George Walford: Talking About Talking About Talking

We recently attended a one-day Conference held by the English Language Society, on the theme Language and the State. Most of the speakers and participants were academics, some of them experienced talkers on radio and television who used their skills to hold the audience’s attention. The occasion might well be termed a fact-fest. The facts presented were all interesting, some of them entertaining and many important. It was a rich diet of facts, and the trouble with rich diets is that they tend to produce indigestion; toward the end of the day we were gasping for some general theory to wash the facts down.

The Conference brochure declared: “Who controls language controls the state” and went on to ask: “so who controls language?” Whatever one’s answer to that question it gives meaning and relevance to the facts about language; we raised the subject in discussion but it was not taken up. The Conference preferred to stay with the facts, and we are far from wishing to suggest there was anything wrong with that. We only suggest that facts are not being made to render up their full value until they are integrated into a general theory. For IC‘s answer to the question who controls language, see “The Democracy of Language” in this issue.

A question that seems worth investigating is the relation between language and the ideological structure. Language itself seems to be (like all the really fundamental constituents of society) a protostatic creation, but attitudes toward language are a different matter; here there are indications of a series deriving from the series of major ideologies. We usually refrain from loose speculation but will depart from that rule for once, throwing out a few rough suggestions that somebody may care to take up:

Language as a means of communication, its structure and usage governed wholly by expedience; protostatic.
Language as a status-symbol and a means of establishing hierarchy; epistatic.
Language as a subject for scientific study; parastatic.
Language as the subject of reforms; protodynamic.
Language as a hindrance to reforms, needing revolution to overcome it; epidynamic.
Language as a red herring, distracting the attention of the workers from the need for anarchism or anarcho-socialism; paradynamic.
Language as needing systematic ideology for its full comprehension; metadynamic.

from Ideological Commentary 18, June 1985.