Susan Gal
University of Chicago

Language and Political Space: Lessons for the Study of Minority Languages

My aim in this paper is to take up three ways in which the issue of minority languages should be considered within the theoretical frame of “language and political space.” These three ways are (a) nation-state regimes, (b) the deterritorialization of world languages, (c) the creation of “discursive space” in which the issue of minority language (and much else) is organized by a metaphor of conversation in which the projected speakers are organized into “sides,” “spokespersons” and “debates.”

(a) In the contemporary world, the connection between language and political space is most often defined through the regime of nation-states. In the European tradition, ethnolinguistic nationalism made linguistic form a diacritic of political belonging. This tradition authorized an image of the world as a series of countries each with “its” language, sometimes with further subdivisions. Linguistic form thereby came to index political identity. This has become a naturalized and hegemonic imagery with global dominance, but one that – as is well known – rarely mirrors actual linguistic practices.

(b) This configuration is today actively undermined by ‘world languages’ on the one hand, and the demand for recognition by speakers who have been made into “minorities” by this national system. Multilingual speakers – whether regional speakers or migrants – contribute to making new kinds of space: on the one hand the “local” (indexed by newly minoritized varieties), the deterritorialized, and the diasporic. Most discussions of this social process take the existence and nature of space for granted. Yet, space itself is culturally and socially constructed. The ‘local’ and diaspora are two examples of linguistically created spaces.

(c) Finally, I discuss the virtual space of political debate, one that is the sedimentation of institutional practices in schooling, reading, mass circulation of texts, and the creation of publics. Shades of political opinion and relative standing on current issues – including language issues –are communicated through linguistic form. Political leaders subtly signal their commitments and their “positions” through linguistic usage, as reported in mass media. Linguistic form, and form of expression become indexes of positions in political spaces, within sociocultural fields of difference. This perspective suggests that the relation of language to space – like its connection to time – must start with analysis of the speech situation that is understood to be the “here” and “now” of deictic forms. But analysis must also widen to include the creation of spaces apprehended as political (not geographical), and where antagonists and allies are lined up (note the spatial metaphor) as staged conversationalists in mass mediated reports.

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