Book Review, ‘Metrolingualism: language in the city’, by Alastair Pennycook and Emi Otsuji (Routledge, 2015)

Review by Caroline Tagg

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This is a timely, important and very readable book which sets out a case for reconceptualising language as fluid, dynamic processes of meaning-making, situated in particular spaces and involving a mix of what we would traditionally categorise as different languages, registers, styles, and modes. The argument is not new but reflects those made in recent years by a number of researchers – Jan Blommaert, Adrian Blackledge, Suresh Canagarajah, Angela Creese, Ofelia Garcia, Jens Normann Jørgensen, Li Wei – to name but a few. However, this book breaks new ground by focusing not primarily on how individuals’ communicative repertoires cut across existing language categorisations but on how language can be understood in relation to the spaces in which interactions occur and the activities it accompanies.

Pennycook and Otsuji lay out their priorities by opening the first chapter in Sydney market with a colourful description of social diversity, movement, and vegetables. Language is from the start situated within city workers’ acts of metrolingual multitasking, a term the authors use ‘to capture the ways in which linguistic resources, everyday tasks and social space are intertwined’ (p.2). The book aims to understand everyday multilingualism in Sydney and Tokyo by developing ‘an understanding of the relationship among the use of such diverse linguistic resources (drawn from different languages, varieties and registers), the repertoires of such workers, the activities in which they are engaged, and the larger space in which this occurs’ (p.3). Their description of the ‘lingo-ing’ of stall-owners Muhibb, Talib and Joseph resonates with what TLANG has found in the Birmingham Bullring market, where people use whatever linguistic resources they can not only to get the job done and serve customers (the main focus of this book), but also to be ‘convivial’ (as discussed later in the book).

The authors’ concept of spatial repertoires is elaborated through colourful descriptions of restaurant kitchens in Sydney and Tokyo, where bits of languages make up the resources available to the kitchen staff – from mozzarella and carpaccio in an Italian restaurant to the Polish, Spanish, Hindi and English that staff pick up from each other. The focus on spatial repertoires is a deliberate attempt to reinstate the social element lost in discussion of individual repertoires and to show that languaging is not simply the result of individual agency but that it emerges within spatially-ordered social interactions. Individuals do not only ‘bring’ linguistic resources to a kitchen, but draw on the local emergent resources that become available because of a particular activity taking place among particular people:

a repertoire is not exclusively owned and controlled by a person … but rather is a product of the multitasking interactions … and the dynamic movement of people, objects, and activities (p.83).

This description of spatial repertoires prompts us to consider how the diverse individual repertoires of participants in our TLANG research are deployed in, and contribute to, particular spaces and interactions which in turn expand, transform and sometimes constrain the resources available to interlocutors. Of course, Pennycook and Otsuji’s focus on spaces, rather than people (as in our project), means they are able to provide only a snapshot of an individual’s repertoire and missing from this book are insights into how their participants – Mama in Tokyo’s Mediterranean restaurant Carthago or Nischal in Sydney’s Greek pizzeria Patris – language in digitally-mediated spaces or at home. Neither starting point – the space nor the individual – is better than the other, but the choice highlights the complexity and selectivity involved in understanding everyday city workers’ language use.

The chapter on ‘convivial and contested cities’ is a most welcome addition to the book, not only because it expands the focus on the functional to the convivial (as the authors point out) as well as to the commensal, but because it touches on the discrimination and difficulties that sit alongside conviviality in most city spaces. Research into contexts of urban superdiversity is invaluable in highlighting how diversity is ‘commonplace’ for many people and that they can rub along quite well despite their differences, but this understanding of human interaction must also account for times when people rub each other up the wrong way. Pennycook and Otsuji look at everyday racism from the perspective of fluidity and fixity: while their focus is on the fluidity of everyday metrolingualism in the city, people themselves orient towards fixed categories and differences which can be invoked convivially – as we have seen in our research – but which can also be a source of discrimination and distrust. They re-examine the fluidity and mobility of the city neighbourhoods in terms of tension, division and exclusion, contestation of identity, and negotiation of claims to the city. They look also at miscommunication though the example of confusion across at least three languages as to whether a dish contains ‘red celery’ or ‘rhubarb’ (pp.124-128). It would be really interesting to see these arguments extended into an account of metrolingualism that integrated all elements from the start: the functional and the dysfunctional, the convivial and the discriminatory, an account which would circumvent an overly celebratory stance of city life.

This thoughtful and thought-provoking book takes an important step in attempting to raise awareness of the ways in which people in superdiverse city spaces use and perceive of their rich language resources. I will be interested to see where the authors – and other researchers – go with ‘metrolingualism’ and related ways of reconceptualising language. At its heart, this book is bent on making the case for metrolingualism as a description of fluid, flowing urban language practices. While it does this effectively, it also does it somewhat repetitively, so that by about Chapter 3, I find myself thinking ‘yes, yes, I get it, metrolingualism is about the resources deployed alongside everyday activities and objects by ordinary people to get things done’ – ‘yes, language use flows with the rhythms of the city’ – now what? Linguistic ethnography is at the exciting stage of having challenged existing categories and ideas about languages and posited instead new models which focus on people’s repertoires and on the exploitation of often diverse resources in situated acts of meaning-making. Yet this book – and others – paradoxically helps to reify the distinctions between languages as an analytical focus over other potential areas of investigation, be that stylisation, evaluative language, phonology, metaphor. The main linguistic analysis evident in this book – and integrated into the transcriptions – is the categorisation of utterances into different languages. This is of course a shortcut for indicating a segment of a spatial repertoire and its trajectory in comparison with other segments which arrive from somewhere else. Interactions that involve only one language – such as the Cantonese exchange analysed almost apologetically in the final chapter – are not excluded from metrolingualism and could presumably be analysed in terms of dialect, style, or other differences in the resources that individuals bring to an interaction. But that is not the focus of this book, and the exercise would be harder and involve more in-depth ethnographically-informed interactional analysis in order to ascertain what individual signs were doing. Associating a resource with a particular language remains helpful in assigning a likely trajectory to its arrival in any one space. As linguistic ethnographers increasingly take metrolingualism and related ideas about languaging as the norm – as the means rather than the ends of a research agenda – it will be interesting to see what further insights about language and people these ideas can generate.


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