Not mere abstractions: Language policies and language ideologies in U.S. settler colonialism

Malathi Michelle Iyengar


This paper seeks to contribute to scholarly understandings of the multiple uses to which settler colonialism has historically put language – that is, the circuitous and synthetic history of language policy and language ideology in the settler-colonial project. I will focus here on the role of language in the construction of the U.S. settler state. Building on concepts from Indigenous studies and settler colonial studies, I argue that language policies and language ideologies have been foundational to U.S. settler-colonial activities – both in relation to the displacement and attempted elimination of the original inhabitants of the place, and in terms of the creation of the “White America” that would supplant those Native inhabitants. As Patrick Wolfe notes, “Settler colonialism destroys to replace.” In U.S. settler society, language ideologies and language policies have been fundamental, both to the destruction and to the replacement. The present paper – written by a member of U.S. settler society, in the institutional context of a university constructed on occupied Kumeyaay land – will discuss some historical aspects of language ideology and language policy in U.S. settler colonialism, and offer some reflections upon the question of why language in particular has been so important to the formation of the U.S. settler state.


settler colonialism; language; language policies; common school movement

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ISSN 1929-8692