Historical Sociolinguistics and Sociohistorical Linguistics

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Nils Langer and Winifred V. Davies (eds.) (2005),   Linguistic Purism in the Germanic Languages. Berlin, New York: De Gruyter. viii + 374 pp. ISBN 3 11 018337 4

(November 2005, HSL/SHL 5)

Whereas linguistic texts previously only mentioned language purism in association with standardisation of languages or texts debunking language myths such as Bauer and Trudgill (1998), linguistic purism was scarcely given research focus. The first volume in English dealing exclusively with this topic was Niedzielski and Preston (2000) who refer to the group of language purists as folk linguists. Following up the publications of van der Sijs (1999) and Brincat et al. (2003), the present volume is a “selection of papers given at a conference at the University of Bristol in April 2003” (p. 2), which was entitled likewise. The aimed readership for the book primarily consists of scholars interested in linguistic purism. However, also scholars interested in historical and contemporary sociolinguistics will find a a fair number of articles in this volume useful, since some studies discuss language standardisation (see van den Berg on Afrikaans) and nationhood (see Rasch on Swiss-German).

The editors Langer and Davies specifically concentrate on linguistic purism in Germanic languages, although one contribution, by Boughton, investigates purism in French “for the sake of comparison” (p. 2). The Germanic languages/dialects investigated in this volume are Afrikaans, English, Flemish, German, Luxembourgish, Saxon, Swabian, and Swiss-German. Whereas the majority of the articles in van der Sijs (1999) present how a specific language (i.e. group of people) reacts to foreign lexical items and how a language is lexically cleansed, articles in Langer and Davies, however, also present studies revealing the links between purism and language standardisation on the one hand and national identity on the other, as well as studies dealing with the perception and evaluation of subordinate dialects/accents.

The volume starts off with a comprehensive introduction to linguistic purism. It reveals how topics in linguistic purism generally are connected with the desire to keep a certain language ‘pure’, with folk-linguistic attitudes, issues concerning s/Standard versus non-s/Standard language, the preservation of old forms and the rejection of new ones, and the role of language in national identity. Langer and Davies hence argue that language purism not only means to refuse influences from other languages on a certain language, but also to make subjective judgements on dialects and styles. Such judgements can be made by “influential members” of a society (p. 3), but most essentially purism is at play when one variety is compared to a more focussed one. As the introduction reveals, purists can be well-known persons such as an established author, a (linguistic) institution such as the Académie Française, a geographical area where the ‘good’ language is spoken, or even a “cultural artefact” (p. 7) such as the Welsh translation of the Bible. Whatever this prestigious variety is, it is only a “particular” one.

Concerning the structure of this volume, the book is thematically divided into five sections: (i) Historical Prescriptivism and Purism; (ii) Nationhood and Purism; (iii) Modern Society and Purism; (iv) Folk Linguistics and Purism; and (v) Linguistics and Purism. The first section of the volume concentrates on German, Dutch, and English, all five articles revealing how some authors of the languages concerned were mostly condemning French lexical influences, but also German ones. In the second part, the articles concentrate on Swiss-German, German, Afrikaans, and Luxembourgish and discuss the question of how national unity is created through linguistic purism. The authors seem to correlate nationalism with linguistic xenophobia and with decisions on what is s/Standard is often made upon what it is not. The third section examines how linguistic purism exists in specific present-day contexts of English and German: i.e. the preference for British English at German universities, linguistic prescriptivism in computer-mediated communication, and a perceived linguistic divergence between West Germans and East Germans. The fourth section of this book deals with how the specific languages of English, German, and French are perceived and evaluated, for instance, as positive and/or ‘correct’. The final section of this book concentrates on how linguists themselves can be purists.  

Concerning the methodologies of the chapters, the variety of types of data analysed is broad. Van den Berg’s article, for instance, describes under what circumstances English words in Afrikaans dictionaries are integrated into the language. Ziegler analyses speeches given at civic festivities, which “were used to create a national cultural identity” (p. 13). Horner’s research draws on folk linguistic examples from word lists and letters to the editor. Evans, on the other hand, presents her data of folk linguistic attitudes obtained from actual informants. The various approaches hence prove that linguistic purism not only exists in linguistic manuals published by language-preserving institutions. 

As a collection of articles, Linguistic Purism in Germanic Languages sometimes shows an overlap of theoretical background information between the various contributions; for all that, each chapter can be read individually, although readers will find the introductory article offering both an excellent review on issues with regard to linguistic purism and a summary on the different articles of the volume. What is unfortunately missing in this book are studies on linguistic purism in North-Germanic languages, as well as in Yiddish and Frisian. If ever a second edition or volume were considered, perhaps studies from those languages could be included as well. All in all, however, Linguistic Purism in Germanic Languages offers diverse perspectives on linguistic purism and it is hoped that similar volumes will be published on other Indo-European branches or even different phyla. There is no doubt that this volume will find a good place in any academic library.

Cédric Krummes, Centre for Luxembourg Studies, Department of Germanic Studies, University of Sheffield, United Kingdom (contact the reviewer).



Bauer, L. and P. Trudgill (eds.) 1998. Language Myths. London: Penguin Books.

Brincat, J., Boeder, W. and T. Stolz (eds.) 2003. Purism in Minor, Regional and Endangered Languages. Bochum: Brockmeyer.

Niedzielski, N. and D. Preston. 2000. Folk Linguistics. Berlin, New York: De Gruyter.

Sijs, N. van der (ed.) 1999. Taaltrots: Purisme in een veertigtal talen. Amsterdam, Antwerp: Uitgeverij Contact.