58. The State of Nature in Language Ideologies

This post is also available in: Catalan

Kathryn Woolard


Linguistic naturalism is a belief found among professionals as well as laypeople that language is an autonomous natural entity not subject to speakers’ will (Joseph 2000). As an ideology, it conflates the is and the ought: naturalness is seen as good, with both social and linguistic implications. Although naturalization is a central topic in language ideology studies, it is less often recognized that it takes various and competing forms that are worth distinguishing since they may have different consequences for language and society. This essay will briefly characterize several variations, drawing illustrations primarily from Spanish and Catalan contexts, although linguistic naturalism is by no means peculiar to them.

At its most general, linguistic naturalization transforms history, the process by which things in the human world are made, into nature, a supposedly harmonious display of essences, as do all ideologies (Barthes 1972). However, rarely are all linguistic varieties treated as equally natural. In a familiar version, linguistic naturalism bestows the inevitability and transparency of nature almost exclusively on nation-state languages, and this courtesy extends mutually among independent states. For example, the British Guardian drew on linguistic naturalism to intertwine transnational immigration and the Catalan sovereignty movement as problems:

The influx of millions of immigrants into Spain…has transformed parts of Catalonia… The biggest single group is from Romania, followed by Morocco, Ecuador and Great Britain…..Those in Catalonia face an immediate problem: the language. This has put pressure on the education system as immigrant children have to learn Catalan before they can be taught anything else. (Burgen 2012)


This account erases the identical challenge of learning Spanish that Romanian, British, and Moroccan children would face before they could be taught in Spanish-medium schools. The naturalization of Spanish licenses a false implicit distinction between dominant and minoritized languages in Spain, even in English media.

Linguistic naturalness is often linked to linguistic superiority and dominance, but in two distinct ways. A linguistic variety may be represented as naturally superior in and of itself (stronger, more euphonic, or communicatively precise). The invisible hand of a linguistic free market supposedly moves naturally toward the most perfect form for communicative function, which thus becomes dominant naturally, not through arbitrary historical developments. Thus the Spanish academician Gregorio Salvador is quoted as writing: “a great part of Castilian’s success has to be attributed to its five cleanly differentiated vowels, the most perfect vowel system possible” (Moreno Cabrera 2010, 11).

If linguistic dominance is natural, then a multilingual state is unnatural. For example, in debates over language policies in the Second Spanish Republic, Miguel de Unamuno endorsed the survival of the fittest, in which “lawmakers have no business.” Unamuno argued that the problem of multiple languages would resolve itself because dialects would fuse with the “strongest language, in accordance with the laws of nature” (Monteagudo 2013, 111-112).

However, the causal arrow between the natural and the superior can be reversed, to hold that whatever is most natural is best. In the earliest example, Dante characterized the vernacular as nobler because it is natural to us, in contrast to Latin grammar, which is artificial. The 16th century Spaniard Juan de Valdés asserted that popular refrains revealed the true character of Castilian, whose unaffected essence couldn’t be deliberately learned because vernaculars couldn’t be represented in grammatical rules. In the modern era, professional linguists have often suggested that some linguistic varieties are the more genuine object of inquiry than others, because they are allegedly more natural, acquired without study and uncontaminated by the artificiality of grammar or literature (Joseph 2000).

The perspectives evidenced by Dante and Valdés lead toward a more specifically socio-linguistic naturalization that links each individual to a specific language variety. This version celebrates not the referential fit of language to the world, as do ideologies of linguistic dominance, but rather the iconic fit of language to the speaker or writer’s authentic self. There is only one true form for each person, usually the “mother tongue.” The consequence of sociolinguistic naturalism is that speaking in a language other than the first acquired may be felt as false, a betrayal of self, if not simply impossible. In turn, only native speakers can use a language whose value is based in this kind of natural authenticity (Woolard 2016). Entire languages are seen as almost impossible to acquire deliberately, as Valdés wrote; these are the minoritized languages of the modern period.

This naturalistic equation of language and the sincere self is the ethos of contemporary hip-hop just as it is of Protestantism and of Romantic nationalism, of which it has been a central feature.  The political theorist Judith Shklar summarized the social effects of Romantic naturalism generally, which apply to language par excellence:

Romantic morality may reflect…the anguish of people who leave the social world of their childhood behind them and adopt new manners and roles. The true inner self is identified with one’s childhood and family, and regret as well as guilt for having left them behind may render new ways artificial, false, and …a betrayal of that original self. This personal self is seen as having a primacy that no later social role can claim; and indeed the latter may be despised as demeaning…simply ‘fake’…less genuine than the primordial self. (Shklar 1984, 75-76)


This anguish of Romantic naturalism inhibits second language learning, as epitomized in Barcelona by the “monologic truth” espoused by some young working class Castilian-speaking men (Pujolar 2001). Their masculine sense of self could only be expressed in a direct voice they viewed as their own and as incompatible with Catalan, and possibly with any secondarily acquired language.

Is this sociolinguistic form of naturalism not simply natural itself? Undoubtedly, a primordial, habitual linguistic variety will feel more “natural” – available without conscious effort – to its speakers than some other forms they might acquire. But this kind of bodily and mental naturalness does not automatically confer value on a linguistic variety, which is the case in sociolinguistic naturalism. This linguistic window on the speaker’s primordial being could logically be disparaged as childishly unformed (and is in some other linguistic ideologies), but this specific naturalizing ideology valorizes it instead.

Naturalness in language is obviously not always valued, nor is artifice always seen as inauthentic (in the Spanish tradition, see Góngora’s culteranismo, for example). The late modern period has brought some ruptures with primordialist naturalism generally, as captured by the reflexive American novelist Philip Roth:

Being [myself] is one long performance and the very opposite of what is thought of as being oneself…. The whole Western idea of mental health…:[tells us that] what is desirable is congruity between your self-consciousness and your natural being. But there are those whose sanity flows from the conscious separation of those two things … recognizing that one is acutely a performer, rather than swallowing whole the guise of naturalness. (Roth 1986, 319-320)


Increasingly, sociolinguistic studies are finding a similarly non-naturalizing sense of linguistic authenticity. For example, In Catalonia in the 2000’s, some Castilian-speakers who had rejected Catalan when young came to embrace the language later, as an expression of a freely chosen self: “A person is a speaker of whatever languages s/he feels like speaking” (Veu Pròpia Bages 2008). Those I interviewed saw their youthful rejection of Catalan as immature foolishness and were proud of the personal growth that allowed them to take up a language they had considered alien. The Romantic relation of originary linguistic form to the self had broken down for them. Speaking Catalan was a different kind of act of identity that expressed not where they came from, but who they believed they had become: flexible, tolerant, mature, and above all, individual.

A Castilian-speaking journalist similarly reported the pleasure he took in speaking Catalan with a Castilian-speaking taxi driver in Barcelona:

We both know that we’re making an effort to speak in Catalan, and even so, we know that it’s an effort that we enjoy. An effort that connects with a self that is not the one that life has given us randomly, but rather part of the identity that we have chosen. We’ve decided to be a person who speaks Catalan, and we do it with pleasure. (Puente 2016)


Commodification, hybridity, superdiversity, and a neoliberal emphasis on self-formation have all been described as characteristic of late modern language. One thing these all share is an anti-naturalist, anti-primordialist character that dissociates essence from origins to enable new projects of linguistic identity, in place of Romantic authenticity and its accompanying guilt. However, the rejection of primordialist sociolinguistic naturalism also naturalizes a narrative itself, just a different one. My interviewees’ accounts cast movement into bilingualism as the normal process in a diverse society (related to views found in communities described as “superdiverse” and “metroethnic”). This too is an ideology of linguistic naturalism, but it represents human beings as naturally choosing to acquire languages that are present in their environments. As a form of naturalization it is polyglot rather than monoglot, and it privileges agency, choice, and openness over primordialism, nativism, and eternal essences.



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Burgen, Stephen. 2012. Immigration complicates Catalonia’s separatist picture. The Guardian, November 20.

Joseph, John E. 2000. Limiting the Arbitrary; Linguistic Naturalism and its Opposites in Plato’s Cratylus and Modern Theories of Language. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Monteagudo, Henrique. 2013. Spanish and other languages of Spain in the Second Republic. In A Political History of Spanish: The Making of a Language, ed. José del Valle, pp. 106-122. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

Moreno Cabrera, Juan Carlos. 2010. Lengua/nacionalismo en el contexto español. June 29, 2010. http://bretemas.blogaliza.org/files/2010/06/Texto_Juan_Carlos_Moreno_Cabrera.pdf.

Puente, Arturo. 2016. Una batalla cultural contra la demanda de drets polítics. NacióDigital, February 22. http://www.naciodigital.cat/opinio/12616/batalla/cultural/contra/demanda/drets/politics

Pujolar, Joan. 2001. Gender, Heteroglossia and Power; A Sociolinguistic Study of Youth Culture. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Roth, Philip. 1986. The Counterlife.  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

Shklar, Judith N. 1984. Ordinary Vices. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.

Veu Pròpia Bages. 2008. Perquè un immigrant parla català?  Veu Pròpia Bages. May 13, 2008. http://bagesveupropia.blogspot.nl/2008/05/perqu-un-immigrant-parl-catal.html.

Woolard, Kathryn A. 2016. Singular and Plural: Ideologies of Linguistic Authority in 21st Century Catalonia. New York: Oxford University Press.