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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton June 16, 2018

How to ask questions on language? Ideological struggles in the making of a state survey

  • Alexandre Duchêne EMAIL logo , Philippe N. Humbert and Renata Coray


The purpose of this article is to analyze the conducting of a state survey on language and to highlight the ideological tensions that are embedded in the search for an appropriate formulation of a question, as well as in the conduct of the survey interviews. Relying on historiographic data, as well as on interactional data, and focusing on the opening question of the survey that deals with the main language(s) of the respondent, defined as the language(s) they know the best, we first explore the origin and the history of this question in the Swiss census. Second, we examine how, by whom, and with what rationales the main language question has been formulated and selected within in the most recent survey. Finally, we analyze how this question is enacted in the interactions between interviewers and respondents. By engaging in a genealogical examination of language questions in Swiss censuses, we provide insight into the ideological formation in which these questions are embedded, revealing conflicting and ambiguous interests, thus implying complications and uncertainties with regard to interpretations of available census data.


The authors would like to express their thanks to Yohan Bühler, Barbla Etter, Vera Prosdocimo, and Julia Valle for their valuable work in the data collection. We also thank Amélie de Flaugergues, Yvon Csonka, and Linda Bartels from the FSO for their insightful comments on a previous version of this text. The views expressed in this article, however, are our own and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the FSO. Finally, we thank Jennifer Leeman, who generously commented on a first draft of this article, and the reviewers for their valuable comments. Alexandre Duchêne is grateful to the Graduate Center of the City University of New York for the ARC Distinguished Fellowship he received, offering perfect conditions for the finalization of this article.

Appendix: Transcription conventions

AE / BE / CEinitials referring to an interviewer according to the language used (A for French, B for (Swiss-)German, C for Italian)
PC / ZP / PTrefers to a respondent in French or German or Italian
[…]overlapping discourses
(-) (--) (---)each dash indicates a rough 0.2 sec. pause (0.3, 0.6, 0.9)
(2.0)for pauses longer than 1 sec.
Pineapple/ juice\ascending and descending intonations
READY/indicates a specific emphasis on the word or syllables
m=htwo syllables indicating an affirmation
h=htwo syllables indicating a negation
((coughs))paraverbal information
(eat)assumed understanding of the utterance
.h .hh .hhhbreathing in (from 0.3 sec to 0.9)
h. hh. hhh.breathing out


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Published Online: 2018-06-16
Published in Print: 2018-06-26

© 2018 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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