12th Conference of the European Sociological Association
Differences, Inequalities and Sociological Imagination
25 – 28 August 2015, Czech Technical University, Prague, Czechia
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The Disciplinary Power of Grammar: How Language Structures Govern Mentality


The grammatical structure of the languages of north western Europe, combined with certain language games typically used by caregivers and teachers speaking these languages, make a vital contribution to the unquestioned authority of inter-subjective reason in Western cultures; hence the voluntary subjection of the ‘free’ Western individual to rational democratic rule (Meyer-Schwarzenberger, forthcoming). The present paper aims to link this finding, which has emerged from my theoretical and empirical research on social capital, with the conceptual frameworks of Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu and other historical sociologists concerned with social discipline. Bourdieu, for instance, suggested that modern government relies on the received legitimacy of an ‘Official’ public discourse; as I shall argue, this Official discourse builds on a more general cultural inclination towards abstract rationality, which is inherently associated with modern grammar. Beginning in the Middle Ages, the grammaticalization of anaphoric relationships in north western European languages gave rise to obligatory subject pronouns which invoke the presuppositions of every statement in an explicit way (Trucken­brodt, 2006); the resulting integration of discourse creates a flavour of necessity and unison which is absent in other languages, and which helps teachers and caregivers to vest particular authority in the ‘Great Other’ by means of appropriate language games (cf. Salecl, 1994). Thus, grammar serves as an important psychological resource underpinning the discourses of positive law, rational rule, and democratic governance in Western societies. At a meta-theoretical level, this assertion implies that Bourdieu’s and other theories of social discipline are applicable to these societies only.


  • Meyer-Schwarzenberger, Matthias (forthcoming). Grammatik und Sozialkapital: Sprachliche Relativität in Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Doctoral dissertation, University of St. Gallen.

  • Salecl, Renata (1994). Deference to the Great Other: The Discourse of Education. In Mark Bracher, Marshall W. Alcorn Jr., Ronald J. Corthell, & Françoise Massardier-Kenney (Eds.), Lacanian Theory of Discourse: Subject, Structure, and Society. New York, NY: New York University Press.

  • Truckenbrodt, Hubert (2006). On the semantic motivation of syntactic verb movement to C in German. Theoretical Linguistics 32(3), 257–306.