The language citizen

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Saussure famously characterizes language as both ‘mutable’ and ‘immutable.’ Any individual is free to coin a phrase or use a word in a new way, but it is only the linguistic community as a whole that can ratify the new expression, giving it social currency and legitimation. In a language, rhetorical force is constantly being applied by speakers of a language: by writers, film-makers, politicians, and academics. At the same time, resistance to linguistic innovation is being applied by the language community as a whole: in conversation, on Wikipedia, and on talkback radio. Expressions such as ‘collateral damage,’ ‘rogue state,’ or ‘queue-jumper,’ can only be given currency, force, or legitimation, by the community of speakers of a language. The Saussurean scholar Roy Harris, in his work Reading Saussure (Open Court, 1987), says that the role of the individual in making a language is remarkably similar to the role of the individual in a nation-state. This analogy naturally suggests the concept of the ‘language citizen.’ A language citizen would be a speaker of a language who makes choices in their language use, who may either ratify or resist linguistic innovation. The notion of the language citizen is a way of measuring the depth and breadth of community participation in the construction of meaning, and in the making and remaking of worlds.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)60-66
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Language, Literature and Culture
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2014


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