Inventing the Native Speaker

Thomas Paul Bonfiglio


This paper argues that employing the designations “native speaker” and “native language” unreflectively is to engage in a gesture of othering that operates on an axis of empowerment and disempowerment. Bonfiglio examines the ideological legacy of the apparently innocent kinship metaphors of “mother tongue” and “native speaker” by historicizing their linguistic development. He traces the construction of ethnolinguistic nationalism, a composite of national language, identity, geography, and race, which informed the philology of the early modern era and culminated most divisively in the race-conscious discourses of the 19th century. Bonfiglio makes the case that scholarship should scrutinize the tendency to over-extend biological metaphors in the study of language, as even today these encourage, however surreptitiously, genetic and racial impressions of language.


native speaker, mother tongue, vernacular, Middle Ages, religion, nationalism

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