Jason A. Kemp
Language, Society & Power: An Introduction (4th edition) by Annabelle Mooney and Betsy Evans. New York: Routledge, 2015. 262 pp.
[PDF Version Here: Review: Language, Society & Power: An Introduction (4th edition)]
In this text, the authors ask, “Where is language?” (p. 86). The answer, of course, is everywhere. The fourth edition of Language, Society and Power: An Introduction is an exploration of the ubiquity of language and the ways in which it shapes our world and, in turn, is shaped by the world. This review concentrates on the authors’ conceptualization of topics pertinent to the study of language such as gender, politics, and age. Mooney and Evans have overhauled this text intended for “students of English language and linguistics, media, communication, cultural studies, sociology and psychology” (p. i). Previous editions consisted of a collection of single and co-authored chapters. The current edition is now a co-authored, cohesive introduction to the study of language in social contexts. To that end, I provide a brief review of the nine chapters key to prior editions and a more detailed review of the two new chapters (Chapters 5 and 10). For reviews of previous editions of the book, see Davis (2002), Nuessel (2005) and Ryan (2013).
Each chapter’s subsections are outlined on the first page of the chapter with page numbers. This detail prepares readers for the material to be covered and contributes to the presentation of a unified text. At the end of every chapter, Mooney and Evans provide a brief yet helpful list of additional readings as well as activities that encourage critical reflection. These tasks could be ideal as in-class discussions or homework assignments. Moreover, some of the activities are well suited for collaboration (for examples, see pages 27 and 33). Chapters 1-10 contain “www” symbols to indicate that readers can find web-based resources on the companion website, which is new to this edition. The authors do not specify how to access the companion website in the text; however, it is available at no additional cost via the publisher’s website.
Chapters 1 and 2 serve as a comprehensive introduction to the text. Mooney and Evans describe language as a system with variation able to make new meanings (pp. 3-7). The authors successfully provide a synthesis of theories related to the study of language such as Jakobson’s schema of functions (p. 11-13), Saussurian conceptualizations of language (p. 21-25), as well as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (p. 26-31); and they facilitate the introduction of these theories through the use of figures and examples (see pages 11, 12, 21, 24). Thus, Mooney and Evans establish a baseline that fosters a comprehension of the themes further elaborated in the remainder of the text.
In Chapter 3, the authors focus on language in political contexts. They discuss the linguistic features used to persuade audiences and argue that we should pay attention to the language of politics if we are to shed light on how persuasive arguments can convince us to support a particular stance that does not match our beliefs. The authors also examine the politics of education and show how the language of commercial transactions is increasingly used in higher education. Chapter 4 is centered on news media and its literacy, “the skills audiences need to read and understand the texts they find in the mass media” (p. 63). The authors analyze the role mass media has in society and how the language of this domain can perpetuate ideologies, given their argument that mass media literacy practices are described as a form of power: knowing how to read a text has symbolic capital.
Mooney and Evans added Chapter 5, “Linguistic Landscapes,” because of the growing interest in “the use of language in the everyday semiotic landscape” (p. 86). They propose that official and unofficial signage can convey different messages in linguistic landscapes: “all signs, but particularly top down official signs, structure space through boundary marking and by indexing other discourses” (p. 92). The authors convincingly discuss the power wielded by unofficial signs with examples aimed at specific speech communities in Belgium and France. They also use The National Courtesy Campaign that encouraged Singaporeans to be more courteous as evidence that signs can have a greater communicative strategy.
A thought-provoking but overly ambitious section on commercial signs and the transgressive potential of graffiti as representations that “provide marginalised people a voice in public space” (p. 101) rests upon assumptions that do not encourage readers to reflect deeply on linguistic landscapes. The authors suggest that commercial signs are legitimate signs because they have been purchased (p. 102). However, paying for a sign does not automatically beget legitimacy, for commercial signage about a contested issue could be viewed as (il)legitimate vis-à-vis the stance it promotes/opposes. Moreover, the authors do not acknowledge graffiti in the form of hateful words/images that may be aimed at members of a marginalized community. This section could benefit from the inclusion of alternate perspectives on this aspect of linguistic landscapes.
In the last part of Chapter 5, the authors explore the dissemination of ideas via virtual linguistic landscapes (YouTube, Twitter, and memes). These forms of communicating do not always follow pre-established norms, and it is fascinating that “the distinction between being offline and online is breaking down” (p. 104) with increasingly easy access to the Internet on mobile devices. Surprisingly, there is no mention of Facebook as a linguistic landscape despite the large number of users, which figured at 1.393 billion active Facebook accounts at the end of 2014 (Statista, 2016).
In their discussion of gender in Chapter 6, the authors examine the representation of gender inequality at the lexical level and explore the performance of gender as reflected in language use. Chapter 7 shows how ethnicity can be communicated through the use of certain linguistic features. Mooney and Evans also comment on the cultural capital associated with the use of a particular linguistic variety while reminding readers that some ethnolects are subject to linguistic subordination. The authors include a noteworthy section on how some ethnic groups are reclaiming historically derogatory terms such as ‘wog,’ a pejorative Australian term used in reference to some immigrant populations.
In Chapter 8, Mooney and Evans explain patterns of language change and variation associated with aging. They also demonstrate how the terms used to describe a person of a particular age group can contribute to social stratification, which impacts how much power a person has in the social hierarchy. Mooney and Evans examine the correlation between language and social class in Chapter 9 by first discussing attitudes about class. The authors then effectively draw upon research on social networks and communities of practice to show that language use and symbolic capital might be more local than has been suggested by traditional definitions of social class considering that certain linguistic features can be accepted in one group and rejected in another.
In Chapter 10, “Global Englishes,” the other new addition to this edition, Mooney and Evans begin by noting that most linguists do no believe any variety of English should be the “Global English”; however, they remind readers that strong opinions exist about which variety of English should be used globally. The authors examine different models that attempt to capture the variety that exists in English and go on to make the bold suggestion that “there is no such language as English—at least, it exists only in the most abstract of conceptions” (p. 201). Mooney and Evans also highlight how learners of any language are often compared to native speakers through a deficit approach that stigmatizes learners and sets unrealistic goals. Reasons for learning and using English vary and, as such, the authors reference perspectives that call for a validation of all varieties of English.
Mooney and Evans call attention to the language variety that exists within “inner circle” nations (e.g., the United Kingdom, the United States) in order to challenge ideologies of a pure, standard variety of English. They subsequently examine the diverse communicative uses of English in Singapore, India, and Hawai’i. Next, the authors consider the pressures of the linguistic marketplace and the hegemony of English. Mooney and Evans take a balanced approach to their presentation of linguistic imperialism by including multiple points of view on this contentious topic. Overall, this chapter makes a noteworthy contribution to the dialogue on language variety and the relationship between language and power. The final chapter proposes research projects for emergent scholars with an interest in language such as an analysis of the language used in television programming directed at children or an exploration of how one’s own language style is context-dependent. The authors end with a reminder to readers of the importance of reflecting on the ways in which we use language.
The fourth edition of Language, Society and Power: An Introduction accomplishes its goals as an introductory text for the study of language in social contexts. I suggest that the text be read in order as many chapters are contextualized within the greater scope of the book as a unified text—a positive feature. Should students read chapters in isolation, I recommend providing supplementary reading materials. Finally, although all examples come from English, the subjects discussed should also be relevant to scholars of other languages.
Davis, H. (2002). [Review of the book Language, society and power: An introduction, edited by L. Thomas & S. Wareing]. Language and Literature, 11(1), 93-96.
Nuessel, F. (2005). [Review of the book Language, society and power: An introduction (2nd ed.), by L. Thomas, S. Wareing, I. Singh, J. S. Peccei, J. Thornborrow, & J. Jones]. Language Problems and Language Planning, 29(3), 306-310.
Ryan, J. (2013). [Review of the book Language, society and power: An introduction (3rd ed.), by A. Mooney, J. S. Peccei, S. LaBelle, B. E. Henriksen, E. Eppler, A. Irwin, … S. Soden]. New Zealand Studies in Applied Linguistics, 19(1), 76-77.
Statista. (2016). Number of monthly active Facebook users worldwide as of 4th quarter 2015 (in millions) [Infographic]. Retrieved from http://www.statista.com/statistics/264810/number-of-monthly-active-facebook-users-worldwide/
Jason A. Kemp is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Project Assistant at WIDA at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research; email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2016 by the Wisconsin Council of Teachers of English.