Politics and the English Language: Language and Power Elly van Gelderen

Spring 1994 - Groningen University

LCT: Van Gelderen

FMT: a two hour class in term 3

AIM: This course will focus on the interrelationship between language and power. It will work out some of the issues dealt with in 'Varieties of English' in SFA. The issues chosen are the following: Political Correctness, Prescriptivism (spelling reform), Sapir-Whorf and the Manufacture of Consent, Language planning (bilingualism, language death and official languages), `Romantic' Linguistics, Rationalism/Empiricism, The Chomskian Revolution, When is a language a language

PCD: Every week a particular aspect will be dealt with. Students will be expected to examine an aspect of `language and power' every week.

MAT: selected articles

ASM: Each student is to write a paper on the topics dealt with in class. The final mark will be based on this paper. Every student will also be expected to outline his/her paper orally in class. (no mark is connected with this). In addition, there will be 9 Homework assignments, of which 6 must be handed in (no mark).

NB: For those taking the course as a reading course, the ASM is: Each student is to write a paper on the topics dealt with in the course. The final mark will be based on this paper. In addition, the student should summarize the readings (not the background reading!).



1. Introduction; Language and Ideology; Freedom of Speech; Political Correctness

2. Prescriptivism (spelling reform)

3. Sapir Whorf; Manufacture of Consent

4+ 5. Language planning: bilingualism, language death and official languages

6. `Romantic' Linguistics

7. Rationalism/Empiricism

8. The Chomskian Revolution

9. When is a language a language: dialects vs languages; languages that count (EU ones, PhD languages etc.).


Ad 1: Freedom of Speech is something we take as given in a democratic society but how `freely' are we allowed to speak. For instance, can we tell `lies'; can we insult others?

PC is a fashionable word these days: it is politically incorrect to use language that offends some identifiable group. We will discuss the history and reasons behind the PC movement as well as some of its opponents on the right as well as the left (mainly U.S. examples).

Ad 2: We will make an inventory of prescriptive rules and discuss why we have prescriptive rules such as "do not use like as a complementizer, only as a preposition"? Examples from modern English as well as earlier stages will be used.

Changes in spelling are seen as `mistakes' and hence attempts to stop them are interesting.

Ad 3: Does the fact that we speak a particular language influence our thinking? If the anwer is affirmative, to what extent is this so? We will discuss the classic cases of linguistic relativity as well as some of the (political) consequences of this approach. Orwell worried a great deal whether people's thoughts could be influenced by language (if a language lacks the word freedom, can people think about it). A slightly separate issue that will be dealt with is the Manufacture of Consent: how is it possible in a democratic society to be 'deceived' by the media.

Ad 4 and 5: Governments influence the ways in which language/s is/are spoken in their countries. We will examine what motivates governments to actively stimulate bilingualism. We will consider the language policies in the U.S. (immigrants that speak Spanish and Chinese) as well as the 'English-only' movement. We will also examine the situation in a bilingual country (Canada). A separate issue and one that we will discuss in a global context is that of the possibly 6000 languages spoken in the world 95% are in danger of dying out. What should governments do about it? Is it just 'too bad' for linguists?

Ad 6: In the nineteenth century, linguists found issues such as language origin and language classification ('good' and 'bad' languages) important. I call this 'Romantic' linguistics. Concerns about good constructions (e.g. the English gerund is 'accurate' and 'versatile'; its German counterpart 'clumsy') continue to be relevant up to the present. We will examine a number of these 'Romantics' (Curme, Jespersen, Sapir).

Ad 7:

The debate over the relationship between `mind and body' is an old one. The question of how we learn is very relevant for language. Do we start out with nothing, a blank slate, or are some structures present innately?

Ad 8:

Present day linguistics is unthinkable without Chomsky. How much `thought-control' is there in this respect?

Ad 9:

Language requirements are/were part of the PhD exam and it is interesting to see which languages are/were seen as `kosher' languages. The same is true with the languages taught at schools: why French rather than Spanish. How can we classify languages: genetic or typological (Is, for instance, Hamitic different from Semitic?). Which are the EC languages and why?



Homework readings and background literature. Only read the former!


HW: various newspaper articles on freedom of speech and PC (Newsweek 24 Dec 1990; NYT 6 May 1991; Cal. Monthly Febr 91); Chilton, P. (1988) Orwellian Language and the Media, chap 1, pp.1-17; Greenawalt, K. (1988) Speech, Crime & the Uses of Language, pp.3-8;

Background: Greenawalt, K. (1988) Speech, Crime & the Uses of Language; T. Jay (1992) Cursing in America; Bracken, H. M. (1994) Freedom of Speech, New York: Praeger; Kalven, H. (1988) A Worthy Tradition: Freedom of Speech in America; Ch. Rembar (1968) The End of Obscurity; A. Neier (1979) Defending my Enemy.



HW: Handout `To not change'; G. Orwell "Politics and the English Language" (first 2 pages); G. B. Shaw Pygmalion, parts of Act II; J. Quinn (1980) American Tongue and Cheek, chap 2.

Background: Aitchison, J. (1981), Language Change. New York: Universe Books.

van Gelderen (1993), The Rise of Functional Categories, chap 2; E. Håkon Jahr and K. Janicki (1992), "The function of the standard variety"; R. Wells (1973), Dictionaries and the Authoritarian Trend; Shapiro & Shapiro (1993) "Wimp English", in American Speech.



HW: NYT art `Did We Have to Drop the Bomb'; C. Cohn (1987), Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals, pp. 687-718; N. Chomsky "The Manufacture of Consent".

Background: Herman, E and N. Chomsky (1988) Manufacturing Consent, New York: Pantheon; Chomsky, N. (1992) Chronicles of Dissent; Cross, D. (1990) "Propaganda: How not to be bamboozled" in Language Awareness; Lucy, J. (1992) Language Diversity and Thought Cambridge: CUP; Orwell, G. "Politics and the English Language", reprinted for instance in Language Awareness; Chilton, P. (1988) Orwellian Language and the Media.



HW: Leaflets from "U.S. English"; R. Joy (1992) Canada's Official Languages, chap 2; Newspaper articles (Gazette 24 Febr 1994; NYT 19 March 1994).

Background: Crawford, J, ed. (1992) Language Loyalties, Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press; Hayakawa, S. I. (1990) "Why English should be our official language" in Language Awareness; Joy, R. (1992) Canada's Official Languages: The Progress of Bilingualism, Toronto: Univ of Toronto Press; Rodriquez, R. (1990) "Caught between two languages" in Language Awareness; Baron, D. (1990) The English-Only Question.



HW: Krauss Handout.

Background: Hale, K. et al (1992) " ", Language

Hale, K (1992) "On the Human Value of Local Languages", CIL paper

Robins, R.H. and E.M. Uhlenbeck, eds. (1992) Endangered Languages, Oxford: Berg.



HW: Review of Black Athena; Newmeyer (1986) chap 3, especially 37 ff.

Background: Bernal Black Athena I and II; Said Orientalism; Curme, G. (1912) "History of the English Gerund", in Englische Studien 45; Jespersen, O. (1921) Language; Jespersen, O. (1938) Growth and Structure of the English Language, ch 1-2; van Gelderen (1992) "Gerunds in the early twentieth century" in Language and Cognition 3; Sapir, E. Language; Wetherell, M et.al. (1992) Mapping the Language of Racism.



HW: Stich, ed. (1975) Innate Ideas, pp. 1-22.

Background: Bracken, H. (1984) Mind and Language: Essays on Descartes and Chomsky; other articles in Stich (1975).



HW: Newmeyer, F. (1986) Politics of Linguistics, chap 4.

Background: Harris, R. A. (1993) The Linguistic Wars.



HW: Linguist List Vol 4-318 (1993); Newspaper articles