Authored by long-time collaborators William D. Davies (who passed away in 2017) and Stanley Dubinsky, this welcome book covers tremendous empirical ground yet still coheres around a single, unifying theme: how language affects and is affected by human conflict. I know of no other book that addresses so many interesting issues while also remaining so accessible to a nonspecialist audience.
Davies & Dubinsky have divided their book into four parts. Part 1, ‘Language and the speaker’, provides a crash course in elementary linguistics; it will help readers without a background in linguistics to make sense of the structural issues raised later on. Part 2, ‘Language in the world’, shifts the attention to issues that will be of greater interest to students of anthropology and sociology: for example, how writing plays a role in language standardization (often leading to the stigmatization of nonstandard varieties) and how the selection of an official language relates to nationalist projects. Part 3, ‘A typology of language conflicts’, examines a wide range of case studies, from indigenous minorities facing assimilationist pressures from colonizers to immigrant communities struggling to maintain their distinct ethnolinguistic identities. For each case study, the authors offer extensive background discussion as well as broader contextualization. Although they include linguistic data (phonemic inventories, lexical comparisons, basic morphology, etc.), the focus remains on the role(s) that languages play in conflict. The brief Part 4, ‘Language endangerment, extinction, and revival’, discusses what it means for languages to die—and for languages to be revived—thereby synthesizing issues addressed in previous chapters.
Davies & Dubinsky show considerable care and nuance when discussing sensitive disputes. In their discussion of the Hungarian minority of modern-day Slovakia (chapter 11), for example, they do not simply talk about that minority's current state. Rather, they also address how the pre-WWI situation—which favored Hungarian over Slovak—led to political and linguistic backlash against Magyars once the borders changed. Similarly, the examination of African American English (chapter 13) in the United States is grounded in historical discussion of slavery and the Great Migration, and it includes sobering findings about contemporary discrimination against speakers of AAE.
As one might expect of a book that covers so much ground, there are some factual errors. To offer just one example, Zulu is incorrectly said to be nontonal (130). Errors such as this one may have something to do with the authors’ occasional use of non-peer-reviewed sources. Some footnotes consist only of a Wikipedia URL (138); at other points, the authors provide URLs to news reports without information about the date of publication, authorship, or overall reliability (159). Such footnotes run the risk of setting a bad example for undergraduates who—in the age of Google—need more training than ever before about how to find and utilize sources appropriately. Fortunately, this issue can be fixed easily in future editions. I for one will be sure to assign this well-rounded, important, and insightful book to my own students.