“Exposing and Overcoming Linguistic Alienation and Linguistic Violence.”  Philosophy and Social Criticism 24, n2/3 (1998): 137-156.



William C. Gay


Exposing and Overcoming Linguistic Alienation and Linguistic Violence


Introduction:  Philosophy and the Politics of Language

If knowledge is power, so too is language.  Just as wealth and knowledge are accumulated, so too is language.  In each of these cases, alienation of the "have nots" is one of the results.  In this essay, I will examine the relation of language to power.  I will focus initially on linguistic alienation, providing examples of the types of alienation from oral and written communication.  Next, I will proceed to an examination of linguistic violence, presenting examples along a continuum ranging from subtle, through abusive, to grievous types.  Until now, I have not tried to articulate the relations of linguistic alienation (especially as expressed in what I term personal and private sublanguages) to linguistic violence.

In distinguishing linguistic alienation from linguistic violence, I will argue that some linguistic alienation is justified.  To do so, I will divide Ferruccio Rossi-Landi's special sublanguages into private and personal sublanguages.  The former are like private property and often involve abuse, while the latter are like personal property and typically are justified.  However, beyond all of these forms, there is the possibility for an understood language of inclusion.  I will conclude by suggesting ways to overcome linguistic alienation and linguistic violence through a practice of linguistic nonviolence.

In addressing linguistic alienation and linguistic violence, I am omitting discussion of numerous forms of violence--from physical assaults to international war.  Often, the number and gravity of the instances of physical violence far exceed what is typically found in linguistic alienation and linguistic violence.  Obviously, in several cases, these manifestations of violence are also far more pressing than the types I am addressing here.  (In some of my other work, I do address problems associated with nuclear weapons, war, and other types of overt violence.[1])  Consequently, my comments need to be seen as an effort to draw attention to only a small portion of a much larger picture.  Nevertheless, I will be trying to show how this linguistic portion of the picture relates to the larger problem of violence in society.


I.  Language and Power

What is language, and how is it related to power?  By asking these twin questions, I am approaching language from the perspective of political philosophy.  In trying to answer this question systematically, I have developed the following five theses on language.[2]


1.   Language is a social institution, and one of the most conservative ones in any society.

2.   Language is inseparable from the distribution of power in society, and these relations are unequal in every society.

3.   Language is frequently an instrument of covert institutional violence.

4.   Language shapes, but does not determine, human consciousness and behavior.

5.   Language that appears to ameliorate conditions of social violence can actually represent a merely formally sanctioned sphere of less violent discourse which leaves unchanged the cultural base that spawns and sustains various forms of social violence.

First, in light of Ferdinand de Saussure's analysis of la langue (language as a sedimented sign system), I accept that language is a social institution, and one the most conservative ones in any society.  Beginning with Saussure,[3] the science of linguistics treats language as a convention that is beyond the control of the speakers who passively assimilate it.  "Of all social institutions," Saussure insists, "language is least amenable to initiative."[4]  The linguist can describe, but does not condemn, the actual signs available in a language system.

Second, based on my study of Pierre Bourdieu,[5] I contend that language is inseparable from the distribution of power in society, and these relations are unequal in every society.  In Bourdieu's terms, "The use of language...depends on the social position of the speaker"; hence, the authority of language "comes to language from outside."[6]  This "outside" is composed of the social conditions within which communicative acts are situated.  Speaking "the language," for Bourdieu, "is tacitly to accept the official definition of the official language of a political unit."[7]  Moreover, the formation of a single "linguistic community" is the product of political domination.[8]  Since the distribution of power in societies is unequal, the analysis of language should not be separated from an awareness of social classes and the relative social positions of the participants in any communicative situation.

The issue is not purely one of class.  Bourdieu does not say that only the children of the dominant class are admitted into the best schools.  Instead, he suggests that those who enter or finish programs at top schools generally have the legitimate language imposed on them.  By defining qualifications and credentials, educational systems both create and sustain inequalities, making use of overt force largely unnecessary.  In fact, an inverse relation often exists between possession of symbolic power and use of physical violence.

This second thesis does not deny Saussure's position which, in its diacritical theory of meaning, restricts meaning to the internal oppositions (mutual delimitations) of signs within a system.  Instead, the second thesis brings out differences that are not just diacritical ones internal to the system of signs.  The differences that my second thesis exposes are ones that result from oppositions in the relative power of social groups.  These differences, of course, occur at the level of la parole (speaking), rather than la langue.  As such they are not what Saussurean linguistics studies.  But the study of these differences is critical for a philosophical analysis of the politics of language.  All too frequently the philosophy of language ignores the social conditions within which language games are embedded.[9]

My final three theses on the politics of language turn to the issues of violence and transformation.  In making my third thesis, I follow Newton Garver's typology of violence.[10]  I recognize that the uses of violence can be personal or institutional and that these forms can be overt or covert.  Consequently, language is frequently an instrument of covert institutional violence.[11]  Language, as a social institution, can do violence against individuals that is psychological rather than physical  Sometimes, words hurt us in ways of which we are painfully aware.  This offensive language is drawn from the existing sign system.  At other times, words harm us in ways of which we may be unaware.  A language of oppression not only inflicts covert violence, but also it sometimes does so without detection.

Fourth, given the analyses of thinkers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty on how linguistic change occurs at the level of la parole,[12] I contend that language shapes, but does not determine, human consciousness and behavior.[13]  While this lack of linguistic determinism facilitates linguistic changes that can ameliorate violence in society, it can also be exploited to aggravate the conditions of social violence.[14]  In other words, linguistic freedom and linguistic creativity can be used to impose restrictions on social groups and distort their perceptions, just as much as it can be used to empower social groups and enrich their understanding.  At the extreme one finds the attempts at linguistic control by totalitarian regimes that manipulate discourse in ways designed to distort people's perceptions.  However, even at this extreme, the power of the state to control the minds of individuals has not been total,[15] which tells us something important about the prospects for linguistic emancipation.

Finally, my fifth thesis on language is that language that appears to ameliorate conditions of social violence can actually represent a merely formally sanctioned sphere of less violent discourse which leaves unchanged the cultural base that spawns and sustains various forms of social violence.[16]  This final thesis is an application of Marx's distinction between political and human emancipation.[17]  Marx's distinction between political and human emancipation exposes the limit of a merely formal or political approach which, since it does not address the material or cultural base, fails to be an adequate solution.  For Marx, political emancipation aims for formal equality of a disenfranchised group before the law.  Such formal equality, of course, does not guarantee its concrete achievement in everyday life just because it has become the law.  Ultimately, the transformation of the cultural base is also required.  Marx refers to such cultural transformation as human emancipation.


II.  A Typology of Forms of Linguistic Alienation

Various obstacles can stand in the way of access to the communication opportunities in a society.  Some of these obstacles arise from dysfunctions, but others arise from alienation.  Dysfunctions are generally the results of physical or intellectual challenges that an individual has faced from birth or subsequent to accidents suffered during life.  Alienation is usually the result of intentionally imposed obstacles.  Let me illustrate what I mean.  A blind person is not alienated from sight, but a sighted person blindfolded without consent is alienated from sight.

The concept of linguistic alienation can be traced back to Marx.  Specifically, his analysis of "species being" suggests that particular social groups are alienated when society systematically denies to them possibilities of which they are capable.[18]  Marx presents the human essence, our species being, as free, conscious activity.  Alienation from this distinctive capacity of our species occurs in the various forms of domination in which possibilities are denied to specific social groups--whether these groups are based on gender, sexual orientation, race, class, or any other non-essential trait.  While alienation from "species being" or "species possibilities" takes many forms, I am focusing here on linguistic manifestations.

The most extensive and persuasive effort to develop the concept of linguistic alienation has been carried out by Rossi-Landi.[19]  Arguing that speaking is a type of work, he explores the analogies between linguistics and economics.  Since words can be marketed, language can function as capital with huge profits being reaped by the elite groups that control the means of linguistic production.  Those portions of language that are treated like private property result in linguistic alienation for the masses.

In the remainder of this section, I wish to sketch a much broader and more systematic view of linguistic alienation than the one developed by Rossi-Landi.  Despite the power of the critiques of Marx and Rossi-Landi, I will try to show that a careful analysis of the many possible forms of linguistic alienation reveals that some of them are justified.  Later, I will show how, in contrast to the forms of linguistic alienation that are justified, the forms that are unjustified can be regarded as a subcategory of linguistic violence.

In addressing the many forms of linguistic alienation involved in the politics of language, I want to begin with the distinction between orality and literacy.  Languages always emerge in speaking, and most progress to writing.  It is at these most basic levels that the phenomenon of linguistic alienation arises.  Moreover, at these levels the various forms of linguistic alienation are clearly present.

Walter Ong has done some of the most important research on the nature of and the relation between orality and literacy.[20]  He points out that orality tends to be open and public; those who know the language understand most of what they hear.  Literacy, by contrast, tends to be closed and private; those who know the language do not necessarily understand what they see (writing).  Historically, orality functions in a more democratic and egalitarian manner than literacy.  Unless universal, literacy is elitist and creates a significant social class differentiation.

I wish to extend Ong's treatment by showing how it applies to the problem of linguistic alienation.  Two basic forms of linguistic alienation exist, namely, alienation from oral communication and alienation from written communication.  I wish to focus on cases where dysfunctions are not present.  I want to consider a range of cases where an individual is functional in relation to oral and written communication but is denied access to arenas of one or both of these forms of communication.  I recognize that the prospect for alienation from oral communication becomes quite serious at the level of language dialects, since speakers of a dialect other than the one that political powers have sanctioned as the "official" language suffer because of their alienation from the dialect that functions as the "linguistic coin of the realm."[21]  At the same time, I want to be careful to acknowledge the full range of possible forms of linguistic alienation.

Table 1 shows the possibilities of alienation from oral communication.  This Table uses H to stand for being allowed to hear and ~H for not being allowed to hear and uses S for being allowed to speak and ~S for not being allowed to speak.


Table 1.  Alienation and Orality





Case #1



Case #2



Case #3



Case #4




Table 1 displays the forms of linguistic alienation of individuals who possess both the hearing and speaking capabilities needed to function at the level of orality in a given society.

Just because an individual can hear and speak does not imply that individual will be allowed to hear and speak.  I will give one example of each of these cases.  It should go without saying that the four cases of linguistic alienation that I present are not necessarily unjustified.  Here I apply one of Garver's points about the analysis of violence:  classification should precede evaluation.

An example of Case #1, where someone is not allowed to hear or speak, occurs when a social group holds closed door meetings.  In this situation, many people who could hear what is communicated and who could speak to those assembled are denied access to this forum.  An example of Case #2, where someone is allowed to hear but not to speak, occurs with the audience at a trial.  Violation of this restriction can result in eviction from court.  An example of Case #3, where  someone is only allowed to speak to a particular group but is not allowed to hear what they say to one another, occurs when a defendant is allowed to speak before a jury but is not allowed to listen to the deliberation of the jury.  Case #4, where both hearing and speaking are permitted, might not appear to be one in which linguistic alienation occurs.  And in many unrestricted public forums, persons who can hear and speak are not linguistically alienated.  However, in cases of spoken sublanguages of the type Rossi-Landi describes, individuals are allowed to hear from and speak to authorities but, because they do not understand the technical vocabulary, are alienated in this forum of communication.

Table 2 shows the possibilities of alienation from written communication.  This Table uses R for being allowed to read and ~R for not being allowed to read and uses W for being allowed to write and ~W for not being allowed to write.


Table 2.  Alienation and Literacy





Case #1



Case #2



Case #3



Case #4




Just because a person can read and write does not imply that person is allowed to read and write.  I will give one example of each of these cases.  These four cases of linguistic alienation, like the previous ones, are not necessarily unjustified.

An example of Case #1, where someone is not allowed to read or write, can occur in cases of solitary confinement.  In this situation, individuals who can read and write are denied access to materials to read or instruments with which to write.  An example of Case #2, where someone is allowed to read but not to write, also occurs in some prisons where an individual is given access to a wide range of reading materials but is not allowed to send written messages to others, especially outside the prison.  An example of Case #3, where someone is only allowed to write and not to read, occurs less commonly but also in prisons when an individual is not allowed to receive written messages or to read other written materials from the outside or even from others in prison but is allowed to write a variety of messages.  Case #4, where both reading and writing are permitted, also might not appear to be one in which linguistic alienation occurs.  And in many unrestricted public forums, persons who can read and write are not linguistically alienated.  However, in cases of written sublanguages of the type Rossi-Landi describes, individuals are allowed to read texts by authorities and even to write about them but, because they do not understand the technical vocabulary, are alienated in this forum of communication.

My sense is that much of the discussion of linguistic alienation, whether at the level of orality or literacy, concerns individuals who can hear and speak or who can also read and write.  Often, forms of discrimination are practiced against speakers of unofficial dialects and against persons who are illiterate.  I think that much of the work of Paulo Freire addressed issues of what I would consider to be unjustified forms of linguistic alienation at the level of orality.[22]  Likewise, discrimination is also practiced against individuals who, although literate, do not understand technical vocabularies.  As I indicated, Rossi-Landi's treatment of special sublanguages shows their unjustified character.

In the examples above, however, I tried to give some that likely are justified and others that likely are not.  The forms of alienation that pertain to court proceedings may well be justified.  By contrast, the forms of alienation that pertain to prisoners likely are not justified.  A careful exploration of these cases, however, is beyond the scope of this essay.  I have only tried to classify the types of linguistic alienation so that I can contrast these phenomena with those of linguistic violence.


III.  A Continuum of Forms of Linguistic Violence

In my work on linguistic violence,[23] I have tried to do several things.  First, I have argued that the concept of violence is applicable to language.  To support my position, I have argued against the view that tries to restrict the term "violence" to cases of overt physical injury.  Second, I have suggested that the forms of linguistic violence can be conceived along a continuum that ranges from very subtle to very grievous forms.  In demarcating these forms, I have placed an emphasis on the degree to which the victims are conscious of the violence and the degree to which they are harmed by these and related forms of violence.  Third, I have argued that a practice of linguistic nonviolence is possible.  By supporting a partially voluntarist theory of language and an egalitarian theory of justice, I ground the possibility that linguistic practices can be changed in ways that reduce linguistic violence.

At this point, I want to indicate briefly how language can do violence.  To be succinct, I will mention only the perspective given by Stephanie Ross.  She uses Joel Feinberg's distinction between hurt and harm in order to address how language can be an instrument of violence.  For Feinberg, we usually know when we are hurt, but we are often unaware of a harm we have suffered.  (For example, while assault is a hurt, undetected burglary is a harm.)  Ross says that offensive language hurts us, while language that harms us is oppressive.  She states,  "One can be oppressed unknowingly but offense requires (logically or conceptually) the awareness and acknowledgment of its victim."[24]  So, language in general can perpetuate the harm of a system of oppression, regardless of whether individuals consciously experience the hurt of its transgressions against them.  Since the claim that language does violence of which we are unaware is more difficult to support, Ross restricts herself to offensive forms of language.  Just these forms, however, span quite a range of language.  Concerning these forms, Ross contends "Words can hurt, and one way they do is by conveying denigrating or demeaning attitudes."[25]

In my work, I agree with Ross that language that hurts does linguistic violence, but I go beyond what she argues by contending that language that harms also does linguistic violence.  As I have noted, the work of Garver allows me to classify the harm done by means of oppressive language as a form of linguistic violence.  For me, the fundamental issue, once linguistic violence is recognized, is whether linguistic violence is an unavoidable consequence of the institution of language or whether through conscious effort it can be eliminated.  My fourth thesis on language conveys my view that much can be done to reduce, if not altogether eliminate, linguistic violence.  But I will not return to this point until my conclusion.

There are several ways to think about linguistic violence.[26] I have chosen to organize instances across a continuum.  And, as I have just indicated, I rely on Ross' distinction between oppressive and offensive language and on Garver's distinctions between overt and covert violence and between personal and institutional violence.  To a large degree, my continuum is based on degrees of awareness and degrees of violence.  I place at the lower end of the continuum those forms of linguistic violence about which the victims are often unconscious or only vaguely aware of an oppressive dimension of language.  And I place at the upper end of the continuum those forms of linguistic violence about which the victims are usually conscious of the offensive dimension of the language.  Moreover, those forms at the lower end often do not have much psychological (covert) violence or correlative physical (overt) violence associated with them, while those forms at the upper end usually do have considerable psychological and correlative physical violence associated with them.

At one end of this continuum are forms that appear to be rather subtle to many people.  With children's jokes, we may have what is an innocent manifestation of a child's attempt to make fun of adult authority figures.  But even in these cases, careful analysis brings out how issues of power are involved.  At other times, children's jokes are hardly subtle in their linguistic violence.[27]  With official languages, we have a form that is more subtle to those who have mastered the official language than to those who have not.  This form of linguistic violence has received increased scholarly attention in recent years, and it has been shown to be one of the other unfortunate legacies of colonialism, namely, the imposition of an alien language, along with an alien government, onto indigenous peoples.[28]

Most people are well aware of abusive forms of linguistic violence.  Abusive forms rely on offensive terms and frequently aim to hurt the individuals to whom they are directed.  For this reason, in the case of abusive forms, such as racist, sexist, and heterosexist language,[29] both the practitioners and victims are more likely to be aware of the degrading intent of these forms of communication.  Of course, just as many speakers of an official language do not see how it is oppressive, many individuals who employ and some who hear and read racist, sexist, and heterosexist language are unaware of its oppressive nature.  With the distinction between oppressive and offensive, one can handle the fact that while a form of discourse may be oppressive, not all individuals need experience it as offensive.  (This issue gets into the problem of false consciousness and goes beyond the scope of what I can cover in this essay.)

Finally, at the other end of the continuum are what I term grievous forms, since the scale of violence goes beyond mere verbal abuse.  Grievous forms often have the intent to silence or even eliminate an entire social group.  Some of the clearest examples of grievous forms are found in totalitarian and genocidal language.[30]  These forms, unfortunately, represent some of the most globally intractable practices of linguistic violence.  Too often, totalitarian and genocidal language leads to the killing of large numbers of people by organized groups, such as the state, subnational political organizations, and religious, racial, and ethnic groups.

My continuum of these three forms and examples of each are illustrated in Table 3.  In this Table the three columns represent a progression in the degrees of linguistic violence.  Generally, abusive forms are more violent than subtle forms, while grievous forms are typically more violent than abusive forms.  (Of course, there are exceptions, since some grotesque racial and sexual epithets do more hurt and harm than some of the milder terms of derision used in relation to the enemy within warist discourse.)  Also, in this Table, I am suggesting a progression of degree within the columns in the cases of subtle and grievous forms and in the number of people affected in the case of abusive forms.  This Table, then, is not intended to show all the logical possibilities as was the case with the two previous tables.  Instead, this Table offers a grid for an initial attempt at classifying linguistic violence in its multifarious manifestations.


Table 3.  Form of Linguistic Violence


Subtle Forms


Abusive Forms

Grievous Forms

Children's Jokes


Heterosexist Language

Warist Language

Literacy Restrictions


Racist Language

Nuclear Discourse

Official Languages


Sexist Language

Genocidal Language


One other feature of Table 3 also needs to be noted.  Unlike my typologies of linguistic alienation, my continuum of forms of linguistic violence is not intended to be merely classificatory at the outset.  I see no way to classify most of these linguistic forms in a value-neutral manner.  Rather, as I indicated, I am providing a general ranking of them by degrees of violence or number of people affected.  I realize that, as a consequence, my continuum of forms of linguistic violence will strike some people as an attempt to promote "politically correct" language.  I do not seek to dodge this charge, though I prefer to say that I seek to promote nonviolent language.


IV.  Distinguishing Linguistic Alienation from Linguistic Violence

When I first introduced my notions of personal and private sublanguages as a means to distinguish justified and unjustified instances of what Rossi-Landi termed special sublanguages, I had not yet worked out my own theory of linguistic violence as expressed in the third section of this essay.  In my Introduction, I mentioned that I wish to show the theoretical relation between linguistic alienation and linguistic violence.  Now that I have addressed in separate sections the nature of linguistic alienation and linguistic violence, I turn to the task of showing the distinction between them and the importance of this distinction.  In this section, I will try to show how some forms of linguistic alienation are justified.  Then, in the next section, I will connect unjustified forms of linguistic alienation with linguistic violence.

In my prior work on linguistic alienation, I qualified Rossi-Landi's treatment of special sublanguages.[31]  His presentation of special sublanguages draws an analogy with Marx's concept of private property.  Consequently, just as Marx called for the abolition of private property, Rossi-Landi calls for the abolition of special sublanguages.  Unless this call for abolition is qualified, all instances of special sublanguages are unjustified.  Just as some Marxists distinguish personal property and private property, I distinguish personal sublanguages and private sublanguages.  Whereas private property can be used within the process of circulation to gain capital, personal property remains in the sphere of consumption.  Since personal property is separate from the process of exploitation that takes place in the pursuit of profit, it is not subject to the criticisms of private property.  Likewise, I make a similar argument based on my distinction between private sublanguages and personal sublanguages.

Private sublanguages are monopolized portions of technical discourse that are circulated within the public sphere by elite groups with the aim of augmenting their power and many times their wealth as well.  Most of us are all too familiar with how political leaders, military strategists, and professionals in fields such as law and medicine can hide behind their technical vocabularies.  When they refuse to speak a comprehensible vernacular, their private sublanguage becomes an instrument of their paternalistic (usually patriarchal) authoritarianism and undercuts rational discourse and public debate.

By contrast, some specialized vocabularies are not designed for public circulation and the augmentation of power or wealth.  Examples of such personal sublanguages include the special terminology sometimes developed and exchanged by children in their play, by lovers in their intimacy, and by dissidents in their imprisonment.  Personal sublanguages are like private sublanguages in being arenas of privileged, that is, restricted communication which intend to exclude others.  Moreover, both personal and private sublanguages involve control over information.

The difference between personal and private sublanguages concerns when control over information is justified and when it is not.  Since we continue to live in societies that distinguish the private and the public spheres, we need to respect the proper linguistic use of personal privacy and to reject the improper linguistic abuse of public power.  We rightly exercise such control during play, in establishing friendship and love, and when protecting ourselves from agents who are trying to monitor our every word or deed.  By contrast, we wrongly exercise such control when it is used to pursue power or mastery in the public sphere.  When excluded others hear or read such personal or private sublanguages, they experience linguistic alienation.  Personal sublanguages are instances when  linguistic alienation is justified, because individuals are entitled to privacy regarding personal issues.  Private sublanguages are instances when linguistic alienation is unjustified, because individuals are not entitled to authoritarian control over public concerns.

Personal sublanguages do not involve a violation--they preclude such violation by establishing a separation.  Consequently, personal sublanguages are not instances of linguistic violence, even though they are instances of linguistic alienation.  Private sublanguages do involve violation--they exclude segments of the public who should not be separated.  Consequently, private sublanguages are instances of linguistic violence, as well as instances of linguistic alienation.  In my view, we should no more want to destroy the personal sublanguage of others than we should want to destroy the personal property of others.


V.  Distinguishing Linguistic Violence and Linguistic Nonviolence

The goal of my work on the politics of language is to expose and eliminate as much linguistic violence as possible and to facilitate the practice of linguistic nonviolence.  If linguistic violence and unjustified linguistic alienation can be overcome, then the practice of linguistic nonviolence would require the availability of an understood language of inclusion.  In order to show what is at stake in my work on the politics of language, I will lay out logically and systematically the distinctions I have been making.  Given the concepts of linguistic alienation, linguistic violence, and conscious awareness, there are eight possible situations.  Their illustration and analysis will show that while it is not obvious that any linguistic violence is justified, some linguistic alienation clearly is justified.  The Diagram in Table 4 shows the eight possible relations, including the logical possibility of a nonalienated, nonviolent, conscious language of inclusion.


Table 4.  Diagram on Linguistic Alienation and Linguistic Violence


C          =          conscious awareness

A         =          linguistic alienation

V         =          linguistic violence

Usually, diagrams of this sort are used to illustrate something about various areas of intersection.  While I will address such issues in distinguishing types of linguistic alienation that are cases of linguistic violence from ones that are not, my ultimate aim is to argue that nonalienated, nonviolent discourse is possible.  (In other words, Area #1 is not empty.)  Most of the analysis that I will provide could be articulated without relying on the diagram in Table 4.  Nevertheless, the diagram is intended as an aid to the reader's intuition of the various relations I discuss.  For this reason, I will note an example for each of the eight areas represented.  The numbers below correspond to the areas with the same number in the diagram.  Before the logical notation of what is included and excluded in each area, I give an example.  (Unfortunately, in such a schematic presentation, I give some examples I have not yet discussed.)  In relation to the diagram, my examples for the areas are as follows:

1.   Understood language of inclusion  (C, ~A, ~V)

2.   Unnoticed personal sublanguage  (~C, A, ~V)

3.   Noticed personal sublanguage  (C, A, ~V)

4.   Offensive paternalistic use of private sublanguage  (C, A, V)

5.   Abusive linguistic violence  (C, ~A, V)

6.   Subtle linguistic violence  (~C, ~A, V)

7.   Oppressive paternalistic sublanguage  (~C, A, V)

8.   Idle communication  (~C, ~A, ~V)

As I have mentioned, the most desired circumstance is represented by Area #1.  In this case, neither linguistic alienation nor linguistic violence is present and the individual is conscious of this fact.  Nevertheless, the claim that there are cases of non-distorted, non-ideological discourse has been challenged.  If all language is distorted in a manner that necessarily results in linguistic alienation or linguistic violence, then Area #1 is empty.  I have claimed this view is not correct.  Now, I turn to this debate and the relation of my work to it.

V. N. Volosinov has claimed that every sign is ideologically charged.  If he is correct, then one result would be that alienation and violence are totally intractable features of language.  Arguing that semiology is ideology, Volosinov goes further and claims that "the domain of ideology coincides with the domain of signs."[32]  Volosinov proceeds to correlate the social generation of signs with class struggles.  He asserts, "Any current curse word can become a word of praise, any current truth must inevitably sound to many other people as the greatest lie."[33]

My fourth thesis on language offers a basis for challenging Volosinov's claim, but my fifth thesis on language suggests how efforts to overcome linguistic alienation and linguistic violence can delude us into thinking we have succeeded when, in fact, the results are at best partial.  The work of Jürgen Habermas represents one way around the paralysis that seems to follow from Volosinov's position.  By contrast, Habermas contends rational justification is possible and is based on truth. Further, he maintains that the norms of rational discourse entail a universal morality and that such norms have an immanent relation to truth.[34]

My intent is not to enter into this debate at this point.  Instead, I am trying to show what is at stake in deciding whether various areas in my diagram constitute a null set or whether there are examples.  At the least, the circumstance illustrated in Area #1 is the ideal.  The other limit case is represented by Area #8, namely, discourse that occurs outside the parameters of the three circles of the diagram.  In other words, Area #8 illustrates discourse in which although speakers are not using linguistically alienating or violent language, they also are not conscious of this aspect in their discourse.  If it turns out that there are no examples of nonalienating and nonviolent discourse taking place without those persons involved being conscious of this fact, then it would seem that Heidegger was incorrect when he wrote about idle talk.  For Heidegger, forms of communication that involve "gossiping and passing the word along" or "superficial reading" and "'scribbling'" epitomize what he means by idle talk.[35]  (Of course, if there is idle talk that is innocent, innocuous, or even largely vacuous, there can also be cases that include linguistic alienation and linguistic violence.)  However, a more important point is the following.  Collectively, these examples show that linguistic alienation can be distinguished from linguistic violence, that is, ~(A V) assuming there are instances of Areas #2 and #3 (A & ~V) and Areas #5 and #6 (~A & V).

Although in the list following the diagram I give one example of the type of situation that can be found in each area, I will not go through each of the remaining areas.  For purposes of this essay, beyond the possibility of examples in Area #1 (understood language of inclusion), the most important areas for distinguishing justified linguistic alienation from unjustified linguistic alienation are Area #2 and Area #3, on the one hand, and Area #4, on the other.  In other words, personal sublanguages, whether noticed (Area #3) or unnoticed (Area #2) must be distinguished from private sublanguages that are used in a consciously offensive manner (Area #4)--as occurs in much paternalistic discourse.  Area #2 and Area #3, as I have noted,  refer to what I term personal sublanguages.  I regard such personal sublanguages as cases of justified linguistic alienation.  As can now be seen, Area #4 represents what Rossi-Landi terms a special sublanguage and what I term a private sublanguage in contrast to my notion of a personal sublanguage.  I regard such private sublanguages as cases of linguistic violence.  Finally, if there are examples of Area #4, then there are probably examples of Area #7; namely, if some people are conscious of discourse that is both alienating and violent (Area #4), others may be subjected to the very same discourse without having this awareness (Area #7).

Much work remains to be done in identifying and analyzing discourse along the lines suggested by my diagram.  At this point, I will take only one further step.  Specifically, in my conclusion, I note that an understood language of inclusion is possible and can be advanced.


Conclusion:  Overcoming Linguistic Alienation and Linguistic Violence

Even though language does not determine thought, the politics of language makes efforts to hoe rows that run counter to current furrows arduous and often unappreciated labor.  Moreover, the effort to eliminate linguistic alienation and linguistic violence is part of a larger struggle to reduce cultural violence.  The first step is breaking our silence concerning the many forms of violence.  As Deborah Cameron observes, "Silence is a symbol of oppression, while liberation is speaking out, making contact."[36]  I make a related point when I suggest that often silence is violence and that peacemaking should occupy the space between silence and violence.[37]

Thus, the critique of linguistic alienation and linguistic violence is simultaneously a contribution to the quest for societies in which human emancipation, dignity, and respect are not restricted on the basis of irrelevant factors like gender, race, or sexual orientation.  But vigilance is needed to guarantee that this linguistic nonviolence moves from being merely formal to becoming substantive.  As Rossi-Landi observes, "No real operation on language can be only linguistic.  To operate on language, one has to operate on society.  Here as everywhere else, politics comes first."[38]  His position is that "one fights on the side of the masses of speakers, in this way putting oneself at the service of the people."[39]  In this context, we are involved in a struggle for voice.

In place of the linguistic alienation that special sublanguages precipitate, Rossi-Landi, wants a public discourse that empowers the people to whom it is addressed.  It may seem surprising that when Rossi-Landi tries to make this move he turns to Wittgenstein.  However, his way of understanding Wittgenstein is quite distinctive.  By placing Wittgenstein in the context of continental thought, Rossi-Landi is able to address the commonalties Wittgenstein has with Marx and Freud.  Rossi-Landi says all three were healers who did not just build theories but also started new practices.[40]  He argues that, insofar as Wittgenstein sought to eliminate false thought and false consciousness, he was working with the concept of linguistic alienation and was developing methods for its reduction.

Wittgenstein does not need to be seen as saying everything in language is as it should be.  Instead, Wittgenstein can be used to stress the fact that linguistic alienation often occurs precisely "when we do respect the rules which have been taught to us" and to reject the view that the role of the linguistic therapist is to teach those who have lapsed into "disturbed communication" to "respect" the language games in which they are involved.[41]  What we call "normal communication" masks the ways in which discourse and power are skewed toward specific educational, professional, and racial classes.

For my part, I want to add that for linguistic therapy to help the patient, linguistic therapists likely need to make "house calls," since philosophy texts are rarely read by health care professionals, business executives, public school teachers, or other laborers in the public sphere.  In other words, the kind of applied philosophy that Rossi-Landi's reading of Wittgenstein facilitates is more hands-on than theoretical, more at the level of community outreach than out-of-the-reach of the community.

Just as Wittgenstein persuaded some of his best students to enter potentially humanitarian professions such as medicine, even so practitioners of applied philosophy can become involved in outreach programs that make their local communities--and even the global community--healthier linguistically and morally.  While such applied philosophy can and should be practiced at the local level, it can and should be extended all the way to the arena of international politics.[42] The fact that words and language games--even forms of life--are conventional means there is not a natural basis for their maintenance.  New conventions can be adopted, ones which decrease alienation and violence.  From individual words to entire forms of life, we can make changes which serve broader and loftier interests than current conventions.

Nonviolent action and nonviolent discourse may not always be successful.  The linguistically alienated and linguistically violated may always be with us, but progress in related areas is worth noting.  Persons with naturally-caused dysfunctions who have been denied initial access to oral and written communication have made remarkable progress in finding alternative strategies.  The successes of persons with naturally-caused dysfunctions offers hope for persons suffering from socially-imposed alienation.  The alienated masses may also find effective strategies for breaking into once closed oral and written forums of communications.

University of North Carolina at Charlotte




I wish to thank Laura Duhan Kaplan, UNC Charlotte, for her careful reading of an earlier version of this essay and for her detailed and very helpful comments.

[1]    Cf. William Gay and Michael Pearson, The Nuclear Arms Race (Chicago:  The American Library Association, 1987).

[2]     I first present these theses together in my article, "Nonsexist Public Discourse and Negative Peace:  The Injustice of Merely Formal Transformation," The Acorn:  Journal of the Gandhi-King Society (Summer 1997).

[3]     Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, rans. Wade Baskin (New York:  McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1959), pp. 10 and 14.

[4]     Ibid., p. 74.

[5]     Pierre Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power, trans. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1991).

[6]     Ibid., p. 109.

[7]     Ibid., p. 45.

[8]     Ibid., p. 46.

[9]     Cf. my essay, "Bourdieu and the Social Conditions of Wittgensteinian Language Games," The International Journal of Applied Philosophy 11, n1 (Summer/Fall 1996), pp. 15-21.

[10]  Newton Garver, "What Violence Is," The Nation 209 (June 24, 1968), pp. 817-822.

[11]   I make this argument systematically in "Linguistic Violence," Institutional Violence, eds. Robert Litke and Deane Curtin (Amsterdam:  Rodopi, forthcoming).

[12]  Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Signs, trans. Richard C. McCleary (Evanston:  Northwestern University Press, 1964).

[13]   Cf. my essays "Merleau-Ponty on Language and Social Science:  The Dialectic of Phenomenology and Structuralism," Man and World 12 (1979), pp. 322-338 and "Analogy and Metaphor:  Two Models of Linguistic Creativity," Philosophy and Social Criticism  7 (1980), pp. 299-317.

[14]   Cf. my essay, "Ricoeur on Metaphor and Ideology," Darshana International 32, n1 (January 1992), pp. 59-70.

[15]   Cf. John Wesley Young, Totalitarian Language:  Orwell's Newspeak and Its Nazi and Communist Antecedents (Charlottesville, VA:  University Press of Virginia, 1991).

[16]   Cf. my essays, "Nonsexist Public Discourse and Negative Peace" and "Diversity and Peace:  Negative and Positive Forms," Community, Difference and Diversity:  Implications for Peace, eds. Alison Bailey and Paula Smithka (Amsterdam:  Rodopi, forthcoming).

[17]   Karl Marx, "Zur Judenfrage," Marx Engels Werke, Band 1 (Berlin:  Dietz Verlag, l974), pp. 347-377.  "On The Jewish Question," The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, 2nd ed. (New York:  W.W. Norton, 1978), pp. 26-52.

[18]   Marx, Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte aus dem Jahre l844, Marx Engels Werke, Ergänzungsband Schriften bis l844, Erster Teil (Berlin:  Dietz Verlag, l973), pp. 515-517.  "Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of l844," The Marx-Engels Reader, pp. 75-77.

[19]  Ferruccio Rossi-Landi, Linguistics and Economics (The Hague:  Mouton, 1977); Language as Work & Trade: A Semiotic Homology for Linguistics & Economics; trans. Martha Adams et al (South Hadley, MA:  Bergin & Garvey Publishers, Inc., 1983; "On Linguistic Money," Philosophy and Social Criticism 7 (1980), pp. 346-72; "Ideas for the Study of Linguistic Alienation," Social Praxis 3, n1-2 (1975), pp. 77-92.  Cf. my essay, "Nuclear Discourse and Linguistic Alienation," Journal of Social Philosophy 18, n2 (Summer 1987), pp. 42-49.

[20]   Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy:  Technologizing the Word (New York:  Methuen, 1982).

[21]   Cf. esp. Thomas Hylland Eriksen, "Linguistic Hegemony and Minority Resistance," Journal of Peace Research 29, n3 (1992), pp. 313-332.

[22]   Cf. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York:  Herder and Herder, 1972).

[23]   Cf. esp. my essay, "Linguistic Violence."

[24]   Stephanie Ross, "How Words Hurt:  Attitude, Metaphor, and Oppression," Sexist Language:  A Modern Philosophical Analysis, ed. Mary Vetterling-Braggin (Littlefield, Adams and Co., 1981), p. 197.

[25]   Ibid., p. 195.

[26]   For an alternative approach, see Haig A. Bosmajian, The Language of Oppression (Lanham, MD:  University Press of American, 1983).

[27]   Sandra McCosh, "Aggression in Children's Jokes," Maledicta 1, n2 (Winter 1977), pp. 125-132.

[28]   Beyond Eriksen, "Linguistic Hegemony and Minority Resistance," see Mahmoud Dhaouadi, "An Operational Analysis of the Phenomenon of the Other Underdevelopment in the Arab World and in the Third World," International Sociology 3, n3 (September 1988), pp. 219-234.

[29]   Cf. David R. Burgest, "The Racist Use of the English Language," The Black Scholar (Sept. 1973), pp. 37-45, Luce Irigaray, "The Language of Man," trans. Erin G. Carlston, Cultural Critique 13 (Fall 1989), pp. 191-202, and Stephen O. Murray, "The Art of Gay Insulting," Anthropological Linguistics 21, n5 (May 1979), pp. 211-23.

[30]   Beyond Young, Totalitarian Language, see Berel Lang, "Language and Genocide," Echoes from the Holocaust:  Philosophical Reflections on a Dark Time, eds. Alan Rosenberg and Gerald E. Myers (Philadelphia:  Temple University Press, 1988), pp. 349-50.

[31]   "Nuclear Discourse and Linguistic Alienation."

[32]   V. N. Volosinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (New York:  Seminar Press, 1973), p. 10.  I my critique this view in "Ricoeur on Metaphor and Ideology."

[33]   Ibid., p. 23.

[34]  Jürgen Habermas, Legitimationsprobleme im Spätkapitalismus (Frankfurt am Main:  Suhrkamp Verlag, 1973), p. 131; Legitimation Crisis, trans. Thomas McCarthy (Boston:  Beacon Press, 1975), p. 95.  I develop my response to this approach in my article, "Justification of Legal Authority:  Phenomenology vs Critical Theory," Journal of Social Philosophy 11, n2 (May 1980), pp. 1-10 and in my essay, "The Violence of Domination and the Power of Nonviolence," Power and Domination, eds. Laura Duhan Kaplan and Laurence Bove (Amsterdam:  Rodopi, forthcoming in 1997).

[35]   Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York:  Harper & Row, 1962), p. 212.

[36]   Deborah Cameron, Feminism and Linguistic Theory (New York:  St. Martin's Press, 1985), p. 5.

[37]   William Gay, "The Prospect for a Nonviolent Model of National Security," On the Eve of the 21st Century:  Perspectives of Russian and American Philosophers, eds. William Gay and T. A. Alekseeva (Lantham, MD:  Rowman & Littlefield, 1994), esp. pp. 129-132.

[38]   Rossi-Landi, "Ideas for the Study of Linguistic Alienation," p. 90.  Cf. Ranjit Chatterjee, "Rossi-Landi's Wittgenstein:  'A philosopher's meaning is his use in the culture,' " Semiotica 84, n3/4 (1991), pp. 275-283 and my essay, "From Wittgenstein to Applied Philosophy, "The International Journal of Applied Philosophy 9, n1 (Summer/Fall 1994), pp. 15-20.

[39]   Rossi-Landi, "On Linguistic Money," p. 368.

[40]   Ferrucio Rossi-Landi, "Wittgenstein:  Old and New," Semiotics Unfolding, ed. Tasso Borbé (Berlin, New York, Amsterdam:  Mouton, 1984), p. 338.

[41]   Ibid., p. 340.

[42]   Cf. William Gay and T. A. Alekseeva, Capitalism with a Human Face:  The Quest for a Middle Road in Russian Politics (Lantham, MD:  Rowman & Littlefield, 1996).