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date: 16 June 2024



  • Ken HirschkopKen HirschkopDepartment of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo


The concept of “heteroglossia” was coined by Mikhail Bakhtin in an essay from the 1930s. Heteroglossia was the name he gave for the “inner stratification of a single national language into social dialects, group mannerisms, professional jargons, generic languages, the languages of generations and age-groups,” and so on, but it was not simply another term for the linguistic variation studied in sociolinguistics and dialectology. It differed in three respects. First, in heteroglossia differences of linguistic form coincided with differences in social significance and ideology: heteroglossia was stratification into “socio-ideological languages,” which were “specific points of view on the world, forms for its verbal interpretation.” Second, heteroglossia embodied the force of what Bakhtin called “historical becoming.” In embodying a point of view or “social horizon,” language acquired an orientation to the future, an unsettled historical intentionality, it otherwise lacked. Third, heteroglossia was a subaltern practice, concentrated in a number of cultural forms, all of which took a parodic, ironizing stance in relation to the official literary language that dominated them. Throughout his discussion, however, Bakhtin wavers between claiming this heteroglossia exists as such in the social world, from which the novel picks it up, and arguing that heteroglossia is something created and institutionalized by novels, which take the raw material of variation and rework it into “images of a language.” Interestingly, from roughly 2000 on work in sociolinguistics has suggested that ordinary speakers do the kind of stylizing and imaging work Bakhtin assigned to the novel alone. One could argue, however, that heteroglossia only acquires its full significance and force when it is freed from any social function and allowed to flourish in novels. According to Bakhtin, that means that heteroglossia is only possible in modernity, because it is in modernity that society becomes truly historical, and languages only acquire their orientation to the future in those circumstances.


  • Literary Theory
  • Print Culture and Digital Humanities

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