Invisible lines in the online-offline linguistic landscape


Jan Blommaert & Ico Maly


Ethnographic Linguistic Landscape Analysis (ELLA) was developed as a way of addressing in a more satisfactory way the structure and significance of linguistic landscapes as an object in the study of sociolinguistic superdiversity (Blommaert & Maly 2016). The effort was inspired by a refusal to perform ‘snapshot’ linguistic landscape analysis based on hit-and-run fieldwork and yielding a Saussurean synchrony as analytical outcome. Instead, we wanted to emphasize the dynamic, processual character of superdiverse linguistic landscapes through a combination of longitudinal fieldwork, detailed observations of changes in the landscape, and an ethnographic-theoretical framework in which landscape signs are seen as traces of (and instruments for) social action (cf. Blommaert 2013).

It is the latter point that we seek to examine more profoundly in this paper. The aspect of social action remains, in general, an underdeveloped aspect of Linguistic Landscape research (LL), and here, too, the Saussurean synchrony can be identified as an underlying sociological imagination in much work. Social action, it seems, is located within a geographical circumscription – a neighborhood, a street, a town – which is seen as the locus of action of a sedentary community. LL signs are routinely interpreted as reflecting, in some way, the linguistic repertoires of those who live in the area where the signs have been emplaced. This, then, enables LL researchers to make statements about the demographic composition of such areas of emplacement, projected into statements about the sociolinguistic structures in that area.

The concept of social action, thus interpreted, remains highly superficial and deserves and demands far more attention. The question that needs to be raised is: who is involved in social action in such areas? And what is the locus of such actions? Linguistic landscapes in superdiverse areas often offer clues that significantly complicate the assumptions about sedentary populations mentioned above. A simple example can be seen in Figure 1.


Figure 1: Antwerpse Algemene Dakwerken. © Jan Blommaert 2018

This picture was taken in the inner-city district of Oud-Berchem, Antwerp (Belgium) in the summer of 2018; we see a van with a Dutch-language inscription “Antwerpse Algemene Dakwerken” (“Antwerp General Roofing Works”), but with a Polish license plate locating the van in the area of Poznan. While the inscription suggests locality – a reference to Antwerp on a van emplaced in Antwerp – the license plate suggests translocality. Thus, building work performed in Antwerp appears to be connected to actions performed in Poznan – recruiting a workforce, manufacturing bespoke materials, warehousing heavy equipment and so forth. In an era of transnational mobility, such things are evident, but they raise the fundamental questions outlined above.

Such questions, we believe, are becoming even more pressing and compelling as soon as we adjust our baseline sociological assumptions and accept that contemporary social life is not only played out in an ‘offline’ physical arena of copresent participants encountering each other in public space (the focus of Goffman 1963), but also in online spaces crosscutting the online ones in complex ways (cf. Blommaert 2018). We live our lives in an online-offline nexus. This simple observation renders us aware of the fact that social actions can be organized, set up, “staffed” and distributed in online as well as offline spaces; and it helps us realize that much of what we observe in the way of social action in superdiverse (offline, geographical) areas has, at least, been conditioned and perhaps even made possible by online infrastructures, in terms both of actors and of topography. This point we intend to illustrate in what follows.

A focus on action

Before moving on towards these illustrations, we must briefly clarify the focus on action we shall bring to this analysis. Our own view of action is deeply influenced by an older tradition of action-centered sociology, of which Goffman (1961, 1963), Cicourel (1972), Blumer (1969) Strauss (1993) and Garfinkel (1967, 2002) can be seen as co-architects (see Blommaert, Lu & Li 2019 for a discussion).

A number of principles characterize this tradition.

  1. The first and most important principle is that of interactional co-construction of social facts – the assumption that whatever we do in social life is done in collaboration, response or conflict with others. In fact, the people mentioned above argue that one can only talk of social action when it is interaction (e.g. Strauss 1993: 21), and for Blumer (1969: 7) “a society consists of individuals interacting with one another”.
  2. Interaction, in turn, is “making sense” of social order in concrete situations – this is the second principle. For the scholars mentioned, social order and social structure does not exist in an abstract sense but is enacted constantly by people in contextualized, situated moments of interaction. In Garfinkel’s famous words (1967: 9), in each such moment we perform and co-construct social order “for another first time”. The social is concrete, ongoing and evolving, in other words.
  3. The third principle is derived straight from Mead and can be summarized as follows: “we see ourselves through the way in which others see and define us” (Blumer 1969: 13). Somewhat more precisely, “organisms in interaction are observing each other’s ongoing activity, with each using portions of the developing action of the other as pivots for the redirection of his or her own action” (Blumer 2004: 18). This is the essence of Mead’s understanding of the Self: it is greatly influenced by anticipated responses from the others, and adjusted accordingly. The Self can thus never be an essence, a fixed characteristic, an a priori attribute of people: it is a situationally co-constructed performance ratified by others. Of course, Goffman’s work has greatly contributed to our understanding of this.
  4. Fourth, we do this interactional monitoring and anticipating of the others’ responses on the basis of an assumption of recognizability. When we experience something as meaningful, as something that “makes sense” to us, by recognizing it as something specific (cf. Garfinkel 1967: 9), a token of a type of meaningful acts which we can ratify as such. These types of acts can be called “genres” (Blommaert 2018: 51); Garfinkel called them “formats” (2002: 245), and Goffman (1974) theorized them as “frames”.
  5. Fifth, all of the preceding has a major implication for how we see the Self, how we theorize it and address it in research. Rawls’ (2002: 60) comment on Garfinkel nicely captures it, and the point can be extended to almost all the work in the tradition addressed here. Individual subjectivity, she writes, “which had originally been thought of as belonging to the actor, [was relocated] in the regularities of social practices. (…) [A] population is constituted not by a set of individuals with something in common but by a set of practices common to particular situations or events”.

The latter point is of crucial importance here. It emphasizes that actions generate those who are involved in them, or to quote Rawls again, we see “situations that provide for the appearances of individuals” (2002: 46), and not vice versa. Converted into the vocabulary of this book: identities, individual and collective, are effects of social actions and not their ontological and methodological point of departure. They constitute, as it were, the “personnel” of social actions, and in an online-offline nexus, identifying this “personnel” is the challenge: who is actually and concretely involved in social action as actor? Who actually contributes to the actual form and structure of social actions? To these questions we can now turn, and we shall use ELLA as our tool.

Invisible lines

The method we employ in ELLA is very simple: we observe everything we notice in the way of publicly displayed language material. But we do not stop at the level of language – even if that language is, evidently, an important clue for locating e.g. diasporic audiences – but we look at what is actually contained in the signs. And one feature of a great number of publicly displayed signs nowadays is online information: references to websites, social media accounts and so forth. This already directs us towards a highly relevant insight: that “public” as a feature of sign emplacement now has at least two dimensions: the local public emplacement of signs – the concrete place where signs are put and shown to potential audiences – as well as a translocal, online public sphere with which the local signs are profoundly connected. This insight, in our view, forces us out of the local area and out of the customary modes of LL fieldwork: we have to move from the street to the computer, and we follow the online information displayed in the signs.

The superdiverse area of Oud-Berchem counts a large number of new shop-window evangelical churches catering for specific diaspora audiences from Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia (Blommaert 2013). One such church is located in premises previously occupied by a Chinese restaurant. A couple of posters are affixed to the austere front of the building; Figure 2 displays one of them.

Figure 2

Figure 2: services at the Latin-American church. © Jan Blommaert 2018

The poster offers mundane information: the weekly organization of services in the church. We notice that the information is bilingual, in Dutch and Spanish (here is the level of language), and we already know from previous fieldwork that the church is run by pastors from Peru and caters for a relatively small congregation of faithful hailing from several parts of Latin America.

At the very bottom of the poster, however, we notice a web address: When we follow that link, we enter a very different sphere (Figure 3).

figure 3

Figure 3: Experience Bethel.

Bethel TV is a globally active religious enterprise, based in California, and offering for-money religious services and commodities to a very wide audience of customers around the world. The Bethel TV website contains all the features of commercial websites, including the “free trial” offer, preferably followed by the “premium” subscription (Figure 4).

figuur 4b

Figure 4: Bethel Premium

Note the implications of this. We have moved from a sociolinguistics of offline areas and communities into a sociolinguistics of digital culture, and both are inextricably connected in a locally emplaced sign. That we find ourselves fully in the realm of digital culture becomes clear when we follow some more links. Bethel TV is active on a great number of social media platforms, and prominently on YouTube, where its channel has almost 150,000 subscribers (figure 5).

Figure 4

Figure 5: Bethel TV YouTube channel

YouTube channels along with other social media activities, let us note, are a frequent feature of the new evangelical churches in Oud-Berchem. Thus, Apostle Johnson Suleman, the pastor of a church serving a small West-African congregation in Oud-Berchem, is far bigger online than offline. His YouTube channel has over 106,000 subscribers and shows footage of services held in Belgium, Switzerland, Canada and several other countries (Figure 6).

Figuur 6

Figure 6: Apostle Johnson Suleman online

The case of Apostle Johnson Suleman suggests a slightly different analysis than the ones we provided in earlier work: the church in Oud-Berchem is not connected with the “homeland” of its founders (Nigeria in this case), as a kind of “station” in a network of diasporic community members seeking to worship. It is a node in a transnational network of actions, performed by an itinerant pastor-entrepreneur. The center of this network is not Lagos or Abuja: its center is online, it is the YouTube channel that ties together a range of activities and actors dispersed over several countries. And the case of Bethel TV shows how local churches are resourced by religious multinationals also connecting a multitude of small local nodes in a global network.

We see now, through this online-offline ELLA, how lots of invisible lines run to and from a local area – Oud-Berchem – and how explaining what goes on in this local area demands attention to what the invisible lines bring and take in the way of resources and “personnel” to concrete, situated actions such as Sunday churches, and to concrete, situated modes of community-making. Members of the congregation have 24/7 access to some services of “the church”, regardless of where they are physically stationed. Figure 7, from the website of yet another evangelical church located in Oud-Berchem, illustrates this.

Figuur 7

Figure 7: Web testimonials

The website offers a page for “testimonials”, and apart from two Antwerp-based members, we also see a testimonial from a member based in Manchester, UK. Members not present in the actual physical locale of the church can watch the services on YouTube and draw similar spiritual satisfaction from it.

Conclusion: ELLA 2.0

When we follow the leads from locally emplaced signs towards the online sphere they point towards, we begin to see vastly more. This move from offline to online and back, we consider to be of major importance for ELLA, for it directs us towards a far more precise view of actors and topography of action. As for actors, the actions performed in specific offline places are dispersed and operate locally as well as translocally. The “personnel” of locally performed actions, thus, is far broader and more diverse than what an exclusively offline LL analysis would show. As for topography, we see invisible lines connecting places as far apart as Oud-Berchem and California, and resources, formats and personnel are provided in all these places and made available for local enactment.

We thus find ourselves in an ELLA 2.0, an online-offline ethnography starting from linguistic landscapes and taking us to the structure of social actions in superdiverse neighborhoods. Its findings inevitably distort the acquired imagery of sedentary diaspora demographics as the cornerstone of superdiversity studies: “multi-ethnic” neighborhoods as the locale within which social actions by their populations must be confined, or privileged analytically. The online-offline nexus no longer affords such views.


Blommaert, Jan (2013) Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes: Chronicles of Complexity. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

—– (2018) Durkheim and the Internet; On Sociolinguistics and the Sociolinguistic Imagination. London: Bloomsbury

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.

Blumer, Herbert (1969) Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Berkeley: University of California Press

Cicourel, Aaron (1973) Cognitive Sociology: Language and Meaning in Social Interactions. Harmondsworth: Penguin Education.

Garfinkel, Harold (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology. New York: Prentice Hall

—– (2002) Ethnomethodology’s Program: Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Goffman, Erving (1961) Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merill.

—– (1963) Behavior in Public Places. New York: The Free Press

Rawls, Anne Warfield (2002) Editor’s introduction. In Harold Garfinkel, Ethnomethodology’s Program: 1-64. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Strauss, Anselm (1993) Continual Permutations of Action. New Brunswick: Aldine Transactions


Are chronotopes helpful?


Jan Blommaert

Why do we need another word for context?

I get this question repeatedly whenever I use the term “chronotope”: do we really, truly need yet another word for context? Don’t the current terms we have do the job satisfactorily? What’s new about chronotopes?[1]

I usually give not one but several answers to that question. One answer is general and refers to a practice that is at the core of scientific work. We need new terms, or renewed terms, often for no other reason than to check the validity of old ones. Neologisms, from that angle, are crucial critical Gedankenspiele that remind us of the duty of continuous quality control of our analytical vocabulary. And if the Gedankenspiel is played well, it often enables us to see how the existing concepts they critically interrogate have become flattened, turned into a passe-partout or a rather uninformative routine gesture in talk and writing. Chronotope invites us to critically check the ways in which we use the term “context” in a wide range of disciplines within the study of language in society. If, in the end, the community of peers in this discipline decide that “context” is still more useful and valuable than “chronotope”, it will be a much more accurate, precise and analytically transparent notion of “context” that will prevail, and “chronotope” will have done what it had to do.

A second answer is a disclaimer. One concept should never be expected to do all of the work in theory and analysis. It should do a bit of work, in conjunction with several others. And the point is to find the precise bit of work that can be done satisfactorily by that concept within a broader conceptual structure.

A third answer follows onto the previous one. It is of a different nature and also responds to the “what’s new” question. One should point out that the particular conceptualizations of context for which we can now use the term “chronotope” are not new at all, and that, in fact, the use of “chronotope” may help us to precisely capture that particular trend of studies of text-and-context. I could refer here to a large body of existing literature, but three clear instances can suffice: Aaron Cicourel’s (1992) classic paper on the “interpenetration” of contexts in medical encounters; Michael Silverstein’s (1997) analysis of the “improvisational” nature of realtime discursive practice; and Charles Goodwin’s (2002) discussion of “time in action”, in which specific temporalities, realtime as well as invoked, pattern and co-organize the interactional work done by participants. What brings these examples together is:

  • A view of context as a specific set of features both affecting and producing specific modes of social action;
  • in which such features have very clear and empirically demonstrable timespace characteristics – the actual timespace constellation is the determining feature for understanding the actual text-context patterns we observe;
  • in which some of these features can be carried over, so to speak, into different timespace constellations while others are non-exportable.
  • and in which a precise understanding of timespace configurations is essential to account for a great deal of the sociocultural work performed in interaction.

I shall briefly elaborate this particular view of context in what follows. Chronotope, I shall argue, can play a role within the broader conceptual structure developed within that tradition.

From situation to chronotope

It should not be hard to grasp the specific nature of the conceptualization of context I outlined above in contradistinction with several other trends of usage. In earlier work (Blommaert 2005, chapter 3) I surveyed some of the various ways in which context is used in analysis, pointing out flaws in mainstream usages of the notions in Conversation Analysis and Critical Discourse Analysis. Of the former, I argued that a conception of context reduced to the intra-interactional forms of demonstrable inference was untenable; of the latter I said that a priori statements about contextual “influences” on discourse, for which discourse analysis would merely provide a symptomatic demonstration, would not do either. We can add to this that restrictions of context to purely cognitive universes for inference or to the inferential material that ensures text cohesion and coherence are equally inadequate (for discussions, see Duranti & Goodwin 1992).

All of them, I would suggest, fail to take into account “the situation” as defined in the linguistic-ethnographic tradition (for a classic statement, see Goffman 1964; also Hymes 1974; Silverstein 1992; Scollon 2001; Scollon & Scollon 2004). Let us recall how Goffman stated the problem.

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.[2] 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 (e.g. Garfinkel 2002; Goodwin & Goodwin 1992; Scollon & Scollon 2004). It is this insight for which I believe chronotopes to be a helpful gloss.

Bakhtin’s chronotope

The concept of chronotope used here has, as we know, its origins in the work of Bahktin (1981, 1986), and it is good to pause and consider some crucial aspects of the way in which Bakhtin designed it.[3]

A first observation, often overlooked, is that Bakhtin’s chronotope is grounded in a profoundly sociolinguistic concept of language: it is not an autonomous or separate object (as in mainstream linguistics), but entirely entangled with concrete aspects of the social world. Bakhtin sees language in its actual deployment (as e.g. in a novel) as a repository of “internal stratification present in every language at any given moment of its historical existence” (Bakhtin 1981: 263; see the discussion in Agha 2007b). At any moment of performance, the language (or discourse, as Bakhtin qualifies it) actually used will enable an historical-sociological analysis of different “voices” within the social stratigraphy of language of that moment: Bakhtin’s key notion of heteroglossia – the delicate “dialogical” interplay of socially (ideologically, we would now say) positioned voices in e.g. a novel – is the building block of a “sociological stylistics” (id. 300).

Two important points are attached to this. First, this sociological stylistics is necessarily historical,and note that the notion of “historical” in Bakhtin’s work is never a purely chronological one, but a timespace one. In actual analysis, the historical aspect operates via a principle of indexicality, in which a genre feature such as “common language (…) is taken by the author precisely as the common view, as the verbal approach to people and things normal for a given sphere of society” (id. 301; cf. also Rampton 2003). Form is used to project socially stratified meaning (“verbal-ideological belief systems”, id. 311), and this indexical nexus creates what we call “style”, for it can be played out, always hybridized, in ways that shape recognizable meaning effects “created by history and society” (id. 323).

Two: this historical aspect is tied to what we can call “valuation”. The historically specific heteroglossic structure of actual forms of language means that understandingthem is never a linear “parsing” process; it is an evaluative one. When Bakhtin talks about understanding, he speaks of “integrated meaning that relates to value – to truth, beauty and so forth – and requires a responsive understanding, one that includes evaluation” (Bakhtin 1986: 125). The dialogical principle evidently applies to uptake of speech as well, and such uptake involves the interlocutor’s own historically specific “verbal-ideological belief systems” and can only be done from within the interlocutor’s own specific position in a stratified sociolinguistic system. Nothing, consequently, is neutral in this process – not even time and space, as his discussion of chronotope illustrates.

Bakhtin designed chronotope to express the inseparability of time and space in historical social action. The “literary artistic chronotope”, where “spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole”, could be seen as “a formally constitutive category of literature” (1981: 84), as the thing that could enable us to actually and precisely understand works of literature as socio-historically situated acts of communication. Bakhtin saw chronotopes as an important aspect of the novel’s heteroglossia, part of the different “verbal-ideological belief systems” that were in dialogue in a novel and gave the novel the historical meaning potential with which readers had to engage.

Moralized behavioral scripts

We can now look at how Bakhtin’s chronotope can assist us in giving a more precise analytical orientation to Goffman’s social situation. I want to highlight two major points.

A first and obvious step forward is that we can see the social situation as intrinsically historical and therefore loaded with language-ideological affordances – “orders of indexicality”, we can say (Silverstein 2003; Blommaert 2005; also Scollon & Scollon 2004). It is the historicity of situations that accounts for the defining trigger of communication: recognizability (cf. Garfinkel 2002). It is when a situation emerges of which we can recognize (or believe to recognize) the sociocultural status that we can shift into the modes of interactional behavior that “make sense” in and of such a situation. We do so, as e.g. Bourdieu (1991) and Hymes (1996) emphasized, under conditions and constraints generated by (equally historical) sociolinguistic inequalities – it is wise to remind ourselves of the fact that we rarely enter social situations as perfectly finished products of smooth socialization (cf. Blommaert 2008).

A second advantage we can draw from Bakhtin’s insights and add to Goffman’s, is that understanding – “making sense” of interaction in actual situations – is evaluative and refers not just to the linguistic codes of expression but to a broader complex of rules for social conduct. In social situations, we make evaluative judgments of the participants (including ourselves); such judgments are indexically grounded and project identities onto concrete modes of conduct. Goffman’s work is replete with such moments of situated identity judgment, in which an interactional move can be swiftly turned into a perception of awkwardness – which is a judgment of the person through the lens of his/her interactional conduct. Indexicality, we can see here, is entirely tied up with identity (a thing we already know: Agha 2007a), and is entirely moral whenever it takes the shape of what is called “appropriateness”, “felicity” or “adequacy” in the literature on pragmatics (e.g. Austin 1962).

We can now be far more precise and specific with respect to what Goffman called the social situation. Specific timespace configurations (think of Goffman’s lecture hall) demand and impose specific moralized behavioral scripts offering affordances and imposing constraints on what can be recognized as “meaningful” interaction in such situations. Scripts include participation frameworks – not everyone is a ratified participant in, e.g., a lecture, and the specific roles of participants are quite compellingly defined. They also sketch a plot or event structure, as well as the “adequate” semiotic resources to be deployed in an order of indexicality we will recognize as “appropriate” within the specific chronotope. A lecturer, thus, is expected to lecture in a lecture hall during a time slot defined as a “lecture”, and members of the audience are expected to attend in silence, listen, perhaps make notes or recordings, and react appropriately to discursive prompts given by the lecturer. As soon as the lecture is over, the entire script changes, identities and participant roles are redefined, and an entirely different set of rules for social conduct replaces that of the lecture.

Chronotopes and social life

I hope that I have given arguments demonstrating the usefulness of chronotope as a way of summarizing, and making more accurate, the tradition of approaching context sketched at the outset of this chapter. The notion of chronotope invites us to treat aspects of context often dismissed or summarily taken into account in branches of scholarship, and to treat them with utmost precision as nonrandom elements of social situations that may account for much of how people make sense of social structure in actual moments of social action (to paraphrase Cicourel’s 1974: 46 words). Everyday social life can be seen, from this perspective, as a sequence of such chronotopically defined situations through which we continuously move, adapting and adjusting in the process our identities and modes of conduct in interaction with others.

A sequence, thus, of “environments of mutual monitoring possibilities” as Goffman expressed it, each of which comes with specific sets of norms – the moralized behavioral scripts mentioned above. This is why a dinner table conversation has a particular character (e.g. Ochs & Shohet 2006) fundamentally different from that of  a social media interaction session (Tagg et al 2017), interactions in a hospital operation theater (Bezemer et al. 2014), during a court hearing (Stygall 1994) or during a session in which an archaeology instructor explains minute differences between kinds of soil to students (Goodwin 1994). This is also why we can instantly shift from a quiet, withdrawn and “mind-my-own-business” mode of conduct on a public bus into a chatty and engaged one when a friend gets on and sits next to us, and why we know that we cannot (or at least should not) talk to our children the way we talk to our colleagues at work. Each situation in which we find ourselves in everyday social life involves such shifts in normative-behavioral orientation. If we fail to make such shifts, we are swiftly categorized by others in categories ranging from “awkward” to “antisocial” or “abnormal”.

So, yes indeed, I do think chronotope is helpful as a tool in our analytical toolkit. The least we can say is that it satisfies the first function of new terms, specified in the introductory part of this chapter: it provides a critical check of the validity and analytical power of the term “context”. It allows us to observe the many superficial and inadequate ways in which that older term is being used, and to suggest more precise understandings of it. The latter may take the shape of a new collocation: “chronotopic contexts”.


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Silverstein, Michael (1992). The indeterminacy of contextualization: When is enough enough? In Peter Auer & Aldo Di Luzio (eds.) The Contextualization of Language: 55-76. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Silverstein, Michael (1997) The improvisational performance of culture in realtime discursive practice. In Keith Sawyer (ed.) Creativity in Performance: 265-312. Greenwich CT: Ablex.

Silverstein Michael (2003) Indexical order and the dialectics of sociolinguistic life. Language & Communication 23:193-229

Stygall, Gail (1994) Trial Language: Differential Discourse Processing and Discursive Formation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Tagg, Caroline, Philip Seargeant, Philip & Amy Brown (2017). Taking Offence on Social Media: Conviviality and Communication on Facebook. London: Palgrave Pivot.



[1]I am grateful to Sjaak Kroon and Jos Swanenberg for stimulating discussions on this topic over the past number of years, and for asking me to contribute them to this book. Anna De Fina greatly helped me in my attempts to formulate chronotopic context and its effects, see Blommaert & De Fina (2016).

[2]The “physical setting” of interaction, one can note, is often relegated to the “S” in disastrously simplistic usages of Hymes’ SPEAKING framework for ethnographic-comparative description – “Setting and Scene”. It is then confined to a quick-and-easy sketch of the material layout and physical circumstances under which interaction takes place, overlooking the “scene” in Hymes’ framework – the actual ways in which material environments condition and enable the forms of action occurring. Lots of examples could be given here; the reader can refer to those given in Blommaert (2005: chapter 3). For a far more sophisticated discussion, see e.g. Bezemer et al. (2014).

[3]The following paragraphs draw on Blommaert (2015), and I refer the reader to that paper for more extensive discussion. Blommaert (2018) adds to the discussion by focusing on cross-chronotope connections.


The pleasures of an alias on social media.


Jan Blommaert

One of the intriguing things I keep hearing from people who are active on social media is that they use an alias there, because the use of their real name would prevent them from ‘being myself’. This always triggers a critical question from me: isn’t your real name part of your core identity? And how can you be really yourself when you avoid using that absolute and primary identity label of yours – your real name?

While the point might seem trivial to some, it is quite a challenge to widespread perceptions of what it is to be ‘real’. In his classic Seeing like a state, James Scott explained at great length how important the use of fixed and structured personal names was for the emerging nation-states of Modernity. The names we got (often somewhere in the 18th-19th century) became the alfa and omega of the bureaucratic system of governance: when a name could be conclusively stuck onto an individual, that individual was ‘known’ and could be treated as a subject with rights, entitlements, duties and obligations derived from bureaucratically administered laws and rules. We carry our names, consequently, on a range of identity documents: passport, social security or health insurance card, driver’s license, staff card, library card, and so forth; we write and read our names on the top of thousands of official documents that regulate our everyday lives. Why? Because our names identify us as real, as really existing persons that can be identified, held responsible, involved or excluded from social and political processes. In view of that, avoiding to use your real name, hiding it from others or giving a false name when asked for it, is strongly associated with deviance, abnormality, transgression, crime.

On social media, however, the practice is widespread. Very large numbers of otherwise decent and upstanding citizens operate ‘undercover’, if you wish, hiding behind the mask of a bogus name and arguing that it is this mask that enables them to be ‘real’ in interactions with others on social media. It shows us how different the rules and codes of social media interaction are, and how these technologies have shaped a different area of social action operating alongside those of the ‘real’ world of nation-state bureaucratic and social life.

The people I know and with whom I had the occasion to talk to about this practice argued that an alias grants them a modicum of freedom of speech on social media. In that sense, it offered them some degree of freedom to speak freely, without the obstacles and restrictions generated by offline life. Their real names, as said above, connect them to the rights and entitlements, but also the restrictions of offline existence, and such restrictions might be compelling. Their employers, for instance, might not be amused by some of the Tweets posted by known employees; such expressions of individual opinion and subjectivity could get them into trouble with political patrons, relatives or other members of the offline communities in which they function. The structures of their ‘real’ offline social existence, in short, prevent them from speaking freely in the public sphere generated by social media.

The use of an alias, thus, is usually an effect of conscious and calibrated decisions in which the opportunities of the online public culture are weighed against the conventional restrictions of offline public culture. Different sets of norms and codes of conduct are measured against each other, and the conclusion for these people is that you can only be uniquely and really yourself on social media when you delete or mask your real name – when you become someone else or remain an anonymous voice, in other words.

I see this as part of ‘the care of the selfie’. We are familiar with the argument developed by a range of scholars, from Foucault to Goffman, that our social existence in Modernity is dependent on large and infinitely detailed sets of norms and regulations for impression management, aimed at appearing as a ‘normal’ subject in the eyes of others. These norms and regulations are socially sanctioned, and all of us are invited to internalize and incorporate them through self-regulation and self-censorship – the things Foucault called ‘the care of the self’. What the use of aliases on social media demonstrates, I think, is how this offline care of the self is now complemented by similar sets of norms and regulations governing our online social lives. The use of aliases, along with a range of other practices, is part of a constructed ‘selfie’, an identity designed solely for online presence.

When meticulously constructed, maintained and applied, this selfie offers us the pleasures of aspects of social life not attainable elsewhere. Or, if you wish, it offers us membership into a community culture that runs in conjunction with the cultures of offline communities but can no longer be detached from it. Which is why we can be truly ourselves there in very different ways from those we practice elsewhere.

ScreenHunter_1182 Apr. 21 10.30





Online with Garfinkel


Jan Blommaert

The Durkheim and the Internet project (DAI in what follows) being completed, I now move on towards a more radical exercise: using some of Harold Garfinkel’s central intuitions as a lead into forms of online analysis. This exercise, I should underscore, builds onto DAI and does not replace or qualify it – it extends it. For a summary of DAI, see Blommaert (2018).

This extension is warranted, I believe, because of one methodological outcome of the project: the “four lines of sociolinguistic methodology” that I designed as a way to investigate new forms of collectivities in online-offline contexts. Here they are:

  1. Patterns of communication necessarily involve meaningful social relationships as prerequisite, conduit and outcome;
  2. Such relationships will always, similarly, involve identities and categorizations, interactionally established;
  3. Thus, when observing patterns of communication, we are observing the very essence of sociation and “groupness” – regardless of how we call the “groups”.
  4. And specific patterns of interaction shape specific forms of “groups.

I added the following reflection to these four lines:

“Groups, then, are not collections of human beings but patterned sets of communicative behaviors and the relationships with which they are dialectically related. Whenever we see such ordered forms of communicative behavior, there is an assumption of active and evolving groupness – sociation – but the analytical issue is not the nature of the group (or the label we need to choose for it) but the specific social relationships observable through and in communication. All other aspects of sociation can be related to this. So if one needs the definition of a group: a group is a communicatively organized and ratified set of social relationships.”

This analytical point pushed me to a re-examination of Garfinkel’s work, notably Garfinkel (2002). I shall not follow Garfinkel in any canonical way, however. The nature of the exercise I undertake here would prevent it, and the fact that Garfinkel’s incredible methodological idiosyncrasy makes much of his book barely readable further supports that decision. Fortunately, Anne Rawls does a great service to Garfinkel in her introductory essay to the book (Rawls 2002 and other contextualizing essays, 1987, 1989). And finally, I reject several of Garfinkel’s assumptions and principles. But there remains much that can be profitably reformulated and redeployed as well. Let me summarize these reformulated elements.

Garfinkel’s intuitions

Let me start by listing what I see as productive fundamental intuitions in Garfinkel’s work. The connecctions with the “four lines” above should be clear at once.

  1. Garfinkel focuses on social order as a locally accomplished social fact. In this, he is entirely empirical, in the sense that he rejects any conceptual a prioris and prioritizes the actual, observable social actions as a site of “structure” and “theory”. That naturally implies that Garfinkel rejects the old binaries of “micro vs macro” or “structure vs agency”, as well as an ethos of scientific practice in which conceptual and theoretical “implementation” is sought.
  2. Rather than to take (predefined and “known”) individuals and groups as a starting point in his analysis, he takes situated actions as the point of departure; the people acting within such situations are merely the “local staff, its local production cohort” (Garfinkel 2002: 247). And in line with G.H. Mead, action is interaction.
  3. Actions can be shown to have “autochthonous order properties”, i.e. “empirically observable properties of the congregational work of producing social facts” (id. 245). Rawls (ibid, FN) further clarifies: “Congregational refers not only to to the idea that these social facts are made collaboratively by a group, but that the population cohort has its cohort or congregation by virtue of being engaged in doing just this thing”.
  4. In other words: groups are made by the actions they are involved in, and Garfinkel emphasizes “situations that provide for the appearances of individuals” (Rawls 2002: 46).
  5. Such involvement is predicated on the recognizability of actions and their properties of order. Social actions occur as formats, the characteristic features of which are recognizable to others and, thus, intelligible as action x, y or z. Garfinkel’s example of a queue (2002, chapter 8) is telling: it is the queue itself that organizes the behavior of people as a queue. The queue has a set of “properties of order without which the phenomenon ceases to be recognizable as what it is” (Rawls 2002: 45).
  6. This aspect of formatting is reflexive: there is no “external” or explicitly stated rule for action, but its execution “must work and be seen to work by others” (Rawls 2002: 41). Thus, rules become reflexively apparent after their implementation in social action. It’s when a queue has been formed that people can tell you that there is a queue, and that it starts thère, not here. Social actions “have a [normative] coherence when one is finished with them that they did not have at the outset” (ibid).
  7. Recognizability and reflexivity as features of social action involve and presuppose at least two things: (a) that no social action is “individual” in any sense of the term but always interactional; (2) that the formats of social action need to be learned, acquired.

It is clear that Grafinkel attributes a sui generis character to situated social action and its forms of order: its characteristics cannot be reduced to individuals’ intentions and interests, nor to external (“institutional”) constraints. In fact, the sui generis character of situated social action is an echo of Durkheim’s qualification of “social facts” as having a sui generis quality – the very foundation of Durkheim’s sociology. And just like Durkheim’s statement, Garfinkel’s is easily (and widely) misconstrued. So we must be precise here. The sui generis character of situated social action involves – contra methodological individualism – that individual social beings are constrained in their choices of action; people rather “enter into” the ordeliness of situated social action, as soon as such an order is recognizable, and attribute intelligibility to their own actions in that way. Their actions become meaningful to others by entering into the orderly procedures that make such actions recognizable as specific actions.

Garfinkel joins Goffman here, and Rawls attributes the same sui generis character to Goffman’s notion of interaction order: “the interacion order has an existence independent of either structures or individuals” (Rawls 1987: 139). This point, too, has often been overlooked, and Goffman’s concept of self, consequently, has often been misrepresented as strategically performed identity, central to his social theory. In actual fact, Goffman’s self is “a dramaturgical effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented” (Goffman 1959: 253, in Rawls 1987: 139; italics added). So it is not just “performed” but interactionally ratified – morally sanctioned – by others: “both in its capacity as performer and performed, the self ultimately depends upon interaction” (ibid.). Such interactions require a scene – an orderly and recognizable situation that makes the dramaturgical effect (the particular, enacted and ratified self) an intelligible outcome of social action. In Rawls’ (ibid) terms:

“The self is therefore not the ontological starting point for a theory of social order. For Goffman it is an end product, the existence of which depends upon a presentation order which is the primary constraint of situations of co-presence”.

This presentation order is replete with reciprocally exchanged moral expectations – “involvement obligations” – providing a degree of security in social encounters (cf. Rawls 1987: 140). There is slightly more space for empathy and anxiety in Goffman’s view of order than there is in Garfinkel’s, and Goffman’s “ground rules of interaction” are moral ones (id.: 142). Goffman’s insistence on the ritual character of interaction (often seen as an insistence on communicative routine) is in actual fact an insistence on the maintenance of a moral order in social action. And this is done in view of the interaction order itself (sui generis), “and not directed toward the reproduction of social structure at all” (id. 145).

Rawls here brings Goffman and Garfinkel together once again: both rejected “micro vs macro” and “agency vs structure” distinctions, since for both, whatever we understand by “structure” should be empirically observable in the orderly features of actual, situated social action; the former actually coincides and identifies with the latter. And in both, the self is an outcome, a product, an effect of the orderliness of situated social action – which, consequently, should be attended to in full detail. In most work, situated social action would be seen as a building block or a reflection of “larger” social-structural phenomena (power, class, gender, race, etc.). What we have here is a radical refusal to treat situated social action as “just” the small stuff that relates to bigger stuff. Instead, we get a view in which the big things are right there, in and through situated social action – which is, consequently, a big thing. Social order in any form is interactional.


Garfinkel’s radicalism is certainly appealing because it refutes most of mainstream social theory, with a particular vehemence reserved for deductive theory-internal analysis, concepts-as-realities and simplistic interpretations of “micro vs macro” and “agency vs structure”. Aspects of this refutation are compelling and inescapable, while others are potentially fertile as a heuristic, and still others are probably nonsense. Thus, I will adopt the elements I sketched above and add two important qualifications to them.

  1. I maintain the theoretical framework designed in DAI, with its emphasis on complexity, mobility, scalarity and polycentricity. The “social order” and its “autochthonous order properties” that Garfinkel was after (and Goffman’s “interacion order” and its “involvement obligations”) are, consequently, made more precise and accurate when we see them as ordered indexicalities occurring in social arenas that are by definition polynomic, dynamic and flexible.
  2. Garfinkel’s view of situated social action as necessarily recognizable presupposes a mutually assumed sharedness of expectations (which he confirms), and of resources. The latter remains unaddressed, while it is precisely the sociolinguistic dimension of DAI. While situated social action may be a form of order sui generis, the stuff that enters into such actions isn’t: it is conditioned historically and assumes its concrete shape in interactions in the form of entextualizations, the nature and valuations of which need to be learned and acquired. So here is the second qualification to Garfinkel’s intuitions: we need to add to them an awareness of the concrete historical conditions enabling certain forms of action to assume certain kinds of order not others. This, I underscore, does not mean that we need to revert to an older vocabulary of institutionalization, routinization or even “macro” or “structural” aspects of action. What we need to do is to see situated social action as historically conditioned (and we can take some cues here from Bourdieu, for instance). This, I believe, is crucial if one wishes to maintain the claim about the sui generis character of the orderliness of such situated social action.

The historical conditions for action include infrastructural conditions as well. I underscore this because we intend to go online with Garfinkel – entering into a world not just of queues in front of the Starbucks counter at LAX, but of virality, memes and social media profiles. And a world not just of presenting and presented selves but of selfies – new technologically mediated modes of self-presentation for which Garfinkel, Goffman and others provides necessary, but insufficient, analytical frames. Such infrastructures have changed the “order” of social actions, and we must take them on board.


Blommaert, Jan (2018) Durkheim and the Internet: Sociolinguistics and the Sociological Imagination. London: Bloomsbury.

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

Goffman, Erving (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday Anchor.

Rawls, Anne Warfield (1987) The Interaction order sui generis: Goffman’s contribution to social theory. Sociological Theory 5/2: 136-149.

—– (1989) Simmel, Parsons and the interaction order. Sociological Theory 7/1: 124-129.

—– (2002) Editor’s introduction. In Garfinkel (2002): 1-64.




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.



Redefining the sociolinguistic ‘local’: Examples from Tanzania

Wajanja DSCN5923 2

Jan Blommaert 


In a visionary book, Arjun Appadurai (1996: 194) noted ‘new forms of disjuncture between spatial and virtual neighborhoods’,  seriously complicating the actual meaning of a term such as ‘local practice’. This disjuncture, Appadurai argued with amazing foresight, would be an effect of the growth and development of a new infrastructure for globalization both in its hard and soft dimensions: the internet. With equal lucidity and at the same moment in history, Manuel Castells (1996) predicted the development of a new type of social formation which he called ‘network’ and which was not constrained by the traditional boundaries of social groups. Castells, too, saw the internet as the engine behind such far-reaching transformations in the sociocultural, political and economic order worldwide.

Appadurai and Castells made these claims while observing this global technological infrastructure in its infant stage. More than two decades later, and now living in what has effectively become a network society, one can only be amazed by the accuracy of their predictions, as well as by the very slow pace at which scientific disciplines devoted to humans and their societies have adjusted their gaze and frames of reference in addressing transformations predicted in the mid-1990s (see e.g. Eriksen 2016). It is clear, for instance, that sociolinguistics has been quite slow in addressing globalization as a fundamental mechanism of sociolinguistic change (Coupland 2003; Pennycook 2007; Blommaert 2010), and that the disjunctures between spatial and virtual neighborhoods anticipated by Appadurai – or rather, in an updated formulation, the complex intersections generated by spatial and virtual social spacetimes – still await satisfactory analysis and theorization (cf. Coupland 2016; Blommaert & Rampton 2016; Varis 2017; Blommaert 2017).

To be fair, the task is challenging, for sociolinguistics quite consistently relied on a particular imagination of spacetime in analysis and theory. Such spacetimes were ‘local’, meaning: they were enclosed and autonomous, allowing the analysis of clear sociolinguistic patterns within the specific spacetime unit – the neighborhood, the village, the city, the region, the nation-state. This imagination of the ‘local’ provided clarity for another key concept: the speech community (cf. Rampton 2009). Such communities, it was assumed, derived levels of stability and sharedness from their ‘local’ roots, which in turn allowed analysts to zoom in on the normative modes of social interaction, the forms of socioculturally relevant variation, the effects of institutionalization, and the dominant patterns of sociolinguistic change. This ‘sedentary’ logic was, of course, dislodged by ‘non-sedentary’ phenomena such as migration and the various forms of language contact it provoked. The spacetime unit in which such forms of sociolinguistic complexity occurred, however, was not affected, and it is only with the rapid and pervasive spread of ‘virtual’ spacetime that we are forced to address modes of social interaction developing in an unbounded, elastic and dynamic spacetime not contained by the qualities we used to ascribe to the ‘local’ in research.

In what follows, I shall try to document the analytical complexities we have to face as soon as we engage with such new forms of spacetime. My ambitions are modest: I merely intend to identify a number of inevitable ‘phenomenal’ features – what kinds of phenomena are we encountering? – and point in the direction of a particular analytical vocabulary that might be helpful in exercises of this kind. I shall do so by drawing on insights into the emerging internet-and-mobile culture in Tanzania, and I have the advantage of a longitudinal perspective, having been involved in research there for over three decades now (see Blommaert 2014). So let me first introduce some of the historical frame in which we need to set the discussion.

The ups and downs of language hierarchies in Tanzania

Tanzania offers us fertile terrain for investigating the changes in what is ‘local’ due to globalization and its online infrastructure, for these forces appear to have comprehensively reshuffled the institutional sociolinguistic order, creating, so to speak, a ‘language policy from below’ defying the official one, and replacing a relatively stable sociolinguistic hierarchy by a more fragmented one. While I do not expect this development to be unique to Tanzania, the case has the advantage of being clear. Tanzania, we know, was often highlighted in the sociolinguistic literature of the 1960s and 1970s as a relatively rare instance of  successful ‘demotic’ language planning. While most other recently decolonized countries had opted for a continuation of the colonial sociolinguistic order, with the language of the former colonial power (concretely: French, English, Portuguese) as national or official language, the socialist rulers of Tanzania radically opted for Swahili as the language expressing the postcolonial identity of the country and its citizens, turning it into an exception to what was later defined as the postcolonial rule of ‘linguistic imperialism’ (Phillipson 1992; see Blommaert 2014 for details on the postcolonial history of Swahili).

Swahili (in a range of varieties) was already relatively widespread in the country at the time of independence, and its adoption as national language, to be used in almost every official domain, made it into a language the hegemonic position of which as ‘the language of everyone’ remained uncontested for decades. There was one crack in that hegemony though. English was not entirely eliminated; it was kept as the language of instruction of post-primary education. The reasons for this language-political anomaly are complex, and officially the argument was that Swahili needed, first, to be ‘developed’ to cope with the demands of scientific thought and progress. Concretely, this meant vocabulary development – a Sisyphean  process not helped by a byzantine structure of official ratification. Pending the completion of that task, English remained the language of the – very small – national intelligentsia, as access to standard forms of English was almost entirely dependent on access (through demanding state exams) to secondary and tertiary education. And in that way, it retained covert prestige – a lot of prestige.

This, incidentally, is one of the ways in which we can define Tanzania as a ‘margin’: its endogenous symbolic resources were for a long time valuated and hierarchically positioned with regard to an exogenous benchmark: the symbolic resources of its former colonizing power. Its status as a sociopolitical system, likewise, was measured quite consistently against that of metropolitan sociopolitical systems. So while there are a range of ‘objective’ criteria for establishing ‘margins’ as opposed to ‘centers’ in the world system – GDP and poverty indexes, to name just those – ‘subjective’ ones also count. For decades, there was a strong self-defining tendency in the country as being ‘marginal’; and this imagination was shared by politicians who saw Swahili as ‘not yet ready’ to fulfill the functions of English, as well as by local rappers who nicknamed their country ‘Bongo’ and their hiphop scene ‘Bongo Flava’ – the flavor of total marginalization.

Tanzania was long an example of what sociolinguists preferred as ‘local’: a state even officially devoted to self-reliance, non-alignment and autonomy, with an unchallenged government and a population often imagined as Swahili-speaking monoglot. Within such an imagined enclosed and self-contained unit, sociolinguistic reflections followed simple tracks, usually revolving around ‘Swahili versus English’ in education – a topic that dominated the literature on Tanzania for decades. Below the surface of that imagined ‘locality’, however, several very different processes were at work. First, there was a great deal of variation within Swahili that was left unexplored even if it pointed towards existing and new inequalities within the imagined demotic sociolinguistic system. Second, there was the uneasy fact that most Tanzanians were not monolingual but at least bilingual, combining (varieties of) Swahili with (varieties of) ethnic languages. The latter were very rarely drawn into the equation in Tanzania. Third, even if English was an active resource in just small segments of Tanzanian society, it carried tremendous language-ideological weight as the language indexing everything that was foreign, smart, desirable and exclusive (and capitalist) – it was, in other words, the undisputed sociolinguistic marker of elite-status. Prestigious products (usually equivalent to overseas products) would be advertised in English, and prestigious people would be identifiable by the variety of English and the level of fluency in using it. The persistent refusal of the Tanzanian government to replace English by Swahili throughout the entire education system – and the persistent pointing, in motivating this anomaly, towards the superiority of English as a language of learning, undoubtedly contributed to this prestige.

The clear sociolinguistic patterns many sociolinguists believed to observe in Tanzania, thus, obscured a far more nuanced and fractured system in which the near-absence of English in Tanzania did not prevent a status hierarchy very similar to that in postcolonial countries where the former metropolitan language had been preserved as the language of the public sphere. Thus, in spite of massive amounts of lip service to it, Tanzania never really was the demotic sociolinguistic nation it was often perceived to be. Neither was it the enclosed and self-contained ‘local’ system many preferred to behold. While the dynamics of language variation within Swahili, and between Swahili and ethnic languages, were by and large (territorially) domestic forces, the prestige of English rested (like elsewhere) precisely on the translocal, international imageries it invoked.

At this point, we begin to see the contours of the problem I intend to more fully develop below. Yes, Tanzania was seen as a ‘local’ sociolinguistic arena, and most of the sociolinguistic literature would address it as such. But colonization had made that ‘local’ character very porous and elastic indeed, since an important part of how Tanzanians related to Swahili was determined by translocal linguistic ideologies firmly rooted in colonial (and postcolonial) realities. Such language-ideological imageries easily entered the country, even if until the early 1990s the communications and mass-media landscape in Tanzania was very poorly developed. Tanzania, one could say, was a switchboard between various subnational and supranational scale-levels (Blommaert 2010: 182-194), but in the pre-internet era the connections between such scale-levels were narrow and accessible for a privileged minority only. This would of course change when the internet entered the country. And when I did the fieldwork from which I draw the observations below, in 2012, I was working in a very different society.

Script vernacularization: Intanet Bomba

One of the most conspicuously different features of Dar es Salaam urban life these days is the generalized use of mobile phones. Like in other places in Africa, mobile phones solve a perennial problem: offering a means of long-distance communication cheaply and effectively, without requiring the massive investments required for landline networks. In the developing world, mobile phones represent a genuine revolution and are seen by influential policymakers as crucial tools for future economic, social and political development. In the words of a World Bank-related researcher,

Mobile telephones are revolutionizing the formative processes of economic development. These relatively cheap handheld personal communicators are empowering the most basic development agents, turning former functionaries reliant on erratic and remote external inputs into key decision makers with direct access to the facts they need. (Lambert 2009: 48)

New providers, consequently, are almost all located in the developing world (Lambert 2009: 49), and the range of services they offer do not lack sophistication: m-banking can be found in several developing countries while it is still rare in Europe; job advertisements and access to social and administrative services are also offered via mobile phones in several countries, as well as cheap chat services.[1] Another World Bank-connected researcher, Elisabeth Littlefield (2009: 50) thus reports:

The biggest success in customer adoption to date has been the M-PESA network in Kenya, which has reached more than 6.5 million customers in just over two years. It has become the preferred method for moving money for 50 percent of Kenyans.

In the next sentence, however, this optimism is instantly qualified:

However, fewer than 1 in 10 mobile phone banking customers are actually poor, new to banking, and doing anything more than payments and transfers. Most of the new offerings, especially when led by existing banks, have served to provide more convenient bill payments for existing customers and to decongest branches.

The sophisticated m-services are thus largely an affair of the urban middle classes, including the lower middle class, as we shall see shortly.

The March 2012 statistics released by the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority reported almost 27 million subscriptions to mobile phone operators.[2] Against a population estimated to around 46 million, this number is impressive, but let us not forget that people sometimes have to take subscriptions from several providers to compensate for inadequate network coverage. Several such operators are active, with the global player Vodacom (locally nicknamed ‘Voda’) being the largest one, the state-run TTCL holding a middle position and the privately owned Benson being the smallest. Competition among the providers is fierce and has led to a steady decrease of the rates for using mobile phones.

Apart from basic services – calls and SMS – the providers all offer mobile Internet services. These Internet services, however, are used by only a small minority of mobile phone subscribers. According to the business newspaper The Citizen in January 2012, about 11% of the Tanzanian population have access to Internet, 45% of whom – around 2 million – use mobile internet.[3] Internet subscriptions – compared to basic mobile phone services – are still very expensive: an average domestic (landline) subscription from TTCL in Dar es Salaam cost 100,000Tsh (around 50 Euro) per month in September 2012.[4]

We begin to understand that such figures point towards an elite, even if the term is used with some degree of elasticity here. We also understand that this elite is concentrated in the large urban areas, if for no other reason because of the fact that Internet requires electricity. And when it comes to electricity, the Energy and Water Utilities Regulatory Authority of Tanzania warns us that “[w]ith about 660,000 customers, electricity was available to only about 11% of the population by [the] first quarter of 2007, with more than 80% supplied in the urban areas”.[5] About 9 out of 10 Tanzanians have no access to a regular electricity supply, and that figure corresponds to more than 90% of the territory of the country. Access to the Internet is a rather exclusive feature of urban life in Tanzania, and new online-offline social space nexuses are confined to these areas.

It also strongly plays into that urban life-world – even more: it has become an icon of the culture of urban life. And a key element of this culture is a new register of ‘cool’ Swahili. A new lexicon of terms referring to mobile phone and Internet use has emerged in no time, including terms such as “intanet” itself, “kuperuzi” (‘to surf the internet’, from English ‘peruse’), “vocha” (‘voucher’, i.e. a prepaid card), “bomba” (‘connection’), “hudumu” (‘subscription’), “mtandao” (‘network’), “m-pesa” (mobile ‘banking’), ‘kufuatilia” (‘to follow’ on Facebook or Twitter) as well as globally circulating loan codes such as SMS, PIN and MB all firmly entrenched now in the cool register of mobile connectivity, and new slang terms such as ‘mrembo wa Facebook’ (‘Facebook darling’, a woman attracting significant amounts of male attention on Facebook) are coined incessantly. Providers market their products under labels such as “ezy pesa” (‘easy money’ – a phone banking application) and ‘Epiq Nation’ (an image slogan from the Zanzibar-based Zantel).

Publicity for mobile phone and mobile Internet providers – extraordinarily dense, testifying to the price wars among providers – show happy young people. References are made to happiness and joy throughout, in slogans such as “Ongea kutwa nzima na cheka” (‘talk the whole day and laugh’). We see a young man screaming with joy when opening his “Tigo Internet Mega Boksi” – a box containing applications for mobile Internet (Gmail, Facebook, Chrome, Firefox etc.) from the Tigo provider. And young girls enthusiastically gazing at a smartphone are announced to be “wajanja wa kuperuzi” – ‘expert internet surfers’. Those are happy, successful young people, and they are very much ‘in the world’.

Not unlike what we encounter elsewhere in that world, mobile phone advertisements suggest success derived from global mobility; their appeal rests on the strong suggestion that purchasing this commodity enables one to break out of the local, so to speak. Zantel’s Epiq Nation campaign, thus, showcases Mwisho Wampamba, a Tanzanian actor featuring in a popular South African TV series offered on commercial networks in Tanzania – an incorporation of the mobile, international, young, Tanzanian celebrity (see Figure 1). Large Vodacom and Epiq Nation campaign events feature Chidi Benz and Juma Nature AKA Kibla – Tanzanian Hip-Hop icons who attract audiences all over East Africa – and Epiq Nation sponsors a ‘Bongo Stars Search’ program, comparable to ‘American Idol’ or ‘The X Factor’ and aimed at recruiting future popular culture celebrities and setting new popular culture trends.

figure 3

FIGURE 1: Epiq Nation billboard featuring Mwisho Wampamba, Masaki, Dar es Salaam © Jan Blommaert 2012

The exploitation of Tanzania’s vibrant ‘Bongo Flava’ Hip-Hop scene in mobile phone marketing campaigns was already described by Christina Higgins (2013). Higgins observed that providers deployed the urban Swahili youth slang in their campaigns, a variety of which Bongo Flava artists are the epigones; popular Hip-hop song titles likewise found their way into marketing slogans, and a popular beer brand has “100% TZ FLAVA” printed on its bottles. Note, in passing, how the ‘Bongo’ term that used to carry dark stigma as an index of extreme marginality and poverty has been turned around, semiotically, in expressions such as ‘Bongo Flava’ and ‘Bongo stars’ to suggest, presently, a ‘center in the margin’: even in Bongoland, there can be global stars and cultural commodities.

The point Higgins made there, and which can be confirmed here, is that the connection between popular culture and marketing moves Swahili in a privileged position vis-à-vis the young urban middle-class consumers targeted in campaigns. But it is not just any Swahili: it is the cool slang-ish Swahili characterizing local youth cultures in Tanzanian cities, driven by the new online infrastructures. The medium for such campaigns is thus not a language per se, but a specific register. The amount of code-mixing in publicity for mobile phone providers should already make clear that ‘language’ is not the best unit to describe what goes on. And in view of the argument we are building here, we can see how a fully globalized set of ‘scripts’ has entered the ‘local’ arena – the ‘local’ has effectively ceased to exist, one could say. But the actual way in which these scripts have entered the ‘local’ is through complex vernacularization (a term we shall have to qualify shortly), by mobilizing a ‘local’ sociolinguistic dynamic of register-formation in Swahili, not English, effectively reversing – when seen from the usual distance of language policy research – the existing sociolinguistic hierarchies. The ‘global’ language English, once unchallenged in its symbolic predominance, has now been joined by ‘local’ forms of prestige-bearing ‘cool’ Swahili.

We are witnessing fully developed lifestyle branding targeting a young urban audience of consumers, and this fully developed form of branding follows global templates. Look at how the companies behind Epiq Nation announce their campaign:[6]

“Etisalat Zantel” has partnered with “Mobilera” to offer “Epiq Nation” the new youth lifestyle product which is much more than just great rates for mobile phones and internet services.

“Epiq Nation” will provide the Tanzanian`s youth with unprecedented services where they can have access to exclusive deals, discounts, experiences and competitions. This offer aims at improving the lives of the youth in Tanzania and meets their hunger for new technologies and products.

The discourse is that of advanced consumerist marketing, and the approach is that of sophisticated branding strategies aimed at complementing the product (“great rates for mobile phones and internet services”) with an avalanche of “exclusive deals, discounts, experiences and competitions”, so as to shape entire identities and life projects centred around particular commodities (Blommaert & Varis 2015). We see how mobile phones and Internet products are advertised in ways fully integrated in such global scenarios for branding and marketing.[7] Choosing Zantel’s Epiq Nation products is not just a choice for a particular product in a competitive market – it is a choice for a specific lifestyle, a self-imagined identity constructed through consumption. People who do so are not just ‘wateja’ (‘customers’), they are laughing and smiling, happy, young, affluent ‘wajanja wa uperuzi’ (‘experts surfers’) and, perhaps, ‘warembo wa Facebook’ (‘Facebook darlings’). Obviously, even if we are still engaging with Swahili, not much is left of the sociolinguistic ‘local’ here.

We have seen that providers target a young urban audience, and that they do so by means of complex campaigns turning commodities into lifestyle choices. Given the price of Internet subscriptions, the audience going for the full package is relatively restricted. And this is where we see that providers ‘open up’, so to speak, and attempt to bring their products to customers in less well-off areas of the cities, to the struggling urban lower middle classes who earn a modest salary but are nonetheless necessarily integrated in the networks of contemporary urban life. A taxi driver, for instance, needs a mobile phone to conduct his business, because taxis operate on an individual lease basis and without a central radio dispatching system. The same goes for small traders and shopkeepers: contacts with customers and providers are all maintained through mobile phone communication. Even more: given the relatively high cost of cross-network calls, these lower middle class people can be seen equipped with more than one handset, each of them connected to one provider network and all of them used to make network-internal calls. More affluent customers, less worried about the prohibitive costs of cross-network communication, typically have a single smartphone.

Mobile phones, subscription packages and prepaid cards are not just sold in hip downtown shops and malls; they are sold almost everywhere in the city. Small groceries, restaurants, post offices, bars, kiosks: one can read everywhere that ‘vocha’ are available, and ‘vocha jumla’ (‘every kind of prepaid card’), followed by a list of brand names – ‘Voda’, Airtel, Tigo, what have you. Mobile phone provision stretches into the poorest corners of the city. Naturally, the cost of full subscription packages with mobile internet access far exceeds the budgets of most people in such areas; what is effectively sold there are the cheapest prepaid cards, enough to make local calls and send some SMSses. But they can be found everywhere alongside other standard household products such as soap, maize flour, cooking oil, onions, fruit or water. Thus, while we can say that the spread, the availability, of mobile phones in Dar es Salaam is ‘democratic’, their distribution or accessibility – the specific ways in which they are being appropriated and used – is not democratic at all and follows clear class lines.

The democratic spread, nonetheless, necessitates an open format of marketing communication. A detailed look at figure 2 below reveals something quite interesting, and in order to grasp its relevance, some explanation needs to be given about advertisement culture in Tanzania. To begin with, advertisement was a relatively rare thing in Ujamaa Tanzania. The reason was quite simply that consumer commodities were rare in the days of Kujitegemea. One would see professional beer advertisements, some Pepsi publicity boards and some for other international products – more about that in a moment – but often, products were advertised by paintings on facades and fences, handcrafted by local professional sign-writers. Commercial slogans did not circulate intensively, with perhaps the exception of a slogan for a local ‘pombe’ (indigenous beer) called Chikubu. The slogan was Tumia Chibuku, ni pombe bora – ‘use Chibuku, it’s excellent beer’ – and it was played before and after a popular humorous radio play that aired every night on Radio Tanzania Dar es Salaam for years on end. Most people still know the slogan today, and note that the slogan was in Swahili.

Prestige products – a synonym, for decades, of products manufactured abroad in ‘the West’ – were almost invariably accompanied by English publicity items. Thus, in figure 2 we see a small and older sign promoting Nivea cream with an English text, next to another one for Pepsi equally in English. Driving through Dar es Salaam, we still see English widely used whenever elite products are being promoted: hotels and spas, wines, brandies or whiskies, imported beers, some banking facilities, insurance and so forth. But when it comes to that one commodity set emblematic of globalization, things are different. Mobile phone adverts are overwhelmingly in Swahili, and the English Nivea and Pepsi signs in figure 2 are juxtaposed with several mobile phone advertisements, in Swahili.

Figure 4

FIGURE 2: Mikocheni village, Dar es Salaam © Jan Blommaert 2012

Swahili has, thus, invaded a zone of prestige previously exclusively emblematized by English. Even when companies preferentially target the affluent Tanzanian yuppies, the new Swahili registers are used instead of or in conjunction with English (as e.g. in ‘Ezy Pesa’). Monolingual English mobile phone advertisement boards can be found, not by coincidence, in the vicinity of expensive shopping centers attracting a largely expatriate community of customers. Thus, the English Epiq Nation poster featuring Mwisho Wampamba (Figure 1) could be found near Shopper’s Plaza, Masaki, a supermarket tailored to the demands of the international business and diplomatic community in Masaki, and incorporating a ‘Subway’ sandwich shop on its premises.

The Mikocheni kiosk in Figure 2, thus, displays two generations of prestige products: an older one (Nivea cream) in English, dating to the times where ‘international’ was still generically a synonym for ‘outside of Tanzania’ and therefore ‘in English’; and a new one (mobile phone services) in which global commodities have been converted into local status-hierarchical emblems – they have been ‘reterritorialized’ to adopt Higgins’ (2013) terminology – and also distributed along a more fractured scale of prestige, in which some items are reserved for an affluent elite and thus marketed in English, while other prestige-bearing items are more widely offered and marketed through new ‘cool’ Swahili registers. The use of mobile phones is a global status emblem cleverly and skillfully ‘translated’, so to speak, into a new local stratification of symbols and values. The cool Swahili register that accompanies and enacts it is the key to this practice, it defines and establishes its characteristics as part and parcel of cultural innovation locally, and it is no doubt also the key to the success of mobile phones in Dar es Salaam.

What is left of the ‘local’?

Such forms of localization, as we now know, are defining features of cultural globalization. They enact the ‘vernacular globalization’ that Appadurai (1996) already announced. But we begin to see the tremendous complexity captured by the terms ‘vernacularization’ and ‘localization’ when we recap and summarize the case of Tanzania as a sociolinguistic ‘local’. Several facts, we have seen, prejudge and complicate simple distinctions between what is ‘global’ and ‘local’ (or ‘exogenous’ versus ‘endogenous’ in sociolinguistic terminology), what we call ‘localization’, and how we can see Tanzania (and perhaps any spacetime unit in our types of research) as a ‘local’ arena. Let me go through some of these facts.

  1. Tanzania, even in its ‘self-reliant’ heyday, was of course never truly ‘local’, as its colonial history bore down on postcolonial language hierarchies: English and Swahili were placed on a prestige scale in which the global predominance of (colonial and postcolonial) English was the benchmark.
  2. The recent insertion of that country in a global system of online and mobile communication was an effect of the post-1985 liberalization policies which, more than before, opened the doors of the country to outside influences and agency.
  3. More in particular, there was a reshuffling of the sociolinguistic hierarchy, in which English did not lose much of its prestige, but was now complemented by new, prestige-bearing ‘cool’ registers of Swahili. The latter, remarkably, developed around global commodities: the internet and mobile communication itself, and a revived marketing and popular culture industry, based on global publicity templates, scaffolding it. An endogenous language, if you wish, came to index the prestige of exogenous commodities, and English is no longer the sole emblem of ‘non-local’ objects and values.
  4. Such registers do not remain confined, of course, to marketing discourses, but emerge in very close synergy with existing popular culture agents. Interestingly, the emblematic expression of marginality, ‘Bongo’, became an index of this new ‘global’ dynamics and its prestige. From pointing downwards, it became a pointer upwards, to a much-desired and aspired-to range of prestige commodities, lifestyles and imagined identities.
  5. All of the foregoing, we can say, is ‘vernacular globalization’. This process, however, comes with two important qualifications. One: it is heavily restricted to the urban centers of the country due to the unequal distribution of the online-offline infrastructures. In spite of its almost by definition translocal character, the vernacular globalization, thus, is an urban phenomenon.
  6. Second, this urban phenomenon is also not pan-urban but socioculturally niched, a feature of the restratification and specialization of the consumer market in urban Tanzania. We have seen that elite products such as imported luxury items, expensive hotels and resorts are still marketed through English (in ways hardly different from marketing in, say, Europe). The more widely accessible layer of prestige goods underneath this elite range – internet and mobile phone items – is the space within which we see the new Swahili registers emerge and flourish.

Those who wish to use an older sociolinguistic-indexical order – that, for instance, characterizing the first decades after independence – to understand contemporary Tanzanian sociolinguistic processes are certain to leave the field confused and possibly even wrong-footed. For what has happened is a pretty comprehensive reshuffling of the sociolinguistic stratigraphy, largely due to – precisely – the facts of internet-driven globalization. A distinct sociolinguistic universe has emerged: a highly fragmented and layered urban one in which distinctions between registers index sensitive social distinctions in positions and forms of access within a consumer market. Whatever we now call ‘local’ in research in that spacetime arena needs to be qualified along those diacritics, I’m afraid. And whenever we locate Tanzania in the ‘margins’ of the world system, we should equally prepare ourselves for lengthy qualifications of what we exactly mean. For obvious reasons, the use of terms such as ‘glocalization’, while not unhelpful as a starting hypothesis, won’t help us to get away with it any longer, as soon as the job of analysis needs to be done.

In a recent book, Thomas Hylland Eriksen (2016) argues that the ‘local’, in conditions of contemporary internet-driven globalization, is a diffuse, unstable and scalar phenomenon, dislodging, in effect, the established ethnographic imagination of the ‘local’ as a site of autonomous and self-contained researchables. Eriksen points to a real problem and a real responsibility here. We all have been trained in  traditions in which our ‘real’ objects – bits of language – were set in a ‘context’. The latter was relatively unimportant, just a quickly sketched spacetime frame, and not enough care has gone in theorizing and methodologizing it. We pay the price for this oversight now, when online and offline nexuses preclude any simple determination of ‘local’ and ‘nonlocal’ elements as features of context – both are inevitably not just part of the same ‘context’, but determine, as such, the bits of language we examine. Let me underscore this for clarity’s sake: separating ‘text’ from ‘context’ excludes a fundamental feature of communication nowadays, that context is text, and more broadly, that society is language. Detaching both amounts to trying to extract the egg from the omelet. And it is (to use contemporary slang) “so twentieth century”.



This chapter is largely based on materials analyzed in Blommaert (2014, chapter 7), and collected during fieldwork in Dar es Salaam, September 2012. I am deeply grateful to Koen and Els Adam-Vandemoortele, their son Maarten and their local collaborators for hosting me with exceptional generosity and comfort during that trip. I am also grateful to Sjaak Kroon, Jos Swanenberg and Marilyn Martin-Jones for providing me with clear pointers for how to reorganize an argument of which I sensed the general direction but not the specific one.


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Velghe , F. (2012), ‘“I wanna go in the phone”. Illiteracy, informal learning processes, “voice” and mobile phone appropriation in a South African township’. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 40.


[1] For the latter, see the excellent study of Fie Velghe (2012) on the use of a mobile chat application in townships around Cape Town.

[2] Data accessed through, 12 September 2012.

[3] See the report on

[4] I am grateful to Els Vandemoortele for granting me this glimpse of her household budget.

[5] Data accessed through on 12 September 2012.

[6] From, accessed 12 September 2012.

[7] The fully globalized nature of marketing templates in Tanzania can also be judged from the extraordinarily frequent use of the greatest myth of global consumerist marketing: the suggestion that certain things are ‘free of charge’. The Swahili word ‘bure’ (‘gratis’, ‘free of charge’) occurs in every second advertisement, suggesting that a certain amount of prepaid airtime, SMSses or download Megabites is ‘free’ when you purchase certain package formulas. Things are usually not ‘free’ when you have to pay for them, of course.