Language, nation and power

Language, nation and power: An introduction. By Robert McColl Millar. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Pp. ix, 232. ISBN 1403939721. $31.95.

Reviewed by Colette van Kerckvoorde, Simon’s Rock College

In elementary linguistics courses we stress that all varieties of language are equal, and that all humans have the same ability to communicate ideas. Yet we can easily understand why students may not have this perception as they enter the course. A few languages are often considered more important, a perception based on economic and political factors. This book discusses the relationship between language use on the one side and power and nation on the other. Looking back at the last two or three centuries, Millar examines how and why certain varieties of language have achieved a higher status within any given polity, and he discusses the role of human intervention in achieving such prestige.

The first three chapters of this book introduce language planning as something that is present and necessary in all technologically advanced nations. Prior to the eighteenth century, societal multilingualism was the norm in Europe. M looks at the concepts of nationalism and nationality from a historical point of view and argues that they are relatively new, but also variable over time. He then focuses on the language varieties that we learn to read and write and argues that, invariably, one particular regional dialect has been semiconsciously or consciously developed into the standard over time. Finally, he introduces existing models for describing the means by which language varieties interact within a given polity: although Charles Ferguson’s and William Stewart’s models are treated, he prefers and elaborates on Heinz Kloss’s Ausbau model, since it incorporates a developmental and dynamic view of language.

The following four chapters focus on interpreting the nature and processes of language planning and standardization. Here, M discusses the complementary views of Kloss and John Joseph, who both emphasize the role of the written language in the standardization process. For Kloss the importance of Sachprosa (nonliterary, official language) cannot be overestimated, whereas Joseph emphasizes the development of a literary culture as part of the elaboration and acculturation of a synecdochic dialect. Both models are tested against the successful standardizations of English, French, and Greek, and against the failed standardization of Scots. The latter is particularly well chosen since Scots had a lively literary tradition, but very little Sachprosa was written in Scots.

Next, corpus, status, and acquisition planning are described and exemplified. The corpus planning for German, Norwegian, Turkish, and Israeli Hebrew all demonstrate that we are looking at an ongoing and semiconscious process over a large part of the history of the language. In contrast, status and acquisition planning are highly conscious and happen in the matter of a few years, as the examples of French in Québec, Israeli Hebrew, Irish, and Esperanto demonstrate. M emphasizes that one form of planning is not likely to succeed unless the other two are also present. What determines success is more than just planning: popular endorsement and good timing are equally crucial for success.

To conclude his book, M looks at cases where nation-building had to occur quickly in a linguistically diverse environment without cultural homogeneity, as in east Africa, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Scotland. It appears, he concludes, that monolingual polities and monoculturalism may just be an idea that will never be reached.

M convincingly demonstrates that there is an important linguistic component in the development of nations and national consciousness, but that languages will always be coexisting within different nations.