What linguistics could be – a preliminary sketch

These are personal reflections towards ideas on decolonizing linguistics.

What could linguistics be?  Communication is always multimodal.  The long twentieth century project of shifting linguistics away from an illusory abstracted notion of what language might be, according to the “intuition” of white men thinking primarily in English, has, fortunately, long broadened. Although it must be added that this paradigm of thinking itself seeded many fertile signposts towards a decolonisation project. For example since abstracted systematic theories needed to be applicable to all languages, then to be viewed as a linguist in the US in the middle of the twentieth century one had to engage with at least one Indo-European language.  This continues to be a vital component of linguistics courses.  I’d recommend anyone to take even a short course; a brief glimpse into an unfamiliar language; it’s one of the most useful exercises one can take, to broaden horizons on diverse and unexpected ways of thinking. Who would have thought that Mandarin the USA is rendered as “the beautiful country?”  


Face with tears of joy emoji in Unicode U+1F602 (according to Seargeant). WordPress would not allow me to upload unless embedded in an image such as this one.

Nonetheless, writing about the discipline of linguistics in general, it can be said that as the influence of Chomsky and his magnificently ambitious Universal Grammar project has waned, linguistics has shifted its attention towards authentic language in use. This entails thinking about the material qualities of language, along with all the other features we might wrap up with the word “context” – although posthumanism is fruitfully calling the possibility of any such peculiarly shaped notion into question. For the time being then I focus on materiality.  Spoken language is as essentially material as sign languages and written language; all make use of diverse combinations of mode.  Materiality is as important if language is spoken between two people, talk is broadcast through a recording technology, or communicated online through texts and images.  Morphemes are units of meaning in a language (manatees/manatee – having encountered the first term in the news this week; I deduce the singular). Written languages may make use of morphemes or have quite other bases, such as being logographic, as Mandarin. The arbitrary nature of matching primary symbols to meanings is well known.  That is to say the “m” of manatee does not convey a meaning to us by itself).  In his fascinating reflection on the links between language, writing and technology, Philip Seargeant shares that emoji, picture images that convey meanings on digital devices, are encoded through essentially arbitrary choices of combinations in Unicode.  What systems we can make use of, on our smartphones, face to face or in any communicative condition, depends on what technologies we have access to and the interlinked factor of our semiotic repertoire. 

The primary insight of Systemic Functional Linguistics – that we make choices from the repertoires available to us to make meaningful communication – was helpful in its turn to functionality from structure, although I admit I always found its frameworks unconvincing. Materiality was not originally highlighted; although writers such as Kress and Van Leeuwen addressed this with their powerful arguments for bringing multimodality into linguistics.  But language was previously always and inescapably multimodal; it has not become increasingly so with the digital revolution; multimodality is an inescapable property of all communication.

An Edwardian postcard from my collection. One of those that evokes contemporary social media communications.

Language is essentially dialogic, that is formed through interaction. I find Bakhtin’s ways of thinking about the communication of meaning through language highly productive. Bakhtin used the term polyvocality to argue that what is integral to all use of language is that our understandings are informed by our histories of use. Our previous interactions with others inform how we understand any language we come across.  In producing, or reusing language we shape our own sense of meaning through responsivity to what has come before and contribute to interactants’ own understandings in turn.  However, Bakhtin and those taking on this dialogic turn, are often engaged with meanings in language; it is the proliferation of text types, of communication channels, that has exploded since the digital revolution that has served to draw more attention to material elements and lay out some of the preconditions for a newly exciting posthumanist project.

But again I draw back from the multidisciplinary posthumanist turn, at least for now, to look again at meaning in language, as a central concern for linguistics.  Rommetveit developed insights by Bakhtin, Volosinov and Kristeva to propose that meanings proffered in interactions are “culturally transmitted drafts of contracts” (Rommetveit 1992: 22). This addresses what he powerfully calls, “the myth of literal meaning” – the argument that no lexical item possesses a meaning untethered from its context of use.  His illustration (yes, one of those abstractions beloved of philosophical linguists that can I admit be so powerful) is that of Mrs Smith who answers the telephone to two enquirers about her husband.  To one she describes Mr Smith as “working” because he is mowing the lawn, to the other as “not working” because he has not gone to his place of employment.  Rommetveit’s proposal of the “culturally transmitted drafts of contracts” makes room for the essential instability of language, the impossibility of any such thing as “literal meaning”, but also for the notion of discourse communities.  For much of the time many of us at least are fortunate enough to sufficiently share meanings with those in our social contexts to get by.  Here, though, “many of us” – my phrase in the last sentence – glosses over relations of power.  I write as a white cis woman in a position of privilege.  What gets heard, what gets understood, what gets taken up: relations of power are inextricable with language in use.  In the linguistics community many are mourning the recent loss of Jan Blommaert.  Future projects on decolonising linguistics will grapple with the concerns that troubled him; what happens to language and literacies – language in all forms then –  in the profoundly inequitable conditions of contemporary globalised capitalism.

To begin with one illustration of power: national governments are associated with defining languages.  That is to say, even if they cannot determine everything, they can assign powerful positions to named languages and fail to recognise others.  An important component in the vitality of sign languages is the degree of official recognition.  The labelling of languages can become synonymous with national boundaries; be extended through empire, be razed to the ground.  One reason I enjoy my single undergraduate lecture on the history of English each year is to explain how the language almost disappeared in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when it was the third language of this country below Norman French and Latin; only used by the lowest classes.  If this had continued, it would have died out, but the Hundred Years War with France led to a new emphasis on English.

The concept of translanguaging is shaking up the association of languages with codes and national boundaries, making more visible the enduring impact of colonialism.  Ideas around transduction and transposition have long hovered around Bakhtinian ways of thinking about language, but have are now fruitfully bursting through into other domains of work, as resemiotization is brought to the fore.  Li Wei (2018) argues, “Translanguaging offers a multilingual, multisemiotic, multisensory, and multimodal resource that human beings use for thinking and for communicating thought.”

In 1984/5 I was learning Slovak in Czechoslovakia, one of only a handful of medium term British visitors in a highly repressive state, controlled by the Soviet Union. The regime was seemingly almost impregnable, having endured decades of oppression since the attempted “Prague Spring” and subsequent military and political control.  I got into the country to study Slovak since I possessed a Russian degree, had attended a Summer school and was sponsored by the British Council.  I learnt Slovak quickly, I can say without false modesty, since the first thing I had to say to people after my arrival was, “I am sorry I am speaking Russian but I am English. I am here to learn Slovak……” and then I would stand a chance of getting to my real question such as where to buy toilet paper.  Only with the rapid preamble would an interlocutor on the street engage with me for long enough to ask my question.  Toilet paper was on sale in stationers, not in grocers, and I soon adapted to a more effective Slovak introduction.  In Czechoslovakia language in every form was not immune from interference.  Russian, for example, had a privileged place in the university.  But nobody’s lives were exempt from linguistic control; even the days of the week were not immune from interference.  The regime would announce that to enhance productivity next Saturday would become a “Wednesday”: all transport timetables, schools, universities and most importantly of all of course factories and farms would all act as if it were Wednesday.  One month the entire weekend, Saturday and Sunday, were obliterated. 

Oneof my photos from Slovakia in 1984. The banners say: “Peace is the idea of socialism”

Censorship was such it seemed as if little subversive communication could get through; policing was as thorough as the guns and watchtowers overlooking the Iron Curtain around Bratislava.  But one evening I was taken to a children’s puppet show.  It had become extremely popular and difficult to get into. Unsurprising perhaps since puppetry, mime and entertainments for children had a strong cultural history and were greatly valued in a regime that permitted so little arts expression.  However, everybody craned their necks and their ears to watch a joke that had escaped the censors; it was a performance of hitting a spoon on a boiled egg – was the pointy or round end hit? This was a much appreciated reference to the bald head of the prime minister.

Traditionally, linguistics has had a focus on speech, sometimes exclusively so.  Even now, occasionally handbooks on research methods in linguistics will firmly hold to this.  In one collection of Research Methods in Linguistics the only chapter on writing treats historical writing as a resource from which we can learn about historical speech.  I was immensely lucky very early in my career to work with Angela Goddard, who later led the introduction of the English Language ‘A’ Level into the UK and did so much to encourage the notion that everybody has a linguistic and semiotic repertoire fertile for research. This remains a wonderful starting off point for investigations of language. 

One of Angela’s practical and enormously influential books

Angela worked in an innovative Department of Human Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University.  Later, owing to standardisation by pan university authorities the name had to be changed; since prospective students would look mostly for departments of “communications” or “linguistics” and overlook “Human Communication”.  I used to wonder if it would be a better title for a linguistics department, finally ridding us of the surely ridiculous divide between “Linguistics” and “Applied Linguistics.”  Now though the posthumanist lenses are prompting a view into the embedding of language and communication into materiality, into all the conditions of the world, nonhuman and human, as endlessly dynamic.  This entails more profound considerations of ethical engagement with the world than linguistics has been used to, it seems to me. Increased attention to power and social justice may be a result of posthumanist enterprises, although this could be an optimistic view.   I’d definitely no longer want to see Departments of Linguistics (with or without “English language”) called Departments of (Human) Communication.  A better reason for avoiding “communication” is that the existing discipline of communication has its own tenets and practices, being far more entwined with media studies and sociology than incorporating insights that only detailed engagement with texts can give us.  So all in all I think the route to take is to forget the divide between “Linguistics” and “Applied Linguistics” but rather discuss decolonising linguistics: what might linguistics be?

Julia Gillen

This is a hasty sketch, written on 17th February 2021.  It does not represent the Literacy Research Centre. 

References (partial, in both senses)

Bakhtin, M. (ed. M. Holquist) (1981) The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bakhtin, M. (ed. C. Emerson & M. Holquist) (1986) Speech Genres and other late essays. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Blommaert, J. (2005) Discourse: a critical introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blommaert, J. (2008) Grassroots literacy: Writing, identity and voice in Central Africa. London: Routledge.

Chomsky, N. (1980) Rules and representations. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3, 1-61.

Gillen. J. (2014) Digital Literacies.  Abingdon: Routledge.

Goddard, A. (2012) Doing English Language: a guide for students.  Routledge.

Goddard, A. and Gillen, J. ([2004] 2013) ”Bye Alligator”: Mediated discourse as learnable social interaction: a study of the language of novice users of communication channels. https://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/id/eprint/66197/1/Bye_alligator_2004_posted_2013.pdf

Halliday, M.A.K. & Hasan, R. (1985) Language, context and text: Aspects of language in a social-semiotic perspective. Geelong: Deakin University Press.

Kristeva, J. (1986) Revolution in poetic language. In T. Moi (ed.) The Kristeva Reader. New York: University of Columbia Press.

Kusters, A., Spotti, M., Swanwick, R., & Tapio, E. (2017). Beyond languages, beyond modalities: transforming the study of semiotic repertoires. International Journal of Multilingualism, 14(3), 219–232. Routledge.

Mercer, N. (2000) Words and minds: how we use language to think together. London: Routledge.

Podesva, R. and Sharma, D. (eds) Research methods in Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Rommetveit, R. (1988) On literacy and the myth of literal meaning. In R. Säljö (ed.) The Written world: Studies in literate thought and action. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Rommetveit, R. (1992) Outlines of a dialogically based social-cognitive approach to human cognition and communication. In A.H. Wold (ed.) The Dialogical alternative: towards a theory of language and mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Seargeant, P. (2019) The Emoji revolution: how technology is shaping the future of communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

UNESCO: Intangible cultural heritage: Puppetry in Slovakia and Czechia.

Volosinov, V.N. (1995) Language, speech and utterance. In S. Dentith (ed.) Bakhtinian Thought: a reader. London and New York: Routledge.

Wei, L. (2018) Translanguaging as a practical theory of language. Applied Linguistics 39(1) 9-30.


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