The Language War

The Language War

The Language War

The Language War


"Lakoff shows that the struggle for power and status at the end of the century is being played out as a war over language. Controlling language is a basis for all power, she says, and therefore, it's worth fighting for. As a result, newly emergent groups, especially blacks and women, are contending with middle-to-upper-class white men for a share in "language rights." Lakoff's introduction to linguistic theories and the philosophy of language lays the groundwork for an exploration of news stories that meet what she calls the UAT (Undue Attention Test). As the stories became the subject of talk-show debates, late-night comedy routines, Web sites, and magazine articles, they were embroidered with additional meanings, depending on who was telling the story. Race, gender, or both are at the heart of these stories, and each one is about the right to construct meanings from language - in short, to possess power. Because language tells us how we're connected to one another, who has power and who doesn't, the stories reflect the language war." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved


A question may occur both to my fellow linguists and to others as they examine this book: What is an ivory tower denizen, a linguist like me, doing in the notoriously real world of politics? Is this what linguists do? Can do? Should do?

While the Ebonics debate of 1996–97 (see Chapter 7) served to bring the field of linguistics to popular awareness (or at least more awareness than it had enjoyed previously, about −9 on a scale of 1 to 10), its workings are still not familiar to everyone. Moreover, even linguists argue among themselves and within themselves about what the field can and should do, what it is about. A book suggesting rapprochement between language and politics is bound to raise questions among the uninitiated and hackles among initiates.

The popular use of “linguist” is very different from its professional acceptation. If you tell a layperson that you’re a “linguist,” you are very likely to be asked, “And how many languages do you speak?” A “linguist” is someone able to use several languages, that is, use them practically—speak, read, and write in them. In this sense, the consummate linguist must be Francis E. Sommer, described in the New York Times (Honan 1997) as “fluent in 94 languages.”

The Times article calls Mr. Sommer “the Babe Ruth of the Linguistic Society.” But in fact, were Mr. Sommer (who died in 1978) to have attended a meeting of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), he would have found himself both bewildered by the papers presented and the dis-

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