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  • Guardians of language: Twenty voices through history by Florian Coulmas
  • Iair G. Or and Elana Shohamy
Guardians of language: Twenty voices through history. By Florian Coulmas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. 345. ISBN 9780198736523. $55 (Hb).

Language planning and policy (LPP) was founded as an academic field in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Joshua Fishman and other prominent scholars. In its early years, LPP was perceived as a subfield of applied linguistics and the sociology of language, one most specifically interested in developing nations and the way they cope with language-related problems. Some particular cases of language planning, such as the planned revitalization of Hebrew in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, drew a great deal of attention. Scholars uncovered more and more historical cases in which new scripts were developed, dialects were standardized or granted official status, and language conflicts between elites or other social groups were resolved. In the present book, dedicated to the memory of Fishman, who died in 2015, Coulmas seems to revive and continue the Fishmanian tradition of historical case studies by exploring twenty individuals who variously shaped languages and language policies in multiple spheres of activity through history.

The survey of these language policy makers is chronologically ordered and begins in the eighth century with Alcuin of York, who strove to purify Latin from vernacular influences, followed by Sibawayhi, the great Arabic grammarian who studied the speech of Arabian Bedouins, and Dante Alighieri, who studied and accorded prestige to the Italian vernaculars. Other early figures are King Sejong, who devised a new script for Korean, ElioAntonio de Nebrija, who authored the first grammar of Castilian Spanish, and Cardinal Richelieu, who founded the first language academy, for the French language. All of the other figures surveyed were active in the 1700s or later: Catherine II (Russian), Adamantios Koraïs (Greek), Noah Webster (American English), Jacob Grimm (German), Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (Hebrew), Ludwik Zamenhof (Esperanto), Ueda Kazutoshi (Japanese), Vladimir Ilich Lenin (Russian and the local languages of the USSR), Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (Turkish), Mahatma Gandhi (Hindi), Zhou Enlai (Chinese), Pope Paul VI (Latin and the vernaculars), Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana (Indonesian), and Léopold Sédar Senghor (French).

Each presentation of a language policy leader begins with a biographical sketch of their activities and involvement, followed by a discussion of the language situation in the geographical and historical context in which they were active. Each chapter concludes with an imagined interview with the policy maker, titled ‘The last word’ and carefully crafted from quotations and texts written by the person. While the interviews might seem out of place at first, they are very effective in letting the readers glimpse the language activists’ ways of thinking in modern terms. The book ends with a coda that discusses and synthesizes the twenty cases by analyzing the similarities and dissimilarities among them. Like Fishman (2006), C traces various axes or continua of language policy objectives (modernization vs. conservation, universality vs. uniqueness, unity vs. pluralism, domination vs. liberation, and elitism vs. egalitarianism) on which each of the language policy makers can be positioned. Like Neustupný (2006), he also analyzes the history of language planning, distinguishing between different phases of LPP. For example, he shows that multilingualism and language pluralism only appeared as language policy goals at a very late stage.

Although the theoretical framework of the book is no doubt embedded in the Western tradition, in the selection of the ‘twenty voices’ C manages to avoid the Eurocentric bias by including language activists from Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. However, certain types of cases may be under-represented. C seems to focus mainly on success stories on a national scale and to overlook the struggles of minority and indigenous languages as well as the losers of these heroic national projects. Thus, languages of groups and nations who never achieved statehood, such as Catalan, Basque, Berber, or any of the indigenous languages in the Americas, are not represented, nor are languages that suffered from national language-planning projects such as Yiddish, Ladino, and Judeo-Arabic, which became almost extinct in the Jewish world because of the rise and spread of [End Page 473] Modern...


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