Bourdieu | Language & Symbolic Power

Literature review // Bourdieu, Pierre (1991) Language & Symbolic Power. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (38-89)

Read in Language & Culture class

 First, I want to remind future-Jacklynn how poorly-written this article was. Bourdieu seemed to have a phobia of ending a sentence and would avoid them at all costs. Loved interjections, hated interjections. Take this sentence chosen at random:

” What guides linguistic production is not the degree of tension of the market or, more precisely, its degree of formality , defined in the abstract, for any speaker, but rather the relation between a degree of ‘average’ objective tension and a linguistic habitus itself characterized by a particular degree of sensitivity to the tension of the market: or, in other words, it is the anticipation of profits, which can scarcely be called a subjective anticipation since it is the product of the encounter between an objective circumstance, that is, the average probability of success, and an incorporated objectivity, that is, the disposition towards a more or less rigorous evaluation of that probability. ” (81)

Now just imagine reading 60 pages of that. 

Anyway, on to the analysis:

This paper introduced me to many interesting concepts that I can imagine using throughout the class and hopefully in the work I’m doing through my thesis.

So first, we compared Bourdieu and Saussure and how Bourdieu built off of this background in his work. Saussure, apparently, is now accepted as a more dated theory in linguistics but is important as a foundation. In summary Saussure kind of argued for linguists to focus and study on the dictionary, formal language (lange) instead of the spoken language, the language in use (parole).  With that in mind, Bourdieu definitely explored the parole side of things more in this work.

“Grammar defines meaning only very partially: it is in relation to a market that the complete determination of the signification of discourse occurs.”  (38)

If I’m understanding correctly, he framed this exploration as how language with the phrase “linguistic habitus.” Habitus is formed through things like socialization and performed in everyday action. It’s more instinctual and in below the level of consciousness. He believed that so much of our language (the way we use it) is socially determined and also affects the way we interact with (people) in the world.

Bourdieu develops his idea of the ‘linguistic market’ in this reading. What is the linguistic market? Explain this concept and its related concepts like ‘symbolic capital’.

 Bourdieu talked about language with a really interesting perspective as kind of a monetary unit in a market. Like it was a kind of wealth you could accumulate and use to distinguish yourself over other people with it. That had an effect on the over all economy with other people. The more command over language you had, the more power you could exert over others.

“Utterances receive their value (and their sense) only in relation to a market, characterized by a particular price formation. The value of the utterance depends on the relation of power that is concretely established between the speaker’s linguistic competences, understood both as their capacity for production and as their capacity for appropriation and appreciation.” (67)

These performative utterances then had symbolic power where receivers recognize the authority of your words and in that accepts create the power of the words. Even beyond what is traditionally studied in linguistics like semantics and grammar–it is the style “through which language aims to produce and impose the representation of its own importance” (76).

Like a market, there are also anticipations of market (76) where people might learn certain linguistic practices as an investment in their future. This could mean learning certain dialects to show your membership into a community or to advance yourself. Think My Fair Lady. Therefore, people are evaluated by the linguistic market.

What are examples of Bourdieu’s claim on page 54 that there are “a whole set of differences significantly associated with social differences which, though negligible in the eyes of the linguist, are pertinent from the sociologist’s standpoint because they belong to a system of linguistic oppositions which is the re-translation of a system of social differences”? Also, what are the shortcomings of the linguistic perspectives on language that he mentions (Saussure and Whorf)?

Bourdieu emphasized the relationship between social circumstances and how language is received, used, and understood, something that previous linguistic theories did not cover. For example, in class we talked a lot about the Bernais mayor example where he address the audience in Bernais instead of French, which he was fluent in, in order to elevate Bernais to his audience, an act which they highly respected (68). Or in his dense words, it “enables the speaker to combine the profits linked to the undiminished hierarchy with those derived from the distinctly symbolic negation of the hierarchy.”

He also talked about how people like the bourgeois get caught up on the practicing the formal language that they end up using fillers and hedging their speech to prevent it from being outlandish. Their greater need to be formal is linked to a higher degree of censorship, more euphemization, more systematic effort to observer formalities, and to practice a mastery or euphemization (84). Hedges are phrases like ‘sort of’, ‘pretty much’, and ‘strictly speaking.’ Filler are words like ‘somethings like that’ and ‘particularly.’ These phrases make the bourgeois speech more inflated but, according to Bourdieu (and Lakoff) they perform the important function of being a practical metalanguage that creates a safe distance from their own utterances.


Another point that I thought was really interesting that Bourdieu discussed was the role of education (school or otherwise) in pushing forward a formal or preferred language which sets this language market into effect. It creates a more coveted language that few people in have ‘access’ to. Limited supply drives the demand for a formal version of a language. Think about the ‘accent-less’ way media newscasters talk. They create a system of norms that people recognize and which other dialects are measured against (45). This promotion of an official language creates a monopoly over those people who have a command over it and those who do not.

This recognition of a standard language is also part of our habitus, or below consciousness because is create through socialization and our everyday practices.

Anyway, that’s pretty much what I understood of the whole thing.

Thoughts? Discussion? I'd love to hear 'em!

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