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Metalinguistic Perspectives on Germanic Languages

European Case Studies from Past to Present


Edited By Gijsbert Rutten and Kristine Horner

In what ways has language been central to constructing, challenging and reconfiguring social and political boundaries? This volume traverses space and time to explore the construction of such boundaries. Focusing on the ways that language functions as an inclusive and divisive marker of identity, the volume includes case studies on Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Belgium  and Luxembourg. It also explores the northern and southern borderlands of present-day Germany as well as the city of Cologne and the surrounding Ruhr area. The chapters critically engage with focused accounts of past and present language situations, practices and policies. Taken as a whole, the volume stresses the importance of studying metalinguistic perspectives as a means of enabling detailed analyses and challenging generalizations.
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12 Commentary: Metalinguistic Perspectives on Germanic Languages in Europe


One of the most interesting aspects of this collection is that the main focus is on speakers (lay and expert) and their beliefs about language. In order to uncover these beliefs the contributors analyse what language users say or have said in the past about the range of varieties they use and/or hear and/or see around them and the uses to which those varieties are put. Speakers use metalanguage to reflect on language and convey ideas not only about what it is, but also what they think it ought to be. As Johnson (2006: 437) points out in a review of Jaworski et al. (2004), this normative aspect makes metalanguage inherently ideological.

There was a time when lay people’s attitudes to and their beliefs about language were evaluated negatively and considered unworthy of study by professional linguists. There were various reasons for this: lay people often did not appear to have the ‘correct’ terminology to talk about language (e.g. they used terms like voice, accent and dialect interchangeably); their overtly expressed attitudes were based on what linguists considered false and unscientific conceptions of language (e.g. that one language could be more beautiful than another); and their judgements were quite frequently aimed at speakers rather than at the actual language use of those speakers (e.g. ‘It’s sloppy to drop your aitches in English’). In the field of dialectology the beliefs of the speakers themselves about what varieties they speak, about the location of boundaries between varieties, etc...

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