According to Pierre Bourdieu's (1977) classical conceptualization, linguistic capital is a form of cultural capital defined at the level of the human individual. For example, in many speech situations a speaker endowed with a prestigious upper class accent will enjoy more credibility or legitimacy than a speaker of lesser eloquence. Thus, dialects or sociolects can represent a form of capital to the extent that they yield a benefit to the speakers endowed with them.
While this rationale applies only to the lectal variation within a given language, speakers may also 'capitalize' on their knowledge of different languages inasmuch as these enjoy a more or less central position in the global economy (de Swaan 2001). Again, the 'owner' of the capital is, first and foremost, the human individual, even if having a 'central' language at their disposal may benefit an entire speech community (e.g., English-speaking nations) at the aggregate level as well.
At the system level, additional effects may arise from the fact that languages differ in terms of structural linguistic features (e.g., grammar). On the one hand, under certain circumstances, a given language may be better suited for efficient communication than another language. On the other hand, one may hypothesize that certain language structures enhance the utility of social capital or human capital due to 'Whorfian' effects of linguistic relativity (on linguistic relativity, cf. Wolff & Holmes 2011).
The question of whether grammaticalized language structures constitute a form of capital of their own or rather serve as a vehicle to conserve, consolidate and transmit cultural capital created otherwise, remains to be clarified. Either way, investments in formal education and literacy will contribute to the preservation and augmentation of linguistic capital both at the individual level and the level of groups (nations, speech communities, etc).
University of St. Gallen
Last updated: 2013-05-22