The Power of Words: Language, Hegemony, and Social Inequality

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Language is such a pervasive component of our everyday lives that we often tend to forget the complex power dynamics that are always embedded in humans’ engagements with language. We tend to naturalize and overlook the power-laden nature of communication and to assume that language is a neutral and objective system of signs apt at enabling the transmission of information. But what is the relationship between language and social status? What is the role of certain discursive representation of reality in reproducing or challenging the status quo? Why are certain languages considered to be better and more prestigious than others? How can certain conversational practices contribute to the reproduction of gender inequalities and racial stereotypes? What were the implications of colonization for the indigenous languages of the populations that experienced Euro-American colonial domination? What is the role of world Englishes in today’s globalized world? Through a series of readings, we will discuss the varied and sometimes surprising interconnections among language, power, and social inequality. Students will explore topics such as the role of linguistic ideologies in the colonial enterprise; the historical production of an official standard language and the construction of hegemonic power; the unequal power relations often at stake in multilingual contexts; the role of language in crafting representations of people’s identities; the contemporary debates on the loss of indigenous languages, linguistic revitalization movements, and other activist efforts; the impact of language-based discrimination and the role of linguistic parodies as a form of cultural resistance; as well as the social and political life of words as they travel across global networks of power and meaning.