LINGUIST List 29.2811

Fri Jul 06 2018

Review: Discourse Analysis; Sociolinguistics: Milani (2017)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 16-Jan-2018
From: Johannes Scherling <>
Subject: Language and Citizenship
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Tommaso M. Milani
TITLE: Language and Citizenship
SUBTITLE: Broadening the agenda
SERIES TITLE: Benjamins Current Topics 91
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2017

REVIEWER: Johannes Scherling, Universität Graz

The book “Language and Citizenship – Broadening the agenda”, edited by Tommaso M. Milani, the 91st installment in the “Benjamins Current Topics” series, is a collection of texts focusing on how institutional discourses construct the relationship between (not only) nationality and citizenship. In doing so, the volume attempts to present a variety of approaches and issues relating to this overarching topic, by drawing on various case studies from different countries. It attempts to show how over the last few decades, what is called ‘moral citizenship’ (sets of values and beliefs) has become more important in receiving and ascertaining membership than ‘formal citizenship’ (passport, legal status). This endeavor is discussed from various angles over seven chapters spanning over 160 pages.


Chapter 1 by the editor gives an overview of the book’s main theme and structure, introducing also the main foci and terminology, while embedding the current volume into recent scholarship. Citizenship, drawing on Isin (2008), is defined in terms of “status” (a social contract between individuals and states regarding rights and duties), “habitus” (an embodied practice acquired via socialization) and “acts” (“performances of radical dissent”), which the contributions in this book aim to illustrate to various degrees. The main aims of the book are described as (1) extending the analysis of discourses regarding the relationship between nationality and citizenship by relating them to “ethnographically grounded interactions”, (2) identifying the multiple meanings of citizenship as well as (3) exploring its “different linguistic/semiotic guises”. (p. 3)

Chapter 2, by Reinhilde Pulinx and Piet Van Avermaet, presents a case study of how language policies increasingly influence integration and pervade the notion of citizenship in the case of Flanders in Belgium. While language competence was not formerly a requirement to attain citizenship, this has recently changed. This change is particularly apparent in the region of Flanders, which sees itself as a “cultural community” (p. 26) and in which, hence, the local language is an important identity marker, in particular since Belgium is gradually turning into a “super-diverse society” (p. 27). Recent legislation makes it clear that citizenship is something that needs to be continuously achieved, albeit only by migrants, while for non-migrants, their citizenship status is presupposed. The entirety of integration policies in Flanders, therefore, appears to be targeted at assimilating, rather than integrating, migrants, as the goals are “nonreciprocal, nonnegotiable and use the norms and values of the majority group as a single frame of reference.” (p. 34)

In Chapter 3, written by Kristine Horner, we are introduced to language regimes in Luxembourg, where there is a recent trend to portray Luxembourgish as the national language despite the fact that it is mainly a spoken variety. Horner argues that there is a certain shift from conceptualizing citizenship mainly as a legal status towards a foregrounding of social processes including cultural and linguistic ‘belonging’. The author then presents an analysis of media and policy documents from the first decade of the 21st century to illustrate “the construction of Luxembourgish as the language of integration,” as well as showing how “the conditions for citizenship status are being challenged and how such challenges constitute acts of citizenship” (p. 51). They point out that language can, but should not, act as an excluding factor in society.

Chapter 4 then shifts the focus on the British citizenship ceremony as a ‘final examination’ in terms of allegiance and language prowess. The authors, Kamran Khan and Adrian Blackledge, follow a young Yemeni migrant’s journey to British citizenship through interviews to show the illusion, disillusion and reality of such rituals. The authors give an insight into contemporary citizenship ceremonies in which, besides pledging loyalty and allegiance, aspiring British citizens’ level of English is also implicitly tested. They conclude that the ritual serves both as a rite of initiation into British society, and also as a final examination of their prowess in English, which stands as a signifier for their “process of ‘becoming’” (p. 72) British citizens.

Quentin E. Williams and Christopher Stroud, in Chapter 5, focus on the discursive construction of citizenship in the multiethnic and multilingual context of South Africa. Against the backdrop of the breakdown of the apartheid regime which left a “colonial divide between citizen and subject” (p. 89) and had forced onto South Africa Western notions of a nation state, the authors – drawing on Blommaert and Rampton (2011) – maintain that the intrinsic diversity, as well as the marginalization, of minority groups remains backgrounded if not ignored. Employing Isin’s notion of “acts of citizenship” (91), the chapter analyzes how common people use language to “wrestle control from political institutions of the state” (91) through acts of “linguistic citizenship” (91) in public performances. The authors’ contention is that through the focus on official discourse, everyday micro-discourses, in whose performance such acts of citizenship take shape, are backgrounded.

Chapter 6, another chapter by Milani, deals less with the role of language(s) in the construction of citizenship; rather it shifts the focus towards what Milani terms ‘sexual cityzenship’ – proposed in its non-standard spelling as a “queer, anti-normative tactic […] that seeks to capture the special nature of sexual politics” (p. 115). This is illustrated through the Pride Parade 2012 in South Africa, where a conflict erupted between parade participants, and an activist group attempting to draw attention to the ongoing disenfranchisement of women and blacks in South African society through banners like “no cause for celebration” and a bodily carpet (i.e. “acts of citizenship”) and claiming that post-apartheid rights have “mainly benefited white, upper-middle-class homosexuals” (p. 125). Essentially, the author sees the conflict as being between the “lawful sexual cityzenship ‘habitus’” of the mainstreamed Pride parade participants and “an insubordinate and ‘insurgent’ […] act of sexual cityzenship” and thus a “break with ‘habitus’” (p. 127) of the activist campaign fighting over the power to speak for the disadvantaged.

The book’s final chapter, written by Lionel Wee, challenges Isin’s (2008) distinction between act and habitus in explaining the nature of citizenship, contending that it constitutes a confusion between disposition to act and the action itself. In analyzing several speeches by the Singaporean People’s Action Party leading up to the 2011 General Elections, in which the PAP failed to achieve the amount of support of previous elections, Wee maintains that citizenship is a dialogical notion between citizens and the government and that, as with elections, “acts of citizenship” can emerge without a break in habitus (which Isin sees as the nature of an act). The chapter therefore questions what it claims to be the ‘monolithicity’ that Isin’s concept of citizenship attributes to both citizenry and government.


As a whole, the book reveals interesting approaches and perspectives on the linguistic study of citizenship and sheds light on a number of certainly underrepresented and under-discussed issues such as language testing regimes for migrants, the effects of normativization on diverse and multilingual societies or citizen-induced change through everyday practices. As such, it is of great interest for advanced students (MA or PhD level) as well as for scholars of linguistics and/or cultural studies focusing on the discursive construction of citizenship and belonging, and on issues of immigration, respectively.

One thing that may appear repetitive – but at the same time may have been designed to add coherence to the collection– is the consistent use of political theorist Engin Isin’s concept of citizenship (2008); this is cited, drawn on, and applied in all but two chapters of the book. While this serves to give a certain theoretical consistency to the volume, some readers might find it redundant. Chapter 7 here is a welcome exception as it attempts to critique and expand on Isin’s theory, therefore offering an interesting alternative perspective that nicely rounds off the volume.

It is clear that the editor and the authors made an effort to offer a diverse set of illustrations of the multidimensional nature of citizenship, with some subjects such as ‘sexual cityzenship’ being marginal to the topic, but in line with the volume’s intent of “broadening the agenda” (p. 1). What could arguably have been included to additionally widen the scope would be hotly debated issues such as the nature and role of Spanish in a US-American context and the respective roles of Hebrew and Arabic in defining ‘belonging’ in Israeli citizenship. However, all chapters are highly interesting and relevant analyses as they stand. They deserve praise for highlighting interesting topics and discussing small-scale examples in detail to illuminate important macro-issues and developments regarding immigration, citizenship and/or belonging.


Blommaert, Jan and Ben Rampton (2011). “Language and Superdiversity.” Diversities 13 (2): 1-38.

Isin, Egin F. (2008). “Theorizing Acts of Citizenship.” In Engin F. Isin and Greg M. Nielsen, eds. Acts of Citizenship. London: Zed Books. 15-43.


Johannes Scherling is a lecturer of linguistics and cultural studies at the Department of English Studies at the University of Graz, Austria. His research interests include critical media analysis, language and power as well as issues of language contact.

Page Updated: 06-Jul-2018