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In linguistics, the term heteroglossia describes the coexistence of distinct varieties within a single linguistic code. The term translates the Russian raznorechie (literally "different-speech-ness"), which was first introduced by the Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin in his 1934 paper Slovo v romane, published in English as "Discourse in the Novel."
Langue and Linguistic Variation
Bakhtin developed the notion in contrast with the structuralist account of language, which was centered in the notion of langue , that is, the systematic set of rules determining the well-formeddness of an expression or utterance. This concept, introduced by Saussure, emphasised the notion that the code conformed by the linguistic norms must be common to all speakers for communication to be possible. This was seen as a dangerous simplification by Bakhtin, who asserted that languages are internally divided, not simply into regional dialects, but also into many different strata, corresponding to all possible axes of social division; he thus posited a minutely nuanced variety of class-, ethnia-, profession-, age- and gender-specific languages within the same code.
Languages, however, do not coexist peacefully, but are rather in a permanent state of competition; Bakhtin distinguishes centripetal linguistic forces, exerted by official forms backed by the cultural or administrative establishment, from centrifugal forces intent on preserving the existence of unofficial, dialectal forms; he identifies the former with the social processes of political, cultural and ideological centralization.
The normalization of linguistic forms (or monoglossia) is perceived as an important cause as language is, for Bakhtin, not simply a formal system of grammatical categories, but also the highly charged medium of verbal-ideological thought. The imposition of a standard form, thus, carries with it the strong ideological conventions of the dominant class.
Bakhtin views language as not neutral, even when not explicitly charged with ideological meaning. The categories of language —especially semantics, but also the notions of appropriateness ingrained through the patterns of prosody, and the pragmatic conventions of conversation— articulate a particular world-view. A certain word, for example, can be marked as distinctive by the common usage of a given group; this is sometimes the explicit function of in-group jargon.
This state of affairs, however, is not definitive; lexical, syntactic and phonological elements are adopted and discarded in the course of time in the different languages. The exact meaning of a word —not simply what is, in conventional lingustics, standardised as its denotation, but the full range of contents the word transmits, including its adscription to a specific dialect and the evaluative connotations it contains— is strongly dependent on the context in which it has been uttered. It is important to notice that not even the denotation can be taken as a neutral, generic value; even an explicitly aseptic usage carries the connotations of academicism and formalist associated with exclusively denotative discourse.
Meaning is therefore not produced according to a unitary, disembodied system expressed in formal norms, but rather emerges from the deployment of these norms by specific users, in specific settings, for specific purposes. Each specific utterance adds to the preexisting context and may change the rules according to which its hearers will subsequently understand and employ language.
This influence should not be overstated; the actual weight of individual, private utterances may be minute. However, in connection with a given social practice it may lead to the development of a speech genre , which stabilises the trend and pits it against competing usages and perspectives. Heteroglossia is present at the microlinguistic scale, which means that the interpretation of any speech event requires close analysis of those preceding and succeeding it; however, it becomes stable only at a macrolinguistic level. The degree of context-dependence varies according to the dialect, the situation and the historical moment. In any case, all three must be avaluated to understand the specific act.
Heteroglossia in Literary Criticism
Bakhtin viewed the modernist novel as a literary form best suited for the exploitation of heteroglossia, in direct contrast to epic poetry (and, in a lesser degree, poetry in general). The linguistic energy of the novel was seen in its expression of the conflict between voices through their adscription to different elements in the novel's discourse.
Influence of the Concept
Bakhtin's view of heteroglossia has been often employed in the context of the postmodern critique of the perceived teleological and authoritarian character of modernist art and culture. In particular, the latter's strong disdain for popular forms of art and literature —archetypally expressed in Adorno and Horkheimer's analysis of the culture industry— has been criticised as a proponent of monoglossia; practitioners of cultural studies have used Bakhtin's conceptual framework to theorise the critical reappropriation of mass-produced entertainment forms by the public.
Bakhtin, M.M. (1993). Speech Genres, and other Late Essays. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, ed. Austin: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-29-272046-7.
Bakhtin, M.M. (1994). The Bakhtin Reader. Pam Morris, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-34-059267-2.
During, S. (ed) (1993). The Cultural Studies Reader. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-41-507709-5.
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