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Autumn - Winter 2006

Linguistic nationalism: an interventionist alternative to the liberal conceptions of the linguistic market, by Henri Boyer

The author reviews the different positions on the sociolinguistic effects of globalisation, and focuses more particularly on linguistic nationalism. Linguistic nationalism is one which is based on language.Boyer describes the two cases / instances of linguistic nationalism in the / within the Spanish state: that of Galician and that of Catalan, with more especial emphasis on the latter.(1)


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1. Introduction
2. The globalisation and the disappearance of languages
3. The linguistic nationalism
4. The linguistic nationalisms in Spain
5. The ideological construction of a linguistic nationalism in Catalonia
6. Conclusions
7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

I would gladly simplify the sociolinguistic options (regarding language contact management) currently opposed over the “globalisation” and the position of worldwide plurilingualism and local multilingualisms, according to a representation where, at one end of a continuum, liberal “free exchange” that prioritises laisser faire policy and the law of market forces (for example De Swaan 2001), is placed at the opposite end to an interventionist focus with two frequently linked variants: linguistic ecology (“altermondialist”), that puts forward arguments of an ethical and juridical nature (human rights-linguistic rights) (for example Hagège 2000, Nettle and Romaine 2003, Boudreau et al 2003) and linguistic nationalism, that prioritises identity positioning (Boyer 2004) :

Issue 99-100 (2001) of the Quebec magazine ‘Terminogramme’ provides an excellent opportunity to fathom the state of the knowledge on the “geostrategies of languages” “ (title of the publication in question), in other words the “relations and [language] competition on the international chessboard” (Maurais, 2001, p. 7).

On this issue, regarding the current debate centred on the sociolinguistic effects of globalisation, as stated by R.E. Hamel,

not all the positions agree […]. Even among those opposed to the total hegemony of English, viewpoints and divergences of strategies persist. We are aware, on the one hand, of the tendency to unconditionally defend all the languages of the world and every citizen’s right to receive an education in their language; on the other hand, there is a position in which the main contradiction lies between English, on one side, and the other national and international languages on the other (Hamel, 2001, p. 130).

The latter position, that of “French sociolinguists [who] warn of the risks of replacement of local languages to the detriment of national and supranational languages” is put forward synthetically, in the article quoted by R.E. Hamel, by a quotation of a “communication by e-mail“ from L.J. Calvet(Hamel, 2001, p. 131), for whom “in terms of language politology, the promotion of “minority” or “regional” or “small” languages, follows the same path as English-speaking imperialism“.

L.J. Calvet had previously expressed the same position, about Europe in particular, a position whose deliberately and excessively macrosociolinguistic dimension can certainly be praised for its clarity, but in which the bias towards globalisation leaves little room to accommodate the complexity and variety of the positions.

Judge for yourselves:

[globalisation] happily accepts the explosion in speech microcommunities, but copes poorly with intermediary supercentral languages that on a local level represent just as many points of resistance.If, as some wish, Europe were to evolve towards a federation of regions, it may thus move towards the domination of English in coexistence with a plurality of “small” languages such as Galician, Catalan, Basque, Corsican or Alsatian, while French, German and Spanish would be slowly shifted back to the status of central, no longer supercentral languages. From this viewpoint, the defence of “threatened” languages would increase the domination of the hypercentral language, in the same way as, in postcolonial situations, it is language division that strengthens official languages such as English, French or Portuguese. This European scenario is for the time being no more than a hypothesis, but it casts a new light on the debate. (Calvet, 2002, p. 99).

From where :

All languages are equal in the eyes of PC discourse, which simply means that all languages are languages, that they all deserve, for example, to be described, but as far as their value or their functions and representations are concerned, they are profoundly unequal (ibid, p. 99).

A commentary on the diagnosis put forward in this way imposes itself, although one may always argue, in their defence, that it is a shortcut, and therefore a voluntary simplification. It is not exactly globalisation that wants to grant ever increasing weight to the regions of Europe, but really the defenders (of all types) of a European integration in which the weight of the nation-states, some of which are renowned for their resistance to major losses of sovereignty, would be reduced through the dilution of prerogatives, to put it one way. Nevertheless, not all the regions affected by this perspective constitute historical speech communities: of the 250 regions making up the recently formed Assembly of European Regions, how many have their “own language”, different from that which is official at state level, such as Catalonia, Galicia or the Basque Country in Spain?Surely a minority.As for the analogy with post-colonial situations, it seems to me to result more from political-media rhetoric than from an authentic comparative analysis.

We could not subscribe to the globalising hypothesis peremptorily put forward by L.J. Calvet concerning “the tendency to put back supercentral languages to the rank of central languages, which would be the central axis of language globalisation”.With specific regard to Spain, he can be reassured: Spanish, under the name of Castilian, is not in any way “in the process of being downgraded […] to the level of a regional language, alongside Catalan or Basque” (see specifically Boyer and Lagarde dir.2002), contrary to what a certain Spanish nationalist discourse would have one believe, a discourse allied to the detractors (a minority in the community) of the sociolinguist normalisation driven by the autonomous government of Catalonia since 1980 (Boyer, 2003).In the same way that Castilian itself is not under threat in Paraguay from the officialisation in 1992 of Guarani... (Hamel, 2001).

It is known that for Calvet, the appropriate model “to bring order to […] disorder“ is the “gravitational model” (Calvet, 2002, p. 26-27, see also Calvet, 1999, p. 76-81).

It is perfectly evident that “a configuration does not only consist […] of certify an established fact, but a transitive intervention on the facts, a presentation among possible others, according to a logic that gives these facts a certain form, a certain meaning” (ibid, p. 28; my emphasis).But precisely, “from among other possible [presentations]” related to language facts linked to globalisation, the one Calvet chooses gives “a certain meaning” that is problematic for all linguists who wish to fully place themselves in W. Labov’s “group A”, despite the limitations that this categorisation may present (Labov, 1976, p. 357).In fact, it is justified to voice the strongest reservations concerning the purely countable chosen configuration, we might say, when the reductive type of viewpoint that it seems to authorise is observed:

It is comfortable to believe that if languages disappear from use it is because of the selfish domination of the “big” languages, and that if English imposes itself as an international tool this is due to the selfish domination of American power. Comfortable but false. If speakers or speech communities submit to the law of the market, if some abandon their language and no longer pass it on to their children, they do not necessarily do so with a knife to their throats, but rather because they consider that it is in their own, or their children’s interests. (Calvet 2002, p. 212).

A simple reminder of the numerous factors listed by W.F. Mackey that may explain the “obsolescence [of a language]” suffices to underline the strictly polemic value of Calvet’s comments:

A language gradually loses its social functions through the bias of emigration, famine, disease, genocide, decrease in birth rate, exogamy, absence of work, absence of instruction, poverty or prohibition. (Mackey, 2001, p. 105).

Also in issue 99-100 of Terminogramme, the promoter of the “gravitational model” adapted by Calvet, Abram de Swaan, puts forward a series of reflections on “the worldwide constellation of languages” that illustrate the model in question, (2) and show its fundamentally and narrowly economist grounding. To tell the truth, the title does not reflect well the nature of the discourse sustained in the article.

In fact, it analyses the relationships between languages, their respective values, and this analysis to a large extent develops from industrial and commercial logic. This can be judged by a number of enunciations analogical in the extreme:

From an economic viewpoint, one can compare languages to industrial norms and to certain distribution networks (De Swaan, 2001, p. 50).

Linguistic loyalty is an extreme case of consumer loyalty (ibid, p. 51).

When an individual learns a language, chooses an electronic device […] or calls upon a network of services, in so doing he/she increases the usefulness of this language, of this norm or of this network for all the other users that already make use of it (ibid, p. 51).

The more space any given standard [e.g.: PAL and SECAM for television] takes up on the market, […] the greater the quantity and variety of programmes and recordings offered by the devices conforming to this standard will be. This in turn increases the value of these devices for their users. In this case there is a clear parallelism with languages: the more speakers there are, the more readers and therefore authors and texts produced there will be (ibid, p. 52).

It all boils down to “investment“, “expected […] profits”, “cost”, etc. since languages are “hypercollective goods”.Such rhetoric falls a long way from Bourdieu’s analysis on the economics of linguistic exchanges within a given community, according to a market hierarchisation-articulation, dominant markets (official) and free markets (peripheral, dissident), because the ecolinguistic dynamics described by Bourdieu is in the end nothing but a denouncement of a allurement: that the linguistic market is independent of the societal (socioeconomic, political, cultural) context. This conception of the relationship between language and society connects with, in this case with regard to the plurilingual market, the conception of Robert Lafont, who considers that “for the coherent sociolinguist, there are never “language questions“, but societal questions that usages envelop just as they derive from them “ (Lafont, 1994, p. 134).

De Swaan seems indirectly to pay homage to Bourdieu’s lucidity on sociolinguistic economy when dealing with free markets (such as slang) :

Clearly, there are codes and secret languages that allow for the exclusion of laymen; curiously, in such a case, the central hypothesis of our theory (the more speakers a language has, the greater its value) is not valid.(De Swaan, 2001, p. 52, note 13; my emphasis).

I will not dwell on a number of questionable observations that are obviously based on incomplete theoretical and/or factual information, like this one concerning Creole languages:

There are languages that have appeared relatively recently, such as the Creole languages, that were “created“ by a relatively small number of people, without doubt very young children, in a very short time (ibid, p. 53, note 15).

I quote another of these extraordinary observations on the interruption of language transmission:

The final abandonment [of the “language in implosion“] only takes place when the following generation stops learning the language of the parents (De Swaan, 2001, p. 59).

Clearly, it is not the children who stop learning the language of the parents, but the parents that, most often victims of guilt (Lafont, 1971), of self-deprecation, products of a diglossicideology, (Boyer, 1991 and 2003) no longer pass on the dominated language to their children.

De Swaan is much more inspired in matters concerning “the abandonment of the language of origin“ (De Swaan, 2001, p. 63) :

The “turning point“ in the progression from diglossia to heteroglossia takes effect when, for speakers of the two languages, indigenous and exogenous, the costs of safeguarding the local language start to outweigh its declining additional Q value […].Once desertion begins, parents no longer teach (3) the language to their children and, they themselves no longer make the effort to speak it “correctly”.

Clearly, and in general terms, the suggestions made by De Swaan leave the sociolinguist perplexed. The voids in the bibliographical references to important European research on the areas dealt with, in particular regarding the diglossic conflict, are surprising. They are manifest in statements such as: “To date, the rivalries and compromises between linguistic groups have not attracted much attention” ...(ibid, p. 65).

These critical remarks and specific reservations in no way detract from the global interest of the Terminogramme dossier. The merit of this set of contributions lies in its advancement of the knowledge on language management, in how it raises the issues at stake and in its clear identification of the weaknesses of and the obstacles to a reflection in full development. Thus one can, one must discuss the fact that a “strong version of the Sapir-Whorf theory according to which a language imposes limits on the thought of those that speak it” inspires two main types of current geostrategies: “The race for “market share” by representatives of the main international languages, and the protection of languages on the road to disappearance by the community of linguists and representatives of non-governmental organisations involved with the linguistic rights of minorities” (Kibbee, 2001, p. 69).

2. The globalisation and the disappearance of languages

The dossier includes numerous references to D. Graddol’s report edited by the British Council: The Future Of English?(1997), which refers to the possible disappearance of many “local languages” (Kibbee, 2001, p. 72).It is surely the “death” threat posed to these languages by globalisation, and their defence, that leads to the most confrontational positionings, as we have seen. Certainly, “languages are not the same as species“, but why “[would] the loss of a language [not be] equivalent to the loss of a species”? (Kibbee, 2001, p. 73).


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