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Review of  Community and Communication

Reviewer: Jim Walker
Book Title: Community and Communication
Book Author: Sue Wright
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 11.2289

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Wright, Sue. (2000), Community and Communication: The role of language in
nation state building and European integration, Multilingual Matters Series
114, 280p.

Reviewed by: Jim Walker, Universite Lumiere Lyon 2, France


The title of Sue Wright's (SW) book is explicit enough, so much so that a
synopsis is barely necessary. Indeed, not only does the title of the book
speak for itself, but the ten chapters are not so much introduced by a
title, but by a small synopsis, which is almost Dickensian. An example from
the first Chapter, which is headed as follows: "Definitions. Theories of
nationalism and the role of language. The nationalists and linguistic
nationalism. The modernists, industrialisation and democracy. The
post-modernists and the invention of tradition." This makes life
particularly easy for the reviewer who, in providing a general outline of
the book, could content himself with reciting the chapter headings.
That is not what I shall do, however. I shall attempt to expand on them
somewhat, at least with regard to those chapters which are more clearly
about language (some only touch on linguistic matters, as will become
This first chapter, then, involves a discussion of nationalistic ideology in
general, from nineteenth century German Romantic philosophy through to the
post-modernists. The scope of the chapter is very wide, and SW is adept in
presenting a huge volume of information in a very concise and readable
manner. My only gripe here is her coverage of the post-modernist theories of
nationalism. As someone who, either through intellectual weakness or
thick-skinned resistance, has never really understood what post-modernism is
all about, I did not come out of this chapter any the wiser on that
particular point.
SW then moves on in chapter 2 to examine the role that language has played
in defining and honing nationalistic sentiment. For me, this is the book's
strongest chapter, because the scope is wide, the coverage excellent. SW
shows that language and nationalism can link together in any of three ways:
first of all, assimilation, which is given extensive coverage by talking
about the French form of nationalism (the majority group determines the
boundaries of its territory by conquest, and then seeks to assimilate the
population within that territory to the nation. In this model, language is
an instrument of assimilation). Once again, SW takes us on a whistle stop
tour of an enormous subject, that of the standardisation and expansion of
the French language, and she pulls it off almost effortlessly. There are
maybe one or two shortcuts taken (for example, the Ordonnance de
Villers-Cotter�ts of 1539 is described as a "language law", which is rather
overstating things. The law in fact concerned the generalisation and
uniformisation of the royal administration, and only 1 of its 192 clauses
refers to language use in the courts - but SW is right to point to its
symbolic value). Then comes ethnolinguistic nationalism, or "blood and
belonging", a Sapir-Whorfian notion (according to SW) that national
consciousness must be bound up with, indeed defined by, a national language.
SW illustrates this philosophy with the German example, with quotes from
Herder and Fichte, for example. Finally there is fragmentation, a desire of
peoples to obtain congruence between the boundaries of their governing
polity and their nation, often, though not always defined in linguistic
terms (the Yugoslavian divisions are not, primarily at least, linguistic in
nature, argues SW, or at least those between Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia).
Chapter 3 takes the question of the links between language and nationalism a
step further, by looking at it from more of a synchronic point of view - not
nation building, but modern nations. The argument goes that it is impossible
to dissociate language from a feeling of national identity, or to put it in
SW's terms, that communities of communication are inevitable. Even apparent
counter examples to this in modern Europe, such as Belgium or Switzerland,
apparently multilingual communities, are shown, quite convincingly, to show
the same tendency towards equating language with community. Belgium is a
federal state divided on linguistic criteria, and the country is subject to
a great deal of internal friction for just this reason. In Switzerland, the
federal government might operate multilingually, but at the canton level,
this is certainly not true.
The synchronic perspective of chapter three is the link between the first
two chapters and the rest of the book, which will now begin to concentrate
more on the language issues in modern Europe, and more particularly in the
European Union. Chapter 4 looks at the questions of globalisation and
world-wide political integration, and the effects this has had on the spread
of English as the vehicular language of these phenomena. This chapter is
perhaps slightly less appealing than those which have gone before, in that
the case being made (globalisation = spread of English) will come as little
surprise to any reader. However, the interesting point is made that the
linguistic processes of globalisation mirror those of nation state
building - the need that is felt for a single language, to ensure a
community of communication, and the opposition to that from minority
Chapter 5 provides a documentary history of European integration, from the
end of the Second World War through to the treaty of Amsterdam and beyond.
Chapter 6 looks at the question of democracy in the European Union. The
contention here is that the feeling that many Europeans have that the EU is
in many ways undemocratic is not just an institutional problem, but is
caused, in part, by language barriers. On the European-wide level, debate
between citizens is impossible: it is impossible to develop a "European"
consensus on the model of the "national" consensus. Because Europeans do not
belong to a community of communication, full democracy is impossible. Again
the arguments are convincing. The same chapter also summarises a number of
definitions of democracy.
Chapter 7 turns the spotlight onto the use of language in the various
European institutions, to what extent the principles of equality between the
European languages are respected, and will continue to be respected as more
countries join the Union, or whether French, and increasingly English, are
used as lingua franca in the institutions.
Chapter 8 looks at the effect the European regions, and the increasing power
they have, have on language use within Europe. European integration, and its
concomitant weakening of national sovereignty, have encouraged regionalism,
in Catalonia, Scotland, Corsica and so on, argues SW, and this cannot fail
to have an impact in European institutions, either with calls for the
recognition of regional languages at a European level, or with further moves
towards a lingua franca.
Chapter 9 focuses on language use in certain specific domains of European
collaboration, namely in defence, education and research. The question is
the same - whether it is possible to integrate national armies without
addressing the question of language, and the answer is very clearly
negative. This chapter includes a fascinating discussion of how educational
programmes, particularly in history, in various countries have altered to
promote a sense of European identity, much as the history textbooks at the
end of the nineteenth century were written with the promotion of national
identities in mind.
Chapter 10 is a summary and a conclusion. For a modern Europe it may not be
the right idea to promote language learning on a wide scale, or more
precisely, the learning of lesser spoken languages. If we want Europe to
succeed, we must promote a community of communication, and not communities
of communication. SW does not say so, but seems to be advocating the
promotion of English as a European lingua franca. Many of you will have your
views on this. I am fiercely opposed, but SW's arguments are never less than


In many ways, it is difficult to write a review of a book for which one has
a huge amount of respect. There is not much to criticise here in the way SW
has undertaken her project. I have made on or two comments above about minor
details, and cannot really add to them here. Two negative points can be
made, however. First of all, I found the lack of hierarchy in sub-headings
rather confusing. Each chapter is divided into a certain number of
sub-sections, some of which really should be sub-sub-sections. I am not a
fanatic for dividing texts into sections, but there are times here when the
reader is not entirely sure how the author has divided her thoughts. More
importantly perhaps is the poor copy-editing. There are numerous punctuation
errors, sentences starting with a small letter, a few spelling mistakes and
a "To summarise one would could suggest..." on page 143. It's a shame, because
this book deserves better.

Deserves better, because SW has undertaken a project of some enormity here,
and has succeeded. She is at once political scientist, sociolinguist and
historian, and from my perspective of a sociolinguist with a layperson's
fascination for modern political history, there is no faulting the breadth
of knowledge on display here. The discussions on the rise of nationalism and
the nature of democracy are solid and wide-ranging. The experience and
familiarity with European institutions and integration cannot be faulted.
The arguments presented in favour of the thesis that polities function more
efficiently and more democratically if they are based on and govern a single
community of communication are cogent and compelling. This is a fascinating
book, from whichever way you look at it.

That is not to say that I agree with all of it, and it may be here that
others among you may wish to chip in. I find the post-modernist perspective,
which it has to be said only sneaks in from time to time "I don't believe
that language is anything other than a construct" (p.69), difficult, mainly
because, as I intimated earlier, I do not really know what that last
statement could mean. But that's by the by. My main feeling is that SW
slightly overstates the importance of a shared language in the construction
of a shared identity and in the construction of a common polity. It goes
without saying that a common language facilitates "national" communication,
national debate, and so on (though those of you with greater experience in
the role of language in, say, Indian democracy might have something to say
here. SW mentions it, but I feel it's rather skimmed over). However, I do
not believe, as SW does, that it is possible to blame the lack of a
community of communication in Europe for all the problems faced by European
integrationists. SW says that the apathy felt by many Europeans towards
Europe (low turnouts for European elections, catastrophic levels of
familiarity with European institutions) is largely due to the lack of a
community of communication. Possibly. My feeling, however, is that apathy
towards all things political, whether national or European, is on the
increase everywhere, for many reasons - the feeling that the events are out
of governments' hands, that big business rules, that all politicians are the
same, that all politicians are corrupt etc. - and that the language issue
here is minor. Put more bluntly, one might say that the average
Frenchperson, say, is apathetic towards Brussels because it's far way and
because he is not aware of any direct influence it may have on his life, and
not because he cannot talk politics with a Dane. The problem is that Europe
is not explained to the citizens, in whatever language.

SW makes the same argument for the deficit of democracy in European
institutions. They are not democratic, she says, because without a common
tongue, they cannot be. Might it not be the reverse? Might it not be that
language is not a barrier to European construction and transparency, etc.,
but rather that the language issue has been used as a smokescreen to prevent
public scrutiny? The lack of transparency would therefore not be due to
linguistic disunity, but due to conscious decisions by the builders of
Europe, for whatever reason. This is not necessarily a view I would adhere
to myself, but since one of the major strengths of this work is the desire,
and ability, to present all the sides of the arguments, this reliance on
community of communication as an all-embracing theory leads to some small

The reviewer: Jim Walker holds a PhD in French sociolinguistics from the
Sorbonne. He teaches linguistics and translation at the English Department
of Universit� Lumi�re Lyon 2. Research interests include language attitudes
(particularly with regard to English influence - PhD subject), links between
political attitudes and attitudes to language; translation science.


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