Multilingualism Research Forum/ Flerspråklighetsforum: Linguistic activism and social justice – why languages matter

Bjørn Torgrim Ramberg (Professor, University of Oslo) and Unn Røyneland (Professor, Director of MultiLing, University of Oslo) will discuss linguistic activism, power, and the concept of language.


Profile picture of Bjørn
Bjørn Torgrim Ramberg

The idea that we may improve social and political conditions by acting on language is attractive, but also elusive. A dominant current trend draws on anti-essentialist critique of the notion of a language to frame activist agendas against various forms of linguistic oppression. In this paper we argue that this stance, and the predominantly 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 open-market economies, the anti-language approach to activism pushes out of reach a level of social organization where hierarchies are instituted and maintained—but where they may also be challenged. Turning away from the complicated normative issues involved in top-down language policy development and intervention,

Unn Røyneland

unbridled linguistic anti-essentialism severely limits the activist tool-kit. Drawing on cases of standardization and norm regulation, we argue that effective linguistic activism aimed at social justice 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.


Bjørn Torgrim Ramberg is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oslo, specializing in contemporary pragmatism and the philosophy of language. For further details about his research and publications please see his staff page.

Unn Røyneland is Professor of Scandinavian Linguistics and Director of the Center for Multilingualism in Society across the Lifespan at the University of Oslo, Norway. For further details about her research and publications please see her staff page.

Published Jan. 26, 2022 2:36 PM - Last modified Feb. 4, 2022 10:45 AM