The Politics of English: A Marxist View of Language by Marnie Holborow. London: Sage, 1999. vii + 216; index. £17.99. ISBN: 076196018X.
‘Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life’. This famous quote from Marx, given right at the beginning of Holborow’s book, underpins her examination of the politics of the English language. One does not have to be a Marxist, though, to appreciate her attempt to ground linguistic analysis in its social context. By doing so she walks (to a certain extent) in the footprints of Pennycook  who has written on the ‘worldliness of English’.
In her study Holborow casts a critical eye on several important fields of research in sociolinguistics. To begin with, she argues convincingly that the Saussurean distinction between ‘langue’ (the abstract language system) and ‘parole’ (language as it is spoken) - and the emphasis that was for most of the past century put on the former rather than the latter - has led to a neglect of the social dimension of language use. She contrasts this with the Marxist view of language (further developed by Volosinov) which sees language and the social world as inseparable.
In the Chapter entiteled ‘Money talks: the politics of World English’ Holborow sees the global spread of English as being connected to the capitalisation of the world. However, she is both critical of ‘triumphalist’ scholars, who see English as a panacea to the world’s ills, and ‘alarmists’ like Phillipson , whose theory of linguistic imperialism is too static to account for the use of English in post-colonial and global settings. While the imperial background of the English language needs to be acknowledged, social circumstances and not the English language are to be blamed for present inequalities between the West and the so-called developing world. Indeed, Holborrow convincingly argues that English can be used as both instrument of repression and empowerment.
Holborow is at her most provocative in her treatment of women’s language, an important field in sociolinguistics. She exposes so-called ‘feminist’ studies of language as reinforcing rather than challenging stereotypes about how men and women behave and interact. Holborrow denies that women have a language distinct from men. It is invalid, she argues, to lump women together regardless of such factors as age, race, education of social class. While one does not necessarily have to agree with her argument, Holborow does provide an interesting alternative to mainstream literature on gender and language.
The last area of Holborow’s analysis is the debate surrounding Standard English. This is probably the weakest part of her study, as she only reiterates well-known criticism of archconservative defenders of an imagined ‘pure’ English language. Holborow points out that Standard English is not a neutral tool but that it developed in a rigid class based society.
Despite its subtitle this book will not only appeal to Marxists but to all students, (university) teachers and professional linguists who are interested in a challenge to mainstream views on sociolinguistics. Class and class struggle, it is true, are somewhat overemphasised – with the effect of sometimes overly simplifying more complex issues. However, Holborow’s success in exposing weaknesses in traditional sociolinguistic theory makes her study a valuable starting point for discussion, essay writing and further research.
Pennycook, A. (1994), The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language. London: Longman.
Phillipson, Robert (1992), Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: OUP.