On Linguistic Imperialism


After the domination of French in the 18th Century, English is now the new world language. As a sociologist, Pascale Casanova shows that using the world language gives authority to those who master it. But what other solution is there, given that a world language is necessary for universal communication?

More than fifteen years ago, in 1999, Pascale Casanova went against the grain of enchanted views of the literary world and showed, with supporting examples, that the Republic of Letters was a world space manufacturing universality, with its centres and peripheries, its ‘Greenwich meridian’ and its competitive struggles.

From the language of literature to language in general, the author pursues her thinking in this book with the same powerful and sobering effect: both contemporary respectable thought and formal linguistics posit equality between languages, with linguistic diversity framed as a precious commodity that must be preserved, despite the fact that, in reality, dozens of languages die every year. And yet, today – just like in the past – there is a world language, which is the medium for universal communication, and there are central languages and peripheral languages, all trying to exist on the international stage. The value of this short, incisive book, published in a militant collection, lies in the clarity of its epistemological premises, in the strength of its analysis faced with the usual mollifying views on the topic, and, finally, in the honesty of its conclusions.

French readers who love languages but are constantly required to use English in their professional and day-to-day lives will identify with the paradoxes highlighted by Pascale Casanova. They might even be able to draw some form of practical linguistic ethics from them.

A sociology of linguistic exchange

Pascale Casanova is a French speaker and, as such, speaks a language that is dominated by English, the new world language of the 20th century, now in the position previously held by French from the 17th century until the end of the 19th century. According to her, being a speaker of a dominated but previously dominant language is a productive stance from which to consider the conditions and constraints of linguistic power. And vanity too, because everything passes, including the domination of a world language, as the author shows in her concise but rich diachronic study, based on many works on the history of language. From Antiquity to the Renaissance, Latin dominated as the religious and scholarly language, before being replaced by French and then by English in the last century, until perhaps Chinese takes over. Or perhaps not…

This historical sociology of linguistic exchange, conducted with energy and determination under the auspices of Pierre Bourdieu’s thinking, contains a lot of surprises and is genuinely revelatory. The world language, for example, is not necessarily the language of economic or military power. The Romans dominated the ancient world and yet Greek remained the language of the elites, who were bilingual in practice. Similarly, until the early 20th century, French remained the language of international exchange, whereas the British Empire was at the height of its power.

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