘periphery’. ‘New circumstances’ refers to the reassessment of how these languages are perceived, as they are, for instance, used in marketing now. In addition, new circumstances refers to the ever-changing dynamics of bilingual and multilingual practices. Periphery, finally, describes the fact that the languages are spoken in peripheral regions (Sámi as a language spoken in the northern regions of Europe being a case in point).

The second chapter, called “Reflexivity and small languages. The ‘meta’ imperative in late modernity”, looks at the relation between a ‘heightened reflexivity’ associated with late modernity and the four languages under consideration. After the authors provide some background information on reflexivity and meta-discourses about language, they introduce three generalisations characterising the issues of reflexivity with regard to small languages: (1) “The sociolinguistic history of small languages becomes fractured and discontinuous”, “[s]mall languages are ‘over-exposed’, and “[s]mall languages exist in cluttered fields of competing ideologies” (p. 41). In other words, new means of expression, but also rethinking of traditional meta-discussions about language, reshape the current sociolinguistic reality of small languages. Four case studies, one for each language, are provided as illustrations of these matters. In Wales, the practice of so-called ‘linguistic landscaping’ is indicative of a heightened reflexivity. Linguistic landscaping includes, for instance, parallel texting in Welsh and English, or playful recontextualisations as in the approximated pronunciation that is offered for people who do not speak Welsh, but may want to be able to pronounce the famous place name Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. For Sámi and Corsican, two relatively similar scenarios are described. In the case of Sámi, the political and cultural centre Sajos in the village Inari is at once a manifestation of Sámi language and culture and a place indicating a change in discourses about the language. Similarly, the Corsican Galea Park, an open-air museum, gives visitors insight into Corsican culture, but consciously leaves out explicit meta-discourses about the Corsican language. Finally, a new trend of ‘Sexy Irish’ in Ireland is a commercially motivated way of promoting Irish, be it in beer commercials or by having particularly attractive speakers of Irish on television. All these examples underline reflexivity as an “enabling condition” (p. 68), as discussions and meta-discussions about language are no longer subject to normative constraints and are negotiated in new ways.

Chapter 3 – “Conventional and transactional authenticities in small-culture tourism” – considers the role of authenticity in creating and establishing images conveyed to tourists visiting the four countries under scrutiny. The authors introduce conventional authenticities and transactional authenticities, suggesting that the latter fits the four languages and the aforementioned period of heightened reflexivity better. Four core aspects of authenticity, namely historicity, place, products, and personhood, are then described by looking at actual examples from the four languages. These four aspects, however, cannot be viewed as independent loci carrying and shaping authenticity; according to the authors, authenticity needs to be seen not as “a singular quality but rather an assemblage of signs and components that do the work of authentication” (p. 102). Reflexivity is mentioned again in this context, as authenticity needs to fulfil current needs more than it does universal or traditional expectations.

The fourth chapter, “Expanding possibilities for commodification. Luxury, mobility, visuality”, focuses on the changing conditions that led to increased opportunities for commodification both for and because of small languages. As outlined in the first chapter of the book, small languages may be, and, in fact, are, commercially exploited. In an increasingly commodified and saturated market, creating specific niches is necessary and can be achieved by taking advantage of small languages. Small languages thus represent a gateway to marketing luxury goods, whose use is primarily rhetorical and social, but they may themselves become luxury goods to some extent as well. In the case of Sámi, a local village hotel was turned into a tourist destination going by the name of ‘Tradition Hotel Kultahovi’, which was upgraded and renovated to meet modern customer needs. Interestingly, the name of the hotel combines English and Sámi, and local billboards feature the endangered Inari Sámi language rather than the more common Northern Sámi. Welsh, in turn, is used in the marketing of the Cwtch restaurant franchise and the salt brand Halen Môn. The latter indicates the transition from a mundane, everyday product to a valuable luxury good by using Welsh language and specific marketing discourse. In Corsica, regional institutions are concerned with highlighting local producers and creative renaming, while in Ireland, tattoos in Irish signify a trend towards an increased visibility of the language and hint at ‘active consumers’.

In Chapter 5, “Transgression, small languages and changing boundaries”, the authors are concerned with the notion of transgression and how it applies to four small languages. They frequently refer to Foucault (1977, 1998) and describe transgression as being “centrally concerned with how boundaries are made, challenged and changed” (p. 152). Striving for transformations in this sense can be more radical (e.g. by sometimes even violent acts of resistance) or less radical (e.g. by means of parody and humour). The focus of this chapter is on the latter, with examples given for parodies in the domains of media, marketing, and tourism. Boundaries of interest here are, amongst others, between the ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ and native and new speakers. Examples include the supraregional broadcast of a Sámi TV comedy, which crosses not only genre and gender boundaries, but also tackles the discourse of Sámi language endangerment (Pietikäinen 2015). Thus, while the producer-presenters of the TV show mock the topic by exaggerating matters, they also make the problem of language endangerment known to a wider audience. In Wales, the media figure Rhian Madamrygbi Davies works as a comedy rugby reporter and simultaneously plays with and lays open “vivid and complex stylisations of Welsh rugby personas” (p. 175), employing code-switching between Welsh and English in the process. Irish, in turn, is used for humorous T-shirts by the website, which makes use of imperfect English-to-Irish translations and prints them on shirts, resulting in positive associations. Finally, the Canistrelli Clandestini campaign in Corsica is a graffiti campaign targeting the Corsican nationalist discourse and practice. Here, a previously taboo topic is made explicit. The four cases exemplify the potential for change, but also the potential for risk posed by transgressive humour.

The book’s final chapter “A view from the periphery. Sociolinguistics, small languages and change” sums up the findings from the book and provides an outlook. An important point made throughout the book is that of dynamic negotiations in the context of centre and periphery, and the authors note again that the periphery is not the homogenous entity it is often made out to be. Instead, centre and periphery are blurred as much as the distinction between normative and non-normative linguistic and cultural forms. This constant renegotiation is a highly dynamic process and open-ended. Based on the dimensions analysed, i.e. authenticity, commodification, and transgression, the authors call for a reassessment of analytical terminology and the underlying ideological presuppositions.


“Sociolinguistics from the periphery” is a highly interesting work in many ways, and thus of interest to various groups. First, as implied by the title, it is rooted in sociolinguistics and critically assesses common notions of the field – as, for instance, centre and periphery, authenticity, reflexivity, etc. This reflects in the way language is discussed in the book. The title does not go into much detail as far as the analysis of linguistic levels is concerned; the book is rather interested in and evaluates meta-discourses about language. On the one hand, this concerns aforementioned terminological issues, and on the other hand, this concerns debates about the four languages in their respective countries. Accordingly, cultural aspects are heavily foregrounded throughout. The authors do not stop at debates about language, but take evidence from various cultural domains, political discourse, tourism, etc. Thus, numerous areas of cultural studies may benefit from the book. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, the four groups at the heart of this work and those people involved in negotiations about one or more of the four languages should be able to take away a lot from the book, possibly even to the extent of reconsidering their own perspectives.

Presenting examples from, for instance, the internet or regional companies helps to render the book mostly accessible. The authors consistently give highly relatable real-life examples. Doing so, however, is absolutely necessary, as the examples follow a very dense theoretical background. Reading the book without a sound knowledge of cultural theory, semiotics, and critical philosophy would make the text hard to digest were it not for the well-selected set of examples. Structurally, the book also benefits greatly from this approach. The main chapters two to five all proceed in similar fashion by introducing the terminological and theoretical framework in a first step (e.g. the different kinds of authenticity) and then presenting case studies for each language.

Reading the book, the authors’ passion for small languages and the selected languages in particular is very evident. This results in convincingly written passages in which the authors’ virtuosity in the field of sociolinguistics combines with interesting and sometimes even amusing examples from Corsican, Welsh, Irish and Sámi. As a consequence, even without a particular research interest in the four languages, the book – unlike many highly specialised titles – might be fascinating and insightful to many. Another achievement can be seen in the authors’ successful attempts at embedding ‘linguistic landscapes’ in their work. Often subjected to criticism as unscientific or as anecdotal evidence, presentations of place names, signage, shirts etc. sometimes truly do not meet the requirement of good academic practice. This is not the case here, as the authors chose their examples carefully and manage to bring theoretical insights and evidence from the countries together in very meaningful ways.


Foucault, Michel. 1977. Language, counter-memory, practice: Selected essays and interviews by Michel Foucault. Edited by Donald F. Bouchard. New York: Cornell University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1998. Aesthetics, method, and epistemology. Edited by James Faubion. New York: New Press.

Pietikäinen, Sari. 2015. Multilingual dynamics in Sámiland: Rhizomatic discourses on changing language. International Journal of Bilingualism 19. 206-225.


Sven Leuckert received his M.A. in European Linguistics from TU Dresden in Germany and he is currently employed as a research assistant in English Linguistics at Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz. His PhD project is a study on topicalization strategies employed in four Asian varieties of English. His research interests include Asian Englishes, non-canonical syntax, English as a Lingua Franca, and historical linguistics.

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