Table of contents
Table of contents
Linguistic Anthropology
Unit 5

Language and Power

A person in a cowboy hat bumps fists with a person in a khaki pants suit in front of a red and white flag.

Institutionalized power determines the way we speak and guides the conversations that we have. Through language, power makes itself known via state messaging and sets the tone for social interactions with the use of predetermined wording and phrases. In this unit, students will study examples of how state power is exerted through speech and written language. They will have a chance to consider how the media, police, and military forces use language to maintain their control over large populations.

Professor Talking Points
  • State power is exerted through the language people use and the language used by the institutions that support the state: the media, the military and police forces, the judicial systems, etc.
  • By imposing the narratives of many aspects of public discourse, states guide the way people conceptualize and speak about war and peace; neighborhoods, regions, nations, and other countries, and the people who live there; safety; identity and belonging; allies and enemies; and what people can expect from the state itself both individually and collectively.
  • An understanding of state language and its effects on the populations it presides over gives us a better grasp of why the above-mentioned subjects are discussed in certain ways.
Academic Articles
  1. Collins, James. 2017. “Dilemmas of Race, Register, and Inequality in South Africa.” Language in Society 46 (1): 39–56.

  2. McElhinny, Bonnie. 2001. “See No Evil, Speak No Evil: White Police Officers’ Arguments Around Race and Affirmative Action.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 11 (1): 65–78.

Student Discussion Questions
  1. In thinking about this unit’s articles, how can you tell which messages come from the state and state forces?
  2. Why is the language of the state and state enforcers so powerful?
  3. How are state messages different from non-state messages?
  4. List the ways that state language impacts the populations it holds power over.
  5. What challenges do citizens face when trying to change state language?
  6. How is state language used in political conflicts like war or apartheid regimes? What are some tangible effects of the use of this language in everyday life? What might be some lasting effects of this language after these conflicts officially end?
  • Have students find a video clip of someone in power speaking (e.g., a president, a police chief) and analyze the ways in which their language has the potential to reflect and shape power dynamics.
Additional Resources
  1. Podcast Episode: Radiolab’s “Words That Change the World

Unit By

Eshe Lewis (2020)

Linguistic Anthropology
Unit 6

Language and Race

Two young people sit facing each other with paper on their laps. Behind them are large photos and a large grey storyboard.