One of the problems with language is what linguists make of it (remarks on a review)


Jan Blommaert 

The title of this text is borrowed from Dell Hymes, who argued that sociolinguists ought to be concerned not with the artefactualization of (institutional-normative) Language, but with what people do in and with language. I use this title because I embrace this view, and because it precisely summarizes my reactions to a review of a book of mine. The book is Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes: Chronicles of Complexity (Multilingual Matters 2013), and the reviewer is Lars Hinrichs (Journal of Sociolinguistics 19, 2015: 260-265). It is good to keep in mind that the only ambition I had with this little book was to show that an ethnographic linguistic landscape analysis could analyze a particular social unit – a neighborhood – as a complex and dynamic system, a moving target, rather than as a “snapshot”. I thus addressed shortcomings I had identified in some other work in linguistic landscape studies.

While Hinrichs’ review, in fairness, is not a negative one, it is littered with statements that reveal “one of the problems with language” as Hymes saw it. I’ll review some of those statements and provide feedback to them. Not because this is about me – as an author, I am deeply grateful to Hinrichs for having engaged at some length with my work – but because it is about a larger vision of what we should be doing as sociolinguists.

1. Let me start with how Hinrichs understands my general theoretical orientation.

“The introduction also defines the concept of superdiversity, on which much hinges in Blommaert’s theoretical universe. The term was proposed by Vertovec (2007) and denotes the kind of diversity that is encountered in present-day metropolitan centers. The prefix super implies that this diversity is different in kind and scale than what was seen before the last two or three decades of the twentieth century, with unprecedented numbers of categories of immigrant groups coexisting in cities. From this tenet springs the assumption that the multilingualism in superdiversity is a novel mix of more languages than ever before.” (261)

It’s always wonderful when people appear to know me better than I do myself, but I cannot possibly recognize myself in this description. My theoretical universe is ethnographic, and I believe I have made this abundantly clear in almost everything I have ever written. As for the notion of superdiversity: the team with whom I have been working on themes related to superdiversity have long ago, and repeatedly, stated our quite fundamental differences with the view attributed to Vertovec. A quick reading of, for instance, the introductory chapters of Language and Superdiversity (Arnaut et al, eds, Routledge 2016) and Engaging Superdiversity (Arnaut et al, eds. Multilingual Matters 2017) should suffice to make this clear. The range of inferences drawn by Hinrichs from the use of “super” in “superdiversity” may (or may not) apply to Vertovec’s work, but it is entirely alien to mine.

Of course, the books I referred to above did not exist when Hinrichs wrote his review. But several other texts, generously explaining our differences, were available back then. For instance this one, in which I reiterate that we see “language and superdiversity as a space of synthesis, a point of convergence or a nexus of developments long underway” (2) and “what superdiversity has provoked, I believe, is an awareness that a lot of what used to be qualified as ‘exceptional’, ‘aberrant’, ‘deviant’ or ‘unusual’ in language and its use by people, is in actual fact quite normal” (3). This reversal of our conventional normative benchmarks for understanding language in society, I underscore in the same locus, compels us towards an ethnographic stance, for it is a paradigmatic moment which renders much of what we used to be quite certain of in the past open for re-exploration. This is my view of superdiversity: a small number of really new sociolinguistic phenomena have challenged our fundamental imagination of the sociolinguistic world, enabling us to re-examine and re-search old stuff. This is precisely what Rob Moore does in a paper Hinrichs uses against my views (264), while the argument Moore builds (and other have built since as well) is entirely in support of the kind of revisionism provoked by an awareness of superdiversity. (Moore, by the way, is a member of our INCOLAS consortium, as are Madsen and Van der Aa, also cited by Hinrichs; it is strange to see them presented in the role of dissidents here).

Hinrichs, thus, constructs a straw man and launches an assault on that straw man’s views – not on mine. To be sure, he is not alone in this; a small cottage industry has emerged in which the same forms of intellectual laziness are practiced and the same weird statements are being loudly voiced. One shall forgive me for not attaching too much weight to them: if one wishes to engage me in a dialogue, let it be about what I did write, not about what the views of others wrongly ascribed to me. Which brings me to a second issue.

2. I appear to have given Hinrichs particular satisfaction on one point:

“I first note that in a welcome break from his earlier writing, Blommaert no longer presses one particular point: that sociolinguistics should abandon the construct of the language, it being an abstraction rooted in structuralism.” (263)

Once more: please read what I have written on this topic. Did I ever argue that “sociolinguistics should abandon the construct of the language”? No. I have written over and over again that the modernist (structuralist) concept of language is an ideological reality of language-in-society, and that, consequently, it cannot be a methodology for looking at language – it is an object of sociolinguistic study. So, concretely, what I am saying is that the modernist-structuralist concept of Language-with-a-capital-L is not what linguists and sociolinguists should reduce their observational data to, since it is an observational datum in its own right. Sociolinguists should not abandon this construct, they should study it. Language-ideological reifications – such as people believing that they “speak Language X” – are sociolinguistic facts, and therefore not the most accurate tools for metalevel analysis. We have learned this from two decades of work on linguistic ideologies – a development Hinrichs (as well as others in the cottage industry) appears to have entirely missed. He observes “how heavily languages are here [in my study] reified as emic units” (263) but has failed to notice that ’emic’ here means ‘language-ideological’.

Hinrichs believes that, in this book, I have made a salutary turn by counting and listing “languages”, and by mentioning even a “variety” by name: “ecumenical Dutch”. Sadly I must disappoint him: the use of words does not entail their presuppositions when these very presuppositions have been fundamentally altered. When I use a term such as “ecumenical Dutch”, I do not gesture towards the self-contained, singular, static and bounded set of forms and relations between forms that defined “Dutch” in the tradition of modernist-structuralist linguistics (and sociolinguistics). I point towards a flexible, constantly evolving, historically loaded, open-ended range of communicative features-in-practice, to which we can attach a conventionalized – “vernacularized”, if you wish – label such as “Dutch”. And I explain this at length. It is remarkable that Hinrichs has overlooked this work of re-qualification in my usage of these terms. He projects his own qualifications of these terms onto my use of them, after which he finds them inconsistent.

This misconstrued “abandon of the construct of language” reappears somewhat further in the shape of suspicion:

“Thus, it is good that this book does not expand the argument against ‘language’ any further – but it does pursue the argument for the ‘End of Synchrony’ (p. 117) – which might be the re-birth of the earlier argument in another guise.” (263)

The first part of the sentence is wrong, as I explained; the second one, about “the end of synchrony”, is again quite strange. What I mean by the end of synchrony is that an analysis of the kind I propose does not get anywhere when we employ the modernist-structuralist concept of language outlined above: a self-contained, singular, static and bounded set of forms and relations between forms that exist transcendently, detached from spacetime-situated practice. This modernist-structuralist concept, I have argued repeatedly, renders language fundamentally ahistorical – where “historical” is not reduced to chronology but refers to the plenitude and complexity of social practices situated in spacetime – in short, what people do in and with language, as I said at the outset. And yes, I could not have done much with such tools when I attempted to describe a concrete spacetime unit as a moving target.

Hinrichs defends the use of his concept of language as follows:

“However, it is already an integral part of scholarly practice that when abstractions are made we question their validity, carefully guarding the boundary between general and specific claims. Couched in the terms of an iconoclastic formula (‘the end of synchrony’), this argument dresses itself as a new departure, but erases the virtues of extant sociolinguistic practice.” (263)

Unfortunately, I must once more disagree about this “integral part of scholarly practice” when it comes to Language in the sense described above. I see loads of work – including work by critics of the sort of work we do – in which the modernist-structuralist concept of language is unquestioningly used, for instance for describing “code-switching” and other forms of complex multilingualism. I see a pretty robust conservatism, in fact, when it comes to checking the validity of that concept in much work that aspires to be advanced and sophisticated. And apart from its manifest intellectual shortcomings, I also see a very limited awareness about the ideological and political history of that particular concept as a tool of institutional oppression, disqualification and exclusion.

3. I even see analytical stereotyping. My book dealt with the linguistic landscapes of an area in Antwerp, Belgium. I trust that readers know what linguistic landscape analysis is: it is a study of publicly visible inscriptions. And the only ambition I had with the book, I repeat, was to demonstrate the relevance of ethnography for getting more sociolinguistic knowledge out of and about linguistic landscapes. The reasons for that are, I believe, generously explained in the book. Nonetheless, Hinrichs is disappointed: “But in a sociolinguistic work, one also hopes for deep study of speech data” (264). Sociolinguistics, that’s the study of spoken speech, apparently. He seems to have overlooked a few developments in the sociolinguistics of literacy lately – notably those connected to ethnographic and multimodal approaches. Reducing sociolinguistic work to spoken language, in an age of online and offline interactions, is very twentieth century I’m afraid.

So I should have made recordings of spoken speech in my linguistic landscape study. And what should I have done with them? Hinrichs:

“I would have welcomed some much more detailed (and potentially quantitative) structural analysis of Dutch used by members of different immigrant groups in the area, and to see its discussion embedded in the broader, ongoing debate on how to classify multiethnolects, which includes discussions of Dutch in multiethnic urban settings (…)” (264)

I confess not having done the kind of research Hinrichs would have welcomed. Perhaps I will do it when I decide to study the very different things he appears to be after (and accept uncritically all the highly problematic assumptions buried in that kind of quest – “multiethnolects” used by “different immigrant groups” to be identified by means of … what?). So here is how Hinrichs wraps it all up:

“I would say that Blommaert employs an excess of revolutionary rhetoric, when established methods and ideas might have served equally well, or better.” (264)

Okay, I haven’t been conservative enough. I apologize for that. The call is: let’s all just do what we have been doing for half a century.

4. But it is more specific than that, and that brings me to a more general point. A particular model of sociolinguistics is here upheld as the benchmark of quality – the modernist-structuralist, variationist and quantitative one. Virtues and shortcomings are measured against it. The ‘sociolinguistics’ used as a benchmark by Hinrichs is a highly partial one, a sociolinguistics from which a broad range of sociolinguistic approaches have been elided – the entire ethnographic and linguistic-anthropological tradition, in fact, is dismissed here.

Well then, if we should all do what we have been doing for half a century, it is good to remember that back then and since then, people such as Hymes, Gumperz, Goffman, Bourdieu and Fabian, among others, drafted the ethnographic-sociolinguistic agenda that informs my work and that of many others, while others drafted different agendas. Animosity between various branches of sociolinguistic scholarship is as old as the discipline itself and shows an unfortunate cyclical pattern of escalation and de-escalation – of ‘schismogenesis’ in Bateson’s old terms. We are clearly in a stage of escalation once again, in which the silliest and most superficial statements are offered as conclusive arguments, and in which no effort is made to, at least, understand the assumptions and vocabularies of the perceived adversaries.

I can assure Hinrichs that I know all the stuff he unfavorably compares my work with; I know structural analysis, I know the work on “multi-ethnolects”, I know variationism and the three waves, I know quantitative sociolinguistics, I know big data sociolinguistics, I know multimodal analysis and so forth. If I do not use these approaches it is not for being unfamiliar with them, nor for want of having tried them out. It is for the best reason in science: they don’t work for what I am after. The tools I selected for this particular study were, in my judgment, the best ones. Note: not the only ones, and I welcome anyone doing different types of research in the same site. In fact, I supervised research in this area, on this topic, operating on an entirely different paradigmatic footing. For I do not see researchers of a different kind as a danger or an adversary, I see them as partners in a search for knowledge.

This spirit of pluralism, dialogue and cooperation marked the birth of modern sociolinguistics half a century ago, at a time when virulent factionalism marked the development of formal linguistics. I hope we shall be allowed to be conservative in wishing to conserve that spirit.




Author: jmeblommaert

Taalkundig antropoloog-sociolinguist, hoogleraar Taal, Cultuur en Globalisering aan Tilburg University. Politiek publicist.

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