LINGUIST List 32.1667

Wed May 12 2021

Review: Anthropological Linguistics; General Linguistics; Sociolinguistics: Gal, Irvine (2019)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 30-Nov-2020
From: Katharina Tyran <>
Subject: Signs of Difference
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Susan Gal
AUTHOR: Judith T. Irvine
TITLE: Signs of Difference
SUBTITLE: Language and Ideology in Social Life
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2019

REVIEWER: Katharina Klara Tyran


Two distinguished linguistic anthropologists, Susan Gal and Judith T. Irvine, present with their recent publication “Signs of difference. Language and Ideology in Social Life” a book on their ongoing academic collaboration. As the title suggests, Gal’s and Irvine’s focus is on differentiation as a condition of language and linguistic practices, and they approach ideologies as semiotic processes causing specific framings. More concretely, the book questions how difference is understood in language and social life, how differences are noticed, selected, and constructed in their social meaning and embedded in discourses. The authors are drawing on their extensive research on language and linguistic practice from an ethnographic angle in Africa, Europe, and the United States. The book is organized in four sections, focusing on ‘Ethnography’ in Part I, ‘Semiotics’ in II, ‘Sites’ in Part III and ‘Pasts’ in Part IV, which are headed by an introductory chapter.

Their introduction Gal and Irvine open up with brief ‘exhibits’, exemplifying differentiation and further important topics for their study, for example notions of distinct linguistic usage and practice discussing a humorous phrasebook explaining how to ‘sound French’ and the construction of a specific ‘pirate sound’. Following these introductory examples illustrating their stance, the authors present their notions of ideology, differentiation, and culture, clearly focusing on these concepts as interconnected productive and active actions, always drawing on signs. Here, it is Peirce’s conception of such that is the underlying approach to Gal’s and Irvine’s work. But as his focus was not so much on social aspects of signs, it is exactly the expansion of Peirce’s semiotics to social actors which is the important twist of this volume, as “people construct and deploy their own versions with materials that are socially available,” as Gal and Irvine state (2019: 17). They furthermore present four aspects of semiotic processes that are essential to their analysis of differentiation: rhematization, axis of differentiation, fractal recursivity, and erasure.

In Part I, both authors present two case studies under the heading of ‘Ethnography’, which are geographically quite distinct, – Senegal and Hungary –, but nevertheless both explore ideological work, how differences are performed and as such trigger social relations and linguistic practices. Judith T. Irvine is widely recognized with her work on Wolof in Senegal, which is here presented as a first case study. Importantly, her research, which is mostly conducted in the and 1970s and 1980s, is here elaborated in a new context, discussing language performance, their ideological embedding and distribution, according to the overall topic of the book. Wolof linguistic practices include a very specific act of differentiation, as the rural community separates townspeople by their registers into ‘nobles’ (géer) and ‘griots’ (gewel), which not only identifies two different ways of speaking, but also ideologically two opposite social groups. As the discussion shows, register contrast on various linguistic levels, such as prosody, phonology, morphology, and syntax, are presented as iconic representations among the rural Wolof community by rhematization, and picked up for ideological construction. However, depending on circumstances, such registers might be used by any speakers of Wolof, with recursive structures organizing conversations and therefore proposing a scheme of differentiation, not only drawing on social groups, but rather on social positioning, and varying also due to interlocutors and the purpose of a conversation. The second case study presents Susan Gal’s studies among German-speakers in southwestern Hungary, where in prewar times two local expressions of German were strongly linked to metapragmatic labels and categorizations, differentiating artisans and farmers. Importantly, neither of these two linguistic expressions with numerous shibboleths in phonology, morphology, lexis and pragmatics, corresponds with literary or standard German. Rather, farmers’ speech was marked as ‘authentic’ or more genuine, whereas artisans supposedly spoke ‘beautiful’, meaning more cultivated, elegant, and sophisticated. Neither, however, was marked as ‘correct’. Their structure of differentiation, yet was essential regarding structuring not only linguistic practices, but also social life, which was strongly organized alongside the two categories of ‘artisans’ and ‘farmers’, of ‘us’ and ‘them’; and such differentiation was maintained and reenacted in various contexts. With political changes during the 20th century, and European ethnonationalism and monolingual paradigms, however, new opposing categories occurred and erased the elder differentiation. Now, the linguistic boundary alongside German and Hungarian became more decisive than a distinction of the two local German varieties.

The following Part II, ‘Semiotics’, is dedicated to the discussion of more abstract concepts and aims to explore the semiotic process of differentiation in three chapters. In the first chapter, the authors discuss signs, conjectures, and perspectives as ingredients of language ideological work, strongly incorporating Peirce’s work on semiotics. They specifically draw on perspectives as main ingredients of ideologies and discuss how such perspectives are developed out of sign relations, which are, as Gal and Irvine argue, human-made and embedded in cultural premises. The following chapter focuses on comparison as a semiotic process of differentiation, which is, as the authors state, ideologically shaped. Exemplified with an early 19th century travelogue through America, Gal and Irvine discuss spatial ideologies of social and linguistic variation, specifically emphasizing axes as schema of contrast. Here, they analyze the creation of a ‘western’ and an ‘eastern’ image in nineteenth-century US, an image of complementary qualities, including ways of speaking, habits, behaviors, appearance. Such axes are rhematized and necessarily entail contrasts and ideologically shaped comparison, which may, however, change, even though they often seem stable and fixed. The third chapter in Part II builds upon the previous and opens with a further example from the US in past times – the notion of ‘Yankee’. Here, Gal and Irvine examine how existing axes shape new situations. They further discuss how the geographic contrast of stereotypes shifted in salience to ‘race’ as a concept of differentiation and trace ideological changes reorganizing social relations up to present times.

Part III focuses on ‘Sites’ and deliberates analytical strategies on ideological work regarding language and communication. In a first chapter here, the authors draw on several scholars discussing where to look for ideologies of language and communication and how to grasp ideological work. Gal and Irvine propose the concept of ‘site’ to include multiple gazes, views, and positions. They draw again specifically on Peirce’s notion of signs and highlight how any phenomenon may become such a site of ideology, if it becomes the focus of interpretative attention. This notion is exemplified with an example from academic surroundings, namely renovations in a university building, including the installation of glass doors, with ideological interpretations about communicative practices among academy members arising, depending on their ‘door-politics’ (either open or closed) and whether they covered transparent door elements or not. The following chapter puts connections of such ideological sites in focus and discusses processes of authorization, regimentation and institutionalization of sites. Gal and Irvine identify various forms of such a connection. Here again, they present case studies, this time discussing for instance city slogans in Baltimore and reactions and comments following, connecting it also with current racial tensions, but also institutionalization of grassroots-movements exemplified by their flyers as semiotic artefacts. The last chapter in this section, finally, is dedicated to scales and scale making as forms of comparison among sites, also building upon semiotics and ideology. Such scales, the authors argue, are relational practices, which need to be investigated in terms of which qualities are seen as scalable by whom . Scale-making therefore must be understood as perspectival, in the context of changing points of view. Here, Gal and Irvine discuss, for instance, labeling and bounding of linguistic forms in the context of standard language ideology.

Part IV, ‘Pasts’ certainly is the briefest with only one chapter examining ideologies in linguistic research of the 19th century. As Gal and Irvine argue, their newly developed concepts open up new perspectives on bygone times and show ideological work of linguists in the past. Their focus here is the scholarly difficulty of evidence and methodology in the 19th century, more concretely how to examine unwritten language forms with philological approaches common at that time. Again, both authors merge their previous foci of research and examine two linguists actually writing on different languages on different continents, which, however, had much in common: Robert Needham Cust working on African languages and Pál Hunfalvy, specializing in Hungarian and Finno-Ugric languages. Both allegedly met in 1881 at the International Orientalist Congress in Berlin. Gal and Irvine now discuss ideologies and semiotics of differentiation underlying Cust’s and Hunfalvy’s representations of social and linguistic material, which, undoubtedly, also shaped practices and relationships among their groups of interest. In their essay, Gal and Irvine trace academic work broadly in the context of the 19th century, including several linguists whose work fundamentally impacted the development of linguistics at that time, and critically discuss Cust’s and Hunfalvy’s work in specific approaches of that time, such as the biological interpretation of linguistic genealogy, the predilection of mapping and boundaries, as well as standard language ideologies emerging as an Eurocentric view, also in combination with national projects and ideas.

In a final ‘Coda’, the authors emphasize offering “conceptual tools and ways of exploring empirical material, whatever those materials might be” (2019: 270). The research strategy builds upon determining and focusing one centerpiece and tracing connections from it in several directions, aiming for the ideological work included and important to an axis of differentiation. Importantly, Gal’s and Irvine’s analysis shows that any contrast might be chosen and transferred into a category or a boundary, which then can open ground for practices, institutions and organizations. Such differences need to be investigated ideologically and semiotically, or regarding explanations and qualities ascribed to signs and objects. Boundaries drawing on such differences, obviously, might also be questioned and unmade again, which, however, may cause new and even more categories.


Gal’s and Irvine’s study definitely stimulates academic discussions by presenting a broad selection of case studies and by posing numerous questions. The book consists of various and heterogenous case studies – both spatially as well as temporally – some of them even conducted in a distant past. This might seem problematic at the outset. The authors, however, manage to take up and interconnect those diverse analyses on several points among the chapters and to rethink and recontextualize their previous research. As they state themselves in the final Coda, their selection might seem selective and illustrative, but all approve their overall idea, namely how ideology and semiotics need to be combined in investigating signs of difference, with differentiation being ubiquitous in social life and linguistic practice. The book is readable and very well written, using vivid language with striking examples, metaphors and metonymies to illustrate and emphasize stances and angles. This makes Gal’s and Irvine’s volume not only important to academics and faculty of various linguistic subdisciplines, but also worthwhile for graduate and PhD students. It furthermore encourages readers to trace, find and precisely question contrasts, distinctions, connections, and signs of differentiation, so important in our everyday existence.


Katharina Tyran is a university assistant (post-doc) of Slavic philology at the Department of Slavonic Studies of the University of Vienna. She holds a PhD from Humboldt-University of Berlin with a work on language codification processes and identification attitudes in the Burgenland Croatian community, with a cross-border perspective. Her research interests cover sociolinguistic topics with a focus on minority languages, language and identity, border studies, linguistic landscape research, and script linguistics. Currently, she is working on a new research project with a focus on discourses on and visual implications of writing systems in a south Slavic context.

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