Why political scientists and linguists are now talking about language politics in the Himalaya

Oct 10, 2019

Why a book on The Politics of Language Contact in the Himalaya and why now? The title of the book might provide some answers. As the title indicates, the contributions to the book address: 1) politics, 2) language contact, and 3) the Himalaya region. Most important are the connections between the three.

Let’s start with the connection between politics and language. It was George Orwell with his novel 1984 who made us all aware of the connection between politics and language. But there’s another way to think about politics and language, namely, despite the ubiquity of the Western European nation-state model as a political ideal, most states in the globe are multinational, multicultural and multilingual.

“Multiculturalism” became a politically preferred global buzzword, with intellectuals and academicians engaging with its linguistic aspect. The Canadian political theorist, Will Kymlicka, connected with applied linguists with his seminal 2003 article entitled “Language Rights and Political Theory.” Significantly, this article wasn’t in a political theory journal but instead in the Annual Review of Applied Linguistics. This intervention in the field of Language Policy and Planning (LPP) had such an impact that many applied linguists assume that political theory and the study of politics are synonymous—that is, they assume that political theory is the whole of political science.

While The Politics of Language Contact in the Himalaya, particularly the first chapter, titled “Language Contact and the Politics of Recognition Amongst Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China,” offers a distinct political theory take on Tibetan languages, the book as a whole focuses on the politics of language not just theoretically but in the real-world context of the Himalaya—making it an important and timely expansion of the academic discourse on the politics of language of the past decade or so.

Moreover, the book focuses not just on the politics of language but rather on the politics of language contact. Language contact is both a socio-political and linguistic phenomenon by which speakers of different languages (or different dialects of the same language) interact with one another, leading to a transfer or shift of linguistic features and potentially language itself. This added focus on linguistic features is a much needed contribution to studies of the politics of language—one reason being that non-linguists, particularly political scientists including political theorists, rarely have an understanding of linguistic phenomena. While there have been more recent attempts by applied linguists to explain language to political theorists—witness Tom Ricento’s 2014 article in the journal Language Policy titled “Thinking about language: what political theorists need to know about language in the real world”, the focus on language contact in this volume brings linguists into the dialogue, and not just applied linguists and sociolinguists working in the LPP field.

Let me offer but one example of the type of dialogue that the book has generated, drawing on my own research. In my chapter, entitled “What Happened to the Ahom Language? The Politics of Language Contact in Assam,” I focus on the politics of the language shift from a Tai-Kadai language to an Indo-Aryan language—the shift occurring on account of language contact—in the pre-colonial Ahom kingdom of the 17th-18th century in what is now the state of Assam in Northeast India. I explain the shift in political terms and argue that the state traditions of the Ahom kingdom were transforming from a non-territorial concept of the state to a territorial one and that the rigid, steep sociopolitical hierarchy of the kingdom’s nobility was flattening out. One of the contributing authors to our volume, Gerald Roche, put me in touch with a linguist, Stephen Morey, who is one of the very few experts on the Ahom language. Here follows some of our recent email exchange about my chapter:

I wrote to Stephen: “I’m a political scientist, so have a different take on language issues than you, as a linguist, has. So I’m always a bit nervous—and curious—about what linguists have to say about my work. But I think it’s an important conversation to have, one reason being that most political scientists writing about language politics know nothing about language(s). So any feedback you may have would be greatly appreciated.”

Stephen responded: “You’re right that your work is a very different sphere from mine; after 23 trips to Assam I try to steer clear of politics as much as possible although as various articles in the book indicate, language is an inherently political matter and it’s clearly necessary to understand the political aspect.” He then made some comments about the phonology and script of the Ahom language which I’m still pondering, without fully comprehending the linguistics!

This brings me to the third element in the book’s title, the Himalaya, and its significance for the politics of language contact. The Himalaya is a trans-border area of immense linguistic diversity that is undergoing rapid sociopolitical change—making the area a timely context for the study of the politics of language contact—and the perfect context for a dialogue on the politics of language outside of the usual Western European milieu. As Rémi Léger, a Francophone Canadian political theorist, noted in his comments on The Politics of Language Contact in the Himalaya at the book’s launch, the Himalayan context of our book is a critical intervention in the dialogue.

Equally important, scholars working on and in the Himalaya have constituted it, in recent decades, as a field of area studies, providing a forum for interdisciplinary exchange of the type exemplified by our edited volume. Himalayan studies is a smaller forum than other area studies, but and a very active one as exemplified by the UBC Himalaya Program, the Tibet Himalaya Initiative at the University of Colorado Boulder and the Himalayan Studies Conferences sponsored by the Association of Nepal and Himalayan Studies. All of these platforms, programs and intellectual spaces played a significant role in the conception and realization of the book, bringing together in creative and interdisciplinary dialogue scholars such as the contributors to this book and those who joined in the conversation through its launch.


Selma K. (“Sam”) Sonntag is Professor Emerita of Politics at Humboldt State University in California and Affiliate Professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her extensive research and publications focus on the politics of language, primarily in South Asia, but also in the United States, Europe and South Africa.

You can now read ‘The Politics of Language Contact in the Himalaya’ by Selma K. Sonntag and Mark Turin here. You can also read the first post of this series ‘Why the politics of language needs examples from beyond the Global North’ by Rémi Léger here and the second post ‘The Shifting Politics of Representations of the Himalaya: From Colonial Authority to Open Access’ by Mark Turin here.

Photo: Himalayan Mountains