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University of Toronto
Sociolinguistics not-as-usual: lessons from Victor Klemperer

A few years ago, the University of Toronto Press approached me and Bonnie McElhinny with a proposal that we produce a new introductory text to linguistic anthropology and an accompanying reader. Faced with what we were experiencing as a disconnect between the role of language in contemporary makings of social difference and social inequality and the depoliticized tools we had been trained to use, we produced something entirely different. The book we wrote (Heller and McElhinny 2017) was -- is -- an attempt to, as Raymond Williams put it, “walk backwards into the future” – to trace a genealogy of ideas about language and society that might help us grasp how and why approaches to that relationship got extracted from connections to material relations of power, in order to learn how to practice a sociolinguistics that centres those connections. In this talk, I will focus on one example: Victor Klemperer (1881-1960), a German philologist whose writings during the Nazi period have attracted increasing attention (Klemperer 1947, 1998). I will use that example to ask why and how Klemperer used his philological approach to address the changes of his era; why his work was somewhat sidelined in the German Democratic Republic, where he spent his last years; why we are interested now; and finally, what we might learn from his story about practicing sociolinguistics in our own time.


Monica Heller is a Professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and the Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto. She is a Past President of the American Anthropological Association and a member of the Royal Society of Canada. Professor Heller’s research focuses on the role of language in the construction of social difference and social inequality in the post-nationalist, globalizing new economy, with an ethnographic focus on francophone Canada. She is Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Sociolinguistics, and has published extensively in journals such as Language in SocietyLangage et société and Language Policy. Her most recent books include: Language, Capitalism, Colonialism: Towards a Critical History (2018, University of Toronto Press, with Bonnie McElhinny), and Critical Sociolinguistic Research: A Methods Manual (2018, Routledge, with Sari Pietikäinen and Joan Pujolar).