The political dimension is explored in the book "Language and Politics," reviewed by Emmanuel Alvarado

review by Emmanuel Alvarado                              

In Language and Politics John E. Joseph argues that language is political from top to bottom by exemplifying the numerous ways in which politics and language interact and are ultimately dependent upon one another. Throughout the book Joseph coherently ties various topics which not only characterize the relationship between language and politics, but rather between language and society as a whole. He introduces the text by citing Aristotle’s view that man, by nature, is a political animal. Joseph cites Aristotle’s argument calling attention to the unlikelihood that man, as a political animal, was rendered the gift of speech by chance: “Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal… Now, that man is more of a political animal than bees or any other gregarious animals is evident. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech” (Joseph 2).

While it is uncertain how or why human language first began, Joseph hints that its origin may be linked to a concrete political, human need: to be able to discern between friends and foes, and to create alliances. This view is supported by some anthropologists such as Dunbar (1996) and Dessalles (2000). “We humans speak because change profoundly modified the social organization of our ancestors. In order to survive and procreate they found themselves needing to form coalitions of a considerable size. Language then appeared as a means for individuals to display their value as members of a coalition” (Dessalles 331–2). Joseph admits that certainly not everyone would agree with this view. However, he adds that the very nature of disagreement is a necessary condition for politics, a position which further exemplifies his argument that language is political from top to bottom.

Throughout the book Joseph affirms that language itself has a deeply political dimension, one that runs to the very core of its functioning. He further adds that this dimension of language is normally ignored by theoretical linguists, for whom the real function of language stands above inter-personal use, having instead to do with cognition (Joseph 2). According to Joseph, this has coincided well with efforts within the field to maintain linguistics somewhat apolitical. As S. May explains:

A key reason why such a broader sociohistorical, sociopolitical research approach is necessary is because for much of its history, linguistics as an academic discipline has been preoccupied with idealist, abstracted approaches to the study of language. In short, language has too often been examined in isolation from the social and political conditions in which it is used. ... This ahistorical, apolitical approach to language has also been a feature of sociolinguistics, despite its emphasis on the social, and of many discussions of LP [language policy] as well (255).

 To fully grasp the book’s argument it is necessary to comprehend exactly what the author means by “political” and what it means to say that “language is political.” Joseph defines politics in a broad sense. The concept of politics may apply to any situation in which there is an unequal distribution of power, and where individuals’ behavior reflects the play of power or is guided by it. Therefore, the book is concerned with the way in which we use language to organize our social existence. Joseph’s text takes into account language itself out of the practices of speech and writing, and the ideologies of those performing the speaking and the writing. Thus it becomes paramount to consider that “my language is shaped by who it is that I am speaking to, and by how my relationship with that person will be affected by what I say” (3). Similarly, the politics of identity shapes how we interpret what people say to us, and it becomes fundamental in deciding the truth-value of their utterances (3).

 Joseph’s book also deals with the question of linguistic correctness and its inherent politics. For instance, it is common for children and adolescents to say: “Can Bobby and me go to the movies?” Joseph points out that there is a typical correction that follows: “You mean Bobby and I.”  The capacity of language to be a locus of disagreement over what is correct is at the center of its social functioning. Issues of linguistic correctness are interpreted as reflecting the speaker’s intelligence, industry, social worthiness, education, etc. To correct the speech of others can be interpreted in social relations as a way to demonstrate superior knowledge, education or social prestige. As a result, Joseph admits, parents are usually concerned with the way in which their children speak and correct their language use so that they are not looked down upon in social relations. For Joseph the social environment is a pivotal learning mechanism which shapes the language, language use, and the implicit power negotiations witnessed in language usage.


Along with language learning and linguistic correctness, Joseph also discusses the politics implicit in different ways of speaking. According to Joseph, the quest for both written and spoken language standardization is often times defended on the grounds that it results in greater linguistic cohesiveness and perhaps cultural unity as well. These objectives per se may not necessarily be undesirable, however what is problematic and political is: Who decides what is to be the norm or the standard? And, what process or processes are behind the selection of the language standard? For instance, in contemporary America, the mid-western accent is the one preferred in the spoken media and education. On the other hand, speakers with a heavy southern accent are frequently regarded as ignorant. In an article titled Southern accents don’t make you stupid, Lara Oliver affirms this common misperception: “We're constantly bombarded with images of the stupid, ignorant southerners in movies, television and radio […] the southern accent has become the catch-all stereotype for ignorance and stupidity. (Oliver par. 2-4)

 As noted in Language and Politics, another form of English which is widely frowned down upon in contemporary America is the African-American English vernacular. Certainly, in most cultures and nations, straying away from what is considered to be “standard” speech could yield unfavorable labels and even attitudes. Joseph argues that, in part, the predominance of standard language is kept through a distortion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Broadly, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis argues that the language we speak has an effect on the way we think. Specifically, the argument is that people’s thoughts are determined by the categories made available to them by their language (Pinker 57). The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was quite prominent in linguistics when it was initially proposed in the 1950’s, however, in contemporary linguistics it has an ambivalent position as it is not fully accepted nor blatantly rejected. In Joseph’s view, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is sometimes stretched or distorted to accentuate the importance of standard language. Under this scope, standard language is privileged in education, public speech and formal writing due to the fear that a failure to conform to it could essentially lead to less satisfactory levels of intellectual competence.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s educational and political elites in America commonly operated under the assumption that low proficiency in reading among African-American children and adolescents was linked to their common usage of the African-American English vernacular. Challenged by this assumption, William Labov conducted research among African-American communities in the United States which led to the publication of Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular in 1972. Interestingly enough, Labov concluded that: “The major causes of reading failure are political and cultural conflicts in the classroom, dialect differences are only important because they are a symbol of this conflict” (14). Similarly, Joseph also argues that differences in the perceived performance of language use are in fact mirroring the social disparities of power and power relations which enable leading elites to determine what the optimal performance of language usage ought to be (59).

 Education, according to Joseph, plays a vital role in shaping both language standardization and its primacy over alternative language use. “Education is central to language and politics because it is through education that language and national identity are created, performed and above all reproduced” (Joseph 49). In particular, Joseph’s association between education and the reproduction of language standardization is evocative of Louis Althusser’s critique regarding the reproduction of ideology in capitalist societies. In his famous essay titled Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, Althusser adds to contemporary Marxist thought by explaining how a dominant ideology permeates and spreads through various ideological institutions, not necessarily only through traditional State organisms like the police or the military (96). Althusser adds that ideological institutions such as the church, the educational system, the family, etc., aid the dominant ideology by shaping inividuals into ‘subjects’ of it (117).

Joseph highlights explicit efforts at the national and international level undertaken to police language use. Among other examples, he discusses the Spanish and French Language Academies which regularly publish dictionaries and grammar books to provide a central unitary reference for speakers of those languages. Nonetheless, there is, and has been, an evident inability of the French and Spanish Language Academies to track and incorporate vast lexicon and grammatical use in their publications which in fact exist where those languages are spoken. Thus, he stresses the usage of speakers as the main element of language change: “the place to look for the primary explanation of change is not in the language [or its academies], but the speakers” (81). However, Joseph warns that applied linguists who also consider usage as the backbone of language change should not blind themselves to the fact that social structures and power relations may encourage new linguistic forms favored by those at the pinnacle of the sociopolitical pyramid while inhibit those arising from the bottom strata. 

In addition to politics of linguistic correctness and standardization, Joseph also discusses the political implications inherent in the connection between the use of a given language and identity. In several countries two or more linguistic systems coexist and they are invariably tied to the culture and identity of various populations. The language or dialect used determines the relationship among the speakers and sanctions are likely to occur if the wrong choice is made. Joseph exemplifies this by referring to the case of Serbo-Croatian, among others. The majority of linguists agree that Serbian and Croatian are phonetically and structurally similar enough to be considered the same language, a claim that angers both Croatian and Serbian speakers alike. However, Croatian, spoken by a predominant Roman Catholic population, is written using the Latin alphabet. On the other hand, Serbian is written using the Cyrillic alphabet, denoting the connection between the Serbians and their Slavic, Christian Orthodox background. In the midst of the conflict between Serbs and Croats in former Yugoslavia in the 1990’s, and even in the aftermath of the war, minor linguistic nuances, expressions and other differences were exacerbated by members of both groups, each claiming that they spoke different enough languages in an effort to build up ethnic-nationalism (Joseph 25-26).   

Joseph further explores the relationship between language, nation and identity by pointing out the ideological and symbolic importance of a national standard language in constructing nationhood. Joseph mentions the case of Israel, a recipient of a considerable number of immigrants from different corners of the world, “where the learning, knowledge and usage of Hebrew is paramount to establish a strong sense of Israeli nationhood” (23). There is also mention of France where proper knowledge and usage of French, more than any other aspect, serves as an insignia of national affiliation. Of course, Joseph admits, the insistence on French as an emblematic symbol of national unity and devotion has downplayed the possibility of granting a culturally significant status to other languages, like Arabic, spoken by large ethnic communities in France. 

In Language and Politics, Joseph also discusses the role of language in the form of rhetoric and propaganda in what he calls, the “manufacture of consent” in modern democracies. He draws heavily from Chomsky’s Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and Use in explaining how propaganda is used by the political machinery and media in democratic nations to ideologically conform political views yet maintaining an illusion of political free will. “Propaganda is to democracy as violence is to totalitarianism” (Chomsky 286). What is most fascinating about this discussion is the way in which Joseph manages to reconcile “the manufacture of consent” with Chomsky’s notion of “infinite linguistic creativity” (Joseph 123). Joseph bridges these seemingly opposing views by stating that each one belongs to a different side of the language equation: the production and the interpretation. “The linguistic creativity Chomsky calls infinite is on the production side only, by contrast, the interpretive aspect of [political] language use is highly constrained and finite” (124).  However, Joseph admits that propaganda is not solely accepted in simple terms, but rather there is a complex negotiation of meaning involved which would grant the possibility of linguistic creativity even while interpreting propagandistic communication. “[…] ordinary people do not simply accept what those in power tell them, but question it, are skeptical about it, resist it, appropriate it and tweak it in order to suit their own ends” (Joseph 126).

To conclude, Joseph’s Language and Politics makes a persuasive case that language is inherently political. By exploring the various links between language, identity, nationhood, standardization and propaganda, Joseph effectively contends that all language is political in that every act of language is potentially political. That is, even if there are no conscious political motivations in making a given utterance, what is uttered is still capable of positioning the speaker in a particular way with regard to his or her reader or listener who may infer that there was political intent behind it. The book also serves as a call for those involved or interested in applied linguistics to become more aware and concerned with the socio-political manifestations of language. “To ignore the manifold and sweeping ways in which language functions to position people relative to one another is to have a partial and distorted conception of what language is about” (Joseph 19). 


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Emmanuel Alvarado is based at the Department of Comparative Studies, Florida Atlantic University and can be reached at  ealvardo (AT)