Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

Book Review: Sophie Weerts on “La loi de la langue: Dialogue euro-indien” (Alain Supiot & Sitharamam Kakarala, eds.)

[Editor’s Note: In this installment of I•CONnect’s Book Review Series, Sophie Weerts reviews La loi de la langue: Dialogue euro-indien (Alain Supiot & Sitharamam Kakarala, eds., Schulthess 2017)

Sophie Weerts, University of Lausanne

In 2012, the Institute of Advanced Studies in Nantes held a seminar on “Droit et Langage”, within the framework of the ‘Indian-European Advanced Research Network’. The strength of the ensuing book – La loi de langue: Dialogue euro-indien – is its engagement with questions concerning the relation between language and law with a transdisciplinary approach. Nine authors from different disciplinary backgrounds – law, philosophy, philology, linguistics, sociology – investigate this relation in light of the European and Indian legal and political system, including a tertium comparationis, with contributions concerning China and Japan. With this comparative framework, the value of the book is to serve as a ‘wake-up call’. It does not only address canonical themes for scholars working on questions of linguistic diversity, linguistic rights, and linguistic regime, but proposes exploration outside of the classic paths of legal positivism and mainstream Western modes of legal thought.

The book begins with a stimulating foreword by Alain Supiot. Recalling Plato, Supiot claims that linguistic diversity should be respected as a practical condition of democracy. Nevertheless, he notes that linguistic diversity is facing two central challenges in Europe and India. The first being the empire of “basic English” and the ideal of a monolingual world. The second, unfortunately less investigated in the book, is related to the development of digital communication and technology. In this light, Supiot points to the possibility of treating language like a code, humans like machines, and governance as the paradigm of government. This world is not desirable and would impoverish thought itself. Summarizing the nine contributions, Supiot underlines that the chapters about Sanskrit should help us to understand the relativity of some of the core concepts of Western thought, which are nevertheless treated as foundational across social sciences. Regarding the case of Europe and India, Supiot notes the ambivalence of the legal statute of linguistic diversity and the impact of linguistic policies. Finally, considering his own research on the transformation from government to governance and legislation to regulation,[1] Supiot considers that Europe is a laboratory of such changes, and the evolution of the use of languages illustrates this transformation on a semantic perspective.

The book is divided into two parts: (I) The normativity of the language, (II) The linguistic regimes and practices.

Part I includes four chapters that focus on the normativity of language, especially of Sanskrit. The first contribution, from Arild Utaker, explores the differences between the grammars of Sanskrit and those of the Western tradition. Examining Sanskrit more closely, Charles Malamoud studies the concept of obligation in the dharma tradition, which does not have a direct equivalent to ‘ought’ or ‘to owe’. Lyne Bansat-Boudon builds upon the previous discussion, with reference to Indian aesthetics and the Shaivism of Kashmir. All three contributions illustrate the differences between Indian and Western thought. Closing Part I is an insightful chapter by Stefan Kroll, which invites the reader to take into account theories of translation studies to analyze and explain the phenomenon of convergences and divergences between legal systems; these studies could also help to retrace the circulation of ideas. With this framework, Kroll takes the case of China and Japan, where he retraces the storyline of the diffusion of international law at the end of the nineteenth century, through studying the impact of the English and German books translated.

Part II focuses on linguistic regimes, and although it is ostensibly dedicated to legal questions, the four chapters continue to build bridges between disciplines. Part II begins with a contribution from François Ost, who summarizes his own claims on the question of the future of linguistic diversity in Europe, which were already discussed in his 2009 book Traduire.[2] Ost engages with the debate between advocates for linguistic diversity, and those who seek a lingua franca (which tends to be English). In favor of the protection and promotion of linguistic diversity, Ost relies on the idea that, first, language is much more than a communication tool, but also an expression of culture, and, second, that language policy is founded on either a monolingual or multilingual model. He makes his major claim based on the power of translation to create distances between the self and the other, but also inside of the self. Jean-Claude Barbier further discusses the question of linguistic diversity and the principle of linguistic equality in the framework of the European Union. He presents the results of his sociological inquiry about the linguistic policies of European institutions and their legal translation practices, revealing that the practice of translation cannot completely satisfy a multilingual interpretation of the law. Evoking the legal principle of linguistic equality, Barbier indicates the gap with the practice, which is clearly in favor of the use of English. Moving forward on the question of interpretation, Justice Aftab Alam discusses the pragmatic approach followed by the Indian Supreme Court in cases about the prohibition of arbitrary measures and the principle of equality. The final two contributions deal with the question of the status of languages. Jean-Daniel Robert examines the case of Japan and the construction of the idea of a national language, while Annie Montaut brings us back to India and explores the problem of a hierarchy of languages due to legal recognition or non-recognition.

At the close of the book, the reader can be characterized as “heureux qui comme Ulysse a fait un beau voyage”,[3] having enjoyed a journey through the humanities – exploring different epistemic and methodological approaches, and discovering new concepts, ideas, and modes of thought. Other paths of inquiry could certainly have been considered – e.g. between scholars focusing on the question of interpretation and others working on the question of translation – but nevertheless the book is coherent and achieves its goal in expanding the purview of legal thought. Ultimately, the text offers a range of concepts and ideas that paves the way for future avenues of research.

Suggested Citation: Sophie Weerts, Review of “La loi de la langue: Dialogue euro-indien” (Alain Supiot & Sitharamam Kakarala, eds., Schulthess 2017), Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Sept. 28, 2019, at:“la-loi-de-la-langue:-dialogue-euro-indien”-(alain-supiot-and-sitharamam-kakarala,-ed-)

[1] Alain Supiot (2015), La gouvernance par les nombres, Fayard/IEAN.

[2] François Ost (2009), Traduire. Défense et illustration du multilinguisme, Paris, Fayard.

[3] Joachim du Bellay (1558), Les regrets.


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