Introduction: Obeying and Disobeying

  • Yuliya Komska
  • Michelle Moyd
  • David Gramling


In the introduction, the authors account for traditional understandings of “obedience as decorum” and “obedience as deference to power.” These models, they suggest, no longer characterize linguistic obedience in 2018, when far-right bloggers, troll armies, and the US President style themselves as underdog insurgents, despite having immediate access to the levers of political power. The focus is on how the free market in linguistic disfiguration, legitimated since the 1990s by self-appointed language experts, turns the incentive to speak in civically destructive ways into a lucrative political economy. The authors accordingly define linguistic disobedience as those practices of language care, critique, and correction that—amid such a political economy of incentivized disfiguration—forgo the spoils of everyday interactional domination, in pursuit of better, more just contributions.

This little book was conceived and written in a moment when sitting on our hands and waiting it out wasn’t an option, when the need for academics and teachers to take action and a clear stand felt more important than ever in our adult lives, and when we were each personally interested in clarifying for ourselves what was and wasn’t important in our stances toward language in public life. Our students, our colleagues, our children, our friends around the world—they were all asking fundamental, urgent questions of and around us, and we found we were in as good a position as anyone else to search hard for answers. To dodge the moment, its questions, and its responsibilities, because we were too busy or too jaded or too scared, sounded like the epitome of moral oblivion, the likes of which many generations before us came to regret, bitterly.

If you find something in this book that supports you, too, in listening for the questions of the age in your own hometown, neighborhood, and classroom, we will be delighted—and delighted to hear of it. None of us—Yuliya, Michelle, or David—deems herself a particularly wise or seasoned activist around any of the core questions we consider together in these pages. But we accept such inexpertise as a condition, if not a precondition, for beginning to take some of our own honest and exploratory steps toward restoring power to civic language in an age of suffering, violence, racism, outrage, and impunity. We are each haunted and moved by the general question: What kind of ancestor will you be? This is a question that such long-at-rest, treasured elders as Harriet Tubman, Václav Havel, James Baldwin, Berta Cáceres, Audre Lorde, and others contended with on our behalf, under their own darkening skies.

An initial question, then: What is linguistic obedience? Whether or not we instinctively favor the notion of obeying rules or people, it would be easy enough to say that being obedient in language is essentially the same as being decorous, well-behaved, orderly, moderate, even pious. Surely, in some historical eras, linguistic obedience has meant speaking in complete sentences; forming logical, doctrinaire, or prudent opinions; speaking in a way befitting one’s promises, duties, and commitments; not speaking above one’s station; being sparing with non-verbal cues such as gestures and eye-rolls; heeding authority; expressing oneself in a way that conveys deference and humility toward the addressee; or showing veneration toward the place and setting where one endeavors to make meaning. From Latin to Old French and onward, the etymology of obedience (ob-, “toward,” and audiere, “listen”) suggests an act of hearing in the direction of one thing, rather than another. An obedient speaker-listener hears in the direction of a given command, and not in the direction of noise, temptation, heresy, or chaos. The directional prefix “ob-” tells us that obedience is always an action of choosing one over several potential focal points of attention—a father rather than a sister, wealth rather than well-being, brute force rather than complex insight. Or, deciding to do otherwise.

Looking into the word obey itself (how it arose historically, as well as its current usage), we sense a conflict between two potential understandings. In the one sense, linguistic obedience may mean speaking with orderly decorum, deference, credulity, even submission—perhaps the most common understanding of obedience in its English-language meaning. In the other, directional sense conveyed by its etymology, though, obedience always implies “hearing toward power”—and thus hearing away from, or to the detriment of, other meanings potentially heard and hearable, which in the moment lack power to compel listening.

Although orderly decorum and the power to compel listening have long been culturally and economically interwoven, there is no natural connection between them. The first is a way of characterizing the speaker and her speech, while the second describes her stance toward authority and advantage. A person can exhibit one, the other, or both characteristics, but it is just as possible for his or her language to fulfill one vision of obedience, while utterly confounding the other.

And so, ours is an important historical moment to ask: what happens when power itself utters, promotes, and unleashes chaos and meaninglessness, rather than the conventionally expected forms of order and authority? When, for one reason or another, those in power outright reject the kinds of order and moderation presumed to be the default guise of bourgeois, colonial, and rationalist Liberal traditions? What happens when power claims, or appears to claim, linguistic disobedience as its own native idiom, its own badge of honor, its own liberatory prerogative and outsider identity, its own tool for interactional hegemony? What stance is left for “the powerless” then? Václav Havel (1985) used this term to describe an entire citizenry under conditions of dictatorship. Are we, who live in a democracy, the latter-day “powerless” with regard to language, when the powerful have hijacked disobedience and remade it in their own image? How can we bring that image into sharper focus to help us better direct our opposition to it?

Much of our public discourse tends to view disobedience through the lens of charismatic, righteous dissent and its various cultural, political, and religious percolations—in light of which “obedience” is seen as the unrighteous, uncritical opposite. Obedient, we often take for granted, is she who speaks or writes in pat phrases, in a blandly unimposing or even ebullient tone, in compliant and normative language, while avoiding explosive, censored, taboo, or sticky questions. Obedient is he who knows when to speak and when to keep quiet, when to stick his neck out and when to regroup to see another day. Obedient are they who read from, or at least know, the scripts and lines generally expected of them, who don’t ask too many questions about what the words imply, don’t go searching for meaning between the lines, and neither praise nor criticize the shared language. The obedient often speak against their own interests, so as to not rock the boat. They reproduce coercive paradigms of thought, feeling, and identity, recycling the language of their oppressors and of past ages, despite knowing better. “Nothing will change in American politics,” wrote one prominent commentator, David Green, in 2012, “so long as a majority of Americans remain linguistically obedient, passively accepting the vocabularies of politicians and media alike.” Disobedience, again, appears to be the obvious critical antidote, an urgent issue for education and public health, even.

These impressions arise from a long history of critical animus toward, and veneration of, (dis)obedience—from Confucius to Virgil, from Nietzsche to Marx. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, his 1852 post-mortem of the 1848 February Revolution, Karl Marx casts linguistic obedience as a kind of cognitive impairment:

The nation feels like the mad Englishman in Bedlam who thinks he is living in the time of the old Pharaohs and daily bewails the hard labor he must perform in the Ethiopian gold mines, immured in this subterranean prison, a pale lamp fastened to his head, the overseer of the slaves behind him with a long whip, and at the exits a confused welter of barbarian war slaves who understand neither the forced laborers nor each other, since they speak no common language. “And all this,” sighs the mad Englishman, “is expected of me, a freeborn Briton, in order to make gold for the Pharaohs.” (65)

This image of obedience as false consciousness is a powerful and satisfying idea, one that sets up a convenient opposition between critical experts-with-insight and laypersons trapped in the hamster wheel of delusion. Easily, the first category of person gets credited with articulate and transformative awareness. But often, we find, such expert critics are simply more savvy around the predominant protocols, Liberal lineages, and “hidden transcripts”—to use James C. Scott’s term (1990)—of disobeying. Correspondingly, the second group either has had no sustained recourse to the bank of such powerful ciphers and conventions, collectively dubbed “Aesopian language” by the Soviet dissident and American researcher of dissent Lev Loseff (1984), or rejects them quietly, being labeled as obedient in exchange.

Such a simplistic binary becomes even shakier if we acknowledge that experts often tend to “listen toward” (that is, obey) only a limited, charismatic range of disobedient practices. In language, many alternatives, like those cultivated in African-American Vernacular English and other critical vernaculars, are often not readily grasped by elites and pundits who are inattentive to Black meanings and styles (McWhorter 2016; Makoni et al. 2003).1 The linguist Deborah Tannen (1981, p. 144) calls this prevalent and deeply consequential kind of interactional misrecognition “the opacity of style.” Only by opening up to what is less familiar or less accessible can linguistic disobedience evolve into a more democratic practice.

Disobedience, one would expect in light of these nuances, escapes any standardized prescription. And yet, decade upon decade of its study suggest otherwise. At least since Henry David Thoreau, it has been a suspect and oxymoronic propensity of disobedience chroniclers—and those who write about them—to devise clandestine sets of virtues and dispositions, to organize and order forms of obeying and disobeying, as though the spoils of obedience were the ultimate piety to be recovered and restored. The only sanctioned course under such a scheme is to work ever harder at becoming expert, or, on the other end of things, to convert lay users of language to critical consciousness and contrary action by vigilantly dispensing how-to advice. This notion of exacting self-cultivation and mass conversion may have worked in historical settings that still traded on the ideal of maintaining elite intellectual hierarchies and their respective models of cultural stewardship—let’s say, before and during the age of bourgeois revolutions and early Fordism. Recruiting for this traditional vision of linguistic disobedience will, however, reach an impasse in twenty-first century democracies, where disobedience in the guises of “creative disruption” and “outside-the-box” lingustic behavior have themselves become the go-to tools for wealthy, powerful men’s repression of others.

Disobedience, in other words, is not what it used to be. Darling enfants terribles of reactionary supremacist elites, like Milo Yiannapoulos, fetishize conventional expressions of unruliness and translate them into self-aggrandizing, offensive, and pointlessly verbose autobiographies, while young activists like Emma González in Parkland, Florida, move the world with their humility, empathy, ability to “hear toward” others, to speak eloquently with and within silence. While activists like Ijeoma Oluo write books to help white people sort out their feelings around the question “What if I talk about race wrong?” (2018), the President of the United States (and the Commander in Chief of its armed forces) baldly taunts world-class athletes of color on Twitter. Little sense can be made of these inversions based on the charismatic traditional opposition between obedience and disobedience alone. But our age is not entirely unprecedented on this point. Already in 1967, Joan Didion—and before her Lionel Trilling, in different terms—foresaw similar dumbfounding and injurious truths. She asked, then in reference to the Trump of the day, Howard Hughes: “Why have we made a folk hero out of a man who is the antithesis of all our official heroes? […] Of course we don’t admit that. The instinct is socially suicidal, and because we recognize that this is so we have developed workable ways of saying one thing and believing quite another” (2008, pp. 71–72).

Fifty years later, the elusive cleft between obedience and disobedience continues to widen in American civic life, always with language somewhere at the heart of the matter. A Washington political editor for the far-right news network Breitbart freely announced in 2017 that “the goal eventually is the full destruction and elimination of the entire mainstream media. We envision a day when CNN is no longer in business. We envision a day when The New York Times closes its doors. I think that day is possible” (Clark 2017). Every day makes clearer that traditional conceptions of linguistic (dis)obedience verge on impossible after Donald Trump was chosen President by 62,979,879 voting US citizens, thus throwing the already precarious New World Order of the 1990s into a bleary tailspin. Time has come to rethink these conceptions.

Antisociality: A Growth Industry

To plot the uneasy twinhood of linguistic disobedience and obedience as it has developed up until today, let us briefly consider one of Donald Trump’s most unforgettable verbal coups—a word that here, too, refers to a seizure of power on multiple political levels. In a 2005 conversation about women with a white male reporter and member of an influential political family, Trump hypothesized that “when you’re a star you can grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” Was this obedient or disobedient speech, given received definitions? According to the decorum model, consensus might be that he is performing disobedience in order to show that he can afford to actively flout traditional modes of propriety and, by this token, assert the prerogative to establish his own symbolic system, his own idiolect, his own parole—a heightened and screen-tested version, perhaps, of what the anthropologist Jane Hill (1995) described as “white linguistic disorder.”

But details intercede. As Trump gets off his event bus with the reporter recording him—right after he notes with surprised self-admiration that he “can do anything”—he also says: “It’s always good if you don’t fall out of the bus. Like Ford, Gerald Ford, remember?” The conversation is no longer only about the dos but equally about the don’ts. Don’t behave like Gerald Ford, Trump tells himself with a deflecting second-person pronoun. Ford, 40 years prior, had stumbled badly while descending the stairs of Air Force One on a visit to Austria. Preoccupied in this moment with looking foolish or indextrous in public, Trump displays a deep sensitivity for decorum and order—the semblance of which allows him, in turn, to “grab ‘em by the pussy.” This economy in obedience and disobedience is fueled by profound internal contradictions that we can only begin to untangle here.

But the idea of obedience as decorum and thrall to anachronistic tropes misses a more economically rational way in which this particular speaker is being utterly, cravenly obedient. At every turn, he is modeling linguistic neoliberalism in its most obedient form: prospecting for ceaseless interactional advantage, now best known by the four-letter word “deal.” So much has Trump been habituated to fill every new linguistic space with tactics of advantage-accrual—through style, genre, triumph-telling, trouble-telling, adversity-talk, victim-talk, hypocrisy-baiting, elitism-baiting, birtherism-baiting, truncated performative monolingualism, and modular vernacularity—that he has become nothing if not a machine of compulsive communicative advantage, the conversational equivalent of a loan shark. Divested of decorum constraints, and infused with whatever historical discourses happen to be at hand, this is what twenty-first century neoliberal linguistic obedience looks and sounds like: its primary aim is to rack up a few stock points at every possible exchange of talk, even when not quite planning to do so.

Idioms of Domination

Loan sharks, after all, always need something to loan, some kind of credit to trade on. Harvard President Lawrence Summers (2012) suggested as much when he argued that “what you (really) need to know” in the globalized twenty-first century economy wasn’t language(s) but idiom(s)—ways of speaking rather than systemic repertoires of existing meaning. Weaponizing idioms in the service of the neoliberal master narrative of audited globalized competition, Trump becomes the spitting image of linguistic obedience, addicted to compulsive interactional capitalization through violence, hegemonic stance-taking, and style-prospecting.

In 2019, such communicative or interactional advantage accrues structurally in ways it could not even 25 years ago, and the paradigm shift is a matter of finance as much as of civic discourse. Being a committed troll—occasionally, or from cradle to grave—is of course no new vocation. But the ways in which trolling activity has been monetized since the 1990s dramatically emboldens the civic viability of hate idioms. Take Nicholas Pell, a white male language profiteer who, when writing online, “literally take[s] time to determine how [he] can phrase something in a way that will provoke the greatest amount of butthurt from sea to shining sea” (2015). This purposefulness might at first appear to be motivated by some psychosocial character trait particular to the author or his group-level identity, but it is not. Pell continues, divulging generously: “Editors know they can rely on me to produce a stream of punters giving them the sweet page views and click-throughs they need to pitch to potential advertisers. So basically every time you read my article, comment on it, and/or share it with your friends while telling them what a dick I am, you’re helping me buy another pair of $400 jeans.” In this consumer political economy of language, each participant’s individual actions (trolling, dissenting, divesting, goosenecking, and commentating alike)—all actions traditionally understood in some way as disobedient—add up to a lucrative, credulous, and utterly obedient means of symbolic production: the monetized socialization of antisociality.

Pell’s admission here is clear, proud, and, in its open-handed orientation toward “shop talk,” uncharacteristically transparent—when compared for instance with the clandestine aura around Russian troll farms in journalist Adrian Chen’s 2015 investigation. Pell clarifies that while he may indeed exhibit a personal or regional tendency toward “being a dick,” it is not his general talent at this that keeps him in clover, but rather the ability to key his own linguistic practice to the going unit price for hate idiom. No longer is the “economic world reversed,” as Pierre Bourdieu (1993) wrote about the “field of cultural production.” Instead of being an intangible or “cultural” x-factor, “being a dick” is now a tradable commodity. Like any other commodity that races around the world, as consumers—indifferent, desirous, or repulsed—watch it do so, “being a dick,” as Pell puts it, is a linguistic and symbolic regime that exacts, then enfranchises, its own obedient labor force. Trump is the necessarily antipresidential expression of this alienated, accelerated labor of domination through idiom. This is what we are up against, what we must oppose.

Indivisible Language

Linguistic Disobedience is emphatically not a book about how to understand the words of Trump, his surrogates, supporters, or accessories. In fact, it started out as a short essay, published in The Guardian three days before Trump’s inauguration, imploring all those who would listen to forget about Trump’s idiom and take a cold, hard look at what remains of language (Moyd and Komska 2017). We worried that fixating on the man’s pirouettes of linguistic obedience-as-disobedience—the signature anti-literate, tell-it-like-it-is, “oral” brand of ostentatious pretend-monolingualism that renders political incorrectness correct for millions, all while resuscitating the ghost of Theodore Roosevelt (“we have room for but one language here”)—would leave us with nothing of our own. Dissecting his speech any more than linguists, translators, or journalists had done, we feared, would only yield to Trump another free platform, while contaminating our speech in the same breath.

And yet, the process of thinking and writing about language further has convinced us that deliberately exempting any one speaker in particular would be myopic and wishful. Sure, we can, and probably should, keep talking about the language of the right and of the left, colonizer and colonized, victims and perpetrators, men and women, white and Black, queer and straight, rich and poor. Those dichotomies harbor some useful gradations of power. The underlying predicament, however, is that language is public, impossessible, indivisible (Komska and Moyd 2017). Not in the usual, false-pathos-filled meanings tied to the tired narratives of national unity or patriotism, but in the sense that it cannot be sliced into neat portions, artificially distilled, or otherwise separated for actual use. “Quoted speech” (literally, “another’s speech”) was the term that the famed Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin used to suggest that “we are dealing with someone else’s words more often than with our own” (Pomorska 1984, p. ix). Whether we have a second-grade vocabulary or that of a latter-day Shakespeare, whether we are kleptocratic billionaires or fifth-generation rural poor, sharing at least some words, turns of phrase, grammatical constructions, and frames of reference is an inevitability particular to the medium of language. Such a destiny, of course, was not God-given but consciously chosen by our political ancestors, who went to great lengths to propagate an American idiom long before the high-speech digital traffic of news and social media came into play.

The echo-chamber approach—postulating that clear divisions exist and are easily reinforceable—may work for tracking how far opinions travel (or do not), but language consistently presents itself as a more complex and unpredictable ecology. There is “no natural property of language,” chided the French philosopher Jacques Derrida those who would believe naively in the prospect of its wholesale appropriation or expropriation (Derrida 1998, p. 24). For better or worse, we are stuck with language being a shared resource, and we need to start treating it as such. This means not merely rinsing off, in the stream of our own prose and speech, the nouns, adjectives, and verbs after Trump had just claimed them for another early-morning tweet, but also critiquing, correcting, and caring for words that are never only our own.

And so, implicitly or (at times) explicitly, this book is also about Trump’s words. And the neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin’s words. And the words of Breitbart. And The New York Times. And Black Lives Matter activists. And Heather Heyer, who stood up against white nationalists and was killed for it in Charlottesville, VA, and her mother Susan Bro. And Bree Newsome, who scaled the flagpole outside the South Carolina Statehouse to take down a Confederate flag. And writers Zadie Smith and Jesmyn Ward and Colson Whitehead. Your grade-school teacher. Your car mechanic. Your uncle, the thought of seeing whom at a family get-together makes you cringe. The last sign language interpreter you encountered. Your refugee neighbor. Your pardon attorney. The expat you met backpacking in Ecuador. You. All of us.

A fair amount, although probably still not enough, has been said and written about linguistic obedience and disobedience in dictatorships and in oppressive, specifically colonial, settings. Conspicuous, by comparison, is the dearth of writing about linguistic obedience and disobedience in democracies. The classic oeuvres on civil disobedience, from Thoreau’s 1849 “Resistance to Civil Government” to Howard Zinn’s 1968 Disobedience and Democracy or even, for those who choose to be less America-centric, Leo Tolstoy’s 1894 “On Patriotism” and related essays, do not accentuate language, even when individual words and languages come into the spotlight. As for the canon of civic obedience, dedicated to the shaping of dutiful citizens, much of it has continued to circle back to standard, monolingual speech.

“An Unfortunate Consequence of Democracy”

This is more than a little surprising, since linguistic disobedience and its uncomfortably facile slip into well-heeled obedience have been at the heart of reshaping language in democracy all along. Of this, American English used to be an indubitable paragon. The vernacular’s very birth and eventual standardization in the long wake of the American Revolution are recorded as one protracted spell of linguistic disobedience, assisted and at times hampered by the zeal of the era’s nationalist activist-philologists, such as Noah Webster or Benjamin Franklin. “Life is short, and every hour should be employed to good purposes,” Webster wrote in his 1788 On the Education of Young in America (Webster n.d., p. 5). German, a serious competitor in the political arena, the less-than-“useful” Latin and Greek, and the “half-frivolous” French did not rank high on that list of vital priorities. British English, it went without saying, was the oppressive hegemon to be unseated with the help of spelling, lexicon, and grammar reforms. To champion American English was among the foundational acts of civic—indeed, democratic—rebellion.

The French sophisticate Alexis de Tocqueville knew to appreciate and fear the sweep of this emancipatory struggle, which raged on well into the twentieth century. Devoting an entire chapter of the 1835 Democracy in America to “How American Democracy has Modified the English Language,” he observed with striking precision the porous membrane between linguistic obedience and disobedience.

In monarchies, he wrote, language is as though suspended in stasis. “Few new words are made, because few new things happen; and if you did new things, you would try hard to portray them with known words whose meaning has been fixed by tradition” (de Tocqueville 2012, p. 824). In democracies—the term that de Tocqueville kept using in plural but only in reference to the United States—smashing this smothering cast would seem like a liberating gesture. And in a sense it was, because suddenly people “communicate[d] constantly among themselves” (824). But this same exhilarating circumstance, it turns out, started off the pendular swings between linguistic disobedience and obedience that would later sustain the likes of Donald Trump. Democracy came bearing a verbal horn of plenty, but the gift was a Trojan horse: its citizens, while seemingly rebellious, “resembled each other more each day” (824).

In democracies, de Tocqueville explained, everything was in constant flux, and language had to keep up in a mad proto-Taylorist cycle. “The genius of democratic peoples,” he reckoned, “shows itself not only in the great number of new words that they put into use, but also in the nature of the ideas that these new words represent” (823). Unbridled word coinage, he anticipated, was a creative but treacherous trap. America’s amateur lexicographers entertained no serious etymological quests and, true to Webster’s spirit, didn’t care much for the classical tradition. Occasionally, some would pepper their speech with Greek or Latin, but that was only “ordinary vanity” and not actual erudition (824). There was, in fact, a correlation that de Tocqueville observed between the love of pompous vocabulary and the lacking understanding thereof. In short, Americans did not know what the fancy words meant but kept using them as garnishes, in any case.

Loads of utilitarian neologisms from living languages cropped up daily to reflect the “innovations,” many on the spur of the moment. Not all were inspired to make up words from scratch. In many cases, America’s verbal Golems were the retired clunky things of yore, which the users happily dusted off and endowed with several new lives at once. The fledgling not-quite-democracy ran on polysemy and tireless resignification before it ran on Dunkin’, and the volumes ingested were comparable.

Knowledge wasn’t necessary for the mass production of meaning, the startled de Tocqueville acknowledged, as “ignorance even facilitates” the expansion. Not surprisingly, the breakneck manufacture and consumption of verbiage came with their risks. “By doubling the meaning of a word” in the relentless whirl of physical movement and communication, he criticized, “democratic people make it doubtful which meaning they are leaving aside and which they are giving to it” (825). In each speaker’s personal service and “with no permanent tribunal,” words ran amok. A founder of sociolinguistics Einar Haugen would in the early 1970s dub America “a Babel in reverse” for its ability to swallow a myriad of tongues and regurgitate English only. In de Tocqueville’s mind, something worse was afoot: the tower of Babel was American English itself. “This is an unfortunate consequence of democracy,” he shuddered, imagining his native tongue. “I would prefer that you sprinkled the language with Chinese, Tartar or Huron words, than to make the meaning of French words uncertain. Harmony and homogeneity are only the secondary beauties of language” (825).

That ultimate rebellion, American English, if we were to heed the foreigner de Tocqueville, landed in a pile of wobbly sameness. That supreme act of linguistic disobedience, it turned out, begat linguistic obedience on a massive scale. Exactly this was the prophecy that Trump fulfilled on the steps of his event bus. It is also the prophecy with which all of us have yet to reckon as we re-envision language in a democracy and, paradoxical as this may sound, restore to it the power that it has never fully had.

Disobedience: Critique, Correction, Care in Language

If linguistic disobedience is not just a loud, inappropriate, flashy, utilitarian, mercantilist, and brash circumstance of democracy and if it isn’t simply another obedient sheep in wolf’s clothing—what is it? Redefined for today, we say, linguistic disobedience is refusing the spoils of interactional, communicative hegemony, in pursuit of something better. “Something better” remains a vague placeholder for now, but this is not to advertise yet another utopian mirage. Rather, the vagueness stipulates an open-ended set of terms that only an urgent and broad civic conversation about language in a democracy can hash out—the conversation that America and most other parts of the so-called Anglosphere have yet to have. These pages are kindling to that debate and not a blueprint—another top-down diktat, as it were—for what words to use or not.

“Crazy conservative fairy tales have become numbingly common,” writes’s David Roberts (2017), glossing his hypothesis that the United States in 2017 was facing an “epistemic crisis.” An epistemic crisis is one in which time-honored paradigms of knowing, knowledge, and knowability appear to be failing. In international relations, too, the established narratives passed down from the Cold War era are disintegrating—though one wonders whether they even existed as coherent threads and not merely keyword assemblages in the first place (Pomerantsev 2018). Addressing narrative form and storytelling as they do, these claims are unavoidably also about language and its uses. What would it mean to say, along with Arjun Appadurai (2016) and others, that the United States and other self-styled modern democracies are currently encountering a linguistic crisis? In lieu of debating whether “crisis” is an overused explanatory device, we suggest turning attention rather to the nature of language as something in contemporary democratic life that finds itself under particular strain, fracture, and, let’s be honest, neglect.

A book written in English is perhaps not the most germane venue for making this point. But at least we can point out some structural features that plague the very ways in which we tend to think (or not think) about language. The German literary theorist Robert Stockhammer (2017) recently called attention to the fact that English is predestined, by its own lexical limitations, to remain unattentive to two different conceptions of language, easily recognized as different in, say, French but much harder to convey in the aforesaid pair “idiom” and “language.” Stockhammer explains the very salient, very consequential difference in French between langue and langage, by way of a kind of translingual rule-of-thumb:

Looking more closely at Anglophone usage affords us a quick way of testing the difference (though not an entirely disambiguating translation of it): if tongue can replace the word language in a certain context, it refers to the concept of langue. If this substitution is not possible, one is dealing with a langage. This conforms to the etymological substrate, in the sense that both the English tongue and the French langue also denote a language organ (though in langage the suffix –age neutralizes this etymologic connection). (Stockhammer 2017, p. 34)

Why and when does this matter? Philosophical reflections on language, let’s say, Richard Rorty’s and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s, “rarely reflected on the fact that nearly all of [their] examples stemmed from one singular language” (Stockhammer 2017, p. 34). Similarly, in the Trump era, media profiles of writers and thinkers who issued dire warnings about the spread of authoritarianism, from Orwell to Karl Popper, tend to tout transparent language as the unproblematic and uniformly desirable ideal. If such critiques sound out language as a universal human faculty (i.e., the French langage), they are going to have great difficulty reflecting at the same time on how discrete, national, standardized languages (i.e., langues) impose particular historical limitations on language use. The conflation of langue and langage in reflection on language (for example, in English or German, where the lexical distinction does not effectively exist) means that ambiguity and imprecision will tend to rule the roost when it comes to thinking and thinking well about language in contemporary life. This can only compound the imprecision that already exists within each tongue, of which de Tocqueville offered us but a singular preview.

So when we approach language as a central feature of a civic crisis—of a moment of grave danger and unspeakable suffering for many whose very lives and livelihoods are directly affected—we need to be able to bridge this conceptual divide. When we speak of language, it is not just standard and neoliberally shiny UK Standard English, Colombian Spanish, French, Ewe, Mandarin, Scots, Moroccan Arabic, or Slovak that we mean. These langues are historical products, complex perlocutionary effects of imperial/colonial and postimperial/postcolonial nation-building. They are deeply meaningful to their speakers and to those who worked, often their entire lives, to produce and care for them. But these langues are increasingly subject to practices that, as the Africanist sociolinguist Sinfree Makoni and the Australian applied linguist Alastair Pennycook (2006) demonstrate, tend to disinvent and reconstitute those langues into something that is no longer a langue but, perhaps a langage—an idiom that knows no stable, reproducible position within the world language hierarchy.

One of the terms researchers have used to account for these everyday linguistic acts in which people engage, unwittingly or strategically, to disinvent and reconstitute language from langue to langage is “translanguaging.” In the context of his discussion of New Chinglish, Li Wei (2016, p. 4) describes the practice of translanguaging as “using one’s idiolect or linguistic repertoire without regard for socially and politically defined language labels or boundaries—in order to make sense, solve problems, articulate one’s thought, and gain knowledge.” In a sense, de Tocqueville’s image of American English—the “language of a democracy”—has become an itinerant template of translanguaging, unhinged from any specific social order and, as we will see momentarily, physical space. Such practices are usually disregarded by systemic reflections on language, and thus also by polemics about monolingualism, because the translanguaging impulse does not even necessarily grant that langues exist, in any more real way than do any other metaphysical constructions. Unlike the notion of “code-switching,” that is, alternating between two languages or more, translanguaging “questions the proposition that what bilinguals are doing is going from one language to another” (García and Lin 2016, p. 3). Such linguistically disobedient practices therefore build the possibility of a space, a translanguaging space, which “breaks down the artificial dichotomies between the macro and the micro, the societal and the individual, and the social and the psycho” (Li Wei 2011, p. 1234).

It is important to note at this point that such a notion, which highlights practices that undermine the historical, empirical, and explanatory validity of langues/individual languages, faces a great deal of resistance, precisely in a twenty-first century that has found ways to monetize standardized languages. Katznelson and Bernstein (2017) show how “bilingual education” of the 1980s and 1990s, coded as bound to heritage and ethnicity, has been rebranded for the new century as “multilingual competence,” where acquiring and mastering individual languages are seen as central to professional and commercial success. Though it may indeed show complex features of “neoliberalism from below” (Gago 2014), translanguaging practices have not meaningfully registered in the international regime of “reactionary multilingualism” (Moore 2015). They have remained an inconvenient-seeming but much needed opposition.

One of the things Donald Trump has done so effectively—in ways that his surrogates and press secretaries routinely and fascinatingly fail at—is to perform the prerogative, the very public prerogative, of having a distinctive idiom, a langage. Though he will certainly pander to those who purport to protect the American English langue from outsiders, he luxuriously spreads out into interactional territory from which centuries of linguistic theory have barred the rest of us: that of the messy, unrationalized idiolect. All while professing monolingualism—and letting his multilingual spokespeople preach it on his behalf (“He speaks English. That’s it. And that’s okay,” Melania Trump told Harper’s Bazaar in 2016)—Trump has helped himself to the extreme opposite. His behavior falls within the purview of what scholars like Jane Hill, Scott Kiesling, Jonathan Rosa, and Nelson Flores identify as the structural privilege of cisgender male “white linguistic disorder,” when immigrants, queer people, and people of color are subjected to aggressive verbal hygiene throughout their lives by institutions and individuals alike. What Trump has tantalizingly done—among other things, and like many other demagogues in recent and less than recent history—is to elevate langage to a tool of interactional hegemony.

By interactional hegemony, we mean the deliberate or unwitting use of a reliably effective set of linguistic tools to “win the hand” in face-to-face, real-time, naturally occurring talk, or its simulations on Twitter, social media, and in other contexts. These linguistic tools often come from a complex and exclusive proprietary template that combines obedient and disobedient styles. Rationalists hasten to point out ways in which this man, this Trump, comes off to onlookers as clueless and out-of-touch in interaction after interaction, and therefore draw the comfortable conclusion that he has lost face or power in such interactions. In doubling down into such analytic arm-chair quarterbacking of interaction, rationalists imagine a paradise of language in which points are being tallied over the long arc of history, karma is being amassed, and the fragility of this, or any, dotty patriarch’s idiom is becoming ever more visible. The emperor, many are eager to scream, has no clothes. This kind of credulity, however, betrays an obedience to the scientistic and analytical laurels upon which verbal hygienists (Cameron 1995) have rested since the nineteenth century. That era’s so-called Young Grammarians, befuddled by the individual speaker’s unpredictable liveliness, “emphasized the impersonal rule-governed aspect of language because it permitted them to make claims that were more general and abstract, similar to those of natural scientists, who were attempting to understand the laws of physics” (Holquist 2014, p. 11). Agency, by this token, became an expendable variable.

Such a scientistic, morphological orientation to language was deeply invested in reproducing the normative category of langue in each new civic context. This set of stances and habits endured deep into the postcolonial language planning projects of the 1960s and 1970s, when the ideal “modern” language needed to be a fully fledged, orderly, rational langue (Ricento 2000). As multilingualisms from below begin to undo the explanatory power of langue (the rational, systemic unity of “a” language), a battle of langages is ensuing between demagogues’ idiolects and translanguagers’ instincts. The quest for agency is written all over it.

For the purposes of this book then, linguistic obedience is also always also an obedience to so-called linguistic monism. Like monism’s philosophical brands, linguistic monism (from the Greek μόνος, lone or solitary) is a positive belief system that “conceives the world as consisting of geographically dispersed common languages each of which has a unique separate identity of its own that is both stable and unitary. In its aspect as an ideology of denial, monism thus opposes the reality of change; each of the distinct common languages it recognizes as a solid entity is of course at an unstable point in its history as a system” (Holquist 2014, p. 8). Disobedience in language(s) is, from this viewpoint, an unwillingness to cash in on the complex and ubiquitous privileges of monolingualism, and instead to engage in practices that imagine the world not as a federation of distinct language-states, but as a dynamic and interwoven ecology of languages always becoming one another, changing one another, discovering one another. 

We, Authors and Readers

As we mention in the opening, writing Linguistic Disobedience was not part of our personal or professional plans until after the 2016 US General Election. Among the urgent and important messages the election results conveyed to us was that honest, collaborative, and courageous work on the questions of our civic moment must take precedence over our traditional arenas of expertise. We did not write this book because we felt uniquely competent to do so, but because we could and we wanted to. Each of us is a mid-career tenured professor at a research university, and each of us enjoys an extraordinarily privileged status in the relations of power that surround us—despite having lived a life-long experience of the queer, the person of color, the woman, the differently abled, the immigrant. In the collaborative spirit that enabled this book to emerge, we have chosen to write “as one and as multiple,” weaving in and out of first-person singular and plural enunciation as best befits the respective moment. The chapters convey a breadth of linguistic styles and authorial tones to show that conversations about civic language do not mandate speaking in the same key, that they do not have to succumb to editorial or stylistic monism. We each consider ourselves responsible for the entirety of the book, and we each look forward to discussing it, sharing it, and accounting for it in our future work as scholars, activists, teachers, and learners.

For whom is this book? As every audience-related question, this one is a thicket and may not be worth the speculation at all. Starting out, we wrote for ourselves, because the process of co-authoring—in awe of the others’ knowledge, in gratitude for their intellectual and emotional generosity, and in the consciousness of their critical eye—makes small mental universes collide and expand, or dissipate for lack of resonance beyond our solitary rumination. As we brainstormed changing minds about language, ours were the first to change. That means the effort has paid off. But of course, the three of us could have achieved a similar result without committing time and energy to writing a book. Naturally, some greater ambition must have sustained our urge to put pen to paper, or fingertips to keyboard. The dream challenge would be to reach out to those who don’t believe that language (be it as langue or langage) matters, or to those who categorically refuse to read others or to listen to them, whoever those “others” may be. However, we are well aware of how arrogantly utopian cherishing such a hope would be for a book that, already due to the topic, cannot possibly pretend to be non-partisan. For this reason, we wrote with an eye to those who already have a soft spot for language, as fledgling or sophisticated readers, writers, musicians, artists, language-learners, politicians, or activists—to our still-unknown inspirations, co-conspirators, critics—in the hope that they will read, consider in silence, correct, talk back, care.


  1. 1.

    The phrase “linguistic disobedience” served as the focal point for a series of poems by the Australian poet John Kinsella, in his collection Peripheral Light.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Yuliya Komska
    • 1
  • Michelle Moyd
    • 2
  • David Gramling
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of German StudiesDartmouth CollegeHanoverUSA
  2. 2.Department of HistoryIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA
  3. 3.Department of German StudiesUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA

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