Issue 87 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Summer 2000 Copyright © International Socialism

The language of liberation

A review of Marnie Holborow, The Politics of English (Sage, 1999), £16.99


A book entitled The Politics of English makes the welcome assumption that there is a relationship between politics and language. This relationship is one that has not always been acknowledged even by those who have been in the forefront of the 'linguistics revolution'. Even Noam Chomsky, the most influential figure in contemporary linguistics and who more than anyone else sparked the explosion of interest in the study of language since the late 1960s, goes so far as to deny any direct connection between the two. Holborow's book is a well written and clear contribution to an explicitly Marxist analysis of language which describes language as practical consciousness rooted in the process of interaction between individuals in society. In Holborow's account language is a part of human consciousness shaped by social and historical contexts.

In her three central chapters Holborow examines contemporary debates about language: the politics of English as a world language, the limitations of a feminist analysis of language and the debate surrounding the notion of 'Standard English'. But she underpins this examination in a reassertion of the Marxist perspective on language which is centred on its social character.

Far from being an abstract discussion, this debate has very clear concrete implications. How is language acquired? How does language influence thought? How does language affect learning? How do different views about language affect formal educational policies and practice? If proof of its practical relevance is needed one only has to look at the political controversies that surround it. Successive governments have sought to justify educational policies with references to particular views about language. The current debate in Britain about the teaching of 'literacy' in schools is only the most recent, but one of the most important examples of political intervention.

It is worth exploring the theoretical context of this debate, in particular Chomsky's contribution to it, and relating it to the earlier work of Voloshinov and Vygotsky. Holborow refers to Chomsky in passing, and the impression could be given that because his theory is highly abstract and he does not address the social nature of language he can simply be dismissed. In fact his contribution is essentially progressive despite his rejection of any direct connection between politics and language. The irony of this rejection is sharpened by his justified status as one of the towering figures of the American left.

Voloshinov and Vygotsky, unlike Chomsky, were writing from an explicitly Marxist perspective and in their different ways made explicit the social and political core of language. Their work was effectively hidden for 50 years as a result of the Stalinist purges and only published in the West in the 1970s--Chomsky would have been unaware of their contribution when he published his earlier work. What is astonishing is that writers with no such excuse continue to ignore their work. Steven Pinker, one of Chomsky's most prominent disciples, makes no reference to either Voloshinov or Vygotsky in either the index or bibliograpy of his much-hyped The Language Instinct. This book was published in 1994, nearly 20 years after Voloshinov's work had become widely available. Pinker describes Chomsky as 'the linguist who first unmasked the intricacy of the system (language as an instinct) and perhaps the person most responsible for the modern revolution in language and cognitive science'. This is a justifiable claim, but closer scrutiny will reveal that the real revolution in the study of language happened many years prior to Chomsky.

In the heady days of political turmoil and revolutionary expectations that characterised the late 1960s, Chomsky's appeal was understandable. Here was an academic who was not only prominent in the field of theoretical linguistics, but was also at the forefront of the opposition to the Vietnam War. He was author of both Aspects of a Theory of Syntax, a self consciously abstract analysis of the way language worked, and American Power and the New Mandarins, a blistering exposure of the collusion between the academic world and the military-industrial complex waging the Vietnam War. Yet his rejection of the connections between the two is astonishingly explicit. Political theory is speculative, linguistic theory is scientific:

Language is different:

No wonder that Chomsky, although influenced by Marx partly through his family's involvement in the New York radical Jewish intellectual scene, rejected the political conclusions of Marx's analysis of the class nature of society. If we cannot make any scientific analysis of society then how can we argue about ways in which it can be transformed?

This false distinction between political and linguistic theory does not, however, mean that Chomsky's contribution to the study of language and its consequences for learning should simply be disregarded. Indeed much of his work has been progressive. He helped to demolish the prevailing behaviourist accounts of the acquisition of language. He argued that stimulus-response psychology, a theory translated into the imitative 'look-say' models of learning, could not account for the generative capacity of human language. How could a child between the ages of 18 months and four years generate an infinite number of utterances from a finite grammatical framework? Chomsky's famous review of Basil Skinner's Verbal Behaviour exposed the limitations of an explanation based on children simply listening to adults and imitating what they said. The educational practice underpinned by behaviourism was the dominant method for learning language and developing literacy. Looking at visual representations and the words that accompanied them and then learning by rote the connection between the two was the staple diet of children in primary education. Chomsky argued that this theoretical model and its educational consequences was a totally inadequate way of explaining how children use syntax to generate a whole range of language utterances that could not have been learned through simple imitation and rote learning.

Chomsky's analysis of language, however, was determinedly abstract. He did not direct his attention towards the ways in which language was used in society, but instead sought to address 'the ideal speaker-hearer in a homogeneous speech community'. Of course there is no such person as an ideal speaker-hearer and all speech communities, far from being homogeneous, are self evidently heterogeneous. Chomsky was seeking to make abstract generalisations about language removed from social contexts.

His work was informed and strongly influenced by two seemingly opposite traditions: the theories of Ferdinand de Saussure and Wilhelm Von Humbolt. Saussure, often referred to as the father of modern linguistics, argued that language was a closed system of signs with a structure that merited study in its own terms and for its own sake. His theory was directed at langue, the abstract concept of language rather than parole, the manifestation of language in speech. Von Humbolt argued that language was a creative act of the individual and that humans had an innate capacity for languague. Chomsky developed these theories by arguing that 'competence', every individual's potential for language, was distinct from 'performance', the manifestation of that potential. What was important about his contribution was his determination to place the human subject at the centre of the debate about language and to argue that the individual's potential for language was universal. The creative and generative aspects of potential contrasted sharply with the accepted view that language was simply acquired by imitation and response to external stimuli. However, Chomsky did not link the individual with the capacity for language and access to a complex system of grammatical structures with the individual speaker-hearer in a particular social context.

Chomsky used a mythical speech segment to illustrate his attempts to marry two seemingly contradictory theories: 'Colourless green ideas sleep furiously'.

Children understand that although the sentence is nonsense it has a coherent structure. They instinctively know the kinds of word that could appear at any slot in the above sequence. The words have a sequential relationship with each other but they also have a paradigmatic relationship. 'Colourless' could be replaced with a similar word that would not alter the structure of the sentence. This combination of instinct and sense of system reflects the twin influences that Chomsky brought to bear on his theory.

Chomsky's example is instructive. If the above speech segment is presented to children they can very quickly grasp that it is syntactically coherent and the sequence of words forms a recognisable sentence. They can recognise that any word in the sequence could be replaced with another of similar type. They are also able to create a sentence that is syntactically similar but which actually makes sense. For example, 'Bright red flowers appear annually.' This exercise has its uses but does not offer an adequate explanation of language. Where are the real live human beings using language in specific social and historical contexts? How do they make language have meaning? Holborow starts to address these crucial questions by summarising the vital contributions of Voloshinov and Vygotsky.

It is again ironic that the two strongest influences on Chomsky, Saussure and Von Humbolt, were subject to critical scrutiny by Voloshinov in his Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. This is why a summary of Chomsky's position helps to contextualise the debate.

Holborow describes how Voloshinov sought to apply Marxist methods of enquiry to his analysis. Marx and Engels made numerous references to language in their writings, but did not develop a comprehensive linguistic theory. They did, however, have a very clear understanding that language arises out of the need for communication between individuals in society. Holborow cites the famous passage from The German Ideology in support of this view:

Practical consciousness embodies the need to communicate. Humans react to their circumstances and environment through tools and signs. Language is a crucial aspect of this interaction. Interestingly Marx, in identifying two pitfalls in existing social theory, anticipated Voloshinov's critique of Saussure and Von Humbolt. In his Thesis on Feuerbach Marx argues:

Holborow shows how Voloshinov elaborates on these insights in his polemic against the 'abstract objectivism' manifested by Saussure and the 'individual subjectivism' represented by Von Humbolt. Both characteristics sit side by side in Chomsky, neither offering a credible explanation of how language works. Voloshinov draws on the strengths of both traditions but transforms the active or subjective element in Von Humbolt into social activity, and the system in Saussure is examined in direct relation to this social activity and not formally separated from it.

Voloshinov argues that all signs are ideological; that there can be no ideology without signs; that signs are material and social, rooted in the interaction between individuals in society. He also argues crucially that all signs are 'multi-accentual' and their meanings are part of a continual active process, constantly fought over, and in this process new meanings are created. Holborow quotes his famous formulation of how this process works:

Voloshinov recognised that Von Humbolt was right to identify the creative aspects of language, but wrong to represent the activity as an unceasing act of creation or akin to the laws of individual psychology. As Voloshinov describes it, 'Individual consciousness is not the architect of the ideological superstructure, but only a tenant lodging in the social edifice of ideological signs'.5

Human consciousness is determined by the whole aggregate of conditions of life and society in which the human organism is set. These conditions shape the language of the individual. Language enters the individual through social interaction.

Saussure is subjected to a parallel criticism. His langue is an abstract system of language, not something rooted in historical circumstances, and his parole, the actual manifestation of language in human interaction, is relegated to secondary significance and the essential interaction between the two is lost. In setting up a closed system of signs Saussure was setting up a self referential system divorced from the real contexts of human language. Voloshinov argues:

We place ourselves socially in relation to the utterer. Social interaction is at the heart of understanding how language works. But Voloshinov goes further. He argues that the social character of language permeates individual consciousness, characterised as inner speech. Words are the building blocks of thought. Language is not just part of a dialogue with others but with oneself.

The centrality of dialogue to Voloshinov's theory is summarised in Holborow's account of his use of reported speech in explaining how grammar evolves. In retelling what someone else has said the speaker imbues the account with their own evaluations, which are in turn received by the new hearer. Holborow provides a lucid account of how Voloshinov used the notion of speech genres, forms of speech representing specific social relations at any given historical moment, to explain the interconnection of linguistic and social change.

Voloshinov's contribution to our understanding of language is complemented by the work of Lev Vygotsky. In her account Holborow places his work in the fraught intellectual environment of the rise of Stalinism. His seminal contribution to the study of language development, Thought and Language, was suppressed shortly after it appeared because it did not conform to the crudely deterministic distortions of Marxist theory and the retreat into vulgar behaviourism that characterised the official Russian ideology. Stalin argued that the only political characteristic of language was national and that in terms of class language was neutral.

Vygotsky's perspective focused on the psychological aspects of language development to demonstrate that language 'is the means by which reflection, generalisation and thought processes take place, and that these cognitive processes are socially formed'. He looked in particular at the acquisition of language in children and argued that this process was rooted in the social interaction of the child:

This contrasts sharply with Chomsky's view of the child's innate capacity for language, or language instinct as some of his followers have described it. It equally stands in sharp contrast to the behaviourist account of language being acquired through some form of crude imitation. Fundamentally the child's language develops through interaction with others and subsequently becomes a tool for developing thought processes. Holborow cites Vygotsky's description of how social context plays a formative role in the development of thought and language:

Language interacts with thought through social activity and in this dialectical process develops and extends consciousness.

In her conclusion to this chapter Holborow stresses three key themes which underpin the later chapters of the book. Firstly, language cannot be understood by concentrating on its own formal properties, but only by situating it in social and historical contexts. Secondly, because it is socially rooted language is located within the realm of ideology: 'The generalising potential of signs from which language is built, the way that signs in Voloshinov's terms refract and reflect reality makes them a critical aspect of the ideological process'.9

Holborow highlights Voloshinov's explanation of how grammatical change occurs through its instability and the fact that it is a socially specific product. This has clear implications about how grammar should be seen in learning--not as an enclosed system of self referential laws but as dynamic and socially interactive. This account of the generative aspects of grammar is rooted not in human instinct, but in the ways in which different speakers bring their social experiences to the use of language.

Finally, Vygotsy's account of the relationship between thought and language rejects a deterministic view of language as the mould of perception, and emphasises the role of social context in both inner and external speech where meaning is constantly changing and where thought and language are both aspects of consciousness without one being reducible to the other. Language is political precisely because it is rooted in specifically social and historical speech communities, not ones that are idealised.

In the following three chapters Holborow's analysis is applied to English as a world language, language and the limits of feminism, and the politics of Standard English. What is interesting about the first two of these chapters is the recurrence in the debate about language of themes that are central to a wider understanding of contemporary issues in imperialism and women's oppression. For example, assumptions about 'core' and 'periphery' underpin a number of analyses that claim to take an anti-imperialist stance in the argument about English as a dominant world language. The influence of postmodernism, shaped as it is by the legacy of Saussure and the notion of language as a closed system of self referential signs, permeates much of this writing. Holborow acknowledges the relationship between imperialist expansion and the position of English as a world language, and she demolishes the view that this linguistic expansion has anything to do with the inherent superiority of English. But she is equally critical of those like Phillipson and Pennycook who adopt superficially radical positions while taking the social and historical dimension out of the equation. 'Linguistic imperialism' as a theory fails to take account of the relationship between language and other more directly economic forms of imperialism, inevitably exaggerating and distorting the importance of language. Holborow puts it very directly: 'Not all speakers in the West dominate, nor are all speakers in the periphery discriminated against'. She warns against the nationalistic trajectory that Phillipson's analysis takes him in by drawing attention to the ways in which national elites don't necessarily break with imperialism and frequently use dominant languages or dialects within their own countries to fuel divisions and cement their own power.

Pennycook's explicitly postmodernist account of English as a world language places an overarching importance on 'discursive practices' and the view that 'cultural practices are not constituted simply by social systems but are constitutive of those systems'. English is seen as a key component in cultural practice. But no account is taken of the different 'Englishes' used throughout the world by speakers rooted in social and historical contexts who are capable of using language for their own purposes. Language is used by different groups and classes within that world to create meaning and to communicate it as part of their wider struggles. People are not trapped in language, it is a medium that is constantly fought over.

In responding to the limitations of a feminist view of language Holborow engages with the debate around 'political correctness'. Without conceding an inch to attacks from the right which have sought to undermine many of the advances gained in the struggle for equality of opportunity by lampooning politically correct language, she makes it absolutely clear that language does not create or change reality.

Deborah Cameron, whose Verbal Hygiene is in many ways a very valuable contribution to the debate, is taken to task for elevating the importance of words and images in the struggle for social change. Language change arises out of conflict and debate in society and cannot simply be decreed. Giving something a less abusive name does not affect its substance.

This chapter goes on to address the issue of language as intrinsically sexist and takes issue with Dale Spender's theory of 'manmade' language. It also questions the notion of women's speech being gender specific. It finally questions whether the concept of gender is the best way of approaching the question of women's oppression and language. Holborow brings us back to the significance of social class:

She cites Eckert's study of two class cultures within a public school in Detroit which demonstrates linguistic differentiation within, rather than between, sex groups, based primarily on social factors. In a telling passage Holborow describes how Eckert argues that language and gender do not intersect in the same way that language and social class or ethnicity do, and in doing so provides an important antidote to the common assertion that different forms of oppression are essentially equivalent.

The social positions of men and women may be unequal, but the day to day contexts in which this inequality is manifest differ sharply from those of class or ethnic group.

In her chapter on the politics of Standard English Holborow shows how debates about language have always formed a part of the attempts by the ruling class to assert its ideological dominance. The debate about Standard English and the related debates about the teaching of grammar and the development of literacy epitomise these attempts. The introduction of a National Curriculum in 1988 in Britain intensified the argument--and that intensity has been sustained to the present day. Holborow traces the historical antecedents of the current debate to show that Standard English evolved from a number of different impetuses: from the development of trade and industry and the consolidation of the nation state, and later from mass industrialisation and education.

Standard English arose out of the needs of a rising dominant merchant class and was based on the areas of the south east. The key points here are the historical and class based nature of its emergence. There was no purely linguistic reason for its rise to prominence. It was not originally a written dialect but arose from the speech of a particular class in a particular region. It became codified in Samuel Johnson's Dictionary and from the outset took on a character that embodied values far beyond language itself. Johnson attacked the day to day speech of ordinary people as 'fugitive cant...not being part of the durable materials of a language and must therefore perish'. The standard language reflected the sharp class distinction between the emerging middle class and the labouring poor and was regarded as an important part of the basis for social order.

Holborow uses Mengham's description of the Dictionary to make the point:

The tone was moralistic--protecting language and protecting society from subversion. Nothing much has changed. The moral panics surrounding the 'standards' or 'correctness' in grammar find a contemporary echo. It is useful to add to the examples that Holborow provides to emphasise and update this point. Cameron cites the example of Norman Tebbit, who believes:

If that might be dismissed as the rantings of the rabid Tory right how about a much more recent example. In his speech to the NASUWT conference this year (April 2000) the New Labour secretary of state for education, David Blunkett, came up with this gem:

The causal link between language and behaviour is glibly asserted, but its political intention is to establish conformity and ideological hegemony. The idea that crime or violence in society stems from the use of bad grammar and bad language may seem nonsensical, but it is part of an attempt to enforce political as well as linguistic 'standardisation'. Ronald Carter, senior lecturer in English at Nottingham University, puts it very well:

Carter is a particularly good witness in the debate because he learned from bitter experience about the perils of trying to provide a model for language in the curriculum that was based on linguistic criteria and that acknowledged the pluralistic and dynamic aspects of language. He was made responsible for producing the Language in the National Curriculum (LINC) materials in 1991. Not only did the government refuse to print them, it also refused to release the copyright to other publishers. The motivation was ideological and political. The materials did not conform to the rigidity of the 'standard' of Tory policies.

Again there are more current parallels with New Labour where schools are faced with the imposition of a literacy strategy that reduces grammar to an obsessive naming of parts, and where Margaret Meek has described how 'the emphasis is placed on a basic instrumentalism that gives less importance to what reading is good for--what it can be like'. But there is a more sinister agenda at work. As Jane Coles has argued, the government's strategy needs to be narrow and prescriptive in order to be easily measurable:

So 'standards' in language become removed from language, literacy and grammar and reduced to a set of data used to tighten the grip of central government on teachers and schools. Standard English is a vital aspect of social control--the circle turns back to Samuel Johnson.

If this was the only trajectory of the debate about Standard English the picture would be profoundly depressing, but fortunately there are other sides to the story. Holborow contrasts Johnson's view of a standardised language with that of William Cobbett, a near contemporary. His Grammar of the English Language seeks to empower the poor and the dispossessed. Learning grammar was an act of defiance and writing a weapon against tyranny. But the criteria for his model of language included non-standard dialects, spoken language and 'commonly available experience'. The purpose of his literacy was to expose the 'tricks and contrivances of the oppressors'. He attacked the idea that there was a hierarchy of languages headed by Latin and Greek and argued that all languages were equally expressive.

In some ways Cobbett anticipated much later debates about non-standard English and the relegation of spoken language. Going back to Vygotsky, if speech is an important aspect of social interaction and this social aspect informs and shapes language acquisition, to marginalise it deprives language of its most essential and dynamic core. Holborow shows that contrary to the prevailing view that spoken language is ungrammatical and incapable of conceptualisation, Halliday and others have affirmed its intricacy and its sophisticated grammatical and semantic structures. Because of the complexity of different forms of social interaction speech grammars are more fluid and responsive to change. They do not have the rigidity of the written form. As for the ability of spoken non-standard dialects to conceptualise it is worth recalling the American sociolinguist W Labov's famous example of his recordings in the Lower East Side of New York. In a discussion about the possible existence of a supernatural deity, Larry, a young black man, surveys the social deprivation of his area and remarks, 'It ain't no black god doing this bullshit.' By my reckoning, three concepts graphically expressed!

Contrast this example with the views expressed by one of the key apologists for the view that Standard English is inherently superior. Holborow gives the example of how Honey in Language and Power: Standard English and its Enemies sees non-standard varieties of language as manifestations of 'tribalism', 'criminality', 'drug abuse' and the provenance of 'illiterates'. This contempt for the non-standard variants is based on two fundamentally flawed premises about Standard English--that it owes its generality to its pre-eminent history and that it intrinsically possesses greater powers of expression, particularly in abstract thought. This view owes nothing to any understanding of language and how it has evolved and everything to the assertion of political prejudice designed to justify a particularly rigid and constrained pedagogy.

Holborow concludes this section with a view based much more on a scientific study of the evolution of language and the way it works. Individuals in society have the capacity to use a variety of dialects, of which Standard English is one among many, and to distinguish which is more appropriate in given social circumstances.

What is particularly fascinating about this debate is that it confirms Voloshinov's view of the 'alien word', described in Holborow's first chapter, manifested as language oppression and alienating views of language. Successive ruling classes particularly, though not exclusively, through their education systems use restrictive models of language to subdue and constrain. The alternative is a view of language as interactive, dynamic and potentially liberating.

Holborow's book is wide ranging in its scope and sharply argued. It is a very valuable and timely contribution to the debate about language and ideology. She has rooted the more applied aspects of linguistics firmly within the Marxist tradition of Voloshinov and Vygotsky, and in doing so has dealt a vigourous blow against the deliberate confusion and retreat from meaning that has characterised the postmodernism of many current accounts of language. Holborow has made explicit the crucial relationship between language and social interaction and she demonstrates graphically that this interaction is ideological and political.


  1. Quoted in R Salkie, The Chomsky Update: Linguistics and Politics (Routledge, 1990), p206.
  2. M Holborow, The Politics of English (Sage, 1999), p16.
  3. Quoted in R Williams, Marxism and Literature (OUP, 1977), p30.
  4. V Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (Seminar Press, 1973), p60.
  5. Quoted in M Holborow, op cit, p25.
  6. V Voloshinov, op cit, p25.
  7. L Vygotsky, Thought and Language (MIT, 1962), p2.
  8. M Holborow, op cit, p42.
  9. M Holborow, op cit, p46.
  10. M Holborow, op cit, p133.
  11. M Holborow, op cit, p162.
  12. Quoted in D Cameron, Verbal Hygiene (Routledge, 1995), p95.
  13. Quoted in The Guardian, 2 May 2000.
  14. R Carter, 'Knowledge About Language', The LINC Reader (Hodder & Stoughton, 1991), p106.
  15. J Coles, Education and Social Justice, vol 1, no 2 (Trentham, 1999), p40.

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