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Trevor Pateman

Abstract: A survey of conceptions of language which have informed modern social thought, with specific discussion of Gramsci, Saussure and Structuralism, Chomsky and Habermas. There is also a brief sketch of sociolinguistics (Labov, Trudgill) and the sociology of language .

Language and the idea of language is both central and marginal to modern social thought. Central in so far as conceptions of language (la Langue) and languages (les Langages) have provided leading ideas or , at least, metaphors for thinking about the nature of society. For example, the idea that `society is like a language' has tempted many as has the more sophisticated "social action is like linguistic action (speech)". But marginal in so far as the sociology of language, as a subdiscipline of sociology, and sociolinguistics, as a subdiscipline of linguistics, have rarely been central preoccupations of professional sociologists or linguists.

Four examples may illustrate how conceptions of language can be central to social thought.


Of leading social thinkers this century, just one had a grounding education in linguistics (including the history of languages). This was Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). It has been argued persuasively by Ferruccio Lo Piparo (1979) that Gramsci's influential theories of hegemony are largely informed by the understanding he acquired as a student of the history of the development of Italian as a national language. The linguistics which Gramsci studied was both historical and idealist in character. It stressed the active role of individuals - for example, creative writers - in shaping the development of a language, but equally recognized that the hegemony of `standard' Italian as the language of a unified Italy was the outcome of collective action, conflict and the exercise of political power. Gramsci himself, in prison, wrote about the `language question' (see Gramsci, 1985, pp. 164-95).


More commonly discussed is the influence of structuralism in linguistics on the development of social thought and, indeed, its intersection with major currents of social theory. For it is not as if the founding work of structuralist linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure's posthumous Course in General Linguistics first published in 1916 (see also Culler, 1976), is innocent of the vocabulary of social theory. It is full of it, and it has been a much debated question whether Saussure got his vocabulary (or his concepts) from Emile Durkheim's The Rules of the Sociological Method (1895). Whatever the genesis of Saussure's ideas, it is true that in the period after 1945 he and other structural linguists (notably Roman Jakobson (1895-1982)) provided anthropologists like Levi-Strauss and also sociologists with reasonably precise conceptions of structure and convention and also with clearer distinctions than had hitherto been available between structural (synchronic) states and historical (diachronic) processes and practices. In the 1960s and 1970s it did, indeed, become common to think that society is structured like a language and that all social action is like speech in being a rule-conforming or rule-violating practice enabled by the resources which social structure, as a sort of grammar, provides. For a critical discussion, see Giddens (1979). For a philosophically deep analysis of the key concept of convention, see Lewis (1969), and for subsequent discussion, my commentary in Pateman 1987 and also Margaret Gilbert's lengthy On Social Facts (1989).


Often enough remarked upon, but rarely developed, there is an intersection between Noam Chomsky's influential emphasis on nature as against culture as the dominant force shaping the languages we use, and his anarchist social theory. As a linguist, Chomsky portrays human nature as a source of both linguistic order and linguistic disorder. It is because human beings share such a rich biological inheritance that their languages are as similar as they are so nature is treated as a source of order, as in optimistic anarchism But, equally, nature is a source of disorder, as in pessimistic anarchism. For with a system of universal grammar sufficiently elaborate, then it is both true that limited language input suffices for the development of complex and similar individual linguistic competences, and also true that small changes in input can lead to, at least superficially, radical changes in the resultant language system. The insight here is basically the same as that recently generalized in chaos or catastrophe theories These are theories of discontinuous change originating in meteorologists' problems with long term weather forecasting. The historical antecedent for modern catastrophe theories is the debate between catastrophists (including Biblical fundamentalists) and uniformitarians (notably Lyell) in nineteenth century geology. The general idea is that small changes in one place can generate very big changes in some other and apparently disconnected place. Chomsky thinks in this way, reckoning that small changes in language input can generate big changes in grammars, as mental representations of languages. For the themes of order and disorder in language, see Chomsky (1986) and Bickerton (1981). The ideas are taken up and then applied in the theory of ideology in my Theory of Ideology: Bringing the Mind Back In" (on this website).


Among contemporary theorists, it is Jurgen Habermas who has most consistently oriented himself towards language as the royal road to social understanding. Distinctively, he has looked towards linguistic pragmatics as developed by J. L. Austin and John Searle (1969) as the key resource for a project which has both empirical and transcendental or quasi-transcendental aspects. At an empirical level, linguistic pragmatics provides a better technical framework for analysing all forms of socially situated communication than does any theorization of parole (speech) within the traditions of post - Saussurean semiology and semiotics. At a philosophical level, pragmatics can provide both an account of the conditions of possibility of society in general and a critique of actions which undermine the possibility of social life. For all speech raises or presupposes claims to truth, truthfulness, comprehensibility and legitimacy without which language would be unusable as a means of communication. In any given instance, such claims may be counterfactual, as when we are wrong; when we deceive; when we talk nonsense; and when we have no right to do what we purport to do in saying what we say. But such actually occurring instances occur against a necessary background of supposed truth, truthfulness, comprehensibility and legitimacy.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries American idealists (notably Josiah Royce) had already articulated the possibility of grounding a social vision in such an understanding of the distinctive way in which language use binds human beings to each other, and this was further developed in Germany as a doctrine of `Logical Socialism'. Habermas's work, in effect, modernizes these older accounts, utilizing the most sophisticated theories of analytical philosophy and linguistics.

Turning now to the sociology of language, it is not unfair to say that much of the work done is methodologically uninteresting, simply explaining the distribution of languages (such as the growth of English as a world language) as the overdetermined outcome of economic, political and cultural causes. Likewise, there is work on the creation or revival of languages as elements of a national identity as with Irish Gaelic, Hebrew or New Guinea Tok Pisin. More sociologically interesting work has been done on how centralized language planning and standardization policies are often resisted, notably in educational settings. This leads to the realization that language has a `symbolic' as well as `real' value it can be employed as an arbitrary mark of identity surplus to its use as a means of communication. Such an approach is developed by Pierre Bourdieu within the framework of his theory of cultural capital: see his Language and Symbolic Power (1991).

Some work in sociolinguistics actually has similar concerns, though approached from quite different methodological standpoints. Here the study of socially situated speech may reveal how its style or register varies systematically with social setting or the social status of speakers and hearers. Sometimes this looks like a `passive' reflection of the operation of the `independent' social variables; at other times, it looks like an active endeavour on the part of social agents to define and respond to social situations. See the first of William Labov's many influential (and broadly positivistic) sociolinguistic studies, The Social Stratification of Language Use in New York City (1966).

On the basis of such research, it becomes easier to understand some of the failures of language education policies. British speakers do not all speak with Received Pronunciation (RP) or write Standard English, not because they are stupid or their teachers ineffectual but because they are active in defining their own social and cultural identities, and do not wish to be what they are marked out to be. People are not cultural dopes. And they do not need to be: they succeed perfectly well - only too well - in communicating, with or without RP or Standard English. Many of the complex issues in this area of educational linguistics are explored in the writings of Peter Trudgill, beginning with Accent, Dialect and the School (1975).

Though much sociolinguistic work, including Labov's and Trudgill's, has been positivist in letter and spirit, and thus dubious to the theoretically sophisticated sociologist, there has been non - positivist work on linguistic interaction within the traditions of ethnomethodology, largely inspired by the work of the late Harvey Sacks (see now Sacks, 1992). Ethnomethodology aims to extract and formalize the full set of synchronic rules governing interactions in a specified domain, such as telephone calls. Here there is an obvious link into structuralist traditions of analysis, which concentrate on the study of synchronic or timeless states, though ethnomethodologists have generally insisted on the ultimate ad hocness - the openendedness or unfinalizability - of social interaction. In other words, they do not expect to be able to formulate rule-systems which account for all instances of their use. This idea of open-endedness or unfinalizability is also a dominant motif in the influential `dialogism' of Mikhail Bakhtin (1895 - 1975) and in the linguistics of his associate Valentin Volosinov, (1895 - 1936). For introductions to Bakhtin/Volosinov, see Holquist 1990; Morson and Emerson 1990; Volosinov, 1929; and on this website my "Bakhtin/Volosinov: Pragmatics in Semiotics"


Bickerton, D. ( 1981) Roots of Language. Ann Arbor, MI: Karoma

Bourdieu, P (1991) Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity

Chomsky, N.( 1986) Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin and Use. New York: Praeger

Culler, J (1976) Saussure. London: Fontana

Durkheim E (1895) (1982) The Rules of the Sociological Method. London: Macmillan

Giddens, A (1979) Central Problems in Social Theory. London: Macmillan

Gilbert, M (1989) On Social Facts. London: Routledge

Gramsci, A (1985) Selections from Cultural Writings, eds D Forgacs and G Nowell-Smith. London: Lawrence and Wishart

Holquist, M (1990) Dialogism. London: Methuen

Labov, W. (1966) The Social Stratification of Language in New York City. Washington DC: CAL

Lewis, D (1969) Convention. Princeton University Press

Lo Piparo, F (1979) Lingua, intelletuali, egemonia in Gramsci. Roma: Laterza

Morson, G and Emerson, C (1990) Mikhail Bakhtin. Stanford University Press

Pateman, T (1987) Language in Mind and Language in Society Oxford University Press

Sacks, H (1992)

Saussure, F. de (1916) (1983): Course an General Linguistics, trans R. Harris.

Searle, J. R. (1969) Speech Acts. Cambridge University Press

Trudgill, P (1975) Accent, Dialect and the School. London: Edward Arnold

Volosinov, V. (1929) (1973): Marxism and the Philosophy of Language.

This website version first published 2005. Based on my essay "Language" appearing in W Outhwaite and T Bottomore, eds., The Blackwell Dictionary of Twentieth Century Social Thought. Oxford: Basil Blackwelll 1993. A revised version of the essay appeared under the same title in W Outhwaite, ed., The Blackwell Dictionary of Modern Social Thought. Oxford: Basil Blackwell 2002. Copyright material used by permission.