Power of Language


Language is a unique faculty of the human species.  While other species may communicate in more limited ways about their immediate physical environment, only humans have developed language permitting a full narrative characterization of events and circumstances outside of the here and now. Language has permitted humans to coordinate and control their activities, permitting the creation of complex, materially-advanced societies. Language lies at the heart of most human endeavors—religion, education, law, computers, for example.  It is the basis on which most human relationships and interactions are formed.

This cluster is devoted to examining the myriad ways in which language affects us, individually and collectively. The courses in the cluster will consider the role that language plays in creating personal and collective identity, how governments formulate and enforce policy regarding language, how the legal system limits or prohibits certain kinds of language that are deemed offensive, and how the non-verbal languages of art communicate meaning and values.


Seminar: Linguistics 213FS/Slavic and Eurasian Studies 215FS/Political Science 185FS/ ICS 228FS — The Politics of Language (SS)

Gareth Price, Visiting Assistant Professor of Linguistics and Associate Faculty, Asian-Pacific Studies Institute. 

This course examines the political role of language in societies as diverse as China, India, the former Soviet Union, the UK and the US. Specifically, we look at language policies: interventions on the part of state and non-state actors to influence not only citizens' actual language practices, but also their beliefs about language. Drawing on an interdisciplinary framework from political theory, sociology and sociolinguistics, we look at the way language policies both reflect and actively produce socio-political realities. Topics covered include migration, citizenship, nationalism and decolonization. In particular, we address the following questions: why do nation-states have such differentiated language policy experiences? Given that most nation-states are multilingual, why is 'one language' so often equated with 'one nation', and what are the ideological underpinnings of such beliefs? How are language policies responding to new migration phenomena and the challenges of an increasingly globalised world?

Seminar: Romance Studies 190FS/ Linguistics 190FS — Language and Identity (ALP, CCI)

Luciana Fellin, Professor of the Practice of Italian, director of Italian Language Program

Language is a central and pervasive feature of human identity. Whenever we hear someone speak, we inevitably make guesses and form opinions about his or her gender, age, education level, profession, place of origin, sexual orientation, social class, and even religion Through language we portray ourselves to others and we negotiate our social identities; and those who hear us inevitably make suppositions and judgments about whom we are. Language, however, is not only used to portray individual identities in daily conversations, it is also a powerful symbol of national, ethnic, and religious identity. The way we speak and how this is perceived, on an individual level and in the broader social and political context, affects many aspects of our lives as individuals and as citizens. It can determine our access to resources, the recognition of rights, and acceptance or exclusion from social, national and political groups. In this course we will examine how language and identity are linked and interact. Drawing on examples from the media, film, pop culture and ethnographic data (even your own dorm!), we will explore how speakers portray themselves to others and negotiate social identities through the use of language, but also how ideas about language inform the way we understand and interpret society and speakers within it. In particular, we will look at how people use different languages and different linguistic resources within the same language (such as accent, grammar vocabulary and style) to express different identities and how these are perceived and interpreted in specific interactions and by society at large.

Seminar: Linguistics 114FS — The Power of Poetry (ALP, CZ)

David Need, Visiting Instructor, Department of Religion and at the Duke Islamic Studies Center, Instructor in International Comparative Studies

This course takes several different approaches to thinking through the relationship of poetry to power, and more generally, the place and function of poetic language in contrast to other language forms. Specific units include: 1) a study of poetry’s roots in what we think of as prayers, spells, and curses and. more generally, the roots of theatre and epic narrative in rituals associated with these forms—for the purposes of this section we focus primarily on the case of early Vedic poetry and the work of Laurie Patton and Theodore Proferes on its public dimensions, 2) a comparative/historical study of the claims made about poetry in relation to rhetoric that moves from Aristotle to Kristeva, 3) an exploration of “lyric” as a form of play, and  4) a consideration of arguments for the value and function of poetry in contemporary culture—here we use Josephine Hart’s anthology of eight modern poets, “Catching Life by the Throat: How to Read Poetry and Why,” as a way both to expose students to key modernist poets and to make an argument for the place of poetry in contemporary cultural contexts. Students will be encouraged to write poetry in each section as a means of experientially exploring the ideas considered.

Seminar: Religion 190FS — The Power of Biblical Language

Marc Brettler, Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor in Judaic Studies

The beauty of Psalms, the compelling rhetoric of the prophets, the sparse but insightful style of the biblical storytellers-what makes these texts speak to us today? The Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) is recognized as one of the greatest books civilization has produced, in part because of its compelling style. But what makes this style so compelling?  We will examine this by looking at the selected sections of the Old Testament from a literary-rhetorical perspective, and will explore some of its reverberations in later English literature.

Faculty Director

Gareth O. Price
Gareth O. Price
  • Visiting Assistant Professor in the Linguistics Program
316 Language Building
Campus Box: 
(919) 660-2449