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Words of the World: The Global Language System

ISBN: 978-0-7456-2748-9
272 pages
January 2002, Polity
Words of the World: The Global Language System (074562748X) cover image


This bold and accessible study of human languages and communication explores issues which are at the forefront of today's globalized society.

The human species is divided into more than five thousand language groups that do not understand each other. And yet these groups constitute one coherent world language system, connected by multilingual speakers in a surprisingly powerful way. The chances of a language thriving depend on its position in the system. There are thousands of small, peripheral languages, each connected to one of a hundred central languages. The entire system is held together by one global language: English. A language is a ‘hypercollective' good: the more speakers it has, the higher its communication value for each one of them. Thus, when people think that a language is gaining new speakers, that in itself is a reason for them to want to learn it too. That is why, in an age of globalization, only a few languages remain for transnational communication and these often prevail even in national societies.

This important book discusses a number of specific constellations in detail: India, Indonesia, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa and the European Union. De Swaan concludes by providing a sober but illuminating view of language policy in multilingual societies. This book will be essential reading for those studying sociology, communication studies and linguistics.

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Table of Contents

Preface ix

1 Introduction: the global language system 1

1.1 The global language system: a galaxy of languages 4

1.2 A historical atlas of the world as a language system 6

1.3 Supercentral constellations in the present language system 11

1.4 Scope and approach of this book 17

1.5 Plan of the book 20

2 The political economy of language constellations 25

2.1 Languages as ‘hypercollective goods’ 27

2.2 The communication potential of a language: the Q-value 33

3 Language, culture and the unequal exchange of texts 41

3.1 Texts as commodities in international exchange 42

3.2 Protectionism and free trade in cultural exchange 47

3.3 Monoglossia, polyglossia and heteroglossia 53

3.4 Discussion 57

4 India: the rivalry between Hindi and English 60

4.1 Characterization of the Indian constellation 61

4.2 State formation, nation-building and language unification 63

4.3 The vicissitudes of language policy in India 69

4.4 Discussion 73

5 The triumph of bahasa Indonesia 81

5.1 Gandhi’s dream 81

5.2 The rise of Malay 83

5.3 The demise of Dutch 86

5.4 The rejection of Javanese 90

5.5 Discussion 93

6 Africa: the persistence of the colonial languages 96

6.1 A two-by-three comparison 99

6.2 Three francophone constellations south of the Sahara 102

6.3 Three English-centred constellations south of the Sahara 116

7 South Africa: the survival of the old language regime 127

7.1 The language regime under Apartheid 128

7.2 Language policy after Apartheid 132

7.3 The dynamics of the constellation 136

7.4 Discussion 140

8 The European Union: the more languages, the more English 144

8.1 Civil Europe (1): language unification in national constellations 146

8.2 Civil Europe (2): Q-values in the European Union 151

8.3 Institutional Europe (1): the public level 166

8.4 Institutional Europe (2): the bureaucracy 171

8.5 Discussion 173

9 Conclusions and considerations 176

9.1 Conclusions 177

9.2 Considerations 187

Notes 194

References 225

Index 244

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Author Information

Abram de Swaan is Chairman of the Amsterdam School of Social Research (ASSR) at the University of Amsterdam.
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The Wiley Advantage

  • A lively and informative discussion that creates an excellent textbook for will appeal to students and the general reader

  • Offers a novel and comprehensive over view of the world language system and the changing position of particular languages within it

  • Brilliantly connects the discussion of language to the discussion of globalization
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"Abram de Swaan is the world's leading political sociologist of language. He has a profound knowledge of the complex history interlinking states and languages and an equally acute understanding of individual incentives to learn languages. Here he applies his insights and methods – with surprising results -- to globalization and its implications for the survival of world languages. Words of the World is both a pleasure to read and a remarkable contribution to political sociology." Professor David Laitin, Stanford University

"...de Swaan's view is original and rich to the extent that it sheds new light on this problem...De Swaan's analysis is definitely new and fruitful for an understanding of the relations of power and language" Anais Bokobza, European University Institute, Florence, Italy

"De Swaan's study is an impressive tour de force; it presents an original and refreshing social science perspective, is rich in empirical detail, rigorous in its theoretical elaboration, and written in an elegant and accessible style: a path-breaking study of language change and human communication in an age of globalisation." Johan Heilbron, Multilingual Matters

"...this book is an important contribution to our understanding of the relationship among languages of the world in the era of globalisation. It is a good addition to the growing body of texts used in increasingly popular courses on 'World English(es)'. Alamin Mazuri, The Ohio State University, USA

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