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Week 5—Border controls: Language standards and the nation state

Week 5—Border controls: Language standards and the nation state

Main reading: Errington (2022b)

Other reading: Errington (2001); Errington (2022a); Gal (2006); Silverstein (2015)

There is a Wikipedia article on “the Weinreich witticism”: “A language is a dialect with an army and navy” (“A Language Is a Dialect with an Army and Navy” 2023).

This is, of course, also another scholarly meme. Have you ever heard it before? Is it relevant to you?1)

Among other things we can take away from this insight is a connection to Michael Silverstein’s distinction between linguistic community and speech community (Silverstein 2015). Importantly, just because we may choose to prioritize speech communities as the empirical reality, this does not mean that the idea of a linguistic community has no power. Historically, nation-states have put a lot of energy into creating and maintaining the fiction of national languages. We live in a world defined by these ideas even if our use of a language cannot actually be explained by them.

This tension plays out in a number of ways. This week’s discussion will frame the topics we discuss in Weeks 6, 7, and 8, and resonates with some of the topics in the following weeks as week.

The politics of language, nation, and identity is a vast topic in its own right too. So we may want to revisit what we’d most like to examine in this context after the first few class sessions.


“A Language Is a Dialect with an Army and Navy.” 2023. In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=A_language_is_a_dialect_with_an_army_and_navy&oldid=1178209128.

Errington, Joseph. 2001. “Colonial Linguistics.” Annual Review of Anthropology 30 (1): 19–39. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.anthro.30.1.19.

———. 2022a. Other Indonesians: Nationalism in an Unnative Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780197563670.001.0001.

———. 2022b. “A Valuable Paradox.” In Other Indonesians: Nationalism in an Unnative Language, edited by Joseph Errington, 1–22. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780197563670.003.0001.

Gal, Susan. 2006. “Contradictions of Standard Language in Europe: Implications for the Study of Practices and Publics*.” Social Anthropology 14 (2): 163–81. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-8676.2006.tb00032.x.

Silverstein, Michael. 2015. “How Language Communities Intersect: Is ‘Superdiversity’ an Incremental or Transformative Condition?” Language & Communication 44 (September): 7–18. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.langcom.2014.10.015.

I have only ever heard this as a one-liner. What’s great about seeing it in its original context is that it’s part of a narrative of classroom instruction. It’s a comeback; and in a partial role-reversal, a teacher who is taking a class from Weinreich plays the part of the wise-ass. In his retelling, Weinreich glosses over what he says to the student to elicit the comeback, saying instead “[I] tried to lead him to the right path.” What might be sincere, teacherly definitions of language and dialect? Who (other than teachers) would align themselves with that perspective? Who would be on the other side?
3621/2024/5.txt · Last modified: 2024/01/15 23:04 by Ryan Schram (admin)