Is Contemporary Linguistic Theory
an Instrument of Cultural Imperialism?
Ethnolinguistic Notes: Series 3, Number 41

George W. Grace

"As we have seen, 'modern' and 'modernization' are code words for Western and Westernization, which seem to imply that the cultural developments named are inevitable ones which all cultures would naturally attain to if they were not retarded by their traditions, their ignorance, and their lack of drive." (John Earl Joseph 1987: 86).

"Die Schoepfung einer einheitlichen Schriftsprache ist eine Kulturtat ersten Ranges." (Otto Behaghel, quoted in Coulmas 1989: 177) [The creation of a uniform writing language is a culture of first rank. ed.]


Has linguistic theory become an instrument of cultural imperialism? In asking this question, I'm not implying that the theorists intend it to play any such role. However, as I've pointed out so frequently in these notes, I am convinced that current theory misrepresents the nature of language. And I believe that this misrepresentation is of such a nature that it plays into the hands of what I have been calling "the monoculture", and of the imperialistic designs of the agents of that culture. [By "the (modern-world) monoculture" I mean of course the modern cultural tradition which arose in Europe, most particularly in the period since the Renaissance, and now is rapidly spreading to embrace the entire world. (cf. Grace 1988: 487-93, 1989B: 568-69 )].[1]

My conception of the issue rests on the following assumptions: (1) that promoters of the monoculture are constantly trying to increase its dominance everywhere in the world (this is the cultural imperialism of which my title speaks), (2) that a key part of their strategy is to present it (the monoculture) as "natural" rather than cultural i.e., as not a particular culture at all, but rather as a stage in a natural evolutionary sequence (cf. the Joseph quote above), and (3) that contemporary linguistic theory also represents aspects of languages which have been consciously adapted for monoculture functions (I will be calling such languages STANDARD LANGUAGES) as natural rather than cultural (cf. the Behaghel quote above). In particular it treats certain linguistic competences as inborn rather than as the products of a particular enculturation.

The misrepresentation of which I speak began, I believe, in attempts deliberately to re-design certain languages to make them satisfy particular requirements of monoculture institutions. Then, the characteristics of these artificially re-designed languages came to be interpreted as those of human languages in general of what has come to be called "natural language".

Anyway, the critical point was that a number of monoculture institutions require the fiction of "autonomous text". What I mean by that is that at least certain of their documents are assumed to have meanings which can be determined precisely simply by analysis of their text as the slogan goes, "the meaning is in the text". Actually to produce such text, of course, would require languages with properties different from those of ordinary human languages.


Agents of the monoculture (or more exactly of some of its forerunners) undertook to re-design certain existing languages so as to endow them with these properties. They started from the grammar-lexicon model of language design (or as the contemporary version might be better labeled, the syntax-lexicon model) and attempted to subject both syntax and lexicon to rigorous discipline.

In the conception which emerged the language possesses a lexicon and a syntactic system the lexicon consisting of a large number of lexical items, each of which "picks out" particular aspects of reality or some "possible" reality; the syntactic system consisting of rules for combining lexical items to construct sentences. The rules simultaneously specify (in universal syntactic terms) the "compositional meaning" of sentences with each particular structure. This compositional meaning plus the meanings of the constituent lexical items constitute the meaning of the sentence. The meaning, therefore, can be determined from analysis of the text. Such is the ideal which they pursued.

What John Earl Joseph (1987) calls the "STANDARD LANGUAGE" (I'll use capital letters to show that I'm using the term in Joseph's special sense) might be described as the result of this quest.[2]

In theory, then, a person who has sufficient mastery of the syntax and sufficient access to the lexicon of such a STANDARD LANGUAGE can design a text which will encode any particular bit of "information" (i.e., put the meaning into the text). Likewise, anyone with the same qualifications can "decode" any text and thereby extract the information that it encodes.

A STANDARD LANGUAGE was, in fact, an idealized system for which linguistic description in some detail had been produced. This description took the form of a grammar and a dictionary (often more than one). Anyway, it gave some plausibility to the fiction of autonomous text. However, plausibility was required not just for the theory, but for institutional practice as well.

Thus, the actual production and "processing" of ("autonomous") texts within appropriate institutional contexts was also needed. And for this purpose a pool of skilled writers and readers was needed. Most particularly required was skill in approaching texts analytically: that is, in deliberately designing texts to convey a certain meaning or in attempting to determine the meaning of texts by analyzing them into their constituent parts (cf. the discussion of "analysis strategy" in Grace 1989a: 561ff. ). To train this pool of writers/readers became one of the primary tasks of a greatly-expanded school system. As a result of extensive efforts by the schools, we find within the countries of the Western cultural tradition substantial numbers of people who have acquired such analytic skills in some measure.

It is perhaps worth pointing out here that there is nowhere that I know of where the schools represent these STANDARD LANGUAGES as being artificially-designed languages intended for special purposes. On the contrary, they and the structural principles which they are supposed to reflect are taught as if they were typical of all proper languages. As a consequence, in addition to those people who succeed in acquiring substantial analytic skills, there are even larger numbers whose analytic linguistic skills are limited, but in whom certain ideas about language have been firmly implanted : viz ., that languages in general conform to the syntax-lexicon model, that there are rules for grammatical correctness, and that the authority of the dictionary is above question.

On the General Validity of the Syntax-lexicon Model

What recommended the syntax-lexicon model in the first place was its economy. By extracting and reporting generalizations wherever possible, it provides a maximally full report of the characteristics of a particular language, or of languages in general, in a minimal number of pages of text. To use it for that purpose appears to be perfectly reasonable.

What I believe is quite mistaken is the assumption that knowing how to speak a language is a matter of lexical and syntactic knowledge. According to this assumption, to learn a language requires that one master syntactic rules. Such rules, or more broadly any linguistic description in which generalizations are presented, can of course be helpful to mature learners of a second language. What I question is their necessity for first language learners, and for that matter, for less intellectualized approaches to learning other languages as well.

Anyway, whatever plausibility the model may once have had was essentially destroyed when it became clear that formulaic expressions including some of what have been called "idioms", "schemata", etc. could not regularly be handled as dictionary entries (cf. e.g., Fillmore et al 1988, Pawley 1985: esp. 89, Tyler 1987: esp. 105-14, and the notion of "grammatical construction" in Lakoff 1987).[3] That is, it became clear that in very many cases a given formula corresponded not to a single expression, but to an infinitely large set of expressions. As a consequence, the idea that the general plan on which language was built was one in which lexicon specifying concepts and syntax specifying logical relations were the two major components, or organizational principles, lost the main basis of its credibility.

The Language Standardization Process

The STANDARDIZATION process the process leading to a STANDARD LANGUAGE seems to involve two quite different aspects. The first is an elaboration to overcome perceived "ineloquence". This consists in an expansion of the resources of the language which enables it to perform additional cultural functions. The most conspicuous aspect of elaboration and the one most focused on by language planners is the addition of lexical items, but it should not be imagined that adding lexical items is the whole story.

The second aspect of STANDARDIZATION is what was sometimes referred to at the time that the English language was undergoing it as "(grammatical) regulation " or "ruling" that is, imposing regularity upon the language. This means in practice writing grammars and dictionaries (each of which, as has been pointed out, inevitably rules for certain variants and against others) and getting their authority accepted.

It is instructive to note the similarity of the STANDARDIZATION process as I've described it and "language development" as analyzed by Charles Ferguson (1968). Ferguson distinguished three dimensions "for measuring language development" (1968: 28). In addition to "graphization" (= reduction to writing, which I haven't included in my discussion), they are "standardization", which corresponds to my "regulation", and "modernization", which corresponds to my "elaboration". Interestingly (and very aptly, I believe) he defines "modernization" in terms of translation. His definition is (1968: 28), "the development of intertranslatability with other languages in a range of topics and forms of discourse characteristic of industrialized, secularized, structurally differentiated, "modern" societies".


Let me review briefly what I have said so far. First, a number of monoculture institutions require the fiction that they deal in autonomous text. To make this plausible, they have resorted to a model of language with syntactic and lexical components. According to this model the items of the lexical component "pick out" aspects of reality (or of "possible worlds"). The syntactic component consists of rules for combining lexical items into various logical relations, and thus constituting sentences (which express "propositions"). The texts so produced are "hooked onto the world" through the lexical items. Hence the meaning is in the text.

But what I have just described is, of course, just an abstract model. What was needed was actual languages designed to play the role specified by the model. The answer was the STANDARD LANGUAGES (beginning, perhaps with learned Latin, then such European languages as Italian, French, English, and since, a considerable and growing number of others).

The STANDARDIZATION process by which STANDARD LANGUAGES are produced out of non-standard ones consists essentially of two steps. The first is elaboration (or "modernization"): the expansion of the expressive means of the language to permit it to perform (ideally all) monoculture functions. The main consideration here is achieving intertranslatability with other STANDARD LANGUAGES.

The second is regulation: the establishment of grammatical rules and definitions (and spellings) of lexical items.

In an elaborate school system, children are taught to approach these STANDARD LANGUAGES in the prescribed way to interpret sentences by analyzing them using the rules and the definitions of the lexical items, and to write new sentences by applying grammatical rules to lexical items. The schools are an important part of the monoculture enculturation process.

The point of what we've covered so far is this: STANDARD LANGUAGES are something which has been deliberately designed with specific purposes in mind. They are therefore very largely artificial (rather than "natural").

Furthermore, their speakers have generally been subjected to an extensive indoctrination and training. They have been taught to think of languages as having syntax-lexicon structures, and have been trained in the skills of the analysis strategy approach (cf. Grace 1989a: 561ff.) to language use. Their "intuitions" about the properties of their languages can therefore not be regarded as at all natural.

Beyond Standardization

I spoke above of STANDARD LANGUAGES as if they were an end point, as if the process of STANDARDIZATION had reached its ultimate goal in some languages, and had then ceased to operate further. But I don't believe that that is so. Autonomous text has not been achieved, even though the fiction that it exists has been generally accepted within the monoculture.[4] In fact, what seems to me to be the same quest has continued among philosophers concerned with perfecting the language of science. Although they have not limited themselves to the properties of existing human languages, they have looked to them for structural principles, as they have also looked, for example, to mathematics. They have been concerned with "logical syntax" and with semantics (and people such as Rudolf Carnap and Charles Morris even added the term "pragmatics", which linguists have since reinterpreted and adopted.)

Some of these philosophers occupied a conspicuous place in the intellectual landscape of the period between the two World Wars and subsequently, and their work has been widely studied by linguists. There can be no doubt that it has played a part in shaping the concepts and assumptions with which contemporary linguistic theory approaches what it calls "natural language". [5]


What I think has happened is that the nature of STANDARD LANGUAGES as they are represented in their authoritative reference works the grammars and dictionaries and as they are taught in the schools, has simply been assumed in the field of linguistics to be also the nature of non-STANDARDIZED languages. In addition to this long-standing state of affairs, I believe the tradition which began with the works of Noam Chomsky has been further influenced by the work of twentieth-century logicians and their interest in "logical syntax".

If a "natural" language is one whose development has been entirely free from self-conscious human intervention, I don't know whether or not there is any language anywhere that qualifies as natural. But surely, the STANDARD LANGUAGES of the monoculture are about as far from natural in this sense as any languages that could be found. And if "natural" linguistic competence is knowledge of a language that results entirely from the processing by the individual's brain of linguistic expressions to which he/she has been exposed, I don't know whether or not there exists anyone who possesses such competence. But individuals who have been exposed even to the earliest stages of monoculture enculturation must surely be regarded as having acquired language unnaturally.

If what we want to get at under the rubric "natural" are properties attributable to our biological endowment, then I would submit that we know next to nothing about what is natural in language and that we are making no serious effort to find out. What we are doing is assiduously promoting the assumption that STANDARD LANGUAGES and the linguistic competence of STANDARD LANGUAGE speakers are themselves reflections of naturalness.


It's much beyond my scope or the scope of what I'm undertaking here to try to identify the guiding hands in the promotion of the monoculture, or the main interests and interested parties behind it. There are many people and institutions which stand to benefit. But in any case, an element perhaps the main element of strategy is to promote a way of talking about the relevant subjects which would make sense (or make sense best) in a world in which the essential difference between the monoculture and all other cultures was that the monoculture represented a more advanced stage of cultural development. In other words, this way of talking tacitly assumes that the monoculture is simply the most advanced stage in a natural evolutionary sequence. This strategy seems at present to be quite successful.

The contribution of contemporary linguistic theory to this strategy is quite direct. Its way of talking not only tacitly assumes monoculture linguistic skills to be natural, it actually asserts that they are that the fundamental principles of syntactic structure are built into the human brain and therefore "known" to everyone. And in general, to the extent that linguistics claims that linguistic skills which are actually due to monoculture enculturation are hard-wired into the human brain, it plays directly into its hands of monoculture imperialism. The more the monoculture is made to appear a natural, biologically-determined, phenomenon, the more futile any resistance to it will appear to be.

Monoculture Culturocentrism[6]

I should probably not end this discussion without calling attention to the special status that the monoculture has among us the very strong culturocentrism that surrounds and supports it, and the high positive value which it, itself, places on culturocentrism i.e., culturocentrism which invidiously views all other cultures from the perspective of the monoculture.

The assumptions of the monoculture are represented as nothing less than the truth reality itself, and it encourages no tolerance of vernacular cultures, except as adding nonessential touches of grace to the lifestyles of its (the monoculture's) adherents. Vernacular cultures may provide traditional arts and crafts, ceremony, articles of cuisine, and the like touches which are quaint or picturesque. But they can henceforth never have a significant place in the mainstream of human history.

This culturocentrism itself encourages the support which linguistics is giving the promotion of the monoculture.

It encourages it most directly in that many people may take it quite for granted that if the monoculture expands its domain, that is a good thing, and that if linguistics abets this expansion, that is all to linguistics's credit.

It encourages it more subtly in another way. I suspect that at least a part of the reason why ideas about what languages should be like have metamorphosized into assumptions about what languages in general are actually like was the concern of anthropologists and linguists to maintain that all languages are evolutionarily equal and thereby to withhold arguments from the exponents of ethnocentrism. But that has left us with the idea that our own STANDARD LANGUAGES and our own linguistic skills are not exceptional in any way. One might, in fact, describe the root of centrisms such as ethnocentrism and culturocentrism in just this way as consisting precisely in the assumption that our own characteristics (including those of our culture) are natural that they define the human norm.

This assumption then has two consequences. First, we tend to project our own characteristics onto others. That is, except where we have been provided with clear evidence to the contrary, we automatically attribute these same characteristics to any other people and any other culture. Second, where it is clear in a particular case that the characteristics of some other group do in fact differ from ours, we then automatically assume theirs to be unnatural unjustified (unless they offer convincing proof to the contrary) departures from normality.

Thus we are led to pay particular attention to monoculture STANDARD LANGUAGES and monoculture linguistic skills and to accept them as the measure of normalcy. Once we have done that, it becomes dangerous to suggest of any other people that they don't have the same skills, because that is tantamount to suggesting that they are less than normal. [7]

It is only if we admit that there is much that is cultural artifact in monoculture STANDARD LANGUAGES and much cultural conditioning in the linguistic competence of properly enculturated members of monoculture societies that we can admit other languages and their speakers to their legitimate role in defining the nature of language.


How much would linguists' lives be affected if linguistics dropped the claim that language provides a direct access to brain functions and the claim that a speaker's competence necessarily includes a certain amount of syntactic knowledge? In most cases, I suspect not very much.

The syntactic structures of linguistic expressions are of general linguistic interest regardless of how much freedom and how much competence speakers have to create new ones (linguistic expressions), and also of how much competence they have to carry out syntactic and semantic analyses of unfamiliar ones. Furthermore, syntax will presumably continue to be a major part of the description of individual languages. It should continue to be of value for description designed to report concisely the characteristics of particular languages as well as description designed for second language learners.

Even beyond that, there seem to be substantial extra-linguistic or at least extra-natural-language interests in syntax. Much present interest seems really to be due to a practical interest in STANDARD LANGUAGES, and even in Standard English in particular. There also seems to be a logical interest in structural principles which might, for example, have applications in symbolic logic or computing. In fact, I have the idea that the study of syntactic theory may actually be advancing the quest for autonomous text by pushing the process of STANDARDIZATION to new lengths, especially for English. What I have in mind most particularly is making more generalizations and thereby further and further regularizing the syntactic patterns.

In short, it seems to me that there is and will surely remain a reliable market both for the theoretical study and practical application of syntactic principles and for the intensive study of Standard English and other STANDARD LANGUAGES.



[1.] Here's a brief introduction to my concept of the "monoculture":

It is frequently referred to simply as "modern civilization" or something of the sort designations which suggest a stage in some evolutionary sequence. I'm not particularly pleased with my own name for it. But I did want, first of all, a name that labels it a culture rather than an evolutionary stage. Then, the "mono" part is supposed to call attention to the fact that it is represented as something unique. Its adherents clearly conceive of it as destined to become either the only culture for the entire world or a governing superstratum on whatever ethnic cultures are permitted to survive under it.

Just to bring out its position in the contemporary world, let me review some of the things I've pointed out previously.

Its rapid spread beyond Europe was begun under European colonialism, of course. However, even though colonialism of the classical kind has largely ceased to exist, the hegemony of the culture which it unleashed continues to grow. It has now spread through the entire world to the point that few if any people today are able to live their lives in complete disregard of it i.e., without at least making some accommodation to it. In fact, it is a tenet of the monoculture that all people and all habitable land areas of the earth are subject to its "international law", and this means that they are subject to the rule of a political entity with all of the institutions required of a modern state i.e., to a monoculture-type government. The nation-state itself is an institution of the monoculture, and the entire world is now divided up among nation-states. If there are any persons existing today who can be said not to be effectively under the rule of monoculture institutions, this can only mean that they have not yet been caught and subjugated. And simply being brought under the rule of a monoculture-conforming state brings with it subjugation to an intricate package of cultural institutions. The rules by which international dealings of any sort e.g., diplomatic, economic, even warfare are conducted are prescribed by the monoculture. The material culture of the world as a whole is dominated by monoculture technology. Last but not least, science in the modern sense is an institution of the monoculture: in fact, certainly one of its most important institutions.

In short, no one in the world today can entirely escape the reach of the monoculture. However, it should be noted, on the other hand, that most, if not all people have other cultural resources i.e., they participate in some other culture (or exceptionally, more than one). I will refer to all other cultures as vernacular cultures. Thus, we can say that most people participate to some extent in both the monoculture and some vernacular culture. (The nearest thing to an exception is probably represented by those Americans who are referred to in the literature as "mainstream", but I suppose that sufficiently careful investigation would reveal some sort of other cultural resources available even to most of these, though they might be of only limited importance in the lives of the individuals). In any event, in most of the world the monoculture may be thought of as superimposed on a vernacular culture, with the vernacular culture still surviving in certain roles.

The two points about the monoculture that deserve particular attention in the present connection are (1) the extent to which human affairs throughout the world today are governed by it, and (2) the fact that it the monoculture, which is to say, "modern civilization" is at least in large part a cultural rather than a natural phenomenon: i.e., it is a contingent product of historical accident rather than an inevitable result of a process of unilinear evolution. This last point is in no way weakened by the undeniable fact that the monoculture has an irresistible competitive advantage at the present moment that submitting to its rules is the only way [outside of "criminal activity" ed.] to have any hope of getting a share of the world's resources (before the monoculture's policies of "economic growth" have dissipated them forever).

[2.] Joseph's STANDARD LANGUAGE is approximately the same thing as what I have been calling a "monoculture-dedicated language". I have been calling a language which is adapted to performing the linguistic functions of any particular culture "dedicated" to that culture. Thus, any language which is adapted to performing the linguistic functions of the monoculture is a monoculture-dedicated language (cf. Grace 1988:489, 1989B: 574, 1989C: 584 ).

[3]. In fact, the plausibility of the syntax-lexicon model may be said to have been destroyed when it came to be thought necessary to supplement syntax and semantics with "pragmatics". It was once assumed that one needed to know syntax and semantics in order to produce linguistic expressions with the right meaning, or to determine the meaning of linguistic expressions that one heard. Now, however, it seems that it is often also necessary to know how the linguistic expression is used. It seems reasonable to ask whether in fact someone who knows how a linguistic expression is used needs also to know its syntactic structure and semantics, and if so, why.

[4.] The only way you can get autonomous text is in a closed universe of discourse: You can't have it with a language that is universal (capable of being used to talk about anything whatsoever).

[5.] I would also like to suggest that linguistics itself carries the STANDARDIZATION process forward in every language that it studies even those which have already reached the most advanced level of STANDARDIZATION. And I believe that this is at least partly attributable to the influence of philosophy's conceptual scheme, which nevertheless arose out of quite different objectives.

[6.] I will use the term "culturocentric", which I first encountered in Joseph 1987, instead of "ethnocentric", the word which I was using before. "Ethnocentric" suggests ethnic group versus ethnic group, and while the culturocentrism with which we are concerned here has had and continues to have some ethnic aspects, they are not the heart of what is involved. The monoculture might be described as a "proselytizing", rather than an "ethnic", culture (although I would certainly not want that to be taken to imply that its adherents are totally free of herrenvolkism the idea that some peoples should rightly lead, even command, while others should follow, even obey). Theoretically everyone is encouraged to join, and individuals from whatever society who demonstrate that they are fully enculturated to monoculture beliefs and values are likely to be found fully acceptable. On the other hand, members of whatever society (not excluding even the United States, which has been in the forefront of monoculture expansion during at least most of the Post-World-War II period) who are judged not to be sufficiently modern, enlightened, up-to-date, are likely to be judged as falling short of full acceptability. [To look at it from another angle, we might say that the monoculture encourages a culturocentric disapproving or patronizing attitude toward earlier stages of the monoculture itself, and note that this particular culturocentrism plays a significant role in justifying and implementing the succession of generations in positions of authority].

[7.] With this in mind, maybe I should point out that the people whom I had in mind when I first got the idea that some people don't have much ability to construct or analyze linguistic expressions (consciously or unconsciously) were mostly white Americans, rural schoolmates of mine when I was a child.


Coulmas, Florian (ed.). 1989. Language adaptation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ferguson, Charles A. 1968. Language development. In Joshua A. Fishman, Charles A. Ferguson, and Jyotirindra Das Gupta (eds.). Language problems of developing nations. New York, etc.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., pp. 27-35.

Fillmore, Charles J., Paul Kay, and Mary Catherine O'Connor. 1988. Regularity and idiomaticity in grammatical constructions: The case of let alone. Lg. 64: 501-38.

Grace, George W. 1988. The idea of a theory of translation: On shared and unshared cultural backgrounds. Ethnolinguistic Notes, Series 3, Number 33. Printout. 10 pp.. .

Grace, George W. 1989a. Recognition strategy and analysis strategy in language use. Ethnolinguistic Notes, Series 3, Number 37. Printout. 10 pp. . .

Grace, George W. 1989b. The notion of "natural language". Ethnolinguistic Notes, Series 3, Number 38. Printout. 15 pp. . .

Grace, George W. 1989c. On minimal native-speaker competence. Ethnolinguistic Notes, Series 3, Number 39. Printout. 9 pp. . .

Joseph, John Earl. 1987. Eloquence and power: The rise of language standards and standard languages. London: Frances Pinter.

Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, fire, and dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pawley, Andrew. 1985. On speech formulas and linguistic competence. Lenguas Modernas 12: 84-104.

Tyler, Stephen A. 1987. The unspeakable: Discourse, dialogue, and rhetoric in the postmodern world. Madison WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.