56. The Mentality of Linguistic Subordination and Spontaneity

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Xavier Lamuela
Universitat de Girona


My aim here is to recall the connotations particular to the conception of subordinate languages within the historical context of social-modernization processes and to observe how some of these connotations, valued negatively within that context, have a very different role in the current conception of linguistic subordination.

Ninyoles refers to the conception of subordinate languages using the expression “diglossic ideologies,” which subsequently, adapted to become “diglossic representations,” has been used by Occitan sociolinguists and, in general, within the revindicating sociolinguistics produced in the French context. Ninyoles (1971: 69) observes,

In the last century, “diglossic” ideologies have found a characteristic expression in the “nature” versus “culture” paradigm, based on which we could elaborate an endless series of dichotomies: “natural peoples” (= Naturvölker) and “cultural peoples” (= Kulturvölker), “people” versus “elite,” “mass” and “minority,” “popular culture” versus “high culture,” “feeling” versus “reason,” and so on. This pernicious dualism has survived through concepts of “natural language” and “mother tongue” as opposing notions to that of “language of culture.”

Based on the observations made by Ninyoles and others made by Aracil (1983: 55-56), I established (Lamuela 1994: 71-73) a list of opposite terms stuctured along the lines of those used in the semantic differential technique. Below I reproduce a version of this list accompanied by some labels that correspond to a series of summarizing categories:











Similarly, Gal (2018: 233) has established an axis of oppositions between the properties attributed to standard language on the one hand and those attributed to subordinate linguistic forms on the other:









If we make a brief comparison between the two lists, we see that mine, focused on the opposition between dominant and subordinate languages, is more detailed in some respects, such as the distinctions it introduces within the axes of rationality and practical value. By contrast, Gal pays particular attention to the properties that characterize the opposition between a codified language form and dialectal varieties: anonymity ↔ authenticity, universal ↔ particular/emplaced, homogeneous/unified ↔ various. I would highlight that the anonymity ↔ authenticity polarization conveys the series of oppositions established under my labels (3) and (4) of link to rationality and link to secondary relations.

Gal (2018) presents certain uses of subordinate languages as practices that challenge their codification. Here is one of her examples (Gal 2018: 236-237):

A striking example is Urla’s (2012) [1] discussion of “pirate radio” in the Basque country. Young people who opposed middle class intellectuals and their creation of a standard register of Basque responded by organizing illegal broadcasting that deliberately mixed Basque and Spanish, used familiar and rural registers of Basque while playing decidedly unfolkloric, rock and other popular youth styles of music. The radio stations were unofficial, uncommercial and not middle class, thereby turning upside down the values of standardizing preservationists. Arguably, they were not traditional or backward looking. Indeed, they enacted another form of modernity.

In my view, this way of presenting the issue ignores the fact that over the last few decades there has been an essential, though not completely generalized, change in the values associated with linguistic uses and, in particular, in the series of connotations included under the labels of link to rationality and link to secondary relations. On the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries, the dual conception of languages particular to modernization processes was entirely in force. It was closely linked to the political will to generalize knowledge and use of languages considered to be “national” where other varieties were generally used. It combined the economic interest of consolidating a state market (with a possible colonial extension), the principle of political authority associated with the nation-state, the principle of linguistic and cultural authority associated with the apparatus of state culture, and the ideological will to build a national unity requiring linguistic unification. In a context in which written language was the only significant vehicle for communication that went beyond direct interpersonal contacts, the project of generalizing the use of state languages, manifested in a voluntarist manner, adopted intellectual and socioeconomic elites as a model, strengthened reference to the principle of authority and emphasized the features that characterize the dual conception of languages.

This conception was included in the era’s common ground of thinking (Van Dijk 2003: 22), [2] and so it also played a significant role in the political positions that were put forward to achieve an egalitarian society. This is illustrated by the following Gramsci quote (1975: 1377), which is additionally representative of the dual conception of languages and in particular of the elements that I list under the label of link to rationality:

A person who only speaks a dialect or who understands the national language in varying degrees necessarily enjoys a more or less restricted and provincial, fossilized and anachronistic perception of the world in comparison with the great currents of thought which dominate world history. His interests will be restricted, more or less corporative and economic, and not universal. If it is not always possible to learn foreign languages so as to put oneself in touch with different cultures, one must at least learn the national tongue [well]. (translation reproduced from: Antonio Gramsci (1957) The Modern Prince and other writings by Antonio Gramsci. London: Lawrence and Wishart Ltd. p. 59.) [3]

Throughout the 20th century, however, compulsory schooling ensured general knowledge of state languages and various levels of familiarity with the culture they conveyed, and the expansion of audiovisual media consolidated linguistic standardization, understood as the population’s internalization of the linguistic forms proposed as a model for generalized use. Writing ceased to be the only vehicle of non-immediate interpersonal communication, and standard oral language became present everywhere. Writing itself, adapted to all kinds of media, was becoming less formal. In the last third of the century, it was common in the comments of scholars—for example, Kloss (1978: 21-22; see Lamuela 1994: 158-161)—to observe the linguistic consequences of these processes: relaxation of explicit rules, unself-conscious use of linguistic variation’s resources and a positive assessment of uses that were considered to be transgressive. These trends have experienced highly pronounced progress in recent years owing to computerized communication procedures, which have made immediate interactions without personal contact widespread and written uses completely commonplace (Coupland & Kristiansen 2011). At the economic level, state markets are increasingly subordinated to the globalized market, and commercial mechanisms have undergone radical changes. The relationship between economic interests and communication phenomena means that they are governed by marketing principles, which make the most of the possibilities of ICT. Publicity and propaganda, conveyed via the huge variety of media and their technical possibilities, govern the functioning of economics and politics.

In this context, the language associated with rationality (abstract, precise, denotative, rational, controlled, organized and elaborated) continues to be valid in certain areas, such as academia and law, where it maintains its association with certain mechanisms of power. By contrast, the dynamic and changing character—fluid, “liquid”—of general communication and the power that flows from propagandistic use of language are making traits that run counter to rationality (the world of the concrete, imprecision, connotation, emotivity, spontaneity, improvisation and naturalness) acquire positive value. In practice, we are witnessing a hypervaluation of these traits, and it is paving the way for all sorts of demagogic discourses. These are sustained on a common ground that also now includes revindicating discourses. With the claim of combating authoritarian positions, these discourses are on the fringes of a serious critique of language uses, and they idealize uses that are considered to be spontaneous but, in fact, only accommodate what is now perceived as (post)modern.

It is worth examining the situation of dominant and subordinate languages from this perspective. Standardization of dominant languages ensures, on the one hand, availability for elaborated uses that are still necessary and effective in our society, and, on the other, the generalized internalization of a “standard colloquial” language that forms the basis of spontaneous uses of all registers and also of the possibility of playing with linguistic resources of various origins, including those considered transgressive, such as the use of slang and oral forms traditionally proscribed in formal language. Subordinate languages, on the other hand, suffer from the deficiencies of a lack of standardization when it comes to their application in elaborated uses. In spontaneous uses they are the object of compensatory idealization when they are made to appear as the quintessence of naturalness, but they are marginal within propagandistic uses, subject as these are to the configuration of linguistic dominance, which relegates subordinate languages to intragroup use and communicative fragmentation within the linguistic community itself.


[1] Jacqueline Urla (2012) Reclaiming Basque: Language, Nation and Cultural Activism. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press.

[2] Gal (2018: 222 and passim) speaks of sociolinguistic regimes and specifically of standard regime to refer to a conception of languages that privileges their standard form.

[3] “Chi parla solo il dialetto o comprende la lingua nazionale in gradi diversi, partecipa necessariamente di una intuizione del mondo più o meno ristretta e provinciale, fossilizzata, anacronistica in confronto delle grandi correnti di pensiero che dominano la storia mondiale. I suoi interessi saranno ristretti, più o meno corporativi o economistici, non universali. Se non sempre è possibile imparare più lingue straniere per mettersi a contatto con vite culturali diverse, occorre almeno imparare bene la lingua nazionale.”



Aracil, Lluís V. (1983) “El racionalisme oligàrquic”. In: Dir la realitat. Barcelona: Països Catalans. 47-65.

Coupland, Nikolas, & Tore Kristiansen (2011) “SLICE: Critical perspectives on language (de)standardisation”. In: Tore Kristiansen & Nikolas Coupland (eds.) Standard Languages and Language Standards in a Changing Europe. Oslo: Novus Press. 11-35.

Gal, Susan (2018) “Visions and revisions of minority languages: Standardization and its dilemmas”. In: Pia Lane, James Costa, & Haley De Korne (eds.) Standardizing Minority Languages: Competing Ideologies of Authority and Authenticity in the Global Periphery. Abingdon / New York: Routledge. 222-242.

Gramsci, Antonio (1975) Quaderni del carcere [1929-1935], 4 vols., edited by Valentino Gerratana. Torino: Einaudi.

Kloss, Heinz (1978) Die Entwicklung neuer germanischer Kultursprachen seit 1800, 2nd ed. Düsseldorf: Schwann.

Lamuela, Xavier (1994) Estandardització i establiment de les llengües. Barcelona: Edicions 62.

Ninyoles, Rafael Ll. (1971) Idioma i prejudici, 2nd ed. Palma de Mallorca: Moll, 1975.

Van Dijk, Teun A. (2003) Ideología y discurso. Barcelona: Ariel.