Voices of Modernity: Language Ideologies and the Politics of Inequality

By Abrahams, Roger D. | Western Folklore, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Voices of Modernity: Language Ideologies and the Politics of Inequality


Abrahams, Roger D., Western Folklore


Voices of Modernity: Language Ideologies and the Politics of Inequality. By Richard Bauman and Charles L. Briggs. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xvi + 358, preface, introduction, illustration, bibliography, index. $70.00 cloth, $27.99 paper)

This bold and compelling book, far too complex to encompass in a brief review, addresses the historical sweep of Enlightenment response to the claims of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century antiquarians and their descendants. It is also a book with a political agenda directed to all who collect and present items of expressive culture, for it goes to the heart of the problematics of modernity. Broad in its learning and demanding in its range of reference, it is oddly old-fashioned in arranging its argument in a linear history, from Hobbes and Locke and Bacon down to Boas and his students of the early twentieth century. But truly, what the authors have presented is not so much an intellectual history as a plea for practitioners in our field to examine the ways in which our work has been bound up with and compromised by the very invention of modernity. The book's subtitle, Language Ideologies and the Politics of Inequality, tells us how we are to read it; and, in their coda, the authors spell out why they threw themselves into this project and then worked at it for many years: "[T]he construction of premodern or anti-modern groups played a key role in creating and legitimating modern discourses and social formations from the start" (314, emphasis in original). And they worry about the continuing appropriation of the work of folklorists as a screen for rationalizing social inequality even as such appropriation runs counter to the egalitarian arguments put forward by folklorists themselves.

The scholars and intellectuals of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries whose gifts became the tools of nation-builders-the early antiquarians-provide a strong starting point for the book. These virtuosi were involved in an enterprise which would tie the monarchy to a mythical past in which kingship was derived from a particular warrior prince who first brought the realm together. The antiquarians constructed a past that was made up of bits and pieces of recovered text, and they invented the canons of authentication for those bits and pieces. The scholarly study of antiquities legitimated a wholesale reimagining of the past, a necessary accomplishment if nation-states were to be formed.

Emblematic of the story-encountered repeatedly in now one new nation, now another during the period as the search for national foundational narratives gained momentum and each nation state, including the newly constituted United States, went desperately in search of an epic formulation through which nation-formation might be made palpable-is Ossian, defended in the writings of James MacPherson's brilliant apologist, Hugh Blair. The Ossianic fragments took central stage in the late eighteenth century. The Scots of the that era, reeling under the disruptions of the Jacobite Wars, were involved in a reassessment of Scottish language and custom. A good number of these world-famous Scottish figures grew up around Gaelic speakers and their Lallands counterparts, and whether they spoke Gaelic or not, they knew that from the British perspective they spoke with strange accents. With the Ossianic fragments, Hugh Blair took it upon himself to theorize the importance of a Scottish epic representation in the face of Samuel Johnson and other nabobs of English nationalism whose interests it served to maintain that the Scots were savages. This was the hardball cultural politics of what was to become the United Kingdom as it was brought into being. …

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