Three Perspectives on Language and Politics

Jonathan Pool

“The relationship between language and politics is so obvious that we hardly think about it”, wrote Brian Weinstein as the first words of The Civic Tongue (1983). As Weinstein went on to show, the relationship between language and politics is not obvious at all. So basic are the unresolved issues that current academic scholarship still debates whether language has any effect on politics, whether politics can have any effect on language, and whether anyone cares enough about language to undertake political action directed at producing linguistic consequences.

One of the main subjects connecting language and politics is language policy. And Robert L. Cooper ’s Language Planning and Social Change is the most carefully crafted survey to date of this field, which he, like many others, calls “language planning”. A survey of a mature field would describe several of its influential theoretical models and many of its major empirically supported generalizations; but, as Cooper admits, this is not a mature field, so the book focuses instead on describing illustrative cases of language planning, defining the field’s boundaries and subfields, arguing for criteria that research in the field should satisfy, and describing areas of theory outside the field that might be useful inspirations for it. The cases Cooper describes at greatest length are the founding of the French Academy, the promotion of Hebrew in Palestine, the campaign against sexist usage in English, and the perfunctory adoption of native languages as vehicles of literacy teaching in revolutionary Ethiopia. Cooper’s definition of language planning is “deliberate efforts to influence the behavior of others with respect to the acquisition, structure, or functional allocation of their language codes”. The subfields into which he partitions the field are status planning (such as designating official languages), corpus planning (such as designing a writing system for a language), and acquisition planning (such as offering a foreign language in a school curriculum). The criteria of research quality he advocates are adequacy of description, prediction, explanation, and theory. The other areas of theory he recommends attending to are the diffusion of innovation, marketing, power, decision making, and social change. Does this work on case description, definition, classification, and theoretical referral add to our knowledge or help those who seek to produce new knowledge? I have my doubts. Cooper (who has published significant work on how languages spread and contract) could do more good if he expended the same amount of effort executing the kind of research that he advocates.

Given that “language planning” has been a self-conscious field since the 1960s, it has generated some claims of general truth; and Cooper sprinkles several of these claims through his book, supported by illustrative cases. One iron law is that “once a language has passed out of all use whatsoever, it remains dead” (p. 12). Another is that “language planning … is typically, perhaps always, directed ultimately towards nonlinguistic ends” (p. 35). It is also “a messy affair—ad hoc, haphazard, and emotionally driven” rather than “systematic, rational, theory-driven” (p. 41). Language planners rely “on intuition"; they make “little if any effort to determine the motivation of the different target groups to accept the planned innovation” (p. 75). Such motivations, however, are crucial, because “few language-planning decisions can be implemented by fiat” (p. 75). Even if poorly executed, language planning is “employed to maintain or strengthen elite power … or the power of counterelites” (pp. 81–82). But inertia is a constraint: “A government continues to use the working languages which have always been used, unless doing so threatens its legitimacy, encourages a counterelite, or otherwise undermines its ability to rule” (p. 103). Standards of appropriate language usage are more often accepted than obeyed (pp. 134–135). Prescriptive grammarians (such as Samuel Johnson) help to diffuse existing standards but don’t succeed in revising standards (p. 146). Nonstandard language forms, even when publicly disparaged, enjoy “covert prestige” among their users (p. 179). Terminologists seek to promote the incompatible goals of mass accessibility, which requires coining, and international communication, which requires borrowing (p. 151). Occasionally, Cooper also empirically refutes laws asserted by others, such as Spenser’s dictum that “it hathe bene ever the use of the Conquerour to despise the Language of the Conquered and to force him by all means to learne his"—falsified by the Italians in Ethiopia, the Ottomans in the Middle East, and the Manchus in China (pp. 110-11).

To appreciate the “emotionally driven” character of language policy, one needs only to witness today’s debates in the United States about whether to declare English the official language and whether to require public schools to provide bilingual education. The debaters, typically, are stubbornly committed; but some hide their biases behind uncommitted-sounding titles, such as Forked Tongue: The Politics of Bilingual Education and The English-Only Question.

The biases of these two debates are generally opposite. As a first approximation, Porter has an assimilationist bias, and Baron has a pluralist bias. Porter argues for the immersion of language-minority children in school programs where the society’s dominant language is the medium of instruction. Baron argues that racism and nativism have motivated a long history of minority-language suppression in the United States, and he advocates the recognition and use of minority languages by governments in schools and other institutions. Both authors rely on largely anecdotal evidence. Porter’s bias is not as simple as Baron’s, since Porter, too, opposes (though weakly) the declaration of English as the official language of the United States and actually advocates bilingual education if it treats two language groups equally, teaching each the other’s language. Thus, the real incompatibility between these two advocates relates to whether it is feasible and beneficial to immerse all kinds of monolingual children (not only middle-class children of well-educated parents) into nonnative-medium school programs. Porter and Baron are confident their opposite answers are correct, but Cooper’s answer is that we don’t yet know. He describes various obstacles to definitive experimental studies. He also notes that what is called “bilingual education” in the United States actually spends little time (in one study it was measured as 8% of the total time) using the pupil’s first language (pp. 52–53), leading to the suggestion that bilingual education might work if it were ever tried.

This review is a prepublished version of a review published in the American Political Science Review, vol. 85, issue 2, June 1991, pp. 636–637.