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Towards an Ecology of World Languages



Towards an Ecology of World Languages

Louis-Jean Calvet, Andrew Brown (Translated by)

ISBN: 978-0-745-62956-8 June 2006 Polity 304 Pages

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There are around 5,000 languages spoken across the world today, but the languages that coexist in our multilingual world have varied functions and fulfil various roles. Some are spoken by small groups, a village or a tribe; others, much less numerous, are spoken by hundreds of millions of speakers. Certain languages, like English, French and Chinese, are highly valued, while others are largely ignored. Even if all languages are equal in the eyes of the linguist, the world’s languages are in fact fundamentally unequal. All languages do not have the same value, and their inequality is at the heart of the way they are organized across the world.

In this major book Louis-Jean Calvet, one of the foremost sociolinguists working today, develops an ecological approach to language in order to analyse the changing structure of the world language system. The ecological approach to language begins from actual linguistic practices and studies the relations between these practices and their social, political and economic environment. The practices which constitute languages, on the one hand, and their environment, on the other, form a linguistic ecosystem in which languages coexist, multiply and influence one another. Using a rich panoply of examples from across the world, Calvet elaborates the ecological approach and shows how it can shed light on the changing forms of language use in the world today.

This path-breaking book will be of great value to students and scholars in linguistics and sociolinguistics and to anyone concerned with the fate of languages in our increasingly globalized world.


  • INTRODUCTION: practices and representations

  • 1. The ecology of languages
  • The need for identity and its linguistic
  • manifestations: endogenous and exogenous
  • relexifications
  • The graphic environment
  • Dramatic change in a specific linguistic ecology: the example of Australia
  • The political frontier and the ecolinguistic system
  • The influence of the horse on European languages 98
  • A false conception of linguistic ecology: Bickerton's
  • simulation project
  • Conclusions
  • 2. The galaxy of languages
  • Constellations of languages
  • The galactic model and linguistic policy:
  • the example of the European Community
  • The Hindi constellation
  • The Bambara constellation
  • The galaxy of writing systems
  • Conclusions
  • 3. Regulation and change: the homeostatic model
  • An example of internal regulation: vernacular variants of French
  • Of ships and languages: from Christopher Columbus to lingua franca
  • Vernacularization as ecological acclimatization:varieties of French in Africa
  • African argots and the ecolinguistic niche; the example of Bukavu
  • Conclusions: acclimatization and acclimatation
  • 4. Linguistic representations and change
  • Linguistic insecurity and representations: a historical approach
  • Some theoretical problems: a first approach
  • Some problems of description
  • Conclusions
  • 5. Transmission and change
  • The transmission of first languages and the myth of the mother tongue
  • The case of creoles: upheaval in the ecolinguistic niche and linguistic change
  • The transmission of gravitational systems
  • Conclusion: evolution and revolution
  • 6. Five case studies
  • One name for several languages: Arabic schizoglossia Several names for one language: the example
  • of Kituba
  • One, two or three languages? The example of Serbo-Croat
  • Kraemer: the invention of French in the socioprofessional context
  • An ecological niche: the Island of St-Barthélemy
  • CONCLUSION: Inventing language, giving it a name
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
"A treasure-trove addition in the realm of ecolinguistics ... of interest not only to professional linguists – it is also a highly recommended textbook for students of linguistics."

Jan Blommaert and Pan Lin, Journal of Sociolinguistics

"This is an important book, original in its conception, provocative in its argument, accessible in its content. Given the growing interest in language diversity, the publication of this book in English will be of great value for students and scholars alike."

Humphrey Tonkin, University of Hartford

"Calvet’s ideas are great, and are as relevant today as ever."

David Crystal, University of Wales

  • Calvet is a well-known figure in the area of sociolinguistics.
  • Offers detailed overview and analysis of the social, political and economic contexts in which languages operate.
  • Using numerous concrete examples, the book proposes an approach to human communication that focuses on the varying environments in which it is used.
  • Calvet argues that what linguists call “languages” are in fact invented abstractions and instead offers a method of analysing human communication based on the contention that it is a social practice and that languages exist only insofar as they are used by the people who speak them.