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Review of  Words of the World

Reviewer: Prisca Augustyn
Book Title: Words of the World
Book Author: Abram de Swaan
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Language Family(ies): New English
Issue Number: 13.3274

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Date: Mon, 9 Dec 2002 09:14:41 -0500
From: Prisca Augustyn
Subject: Sociolinguistics: Review of De Swaan(2001), Words of the World

De Swaan, Abram (2001) Words of the World: The Global Language System.
Polity Press, paperback ISBN 0-7456-2748-X, vii+253pp, $31.95.

Reviewed by Prisca Augustyn, Florida Atlantic University.

Abram De Swaan compares five different language constellations (India,
Indonesia, Africa, South Africa, and the European Union) in order to explain
the dynamics of the global language system by combining 'notions from
economics, linguistics, history, political science and sociology in a
synthetic perspective' (xi). While the book is intended to merge the
perspectives of multiple disciplines, its outcome may not inform all of the
respective fields alike. The recurrent questions are 'Why the former
colonial languages have persisted so tenaciously in these countries after
Independence' [and whether] 'English [will] continue to function as the
pivot of the global language constellation'(17). Even though De Swaan
makes cautious references to socio-linguistic parameters, his focus is on
political and economic patterns, because 'it is a book about competition and
compromise' (ibid.).

'This material is approached from a theoretical perspective that combines a
political sociology of language with a political economy of language. The
twofold theoretical approach allows us to compare and separate the language
constellations within a common conceptual framework' (18).

In his introduction, De Swaan employs the analogy of a 'galaxy of languages'
in order to introduce the notion of 'supercentral' languages, and the
'hypercentral' language English, which illustrates his view of the global
language system as a constellation of competing centers and peripheries.
Chapters two and three continue his theoretical discussion.
In chapter two, De Swaan defines languages as 'hypercollective goods'
outlining the general characteristics of languages from the perspective of a
'political economy of language constellations'; he suggests that 'languages
may be compared with standards, and with networks' (28). Central to this
notion of languages as 'goods' is the communication value, or 'Q-value', of

'The interpretation of the Q-value is quite straightforward. The first
component, the prevalence, is the proportion of speakers in a constellation
that can be directly contacted with the languages in a given repertoire. The
second factor, the centrality, indicates the number of connections, or
multilingual speakers, that link the languages in this repertoire with all
others, as a proportion of all connections between languages in a
constellation' (36).

In chapter three, de Swaan deals with the 'unequal exchange of texts'; his
central questions are 'how does the theory of free trade vs. protectionism
apply to language-bound cultural exchange, and what can be said on the
collective aspects of the dilemmas of language loyalty vs. language
defection?' (43) In this context, De Swaan discusses the 'dumping' of
American Film and TV productions on the European market that is counteracted
by petitions and campaigns for tariffs and quotas on American Films and
government subsidies for European authors and performers. While this issue
warrants considerations regarding the dynamics of cultural expression and
national identity, De Swaan's discussion remains safely on the
political-economic level, comparing the constellations of Europe and the
former colonies.
De Swaan notes repeatedly that sociolinguists have so far neglected the
theoretical concepts of economic theory (cf. 28, 57) and laments that 'the
rivalry and accommodation between language groups have so far only received
scant theoretical attention' (57). Even though he invokes such notions as
'ethnic identity' or 'cultural heritage', he may be overly optimistic about
their connection 'to the core concepts of social science' (59) when he
promotes his political-economic perspective as a more general theory of
cultural capital.

'In this science of human societies, a very long-term, large-scale view of
the human species in evolution provides the conceptual background for an
analysis of competing (and therefore also collaborating) groups, composed of
individuals who in the short run are alert in scheming in protecting their
resources and realizing some of their opportunities, with and against each
other' (59).

Chapters four through eight discuss the language constellations of India,
Indonesia, Africa, South Africa, and the European Union. Each chapter is
divided into several thematic sections on the pertinent aspects of the
particular language constellation followed by a discussion.
While the situation in India is characterized by the rivalry between Hindi
and English in a similar way French is competing with several languages in
Africa, 'Gandhi's dream' of the triumph of an indigenous language over the
language of the colonizers was realized in Indonesia with Bahasa Indonesia,
a version of Malay. De Swaan attributes these developments primarily to the
diverging policies of the former colonial powers, tracing the political,
economic, and religious factors that contributed to the competition between
indigenous and colonial languages. In post-Apartheid South Africa, language
policies promoting African languages by grouping them into the concepts of
Nguni and Sutu have actually weakened the position of individual languages
against English and Afrikaans. De Swaan's dictum for the European Union (EU)
is 'the more languages, the more English'. While he distinguishes between
different levels of communication in the EU, his discussion remains on a
general pan-European perspective, often making generalizations that leave
the reader unclear which EU country they may apply to. In particular, the
issue of language policy could have been pursued with more attention to the
particular strategies and approaches in different EU countries. Instead, De
Swaan discusses language policy in the EU largely in terms of 'ranking'
according to Q-value and status:

'Clearly, from the moment that it become [sic] an official language of the
Community, English gained the edge over the other languages. French, still a
strong option, was already on the losing end, but remained ahead of German
in third position' (156).

Even though De Swaan provides a fairly neutral presentation throughout his
book, he closes his chapter on the EU language constellation on an
optimistic note, pointing to the positive aspects of multilingualism in
spite of the exorbitant costs of translation and interpretation (estimated
at 700 million Euros) that continue to grow with every new member nation:

'And yet the costs of translation from and into all official languages of
the Union, for correspondence, the publication of major decisions, and
interpretation of the full sessions of Council and Parliament, may be
worthwhile. Its multilingualism is a visible and audible manifestation of
the Union's respect for the equality and autonomy of the member nations. []
And finally, the formation of a corps of translators and interpreters [] is
also an important investment in the cultural rapprochement between these
nations, which so far have rarely communicated directly with each other'

Chapter nine includes a summary of all the important theoretical
considerations introduced in chapters two and three as well as synopses of
chapters four through eight. This makes the book somewhat repetitive in the
presentation of facts and key notions. In particular, the chapters on the
five different language constellations (India, Indonesia, Africa, South
Africa, and the European Union) are often digressive, repeating information
already stated in previous sections or chapters. All bibliographical
references and footnotes appear at the end and are divided by chapter; the
book also includes an index.

Prisca Augustyn is Assistant Professor of German and Linguistics in the Department of Languages & Linguistics at Florida Atlantic University. Her research focuses on the semiotic implications of linguistic data of prime cultural significance. She is currently working on a project concerning the influence of Globalization on the German language.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0745627471
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 272
Prices: U.S. $ 64.95
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 074562748X
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 272
Prices: U.S. $ 29.95