Why the politics of language needs examples from beyond the Global North

Sep 27, 2019

I was invited to reflect on and situate The Politics of Language Contact in the Himalaya in the broader multidisciplinary debate on the politics of language. Let me preface my thoughts and comments with two important caveats. The first is that I am a political scientist, particularly a political theorist, whereas most of the authors involved in this book project are anthropologists, linguists and sociolinguists. My training in contemporary political theory and theories of linguistic justice necessarily influences my reading of the broader debates and of the chapters in this edited volume.

The second caveat is that most of my research has focused on the politics of language in Canada. I have studied the political claims of linguistic minorities, as well as the language policies enacted by the federal government and the provinces. To put the matter more directly, I have never studied the politics of language in the Himalaya region, and I will not dare in these comments to speak to the specific languages and linguistic identities that are covered in this edited volume.

I divide my thoughts and comments on The Politics of Language Contact in the Himalaya into two main parts. The first is about how, in many ways, the edited volume fits seamlessly into ongoing debates on the politics of language. The second set of comments will focus on what I have learned from the project, particularly what I believe it contributes to the broader debates on the politics of language.

From the perspective of political science, the politics of language encompasses political action from below, that is, individuals and groups organizing and mobilizing to demand recognition or rights or support to ensure that their language survives and even flourishes, as well as political action from above, which takes the form of laws, policies, measures and decisions where government seeks to impact language use and linguistic identities.

I see these two processes at work in this edited volume. The chapters detail how nation-building efforts, language standardization efforts, but also a globalized market that promises economic benefits, have impacted linguistic identities and produced language shifts. These impacts are unequal across language communities, non-elite communities are generally the ones who bear the burden of the responsibility to learn a new language or to switch their register to access public services.

At the same time, the chapters also detail processes from below, that is, how local actors are working to revitalize their language, to contest processes of social exclusion and political disenfranchisement, and to affirm, and, in some cases, redefine their belonging to language and language community.

In other words, the edited volume participates in broader conversations about the politics of language and adds exciting cases from a region that is far too absent in the literature.

Let me turn to a few theories and concepts that are original and that would travel well in the broader debates. First, I see several applications and implications for Tunzhi, Suzuki and Roche’s conceptual distinction between the horizontal and vertical dimensions of language politics. For example, in studies on the French language in Canada, the horizontal dimension could help better theorize the variation in language contact—the contact with English is not the same in BC as it is in Saint-Boniface, Manitoba as it is in Québec City—and the vertical dimension would help problematize the recognition of some language practices (higher status French) and the non- or mis-recognition of other language practices (lower status French).

Second, Bendi Tso and Turin’s theoretical framework founded on linguistic hegemony, coercion and consent has many affinities with Selma Sonntag and Linda Cardinal’s recent work on language regimes and state traditions. One the one hand, the concept of state traditions may help illuminate and explain why some language ideologies become dominant and not others, and on the other hand, Bendi Tso and Turin’s dual concepts of coercion and consent may help further theorize language regimes and their effects on populations and linguistic identities.

Finally, in reading this collection, especially Pradhan’s chapter on the reshaping of the Dangaura Tharu language system and Daurio’s chapter on the Tarali, I could not help but think of a book that was published about 7-8 years ago, one that has been extremely influential in the debates on linguistic justice. This is Philippe Van Parijs’ Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World. The two basic arguments of that book are first, that English will become the lingua franca of Europe and of the world, and that this is inevitable and desirable, and second, that to survive, language groups must ‘grab a territory’ and impose their language on that territory.

I thought of this book because when confronted with the rich and localized cases featured in The Politics of Language Contact in the Himalaya, these two arguments are out of touch, and frankly, absurd. Many before me have remarked how normative theories of equality and justice, including theories of linguistic justice, are centered on Global North experiences, and are inadequate to guide policymakers in the Global South. Reading about languages and linguistic communities in Tibet, Nepal and Northern India really hit that point home for me.

In their preface, the editors write: “the detailed introduction and concluding commentary make the collection accessible to all social scientists concerned with questions of language, and we anticipate that the book as a whole will be of interest to scholars in anthropology, sociolinguistics, political science and Asian studies” (xi-xii). I can indeed confirm that this political scientist found the edited volume of great interest, and I hope that many of my colleagues in political science and beyond will read and digest this collection.

Rémi Léger is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Simon Fraser University, Canada. His research examines the recognition and empowerment of linguistic minorities in comparative perspective. He currently serves as Editor of the journal Francophonies d’Amérique, as well as Chair of the research committee on The Politics of Language at the International Political Science Association. He tweets @ReLeger.

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 second post of this series ‘The Shifting Politics of Representations of the Himalaya: From Colonial Authority to Open Access’ by Mark Turin here.

Photo: Eastern Himalaya: white-on-red patchwork between rivers in south-western China