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Review of  Language and German Disunity

Reviewer: Pratyush Chandra
Book Title: Language and German Disunity
Book Author: Patrick Stevenson
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 14.1502

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Date: 23 May 2003 04:41:06 -0000
From: Pratyush Chandra
Subject: Stevenson, Patrick (2002) Language and German Disunity

Stevenson, Patrick (2002) Language and German Disunity: A
Sociolinguistic History of East and West in Germany, 1945-
2000, Oxford University Press.

Pratyush Chandra, Indian Institute of Marxist Studies
(Delhi Chapter), New Delhi (India).

"Language is a convenient metaphor for social difference,
because of its materiality, because it is abundantly
available in its concrete realizations in spoken and
written texts, and because it is the one common resource
that a society has at its disposal." (237-38) Perhaps, the
genesis of language politics in general cannot be more
succinctly expressed. Further, recognizing this basic
socio-linguistic truth unravels before us the reality
within the so-called 'Global Village', which we are
supposedly encountering today. After the end of the cold
war, it was solemnly declared that it marks a beginning of
peace and togetherness throughout the world. But the truth
can never be more dissonant to this as it is today. Not a
single day passes without war cries of the hegemonic
forces, and voices of protest against them. The political
economic crises breeding this are easily eluded by looking
for explanations in apparent attitudinal differences, which
are comprised essentially of discursive and linguistic
components (which together constitute the basic socio-
linguistic issues). We do not need to go much back in
history to find this - this is inherent in the talk of
'clash of civilizations' and rationalization of 'post-cold
war' wars. In this regard, the present book is very
contemporary and relevant not only to understand the
present German reality but has a hermeneutic value in
general too, since the German unification is in fact a
"wende" (turning point) in the world history of which the
present scenario is a product.

The author hopes "to capture both the historicity of the
east-west issue and the complex web of questions underlying
the central problem: why, and in what ways, is language
repeatedly (perceived as) a source of both unity and
disunity in the German speech community." On this
particular theme, he distinguishes himself by trying to
trace the genesis of discord in the "four decades of
division" and "in the context of the role that the idea of
the 'German language' has played in the construction and
contestation of national identities over the last 200
years." (3)

The book is divided into two parts to lead the discussion
chronologically. Part 1 traces the 'Question della Lingua'
up to the 'wende' including the wende and the second part
narrates it for the first decade after the unification.

Both the parts are divided into two chapters each. The
first part starts with by dealing with a theoretical and
empirical exposition of symbiotic relationship between
linguistic change and social dynamics (Chapter 2). It
relates the linguistic debates in the 19th century Germany
from Herder and Humboldt. The relationship between language
and national identity in German discourse draws from the
ideas of these philosophers. Arndt in the early 19th Century
and Kluge just after the first world war represent
characteristically how early German perceptions on language
became expressions of nationalist ideologies - "the mother
tongue is the symbol of the fatherland" and "cultivating
the mother-tongue means cultivating Germanness" (Kluge
quoted on 19)). It is noted that these views and many other
perceptions ("the chauvinist discourse of purity" and "the
emancipatory discourse of purity") politicizing the
language question are generally expressed at the time of
socio-political crises. The author rightly finds
explanation to this conjunction in the works of the Italian
Marxist Gramsci who always took the "linguistic fact as a
political act" (Salamini 1981) - "every time the
question of the language surfaces, in one way or another,
it means that a series of other problems are coming to the
fore" (quoted on 19). The author substantiates further how
the ideologico-political values attached to the language
continued in later days. In the post-1945 political changes
he traces the trajectory of debates, and finds major
"turning points" by situating the various shifts in these
debates "in the process of political and academic
development within and between the two German states." (42)
Chapter 2 closes with an empirical account of linguistic
(lexical contrasts) and sociolinguistic differences
(discursive oppositions) and finds that "one of the most
potent linguistic devices in the arsenal of political and
ideological opponents was the symbolism of naming
practices." (49)

Chapter 3 focuses on the extent and ways the German
Democratic Republic (GDR) was 'talked into existence' and
then 'talked out of existence'. It stresses on the patterns
of formation and regulation of communicative realm in the
GDR, and the forces that perpetuated the formation. The
chapter begins by examining the "Byzantine architecture of
official discourse" manifested in "the highly ritualized
nature of the linguistic forms and textual patterns: the
constant repetition of formulaic expressions, the emphasis
on the collective historic mission, the recycling of
apodictic statements asserting the rationality of official
doctrine, the legitimization of Party policy." (69) Then
the author studies the effect of rituality in various types
of quasi-public discourse especially in the educational
domain, which "constructs itself through the texts it
generates, processes and consumes." (80)

The author finds a subaltern protest through "private
rehearsal of alternative modes of articulation, of ironic
'language games' in which the language of official texts
was manipulated to humorous and subversive effect." (93)
According to him the "the polyphony of wende discourses"
was the heightened realization of this 'de-ritualized'
language of accumulated alienation, a "language revolt".
"The explosion of linguistic creativity that characterized
the mass demonstrations in the autumn of 1989 was therefore
a public continuation of a private tradition." (109)

I feel the GDR like any state whether totalitarian or
democratic was based on the system of "masses represented
by leaders" and hence needed hegemonizing structures to
legitimize it. In this regard we can once again go back to
Gramsci who viewed that "every relationship of 'hegemony'
is necessarily an educational relationship" (Gramsci 1971)
and that "the hegemonic educational relationship is
mediated through the various institutions of 'civil
society': in particular, the church, the school, labour
unions, and the press" (Entwistle 1978). Further, I contend
that the author's analysis is a bit weak when he stresses
simply on the "talking out of existence" of the GDR, not on
the politico-economic processes within and without, which
contexualised such a talking-out. It is quite interesting
to see that in most of the countries in the erstwhile
Soviet bloc, it was the elements in the hegemonic
intermediate class controlling the bureaucratic machinery
that gained most in the phase of "post-Wendes" everywhere.
They had accumulated a sufficient politico-economic power
to sustain and prosper themselves in the "post" phase. In
fact the Wende also represents a phase where these elements
could not pursue this accumulation further, and had to
abolish the structure which mothered them. Hence, it could
also form a task for further sociolinguistic research where
one can study how hegemonies were reformed and reproduced
in "wende discourses".

The second part relocates 'East' and 'West' in the 1990-
2000 phase. It starts with Chapter 4 studying the evolution
of new speech ecology and how the new sociolinguistic
scenario evolved with relative responses of the East and
West Germans to the challenges in this new context. The
chapter begins by elaborating on the "linguistic
'rationalization', which took place after the unification.
The easterners were obviously on the receiving end as they
were the people to be incorporated. They faced on the one
hand, "the anxiety and uncertainty that was bound up with
the demands of the market economy and expressed in the
requirement to be 'flexible and dynamic'" and on the other,
they tried hard to avoid the old "shibboleths". (124) The
chapter then goes on to examine the performance of
Easterners in the Western communicative genres like job
interviews etc. The author finds a general relationship
between social and linguistic mobility in Germany after
unification, which derives from the established language
attitudes determined in turn by different social
expectations. The author finds these attitudes fuelling
language ideologies. Through evaluations of vernacular
speech and standard forms in Berlin, he shows how the
ideology of standardization, 'verbal hygiene' and the
disparagement of linguistic varieties function as tools of
social domination.

Chapter 5 begins by showing in what ways 'communities of
memory' are formed by individual reflections on past
linguistic experiences and "the narrative processing of
individual biographies". (198) The author reflects on
personal experiences of many individuals in establishing
their image of others, while consequently forming their own
self-image. These binary stereotypical images are always
antithetical. These images congeal into identities of
'eastness' and 'westness'. This manufacturing of identities
hierarchizes the inter-community relationship. This
hierarchy is essentially a product of already existing
social inequality, which is reinforced through it. It
becomes a mechanism for hegemonic identities to preempt
their affinity to institutional and social power structure,
while alienating others.

I would add to the author's well-versed arguments that this
alienation is not exclusion but 'differential inclusion',
which is realized by allocating the 'other' identities
somewhere in the base of the hierarchical structure of
socio-political formation. This is made possible by the so-
called 'democratic set-up' "for it simultaneously enshrines
the principle of popular inclusion and that of popular
exclusion." (Miliband 1982) Democracy functions by
regrouping the fundamental social relations by horizontal
reconfiguration of the society. Numerous identities are re-
formed, legitimated and qualified as majorities and
minorities, mainstream and margins, etc. This minimizes any
vertical reconfiguration of the society, and the state
poses itself as victorious and invincible, and above the
society and neutral too. People are segmented and
homogenized in identities for 'political mart' and their
grievances are represented through 'lobby' leaders
accommodated in the reified apparatuses of the state.

The author rightly sums up his elaborate and convincing
discussion in Chapter 6 ('Conclusions') by seeing "an
unequal distribution of power" as the single decisive
factor in establishing the cultural norms. He calls it a
'hegemonic contextualization' which creates a "double bind"
by which communities are hierarchized in a society where
the dominants can "establish and police the parameters of
discourse" challenging the marginal communities to submit
to the norms or be called 'deviants' by resisting them.
This is the cultural state of affair prevailing in unified
Germany, according to the author. And this inequality does
not arise through any linguistic and communicative
difference, but "since communicative interaction is the
primary site of self-representation and for forming and
developing perceptions of others, the burden of achieving
social integration and of explaining the failure of this
goal of unification, is frequently transferred onto this
level." (236)

This book definitely provides a very succinct historical
survey of the east-west problem in sociolinguistic terms
and correctly derides any deterministic narrow reading of
the same. In doing so, it essentially delimits the
dimensions of socio-linguistic study of such problems
setting the parameters for success of such study.
Stylistically the mastery of the subject by the author is
reflected in his language and the confidence and aptness
with which he utilizes the examples from everyday and
textual discourses. This book is ideal for not only the
students of socio-linguistics but for everyone who is
interested in studying language politics and understanding
a linguistic fact as a political act.


Entwistle, Harold (1978) 'Antonio Gramsci and the School as
Hegemonic', Educational Theory 1: 23-33. Reprinted in James
Martin (ed.) (2002) Antonio Gramsci: Critical Assessments
of Leading Political Philosopher Vol. III, Routledge,

Gramsci, Antonio (1971) Selections from the Prison
Notebooks, International Publishers, New York.

Miliband, Ralph (1982) Capitalist Democracy in Britain,
Oxford University Press.

Salamini, Leonardo (1981) The Sociology of Political
Praxis: An Introduction to Gramsci's Theory, Routledge &
Kegan Paul, London.


ABOUT THE REVIEWER Pratyush Chandra is associated with the Indian Institute of Marxist Studies (Delhi Chapter) and has worked on identity question in India with relation to Hindi-Urdu conflict.D