Is Linguistic Culture Deep Rooted in Language Policy? A reflective analysis of Harold Schiffman’s article, “Language Policy and Linguistic Culture”

By Saima Bhaur
Visiting Fellow, CPPG


This paper provides a comprehensive review of the article“Language Policy and Linguistic Culture” by Harold Schiffman published in 1996, and analyses it with reference to the usage of language in Pakistani context, citing examples from different socio-ethnic groups in the country; to understand how language policy relates to the linguistic culture in Pakistan, in the light of the selected article.

In the article, Schiffman defines the term Linguistic Culture, and then identifies and discusses the link between explicit language policy and the implicit linguistic culture in a given language situation. He also studies how ‘beliefs’, ‘religion’ and ‘myths’ along with other ‘cultural baggage’ like ‘prejudices’, ‘values’ and ‘ideas’ affect the linguistic culture in a society. The article envisages case studies elaborating upon the usage of four languages in different socio-cultural settings to bring out this link between the language policy and the linguistic culture. These include Tamil language in Tamilnadu, India, German  in America, Polish in Russia and mono-linguistic culture of using French in France. All these cases point to specific  conclusions in terms of the variety of outcomes which this relationship results in, with a range of implications for the usage of each of these languages. You must see this site to obtain additional information regarding the topic and its related topics.

“…linguistic culture is distinct from linguistic ideology and captures a broader range of meanings.”

The linguistic situation in Pakistan is a result of the overt and covert nature of the language policy, variety of indigenous languages in use, languages for official and non official purposes, and influences of colonial rule. A blend of this creates a language situation where the language policy, though pivotal essentially, is actually titular in nature. Since linguistic culture, as defined by Harold Schiffman, unravels a distinct approach to understanding the role of language policy, hence this makes it apt to study it in order to evaluate the role of linguistic culture and language policy in the Pakistani context.

This paper is not a research study. It does not draw upon a broader nature of impact resulting from qualifying reasons but only approximates a reflective analysis of the selected article. It endeavors to analyze and understand the vital but obscure nature of linguistic culture which is a consequence of the varieties of language in a linguistic community as in the case of Pakistan. It begins with the analysis of what is meant by “Linguistic Culture”, followed by reflecting upon and relating three case studies used by Schiffman to the local context in Pakistan.

Defining Linguistic Culture

Linguistic culture is connected to the language policy where in some cases the former directly influences the latter. The article selected for analysis begins by dispelling any existing false notions about the meaning of the term Linguistic Culture. Harold Schiffman defines the term Linguistic Culture as a culture present in the “…..consciousness (or memory, or shared knowledge, or imagination) of linguistic communities.” According to him, it does not reside in language, i.e., in the grammar of a certain language, but is a broader concept, which initially he considered, could be easily understood as the terms like ‘business culture’ and ‘sports culture’; but linguistic culture is a term far more complex and intricate and needs explaining. Schiffman defines Linguistic Culture as:

[T]he sum totality of ideas, values, beliefs, attitudes, prejudices, myths, religious strictures, and all the other cultural “baggage” that speakers bring to their dealings with language from their culture. Linguistic culture also is concerned with the transmission and codification of language and has bearing also on the culture’s notions of the value of literacy and the sanctity of texts1.

Sociologists and anthropologists have been studying the relationship between language and culture since early 20th century and the connection between the two is acknowledged. However, linguistic culture provides the flexibility of viewing language through the culture lens, hence,  adding richness to the contextual meaning of the term. In another article, Shiffman says that “I view linguistic culture as a powerful force that may underlie and guide the formulation of both overt and covert action on behalf of language, and I see it at work in many areas of linguistic activity”2. Thus, Schiffman sees language policy grounded in linguistic culture3. However, the connection of overt and covert action with linguistic culture and linguistic culture’s relation with linguistic ideology needs further exploration.

Linguistic Culture, Linguistic Ideology and Language Policy

The term linguistic culture generated a debate among various culture critics and linguists. Some critics viewed linguistic culture as something which the term linguistic ideology can better express; also this latter term was in use for concepts like those Schiffman wanted to cover under this new term. But, on the other hand, Schiffman holds that linguistic culture is distinct from linguistic ideology and captures a broader range of meanings than what other scholars tried to understand with language ideology. Linguistic culture and language practice in a society form a complex and dynamic landscape, which captures an over-arching framework for linguistic behaviour in a society and is not covered completely under the term linguistic ideology.4 Here it is equally important to differentiate between covert and overt language policy.

Covert and Overt Language Policy

Schiffman talks about the language policy as an explicit factor which takes decisions about language in a social setting. He believes that language policy, despite being explicit and formally articulated, has limited impact on linguistic behavior of the society. In another article, Schiffman emphasizes that the study of language policy has evolved into an interdisciplinary field involving social psychologists, political scientists, linguists, demographers, economists, geographers and anthropologists along with such pioneering sociologists of language as Kloss, Fishman and Weinreich5.

Schiffman points out that it is not only the “overt, de jure”or official decision making about the language which lays down the framework for language outcomes in a social setting, but it is also the “implicit”, “covert” or “de facto” usage of the language in a society which determines this linguistic behavior. He further points out that it is these covert and implicit factors which at times result in a tenuous relationship between the language policy and its implementation, thus thwarting the operationalization of the policy developed by the policy makers. He strongly believes that “language policy is [deep] rooted in linguistic culture”.6

Many researchers prefer to think of language policy as much broader phenomenon, involving not only overt decision making regarding language but also more subtle kind of societal forces that I will subsume under the notion of “covert” or ‘implicit’ policy.7

The following section talks about why the term linguistic culture was coined and how it can be applied to understand the link between language policy and linguistic culture. It uses Schiffman’s four case studies to explain the term, its evolution and its application to the Pakistani case.

Language Policy and Risk of Political Turmoil

Schiffman worked with Tamil language in India from 1960-1965, and found out that Tamil language is the second oldest language in India and has such sociocultural features which can be explained only through the hypothesis that the language has a Tamil linguistic culture. He also points out that the language has much in common with other language groups but at the same time it is quite different from them because of the old traditions that it upholds.

“The language policy as enshrined in the Constitution is aimed at freedom of preserving linguistic purity and allows all ethnic groups to promote this institutionally.”

In the article, Schiffman points out that due to inappropriate language policies, sometimes, language becomes an important reason for political turmoil, unrest and at times violence in a country. He relates that he was in India in 1965-1966 (as he was working on his dissertation on Tamil syntax), when he encountered political turmoil in India emanating from a change in language policy. The Indian Constitution of 1950 laid down that Hindi language would replace English in 15 years time. The cut off time frame for this change over was the year 1965. As India was not ready for this transition, there were many supporters of Hindi language who rose against the use of English language and proclaimed that its usage should be immediately abolished. They further demanded that Hindi should replace English both at official and non-official levels. Thus the policy shift became a reason for political upheaval as other languages existing in India wanted to establish and retain their independent identity, as in the case of Tamil in Tamilnadu.

Tamils as an ethnic group took pride in the ‘purity’ of their language and its unique ancient literature. The natives were endeavoring to “purify” the Tamil language from the influence of Hindi or Sanskrit for over half a century8. This policy change led to emotional trauma for the Tamils who refused to accept this transition, resulting in political unrest in India which also made the Tamils “language fanatics”9.

The Tamil language case is relevant in Pakistani context as Pakistan has registered conflict, violence and political turmoil emanating from implications of language policies, which disregard ethnic and linguistic sensitivities.
“Pakistan is a multilingual and multiethnic country with six major and over 57 small languages” spoken and understood in the country10. The percentage value of linguistic diversity in Pakistan is given below in Figure 1. These diverse linguistic groups have a range of legitimate expectations regarding their linguistic objectives that need consideration in formulating language policy options.

 Figure1: Linguistic Diversity in Pakistan

Languages Percentage of speakers
Punjabi 44.15%
Pashto 15.42%
Sindhi 14.10%
Siraiki 10.53%
Urdu 7.57%
Balochi 3.57%
Others 4.66%

Source: Census 1988

The Case of Urdu vs Bengali: Pakistan has seen political unrest in 1960s resulting from policies aimed at making Urdu the national language for the whole of East and West Pakistan, leaving the Bengalis in East Pakistan feel discriminated against. Bengalis wanted to promote the agenda of recognizing both Urdu and Bengali as the national languages because for them “the language, Bengali, was a symbol of consolidated Bengali identity in opposition to the West Pakistani identity”11. But the language policy adopted by Pakistani policy makers at that time left the Bengalis feel excluded and this “… most significant consequence of the policy that Urdu would be the national language of Pakistan saw its opposition by the Bengali intelligentsia”12, which thus loudly contributed to the reasons for the separation of East from West Pakistan in 1971.

“…due to inappropriate language policies, sometimes, language becomes an important reason for political turmoil, unrest and at times violence in a country”

The Case of Urdu vs Sindhi: In 1970s, Karachi saw the rise of strong ethnic concerns of the migrant Urdu speaking Muhajirs vis-à-vis the local Sindhi communities when the PPP government decided to introduce Sindhi instead of Urdu and then compromised in recognizing both Urdu and Sindhi as official languages of the province. This tenuous relationship led to the rise of violent conflict in the city resulting in huge damages to lives and property in later decades. This led to the creation of a distinct geographic
division of the city of Karachi between Urdu speaking Muhajirs and the Sindhis. The tensions led to the emergence of interest groups who used it to push their vested agendas. Political alliances among the political parties became
evident on the lines of ethnic divides which resulted in “ethnic opposition”13. Further, Rehman views how this affected the behavior of the natives of Sindh. He writes,

Apart from the riots, peoples conduct remains pragmatic. The Mohajirs knowing that they can get by without learning Sindhi, do not learn it except Number 19 – 20 | January 2013 05 in the rural areas where it is necessary for them. The Sindhis, again because they know they cannot get by without learning Urdu, do that..14

Although the Sindhi – Urdu tension has now been\ controlled to quite an extent, the level of volatility in relationship is high and has seeped into other ethnic and linguistic groups as well; for example, the tension between Urdu and Pushto speaking communities in Karachi today which periodically results in unrest and turmoil in the city with massive property and life losses. However, the reasons for this unrest are different and more complex.

The current political unrest in the city of Karachi, results from the desire of the different linguistic groups (Figure 2) to retain the purity of their distinct languages. This political turmoil is in direct conflict with the explicit language policy that emanates from the constitution of Pakistan which provides for flexibility of promoting each language by the relevant ethnic group.

Figure 2: Linguistic diversity in Southern Pakistan


Source: Lewis (2009) Ethnologue, Languages of the World

Language Policy and Diglossia

Varieties in language are termed as ‘diglossia’, which comes from the Greek word, ‘diglossos’ meaning bilingual. Diglossia is such a sociolinguistic situation in which two completely different varieties of a language co-exist throughout a speech community each with a unique range of social function15. The American linguist, Charles A. Ferguson, said that “…high and low varieties … belong to the same language”16. On the other hand, diglossia refers to those situations also where the high and low varieties are two entirely different languages.17.

Schiffman points out that these language situations are a part of “covert” language policy and not “overt” language policy18. He also says that these covert policies affect the “linguistic habits and behavior” of the people as he noticed it in the natives of Tamilnadu and India. Furthermore, he says that this linguistic behavior is the result of “implicit policy” and not explicit policy making. Schiffman believes that no explicit policy planning can affect the linguistic habits of Indian subcontinent.

“Language policy is completely rooted in the culture, though it may not be explicitly articulated and may remain “vague” and unclear.”

Diglossia, being a language situation which results from an informal and implicit interaction of two or more languages, is often not a subject for explicit policy formulation. Policy makers do not take the diaglossic language situations into consideration while framing language policy. Schiffman has concluded that this does not mean that diglossia does not impact the language outcomes in a social setting. Alternatively, it remains a major determinant of the linguistic behavior. This has been explained by Schiffman through case studies of which Tamil will be discussed here. A Tamil diglossic language situation existed in Tamilnadu in 1965. But the language policy then in use in Tamilnadu did not allow the foreigners to speak the spoken or low varieties of Tamil whereas these were commonly spoken by the natives.

Schiffman points out that the natives of Tamilnadu could easily use the “High” and “Low” varieties of Tamil when
communicating with the educated and uneducated speakers in the linguistic community respectively. But they even denied the fact that they used the vernacular version of the language as they were concerned about maintaining its purity. Due to the implicit linguistic cultural dynamics in real language situations, involving interaction of the educated with uneducated sections of the society, the Tamils used the vernacular version in complete disregard of the explicit language policy which aimed at discouraging any diglossic language outcomes for Tamil.

of language, script and culture:

…any section of citizens having a distinct language, script or culture shall have the right to preserve and promote the same and subject to law, establish institutions for that purpose.19

The language policy as enshrined in the Constitution is aimed at freedom of preserving linguistic purity and
allows all ethnic groups to promote this institutionally. This apparently means that all the languages should be allowed to remain pure and clear of the influences from other languages. However, there are several instances where people willingly start using the languages of other ethnic and linguistic groups. So the overt language policy outcomes are influenced by the covert language situations. The following case study further explains this disconnect between policy and implementation.

The Case of Punjabi and Pashto: As there is a diversity of the ethnic and linguistic groups in Pakistan, cross-pollination of languages results from close interaction between two or more of these ethnic and linguistic groups. The case under reference here is of the Pakhtuns from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (Figure 3) who migrate to the northern and central Punjab and bring their language (Pashto) along with them. However, due to their fusion in the societal fabric in Punjab and constant exposure to the Punjabi vernacular, commonly spoken in the province, they pick up Punjabi and speak this language informally as people do learn languages for pragmatic reasons while at the same time they want to preserve their native language. 20

Figure 3: Linguistic diversity in Northern Pakistan &
Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa


Source: Lewis (2009) Ethnologue, Languages of the World

It is evident from this case study that covert language situations have an overriding impact on the overt policy
decisions which are not often mindful of the diglossic linguistic developments that take place informally in a socio-cultural setting.

“The small and regional languages are under tremendous pressure, some of
which have become extinct, while others are about to become extinct”

Language Policy and Instruction

Explicit language policies requiring adoption of a particular language as the preferred medium of instruction while disregarding the implicit language situation in that socio-cultural setting are neither effective nor completely implemented. Schiffman discusses this failure of covert policy through the case of Polish in Russia where the explicit language policy required adopting Russian as the
medium of instruction. Schiffman quotes Marie Curie’s biography and argues that Polish was taught in a “secret” way in Russia before 1918. Marie Curie describes in her memoirs that instruction in Polish switched to Russian when Russian inspectors visited the schools and resumed it upon their departure. Schiffman calls this a “subversive and resistant” implicit policy; an example of covert policy, which kept Polish language alive in Russia.

In the sub-continent before the independence of Pakistan, Hindi–Urdu controversy created a situation quite like
Polish in Russia, where Hindi was imposed on Muslim children in schools.21 Urdu was a “symbol of Muslim separatism in British India” and it was used by the Muslim League to “mobilize Muslims against perceived Hindu domination and the struggle for Pakistan”22. The advocates of Urdu wanted to safe guard their language so that it does not become extinct at the hands of Hindi and continued using Urdu as the medium of instruction in a discreet fashion. This was a consequence of the covert policy which refused to accept a non-inclusive language policy decision.

Language Policy and Myth

Schiffman uses the case of explicit policy failures in France to emphasize the importance of myths that in some cases prevail more strongly than the explicit language policy and have implications in real language  situations. Language policy in France, according to French belief, is the “most explicit and ancient in the world”23. He further says that the French strong belief in their language policy makes it mythological in nature. It is for this reason that France is the only country where “the exclusive use of the national language in all private and public acts” is a part of the legislation24. This means French is used by all individuals for the purpose of communication, such as “from drafting the laws” to “commercial transactions”25.

France is a monolingual society and the overt language policy as discussed above actually had no basis and in fact resulted from the power of the myth. The “Law of 8 pluviose an Il” said that “French shall be taught in every commune where the local people do not speak French”26. This milder version had many loop holes, such as, it required to open new schools where bilingual teachers would teach. As there were no bilingual teachers so they would be found. Another resolve was to open “teacher training institutes”, “ecolenormale”; trained teachers would be sent to the provinces to teach others.27 This was done by the decree of 1794, but very few people got registered. Thus, this was also “dead on arrival” with the result that old schools had closed down and there were no replacements for them. Schiffman is of the view that explicit language  policy that was so believed to exist actually was not there.

It was only in the mid 1990s that France finally realized that its supposedly explicit language policy was in fact largely unwritten and developed an overt policy which gave them the satisfaction that their language purity will now be secured. The lesson here is that France did not need an explicit policy to safeguard the purity of their language – this was already taken care of through the
existing linguistic culture in France.

The case of English language in Pakistan: This can be compared to the situation in Pakistan as English language has
become the mode of instruction in public schools recently, especially in the province of Punjab. This implies that English language shall be introduced at Grade 1 and that all other courses shall also be immersed in English language. As there is a complete dearth of qualified English teachers who can teach at the public schools in Punjab province, there is a possibility of non-standard local languages adversely affecting the English language purity in these areas. “A credible and transparent mechanism of teacher’s recruitment and facilitation is a core requirement…”28. In addition to this, there is also non implementation of the language policy in the region, due to an existing strong linguistic culture which covertly resists the language policy proclaimed by the State.


In order to understand how policy works, it should be looked into rather deeply and in context because “things are not always ‘as they seem’,”29. Language policy is completely rooted in the culture, though it may not be explicitly articulated and may remain “vague” and unclear. Languages evolve as a result of informal interaction between the various linguistic groups that exist in a given language situation. This leads to language outcomes which are completely different from those promoted in the explicit language policies adopted by the relevant societal institutions.

“English and Urdu remain the languages
of domains of power.”

Linguistic culture, though informal and unarticulated impacts the contours of the covert language policies which
are strong enough to resist the implementation of the covert policies. The implicit language policy draws its shape and structure on the basis of the existing linguistic culture which results from the informal realm of real language
situations. The linguistic culture controls the languages that apparently are free and independent.

Pakistan has examples which validate the assumptions that lie at the heart of Schiffman’s hypothesis. The linguistic culture in Pakistan results from the dynamic real language situations where the explicit language policies are found to be ineffective. The minor languages are jeopardized and the major ones are devalued. Despite a clearly articulated policy aimed at promoting all the regional and ethnic languages in Pakistan to avoid any discrimination against the less privileged linguistic groups, English and Urdu remain the languages of domains of power – government, corporate sector, media, and education etc..30 The small and regional languages are under tremendous pressure, some of which have become extinct, while others are about to become extinct because of the state’s favoring of Urdu and English at the expense of others. Marxist theory of language policy states that language is “irrelevant” and when the states “wither[ed] away,” then “differences between languages also cease to exist”. It may be concluded that linguistic culture, despite being unwritten, vague, abstract and informal has a strong bearing
on the outcomes of a formal, written, clear language policy and can resist the implementation of a formal language policy.

 End Notes

1 Schiffman 1996
2 Schiffman 1994
3 Lara Ryazanova-Clarke Edinburgh University, U.K
4 ibid
5 Schiffman 1994
6 Schiffman 1996
7 Schiffman 1994
8 Ramaswamy, S 1997
9 Schiffman 1994
10 Numbers from Jan 1996
11 Rehman, T 2002
12 Rehman, T 1996
13 Rehman, T 2002
14 Rehman, T 2002, Language, Ideology and Power: language-Learning
among the Muslims of Pakistan and North India, 2002. Ch.10
15 Crystal, 1997
16 Hudson, 1996
17 Khan 2011 pp. 9-10
18 Schiffman 1997
19 Constitution of Pakistan, 1973, Article 251
20 Rehman, T 2002 pp. 36
21 K. Ali, 1980
22 Rehman, T 2002
23 Balibar 1985 pp. 9
24 ibid
25 Balibar, 1985 pp. 10
26 Schiffman 1996
27 Schiffman 1994
28 Ahmed, N 2012
29 Schiffman 1996
30 Rahman, T 1996


Ahmed, N. (2012) Department of Architecture and Planning, NED University, Karachi. Retrieved from
Jan, F. (n.d.) Language Policy-Pakistan. Retrieved from 1-language policy-pakistan/
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Rahman, T. (2002). Language, Ideology and Power: language-Learning among the Muslims of Pakistan and North India Karachi: Oxford University Press
Rehman, T. (2003) Language Policy, language Death and Vitality in Pakistan. Retrieved from http://www.tariqrah Policy, Language Death and Vitality.htm
Ramaswamy, S. (1997). Passions of the Tongue: Language Devotion in Tamil India, University of California Press. Retrieved from books?hl=en&lr=&id=Npvv-ALoQFcC&oi=fnd&pg=PR13& dq=ramaswamy+passions+of+the+tongue&ots=3t-lRlOt- Y&sig=1-ihQdekj lfsplX0kTW9fAD5Ao#v=onepage&q=r amaswamy passions of the tongue&f=false
Ryazanova, L.& C. (n.d.) Edinburgh University, U.K; Linguistic culture and identity in Russian radio programs on language
Schiffman 1994: Diaglossia, Linguistic Culture and Language Policy in Southeast Asia, published by University of Washington
Schiffman, H. (1996). Summary, Chap. 8, published by Routledge 1996. Retrieved from edu/~haroldfs/540/summary.html The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan 1973, Article 251