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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: March 2013

9 - Constructing nations, constructing boundaries


Gender is built into the very fabric of nations, even when it is not formally embedded in documents of nationhood. The fact that a society's gender order is often an important part of its patrimony is dramatically illustrated in current struggles between Western nations and conservative Islamic nations, as each points to the other's gender order as evidence of depravity. In this chapter, we will discuss how gender ideologies are recruited so that language and gender interact in the building of national, regional, and local communities and boundaries. We will begin with a discussion of how power accrues to particular language varieties, then move on to specific instances of the construction of boundaries through the gendering of language.

Language varieties in contact

Pierre Bourdieu pointed out (e.g., Bourdieu 1991) that the value of a person's utterances in the marketplace of ideas lies in the fate of those utterances – in whether they are picked up, attended to, acted upon, repeated. And he emphasized that this fate depends crucially on the language variety in which the utterances are framed. The right linguistic variety can transform an otherwise “worthless” utterance into one that may command attention in powerful circles. Like the right friends, clothes, manners, haircuts and automobiles, the “right” linguistic variety can facilitate access to positions and situations of societal power and the “wrong” variety can block such access. At the same time, although people who speak like Queen Elizabeth or like a US network newscaster may be helped thereby to gain access to the halls of global power, they will have trouble gaining access and trust in a poor community, or participating in a group of hip-hoppers, gang-bangers, or cheerleaders. And while these latter communities may not command global power, prestige or wealth, they command a variety of social and material resources that may be of greater value to many.