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Neil DeVotta, Blowback: Linguistic nationalism, institutional decay, and ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 October 2006

Patrick Eisenlohr
Affiliation:
Department of Anthropology, Washington University, 1 Brookings Drive, Campus Box 1114, St. Louis, MO 63130-4899, peisenlo@wustl.edu

Extract

Neil DeVotta, Blowback: Linguistic nationalism, institutional decay, and ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004. Pp. 204. Hb $55.00, Pb $22.95.

In this well-argued analysis of linguistic nationalism and ethnic conflict, Neil DeVotta places more weight on language than do most other accounts of conflict and civil war in Sri Lanka. DeVotta's main argument is that language politics informed by linguistic nationalism was not just one among several forces leading to the breakdown of peaceful coexistence of the Sinhalese and Tamil communities of the island, but indeed the single most important cause of the conflict and its later violent manifestations. Accordingly, the 1956 decision by the Colombo government to declare Sinhala the sole national language of Sri Lanka represents the crucial turning point in the relationship between ethnic Sinhalese and Tamils on the island. DeVotta argues that the 1956 Official Language Act was motivated by a desire among leaders of the Sinhalese majority to facilitate socioeconomic mobility among their ethnic constituency, and that it subsequently prompted further ethnocentric legislation openly favoring the interests of the ethnic majority at the expense of the Tamil minority. This inability of Sinhalese leaders to compromise in turn led to a severe loss of confidence in the government and other state institutions among Tamils, who began to experience the Sri Lankan state as an alien entity. Finally, this process of “institutional decay” set off by the 1956 imposition of Sinhala as sole official language in state institutions and education then provoked separatist Tamil nationalism and a spiral of violence culminating in a devastating civil war.

Type
BOOK REVIEWS
Copyright
© 2006 Cambridge University Press

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References

Inglehart, R., & Woodward, M. (1972 [1967]). Language conflicts and the political community. In Pier Paolo Giglioli (ed.), Language and social context, 358377. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Ramaswamy, Sumathi (1997). Passions of the tongue: Language devotion in Tamil India, 1891–1970. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Urla, Jacqueline (1993). Cultural politics in an age of statistics: Numbers, nations and the making of Basque identity. American Ethnologist 20:818843.Google Scholar

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