Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login

New from Cambridge University Press!


Revitalizing Endangered Languages

Edited by Justyna Olko & Julia Sallabank

Revitalizing Endangered Languages "This guidebook provides ideas and strategies, as well as some background, to help with the effective revitalization of endangered languages. It covers a broad scope of themes including effective planning, benefits, wellbeing, economic aspects, attitudes and ideologies."

New from Wiley!


We Have a New Site!

With the help of your donations we have been making good progress on designing and launching our new website! Check it out at!
***We are still in our beta stages for the new site--if you have any feedback, be sure to let us know at***

Review of  Language Policy and Political Theory

Reviewer: Nadine Hamdan
Book Title: Language Policy and Political Theory
Book Author: Thomas Ricento Yael Peled Peter Ives
Publisher: Springer Nature
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 27.228

Discuss this Review
Help on Posting
Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The starting point of the editors of this volume on language policy and political theory is the task of combining language and moral reasoning in order to establish a fruitful dialogue of political theory concerned with language and language policy. This collection of articles, therefore, aims to illustrate how debates within the discipline of political theory can contribute to a better understanding of the complexity of language policy, while at the same time presenting how methods and findings from language science can enrich political philosophy concerned with language. A key notion for these purposes is that of mutual interdependence, especially in the context of globalisation. The combination of language and social justice hence implies a cooperation between the academic fields of Sociolinguistics and Political Theory, evoking the challenge of merging empirical analysis and normative theorising. The authors’ goal of working towards the establishment of a systematic framework for the study of language policy entails thus a combination of these two approaches, requiring closer contact and cooperation between language policy scholars and political philosophers. This volume, situated in the early phase of that project, has at its objective to initiate and encourage discussion, ultimately leading to the development of that framework. Therefore, its editors summarize the contribution of this collection as a call “for greater sensitivity towards intralinguistic variance” (4) and the raising of “a set of issues central to the debate” (5) to combine research from different disciplines.

The first article, “Normative language policy: interface and interferences” by Yael Peled, highlights especially this interdisciplinary character by focussing on the “interface and internal fences between sociolinguistics and political philosophy” (7); hence arguing that for successful language policy, linguistic diversity on the one hand, and social interdependence on the other need to be balanced. In order to achieve this, according to Peled, two theoretical moves are required: “first, the combination of the scientific epistemologies inherent to “thinking linguistically” (in sociolinguistics) and “thinking politically” (in political philosophy); and second, the reconceptualization of the dynamics of normative language policy as complex adaptive systems” (10). Consequently, in analogy to Sociolinguistics – language in society, Peled calls for approaching normative language polity as “language-in-polity” (16), entailing the concept of language policy as an act of prioritization, and ranking of languages in terms of efficiency and symbolic value. The attribute ‘complex’ adds the awareness that “the interface between power and language does not operate in a linear or predictable fashion” (19), reflecting the reality of a complex and changing world.

David Weinstock’s article, “The complex normative foundations of language policy,” ties in with the previous contribution nicely by introducing liberal theory to the equation. Language policy here is viewed through the lenses of multiple conflicting sets of interests – that of the state, the individual, and humanity. The article is based upon the fundamental assumption of linguistic diversity, taking multilingualism and linguistic heterogeneity into account. From the point of the individual, language and linguistic proficiency are tackled from a “maximally useful, minimally costly” (25) perspective – balancing efficiency and opportunity with matters of identity and symbolic value. As a solution to that dilemma,,Weinstock proposes widespread bilingualism, although noting that this is no guarantee for equality. As for the state, language serves predominantly as the medium for communication with its citizens, hence the widespread notion of national or official languages. Consequently, Weinstock argues, for reasons of efficiency, states have an interest in maintaining a certain level of homogeneity, with “linguistic convergence … around the language of the majority” (27). At the same time, however, depending on circumstances, states might be pushing for a greater degree of linguistic diversity. This behaviour is encouraged by such factors as linguistic minorities, colonial pasts, and a diversity of linguistic and national groups, among others. Interests of humanity, or the world at large, are currently most concerned with preventing the death of endangered languages. Taken together, these three groups display a conflicting set of language policy related interests. Weinstock proposes a liberal language policy approach to tackle that predicament and to further social justice – at the forefront of which he promotes the notions of individual rights and state neutrality. Instead of attempting to provide a single solution, Weinstock’s intention here is to “lay out the complex set of normative considerations – considerations to do both with the nature of language and with the nature of the state – that are relevant to the making of language policy” (38), in line with the underlying theme of this volume.

Adding more depth to the theoretical dimensions of the framework of normative language policy, Peter Ives, with his contribution “De-politicizing language: obstacles to political theory’s engagement with language policy”, grounds the debate on language policy firmly within existing scholarship of political theory. Specifically, he argues that the majority of current research is based on a Lockean approach that is mostly unsuitable for language realities, and suggests instead to draw on alternative theoretical resources, such as those of Gramsci, Voloshinov, or Bakhtin. Ives’s main issue with the Lockean approach as followed for instance by Van Parijs, Kymlick and Patten, among others, is the underlying “individualist and transmission defined notion of language” (43), which ignores considerations like identity, power and (in-)equality. Rather than regarding “language as primarily about communicating among individuals” (53), Ives argues in favour of widening the circle of political theorists and philosophers beyond ‘Western’ candidates, to also include conceptions of language byof scholars like Bourdieu, Bakhtin, Volshinov, and Gamsci, which are “more systematic and rigorously articulated … than that provided by Locke” (54) .

Moving from political theory to the “topic of language itself” (58), Thomas Ricento’s article, “Thinking about language: what political theorists need to know about language in the real world”, sheds light on the complex realities of language situations (i.e. acquisition, use, ascribed values, etc.) that need to be taken into account when developing a normative language policy. Following sociolinguistic tradition, Ricento rejects views of language as an idealized given or fixed entity, based on the written form of the variety of a small elite – as it is often perpetuated in political theory literature. Instead, he regards language as a semiotic system, complete with the complexities of its connection to culture and ethnic identification, including the arising issues of non-standard varieties, linguistic hierarchies, inequalities, multilingualism, etc. For these reasons, one of the main objectives in Ricento’s article here is to call for a more fruitful cooperation between sociolinguistics and political theory – for political theorists to be aware of the indexical significance of language and its varieties with regard to identity, power, ethnicity, culture etc., rather than viewing speech communities as homogeneous entities. In this context, Ricento’s critique of Van Parijs’s request for English as a lingua franca, comes as no surprise, given Van Parijs’s understanding of ‘English’ as “some sort of standard high standard national variety” (70). In addition, this very understanding, according to Ricento, neglects “the potential problem of the existence of variation among the many ‘Englishes’ in the world today and the implications for the goal of promoting linguistic justice” (70).

Similarly, with the contribution “Contesting public monolingualism and diglossia: rethinking political theory and language policy for a multilingual world”, Stephan May “critique[s] and contest[s] both this ongoing opposition to multilingualism, and the related privileging of English as a global lingua franca” (77). Language, May argues, has entered political theory through the backdoor of “[d]ebates over citizenship in modern nation-states [that] have often focused on the significance of language to both national identity and state citizenship” (78). It comes as no surprise, though, that consequently language is viewed in the context of ‘national’ or ‘official’ languages, and hence through the lenses of monolingualism and linguistic homogeneity, ignoring widespread multilingualism and linguistic diversity. May also challenges the notion of establishing English as a lingua franca in a globalized world on the terms that this would only underline existing privileges as this idea is based on the critical assumption of the neutrality of English. Additionally, its proponents’ argument that the introduction of English as a lingua franca is associated with greater economic wealth cannot be empirically supported. Rather, given the linguistic reality of the existence of language varieties in connection to language value and social as well as economic mobility, having English as a lingua franca would not demolish social inequalities, but only reinforces existing hierarchies. Consequently, it is the existing elite who benefits most from the introduction of English as a lingua franca, as it is this very group that is proficient in the varieties of greater prestige already. Therefore, May argues in favour of supporting individual and public multilingualism, as it “provides not only greater opportunities for linguistic justice but also facilitates wider inclusion and social mobility for linguistic minorities in an increasingly globalized world” (77). On the basis of work by Kymlicka and Kloss, May argues the case for public multilingualism on the grounds of promotion oriented rights that “regulate the extent to which minority language rights are recognized” (93), requiring active state intervention and support.

Also arguing in favor of multilingualism, Ronald Schmidt Sr.’s article “Democratic theory and the challenge of linguistic diversity” puts the focus on participatory democratic theories, as research on language has been less productive in this domain as compared to liberal democratic theories. In detail, Schmidt proposes that although ontological multilingualism enhances the advantages of participatory democracy – legitimation advantage, common good advantage, and human flourishing advantage – a number of challenges are attached to this notion. Foremost the issue of efficient communication, but also difficulties in maintaining a sense of common purpose and collective identity, as well as the matter of socio-economic and political inequality. In order to overcome these obstacles, Schmidt offers a number of suggestions. As a short-term solution, Schmidt suggests taking advantage of translation and interpreting services, especially in situations with a large number of languages which themselves have a smaller number of speakers. If the opposite is true, conditions with a limited number of large language groups, Schmidt proposes what he terms ‘two-way bilingualism’ – “in which both sides of the linguistic divide would embrace and learn each others’ languages” (114). Alternatively, according to Schmidt, “a large-scale and proactive immigration settlement policy” (114f.) appears to be a worthwhile measure to overcome these challenges. Ultimately, however, in order to be sustainable in the long term, such multilingual societies need to decrease economic inequality – “reducing economic inequality between groups helps to achieve a form of integration that is respectful and supportive of an egalitarianism that is compatible with the notion of ontological multilingualism” (115).

The final contribution to this volume consists of a review of Philippe Van Parijs’s Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World by Yael Peled.


The review of Van Parijs’s Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World is necessary, since not only is it one of the few monographs dealing with language policy and justice, but more importantly, it is referred to in detail throughout the volume by a number of the contributors (e.g. May, Ricento, Ives). In light of those authors’ mostly critiquing Van Parijs’s approach, Peled’s neutral to positive review seems somewhat striking, especially since she does not address the other contributors’ biggest issue of concern, Van Parijs’s uncritical understanding of ‘English’ (see above).

Taken as a whole, the individual articles are adequately contextualized with respect to existing research and literature on the topic of language policy, particularly with regard to political theory, the main disciplinary focus of the volume. Sociolinguistics, although covered by some contributors (e.g. Ricento, May), could have been dealt with in greater detail, especially given the editors’ call for interdisciplinarity.

Apart from that, the individual articles build upon each other and add a variety of perspectives, so that the volume as a whole is well structured and coherent. Following an introduction by the editors, Peled highlights the interdisciplinary character of normative language policy. This trait is picked up on by Weinstock, while shifting the direction slightly towards political theory, with Ives grounding the topic firmly in political theory. Ricento, subsequently, initiates the shift towards an inclusion of sociolinguistics in the debate, with May following that trend. Schmidt leads the reader back to the interdisciplinary character of language policy, before Peled completes the volume with her review of Van Parijs’s monograph.

The volume provides a highly valuable addition to existing literature for academics of both political theory and sociolinguistics, while also appealing to language policy practitioners. Nonetheless, it comes with some limitations. At times, it seems there seems to be some degree of disagreement between the authors in regard to whether the topic of language policy should be approached from a political theory or political philosophy perspective – a small but significant difference. In the introduction, the editors describe language policy as an intersection of sociolinguistics and political theory, and emphasize that their goal is to shed light on debates within political theory; however, Peled, in the subsequent article, defines normative language policy as “in intrinsically interdisciplinary field that draws on sociolinguistics and political philosophy” (10). Also, it would have been desirable to include empirical research, in the form of case studies, preferably non Western- or Anglo-centric, as a means of illustrating the proposed approach. Given the editors’ aim of initiating a debate, while laying the groundwork for the establishment of a systematic framework for the study of language policy, this demand may be premature. Taken as a whole, the volume, Language Policy and Political Theory, provides a constructive contribution to the field of language policy, its main achievement being the great emphasis on interdisciplinarity, as well as the assertion that language policies need to not only take into account but also reflect linguistic reality, based on the view that language is more than merely a tool for the exchange of ideas.
Nadine Hamdan is a PhD Candidate at Georgetown University, currently working as a Research Fellow at the School of Foreign Service - Qatar. For her research, she applies methodologies of Sociolinguistics and Discourse Analysis to examine Political Science topics. Her dissertation investigates the construction of nationalism in Lebanese political discourse.