Uses of Language

Culture, the focus of the previous chapters, is unthinkable without language. The one presupposes the other. This is the conventional sociological and anthropological view, to which Bourdieu subscribes in the strongest possible terms. He insists that language cannot be analysed or understood in isolation from its cultural context and the social conditions of its production and reception. So the first thing to note about the papers on language which he wrote during the 1970s and 1980s, a selection of which have recently been published in Language and Symbolic Power,[1] is that they are a critique of pure, formalist linguistics, most obviously the work of Saussure and and Chomsky. In particular, he objects to Saussure’s distinction between langue (language) and parole (speech), and Chomsky’s differentiation between ‘competence’ and ‘performance’. Each depends on the methodological constitution of an abstract domain of language simultaneously ‘real’ and ‘ideal’ - which is drawn upon in the production of mundane written or spoken language in all of its variety.

He argues that uniform, linguistic communities of the kind which these linguistic models imply do not exist. ‘Standard lan guages’, such as they are, are the product of complex social processes, generally bound up with a history of state formation, and are simply one version of a language - and a socially highly specific one at that. They are not the language. Moreover, this kind of linguistic analysis ‘freezes’ language, creates it as ‘structure’. This, the grammarian’s view of language, is analogous to the reified view of social reality which is produced by the detachment of objectivist social science - both are concerned with the generation of rules- which Bourdieu has criticised elsewhere (see Chapter Three).


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Pierre Bourdieu


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