In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Language Ideology

  • Introduction
  • Concept History
  • Foundational Collections
  • Area-Focused Collections
  • Journals
  • Sites and Sightings
  • Boundary Practices
  • Historical Dynamics

Anthropology Language Ideology
Judith T. Irvine
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0012


Language ideologies are conceptualizations about languages, speakers, and discursive practices. Like other kinds of ideologies, language ideologies are pervaded with political and moral interests and are shaped in a cultural setting. To study language ideologies, then, is to explore the nexus of language, culture, and politics. It is to examine how people construe language’s role in a social and cultural world, and how their construals are socially positioned. Those construals include the ways people conceive of language itself, as well as what they understand by the particular languages and ways of speaking that are within their purview. Language ideologies are inherently plural: because they are positioned, there is always another position—another perspective from which the world of discursive practice is differently viewed. Their positioning makes language ideologies always partial, in that they can never encompass all possible views—but also partial in that they are at play in the sphere of interested human social action. Authors writing on this topic have variously called it “linguistic ideology,” “language ideology,” or “ideology of language.” The slight differences of terminology have not signaled major differences in conception. Although the anthropological approach to language ideology is distinctive, it overlaps with research in other disciplines. Approaches rooted in disciplinary linguistics, such as Critical Discourse Analysis, are anthropology’s close kin, while political and social theorists writing on “ideology” are of obvious relevance. Because the concept of language ideology is so fertile, it connects to more disciplines and issues than can be reviewed here. However, those interdisciplinary links also entail some tensions, for example, concerning whether linguistic form or social issues take priority as subject matter, or whether analysis should focus more on texts or more on practices, or what is included in “language” itself. Works by anthropologists of differing intellectual commitments show traces of some similar debates, but within a general consensus on the value of joining ethnographic and linguistic research.

Concept History

Language ideology is a relatively recent field of study. It emerged from the Ethnography of Speaking school of the 1960s and 1970s, which had emphasized cultural conceptions of language as these were manifest in culturally distinctive patterns of speaking. By the 1980s, several scholars in this school had turned toward a focus on language’s relation to power and political economy (see Friedrich 1989, Gal 1989, Irvine 1989). At the same time, there was a growing interest in seeing how politics and social action might be embedded in specifics of language structure. This second concern was being developed especially by Silverstein, who took linguistic form as his starting point and looked toward the social activity and cultural ideas embedded in it; scholars in the ethnography of speaking school had tended to work in the other direction, starting from social formations. Silverstein 1979 offered an influential formulation of “linguistic ideologies” as “any sets of beliefs about language articulated by the users as a rationalization or justification of perceived language structure and use.” Taken up and elaborated by other linguistic anthropologists in the 1980s and 1990s, “language ideology” was given a more sociocultural emphasis by Irvine 1989, which defined it as “the cultural system of ideas about social and linguistic relationships, together with their loading of moral and political interests.” Along similar lines, Gal 1989 noted that language ideologies are not only explicit, but also include more tacit assumptions about the nature of language and its use. Further developing the concept to make it more consistent with Marxist approaches to “ideology,” Gal envisioned language ideologies as differentiated between groups (of speakers) with different positions in a political economy. Meanwhile, from linguistics, an influential edited collection, Joseph and Taylor 1990, took up the question of what ideological bases underlay the “science of language” itself. Woolard and Schieffelin 1994 shows how large this field had already grown by the mid-1990s. Its history was more extensively reviewed by Woolard 1998. See also the review from a few years later, Kroskrity 2004. Keane 2007 proposes “semiotic ideology” as a related, but broader, concept.

  • Friedrich, Paul. 1989. Language, ideology, and political economy. American Anthropologist 91:295–312.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.1989.91.2.02a00010

    Distinguishes several valuable senses of “ideology,” such as a “notional” sense and a more “pragmatic” sense. Even if ideology is seen as “the more intellectual constituent of culture,” it is useful in considering those aspects of culture having to do with political economy, such as the division of labor.

  • Gal, Susan. 1989. Language and political economy. Annual Review of Anthropology 18:345–367.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    A review article that connects anthropological approaches to its topic with Marxist work on ideology, especially in terms of the positioning of social groups within a social system.

  • Irvine, Judith T. 1989. When talk isn’t cheap: Language and political economy. American Ethnologist 16:248–267.

    DOI: 10.1525/ae.1989.16.2.02a00040

    This paper outlines a range of ways in which language structures and uses are involved with a political economy. It ends with comments about language ideology, defined in terms that emphasize sociocultural aspects.

  • Joseph, John, and Talbot J. Taylor, eds. 1990. Ideologies of language. New York: Routledge.

    Studies in this collection explore the ideologies of scholars working in the “science of language,” from the 17th century to the present, in various countries and intellectual traditions.

  • Keane, E. Webb. 2007. Christian moderns: Freedom and fetish in the mission encounter. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Keane argues for situating language ideology within a “semiotic ideology” that would include other semiotic modalities, as well as conceptions of materiality. A century of Dutch Calvinist missionary efforts in Indonesia offers the case materials for the discussion.

  • Kroskrity, Paul. 2004. Language ideology. In Companion to linguistic anthropology. Edited by Alessandro Duranti, 496–517. Oxford: Blackwell.

    This is a review article that identifies major strands of research on language ideology to date. The article overlaps with Kroskrity’s introduction to the collection he edited in 2000 (see Kroskrity 2000, cited under Foundational Collections).

  • Silverstein, Michael. 1979. Language structure and linguistic ideology. In The elements: A parasession on linguistic units and levels. Edited by Paul Clyne, William F. Hanks, and Carol L. Hofbauer. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society.

    The first formulation of “linguistic ideology.” The paper then develops Silverstein’s semiotic reading of Whorf, along with some extended examples.

  • Woolard, Kathryn. 1998. Language ideology as a field of inquiry. In Language ideologies: Practice and theory. Edited by Bambi Schieffelin, Kathryn Woolard, and Paul Kroskrity, 3–49. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A crucial introduction to the field. Surveys the history of research to date, and identifies important differences in conceptions of “ideology” in social theory insofar as these show up as different approaches in language ideology research.

  • Woolard, Kathryn, and Bambi Schieffelin. 1994. Language ideology. Annual Review of Anthropology 23:55–82.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    An early review of research in this field, it served to put this then-new field on the intellectual map. Later largely superseded by Woolard 1998.

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