The Role of Language Planning and the Creation and Maintenance of the Nation-State

Weinstein, Brian. The Civic Tongue. Longman, NY, 1983.

Cooper, Robert. Language Planning and Social Change. Cambridge University Press, NY, 1989.

Laitin, David. Language Repertoires. Cambridge Univ. Press, NY, 1992.

Various components come together in the formation of the nation-state. If ethnicity is a key variable, then interlaced within the understanding of that concept, one must address the role of language, especially since it is often able to transcend even ethnicity. If politics can be described as the study of “who gets what, and who decides,” then the idea of language decisions seem tailored to this way of thinking. The study of language planning does not ignore the political implications of what the effects are of language decisions, and it also focuses on who is in the position to make these choices. The three books above all deal with the subject of language as a political tool, particularly in the hands of the state. This involves not only recognizing the role which language has played in the past, but moves on to develop a contemporary framework within which one can come to understand what language decisions, and language planning specifically, entails.



The Civic Tongue is a good place to start, not only since it was written first, but because its view is the most all-encompassing. Some of the subject matter it deals with is covered in greater detail within the other two. From the very beginning, Weinstein puts his finger on why language is a serious topic: “language choices between varieties of language have important political consequences.” The book is very conscious of the political power behind language, and recognizing this it sets out not only to demarcate how this happens, but also prescribes how this power can be exercised. As such, it is a very political book itself, rather than merely overtly descriptive.

Weinstein begins by immediately dispelling the notions that language lacks a creative energy of its own or that language cannot be consciously altered to bring about economic or political changes. For him, there are five major areas in which language decisions produce effects. Language can be used to control participation in power or wealth when it is used as an instrument of access or deprivation. This happens when a language is forbidden or if it is required for access to employment or licensing or used as an official state language by public institutions. Second, language is used as a tool for education, which can be linked to participation, since those who do not learn will often be excluded. He conveys skepticism of programs supporting the use of the mother tongue (as it can be difficult to determine), especially of those bilingual programs in the U.S. Third, language can create conflict. He identifies seven sources, the most salient being when favored elements fight to protect their positions, in cases of border changes, and the deflection of class-based challenges to outside ethnic or national threats.

Fourth, language is used to help integrate socially and politically in the process of nation- building. While social change requires a long time, political change can lead to conflict as elites try to enforce their preferences. The final area where language choices are important is world politics. Historically, it was always important to designate a language of diplomacy, but now language can also be seen as an instrument of foreign policy which allows countries to subvent that national governments of other countries. It is extremely interesting that the author urges France to seize the opportunity to reclaim its dominant language position, given the relative weakness of the Soviets and U.S. at the time. This argument has of course become dated, especially in light of the incredible drive of American cultural imperialism, which picks up steam with every new form of media through which it can be spread.1 He ends by ruing the creation of a new international information order through which stories about the rest of the world are interpreted through Western eyes or just given secondary importance. His conclusion is that successful language choices, though made in economic and political contexts which can support them, do not always determine them. Nevertheless, governments can have a huge role in making these language choices, and as such need to be cognizant of language’s constitutive dimensions when wielding its power.

Cooper is far less interested in uncovering the political implications of power in every facet of language planning, rather he is interested in addressing whether a theory of the field is possible at the time. He breaks down the process into three components: corpus, status, and language planning. Corpus planning involves the technical process of creating new forms, modifying old ones or selecting an alternative. It is the least consciously political component. Status planning involves the allocation of language to given functions, which has the most political power. To these two established concepts, Cooper adds a third, acquisition planning, which is involved in those cases in which a primary goal is to expand the number of speakers of a language either within a country or even globally.

He then introduces several potential descriptive frameworks for the process: innovation management, marketing, pursuit and maintenance of power, and the decision-making model. From these he puts together a multi-oriented accounting scheme. The chapters on acquisition and corpus planning are fairly straight-forward descriptions of the process and means, while the chapter on status planning reads like a laundry list of the targeted functions: wider internal communication, international communication, educational, literary, religious, or as a second language, to name a few. In the final chapter, Cooper posits that all language planning arises in the midst of social change, and after identifying the major sources of social change he deals with 5 theories explaining social change: evolutionary, cyclical, functionalism, conflict, and dependency. Each has plausible descriptive correlations with the actual empirical cases, yet he concludes that until there is a single established theory of social change, there can be no unitary theory of language planning, for “to plan language is to plan society.”

“Language repertoires”refers to the set of languages that one must know to take advantage of the wide range of mobility opportunities within one’s country. This idea is not greatly important in the U.S., but is a useful concept for describing the situation in Africa where multilingualism is the norm and languages not only allow one to convey information, but enable one to play certain roles in society. Laitin identifies the trend to “rationalization,” the territorial specification of a common language for purposes of efficient administration and rule, which is common in Africa’s emerging nation-states. While this may be the goal, he identifies three typologies which have developed: rationalization (one standardized language), a 2-language outcome where citizens speak local vernaculars and one common international language, and the “3 ± 1 outcome”. He casts this as the most likely language result for most African nations. It is comprised of the local vernacular, an African lingua franca, a colonial contact language, and contingently, an additional language if an individual’s vernacular is different from the local vernacular. Conversely, if the local vernacular is the lingua franca, that is one less language that citizen needs to master.

The most interesting thing about the analysis is Laitin’s utilization of formal modeling to come to the stable 3 ± 1 outcome. He spends some time describing the microdynamics and macro forces shaping the contemporary language situation in Africa, and then applies these to a formal model. His numerous historical factors and contemporary political actors relay his understanding of the subject, but I was dubious as to whether all these competing factors could be compressed into a few constraints and choices in a model. In the end, the decision is rather a compromise, as he does not actually consider every one of his nine listed factors in constructing the model. Rather, his model basically focuses on the strength of the civil service’s devotion to a colonial tongue versus the demands of the regional elites and their progress in local language rationalization. His sensitivity for these factors is evidenced in the flexibility of his 3 ± 1 structure which is meant to capture the nuances of each country’s individual heritage and nationalization program. In closing, he hopes that the game theoretic analysis has made the reader wary of attempting to envision a collective goal such as rationalization that is not built upon strong individual motivations.



All three authors write from a social construction, or even instrumentalist perspective. They are less concerned with the mystic qualities which may permeate a language and seem to eschew approaches which place any actual intrinsic value on languages (i.e., French is conducive to poetry while German is better for philosophy). For instance, Weinstein states that there is no proof that language determines perception and limits thought choices. To believe this would be to confuse language with the role that culture usually plays in the cognitive process, and of which language is only a vessel. The interesting point is that political leaders may nevertheless believe that there is linguistic determinism and will enact policies to prevent such problems as a “duality of meaning” arising from bilingualism. In Cooper’s chapter on corpus planning, there is a pertinent section on language renovation in which he notes that this procedure often makes appeals to values like tradition and authenticity, attempting to link the language to a glorious past and a supportive network of ethnicity or nationality. This is a very instrumental understanding of the affective qualities which might otherwise be labeled primordial.

In deciding upon the strategic theory for explaining language outcomes, Laitin also discusses alternative theories, and he rejects primordialism for failing to explain change. Instead, he feels this approach is too centered upon explaining conflicts which arise when such sentiments flare up against the implementation of changes. Both Weinstein and Laitin get to the heart of the primordialism debate, as they do not dismiss the powerful emotions attached to language (Laitin even takes them into account in his strategy), but they do not treat them as the primary agents for transmitting language. Rather, they recognize the manner in which language is constructed, and more uniquely, the possibilities of changing or utilizing it for certain purposes. This is certainly a very instrumental interpretation of the role of language, which nevertheless leaves a role for the description of emotional ties to the notion of primordialism.


The Power of Language

An initial theme of all three books is the power of language, or its political component. Weinstein addresses the greatest gamut of effects of language choices, the three most important being participation, education, and nation-building (the latter is dealt with in the next section). Language can be used as an instrument of deprivation when it is forbidden or more commonly, when government matters are conducted in a single official language, which is not shared by the entire population. Likewise, it can be used as an instrument of access. Laitin is particularly concerned with this aspect of language, since he accentuates the role of civil servants who retain job security and wealth as long as the official state language remains the colonial one or the one which they master. When leaders engage in language rationalization, they are in fact passing off the cost of change onto their subjects, so it is often a choice between alienating the bureaucracy or prejudicing a portion of the general population.

The second area where language plays an enormous role is in the education process. The decision to conduct primary level education in a certain language can certainly favor certain groups over others. One need only look to the debate in the U.S. over instructing in ebonics to Afro-americans to rediscover the argument that children can already be disadvantaged at an early age when they have not mastered the language of instruction (in this case, standard English). Laitin argues that often the populace may circumvent language policy to ensure that their children are being educated in the language that is most important economically. This is what happens in Africa when a vernacular is chosen as the official language, yet English or some other colonial tongue is still linked to advancement. This emphasizes that although governments hold a great deal of power, language planning is still subject to uncertainties in implementation.

Cooper points out that governments can also make important decisions in deciding whether to teach a second language in school and what that language should be. It can play into the hands of certain groups that already speak these languages or wish to retain certain ties with parts of the international community. Weinstein outlines the effects which the UNESCO policy to support the use of the mother tongue in primary education has had in determining much of the language policy in the developing world, but also raises questions of exactly how one decides what is a mother tongue for whom. Furthermore, rationalization can often just perpetuate inequalities in certain regions. In his conclusion, Weinstein also warns that, in general, universal literacy campaigns will only be as useful as those materials being made available to the new readers, again hinting at the power which the elite has to pacify their public through misinformation.


Creation of National Identity

Taking the historical perspective, one of Adrian Hastings’ central theses in The Construction of Nationhood was that a vernacular written language was perhaps the key ingredient in the formation of nations since it fosters a “felt horizontality” in its membership.2 Laitin and Weinstein would certainly agree with this, but the focus of the three books is less historic and far more pragmatic. All three authors do use historical examples to illustrate the role of language in creating nation-states or making decisions of power within states, but there is less concern with the formation of the nation as there is for the needs and goals of the nation-state. While acknowledging that language may be both a non-neutral repository for ideas and values and a system of communication, when they take into account interests, it is mainly with regard to the primary task of ensuring national communication. Weinstein discusses the goals of language planning: universal literacy, maintenance and promotion of the language, and the provision of unifying symbols and means of communication for nation-building, after which he lays out the process in a 10-step process. This process is undertaken by “language strategists,” the members of the elite who innovate linguistically to promote political, social or economic interests. They use language either as a symbol, standardizing tool, or even political challenge if they are able to recognize a key moment in the history of the rise of a particular ethnic or national grouping.

This focus on the role of the elite is a common theme. Even Cooper, whose political analysis is limited, points out that elites influence the evaluation and distribution of a language variety by assigning it to the functions from which its evaluation derives. This can require elites to embrace a language which is not their first choice either, but if they do not adopt it, there is little chance that the general population will warm to the selection either. Laitin is particularly conscious of the role of elites, and it seems that they are the target audience of his book. His central argument is that the intellectual leaders in Africa yearn for rationalization in their quest to be citizens of a strong state, but they are thwarted by the configurations of power which history has dealt African nations in the form of their colonial heritage. His best advice to them is to accept the inevitability of a 3 Å 1 outcome and begin to take it into account in their planning measures. To this purpose, he advances a schema for creating a just and pragmatic result, but in suggesting that this will make the process fairly smooth he seems to be forgetting his own warning of a few pages previous, that language can rarely be planned in the way planners thought it could be. He repeats the error of assuming that one can easily distill the complex interaction of historical and political forces into a few factors which can easily be operationalized in his rational choice model, or dealt with politically.



Nevertheless, this last section of the book is valuable as it prevents his exposition of language repertoires from being nothing more than an interesting concept. Without it, the book is merely sociological, describing the reasons for certain language configurations, without offering an agenda which takes into account the political forces working for and against national language policy. In contrast, Cooper’s book never gets beyond the descriptive level. It is a textbook for the field of language planning which delineates the process and cogently identifies the various interests which may be behind certain decisions, but it does not address how these play out in theory. He even goes so far as to point out that language planning arises in the midst of social change, but after discussing several theories of social change, he ends his analysis without discussing which seems most plausible to him. If Laitin can be faulted for perhaps being too ambitious in trying to create a theory for language planning which holds true at least in Africa, Cooper has committed the graver sin by refusing to attempt to theorize. He has identified the conditions and parameters which affect language planning, but he leaves the task of putting these factors together to others.

In this respect, though Weinstein is mostly descriptive throughout, in the chapter on nation-building, he adopts an overt political agenda. He is a proponent of creating autonomy under a unitary state, and says that since the time of Talleyrand it has been common knowledge that this requires a unitary language (though local differences can be tolerated through bilingualism). He traces the history of English language dominance in the U.S. and questions why everyone cannot just continue being assimilated.3 This is interesting since it conveys a degree of intolerance for language pluralism, when the policies hit closer to home. He definitely seems to fear that this would open the door to the types of problems which exist in Quebec, where Francophone policy is often forced down the population’s throat. Aside from this, the book is invaluable in its wide-ranging subject matter and the fact that Weinstein leaves no stone unturned in the search for the political interests behind and ramifications to language decisions as they are made in the world today.



The nation-state is a dynamic creature. Several of its incarnations are still very volatile in their nature. Even in the established nation-states, language planning is becoming an increasingly relevant consideration. Immigration, new tolerance for pluralism and new means for propagating ethnicity and culture, have helped erode the concept of monolingualism. Language planning and the questions it raises about roles and power cannot be avoided in those nations in which sizeable minority populations speak a different mother language. The issue is even more salient in those countries where a number of language choices already exist. Beyond the politics of choosing an official language, leaders must be sensitive to the ability of the public to reject or evade language choices. As such, these three books offer valuable insight into the forces which coincide to create language, and which actors are involved in making and guiding language choices. At their best, they also map out the problems which can arise if one does not take all these interests into account.



1) It is interesting to note that the book is almost 20 years old. As such, Weinstein could not have foreseen the incredible changes that have taken place in the last decade through the advent of the information highway. Geographic proximity of constituent language speakers is no longer of primary importance as virtual imagined communities can exist on the Web, where languages and cultures can be preserved and fostered.

2) Hastings, Adrian. The Construction of Nationhood, 1997, p.25.

3) Weinstein concedes that many of the new immigrants are multilingual, but he is dubious as to how many of these native born Americans truly have foreign mother tongues, so that the need for bilingual education might only be a phantom problem. He closes by stating that he does not fear factionalism developing out of this growing pluralism, but I don’t think he is being entirely candid about what I read as major misgivings toward such polyglot language policies in the U.S.