Linguistic Change and Politics

"Language as violence"

Bild Wirtschaft
Bild Wirtschaft

In the course of the lecture series „The Power of Language“, which took place in cooperation with the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in early summer of 2006 in Munich, Prof. Dr. Clemens Knobloch gave a speech on the historical context of the “language wars” in Europe following the First World War and the emergence of linguistic power relations in mass and media democracies.


“Our mother-tongue as a weapon and tool of German thought”: this was the title given by Georg Schmidt-Rohr, political spokesman of the Sprachvölkische Bewegung (Popular Language Movement), German expatriate activist and later one of the most ambitious linguistic policy-makers of National Socialism, to the pamphlet with which he first took to the political stage in 1917. It sounds martial, the mother-tongue as a “weapon and tool”.

Who is to be conquered, beaten, ousted with the aid of the “mother-tongue” weapon?

What does one first think of when one is asked to speak on “Language as violence”? Perhaps Louis-Jean Calvet’s book Linguistique et colonialisme: Petit traité de glottophagie, the situations which sociolinguists like to euphemistically call “language contact situations”, though frequently they are also language displacement situations? Or the defrancisation campaign by the German Language Association in reoccupied Alsace? That languages can be used as “weapons and tools” against other languages is no surprise. Violence is a tool. In symbolically integrated societies, however, shared language is the basis and medium for power and counter-power.

I will try to reconstruct the historical context of the “language wars” in Europe following the First World War, the context in which Georg Schmidt-Rohr’s abovementioned pamphlet belongs. My remarks are not intended to focus on historical details, however. Rather, I will be looking at the emergence of linguistic power relations in mass and media democracies, relations which have outlasted the “language war” of the period after the War. Not that there are no longer any traces of such “language wars” close to home nowadays (Catalan v. Spanish or Kurdish v. Turkish), but behind these increasingly anachronistic-seeming conflicts there clearly emerge (as exemplified in the Weimar Republic and National Socialism) modern techniques of rhetorical and semantic disappropriation of counter-power which are effective and are independent of the respective “national language”."


Prof. Dr. Clemens Knobloch is Professor of German Studies and Linguistic Psychology, Linguistic Communication and History of German Linguistics at the University of Siegen and is a member of the Siegen Institute for Foreign Languages in Business (SISIB).

Here you will find the English version of Prof. Dr. Clemens Knobloch's speech

Disketten-Symbol"Language as Violence"  (pdf, 67 KB)

TV-SymbolSlideshow of the speech



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