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Language and Politics




Admission Requirements



This course will offer students an opportunity to identify, map out and understand the problematic territory at the intersection of language and politics. Ever since Socrates drew attention to the art of deception mastered by the Sophists, who employed language to rhetorical effect instead of in the pursuit of truth, a lingering suspicion has persisted in our culture that our use of words might not be as transparent and innocuous a representation of the world as some might have implicitly or explicitly claimed. Thinkers of the past century have most intensely scrutinized language as the medium of representation – that is, political representation – of variously situated individuals or groups. Enlisting the help of linguists, critical theorists, fiction writers, sociologists, anthropologists, and philosophers, in the course of this semester we will ponder questions such as: What does it mean to speak about, as or in the name of citizens of a country, women of color, disabled persons, natives of former colonies, children, environment activists? In other words, how does the language we use in everyday life, in legal documents, in laws and regulations, shape our perceptions of the world around us, position us with respect to other people, and help us create a sustainable community with them? What difference does it make to privilege one language over others, how does such a choice bear on the dynamic of power relations among various individuals and groups?

Course Objectives

The purpose of this course is twofold: first, students will gain familiarity with a broad range of views on the workings of language and its political implications, both diachronically (from Plato to twentieth century linguists) and synchronically (with a focus on debates that dominated the past century). In this latter sense, it could be regarded as an introduction to critical theory: students will develop a critical vocabulary instrumental in broadening what is generally understood by the term “politics.” (This is crucial: you will broaden your understanding of what we call “political.”) Second, the nuanced analyses of texts in various genres and of numerous case-studies will fine-tune the students’ awareness of the subtle political implications of various language uses, from seemingly innocuous conversations in daily life to broader issues and challenges specific to a global world.

Mode of Instruction

The course will unfold as a series of conversations on various themes related to the course topic, prompted by weekly readings of no longer than 50 pages. Typically, the first part of our meeting will be dedicated to discussing the required texts for the day based on the responses posted by students on blackboard the night before class. A student or two will then be in charge of presenting the optional reading on the syllabus, first by explaining to the rest of the class the main concepts and ideas developed by the author, then by illustrating how those notions could be applied to the analysis of a text (a film excerpt, a historical case, a very brief fictional text, etc) of their own choice (to be discussed in advance with the course instructor).


  • A thorough and thoughtful engagement with the texts on the syllabus is essential to the pedagogy of this course, as is an active participation in class-discussion. Class participation will count for 20% of the final grade.

  • Blackboard postings will focus on one or several key-terms or ideas developed in the required text for the day. Postings of approx. 300 words are due starting week 2, by Monday 23:59h (for Tuesday class) and by Thursday 23:59h (for Friday class). You may skip one. Blackboard postings will count for 25% of the final grade.

  • One presentation of an optional reading and case-study. The presentation will count for 15% of the final grade.

  • Final paper proposal (approx. 300 words) and annotated bibliography due in class at the end of week 5. The final paper proposal will count for 10% of the final grade.

  • A final research essay of 2500-3000 words, due on week 8, Wednesday at 17:00. The final research essay will count for 30% of the final grade.

Other rules
-Timely submission of assignments: Late assignments (webposts included) will each have .5 points deducted for each day they are late
-Attendance: You must notify me beforehand if you need to miss a class. Unexcused absences will affect negatively your participation grade. A student cannot miss more than 15% of classes.
-The LUC attendance policy, grading policy, and the Honour Code apply.



Contact Information

Weekly Overview

Weeks 1 and 2

  • Do we mean what we say? Language in history: truth, rhetoric, propaganda, play; theories of language. Texts by Plato, Nietzsche, Marinetti; Bakhtin, Jakobson, Derrida; Wittgenstein, Cavell, Ionesco (play).

Week 3

  • Speaking as, speaking for: the stakes of linguistic and political representation (Case-studies: Communism, National Socialism). Texts by: Foucault, Deleuze, Spivak;Althusser, Beckett, Orwell, Levi.

Week 4

  • Language and the politics of everyday life. Texts by: Lefebvre, Debord, de Certeau, Rancière. Documentary by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin.

Week 5

  • Politics of sexual difference: biological determinism, linguistic normativity, and the theatrics of social performativity. Texts by: Zerilli, Butler, Rubin. Documentary by Jennie Livingston.

Week 6

  • Speaking as, speaking for (continued): colonialism and decolonization. Texts by: Fanon, Bhabha, Achebe, Naipaul, Djebar. Documentary by Isaac Julien.

Week 7

  • Nationalism, multiculturalism, globalization. Texts by: Taylor, Appiah, Gandhi, Buruma.

Preparation for first session

The first chapter of John Joseph’s book Language and Politics, entitled “Overview: How politics permeates language (and vice versa)”, offers a good introduction to some of the topics we will address in this course. Students should come to the first class with a copy of the chapter (available as a .pdf on the course website) or with their own copy of the book, and prepared to discuss the different ways in which politics permeates language (and vice versa), according to Joseph. Can you think of some examples of your own?