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To legislate or not to legislate? Language politics and legitimation crises in Germany and Sweden


By: Sally Johnson and Tommaso M. Milani

Since the late 1990s the question of whether to ratify the status of Swedish as the “principal” language by means of a language law has been subject to considerable public dispute in Sweden. Drawing on Blommaert’s (1999a) concept of a “language ideological debate”, we explore how and why this particular debate recently appeared to reach a dead end without achieving any kind of tangible “closure”.

In order to do so, we introduce Habermas’s (1975, [1973]) notion of “legitimation crisis”, as recently applied by Johnson (2005a, 2005b) in her discussion of language ideological debates surrounding the 1996 reform of German orthography. We describe how, according to Habermas, legitimation crises are underpinned by one or more “rationality deficits”, i.e. discursive paradoxes that typically emerge in a given historical, cultural, social and economic context. We propose that the concept of “legitimation crisis” not only helps to explain why some language ideological debates seemingly reach a stalemate as in the Swedish case, but also constitutes a theoretical framework that could be productively incorporated into the study of language politics more generally.

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