Fieldnotes: English and French in Japan

Blog | Research Centre for Multilingual Practices and Language Learning in Society

fresh winds

It’s late November 2019 and I just returned from a two-week trip to Japan. I admit that on journeys such as these, the fieldworker in me tends to take over at times from the tourist or visitor, for Japan remains a stunningly interesting place for issues of language and globalization. I discussed a number of Japanese examples already in The Sociolinguistics of Globalization, now almost a decade ago, and my recent visit added new and rich linguistic landscape data to the voluminous collection I have built over the years.

Let me quickly reiterate the argument I developed earlier regarding the phenomenology of globalized languages such as English and French. I started from the observation that linguistically ‘incorrect’ forms of English and French account for a lot – perhaps most – of what we see of these languages in the world. It is too easy to dismiss such forms of language…

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Trump’s viral errors


Jan Blommaert

Introduction: a perennial agenda

The discipline we now call sociolinguistics has throughout the 20th century systematically maintained and elaborated two connected issues.1 Note that ‘sociolinguistics’ as it is now called is an innovation of the 1960s, when scholars (mainly in the US) started using the label to distinguish themselves and their work from that of the Chomskyan paradigm in linguistics, and to emphasize continuity with an older paradigm incorporated in anthropology and exemplified in the tradition started by Franz Boas (Darnell 1998; Hymes 1992; Bauman & Briggs 2003). It is in this longer tradition that the two connected issues were given a definitive shape. The issues are:

  • the principled equality of all languages and
  • their factual inequality.

Taken together, these issues define sociolinguistics as a discipline concerned with diversity, but in a particular way.

The first issue, unpacked, has to do with the observation that every language, when seen in its concrete social context, is ‘perfect’: its resources enable members of the community of usage to express all possible meanings and fulfill every social-communicative function. In Benjamin Lee Whorf’s (1956) famous view, every language incorporates, expresses and shapes the worldview of those who use it, and those so in its very structure (cf. also Silverstein 1979). The issue was clearly articulated in Boas’ seminal Introduction to the Handbook of American Indian Languages (1911, also Boas 1928) as well as in Sapir’s groundbreaking Language (1921). It became the epistemological, moral and political point of departure as well as the battle cry of generations of sociolinguists, and it defined the linguistic scope of the new discipline.

The second issue defined the battlefield of sociolinguistics. Given the in-principle equality of all languages, how come so many languages are factually considered inferior to others? Why are speakers of so many languages oppressed and marginalized, why do we make distinctions between ‘standard’ and ‘substandard’ varieties, why do we consider dialects features of backwardness and remnants of a pre-modern past? Why do we attach stigma to some accents in a language and prestige to others – when both are linguistically equivalent? And why are such distinctions codified in language policies and cast in even more robustly policed language ideologies enabling and sanctioning discriminations in which linguistic differences are turned into sociolinguistic inequalities?

This second issue, certainly from the 1960s onwards, defined the social scope of sociolinguistics, and it can be summarized in one word: stratification. And there were precursors: ‘salvage linguistics’ – the study of languages threatened with extinction – emerged out of an awareness that such languages would disappear not because of their intrinsic inferiority compared to, say, English or Spanish, but because of the fact that increasing marginalization of the users of such languages would ultimately eliminate the languages. And such forms of marginalization often included a strong stigma – a perceived, ideological inferiority – for the languages and language varieties as well. They were not qualified as ‘languages’ but as ‘dialects’, ‘speech’, ‘jargons’, ‘sabirs’ or simply ‘barbarian’ and ‘primitive’ (cf. Fabian 1986a, 1986b). Certainly when these language were not accompanied by an identifiable writing system, they were considered to be expressions of the innate and therefore general inferiority of their users.

As soon as a branch of scholarship emerged carrying the label of sociolinguistics, both issues merged into an agenda, expressed and developed in the work of the leading scholars of the first generation of sociolinguists. Forms of sociolinguistic diversity, ranging from AAVE in the US (Labov 1970), native-American stories (Hymes 1983), ‘nonnative’ Englishes in the US and the UK (Gumperz 1982) or working class accents in the UK (Bernstein 1971) and minority-majority multilingualism (Fishman 1971) were shown to be the object of intense discrimination, notably in education (the focus of e.g. Labov 1970; Bernstein 1971; Hymes 1980). Such forms of discrimination had social, not linguistic causes, and their analysis as linguistic phenomena needed to be set in a context that was at once structurally formed as well as synchronically enacted, often with predictable outcomes due to the pervasive and enduring influence of policies and language ideologies rationalizing (and rendering ‘natural’) the stratification of sociolinguistic regimes (cf. Kroskrity 2000; also Bourdieu 1991). Increasing diversity, for instance due to globalization processes, appeared to merely increase and complicate sociolinguistic inequalities (cf. Blommaert 2005, 2008, 2010; Arnaut et al 2016).

This very quick run through a century of sociolinguistic history takes me to the point of departure for this contribution. While we must take stratification as the basic engine behind the dynamics of sociolinguistic systems, the actual forms of stratification have become somewhat less predictable due to what we call the online-offline nexus: the fact that large parts of the world’s population now organize and live their social lives online as well as offline, with both zones of social life, so to speak, being mutually influencing (cf. Blommaert 2018). Offline practices are profoundly influenced and altered by online infrastructures and vice versa, creating different sociolinguistic economies – patterns of resource distribution, general formats for conducting communicative actions and forming communities – and repertoires adjusted to such changed economies.

A simple example can suffice to illustrate the changes: emojis have become part of the everyday repertoires of visual design of many millions of language users across the world and (while not ‘belonging’ to any language in particular) have rapidly acquired specific, conventionalized communicative functions and effects. Philip Seargeant (2019) perceived this development as nothing short of an ‘emoji revolution’. Now, emojis are not part of most language learning curricula – their usage is often explicitly proscribed in language classes – and their usage is ‘chronotopic’, confined to particular and situated timespace arrangements such as scripted online interaction, advertisements and popular culture (Kroon & Swanenberg 2019; cf. also Blommaert 2015). But within such chronotopes, they are, if you wish, features of ‘standard’ language with a tremendous, transnational and translinguistic scope of usage and variant productivity (e.g., when the fully-formed smiley emoji is not available, it can be realized by means of other typographic signs such as ‘:-)’).

Similar things can be observed with respect to hashtags – the ‘#’ sign – as well as with the global spread of the ‘@’ sign to denote time and place as well as addressees in a wide range of scripted messages. Both are widely used in complex functions, and such usages display strong degrees of normativity (Blommaert 2020). Observe that such signs do not remain online but can be transported to offline chronotopes as well. Hashtags, notably, are widely used in demonstration banners, posters and flyers as well as on clothing. Hashtags have become a near-global sign indexing ‘message’ in general. At a higher-scale level of communicative economies, we see how online social genres such as tweets or Instagram updates have become incorporated into domains of power and prestige – they have become firmly integrated into political campaigns, for instance, and now compete for prominence with older genres such as the politician’s public rally speech or the newspaper editor’s op-ed article.

Restratification in the online-offline nexus

All of this means that the normative world in which sociolinguistic resources get their place and value allocated needs to be reconsidered. The expansion of the infrastructures for communication have inevitably gone hand in hand with an expansion of the ‘centering institutions’ described by Michael Silverstein (1998: 404; also 1996) as the real or imagined sources of normative authority for social-communicative conduct to which people orient while communicating, and through which their conduct is appraised and ratified (cf. also Agha 2007). The result is a complex polycentric sociolinguistic system, i.e. an unstable, dynamic and open one in which gaps and overlaps, conflicts, contradictions and nonlinear outcomes are the rule rather than the exception (cf. Blommaert 2016).

Of course, this statement, as soon as it is formulated, appears pedestrian, almost truistic. Perhaps sociolinguistic systems were always complex ones (as prefigured by e.g. Bakhtin and Voloshinov when they emphasized dialogism and heteroglossia), and perhaps the only virtue of the online-offline nexus is that it takes this simple given into the spotlight and makes it inevitable. But even so there is a moment to be captured, for this insight forces us towards another imagination of the major vectors and patterns of stratification and restratification – away from simple top-down models of imposed and carefully engineered hegemony (as in early studies on language policy and language planning, e.g. Eastman 1983), from stable binaries of majority and minority languages at societal level  with linear effects of linguicide looming (e.g. Phillipson 1992) and from studies of forms of language mixing as aberrations of a supposedly homogeneously monoglot norm (e.g. Myers-Scotton 1993). Theoretically as well as empirically, we need to see the normative valuation of sociolinguistic resources and of the modes of communication they shape, as well as the stratifying outcomes of such valuations, as sets of different effects spread over and caused by a range of actors and involving several very different types of activities, some of them involving high degrees of agency and others low degrees, some of them obviously revolving around human decision-making while others involve algorithmic technologies in crucial aspects of the process. Simply calling all of this ‘power’ may be comforting shorthand, but does not do justice to what actually goes on. The question is really: which specific forms of power generate stratifications and restratifications in online-offline situations.

I shall try to answer this question by means of an extended case analysis. I can offer a spoiler at this point. We shall see that the online language of the powerless can be appropriated by the powerful precisely because it is transgressive and evokes strong moral condemnation from powerful groups, and that such curious reversals of conventional sociolinguistic stratifications can algorithmically be turned into a partisan ‘majority’ norm in a fragmented public sphere. The case I have chosen involves the most powerful person on earth: the President of the United States of America. It involves English, the world’s most stratified language because it is the most globally distributed one. And it involves the sociolinguistic object most sensitive to normative judgment: orthography.

Trump on Twitter

There is a very strong cultural assumption in societies such as ours, in which the most powerful people are also the sociolinguistic elites: they are expected to command the most advanced and highly valued communicative resources. When they talk, they are fluent and eloquent in ‘standard’ varieties of the most prestigious languages; when they write they write elegant and elaborated texts in accordance to the strictest rules of grammar, genre and orthography. And in all of this we expect these people to be coherent, make sense and preferably sound intelligent. This assumption rests on robust sociological grounds, as the oeuvre of Pierre Bourdieu demonstrated: dominant groups in society are the guardians of norms in the field of culture as well as in the field of language, and when a variety of language is called ‘accentless’, we are actually facing the most prestigious accent – that of the elites (cf. Bourdieu 1987, 1991; Agha 2007). It is further undergirded by an army of professionals supporting the powerful in their communicative work – from speech writers to communication advisors and social media staff – and ensuring the best possible discursive products whenever one needs to talk or write.

There is no doubt that Donald Trump can draw on the services of an exceptionally large and exquisitely equipped army of such communication specialists. He could already do so before his election to the US presidency in 2016, and it is safe to assume that he could benefit from the services of the most outstanding members of the profession after he moved into the White House. Yet, since the very beginning of his electoral campaign, Trump’s discursive idiosyncrasies became the object of intense public discussion.

Of course, he had big shoes to fill as a communicator, being the successor to one of modern history’s most accomplished public orators, Barack Obama. But then, Trump was not the first US president to be targeted for public communication flaws. Obama succeeded George W. Bush, a president whose incoherence and inarticulateness in public speech had become the stuff of legends (see Silverstein 2003; Lempert & Silverstein 2012). Bush, with a Texas drawl, would fail to get the pronunciation of relatively simple words and names (such as ‘Europe’) right, he would produce incoherent ramblings in answers to reporters, would deliver contradictions in terms and so forth. Such communicative flaws were widely perceived to be deeply embarrassing for almost anyone associated with Bush, and as a sign of a character flaw called ‘questionable intelligence’ for Bush himself. But there still was the army of communication professionals, able to prevent the unfiltered and unedited presidential ramblings from becoming US policy, and able to turn incoherent statements into coherent (or coherently explained) ones, to rationalize the president’s inarticulateness as part of his ‘message’ as an ‘average American’ talking in a ‘demotic’ way. Trump was a lot worse.

Trump’s general tenor of communication was, to put it mildly, strange. In public debates, he was offensive bordering on obscene, bluntly insulting opponents (‘Crooked Hilary’, ‘the failing New York Times’) while using extravagant hyperboles in self-description and self-qualification – ‘great’, ‘the greatest’, ‘absolutely fabulous’, ‘beautiful’, ‘the best’, ‘the only one’ and so forth – and displaying a cavalier attitude towards facts as well as some of the defects earlier identified with George W. Bush (see figure 1).


Figure 1: Comment on Trump’s mispronunciation.

Trump’s public speech performances quickly became a favorite topic for late night show hosts such as Trevor Noah and Steven Colbert, and Trump imitators make a decent amount of money dissecting his usage of self-coined terms such as ‘bigly’, ‘stable genius’ and so forth and by poking fun at his obvious but stubbornly repeated gaffes (e.g. claiming that hurricane Dorian would strike Alabama, or announcing a border wall between Mexico and Colorado).

But Trump did not just talk: he also wrote a lot, and did so on Twitter. Trump’s campaign, as we know, was the first major algorithmic campaign in US history (Maly 2016), and Jordan Hollinger (2018) calls his victory the ‘first Twitter-based presidency’. His usage of Twitter is what makes his presidency entirely exceptional: he systematically used his private Twitter account as the channel for his messages, even after becoming president. The official Twitter account of the US president (@POTUS) often merely retweets messages launched by Trump on @realDonaldTrump. These tweets, consequently, fully maintain the character of ‘normal’, ‘authentic’, undoctored and unfltered tweets produced by an ‘ordinary’ Twitter user. Tweetbinder, an online repository on Trump’s tweets, claims that the president sent out about 10 tweets per day since his election, amounting to many thousands of tweets throughout his term in office. The same source also asserts that Trump writes and sends his tweets himself without the assistance (or censorship) of a communications team.2

The most amazing aspect of Trump’s usage of Twitter is the tension between his tenor as an ‘ordinary’ user of social media on the one hand, and the nature and content of his messages. Trump doesn’t just lambast his opponents or showcases his public success on Twitter, he also uses the medium to announce major (and often not otherwise announced or anticipated) policy decisions and initiatives – often causing confusion and déconfiture among his collaborators and political allies as well as drawing fierce criticism from his opponents. Twitter really is Trump’s most prominent channel of communication.

I need to pause here and turn to the general structure of communication on Twitter. And I shall start from something which all of us have absorbed during our first year of language studies: Saussure’s sender-receiver model of communication (Saussure 1960: 27). (See Figure 2)


Figure 2: Saussure’s model of communication

We see two (male) humans, A and B; A produces an utterance originating in his brain and transmits it through his mouth to the ears of B, who processes it in his brain and responds to it. All of this is very well-known, but we should remind ourselves that this simply dyadic sender-receiver model is, to a large extent, still the default model for imagining communication at large, and thus serves as the backdrop for communication theorizing. With this in mind, let us turn to the main structure of communication on Twitter. (See figure 3)

twitter schema

Figure 3: Communication structure on Twitter

We see a very different and much more complex structure of communication here. The tweet, produced by someone like Trump, is sent to an algorithm – a nonhuman ‘receiver’, if you wish – through which artificial intelligence operations forward it to numerous specific audiences (A 1, 2, …n in figure 3), whose responses are fed back, as data, to the algorithm and thence to the sender of the tweet in nonstop sequences of interaction. Parts of these audiences can relay their own uptake of the tweet (via the Twitter algorithm) to secondary audiences (A 5, 6 … n in the scheme), who can do the same – and so on, enabling a tweet to reach audiences not initially accessible. The audiences (also often called ‘bubbles’) are constructed out of users’ data yielding profiles, and they are selected on the basis of topic keywords, hashtags and histories of prior interactions.3 They consist of individuals, sure; but in the case of Trump and many other high-profile accounts also of bots – computer programs behaving like ‘normal’ Twitter users and generating specific forms of response such as liking and retweeting and sometimes dramatically increasing the volume of traffic for tweets.4

What we need to take along here is this:

(a) There is no linear sender-response structure on Twitter, because the platform itself provides an algorithmic mediator for all and any interaction;

(b) the participants are, consequently, not all human, as very crucial parts of the communication structure are controlled by automated AI technologies;

(c) as an effect of these algorithmic mediations, there is not a single ‘audience’ (or ‘public’) in the structure of communication, but a fragmented complex of ‘niched’ audiences often with incompatible interests or political orientations;5

(d) the entire system is permanently in motion, with constant interactional conversions of actions performed by (human and nonhuman) participants into data further shaping and regulating the effects of the actions (cf. Maly 2018).

We can now turn to Donald Trump’s tweets again.

Trump’s viral errors and sociolinguistic restratification

We saw how Trump’s speech idiosyncrasies were targeted by critics; his tweets have been an even more outspoken object of language-normative criticism. Given the ‘authentic’ nature of Trump’s tweets, peculiarities of writing habits can be noticed. One remarkable peculiarity is his unwarranted use of capitals – see ‘Endless Wars’ and ‘Walls’ in figure 4.


Figure 4: unwarranted capitals

The same ‘authentic’ nature of Trump’s tweets causes rather frequent typographic errors, and these are instantly singled out for condemnation. (See figure 5)


Figure 5: ‘honored’

We see indexicality in its purest form here: a typographic error leads to a judgment of the entire person: Trump doesn’t know what ‘honor’ is, hence he cannot write the word correctly. This form of sarcastic indexical interpretation is very frequent on Twitter. (See figure 6)


Figure 6: ‘passed, not past’

Those are moral condemnations of the person Donald Trump. But they are informed by something bigger: the strong cultural assumption mentioned earlier, in which we expect our social, cultural, intellectual and political elites to communicate in accordance with the most elevated standards of language – and in particular, of literate language (cf. Lillis 2013; Turner 2018). Thus, orthographic errors on Twitter are converted into judgments of Trump as president – since the president of the US is supposed to write correctly. (See figure 7)


Figure 7: ‘unpresidented’

It is because Trump is president that the indexical correctness issue is applied to his writing with such vigor and intensity. Interestingly, in such exposures, Trump’s Twitter literacy is generalized to include all of his literacy. Thus, when Trump wrote a widely publicized official letter to Turkey’s president Erdogan in October 2019, the awkward wording of the letter was caricatured by online artist El Elegante as a sequence of emojis (figure 8).

el elegante

Figure 8: El Elegante’s caricature of Trump’s letter

Twitter is the main forum for such critical exposure of Trump’s typographical errors, but it is not the only one. Mainstream media comment on them, newspapers devote articles to them, and a wide range of analysts examine them. Blogger-analyst Ginny Hogan (2018) provides a short, sarcastic summary of the problem:

“Unfortunately, the data set doesn’t include all deleted tweets, although I would be honered to learn how some of Trump’s interesting spelling choices affect tweet popularity. To bad there’s not a lot of press covfefe on that — it’s really an unpresidented phenomenon #Denmakr.”

The reference to ‘covfefe’ here is interesting, because it’s probably Trump’s most iconic Twitter error. Trump posted it in May 2017, and the nonsense word is probably a botched attempt to write the term ‘coverage’ (see figure 9).


Figure 9: ‘covfeve’

The word became an instant hit among critics on Twitter and beyond, the more since the White House Press Secretary tried to explain it as meaningful: “I think the president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant”, Sean Spicer announced.6 ‘Covfefe’ became the stuff of memes and went viral in a wild stampede of (often hilarious) critical uptake.

So far so good: we see how orthographic errors by Donald Trump lead to relatively predictable – standard – indexical interpretations as transgressive and inadmissible features of communicative conduct displayed by the president of the United States. We can observe the dominant sociolinguistic stratification at work here: such errors in writing are wrong, certainly when performed by members of the elites, and they index moral disqualification of the person and question his membership of those elites. Someone who commits such errors should never be president of the US, is the line of interpretation we have observed so far. And this would be the end of the story in Saussure’s communication model: B (the audience) has disqualified what A (Trump) tried to communicate. But as we have seen, communication on Twitter is different.

Let us have a look at the people who posted the critical comments on Trump’s errors. All of them are public figures: Noga Tarnopolsky is a journalist, RC de Winter is a poet and digital artist, El Elegante is a digital artist, Randy Mayem Singer is a successful movie and TV series screenwriter, and J.K. Rowling is of course the author of the Harry Potter blockbusters. All of them are intellectuals and artists working with language, and in the worldview of Donald Trump and his supporters, they belong to the (‘liberal’) cultural ‘elites’. Within those ‘elites’ they form a subgroup notoriously critical of Trump and his politics, and Trump himself takes shots at such liberal intellectual and artist elite figures quite often on his Twitter account. (See figure 10)


Figure 10: Meryl Streep is over-rated.

These intellectual and artistic elites clearly form one (or several) of the niche audiences on Trump’s Twitter account – a hostile one. And they can be described, by the Trump camp, as the elites whom Trump wants to defy and defeat, for they are in opposition to ‘the people’. Many actors in Trump’s universe are ‘a threat/enemy to the people’ – mainstream media are, for instance, quite systematically qualified as such.7 Ridiculing Trump’s orthographic errors (or speech habits) can thus be represented as a predictable and stale anti-Trump reaction coming from one of the elite social groups he targets as opposed to the interests of ‘ordinary Americans’.

This is the point where we get sociolinguistic restratification. Trump’s orthographic errors are (very much like George W. Bushes discursive inarticulateness) indexically upgraded from ‘bad in the eyes of the elites’ to ‘good in the eyes of the people’ – they become indexically restratified as the demotic code that iconicizes the down-to-earthness of ordinary Americans. And this restratified sign goes viral among the other and more supportive audiences of his Twitter account. In figure 11, we see how a Trump supporter uses #covfefe (followed by two positive emojis) as an emblem of pride used against Trump critics. The meaning attributed to the word here is grounded in the interpretation of Trump’s initial ‘covfefe’ tweet, which attacked mainstream media. This intertext provides the function of the word here: covfefe has become (like ‘MAGA’) a term that can be used to talk back to Trump’s detractors.

protrump blanked

Figure 11: pro-Trump Twitter account.

The term ‘covfeve’ was also adopted by a score of Twitter users in their user names. (see figure 12)


Figure 12: ‘covfeve’ accounts

Some of these accounts are obviously held by people who are critical of Trump, while others are held by Trump supporters. The indexical vectors of the term are opposites: for pro-Trump people, ‘covfefe’ indexes support for Trump and hostility towards his elite critics; for anti-Trump people, it indexes the fact that Trump is unfit for the presidency. And both indexical vectors are attached to an orthographic error made on a public forum such as Twitter. ‘Covfefe’ became a viral error, circulated within very different audiences and with very different meanings.

A lab of restratification

Let me summarize the case. Trump’s orthographic errors on Twitter got immense traction on Twitter (and beyond) and did so within very different audiences, some of whom applied the ‘standard’ sociolinguistic stratification in which orthographic correctness is mandatory for people at the top of the social ladder. Other audiences used an entirely different, ‘demotic’ understanding of these errors, presented there as emblematic of someone intent on defending the interests of ‘ordinary’ Americans. The virality of errors such as ‘covfefe’ implies at least two entirely opposite indexical vectors, one of which restratifies the conventions of the sociolinguistic domain of writing from elite-dominant to demotic-dominant.

There is, of course, irony in the fact that Donald Trump (like George W. Bush before him) can be presented at all as a non-elite, ‘ordinary’ person. He is a scion of a very wealthy family and proudly proclaims his wealth to all who want to listen, he was a mass media superstar, a bestselling author and an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School, and he is of course the president of the United States. From what is publicly known about his lifestyle, he really doesn’t live like ‘ordinary’ Americans.

His communication styles, however, offer the potential to turn this obvious misfit into a perfect fit: sarcasm about his speaking and writing errors can be presented as ‘elitist’ and magnified – generalized – as part of a pattern of elite domination of ‘ordinary’ Americans, the kind of elite domination Trump promised to abolish as president. In the process, the sociolinguistic norms of different audiences are played off against each other in Twitter discussions. It is on Twitter that the fragmented nature of audiences affords us a glimpse of the fragmentation of sociolinguistic stratification, with ‘standard’ (i.e. ‘elite’) norms competing with demotic ones. Within the latter, errors are not just normal or acceptable, they are prestigious and emblematic, as we could see in figure 11. The errors are there for a good reason: they iconicize the perceived ‘big’ divisions in US society and the perceived exclusion of ‘ordinary’ people from major public debates. Trump’s errors are icons of the voice of such ‘ordinary people.

We see a complex, polycentric sociolinguistic system here, in which specific norms can dominate specific segments of the public domain while they are being fundamentally challenged in other segments. Social media such as Twitter make this polycentricity and its restratifying features abundantly clear: they are a veritable lab for examining sociolinguistic normativity, debates and contests about normativity, and innovations in that field (cf. Blommaert 2018; Seargeant 2019).

For sociolinguistics as a science, this means that the supposed stability of stratified sociolinguistic systems – with minorities and majorities clearly demarcated by lines of objective power – needs to be critically revisited, empirically as well as theoretically. In the online-offline nexus, heteronormativity is not an exception, but a rule among segments of the users’ communities. These segments now have acquired public channels of communication, making previously invisible and disqualified demotic forms of language and literacy available for uptake, and turning them into prestige-carrying varieties demanding respect and public recognition. This new politics of language is expertly used by politicians such as Trump as well as by other powerful political and economic actors: the play of stratification and restratification is at the heart of several very large processes of social change, and requires a sociolinguistic analysis that does justice to its complexity.


  1. I am dedicating this essay to my friend and colleague Sjaak Kroon, with whom I collaborated intensely for over a decade and with whom I discussed almost any idea that came into being during that time. I tailored the essay in such a way that it addresses several of Sjaak’s interests, overlapping with mine. I am grateful to Ico Maly for critical comments and suggestions on an earlier version of the paper.
  2. See On the Trump Twitter Archive, an almost comprehensive collection of Trump’s tweets can be found. See As for Tweetbinder’s claim that Trump is the sole author of his tweets: I afford myself some doubt. Surely, he is the author of a huge number of tweets, but there are stylistic differences between his tweets (a full analysis of which is reserved for another paper) that point towards more hands touching his Twitter keyboard.
  3. Hogan (2018) provides some insights into the traction profile of Trump’s Twitter account. We should remember that there is another, human filter on what is being shown on social media such as Facebook and Twitter: the platform guidelines and restrictions on content, prohibiting, for instance, explicit sexual content, hate speech or violent images to be publicly visible, and policed by (often subcontracted) individuals. The criteria applied, along with the practices, outcomes and labor conditions in this domain are the object of constant controversy. See Varis (2018) for a discussion.
  4. In late October 2019, Donald Trump’s Twitter account boasted over 66 million followers. But the @realDonaldTrump account has been shown to contain an unusually large number of bots among its followers. See For the effects of bots on the intensity of Trump’s Twitter traffic, see
  5. To clarify the heterogeneity of Trump’s audiences: given the sheer importance of his tweets as political statements and announcements, his Twitter community is not necessarily made up of ‘followers’ in the sense of people who agree with or support Mr. Trump. Reporters and opponents are also compelled to follow his account in order to stay abreast of what the president has in mind.
  6. For a retrospective report, see
  7. For a recent critical review of Trump’s ‘enemy of the people’ argument, see


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Hymes, Dell (1996) Ethnography, Linguistics, Narrative Inequality: Toward an understanding of voice. London: Taylor and Francis.

Kroon, Sjaak & Jos Swanenberg (eds.) (2019) Chronotopic Identity Work: Sociolinguistic Analyses of Cultural and Linguistic Phenomena in Time and Space. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Kroskrity, Paul (ed.) (2000) Regimes of Language. Santa Fe: SAR Press.

Labov, William (1970) The logic of nonstandard English. In Frederick Williams (ed.) Language and Poverty: Perspectives on a theme: 153-189. New York: Academic Press

Lempert, Michael & Michael Silverstein (2012) Creatures of Politics: Media, message, and the American Presidency. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Lillis, Theresa (2013) The Sociolinguistics of Writing. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Maly, Ico (2016) How did Trump get this far? Diggit Magazine 17 October 2016.

Maly, Ico (2018) Algorithmic populism and algorithmic activism. Diggit Magazine 8 November 2018.

Myers-Scotton, Carol  (1993) Social Motivations for Codeswitching: Evidence from Africa. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Phillipson, Robert b(1992) Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sapir, Edward (1921) Language. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company

Saussure, Ferdinand de (1960) Cours de Linguistique Générale (eds. Charles Bally & Albert Sechehaye). Paris: Payot.

Silverstein, Michael (1979) (1979) Language structure and linguistic ideology. In Peter Clyne, William Hanks & Carol Hofbauer (eds.) The Elements: A Parasession on Linguistic Units and Levels: 193-247. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society.

Silverstein, Michael  (1996) Monoglot ‘standard’ in America: standardization and metaphors of linguistic hegemony. In Don Brenneis & Ronald Macaulay (eds.) The matrix of language: Contemporary linguistic anthropology: 284-306. Boulder: Westview Press.

Silverstein, Michael  (1998) Contemporary transformations of local linguistic communities. Annual Review of Anthropology 27: 401-426.

Silverstein, Michael (2003) Talking Politics: The substance of style from Abe to ‘W’. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Seargeant, Philip (2019) The Emoji Revolution: How technology is shaping the future of communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Turner, Joan (2018) On Writtenness: The cultural politics of academic writing. London: Bloomsbury.

Varis, Piia (2018) Labouring in the digital economy: The people making content (in)visible online. Diggit Magazine 1 November 2018.

Whorf, Benjamin Lee (1956) Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings by Benjamin Lee Whorf (ed. John B. Carroll). Cambridge MA: MIT Press.


Bullshit: the struggle goes on

language: a feminist guide

When it comes to the way she speaks, a woman’s place is in the wrong. It’s a point I’ve made frequently on this blog, and last week brought a reminder of how true it continues to be. On the same day I published a post inspired by criticisms of Greta Thunberg’s ‘strident’ speech to the UN Climate Action summit (‘strident’ being a code-word for women who express their views in an ‘excessively and unpleasantly forceful way’), the Times Education Supplement published a piece complaining that women don’t speak forcefully enough. It started like this:

“I’m sorry, I’m no expert on this but could we possibly…”

Have you ever heard yourself say something like this to your team?

I certainly have and I cringe to think how I must have come across.

Such phrases can make women appear weak or ineffective to colleagues, which in turn may affect whether they…

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Constructing and consolidating chronotopes

A man dressed in traditional Ukrainian Cossack clothes smokes in a phonebooth during a rally to support EU integration in Kiev

Jan Blommaert

(Discussant’s comments, panel on Mobility, marginality and meaning: A chronotopic approach, convenors Lydia Catedral and Farzad Karimzad. IPrA Conference, Hong Kong, June 2019)

There are several things that I find extraordinarily inspiring about this panel and in what follows, I shall unfortunately have to restrict myself to comments on a small selection of themes only. I will formulate my comments from the position of a participant in an ongoing conversation, and not from that of a critical reviewer. The latter position would presuppose an authority I cannot, and do not wish to claim for myself. Even if many papers in the panel draw on aspects of my work, that work is merely an input in far more productive and sophisticated exercises than the ones I was able to offer. I am deeply grateful to the panel organizers and its presenters for having the opportunity to engage with a wave of very advanced work on topics that are central to my own concerns. My comments, consequently, will reflect things that I have learned from the presentations in this panel – insights I find valuable for my own development.


I must start at the most trivial level, by observing that conceptual work on chronotopes is unfinished but that several important developments can be noted. The fact that work is unfinished is translated in a degree of messiness in the use of chronotope as a notion in the various papers. There are authors who seek refinement to the notion by returning to the canonical formulations of Bakhtin and consequently arrive at a more restricted, somewhat ‘closed’ analytical notion of chronotope referring to invokable historicities (e.g. Rampton & Sankaran, Rowlett & King); there are authors who use it as a more open and flexible heuristic notion, capable of being tested as a tool for enriching existing approaches (e.g. Bhatt); and in need of further conceptual refinement (e.g. Karimzad, Bolonyai). In the latter papers, chronotope is used as a potentially productive and more precise gloss for what Goffman called ‘the situation’ (a thing we tended to neglect, as Goffman explained).

Both directions are useful and compatible – under certain conditions to which I shall turn in a moment. For now, let me briefly refer to what Goffman actually wrote on ‘the situation’.

“A student interested in the properties of speech may find himself having to look at the physical setting in which the speaker performs his gestures, simply because you cannot describe a gesture fully without reference to the extra-bodily in which it occurs. And someone interested in the linguistic correlates of social structure may find that he must attend to the social occasion when someone of given social attributes makes his appearance before others. Both kinds of students must therefore look at what we vaguely call the social situation. And that is what has been neglected.” (Goffman 1964: 134)

Goffman connects two elements here, both of which appear as compelling contextual factors in analysis. First, there is the “physical setting” within which interaction occurs – the actual timespace constellation within which people encounter each other, in other words. This timespace constellation, we can add, is infrastructural and, thus, material – a point often clearly ‘neglected’ (in Goffman’s terms), but inevitable as a feature of online communication where the sociotechnological infrastructures for communication pre-inscribe chronotopic affordances for their users (see the papers by Prochazka and Lyons, Tagg & Hu).

Goffman adds to this a second element: “the social occasion”. The latter is defined (with an oblique reference to Durkheim’s “social fact”) as “a reality sui generis” within any social system, and it stands for the rules of participation and communicative behavior that provide “scripts” (if you wish) ordering concrete communicative events between people who carry “given social attributes”. Both elements – note – are coordinated in actual interactional events. It is this dialectic of mutual influences between settings and social scripts that shapes the “joint social orientation” characterizing social interaction, which enables Goffman (id: 135) to provide his own, interactional, definition of the social situation:

“I would define a social situation as an environment of mutual monitoring possibilities, anywhere within which an individual will find himself accessible to the naked senses of all others who are “present” and similarly find them accessible to him.”

As we know, much of Goffman’s work was focused on the precise description of specific social situations – think of the poker game in Encounters (1961) and the lecture in Forms of Talk (1981) In each of these situations, Goffman emphatically pointed to the ways in which situations came with sets of conditions on participation, rules of engagement and forms of communicative action. Concrete and socioculturally recognizable timespace configurations involve nonrandom modes of social action and lead to specific social effects – that is the major insight we can get from Goffman’s oeuvre, and which resonates with the work of scholars inscribed in the same lines of inquiry (think of Garfinkel, Cicourel, the Goodwins and the Scollons). It is this insight for which chronotopes can be a helpful gloss.


So there is a messiness to chronotope in the panel. And that is fine, for it points towards an older problem for which new solutions are being explored. That older problem is the problem of ‘context’; or more precisely, the way in which problems of contexts have tended to be subdivided into issues about ‘what is context’ and issues about ‘what happens in context’. Chronotope, I believe, compels us to merge both issues. And now I must engage with some of the conditions for compatibility to which I hinted earlier.

The conceptual messiness in the panel should not obscure some extremely useful points of agreement across different papers, articulated explicitly in some and implicitly in others.

  1. A first, and major point of agreement I observe is: chronotopes are not just there as a priori ‘structures’ which one can walk into and out; they are made by participants in concrete social action. Karimzad used ‘chronotopization’ as a term reflecting this action-centered perspective. In order to illustrate it, we can go back to one of Garfinkel’s (2002) classic examples: the queue. A queue is (and few would dispute this) a chronotope. Garfinkel describes the ways in which people form queues in a seemingly unprompted way as congregational work (social work done collectively, for no reason other than the fact that there is a collective present or in formation) in which recognizable forms of social order are constructed – a ‘format’ as he calls it, with ‘autochtonous order properties’ i.e. “empirically observable properties of the congregational work of producing social facts” (2002: 245). Converted into the vocabulary of ‘context’, we see how Garfinkel (like many others) views contexts as evolving out of social action. But he does not stop there. As soon as a queue has been formed, it becomes an extremely normative and policed timespace configuration. The ‘personnel’ in the queue have a very strong awareness of the order it embodies, and will react strongly whenever people attempt to violate that order (e.g. by jumping the queue or abusing the physical proximity in the queue for transgressive talk or conduct). The queue generates a temporary (but quite robust) community tied together by the ‘authochtonous order properties’ of the queue. Returning now to the main point here, what we see is that contexts are evolving out of action, and consolidated through action as well. What context is and what happens in context can no longer be separated – they have merged. (We see excellent examples of this dynamic of context construction and consolidation in Prochazka’s paper.)
  2. If we adopt this action perspective, let’s look more closely at the kinds of actions people perform. In the data shown in all the papers (Lyons, Tagg & Hu; Prochazka; Rowlett & King; Karimzad; Choi & Lo; Djuraeva & Catedral; Bolonyai; Bhatt; Rampton & Sankaran) we see that chronotopic congregational work is argumentative, it is done by people in order to make a point. It is, when seen from these examples, a resource for constructing ‘facts’, telling ‘the truth’ and convincing others of this truth. The how of such argumentative usage depends on what specific chronotopes afford – it is part of the work of consolidation, we can say. The what of such usages are specific forms and bits of invokable historicities deployed in specific discursive-argumentative actions. I think there might be an area here of particular interest for further and more detailed research, and my final two points will offer some suggestions for that.
  3. It is entirely possible that these specific forms of argumentative usage explain, at least partly, some other things about which several presenters in this panel appear to agree. There is such agreement, for instance, on the non-unified nature of chronotopes – their scaled character; on their unstable, unfinished and porous character observable through cross-chronotopic shifts and connections and through the occurrence of ‘chronotopes within chronotopes’; on the particular ways in which ‘big’ chronotopes such as those of Modernity and colonialism (or of contemporary globalization and nationalism) pervade and organize ‘small’ situational chronotopes of semiotic deployment (much in the way of Goffman’s frames, I would suggest); and how narrative voices from the margins inevitably orient towards polycentric and scaled chronotopes; and so forth. I used the term ‘synchronization’ as a way to capture how such complexly layered forms of semiosis collapsed into (chronotopically) situated moments of performance and uptake. I would now add the suggestion that we see such phenomena as part of particular forms of argumentation.
  4. Another dimension might evolve more clearly from such an exercise. And here too, I can refer to something that struck me in almost all the papers when I was reviewing the data used. They were replete with moralizations. Now, of course we know that there is something inherently moral about ‘knowledge’, ‘facts’ and ‘the truth’ (the Goodwins never stopped reminding us of that fact). But what we can see now, is how the argumentative work done in the construction and consolidation of chronotopes strongly revolves around making legitimate points – references to war and genocide, of displacement, traditions, the general gender, race and class relations prevailing in specific social environments, are offered as the moral truth that others should be persuaded by. We find ourselves here in a different metalinguistic realm: one in which the deployment of specific semiotic resources indexes fundamental moral stances blended with epistemic and affective ones and with identity projections. Here, too, I anticipate very stimulating areas for further inquiry.


Which takes me to my conclusion. The comments I have made are testimony to the exceptionally creative and inspiring work done in this panel. I do believe that the work presented here takes our field forward, and that it does so in a way which is increasingly disfavored in science: by exploring, unthinking, reimagining, testing and toying – the fundamental work of coming up with ideas which all of us need so badly in order to re-search, to search again for what we think we already know. To the panel organizers and presenters: mes hommages.


Garfinkel, Harold (2002) Ethnomethodology’s Program: Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism (ed. Anne Warfield Rawls). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Goffman, Erving (1961), Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction, New York: Bobbs-Merrill.

Goffman, Erving (1964) The neglected situation. American Anthropologist 66/6 (part 2): 133-136.

Goffman, Erving (1981), Forms of Talk, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Brenton Tarrant’s views of diversity


Jan Blommaert

28-year old Australian Brenton Tarrant executed a thoroughly prepared attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15, 2019, leaving 49 people dead and more injured.

The format of his attack was entirely derived from the manifesto of Anders Breivik. As he writes in his text, “I only really took true inspiration from Knight Justiciar Breivik.” This inspiration included leaving a manifesto of his own, called The Great Replacement. A full analysis of this manifesto will follow soon. For now, let me just quote, verbatim and at length, what Tarrant writes on diversity in his manifesto. For those familiar with Breivik’s manifesto, the remarkable similarities will be obvious.

Diversity is weak

Why is diversity said to be our greatest strength? Does anyone even ask

why? It is spoken like a mantra and repeated ad infinitum “diversity is

our greatest strength, diversity is our greatest strength, diversity is our

greatest strength…”. Said throughout the media, spoken by politicians,

educators and celebrities. But no one ever seems to give a reason why.

What gives a nation strength? And how does diversity increase that

strength? What part of diversity causes this increase in strength? No one

can give an answer.

Meanwhile the “diverse” nations across the world are scenes of endless

social, political, religious and ethnic conflict. The United states is one of

the most diverse nations on Earth, and they are about an inch away from

tearing each other to pieces. Brazil with all its racial diversity is

completely fractured as a nation, where people cannot get along and

separate and self segregate whenever possible. South Africa with all its

“diversity” is turning into a bloody backwater as its diversity increases,

black on other black, black on white, white on black, black on Indian,

doesn’t not matter, its ethnicity vs ethnicity. They all turn on each other

in the end.

Why is it that what gives Western nations strength(diversity)is not what

gives Eastern nations(China, Japan, Taiwan,South Korea)their strength?

How are they so strong, China set to be the worlds most dominant nation

in this century, whilst lacking diversity? Why is that their non diverse

nations do so much better than our own, and on so many different


Diversity is not a strength. Unity, purpose, trust, traditions, nationalism

and racial nationalism is what provides strength. Everything else is just a




Christian W. Chun, “The Discourses of Capitalism” (review)


CHRISTIAN W. CHUN, The discourses of capitalism: Everyday economists and the production of common sense. Abingdon: Routledge, 2017. Pp 159. Pb. £29.99

Reviewed by Jan Blommaert

For several years now, the Routledge series Language, Society and Political Economy edited by David Block has consistently turned out interesting studies in which Marx-inflected theoretical frameworks are blended with actual concrete issues in sociolinguistics, discourse analysis and applied linguistics, giving such studies a critical bite along with constant reminders of the power of “big” political-economic issues to seemingly small language-related ones. Chun’s short and elegant study fits well into that tradition. In The discourses of capitalism, we get a thoroughly informed discussion of ideology in the Gramscian tradition combined with an innovative sociolinguistic and discourse-analytic methodology.

In an engaging first chapter, Chun starts from where he must start in Gramsci’s view: a precise and detailed reflection on his own background and social position as someone living in a capitalist system, gradually realizing the ideological nature of something that is presented as simple fact. The latter is usually done by professional economists, but it saturates popular beliefs and perceived experience. And that is the theme of the book: Chun will examine the discourses of “everyday economists” (15). And he will do so by analyzing recorded street interviews with people engaging with a piece of publicly displayed art. The artwork is a large neon-lit construction with the proposition “Capitalism works for me!” designed by artist Steve Lambert and displayed in several cities. Passers-by can vote “true” or “false”, and this, then, is the point of departure for impromptu interviews on capitalism and how such people experience it: its ideological character, the connection with common sense and with Gramsci’s notion of hegemony.

The latter is the topic of chapter 2, which engages at considerable length with the conceptual apparatus guiding the study. How do particular structured ideas become “common sense”? How do they saturate the life world of people, even in the face of manifest factual inconsistencies? How do we explain such obvious contradictions, as the one expressed by a woman who wrote Obama saying “I don’t want government-run health care. I don’t want socialized medicine. And don’t touch my Medicare” (37). This question, obviously, has kept social scientists busy during the entire 20th century. It animated the work of scholars ranging from Durkheim, Weber and Mannheim to Bourdieu, Foucault, Williams and Hall. What Chun brings to this issue – sketched in chapter 3 – is a sophisticated discourse analysis inspired by Bakhtin and – importantly – by the kind of nexus analysis developed by the Scollons. We get a fully “social” form of discourse analysis here.

This methodological instrument is next deployed on powerful empirical material presented in three well-structured empirical chapters. In chapters 4, 5 and 6, we meet the 50 participants from different places whose reactions to “Capitalism works for me!” were recorded by Lambert and his associates and subsequently selected for analysis by Chun. Roughly, three large discourse formats emerge. The first one can be summarized with the proposition “The only system that ever does work” (chapter 4); the second with “Nothing is perfect” and the third with “who gets all the money?”. While the former two can be seen as subscribing to and legitimating capitalism, the last one is counter-hegemonic, or at least strongly critical of the system that has no name.

In the analyses, we begin to see a clear conceptual structure surrounding and underpinning capitalism in the US. It is instantly associated with adjacent concepts such as democracy, freedom, markets, opportunity, choice and individual agency in a master narrative widely known as the American Dream. Capitalism provides a space of freedom and opportunity where individuals (all of them) can “make it” in society by hard work and commitment to freedom and democracy. The latter – in the US as elsewhere – increasingly stands for minimal government and maximum freedom of enterprise. This conceptual structure, one could argue, is the hegemonic US ideology of capitalism. As an economic system it is inextricably woven into a broader view of (wo)man and society, of “the good life”, in ways in which challenging one element (capitalism, e.g.) would involve attacking the others too (“democracy”, “freedom”, etc.). Manifest flaws in capitalist economies (think of the 2008 meltdown) are rationalized as temporary and never beyond repair. And repair is necessary, for “there is no alternative”. This is the apex of hegemony.

Hegemonies, however, produce counter-hegemonies, and chapter 6 engages with those. While respondents in chapters 4 and 5 largely stuck within a range of what we could call “conditional acceptance” of capitalism, respondents in chapter 6 stand out by often pointed and acerbic factual rebuttals of “Capitalism works for me!”. Here Gramsci’s “good sense” (as opposed to “common sense”) comes in: people have done the analytical balancing of lived reality versus commonsensical ideological framing, and reject the latter. The “everyday economists” in this chapter privilege cool facts over dogmatic assumptions and logic over slogans: if my mother works weekdays and weekends for a meager salary while her boss never works during weekends and gets vastly more, what’s fair about capitalism? (cf p 130). This grassroots critique is the hopeful potential discerned by Chun and elaborated in an eloquent concluding chapter 7. Chun (again, in line with the Marxian tradition) calls for a public pedagogy on discourses of capitalism, a mode of public learning and emancipatory education in which ideology is seen as ideology, not as fact or fate.

I find this an engaging and convincing book, offering insights and substance for further reflection in a range of domains. One domain was perhaps not intended by Chun, but I find it particularly inspiring. Chun’s data, as said, were interviews with people passing by and responding to a publicly displayed piece of art, and more in particular a “language object” in Adam Jaworski’s (2015) terms: a publicly shown and highlighted proposition. Seen from that perspective, Chun’s book offers us a fine and sophisticated example of linguistic landscape analysis in which the landscape is used as a prompt to elicit discourses from those inhabiting the landscape. In other words, the linguistic landscape is turned into an interactional site, a nexus of practice according to the Scollons. And this, I suggest, may show us an often-forgotten function and effect of linguistic landscapes: they exist as sites of social interaction, they “talk”, and people “talk back” to them.


Jaworski, Adam (2015) Word cities and language objects: ‘Love sculptures’ and signs as shifters. Linguistic Landscape 1/1-2: 75-94.


Pointing out Perceived Monolingualism:  Citizen Sociolinguistics in Action

Citizen Sociolinguistics

No community is truly “monolingual”—even when they think they are!

Recently, language professionals have named a community’s illusion of language purity “perceived monolingualism” (Thank you @MCP718,, for this useful phrase!). Initially, this concept made me nervous about the role of citizen sociolinguistics.  The concept of “perceived monolingualism” raises the specter of a dark kind of citizen sociolinguist–one who propagates misunderstanding, eliminates language variety, and possibly worse.  Perhaps naïvely, I usually like to think of citizen sociolinguists as people happily championing the creative capacity of multilingualism and language variety,  busily spreading the word about how it works.   Once we recognize a type of citizen sociolinguist willfully lacking in awareness of the multilingualism all around, who can we call on  to set them straight?

Other citizen sociolinguists, of course!  In at least some cases, citizen sociolinguists are the best candidates to point out this misperception of monolingualism—and the most likely to…

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