BMCR 2006.06.21

The Contest of Language. Before and Beyond Nationalism

, The contest of language : before and beyond nationalism. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005. 274 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0268021902 $30.00 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Ever since Pierre Bourdieu’s groundbreaking study ‘Langage et pouvoir symbolique’ and important studies like Berger and Luckmann’s ‘The Social Construction of Reality’, there can be no doubt that language in society does not merely fulfill the pragmatic role of verbal communication.1 On the contrary, being itself part of society and social interaction it is charged with cultural, political and ideological notions as it provides us with categories to structure reality and make sense of it. Therefore, making people accept your language means making them see the world through your spectacles, your ‘grid’ of intelligibility.2 And this makes language a most potent means to exert symbolic power. A collection which studies this social function of language not only by applying a variety of theoretical approaches but also by examining this phenomenon across times and cultures is a most desirable project that should appeal to scholars of various disciplines, from literary to social studies, from linguistics to anthropology and philosophy.

‘The Contest of Language’, edited by W. Martin Bloomer, is such a book. A large number of distinguished scholars from various fields—ancient as well as modern philology, linguistics, philosophy and anthropology—explore ‘the various efforts to make language dominant’, ‘the processes and attitudes that seek to make one language textual, institutional, academic, or literary’ (Bloomer, p. 4), a concentrated effort which results in a collection of highly interesting and very inspiring essays. The mass of material is subdivided into an Introduction (p. 1-12), three major, thematically arranged parts (pp. 15-242), and an Afterword (pp. 245-262); each essay is followed by an extensive bibliography, and a useful index helps navigating through the book.

After Bloomer’s introduction, which provides a most useful overview of the various social functions language can perform as an index of identity and as a means of symbolic domination (pp. 1-12), the first part of the book is dedicated to ‘Approaching the Political History of Language’ (pp. 15-95).

Theodore J. Cachey’s (TJC) ‘Latin vs. Italian’ (pp. 15-39) explores strategies Italian intellectuals implemented to argue for or against Latin as the dominant language. Dante, e.g., ‘gendered’ (p. 19) the vernacular, thus charging it with the connotations ascribed to biological sex. This excludes ‘male’ topics as war, politics, history and the like a limine from treatment in the vernacular and confines its use to the typically ‘feminine’ topic of love. Also Bruni (criticising notabene Dante for having composed the Commedia in vernacular!) adopted a similar strategy: for him the vernacular is the language of the mob (cf. the quotations on p. 21) and thus should not be used for serious topics. Nonetheless, the vernacular became the court language of the Medici, and it is very interesting to see how they used language to create a historical continuum into which they could integrate their own leadership: the vernacular literature from Dante to Lorenzo de’ Medici himself collected in the Raccolta aragonese associates the Medici with a cultural tradition that was symbolized by the development of the vernacular. The Medici thus appropriated the vernacular as their language, the language in which Medici culture and politics were expressed and which therefore was inseparably linked to the form of power they represented. What I missed in TJC’s discussion of the vernacular as court language was a hint of the symbolic value the vernacular had for the Medici to distinguish themselves from the pope and the Vatican with its decidedly Latin-based power.

In the subsequent essay Joseph P. Amar (JPA) examines ‘The Persistence of Syriac’ (pp. 40-59). Singling out Edessa as a case study, he gives an overview of the interaction of Syriac with the Greek language and culture that played a dominant role in Lebanon during the last two millennia. He shows how Syriac and Greek were associated with clearly defined spheres of social life. Whereas Greek became the language of power, Syriac was the language that represented Edessa’s long Christian tradition and therefore was conceived of as a language of cultural prestige. JPA then follows the development of Syriac through history and shows how it retained this cultural prestige in the Byzantine empire as well as under Arabic domination. His essay provides a useful overview of the role of this language in the complex interactions of politics and culture in Lebanon.

Finally, Peter McQuillan (PMcQ) invites readers on a journey back into sixteenth century Ireland, presenting them with a chapter of Begriffsgeschichte 3 of the terms Dúthaigh and Dúchas in Irish literature (pp. 60-95). Making use of approaches drawn from linguistic theory, he demonstrates how notions like Dúthaigh and Dúchas index ‘both culturally specific and historically contingent’ contexts of key conceptions of Irish identity. Dúthaigh and Dúchas are ‘markers’ that allowed the Irish to concentrate ideological key words like ‘hereditary right or claim’, ‘birthright’, ‘native place or country’, ‘ancestral home’ and so forth (see his list of possible translations, p. 61) into only two words. Used in literature they immediately evoked a whole bundle of cultural notions central for readers as foundations of their self-definition (see PMcQ’s interesting theoretical discussion, pp. 60-65). At the same time, such culturally charged notions exclude invaders or other foreign groups from fully understanding or even adopting Irish identity, because they lack the culture-specific knowledge required to grasp the complex and ideologically charged meaning of these terms. An impressively rich but at times, I felt, somewhat too detailed collection of texts fleshes out his thesis.

The second part of the book, ‘Studies in Speech and Politics’ (pp. 99-184), begins with Dimitri Gutas’ essay on ‘Language and Imperial Ideology in Late Antiquity and Early Islam’ (pp. 99-110), in which he shows which role the Arabic language played as standard language of Islam in relation to Greek and Persian from the middle of the seventh to the middle of the ninth century. He convincingly shows how the Arab language underwent a functional change from separation to integration: from ca. 650 to 750 (under the Umayyads) Arabic was used exclusively by the Arabic elite, thus creating a sense of unity among the Arabic-speaking tribes and setting them apart from other peoples (p. 104f.). From 750, however, after the Abbasid revolution, the new caliphs aimed at stabilizing their regime through reconciliation and integration not only of political adversaries but also of all other factions of the Arab empire. Therefore they undertook ‘a far-reaching translation movement’ which included, e.g., almost all non-literary and nonhistorical secular Greek works, a process DG appropriately calls ‘the first Western renaissance’ (p. 108). Now Arabic was a medium of cultural exchange between the different groups of the Arabic empire.

Afterwards, Haun Saussy (HS) enters the discourse of Seventeenth-Century Language Technologies (pp. 111-133). He examines how intellectuals like Kircher, Wilkins and Leibniz tried to make use of ideas drawn from the natural sciences in order to create a universally understandable language. These attempts to create new languages impressively demonstrate that languages are ‘not just a matter of grammar and semantics’, but that inventing a language always means inventing ‘a form of social life’ which is represented by the language itself (p. 128).4

Concluding the second part of the book, Susan D. Blum’s (SDB) ‘Nationalism without Linguism: Tolerating Chinese Variants’ (pp. 134-164) leaves both the physical and the cultural boundaries of Europe and points out that in China nationalism and political dominance do not go hand in hand with the establishment of a single dominant language. Though there is of course a standard language of the elite, it is not an instrument of symbolic domination, but tolerates language variants rather than devaluating them. SDB’s essay is important because it illustrates the fact that the idea that dominance must be exercised symbolically through language is an idea that seems to be confined to European/ western culture (cf. esp. her discussion on pp. 149-153) — a fact that is all too often forgotten by Western scholars.

The last part of the book is about ‘Literature and the Preservation of Native Tongues’ (pp. 187-242). Richard Hunter shows in his ‘Speaking in Glossai. Dialect Choice and Cultural Politics in Hellenistic Poetry’ (pp. 187-206) that the Doric dialect in the Hellenistic period was regarded as ‘the standardbearer of Greek culture’ (p. 196). It thus performed a function similar to the notions of Dúthaigh and Dúchas discussed by PMcQ: the dialect as a whole ‘indexed’ Greek heroic culture and its ‘otherness’, as RH shows, marked it as directly connected to this ‘idealized (and imaginary) past’ (p. 191, cf. p. 195f.). Thus, whoever applied it followed this tradition of genuine ‘Greekness’ and evoked a whole bundle of ideologically charged ideas of Greek heroic culture. Literature written in this dialect ‘imports’ this idealized past into the present, a process RH calls ‘linguistic mimesis of Greek heroic culture’ (p. 196). RH’s essay provides invaluable insights into the inseparable connection of aesthetics and ideology and is in my opinion a very important contribution towards a full understanding of the interrelation of literature and ideology during this period.

W. Martin Bloomer’s ‘Marble Latin. Encounters with the Timeless Language’ (pp. 207-226) explores different instances of how literature and schooling contexts made Latin the symbol of an (idealized) past, charging it with ideas and values thought to be constitutive of this past (p. 211)—an ‘imaginary Latin’, as one might say. Most stimulating is his interpretation of Heaney’s ‘Bann Valley Eclogue’ (text p. 212f., analysis pp. 213-218), whose central theme is the poet’s conflict between his own wish to write ‘a song worth singing’ (l. 1) and the Latin education that tells him which language and which topics he is to use when writing poetry .Being a ‘latter-day scholarship boy’ (cf. l. 28), the poet is trapped ‘between elocution and duchas’ (l. 29), between his own native tradition he would like to write a poem about and the means of expression he learned at school, which inevitably dictates what he should say and how (cf. WMB’s comment on p. 217f.). It is only through his struggle against education, taking place in and through the poem itself, that at the end the poet seems to be able to self-confidently confront the literary and linguistic Latin ‘heritage’ and to create a mode of expression which unites his native tongue and the language of his education (cf. also p. 223).

Seamus Deane’s essay ‘Dumbness and Eloquence. A Note on English as We Write It in Ireland’ (pp. 227-242) examines how the Irish language became the representative of ‘death and exile, poverty and economic disadvantage’ after the Irish Famine (which apparently caused a veritable ‘epochal shift’ in Irish self-perception), whereas English was charged with such notions as modernity and successful (and benevolent?) political and cultural dominance.

Vittorio Hösle’s Afterword, ‘Philosophy and Its Languages. A Philosopher’s Reflections on the Rise of English as the Universal Academic Language’ (pp. 245-262), brings us back into the present. VH first gives a concise but essential overview of the development which led to the replacement of Latin as the standard academic language by the different national languages. Then he identifies the reasons why English is now becoming the universal academic language and offers a very balanced account of the advantages and disadvantages this process entails. VH’s essay provides revealing insights into the process of the establishment of English as the universal academic language for any non-native speaker who (like myself) is expected to use English as a medium of scholarly communication. At the same time it demonstrates the importance of the contest of languages from ancient to modern (or even post-modern?) times.

To sum up, Bloomer’s book is a contribution of eminent value to the debate about the role of language in relation to politics and power and provides a most useful access to this complex field of study. Its wide range both of methods and of topics allows readers to get an overview, first of all, of the different methodological questions that are and must be involved in exploring the social functions of language. It also brings to mind the often very similar mechanisms by means of which cultures so different as Hellenism, Ireland and the Arab- speaking world use language to convey ideologically charged contents. It was my impression, however, that there is quite a pre-eminence of contributions focussing on Irish language and culture (in fact four essays out of eleven). I do not of course mean to say that these contributions are less interesting or informative than the others. And the fact that the Irish language and Irish political history provide a wealth of material for exploring the interaction of language and power is impressively demonstrated by these same essays. But, nonetheless, when reading this book I felt in some way oversaturated — though I am aware that a reviewer is in the particular situation of reading through all essays one after the other. Still, I enjoyed reading this book very much and learned a great deal from its contributions, and I am convinced that anyone interested in the interaction of society and language will gain substantial profit from it.

Authors and Titles:

W. Martin Bloomer, Introduction.

Theodore J. Cachey Jr., Latin versus Italian: The Linguistic Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance.

Joseph P. Amar, The Persistence of Syriac.

Peter McQuillan, Dúthaigh and Dúchas in Sixteenth-Century Ireland.

Dimitri Gutras, Language and Imperial Ideology in Late Antiquity and Early Islam.

Haun Saussy, “Till Some Person Attain to the Universal Monarchy”: Seventeenth-Century Language Technologies and What They Say.

Susan D. Blum, Nationalism without Linguism: Tolerating Chinese Variants.

Tony Crowley, Whose Language Is It Anyway? The Irish and the English Language.

Richard Hunter, Speaking in Glossai : Dialect Choice and Cultural Politics in Hellenistic Poetry.

W. Martin Bloomer, Marble Latin: Encounters with the Timeless Language.

Seamus Deane, Dumbness and Eloquence: A Note on English as We Write It in Ireland.

Vittorio Hösle, Philosophy and Its Languages: A Philosopher’s Reflections on the Rise of English as the Universal Academic Language.


1. P. Bourdieu, Langage et pouvoir symbolique. Paris 2001; P. Berger-T. Luckmann’s important book The Social Construction of Reality. New York 1966 (numerous reprints). See further A. D. Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations. Oxford 1986; particularly on the role of language in antiquity (especially its importance as marker of ‘Greekness’ in the Hellene-Barbarian-Antithesis) see A. A. Lund, Hellenentum und Hellenizität: Zur Ethnogenese und zur Ethnizität der antiken Hellenen, Historia 54.1, 2005, 1-17; E. Hall, Inventing the Barbarian. Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy. Oxford 1989; J. Hall, The Role of Language in Greek Ethnicities. PCPS 41, 1996, 83-100.

2. The terms ‘spectacles’ and ‘grid’ of intelligibility are borrowed from F. Hartog, The Mirror of Herodotus. The representation of the Other in the Writing of History: Transl. by J. Lloyd, Berkeley/ Los Angeles/ London 1988 (French 1980), cf. pp. 247, 318, 340, 356-360.

3. I am using the term ‘Begriff’ (notion) here in the sense developed by R. Koselleck, Begriffsgeschichte und Sozialgeschichte. In: Id., Vergangene Zukunft. Zur Semantik geschichtlicher Zeiten. Frankfurt/ M. 1989, 107-129. A word becomes a ‘Begriff’ ‘when the complexity of a politico-social context and its meaning, in which and for the description of which a particular word is being used, is transferred as a whole onto this single particular word’ (‘wenn die Fülle eines politisch-sozialen Bedeutungs- und Erfahrungszusammenhanges, in dem und für den ein Wort gebraucht wird, insgesamt in das eine Wort eingeht’; translation mine) (p. 119).

4. Cf. also Bourdieu’s discussion of the social hierarchy as represented by language, in Bourdieu (n. 1) pp. 82-84.