What Does Language Do in History?

By Ruslana Westerlund

aboriginal generation stolen

History is often studied as facts, events or lives of historical figures.  We study history to understand the past or even predict the future.   If we want to build democratic classrooms, history needs to be problematized.  This is not a new idea.  We ask students to answer questions such as whose history are we studying?  Who wrote the history?  Which perspectives are presented and whose are misrepresented?  Whose voices are included and whose voices are excluded?  In addition, is the historical portrayal of events objective or subjective?  Can historians be free of bias?

To answer those questions, we must look at the language used in history.  Hence, the question is not what is the language of history but instead, what does language DO in history?  Even more importantly, what do authors do when they write history?

Hence, the question is not what is the language of history but instead, WHAT DOES LANGUAGE DO IN HISTORY?  

I do not find a traditional view of language to be of particular relevance to investigate historical texts, authors’ biases, and their subjectivity.   What can the work of categorizing nouns and verbs and prepositions yield, afterall?   In your defense, you’ll say we don’t do grammar in history.  You might say that you cover vocabulary or concepts.  But I find that limiting as well.  Lately, I’ve been using Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), a view of language as a meaning making resource (not a set of rules to be followed) and a robust set of tools to do the critical discourse analysis of any text, but especially such value-laded texts as historical narratives.  SFL asks questions like What language choices did the author make to portray certain events?  Did the authors depict those events as settlements or invasions?  Who are the perpetrators in the historic events?  How do we know?  What textual features did the author choose to make us believe that?  How are the indigenous people portrayed?   As trespassers or as natives?  What do adjectives do in history?  How do they depict certain people or events?  

I will draw on Caroline Coffin‘s work who studies history discourses through SFL.  I find her work to be particularly useful here.  She is at the Open University, UK.  If you are interested in the critical discourse analysis of historical genres from the SFL perspective in the United States, Mary Schleppegrell has done great work with history texts and history teachers and their students.  Coffin astutely observed that while there are many engaged in enacting critical reading of the genres of historical writing, most have not given much attention to the linguistic strategies and resources that constitute the “voice of history” and “which linguistic resources are used by the authors to persuade the readers of the validity of their claims” (Coffin, 1998, p.2).   In other words, we talk about perspectives in history, but not many of us actually know how to teach the students how those perspectives are constructed so they can be reconstructed.  History teachers are not language teachers after all, so it is understandable why they have not investigated those linguistic resources.  It is the job of the English Language Arts teacher to teach passive voice, afterall, or is it?

Let’s look at this text together.  If you follow my Facebook group Reclaiming the Language of Social Justice, you might have seen this text before.

The forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families was part of the policy of Assimilation. Assimilation was based on the assumption of black inferiority and white superiority, which proposed that Indigenous people should be allowed to “die out” through a process of natural elimination, or, where possible, should be assimilated into the white community.

Source: Australians Together. The Stolen Generations

From the perspective of what is the language of history, we are used to looking at language and say that words like assimilation, elimination, black inferiority, Indigenous people – those are important words to comprehend this text, according to that view.  If I ask the question What does language DO in history, then the comprehension questions get us to problematize this text.  Let’s look at the noun phrase the forcible removal.   The word remove was turned into a noun removal – a very common feature of academic writing called nominalization – to create a certain level of abstraction.  So, what does the process of nominalizing the verb into a noun did in this sentence?  The answer to that question can be answered by asking one more question:  WHO REMOVED THE INDIGENOUS CHILDREN FROM THEIR FAMILIES?

You can’t answer that question, can you?  So, what does language do in history?  In this one sentence, the language choices made by this author hide the perpetrator.  How can students re-write history, the same fact, indeed to expose the perpetrator?  White people or Christians or …..  removed the indigenous children by force from their families.  All of a sudden, we get a different perspective, right?

For a more detailed analysis of language resources in history, I would recommend learning about James Martin and Peter White’s (2005) Appraisal System which uses discourse semantics, an approach that foregrounds meaning before looking at structures which construe those meanings.

One of my favorite SFL scholars Ruqaiya Hasan writes on three types of literacy (2011): functional, reproductive and reflective.  We need all three, but we particularly need Reflective literacy when we read or write historical genres which enables our students to think like this:

“… it becomes important to ask whose point of view does the writing represent, whose point of view is implied in which reading? It is from this kind of deeper understanding of what ‘the’ text means that we can move to explanation questions. For example, pupils would not simply note the way a text is structured, but they would also ask why it is structured in the way it is; if the structure were to be changed, what would change, for whom, and at what price?  They would not simply observe whose voice(s) underlie messages of what category, they would also ask why these voices and these messages go together, what (potentially relevant) voices are absent and why. This is indeed to question the very norms of discourse.  


Just as a teacher will need a good deal of expertise and understanding of language as a meaning potential in order to be able to help develop this kind of discursive perspective in her pupils, so also she will need to be deeply familiar with the nature of the disciplines she is to discuss with her class: what issues does it problematize. What methods for the resolution of such problems were employed in the past and what today? What counts as a fact and why? What sort of evidence upholds the status of a fact as fact?”

Hasan, R. (2011). Language and Education. p. 199

I will leave you with a classroom resource to see how the teacher engages her students in analyzing historic perspectives using SFL.   SFL uses simple terms like participants, processes, and circumstances to refer to meaning making resources in texts.  In this example, the teacher is focusing on how we talk about participants in texts as the students construe perspectives across the text.

Critical  Conversations About Texts 


Coffin, C. (1998).  Reconstruals of the Past: Settlement or Invasion?  The Role of Judgement Analysis.  Paper presented for the American Association for Applied Linguistics.  Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED421860.pdf

Hasan, R. (2011). Language and Education.  Learning and Teaching in Society.  Collected Works of Ruqaiya Hasan.  Vol. 3. J. Webster (Ed.).  Equinox Publishers

Martin, J. & White, P. (2005).  The Language of Evaluation: Appraisal in English. Palgrave Macmillan

Rossbridge, J. & Rushton, K. (n.d.) The critical conversation about text: Joint construction. PETAA Paper 196. Available here.

Schleppegrell, M.  (2008).  Literacy in History.  Language and Meaning.  Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 31(2). pp. 174–187 Retrieved from https://www.alea.edu.au/documents/item/70


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