LINGUIST List 14.1502

Fri May 23 2003

Review: Sociolinguistics: Stevenson (2002)

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  • Pratyush Chandra, Language and German Disunity

    Message 1: Language and German Disunity

    Date: Fri, 23 May 2003 11:27:35 +0000
    From: Pratyush Chandra <>
    Subject: Language and German Disunity

    Stevenson, Patrick (2002) Language and German Disunity: A Sociolinguistic History of East and West in Germany, 1945- 2000, Oxford University Press.

    Announced at

    Pratyush Chandra, Indian Institute of Marxist Studies (Delhi Chapter), New Delhi (India).

    ''Language is a convenient metaphor for social difference, because of its materiality, because it is abundantly available in its concrete realizations in spoken and written texts, and because it is the one common resource that a society has at its disposal.'' (237-38) Perhaps, the genesis of language politics in general cannot be more succinctly expressed. Further, recognizing this basic socio-linguistic truth unravels before us the reality within the so-called 'Global Village', which we are supposedly encountering today. After the end of the cold war, it was solemnly declared that it marks a beginning of peace and togetherness throughout the world. But the truth can never be more dissonant to this as it is today. Not a single day passes without war cries of the hegemonic forces, and voices of protest against them. The political economic crises breeding this are easily eluded by looking for explanations in apparent attitudinal differences, which are comprised essentially of discursive and linguistic components (which together constitute the basic socio- linguistic issues). We do not need to go much back in history to find this - this is inherent in the talk of 'clash of civilizations' and rationalization of 'post-cold war' wars. In this regard, the present book is very contemporary and relevant not only to understand the present German reality but has a hermeneutic value in general too, since the German unification is in fact a ''wende'' (turning point) in the world history of which the present scenario is a product.

    The author hopes ''to capture both the historicity of the east-west issue and the complex web of questions underlying the central problem: why, and in what ways, is language repeatedly (perceived as) a source of both unity and disunity in the German speech community.'' On this particular theme, he distinguishes himself by trying to trace the genesis of discord in the ''four decades of division'' and ''in the context of the role that the idea of the 'German language' has played in the construction and contestation of national identities over the last 200 years.'' (3)

    The book is divided into two parts to lead the discussion chronologically. Part 1 traces the 'Question della Lingua' up to the 'wende' including the wende and the second part narrates it for the first decade after the unification.

    Both the parts are divided into two chapters each. The first part starts with by dealing with a theoretical and empirical exposition of symbiotic relationship between linguistic change and social dynamics (Chapter 2). It relates the linguistic debates in the 19th century Germany from Herder and Humboldt. The relationship between language and national identity in German discourse draws from the ideas of these philosophers. Arndt in the early 19th Century and Kluge just after the first world war represent characteristically how early German perceptions on language became expressions of nationalist ideologies - ''the mother tongue is the symbol of the fatherland'' and ''cultivating the mother-tongue means cultivating Germanness'' (Kluge quoted on 19)). It is noted that these views and many other perceptions (''the chauvinist discourse of purity'' and ''the emancipatory discourse of purity'') politicizing the language question are generally expressed at the time of socio-political crises. The author rightly finds explanation to this conjunction in the works of the Italian Marxist Gramsci who always took the ''linguistic fact as a political act'' (Salamini 1981) - ''every time the question of the language surfaces, in one way or another, it means that a series of other problems are coming to the fore'' (quoted on 19). The author substantiates further how the ideologico-political values attached to the language continued in later days. In the post-1945 political changes he traces the trajectory of debates, and finds major ''turning points'' by situating the various shifts in these debates ''in the process of political and academic development within and between the two German states.'' (42) Chapter 2 closes with an empirical account of linguistic (lexical contrasts) and sociolinguistic differences (discursive oppositions) and finds that ''one of the most potent linguistic devices in the arsenal of political and ideological opponents was the symbolism of naming practices.'' (49)

    Chapter 3 focuses on the extent and ways the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was 'talked into existence' and then 'talked out of existence'. It stresses on the patterns of formation and regulation of communicative realm in the GDR, and the forces that perpetuated the formation. The chapter begins by examining the ''Byzantine architecture of official discourse'' manifested in ''the highly ritualized nature of the linguistic forms and textual patterns: the constant repetition of formulaic expressions, the emphasis on the collective historic mission, the recycling of apodictic statements asserting the rationality of official doctrine, the legitimization of Party policy.'' (69) Then the author studies the effect of rituality in various types of quasi-public discourse especially in the educational domain, which ''constructs itself through the texts it generates, processes and consumes.'' (80)

    The author finds a subaltern protest through ''private rehearsal of alternative modes of articulation, of ironic 'language games' in which the language of official texts was manipulated to humorous and subversive effect.'' (93) According to him the ''the polyphony of wende discourses'' was the heightened realization of this 'de-ritualized' language of accumulated alienation, a ''language revolt''. ''The explosion of linguistic creativity that characterized the mass demonstrations in the autumn of 1989 was therefore a public continuation of a private tradition.'' (109)

    I feel the GDR like any state whether totalitarian or democratic was based on the system of ''masses represented by leaders'' and hence needed hegemonizing structures to legitimize it. In this regard we can once again go back to Gramsci who viewed that ''every relationship of 'hegemony' is necessarily an educational relationship'' (Gramsci 1971) and that ''the hegemonic educational relationship is mediated through the various institutions of 'civil society': in particular, the church, the school, labour unions, and the press'' (Entwistle 1978). Further, I contend that the author's analysis is a bit weak when he stresses simply on the ''talking out of existence'' of the GDR, not on the politico-economic processes within and without, which contexualised such a talking-out. It is quite interesting to see that in most of the countries in the erstwhile Soviet bloc, it was the elements in the hegemonic intermediate class controlling the bureaucratic machinery that gained most in the phase of ''post-Wendes'' everywhere. They had accumulated a sufficient politico-economic power to sustain and prosper themselves in the ''post'' phase. In fact the Wende also represents a phase where these elements could not pursue this accumulation further, and had to abolish the structure which mothered them. Hence, it could also form a task for further sociolinguistic research where one can study how hegemonies were reformed and reproduced in ''wende discourses''.

    The second part relocates 'East' and 'West' in the 1990- 2000 phase. It starts with Chapter 4 studying the evolution of new speech ecology and how the new sociolinguistic scenario evolved with relative responses of the East and West Germans to the challenges in this new context. The chapter begins by elaborating on the ''linguistic 'rationalization', which took place after the unification. The easterners were obviously on the receiving end as they were the people to be incorporated. They faced on the one hand, ''the anxiety and uncertainty that was bound up with the demands of the market economy and expressed in the requirement to be 'flexible and dynamic''' and on the other, they tried hard to avoid the old ''shibboleths''. (124) The chapter then goes on to examine the performance of Easterners in the Western communicative genres like job interviews etc. The author finds a general relationship between social and linguistic mobility in Germany after unification, which derives from the established language attitudes determined in turn by different social expectations. The author finds these attitudes fuelling language ideologies. Through evaluations of vernacular speech and standard forms in Berlin, he shows how the ideology of standardization, 'verbal hygiene' and the disparagement of linguistic varieties function as tools of social domination.

    Chapter 5 begins by showing in what ways 'communities of memory' are formed by individual reflections on past linguistic experiences and ''the narrative processing of individual biographies''. (198) The author reflects on personal experiences of many individuals in establishing their image of others, while consequently forming their own self-image. These binary stereotypical images are always antithetical. These images congeal into identities of 'eastness' and 'westness'. This manufacturing of identities hierarchizes the inter-community relationship. This hierarchy is essentially a product of already existing social inequality, which is reinforced through it. It becomes a mechanism for hegemonic identities to preempt their affinity to institutional and social power structure, while alienating others.

    I would add to the author's well-versed arguments that this alienation is not exclusion but 'differential inclusion', which is realized by allocating the 'other' identities somewhere in the base of the hierarchical structure of socio-political formation. This is made possible by the so- called 'democratic set-up' ''for it simultaneously enshrines the principle of popular inclusion and that of popular exclusion.'' (Miliband 1982) Democracy functions by regrouping the fundamental social relations by horizontal reconfiguration of the society. Numerous identities are re- formed, legitimated and qualified as majorities and minorities, mainstream and margins, etc. This minimizes any vertical reconfiguration of the society, and the state poses itself as victorious and invincible, and above the society and neutral too. People are segmented and homogenized in identities for 'political mart' and their grievances are represented through 'lobby' leaders accommodated in the reified apparatuses of the state.

    The author rightly sums up his elaborate and convincing discussion in Chapter 6 ('Conclusions') by seeing ''an unequal distribution of power'' as the single decisive factor in establishing the cultural norms. He calls it a 'hegemonic contextualization' which creates a ''double bind'' by which communities are hierarchized in a society where the dominants can ''establish and police the parameters of discourse'' challenging the marginal communities to submit to the norms or be called 'deviants' by resisting them. This is the cultural state of affair prevailing in unified Germany, according to the author. And this inequality does not arise through any linguistic and communicative difference, but ''since communicative interaction is the primary site of self-representation and for forming and developing perceptions of others, the burden of achieving social integration and of explaining the failure of this goal of unification, is frequently transferred onto this level.'' (236)

    This book definitely provides a very succinct historical survey of the east-west problem in sociolinguistic terms and correctly derides any deterministic narrow reading of the same. In doing so, it essentially delimits the dimensions of socio-linguistic study of such problems setting the parameters for success of such study. Stylistically the mastery of the subject by the author is reflected in his language and the confidence and aptness with which he utilizes the examples from everyday and textual discourses. This book is ideal for not only the students of socio-linguistics but for everyone who is interested in studying language politics and understanding a linguistic fact as a political act.


    Entwistle, Harold (1978) 'Antonio Gramsci and the School as Hegemonic', Educational Theory 1: 23-33. Reprinted in James Martin (ed.) (2002) Antonio Gramsci: Critical Assessments of Leading Political Philosopher Vol. III, Routledge, London.

    Gramsci, Antonio (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks, International Publishers, New York.

    Miliband, Ralph (1982) Capitalist Democracy in Britain, Oxford University Press.

    Salamini, Leonardo (1981) The Sociology of Political Praxis: An Introduction to Gramsci's Theory, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.


    Pratyush Chandra is associated with the Indian Institute of Marxist Studies (Delhi Chapter) and has worked on identity question in India with relation to Hindi-Urdu conflict.