Wednesday Seminar: Language activism against polemical skepticism: Countering and concealing hierarchies of power and privilege

Unn Røyneland (Professor, Deputy Director of MultiLing) will discuss language activism, power, and the concept of language

Unn Røyneland smiling and weating a light blue blazer

Unn Røyneland


In this talk I will present some of the main ideas of a co-authored paper in progress that will be published in a volume on language activism (to appear in Language Activism: The Role of Scholars in Linguistic Reform and Social Change, Cambridge University Press, 2022, with Bjørn T. Ramberg):


The idea that we may improve epistemic or political conditions by acting on language is attractive, but also elusive. The elusiveness may nurture skepticism; “changing language doesn’t change reality!”. This skeptical response draws on a misleading construal of the aims and mechanics of linguistic activism. When deployed in defense of the linguistic status quo, such skepticism becomes polemical, and typically serves to naturalize or conceal hierarchies of power and privilege. Hence, undermining this polemical skepticism toward linguistic activism may itself in many contexts be a valuable piece of linguistic activism.

In this paper, we focus on one potential source of support for polemical skepticism; the anti-essentialist critique of the notion of a language. We argue that this stance, and the bottom-up approach to activism that follows in its trail, is insufficient as a response to linguistically embedded social hierarchies and power inequalities in much the same way that a focus on individual freedom of choice falls short in response to the accumulating structural inequalities of free-market economies. By simply turning away from the complicated normative issues involved in top-down intervention, the anti-language approach to activism also pushes out of reach a level of social organization where hierarchies are instituted and maintained. Drawing on cases of standardization and norm regulation, we argue that effective linguistic activism requires us to overcome what we call the fear of structure, and rather face up to the essentialist presuppositions and normative dilemmas about language and meaning that top-down intervention allegedly faces.

Our argument draws on a distinction between two broad approaches to language activism: i) activism of enregisterment, exposing and responding to concrete marks of social power and hierarchy on linguistic practice; ii) activism of meaning, focusing on semantics and directed at conceptual change, in a manner familiar from current critical philosophy of language.



My current research concerns multilingual and multilectal practices on social media, dialect acquisition and use among migrants, dialect levelling, language attitudes and ideologies, language and embodiment, multiethnolectal speech styles among adolescents in multilingual, urban environments, language advocacy and language policy and planning. My recent publications include Language standardisation: Theory and Practice, special issue of Sociolinguistica 30 (2016), with Sue Wright and Pia Lane (eds.), Multilingual youth practices in Computer Mediated Communication (2018), with Cecelia Cutler (eds.), Migration and Dialect Acquisition in Europe, special issue of Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development (2020), with Peter Auer (eds.). I am one of the chief editors of the new online series at De Gruyter LME Linguistic Minorities in Europe Online. Recently I was involved in language standardization through the comprehensive orthographic revision of the Nynorsk written norm (Nynorsk 2011) and I headed the Norwegian Language Council's Expert Committee that was commissioned to identify the most important challenges for Norwegian language policy in the future Språk i Norge – kultur og infrastruktur (2018) ('Language in Norway – culture and infrastructure').

Published Aug. 12, 2021 1:46 PM - Last modified Sep. 8, 2021 10:59 AM