If aliens conquered the earth and decided to give their colony a new constitution, in what language would they draft it? If you didn’t say ‘English’, I bet you are just that humble alien who is yet to visit planet earth. You don’t need to be as intelligent as an alien anyway to know that speaking in English is the best option if your audience includes the entire humanity. Some humans don’t know English, but they surely know somebody or the other who does. Aided by the internet, English has turned out to be such a linguistic Big Bang that the question to ask is no longer whether or not your lives are touched by English, but to what degree it is, or how soon it will be.
No, this is more than a restatement of the obvious, or another invocation of the ‘universal language’ myth. This is the developing…
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The COVID19 (or Corona virus) crisis is a textbook example of contemporary globalization processes. Here is a quick run through some of its features.
1. We see a crucial feature of globalization processes: the ways in which issues change when they become mobile. Concretely, what started (and remains) a public health crisis in Wuhan, China, has become an entirely different kind of issue elsewhere in the word: an economic one.
We have seen the ups-and-downs of global stock markets recently, and have read the reports on the devastating impact of the crisis on airlines and shipping across the world. We also read that production facilities in Europe have had to slow down or halt their production cycle due to shortages of supplies from China. China’s exports took a sharp downturn in January and February 2020 as a direct effect of the epidemic. Its effects are felt across the world. Perhaps the most ironic example of this is the fact that labs in charge of COVID19 testing around the world are running into supply problems, since much of the testing material is produced in China or by manufacturers whose supply chains involve Chinese partners.
The lesson here is: when things go global, they don’t stay the same things, they morph and acquire new features, dimensions, effects. The economic dimension of the global COVID19 epidemic is many times greater than its public health dimension: far more people are affected by the economic downturn than by the virus.
2. We also see how mobility is the key issue in addressing the crisis, in several ways:
3. We see cultural effects too. Let me mention just these:
Finally: the COVID19 epidemic is a perfect candidate for mass media formatting as a crisis, a scare, a disaster, and is consequently consistently framed as such in familiar (and globalized) genres of the ‘live updates’ and ‘breaking news’ type. Just check the websites of literally any mass media outlet these days: the epidemic outshines all other news items. We get a mass supply of information in all forms and shades, and we get it on a global scale. Here is the main page of the CNN website on 6 March 2020, 13.06 GMT:
It looks as if we won’t have a shortage of topics for research on contemporary globalization processes in the years to come.
I quite regularly get questions about how to write a book proposal from colleagues. Given the importance of books as an often-required credential for tenure and/or promotion, such questions are to be taken seriously.
Writing a book proposal is a bit of work, comparable to writing a research paper. But two advantages are yours:
Concretely, a book proposal usually needs to offer:
Remember, as a rule of thumb, that a proposal should not just be a factual description of what you intend to offer the publisher: you have to offer an argument in the proposal, and it needs to be written as an argument for (a) the intellectual case you intend to build; (b) its quality, originality etc. and (c) its value for the publisher, in terms of markets, competition and so forth. What you really need is what is usually referred to as a pitch: a precise idea of who might read your book and in which ways they will read it. You write your proposal (or “pitch” it) towards this audience.
A book proposal is usually peer-reviewed, so you’ll get feedback and suggestions for revisions if applicable. When it’s approved and your manuscript is submitted and approved as well, the marketing people of the publishing house will send you a dreadful questionnaire in view of for their publicity strategy. You’ll be asked to list possible journals interested in reviewing the book, scholars in the field who can write cover blurbs (“endorsements” in polite language), courses or programs you know of in which your book can be used as a coursebook, conferences you’ll attend and so on.
So here are two book proposals, one I submitted some years ago to Cambridge University Press, the second submitted to Multilingual Matters. Some of you may recognize the books and may also be able to spot the differences between the proposals and the final product.
This small book took me about a decade to pull together. Most of that time was spent trying to make sense of rapid change, and finding ways to imagine such rapid change theoretically and methodologically. Theoretical and methodological issues are, at the end of the day, always grounded in empirical problems, and my problem was quite simple: I had seen my own neighborhood continually transforming and had documented such transformations in a large corpus of photos. Every single one of these photos “froze time”, so to speak, in a synchronic representation of signs generating meanings: a status quo forcing descriptive and interpretive work into a synchronic frame which, if left undisturbed, would yield statements such as “my neighborhood is so-and-so”.
This usage of the “ethnographic present” – an atemporal statement, in effect – could never do justice to what I had observed. Social change is not a juxtaposed sequence of synchronies, a diachrony in other words, but a historical dynamic process in which nothing remains static and everything is continuously in motion, pushed on by social factors anchored in concrete timespace. This point was central to The Sociolinguistics of Globalization (2010) and prior to that, in Grassroots Literacy (2008), and the analysis of my own neighborhood was in many ways a sequel to them, an attempt to take the mobility paradigm defined in the earlier books to a concrete set of empirical-descriptive and interpretive problems.
I had some advantages. One advantage was that I could ride on the wave of a new trend in sociolinguistics, Linguistic Landscape Studies, an approach that offered a substantial potential for capturing the intrinsic superdiversity I witnessed in my neighborhood. At the same time, early Linguistic Landscape Studies were theoretically poorly developed, in terms of semiotic theory as well as in terms of sociological and historical theory. Historical processes were commonly reduced to diachronic differences; a Fishmanian sociology of language prevailed, in which languages were connected to speakers and groups in supposedly linear ways; and finally, serious social-semiotic and semiotic-anthropological analysis was rarely applied to public signs. So while the presence of Linguistic Landscape Studies as a resource to draw upon was a clear advantage, the field of Linguistic Landscape Studies required substantial re-engineering in order to satisfy my demands.
A second advantage was that I had a clear direction ready for the re-engineering work: what was needed was an ethnographic perspective in which signs were seen as traces of historically situated social action, in which the latter brought indexical order and its recognizability effects to signs. And this ethnographic perspective could easily be blended with a complexity-theoretical approach, in which the spatial aggregation of historically and indexically different signs, deriving from different conditions of production and addressing different audiences while being arranged in a simultaneous field of perception, could point to nonlinear, unstable and unfinished structures and stochastic effects. Thus ELLA, Ethnographic Linguistic Landscape Analysis was conceived, and this book represents the first stage in its development (see also Blommaert & Maly 2016).
What I missed in this first stage, was the online dimension of linguistic landscapes: the fact that, increasingly, offline signs in public space contain links, web addresses, QR-codes and other items connecting offline and online sites. Following such online gateways in offline signs brings another perspective on things such as participants, audiences and forms of social action. To give an example: one of the recent evangelical churches in my neighborhood is run by a Nigerian pastor, and is housed in one of the least appealing premises in the area. The services attract just a couple of dozen faithful during the weekends, so the whole enterprise looks rather underwhelming. But when we follow the links on the posters displayed on the church window, we discover a very different reality. The pastor appears to run a YouTube channel with almost 200,000 subscribers, and it features videos viewed up to 100,000 times. He also broadcasts services held in a wide variety of places in Africa, Europe, Asia and North America (Blommaert & Maly 2019a). Thus, we begin to see another aspect of social reality in the neighborhood: the fact that what goes on there is profoundly connected, as a node in a globalized network, with actions, participants and audiences elsewhere. And what looks small and shabby locally can, actually, be just an instance of a big and impressive translocal phenomenon (Blommaert & Maly 2019b).
I overlooked this online dimension of linguistic landscapes and urge readers of this book to include it into their research. I can invoke two excuses or attenuating circumstances explaining this obvious lack in the book. One is the fact that the data I worked on when composing the book did contain very few online pointers. They were not absent, but the full and regular integration of such online features is a more recent phenomenon. The other one is the fact that I wrote this book very much in a dialogue with early Linguistic Landscape Studies, and I adopted the outspoken offline bias of that line of inquiry. Even so, looking back at the book I cannot but be dissatisfied about the absence of a feature which I now consider essential in understanding the patterns of globalization and superdiversity we can “read” off the publicly displayed signs in my neighborhood and elsewhere.
I need to mention another issue, an inevitable one this time, and one I had anticipated and announced when I offered the book to its readers in 2013. Given the fact that I described and analyzed a neighborhood subject to permanent and rapid change, most of the facilities and inscriptions shown in my illustrations are no longer present in the neighborhood. As I explained in the final chapter of the book, the infrastructures of superdiversity are highly flexible, dynamic and volatile, and small changes in the population of the neighborhood have immediate effects on the linguistic landscape. Yet there is no point trying to update the images in the book, for by the time the book is printed, several of these new illustrations will be obsolete as well. In addition, the essence of the book is the opposite of the kind of “snapshot” offered in its illustrations: it is the ethnographic analysis of patterns of change – a sociological and social-semiotic narrative couched in a theoretical and methodological one, the major points of which remain, I believe, relevant. The book is best read as an invitation for new research performed by others and elsewhere. If it continues to inspire scholars and prompt such new research, I can be a happy author.
I am also happy to gratefully acknowledge the input, enthusiasm and efforts of colleagues involved in this Czech edition. I am deeply aware that, in my writings, I offer discursive and conceptual idiosyncrasies that make it hard for me, at times, to explain my own English prose in my native language Dutch. Therefore, I’m not one who views translation of my work as a relatively straightforward conversion of expressions in language A into expressions in language B – it is work that demands substantial intellectual effort, careful calibration and loads of tough decisions. I am deeply grateful to Marian Sloboda and his team at Charles University, and to Ondrej Prochazka, for the great care they gave to this project, which I prefer to call an “edition” rather than a translation.
Berchem, February 2020
Blommaert, Jan & Ico Maly (2016) Ethnographic Linguistic Landscape Analysis and social change: A case study. In Karel Arnaut, Jan Blommaert, Ben Rampton & Massimiliano Spotti (eds.) Language and Superdiversity: 191-211. New York: Routledge.
Blommaert, Jan & Ico Maly (2019a) Invisible lines in the online-offline linguistic landscape. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 223.
Blommaert, Jan & Ico Maly (2019b) Digital ethnographic Linguistic Landscape Analysis (ELLA 2.0). Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 233.
Writing in the Law Society Gazette this week, Joshua Rozenberg asked why Lady (Brenda) Hale, who was president of the Supreme Court of the UK from 2017 until her retirement last month, did not get the job in 2012 when she first put herself forward. He draws on the account given by an insider, Lord Hope, who retired in 2013 and has since published his diaries. What he says is revealing, not just about the workings of the Supreme Court, but about a particular kind of sexism and the language that goes with it.
Below are some of the statements Rozenberg quotes from the parts of Lord Hope’s diaries where he talks about Lady Hale. Most date from 2012, the year when she put herself forward for the presidency of the court but was not selected, and 2013, when she succeeded Lord Hope as deputy president.
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In a straightforward sense, this Chinese edition of The Sociolinguistics of Globalization is an illustration of what the book is about: the effective globalization of discourses, and the arguments and ideas they express. It also illustrates another crucial dimension of the sociolinguistics of globalization: the fact that such forms of globalization are never processes of uniformization, but of vernacularization. The same discourses, arguments and ideas are shared, but in the process they are converted into another discursive structure, grounded in local or regional universes of contextualization. Which is why I see this book not as just a ‘translation’ of the English original, but as a new ‘edition’, a Chinese edition addressing Chinese audiences – many of which may have been able to read the English version of the book – in a different way.
The core theme of the book is mobility: the fact that in an era of intense globalization, a study of language as an immobile, ‘fixed’ and sedentary object is entirely inadequate. Again, this Chinese edition illustrates this point. It is mobility – of people, objects and ideas – that brought the book to the attention of Chinese scholars, and the conversion of the book into a Chinese edition is another step in such patterns of mobility: it can now be integrated locally into existing intellectual and academic cultures. In so doing it will change such cultures, as well as the book itself. I expect new kinds of uptake and interpretation of the ideas articulated in The Sociolinguistics of Globalization, new forms of dialogue and new forms of follow-up research.
Another crucial point in the book is that globalization processes are real, situated historical processes. And this point enables me to elaborate the expectations of uptake, dialogue and follow-up research mentioned above.
The Chinese edition of this book appears a decade after the original version. The ideas articulated in it are even older. I started working in this direction in the late 1990s, and produced a steady flow of papers on topics related to the sociolinguistics of globalization, appearing throughout the first decade of the 21st century. The draft of the book was completed in 2008 and summarized this earlier work. If I look back at the real historical situatedness of the book, it was largely written in a world in which the Web 2.0 became an acquired thing, but in which social media, as we now know them, were new and relatively marginal. To mention the social media currently dominant in my part of the world, Facebook was created in 2004, Twitter in 2006, Instagram in 2010. Smartphones were rare, and the first iPhone entered the market while I was working on the draft of this book. So when I wrote the book, I could only refer to a world which was globally connected through email, accessed through desktops or laptops (the iPad was launched in 2010), and in which average mobile phone owners used their phones for making calls and sending texts. Traditional mass media – printed press, radio and network TV – were still dominant and hardly challenged by the emerging online blogs or first-generation micromedia.
This world has vanished, of course, and this Chinese edition of my book now enters into a world in which online and offline dimensions of social (and sociolinguistic) life have become intertwined and define our everyday experiences of social and cultural reality. The People’s Republic of China, in particular, has rapidly developed into a society in which social media are immensely popular, in which online entertainment, shopping and banking have become everyday commodities, and in which behavioral digitization and data-driven analysis have reached unmatched levels of sophistication. Several of my own students have been able to document this development in great detail in their doctoral work, and the development is momentous. The infrastructures of globalization, including sociolinguistic globalization, have profoundly changed since I wrote the original version of The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. They have changed everywhere, and certainly in China, and this profoundly changed globalization context guarantees a new universe of interpretation for my book, new questions and topics of research to be tagged onto it, new kinds of relevance (or irrelevance) to be attributed to it. I am looking forward to that.
Among the very many reactions I received to the book since its appearance, the ones that I experienced as most gratifying were those in which colleagues and students expressed that the book had inspired them, and prompted them to develop new forms of research taking the proposals I made in the book much further. “Inspiration”, as we know, is not the same as “following” some kind of doctrine or tradition. It is its opposite: it is a form of intellectual liberation in which previously held (and often constraining) frameworks and ideas can be abandoned and new ones can be critically explored. I can say, with a mixture of pride and humility, that the book appears to have inspired large numbers of colleagues and students over the past decade, and has offered them the liberty to explore new directions in their intellectual and academic development.
Thus, there has been substantial and significant research both at the conceptual level – rethinking what “language” may mean within a paradigm of mobile resources, for instance, or coming to grips with the intrinsic instability and complexity that follows from that paradigm, giving concepts such as “(trans)languaging” considerable traction. There has been significant research on sociolinguistic “superdiversity” as a means to describe a new ontology for the study of language in society; on the online globalization of semiotic and other cultural forms and the communities that contribute to their global spread; on new forms of language and forms of language usage no longer seen as linearly connected to a “source” such as English, but seen as forms of vernacular globalization and inflection; on the changing connections between diasporas and their nation-state communities of origin; on the changing nature of translation and interpreting in a globalized world, and so forth. I am not saying that none of this would not have been possible without The Sociolinguistics of Globalization; but the book perhaps offered a timely historical benchmark, a useful anchoring point from which such developments could evolve more swiftly and smoothly, simply because there was a vocabulary, a tentative framework and an ambition in the book that facilitated such developments.
The ambition was, in a way, to think big while addressing the very small details of language and its usage, and to think theoretically while we were doing empirical, clinically analytic work. Theoretically, two issues animated my effort. The first issue was methodological nationalism: the fact that much of sociolinguistic and related research still took the nation-state as an unquestioned unit of analysis, and – by extension – had developed excellent tools for examining local, sedentary and ultimately bureaucratically defined sociolinguistic circumscriptions, but only offered clumsy tools for addressing translocal, mobile phenomena associated with unstable populations dispersed over various sites in the world. In an age of globalization, this national and local theoretical horizon obviously demanded destabilization.
Observe, however, that the nation-state should not be dismissed as a unit of analysis: it had to be precisely located in a range of other scale-levels in any adequate analysis. To give a simple but clear example supporting the argument; the Wuhan corona virus crisis of early 2020 was obviously a local issue in Wuhan, where the first victims fell; but it was also a national issue because of the intersection of the danger of contagion and the hypermobility of Chinese citizens during the Chinese New Year period. This called for stringent measures at the national scale. But it quickly also became a global problem, affecting air traffic between China and the rest of the world and affecting various aspects of the world economy. A Volvo car plant in Belgium, for instance, had to reduce production because the transfer of parts from China had been disrupted by the Wuhan coronavirus crisis. What we see in this example is globalization in its purest form: a phenomenon spreads globally over various scale-levels (the local, the national, and the transnational), and at each scale level it becomes a different thing. The managers of the car manufacturing plant in Belgium did not experience the public health crisis experienced by the inhabitants of Wuhan – they experienced a local economic effect of this transnational phenomenon, largely caused by measures not taken by the people of Wuhan, nor by medical staff or virologists, but by the central government of the People’s Republic. Here, we can see how the nation-state operates as a switchboard between different scale levels in globalization processes, and how what happens at the national level can only be adequately understood when we consider what happened at the other scale-levels. Methodological nationalism is of no assistance here.
The second issue animating my effort was to definitively distance myself from the legacies of structuralism – the scientific paradigm defining the era of the modern nation-state. More in particular, I wanted to offer an alternative to the Saussurean “synchrony” in our fields of study: the emphasis on static, timeless and immobile features of language, and on abstract descriptions of “underlying” principles in understanding language and what it does in the real lives of real people. Language and its users, to me, are concrete things observable in real time and space; they are changeable, dynamic and only relatively predictable in their features, actions and effects. The study of language as flexible sets of mobile resources, unequally distributed over its users and subject to scale-sensitive contextual influences, was my alternative to the Saussurean synchrony. This alternative is paradigmatic, as it has numerous theoretical and empirical knock-on effects on the theory and practice of sociolinguistics. To return to the example of the Wuhan coronavirus crisis, for instance, we must be able to explain the differences between phenomena at different scale-levels in the same globalization process, as well as the nature of its local appearances. Turning to language, we must be able to explain why an accent in English that is seen as an indicator of middle-class belonging in, say, Nairobi or Karachi, becomes an indicator of marginality and inarticulateness in, say, London or Chicago.
While many of the issues I raised here are being creatively addressed in work-in-progress, much of the work remains to be done. It is work to be done by people who are deeply familiar with the new forms of globalization characterizing our social systems nowadays, and adjusted to the extremely rapid changes characterizing these systems. It needs to be done by “globalization natives”, people for whom globalization, including its digital infrastructures, are simple facts of life. Which is why I expect a lot from the readers of this Chinese edition of The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. I expect this book to be relatively easy and straightforward reading for them, and I invite them to see it as an invitation to fact-check the claims and arguments in the book against their own lived experiences as members of communities that have witnessed tremendous changes over the past decades, most of them defined by the emerging prominence of China in a globalized world. Perhaps the answers I provided in the book will have to be rejected or amended. But I like to think that the questions I raised remain relevant and valid, for globalization and the patterns of sociolinguistic mobility it involves will not end soon – they will intensify.