when talk isn't cheap: language and political economy



Although the classic Saussurean conception of language segregates the linguistic sign from the material world, this paper shows linguistic phenomena playing many roles in political economy. Linguistic signs may refer to aspects of an exchange system; differentiated ways of speaking may index social groups in a social division of labor; and linguistic “goods” may enter the marketplace as objects of exchange. These aspects of language are not mutually exclusive, but (instead) may coincide in the same stretch of discourse. Illustrations are drawn primarily from a rural Wolof community in Senegal. It is argued that linguistic signs are part of a political economy, not just vehicles for thinking about it. Only a conception of language as multifunctional can give an adequate view of the relations between language and the material world, and evade a false dichotomy between “idealists” and “materialists.”[language, political economy, sociolinguistics, semiotic theory, Senegal]