Handout for LING 540, Language Policy
Problems with Language and `Ideology'
H. Schiffman, Instructor
A number of researchers nowadays are fond of talking about `linguistic
ideology' and many students want to write about it, for example for course
Students in my classes will have noticed that I have not
discussed language `ideology' per se at any point in the class, and
will not find it in anything that I have written, except perhaps to
critique it. I prefer, instead, to use the conceptual construct
linguistic culture to describe and delineate
...the sum totality of ideas,
values, beliefs, attitudes, prejudices, myths, religious strictures, and all
the other cultural `baggage' that speakers bring to their dealings with
language from their culture. Linguistic culture also is concerned with the
transmission and codification of language and has bearing also on the
culture's notions of the value of literacy and the sanctity of texts.
And of course language itself is a cultural artifact and must be counted
as a part of linguistic culture.
As for the term `ideology', I dislike it for the following additional
perhaps what is causative in human behavior and relations?
I question again and again how it is that polities make rules,
regulations, policies, etc. regarding language, but then having failed to implement them they scratch their heads, unable to
understand why their plans don't come to fruition, instead blaming someone else for
the failure. Claiming that vague notions of ideology are responsible for making
people behave in a certain way is no different.
- In many references to it, it is typically not
many papers on the subject, authors do not quote an original source for
it, or explain what its perameters as a conceptual
construct are or might be. Or, they say ``following Gramsci" (etc.) and
then let it go at that.) People tend to quote the term as if it were a
given, something that everyone understands and accepts
than a conceptual symbolism proposed by some human being (such as
Habermas). (The one exception to this is Roberge's article in the
Corspak, on Afrikaans linguistic ideologies ; see below for more
- Without explanation, `ideology' then becomes a sort of a
priori reification of something. Its use implies that
great power, but what the elements of an ideology might be are not
(typically) delineated. As I mentioned earlier, I want claims of various
sorts that you make to give evidence, and evidence must be warranted
, i.e. you must tell us what warrants underpin your evidence.
- My own reaction to the term `ideology' is that it smacks of neo-Marxist
theory, where power is seen as some kind of prime or primordial
force (or at least discussed as a kind of inexorable motive force) rather than
made up of some elements, which in any case would be different in different cultures.
It reminds me of the problems with French and Soviet
ideologies about language in which the belief in the ability of ideology to
change things blinds the believers to the reality that this doesn't work, and the
tendency is then to blame others for the failure of the ideology,
rather than seeing that the ideology itself is at fault. And along with this
blame-game is the tendency to see certain ideologies (not ones own, of course) as
evil and responsible for problems or short-comings of (e.g.) language policies.
There seems also implicit an assumption that other people are influenced by
(bad) ideologies, but one is oneself not; so ideologies are responsible for all
in the world; once the researcher has denounced them all, problems will disappear.
- I also tend to think of `ideology' as something like Marxism or Nazism,
an elaborate state-sponsored politico-philosophical conceptual
system, overt and explicit. To not distinguish between ``great" and
complex ideologies, and ordinary ideas, beliefs, myths, prejudices
etc., is to lose a whole level of analysis, and fails to differentiate
between some rather low-level, trivial kinds of ideas, and more powerful,
state-sanctioned or religious `ideologies.' It also fails to look at the components or elements of the ideological system, but treats
them as an undifferentiated whole. Religious ideologies that influence language
would of course be such things as the stance of Islam toward language (especially
to the status of Arabic, in the Koran), Christian and Jewish ideas expressed by
terms such as "And God said, let there be light" or "In the beginning there
the Word, and the word was with God, and the word was God."
- Many uses of the term `ideology' smack of a kind of
folk-Whorfianism: "there's this ideology and it makes
(people) do thus and such; we can't escape it; it's part of our thought
- Many of the exponents of language `ideology' have not (to my knowledge)
based their theory on any kind of field work, or any use of
empirical data. (Or, the data are flawed; see
below). The theory drives the analysis, and finds the data it needs, rather than the
other way around. As we know, even empirical studies (e.g. on language attitudes)
are viewed by some people as problematical, so why are non-empirical studies of what
goes on in people's heads superior? The main empirical `data' I see people using is
textual evidence, and there is of course
nothing wrong with texts. (This is a carry-over from the origin of many of these
ideas in literary criticism.) But other kinds of data must also be examined.
- In her excellent review of the concept of ideology in
the compendium edited by Schieffelin, Wooland and Kroskrity, Woolard
distinguishes between four (4) different
types (or notions, or definitions, or uses) of ideology, but few researchers
state which of these 4 types they are referring to. It is as if Woolard's
review has laid to rest all the problems and issues underlying these
different definitions, and we can now proceed to expose the evils of ideology
and not worry about fine points.
- I prefer my own construct, that of linguistic culture because
it specifically includes a large range of ideas, beliefs, value systems, prejudices,
stereotypes, legends, gut-feelings, and any other notions of language that seem to be
observable in the linguistic culture in question. I do not believe that linguistic
culture is necessarily coherent or well thought-out; it may contain
contradictions and disjunctures, and may be hard to quantify or deal with
`objectively'. But ideology-wallahs tend to dismiss objectivism as unattainable, so
`positivism' is simply abandoned, and recourse to an abstract theory of `ideology' is
seen as an adequate methodology.
I do not deny that many of these behaviors and elements are hard to study
`objectively' but I think we must at least attempt to delineate
the elements of the linguistic culture. Simply tossing off "ideology" as
an explanation for various things is no explanation whatsoever.
`Ideology' is clearly a social construct, but the theory that `ideology'
is responsible for certain kinds of behavior towards language is also
I have often said that I am concerned in my study of language policy with the basic
general notion of what makes people do things
Verification or Falsification: Another problem that I have with the
ideology discourse is that there seems to be no way to show that something is not
an ideology. In linguistics in general (and in many other disciplines), we want
to have a metric that allows us to falsify or
offer a refutation of of the theoretical claim, so that we
know what is, and what is not, (an) ideology. Without
this, any claim whatsoever seems to qualify, which leads to the
reductio ad absurdem that everything is ideology. (One even hears,
repeated ad infinitum, at AAA meetings, that "It's all just ideology!") Thus
a theory that tries to explain everything ends up explaining nothing. This is what
Chomsky calls a "strong" theory, i.e. it makes strong claims, so strong in fact, that
it ends up being a theory that explains everything (and in fact, nothing.)
I stated at the outset of this course that I wanted you to at
least attempt to view language policy in the framework I have elaborated,
or, failing that, prove me wrong. Some of your papers challenge my
approach, but do not give warranted evidence of why I am wrong.
Others of your papers skirt the issue, or pay lip service to the approach
I take, but then fall back on poorly-defined (and in all cases so far,
undocumented) citations of `ideology' as the root of all evil, or at least
as the explanation for how language behavior is enacted in culture. This
does not satisfy the requirements of this course.
You may be interested (or already have noticed) that I have a
bibliography, gleaned from CD-ROM (ERIC) sources, on
language ideology and language standardization.
(These are mostly non-monograph studies of various sorts.)
studies can be found in the on-line catalogue, or in this list.
Having said all this and expressed these caveats, I recommend a study
by Paul Roberge in the volume edited by John Joseph and Talbot Taylor,
Ideologies of Language (P126.J67 1990, given in reading list.)
Roberge's study, of linguistic ideologies in Afrikaans linguistic culture,
does an admirable job of defining what he means by ideology. If you want
a starting point, use Roberge's definition, and use Roberge's model of
analysis, which focuses on the ideology as it is revealed in linguistic
analyses and approaches to Afrikaans. Roberge, incidentally, is the
only contributor to the Joseph & Taylor volume who actually defines
ideology; the others, including the editors, accept it as a given.
See also this critique of Phillipson's notion of
linguistic imperialism (a.k.a. `linguism') by this author (Alan Davies). This
is also a critique of the idea of the `big bad ideology' embodied in the English
language, that goes around the world and stomps on everything in
Further discussions: see this rejoinder to M. Silverstein,
rebutting his claim that linguistic ideology is responsible for the loss of the
pronoun 'thou' in early Modern English.