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59. The world of castells and the construction of a reimagined community

Aida Ribot Bencomo
University of California, San Diego


In the previous decade or so (2010-2019), castells or human towers—literally “castles”—, arose as an emblematic expression of the Catalan society. They appeared and gained visibility in myriad contexts—for example, covers of academic journals, bank commercials, tourist posters, and beer commercials on television. This came about amid a debate on the sovereignty of the Catalan people and the growing support for proindependence positions that developed in the same period. The ethnographic work I carried out within two castellers teams (known in Catalan as colles castelleres) in the metropolitan area of Barcelona during 2016 revealed micropractices that, although specific to the casteller activity , promoted a sense of community and collective responsibility that is based on solidarity, equality and cooperation between participants. Two of the practices that I analysed and will present here focus on the use of the body and physicality, as well as on communication between members of the team, who are known as castellers. In the previous decade, popular and political movements related to the Catalan sovereign project—for instance, Òmnium Cultural and the ANC (Assemblea Nacional Catalana)—strategically extrapolated this sense of community found at castells to reimagine a present-day Catalan society based on similar relations.

If a Catalan thinks about the world of castells, even if he or she does not have much knowledge of it, he or she will probably know the traditional values that are always repeated: “strength, balance, courage and common sense,” or the expression fer pinya (literally, “to make/form a pine cone,” a reference to the base of a castell; the expression is used more generally by Catalans to convey the idea of working together to achieve a common goal). These expressions are not only a metaphorical interpretation of how castells are defined by its members and the practice underpinning its activity. Rather, in the embodiment of these expressions via participation in the activity, they are interpreted in a much more literal way. That is, participants embody or materialize these values and expressions through their bodies and the physicality—or physical contact—that they experience, generate, and promote.

The notions of cooperation, collective responsibility and egalitarian relations surrounding castells are partially developed through the body and the physical contact required to build the towers. Bodily practices related to the construction of towers, distinctive clothing, and beer drinking were three very practical activities that participants learned and used to form a casteller identity within this community. Although some activities raised concerns and tensions among participants (such as the use of alcohol, the roles and the regulation of bodies), the practices I analysed required participants to interact, cooperate and be responsible for one another. For example, when castellers put on their support sashes, they usually need another person to help them wrap it around their waist. And when participants learn to position themselves in the pinya or the base of the castell, they must protect others with their hands and arms, in addition to sharing the burden and balance with others. If they do not do so, the castell collapses. Castellers then learn to withstand pressure and pain collectively and learn to support each other to decrease individuals’ exposure and risk.

The perspective of the body is especially interesting in the Catalan context: none of Catalonia’s other emblematic and representative cultural expressions mobilizes the body to achieve the same level of continuous and supported contact between participants as castells do. Mountaineering, choral associations, football, sardanes and other folk activities (for example, correfocs and bastoners) associated with Catalan culture require minimal or no physical contact. Traditionally in Catalonia, the use of one’s own body, postures or the expression of emotions has been understood in a refined and contained way. In general, the cultural forms that have been considered distinctively Catalan since the nineteenth century have emphasized this sense of both mental and physical restraint. To give an example, the physical rigidity, discipline and restraint embodied in sardanes have been symbolic of the type of “refined” Catalan urban identity of the middle classes of the late nineteenth and late twentieth centuries. Meanwhile, less contained, less refined and more physical and emotional forms (such as castells) had never been representative of this identity up until now. Today, the use of the body in castells seems to break the association between social classes in Catalonia, as this activity voluntarily brings together people from different backgrounds, creating a practice that violates everyday Catalan norms and stereotypes.

From a linguistic perspective, castellers also had to learn to become members of the community—that is, they had to socialize into castellers. This entailed learning to interpret and communicate with others in a context of tension; team members had to make use of the most economical and practical language possible because they often have to adjust their body in a matter of seconds so as not to endanger the structure. It is important to keep in mind that Catalan was the most frequently used language among participants, even in the case of those who self-identified ethnolinguistically as Spaniards, Argentines or Americans, among other identities.

Directives, through which the listener is called on to do an action via orders, were the linguistic practices that participants most commonly used during the construction of castells. Contradictory though it may seem, the forms employed emphasized the cooperative aspect in the decision-making process. For example, the team leader and other participants who held positions of power in the team hierarchy did not usually exploit power imbalances during the construction of the castell. They used first-person plural forms to give orders—for instance, aguantem (“let’s hold”) and tanquem la pinya (“let’s close the base”). And they deployed other forms that are unconventional within the literature on speech acts, face-threatening acts (FTA), and so on (Searle; Austin; Brown & Levinson), issuing orders from which the typical imperative forms were absent—for example, pugen (“they climb”), van pujant (“they keep climbing”), baixant (“coming down”), avall (“down”), amunt (“up”), terços (“thirds”) or quintes (“fifths”) —the latter two commands refer to the people who are assigned to form specific storeys of the human tower. The second person plural “you,” vosaltres, was non-existent, and the second person singular “you,” tu, was highly unusual. However, among participants who had similar roles in the castell (such as those in the base or the trunk), the use of unreserved orders was common and expected. During their first day, novice team members received instructions on how to ask for help and give orders when necessary, such as calling out pit (literally “chest,” an expression used to make team members push closer together) when they were in the base. This use, in fact, promoted relationships of closeness and solidarity that are more typical of interactions between family members or within much closer and trusting relationships. Explicit instruction to novices to give orders and the nonexploitative use of power relations with unconventional forms of orders empowered participants and helped them feel more immediately and horizontally included in the activities. In addition, this way of communicating challenges many communicative boundaries that are commonly found in everyday life and that are often subject to gender, age, experience, status and other relations. Learning to speak for oneself when help is needed or when there is an unbearable pain that one cannot stand anymore is also a way to learn to be responsible for others, because if one person falls, so do the others.

Since 2010, civic, cultural and political associations have mobilized the casteller community to represent a new national project. In doing so, they extrapolated to the national level the characteristics that have popularly been identified with castells and that thus appealed to a community that is increasingly diverse on the social, cultural and linguistic levels. Sardanes and the characteristics that had iconically represented the type of cultural identity and the type of Catalanism of the late twentieth century have fallen by the wayside. In the last decade, Catalan society has valued and made visible aspects such as hard work, the historical activity, teamwork and the tenacity of castells, characteristics that were popularly represented symbolically and humorously via the Catalan donkey in the early 2000s. In addition, aspects such as pride, courage, physical and mental strength and youth have been added, antagonistically represented by the image of the Spanish bull. Both the bull and the donkey humorously represented the two social, cultural, political, and linguistic communities of the turn of the century. This polarization strengthened the bonds within each imagined community, but it also exacerbated the boundaries between them. Castells therefore incorporate—including symbolically—images, styles and aspects popularly recognized by the two communities, and they have become a symbol that represents more and more people.

The new image for the national project has sought to emphasize some of the features in the world of castells analysed here, such as the collective responsibility, the cooperation, the egalitarian relations, the democratic means of participation, the courage, or the physical contact and the expression of uncontained emotions. The new project has revolved around the idea of letting people decide and build for themselves in a more democratic way something from below (as it occurs with castells), instead of receiving something imposed from above. Moreover, the new image is about speaking loudly and clearly and being responsible for others if the situation (whether social, economic or political) is unfair or feels that way, because speaking up is beneficial to the whole community (as in castells). It has sought to recognize the power of civil society (or the “pinya” of the castell) to make any structure possible (despite contradictions, frictions and differences). It has tried to challenge power and its limits, as well as to celebrate diversity in society, in the same way the casteller world usually celebrates and encourages diversity in shapes, sizes, gender, age or experience. And, finally, this extrapolation has also revealed a modern perspective of Catalan society that, despite being rooted in a historical and local activity such as castells, included aspects that had not historically been associated with Catalan cultural identity before (youth, maintained physical contact, unrestrained expression of emotions, competitiveness, and so on). This combination of elements has emphasized the changes that Catalan society in general experienced during the previous decade to build a reimagined sense of community that has increasingly appealed to a more diverse population.

58. The State of Nature in Language Ideologies

Kathryn Woolard


Linguistic naturalism is a belief found among professionals as well as laypeople that language is an autonomous natural entity not subject to speakers’ will (Joseph 2000). As an ideology, it conflates the is and the ought: naturalness is seen as good, with both social and linguistic implications. Although naturalization is a central topic in language ideology studies, it is less often recognized that it takes various and competing forms that are worth distinguishing since they may have different consequences for language and society. This essay will briefly characterize several variations, drawing illustrations primarily from Spanish and Catalan contexts, although linguistic naturalism is by no means peculiar to them.

At its most general, linguistic naturalization transforms history, the process by which things in the human world are made, into nature, a supposedly harmonious display of essences, as do all ideologies (Barthes 1972). However, rarely are all linguistic varieties treated as equally natural. In a familiar version, linguistic naturalism bestows the inevitability and transparency of nature almost exclusively on nation-state languages, and this courtesy extends mutually among independent states. For example, the British Guardian drew on linguistic naturalism to intertwine transnational immigration and the Catalan sovereignty movement as problems:

The influx of millions of immigrants into Spain…has transformed parts of Catalonia… The biggest single group is from Romania, followed by Morocco, Ecuador and Great Britain…..Those in Catalonia face an immediate problem: the language. This has put pressure on the education system as immigrant children have to learn Catalan before they can be taught anything else. (Burgen 2012)


This account erases the identical challenge of learning Spanish that Romanian, British, and Moroccan children would face before they could be taught in Spanish-medium schools. The naturalization of Spanish licenses a false implicit distinction between dominant and minoritized languages in Spain, even in English media.

Linguistic naturalness is often linked to linguistic superiority and dominance, but in two distinct ways. A linguistic variety may be represented as naturally superior in and of itself (stronger, more euphonic, or communicatively precise). The invisible hand of a linguistic free market supposedly moves naturally toward the most perfect form for communicative function, which thus becomes dominant naturally, not through arbitrary historical developments. Thus the Spanish academician Gregorio Salvador is quoted as writing: “a great part of Castilian’s success has to be attributed to its five cleanly differentiated vowels, the most perfect vowel system possible” (Moreno Cabrera 2010, 11).

If linguistic dominance is natural, then a multilingual state is unnatural. For example, in debates over language policies in the Second Spanish Republic, Miguel de Unamuno endorsed the survival of the fittest, in which “lawmakers have no business.” Unamuno argued that the problem of multiple languages would resolve itself because dialects would fuse with the “strongest language, in accordance with the laws of nature” (Monteagudo 2013, 111-112).

However, the causal arrow between the natural and the superior can be reversed, to hold that whatever is most natural is best. In the earliest example, Dante characterized the vernacular as nobler because it is natural to us, in contrast to Latin grammar, which is artificial. The 16th century Spaniard Juan de Valdés asserted that popular refrains revealed the true character of Castilian, whose unaffected essence couldn’t be deliberately learned because vernaculars couldn’t be represented in grammatical rules. In the modern era, professional linguists have often suggested that some linguistic varieties are the more genuine object of inquiry than others, because they are allegedly more natural, acquired without study and uncontaminated by the artificiality of grammar or literature (Joseph 2000).

The perspectives evidenced by Dante and Valdés lead toward a more specifically socio-linguistic naturalization that links each individual to a specific language variety. This version celebrates not the referential fit of language to the world, as do ideologies of linguistic dominance, but rather the iconic fit of language to the speaker or writer’s authentic self. There is only one true form for each person, usually the “mother tongue.” The consequence of sociolinguistic naturalism is that speaking in a language other than the first acquired may be felt as false, a betrayal of self, if not simply impossible. In turn, only native speakers can use a language whose value is based in this kind of natural authenticity (Woolard 2016). Entire languages are seen as almost impossible to acquire deliberately, as Valdés wrote; these are the minoritized languages of the modern period.

This naturalistic equation of language and the sincere self is the ethos of contemporary hip-hop just as it is of Protestantism and of Romantic nationalism, of which it has been a central feature.  The political theorist Judith Shklar summarized the social effects of Romantic naturalism generally, which apply to language par excellence:

Romantic morality may reflect…the anguish of people who leave the social world of their childhood behind them and adopt new manners and roles. The true inner self is identified with one’s childhood and family, and regret as well as guilt for having left them behind may render new ways artificial, false, and …a betrayal of that original self. This personal self is seen as having a primacy that no later social role can claim; and indeed the latter may be despised as demeaning…simply ‘fake’…less genuine than the primordial self. (Shklar 1984, 75-76)


This anguish of Romantic naturalism inhibits second language learning, as epitomized in Barcelona by the “monologic truth” espoused by some young working class Castilian-speaking men (Pujolar 2001). Their masculine sense of self could only be expressed in a direct voice they viewed as their own and as incompatible with Catalan, and possibly with any secondarily acquired language.

Is this sociolinguistic form of naturalism not simply natural itself? Undoubtedly, a primordial, habitual linguistic variety will feel more “natural” – available without conscious effort – to its speakers than some other forms they might acquire. But this kind of bodily and mental naturalness does not automatically confer value on a linguistic variety, which is the case in sociolinguistic naturalism. This linguistic window on the speaker’s primordial being could logically be disparaged as childishly unformed (and is in some other linguistic ideologies), but this specific naturalizing ideology valorizes it instead.

Naturalness in language is obviously not always valued, nor is artifice always seen as inauthentic (in the Spanish tradition, see Góngora’s culteranismo, for example). The late modern period has brought some ruptures with primordialist naturalism generally, as captured by the reflexive American novelist Philip Roth:

Being [myself] is one long performance and the very opposite of what is thought of as being oneself…. The whole Western idea of mental health…:[tells us that] what is desirable is congruity between your self-consciousness and your natural being. But there are those whose sanity flows from the conscious separation of those two things … recognizing that one is acutely a performer, rather than swallowing whole the guise of naturalness. (Roth 1986, 319-320)


Increasingly, sociolinguistic studies are finding a similarly non-naturalizing sense of linguistic authenticity. For example, In Catalonia in the 2000’s, some Castilian-speakers who had rejected Catalan when young came to embrace the language later, as an expression of a freely chosen self: “A person is a speaker of whatever languages s/he feels like speaking” (Veu Pròpia Bages 2008). Those I interviewed saw their youthful rejection of Catalan as immature foolishness and were proud of the personal growth that allowed them to take up a language they had considered alien. The Romantic relation of originary linguistic form to the self had broken down for them. Speaking Catalan was a different kind of act of identity that expressed not where they came from, but who they believed they had become: flexible, tolerant, mature, and above all, individual.

A Castilian-speaking journalist similarly reported the pleasure he took in speaking Catalan with a Castilian-speaking taxi driver in Barcelona:

We both know that we’re making an effort to speak in Catalan, and even so, we know that it’s an effort that we enjoy. An effort that connects with a self that is not the one that life has given us randomly, but rather part of the identity that we have chosen. We’ve decided to be a person who speaks Catalan, and we do it with pleasure. (Puente 2016)


Commodification, hybridity, superdiversity, and a neoliberal emphasis on self-formation have all been described as characteristic of late modern language. One thing these all share is an anti-naturalist, anti-primordialist character that dissociates essence from origins to enable new projects of linguistic identity, in place of Romantic authenticity and its accompanying guilt. However, the rejection of primordialist sociolinguistic naturalism also naturalizes a narrative itself, just a different one. My interviewees’ accounts cast movement into bilingualism as the normal process in a diverse society (related to views found in communities described as “superdiverse” and “metroethnic”). This too is an ideology of linguistic naturalism, but it represents human beings as naturally choosing to acquire languages that are present in their environments. As a form of naturalization it is polyglot rather than monoglot, and it privileges agency, choice, and openness over primordialism, nativism, and eternal essences.



Barthes, Roland. 1972. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang.

Burgen, Stephen. 2012. Immigration complicates Catalonia’s separatist picture. The Guardian, November 20.

Joseph, John E. 2000. Limiting the Arbitrary; Linguistic Naturalism and its Opposites in Plato’s Cratylus and Modern Theories of Language. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Monteagudo, Henrique. 2013. Spanish and other languages of Spain in the Second Republic. In A Political History of Spanish: The Making of a Language, ed. José del Valle, pp. 106-122. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

Moreno Cabrera, Juan Carlos. 2010. Lengua/nacionalismo en el contexto español. June 29, 2010.

Puente, Arturo. 2016. Una batalla cultural contra la demanda de drets polítics. NacióDigital, February 22.

Pujolar, Joan. 2001. Gender, Heteroglossia and Power; A Sociolinguistic Study of Youth Culture. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Roth, Philip. 1986. The Counterlife.  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

Shklar, Judith N. 1984. Ordinary Vices. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.

Veu Pròpia Bages. 2008. Perquè un immigrant parla català?  Veu Pròpia Bages. May 13, 2008.

Woolard, Kathryn A. 2016. Singular and Plural: Ideologies of Linguistic Authority in 21st Century Catalonia. New York: Oxford University Press.



57. The inexpressible, expressed

Nigel Fabb
University of Strathclyde, Glasgow


Language enables us to describe what we know of the world. But it is a common view, held in many cultures, that it is possible to have knowledge of something ‘beyond’ which cannot be described in ordinary language, but yet where it is possible to do things to language to express that knowledge. What is known is ineffable, and it may be a knowledge of some reality beyond ordinary reality, sometimes part of a religious or mystical experience. Here is Wordsworth’s expression of such a view, in The Prelude (1805, book 12):

I discuss now what in language enables us to express our knowledge of the world, but also what ordinarily escapes language, why special knowledge escapes language, and how language can be manipulated to express that special knowledge. Similar manipulations appear to be used across cultures.

Our knowledge of the world is largely tied up in schemata, the components of our memory where each schema is what we know of the types of things and events in the world, such as cats, tables, happiness, marriage, death, and so on. The vocabulary of a language names those schemata. We can put words together into sentences which make statements about the world. When we know something which is ineffable, this usually means that we know of something which is not expressed by a schema in our memory, since schemata can in principle be expressed in words. In this sense, ineffability is an extremely common situation, because almost everything we know about unique objects and events in the world is a knowledge of tokens, not of the generalized types. When I look at a leaf, I can name it in general terms as ‘leaf’ because it fits into the schema for leaf, but the specific leaf in itself is not schematic – it does not have a name of its own, separate from the name of the leaf next to it – and in this sense, the unique things in the world which we can have knowledge of are almost always ineffable. There are exceptions; for example, a unique person can have their own schema, and their own unique name, such as ‘Clarissa Dalloway’. Names, in this sense, can escape the limits of language to express unique real objects in themselves. Another way of getting directly at the unique things in the world is to use pronouns or other ‘pointing’ words (demonstratives), such as ‘there’ and ‘she’. These are ordinary ways of getting round the everyday ineffability of the unique aspects of reality. Literature can exploit these special devices as a way of expressing something beyond ordinary ineffable uniqueness, to get at the special moments in which the world is revealed; here the profound knowledge is expressed using tricks of language. An example comes in the moment of vision in the final paragraphs of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925; this argument comes from Zhang 2014). In this moment, Peter sees an aspect of the world – here the reality of Clarissa Dalloway – in a profound way, and the text gets at this reality by using a name, a demonstrative and a pronoun.

The special status of names in many cultures can in part be understood in terms of their being windows into a reality which cannot normally be expressed in language. William Blake knew that there were dangers in opening up that window.

In this poem, which he engraved himself, using his own idiosyncratic punctuation system, Blake uses the only question mark in the whole of the collection from which it comes, Songs of Innocence (1789). And he uses it when the speaker tries to find a name for the child, which the child in a sense attempts to avoid by using a common noun ‘joy’ instead of the unique name by which it can be bound – a binding which the child undergoes in the parallel ‘Infant sorrow’ from the Songs of Experience (1794), a collection in which Blake engraved a great number of question marks. In many literatures and cultural practices, the problem of using words to refer to unique individuals is resolved another way, by using metaphors, descriptive phrases, or longer descriptions, which stand for the person. A characteristic practice is to use different descriptions in different parts of a poem, for the same person, sometimes in parallel sequences, such that the language appears to be circling around the reality of the person but rarely directly naming him or her. For example, in a Tswana praise poem discussed by Schapera (1965, cited Fabb 1997), the chief Bathoen I is referred to five times in a twelve-line sequence, but never directly – he is called leisantwa (after his age-set), rralesêgô (father of Lesego), segopê (elephant), lefenya (conquerer) and rramoswaana (the fair complexioned man). This may be a combination of two ways of using language to express the ineffable reality of a person: to use indirect descriptions, and to use multiple descriptions in parallel.

This brings us to another way of using language, particularly in poetry, to express meanings which are otherwise inexpressible, which is by the use of parallelism. Parallelism is a way of expressing the same meaning twice or more, using different words (Fabb 2017). This basically means that the meaning is not expressed directly at all, because the repetition suggests that neither of the individual expressions is enough to express what is actually meant, but rather that the meaning is to be found somewhere in the space between the parallel expressions. Forth (1988) says this about parallelism in the Rindi language (a variety of Eastern Sumbanese, Indonesia), where “it may not be the simpler reference of terms and phrases… in ritual language… which is screened off or disguised, so much as the precise sense in which terms are appropriate to their denotata”. Parallelism thus has something in common with metaphor, which is another device by which meanings which cannot be directly expressed can nevertheless be pointed to in language.

And now we come to metaphor itself, and the broader fact about language which metaphor exploits. This is that when we use language, what we communicate is not necessarily what the words and sentences literally mean. Instead, the literal meanings of the words and sentences are partial evidence of what we intend to communicate, and the words can be direct or indirect evidence. In metaphors, the words used are indirect evidence of the meaning which is communicated. This means that in ordinary communication, in principle we could communicate meanings which escape from the schematicity of language, because the language is just evidence for the meanings, not necessarily a direct expression of the meanings. In this regard, all kinds of ineffable meanings can be communicated using language as indirect evidence for the meaning. This is another way in which ineffability is always with us as a possibility even in ordinary language. In literature, and other cultural practices, metaphors can be central to the ways in which deeper realities can be expressed. Religious and mystical beliefs can often be expressed by making statements which would be untrue if the words were taken literally, such as ‘this statue can hear me speak’. Instead, we must take these words as indirect evidence of a deeper meaning, perhaps a meaning which cannot be itself put into words. A variant of the use of metaphor is the use of deliberate paradoxes and nonsense as a way of expressing deeper but otherwise inexpressible meanings. One example is found in the 15th century North Indian poet Kabir, who wrote some of his poems in ulatbamsi, ‘upside down language’, which “are absurd, paradoxical, crazy, impenetrable, and yet they purport to be meaningful” and have to be understood either by esoteric interpretation or by direct intuition (Hess 1983). Hess notes that “Kabir’s upside-down poems are part of a long tradition in India and can be related to similar expressions across the world.”

There are other ways of trying to get language to express normally inexpressible meanings, and this includes the invention of a new language. One of the driving forces here is the view that it is possible to have a language, different from our ordinary language, which can express a true reality. Thus Wilkins (1668) thought that Adam had a language in which he could directly understand God, which was subsequently destroyed after Babel: “And ’tis evident enough that the first Language was con-created with our first Parents, they immediately understanding the voice of God speaking to them in the Garden”. The desire to create a new language can be found across the twentieth century avant-garde, in all the media, where the new language might be able to provide access to a deeper reality. For example the composer Earle Brown (1986) seeks “a notational system that will produce an aural world which defies traditional notation and creates a performance ‘reality’ which has not existed before”. However it is not clear that any of these special approaches are necessary: the language we already have does not prevent us being able to know or communicate the ineffable. They depend on too narrow a view of words as constraining our access to reality.

The view that we have access to a knowable reality which we cannot express in language has an interestingly contradictory relation to another common view, which is that our language shapes how we think. This is the ‘Sapir-Whorf’ hypothesis; it is disputed within linguistics and psychology, but sometimes adopted uncritically in other disciplines as Fabb (2016) shows for economics, and it appeals to a common-sense view that our native language expresses our own reality. But the same general aspects of language which enable us to express ineffable meanings are some of the same aspects which mean that language cannot really constrain how we think.

In conclusion, we can see that ineffability is a common characteristic of the gap between what we can know and what we can say, and a characteristic which we would expect given that our vocabulary is finite but the range of what we can perceive and know is probably not finite. Furthermore, language does not determine what we can communicate, but is just one of the kinds of evidence for meaning which is involved in communication. Literature and other cultural practices exploit these characteristics of language, to express the inexpressible.



Brown, Earle 1986 The notation and performance of new music. Musical Quarterly 72 (2), 180-201.

Fabb, Nigel 1997. Linguistics and Literature: Language in the Verbal Arts of the World. Oxford: Blackwell [Trans. Fabb, N. 2006 Lingüística y Literatura. El lenguaje en las artes verbales del mundo. Madrid: A Machado Libros.]

Fabb, Nigel 2016. Linguistic theory, linguistic diversity and whorfian economics. In Victor Ginsburgh and Shlomo Weber (eds.) The Palgrave Handbook of Economics and Languages. London: Palgrave. pp.17-60.

Fabb, Nigel 2017. Poetic parallelism and working memory. Oral Tradition 31/2.  Special issue on Parallelism in Verbal Art and Performance, ed. Frog & Lotte Tarkka.

Fabb, Nigel 2021. Experiences of Ineffable Significance In Elly Infantidou, Tim Wharton and Louis de Saussure (eds.) Beyond Meaning.   Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Forth, Gregory 1988. Fashioned Speech, Full Communication: Aspects of Eastern Sumbanese Ritual Language. In James J. Fox (ed.) To Speak in Pairs. Essays on the Ritual Languages of Eastern Indonesia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 129–160.

Hess, Linda 1983. The Cow Is Sucking at the Calf’s Teat: Kabir’s Upside-Down Language. History of Religions, 22 (4), pp.313-337

Schapera, I. 1965. Praise-poems of Tswana chiefs. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wilkins, John 1668. An essay towards a real character, and a philosophical language London: Printed for Sa. Gellibrand, and for John Martyn.

Zhang, Dora 2014. Naming the indescribable: Woolf, Russell, James and the limits of description. New Literary History, 45 (1), 51-70.

56. The Mentality of Linguistic Subordination and Spontaneity

Xavier Lamuela
Universitat de Girona


My aim here is to recall the connotations particular to the conception of subordinate languages within the historical context of social-modernization processes and to observe how some of these connotations, valued negatively within that context, have a very different role in the current conception of linguistic subordination.

Ninyoles refers to the conception of subordinate languages using the expression “diglossic ideologies,” which subsequently, adapted to become “diglossic representations,” has been used by Occitan sociolinguists and, in general, within the revindicating sociolinguistics produced in the French context. Ninyoles (1971: 69) observes,

In the last century, “diglossic” ideologies have found a characteristic expression in the “nature” versus “culture” paradigm, based on which we could elaborate an endless series of dichotomies: “natural peoples” (= Naturvölker) and “cultural peoples” (= Kulturvölker), “people” versus “elite,” “mass” and “minority,” “popular culture” versus “high culture,” “feeling” versus “reason,” and so on. This pernicious dualism has survived through concepts of “natural language” and “mother tongue” as opposing notions to that of “language of culture.”

Based on the observations made by Ninyoles and others made by Aracil (1983: 55-56), I established (Lamuela 1994: 71-73) a list of opposite terms stuctured along the lines of those used in the semantic differential technique. Below I reproduce a version of this list accompanied by some labels that correspond to a series of summarizing categories:











Similarly, Gal (2018: 233) has established an axis of oppositions between the properties attributed to standard language on the one hand and those attributed to subordinate linguistic forms on the other:









If we make a brief comparison between the two lists, we see that mine, focused on the opposition between dominant and subordinate languages, is more detailed in some respects, such as the distinctions it introduces within the axes of rationality and practical value. By contrast, Gal pays particular attention to the properties that characterize the opposition between a codified language form and dialectal varieties: anonymity ↔ authenticity, universal ↔ particular/emplaced, homogeneous/unified ↔ various. I would highlight that the anonymity ↔ authenticity polarization conveys the series of oppositions established under my labels (3) and (4) of link to rationality and link to secondary relations.

Gal (2018) presents certain uses of subordinate languages as practices that challenge their codification. Here is one of her examples (Gal 2018: 236-237):

A striking example is Urla’s (2012) [1] discussion of “pirate radio” in the Basque country. Young people who opposed middle class intellectuals and their creation of a standard register of Basque responded by organizing illegal broadcasting that deliberately mixed Basque and Spanish, used familiar and rural registers of Basque while playing decidedly unfolkloric, rock and other popular youth styles of music. The radio stations were unofficial, uncommercial and not middle class, thereby turning upside down the values of standardizing preservationists. Arguably, they were not traditional or backward looking. Indeed, they enacted another form of modernity.

In my view, this way of presenting the issue ignores the fact that over the last few decades there has been an essential, though not completely generalized, change in the values associated with linguistic uses and, in particular, in the series of connotations included under the labels of link to rationality and link to secondary relations. On the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries, the dual conception of languages particular to modernization processes was entirely in force. It was closely linked to the political will to generalize knowledge and use of languages considered to be “national” where other varieties were generally used. It combined the economic interest of consolidating a state market (with a possible colonial extension), the principle of political authority associated with the nation-state, the principle of linguistic and cultural authority associated with the apparatus of state culture, and the ideological will to build a national unity requiring linguistic unification. In a context in which written language was the only significant vehicle for communication that went beyond direct interpersonal contacts, the project of generalizing the use of state languages, manifested in a voluntarist manner, adopted intellectual and socioeconomic elites as a model, strengthened reference to the principle of authority and emphasized the features that characterize the dual conception of languages.

This conception was included in the era’s common ground of thinking (Van Dijk 2003: 22), [2] and so it also played a significant role in the political positions that were put forward to achieve an egalitarian society. This is illustrated by the following Gramsci quote (1975: 1377), which is additionally representative of the dual conception of languages and in particular of the elements that I list under the label of link to rationality:

A person who only speaks a dialect or who understands the national language in varying degrees necessarily enjoys a more or less restricted and provincial, fossilized and anachronistic perception of the world in comparison with the great currents of thought which dominate world history. His interests will be restricted, more or less corporative and economic, and not universal. If it is not always possible to learn foreign languages so as to put oneself in touch with different cultures, one must at least learn the national tongue [well]. (translation reproduced from: Antonio Gramsci (1957) The Modern Prince and other writings by Antonio Gramsci. London: Lawrence and Wishart Ltd. p. 59.) [3]

Throughout the 20th century, however, compulsory schooling ensured general knowledge of state languages and various levels of familiarity with the culture they conveyed, and the expansion of audiovisual media consolidated linguistic standardization, understood as the population’s internalization of the linguistic forms proposed as a model for generalized use. Writing ceased to be the only vehicle of non-immediate interpersonal communication, and standard oral language became present everywhere. Writing itself, adapted to all kinds of media, was becoming less formal. In the last third of the century, it was common in the comments of scholars—for example, Kloss (1978: 21-22; see Lamuela 1994: 158-161)—to observe the linguistic consequences of these processes: relaxation of explicit rules, unself-conscious use of linguistic variation’s resources and a positive assessment of uses that were considered to be transgressive. These trends have experienced highly pronounced progress in recent years owing to computerized communication procedures, which have made immediate interactions without personal contact widespread and written uses completely commonplace (Coupland & Kristiansen 2011). At the economic level, state markets are increasingly subordinated to the globalized market, and commercial mechanisms have undergone radical changes. The relationship between economic interests and communication phenomena means that they are governed by marketing principles, which make the most of the possibilities of ICT. Publicity and propaganda, conveyed via the huge variety of media and their technical possibilities, govern the functioning of economics and politics.

In this context, the language associated with rationality (abstract, precise, denotative, rational, controlled, organized and elaborated) continues to be valid in certain areas, such as academia and law, where it maintains its association with certain mechanisms of power. By contrast, the dynamic and changing character—fluid, “liquid”—of general communication and the power that flows from propagandistic use of language are making traits that run counter to rationality (the world of the concrete, imprecision, connotation, emotivity, spontaneity, improvisation and naturalness) acquire positive value. In practice, we are witnessing a hypervaluation of these traits, and it is paving the way for all sorts of demagogic discourses. These are sustained on a common ground that also now includes revindicating discourses. With the claim of combating authoritarian positions, these discourses are on the fringes of a serious critique of language uses, and they idealize uses that are considered to be spontaneous but, in fact, only accommodate what is now perceived as (post)modern.

It is worth examining the situation of dominant and subordinate languages from this perspective. Standardization of dominant languages ensures, on the one hand, availability for elaborated uses that are still necessary and effective in our society, and, on the other, the generalized internalization of a “standard colloquial” language that forms the basis of spontaneous uses of all registers and also of the possibility of playing with linguistic resources of various origins, including those considered transgressive, such as the use of slang and oral forms traditionally proscribed in formal language. Subordinate languages, on the other hand, suffer from the deficiencies of a lack of standardization when it comes to their application in elaborated uses. In spontaneous uses they are the object of compensatory idealization when they are made to appear as the quintessence of naturalness, but they are marginal within propagandistic uses, subject as these are to the configuration of linguistic dominance, which relegates subordinate languages to intragroup use and communicative fragmentation within the linguistic community itself.


[1] Jacqueline Urla (2012) Reclaiming Basque: Language, Nation and Cultural Activism. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press.

[2] Gal (2018: 222 and passim) speaks of sociolinguistic regimes and specifically of standard regime to refer to a conception of languages that privileges their standard form.

[3] “Chi parla solo il dialetto o comprende la lingua nazionale in gradi diversi, partecipa necessariamente di una intuizione del mondo più o meno ristretta e provinciale, fossilizzata, anacronistica in confronto delle grandi correnti di pensiero che dominano la storia mondiale. I suoi interessi saranno ristretti, più o meno corporativi o economistici, non universali. Se non sempre è possibile imparare più lingue straniere per mettersi a contatto con vite culturali diverse, occorre almeno imparare bene la lingua nazionale.”



Aracil, Lluís V. (1983) “El racionalisme oligàrquic”. In: Dir la realitat. Barcelona: Països Catalans. 47-65.

Coupland, Nikolas, & Tore Kristiansen (2011) “SLICE: Critical perspectives on language (de)standardisation”. In: Tore Kristiansen & Nikolas Coupland (eds.) Standard Languages and Language Standards in a Changing Europe. Oslo: Novus Press. 11-35.

Gal, Susan (2018) “Visions and revisions of minority languages: Standardization and its dilemmas”. In: Pia Lane, James Costa, & Haley De Korne (eds.) Standardizing Minority Languages: Competing Ideologies of Authority and Authenticity in the Global Periphery. Abingdon / New York: Routledge. 222-242.

Gramsci, Antonio (1975) Quaderni del carcere [1929-1935], 4 vols., edited by Valentino Gerratana. Torino: Einaudi.

Kloss, Heinz (1978) Die Entwicklung neuer germanischer Kultursprachen seit 1800, 2nd ed. Düsseldorf: Schwann.

Lamuela, Xavier (1994) Estandardització i establiment de les llengües. Barcelona: Edicions 62.

Ninyoles, Rafael Ll. (1971) Idioma i prejudici, 2nd ed. Palma de Mallorca: Moll, 1975.

Van Dijk, Teun A. (2003) Ideología y discurso. Barcelona: Ariel.







55. Languages and Linguistics: Scientific Paradigms and Hidden Devotions

Joan A. Argenter
UNESCO Chair on Cultural and Linguistic Diversity
Institut d’Estudis Catalans


In memory of Ferdinand de Saussure on the centenary of the Cours de Linguistique Générale (1916)[1]
C’est, en dernière analyse, seulement le côté pittoresque d’une langue, celui qui fait qu’elle diffère de toutes autres comme appartenant à certain peuple ayant certains origines, c’est ce côté presque ethnographique, qui conserve pour moi un intérêt.[2]
Ferdinand de Saussure

(Letter from F. De Saussure to A. Meillet, 4 January 1894. [É. Benveniste (ed.) “Lettres de Ferdinand de Saussure à Antoine Meillet publiées par Emile Benveniste”, Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure, 21: 89-135 (1964) – p. 95]


Historical-comparative linguistics aims to study the evolution of languages. This was the predominant current of linguistic science in the 19th century. The Swiss Indo-Europeanist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) put himself at the heart of it. Everything he published in his lifetime was the product of that intellectual interest. He moved with ease in this area. Saussure’s genius became apparent long before the appearance of the Cours. At the age of 21, he published Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes (1879), a major contribution to Indo-European linguistics that shaped how this field evolved. In the field of comparative linguistic reconstruction, Saussure postulated that there was a need for there to exist in Proto-Indo-European an element that, although undocumented in any known language of the Indo-European family, allowed greater generalization in describing the Indo-European vowel system and made it possible to account for that system’s evolution in Indo-European languages. He called this element “sonant coefficients.” Unfortunately, Saussure would not witness the empirical confirmation of his hypothesis, which came about with the discovery and deciphering of Hittite, an Anatolian language that was probably the oldest among the Indo-European languages. From 1927, another great linguist, the Pole Jerzy Kuryɫowicz (1895-1978), developed his theory of “laryngeals”—the hypothetical “sonant coefficients” predicted by Saussure—based on Saussure’s theoretical and empirical foundations.

However, Saussure’s brilliant theoretical contribution to Indo-European and historical-comparative linguistics is often ignored owing to the spectacular shift he brought about in the discipline a hundred years ago when he taught courses on what he called “general linguistics,” an area in which, in contrast to his free movement within historical-comparative linguistics, he proceeded with great caution. Like many scientific questions, what Saussure asked was seemingly quite simple: What is a Language?

Until then—he thought— linguists had considered how our object of study evolves, and we have made progress in understanding the mechanisms of this evolution (phonetic laws). However, we did not ask questions about what the very nature of our object of study is. Answering this simple question entailed abandoning the historical-evolutionary perspective and approaching language from a perspective that decouples the state of a language at a given moment from its previous state—and its later one, where applicable. This is a “synchronic” perspective. “Synchronic” elements coexist in the minds of individuals of a generation or generations who live alongside one another. Consider, for example, the opposition between the sounds represented in Catalan by l and ll (alveolar lateral approximant [l] and palatal lateral approximant [ʎ]): col / coll ‘cabbage’ / ‘neck’ or fila / filla ‘line’ / ’daughter’. Synchronic elements stand in contrast to “diachronic” elements, which have existed in the minds of individuals of different and often distant generations. In the case of Catalan, consider, for example, libre [de les dones] (‘Book [of Women]’; Francesc Eiximenis) / llibre [de les dones] (today), or latí (‘Latin’; Ramon Llull) / llatí (today). The initial Latin sound l became ll in Catalan, unlike in Spanish: Cat. llei / Sp. ley ‘law’; Cat. lluna / Sp. luna ‘moon’; Cat. llac / Sp. lago ‘lake´. In Catalan the sound l from Latin changed to ll in word initial position. Nothing was lost: the l / ll opposition is typical of the synchronic sound structure of today’s Catalan. The two sounds differentiate words, as is shown by the aforementioned col / coll or fila / filla, and therefore both sounds are functional entities of the language’s sound structure. When the aforementioned change was no longer active, learned words borrowed from Latin were introduced, and this has led to the coexistence of synchronic pairs such as llengua ‘language’ / lingüística ‘linguistics’, llei ‘law’ / legal ‘legal’ and llac ‘lake’ / lacustre ‘lacustrine’.

The answer to Saussure’s question is well known: every language is a “system”, an autonomous and autotelic whole formed by a set of elements that are defined by their relationships and oppositions within the “whole.” It’s a “system of differences”: the elements are not defined “by what they are” but “by what they are not”—by the capacity for distinction and reciprocal relations, such as the l / ll opposition within Catalan’s phonetic system. They do not work or evolve separately from each other. All this marked a paradigm shift, and that is why Saussure is considered the initiator of “modern linguistics.” Since then there has been other paradigm shifts in linguistics, but at bottom these are all still indebted to Saussure’s.

One way of looking at things would be the assertion that throughout its development linguistics had its Darwin before its Linnaeus.

But we all have hidden vocations; views of an object that are different from what we convey because it is “scientifically plausible,” “academically sound” or “politically correct”; vague intuitions; inclinations; and hidden intellectual affections. At one moment or another, everyone has likely wanted to do or see things or approach facts in a different way.

Such a moment came about as a personal, chance manifestation in Saussure’s case. Saussure wrote the lines that begin this article in a letter to his disciple Antoine Meillet. Despite his scientific approach to the study of language—this was already emerging in his Indo-European work (in fact, the letter predates the lectures of the Cours)—Saussure was fascinated by what makes one language different from another; by what links it to a land and a people, to particular origins and to a history; by its ethnographic dimension. All these things are far removed from an extremely formalist conception—one that he himself had promoted and which others would carry on—centred on a formal “structure” that is independent from speakers, their environment and their sociolinguistic history.

Saussure added:
et précisément je n’ai plus le plaisir de pouvoir me livrer à cette étude sans arrière-pensée, et de jouir du fait particulier tenant à un milieu particulier. ”[3]

His profession kept him from the joy and pleasure of studying or considering language from an ecological point of view, taking into account the habitat, its organisms and its interactions—that is, its people and its uniqueness. And, in my opinion, he could still have turned everything on its head: a language unfolds in an environment, in particular social surroundings, but it is also an environment in which the activities and thoughts of those who speak it unfold.

As with any scientific discipline, the aim of linguistics is to discover the invariant elements of its object of study. The tension between invariance and variation is innate in language and linguistic research, as is the universality and diversity of language in its empirical manifestation. And so is the tension between the reduction of language to a formal object or to a very specific cognitive structure of the human mind and the recognition of its public dimension. The lack of such recognition in linguistic study can only be sustained not only if previously that reduction has served operationally to delimit and to define the object of study but also if that object of study has been identified exhaustively as “language”—a strategy explicitly followed by authors whose works have not been around for a century.

Interestingly, in a certain sense and to some extent, this contrast between the invention of a new linguistic paradigm and a divergent personal inclination within the Swiss scholar is the opposite of the relationship that has often been attributed to Pompeu Fabra, with or without basis. It has been stated that if Fabra had not set himself the overriding goal of bringing about the codification of modern Catalan and social and institutional acceptance of this language—“the straightening of the language”—he could have had a brilliant career as a linguist. That is, he might have been a scholar of language with no prescriptive aim. We do not know whether this could have been so: the truth is that he completely gave himself over to that task until he absolutely achieved it. We know that Fabra was familiar with the works of his contemporaries Ferdinand de Saussure and Otto Jespersen, as well as with the works of the historical-comparative Romanists who first inspired him. Ferdinand de Saussure laid the foundations of what would later be called “structuralism”; Otto Jespersen reformulated the foundations and analytical practice of “traditional grammar.” But Fabra also did linguistics in a modern sense. Establishing the normative image of a language is to set out a certain model of language, namely “a totality,” with more or less precise or more or less blurred margins; to define its elements; to exclude outside elements from it; to bring out its functioning and internal regularities; to discover its “system”; and—this is where the divergence comes about—to intervene in it, prescribing its legitimate form and reorienting its evolution. All this is to be done according to scientific criteria, though not with the primary intention of advancing a discipline or shaping the description of a language as a “linguistic system,” but instead with that of abiding by the “dimension that makes it different from all others in that it belongs to a particular people with particular origins” and endowing this people with a common linguistic reference point.

Saussure uses the term “ethnographic” with a hint of condescension: the use and expansion of ethnographic method and theory were soon to emerge (Bronislaw Malinowski received his doctorate in London in the year when the Cours appeared). In any case, from a perspective that does not forget the public dimension of language, what is of interest are the things that make one language different from another, that root it in a people and a space, that give it a historical validity, that make it inseparable not only from what its speakers say but also from what they do. What is of interest is the role that language plays in its speakers’ communicative and cultural practices, in the value of its uses and its silences, in the interaction between the way in which people speak and how the social and natural world is represented, in how through language a category of person is culturally constructed and a social order is reproduced or challenged, in the verbal resources that the members of a community engage with, in the solidarity and the social cleavages created by the use of these resources, in their maintenance or replacement, in their vitality or decay—in short, in their expansion or potential extinction. When he wrote to Meillet, Saussure likely did not think a great deal about all this. But it all leads to “find[ing] joy in a particular fact attached to a particular milieu”—or in understanding it.

[1] This text was drafted in 2016 but had never been published. After conquering some academic qualms, I decided to let it see the light of day.

[2] “In the final analysis, it is only the picturesque dimension of a language—an almost ethnographic dimension that makes it different from all others in that it belongs to a particular people with particular origins—that retains my interest”.

[3] “I no longer have the pleasure of being able to engage in such study at face value, or to find joy in a particular fact attached to a particular milieu.”

54. Contemporary legends, fiction and reality in a global world

Carme Oriol
Universitat Rovira i Virgili


A contemporary legend, also known as an urban legend or a modern legend among other names, is one of the genres of folk (or ethnopoetic) literature that is enjoying great vitality today. It is a fictional story of an extraordinary, surprising and curious nature, but it is presented as an account of something that may have really happened. Transmission of a contemporary legend basically takes place in two types of communicative situations: in our daily conversations and in informal spaces where social interaction takes place among a group—for example, young people at summer camps or in recreational groups.

Contemporary legends derive their appearance of reality from the conviction with which they are described by their narrator, who, in fact, will believe them to be true. The listener, on the other hand, can react in various ways: with credulity, scepticism or even disbelief. And this is so because the debate over whether or not it is true is an implicit part of the legend, unlike the dynamic in play in other genres of folk literature such as the folktale, whose audience clearly perceives that what it is being told did not happen.

Contemporary legends have certain stylistic features that reinforce the appearance of reality. First, the stories they tell are set in a specific space and time—for example, a busy shopping centre, a nearby road, a trendy restaurant or a foreign country. Second, their protagonists are specific person or groups—for example, a film actor, a famous singer, a village resident or the police. Third, they start with a formula that, with some small variations, is summed up as “This happened to a friend of a friend.” This stylistic hallmark is why in the English-speaking West the contemporary legend has another name that is catching on: “FOAF legend” (Friend of a Friend Legend).

Contemporary legends have the function of warning or alerting us to possible dangers and channeling our fears about things that are unknown to us or that we cannot understand. The use of literary devices (the poetic function of language) makes what is told through these stories very effective—much more effective than any message expressed in a purely informative way.

The issues raised by contemporary legends have a very close relationship with the reality that we are familiar with as we experience it in our personal relationships or as it reaches us through the media (press, radio and television), social networks and the Internet. The themes of contemporary legends concern, among others, travel abroad, organ transplants, the emergence of new diseases, the dangers posed by drivers, purchases of exotic pets, unexplained phenomena, ghostly apparitions and terrorist attacks. Contemporary legends arise from the need to account for inexplicable or curious things that happen around us, and they allow us to express the feelings, concerns, uncertainties, needs and fears that such things bring about within us.

Due to their brevity and surprising nature, as well as to the topicality of the subject matter, these narratives are easily shared and, in this process, each individual recreates them and explains them in his or her own way. In an increasingly interconnected world, contemporary legends deal with global issues, but they do so according to the particularities of the culture within which they are told. One feature of these stories is therefore their variation. In fact, we find different versions of the same legend told in different countries, as existing collections, catalogues and specialized databases of contemporary legends demonstrate.

On the international scene, contemporary legends have been studied by folklorists such as the American Jan Harol Brunvand, author of several books on urban legends, including the Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (2012); the German Rolf W. Brednich; and France’s Véronique Campion-Vincent and Jean-Bruno Renard. The International Society for Contemporary Legend Research, founded in 1988, organizes an annual congress and has been publishing the journal Contemporary Legend since 1991. Outside the academic sphere and on a more mainstream level, it is worth mentioning Snopes <>, a website that offers very comprehensive and up-to-date information on this type of story. From an academic standpoint in Catalonia, a key work is «Benvingut/da al club de la sida» i altres rumors dactualitat (2002), written by the Grup de Recerca Folklòrica d’Osona and Josep M. Pujol. It contains an extensive introductory study and a varied collection of widely documented legends.

One of the things that research on contemporary legends has addressed is these stories’ connection to real events. In De source sûre. Nouvelles rumeurs d’aujourd’hui (2002), Véronique Campion-Vincent and Jean-Bruno Renard explain how a legend can be based on events that actually happened. Building on that premise, they have studied the processes of transformation that create a legend from a real event. One of these mechanisms, amplification, makes it possible to distort reality through exaggeration and so heighten people’s fears and increase their perceptions of dangers. Another mechanism, displacement, makes it possible to change a real fact’s context and, therefore, to connect different places and circumstances to that fact. These mechanisms are often used to create legends. However, to be able to corroborate that a story of this kind really is a legend, two requirements must be met: variants of the story must circulate, and the story must include some strange element that makes it possible to doubt its authenticity.

These connections between reality and fiction can be seen in a legend that circulated a few years ago and is related to the problem caused by the palm-weevil (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus) infestation that began to spread throughout the Catalan-speaking land and killed many palm trees here. The legend was created in an attempt to offer an explanation for the infestation, but that explanation was not always the same. Rather, different versions of the legend attributed different causes to the problem.

With regard to the reality of the infestation, the Department of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries, Food and the Natural Environment of Catalonia’s regional government offered the following information on its website: The palm weevil is a beetle native to Southeast Asia and Polynesia. It has spread continuously to other areas with a temperate climate, colonizing different palm species. The first appearances in Spain, in 1995, were recorded in the provinces of Granada and Málaga. It was later detected in 2004 in the Valencia region. In 2005 there was a major spread of the infestation and, at the end of December, a first instance of it was identified in Catalonia, in the town of El Vendrell. As insecticide treatments are ineffective against the weevil, rapid detection of outbreaks is essential in order to proceed with the uprooting and destruction of affected palms and prevent the spread of the infestation. Due to the danger posed by this infestation, the law requires that, in order to be transported in Spain, palm trees are covered by a phytosanitary passport that guarantees that they are free of this infestation and others.

The legend arose from the existence of a real infestation and spread through several versions. I will discuss two of these, which came to me through friends from Valencia in 2012. The first explains how the palm trees were slowly dying because people were putting drops of gasoline in their crowns. This act was apparently motivated by real-estate speculation, since very large, protected palm groves were preventing large construction projects. If the palm trees died, they had to be cut down. Homes could then be built on those sites.

In fact, 2012 was one of the peak years of Spain’s housing bubble; building was taking place everywhere. In the case of this legend, the explanation given for a worrying development, namely the death of palm trees as a result of an infestation, connects with another development that came about at the same time, namely real-estate speculation. For someone aware of the need to safeguard the environment, such as the person who had told me the legend, real-estate speculation, which in those years was happening all around us in a way that was excessive and troublesome in all kinds of respects, the legend offered a very logical explanation for why palm trees were being cut down. However, according to this version, palm trees were not dying because of weevils but because of the drops of gasoline poured on their crowns. This is the strange element that creates scope for doubting the story’s authenticity.

An acquaintance told me the second version of the legend via e-mail. He said that a friend of his, a maintenance worker for the local council of Albalat de la Ribera (in the Valencia region) who worked on all kinds of things (from gardens to water supply and electricity), told him that the weevil was introduced by insecticide companies that wanted to increase their sales, but things got out of hand and they did not have a way to control the infestation. In the maintenance worker’s eyes, this infestation was no different from others, such as that affecting orange trees; he attributed them all to the same cause.

The legend speaks of the weevil infestation and equates its origin to that affecting orange trees. In the case of orange trees, the pest, known as the Japanese citrus scale (Unaspis yanonensis), affects citrus trees and can even kill them. It would seem that in the Valencia region the Japanese citrus scale infestation was detected a little earlier than the weevil infestation. In any case, the legend attributes the origin of the problem to certain companies that, through their unlawful practices, apparently caused the infestation and made more money by selling the insecticides used to treat the infestation. In this version of the legend, stating that the two infestations had the same origin reinforces the story’s apparent reflection of reality by means of the repetition (duplication). At the same time, it also gives an intensity to the idea that alleged fraudulent acts committed by large companies have created a danger to the population through these infestations.

The two variants of the legend explain the origin of the death of the palm trees in a different way, but what they have in common is their underlying rationale: certain people’s speculation, malpractice and, ultimately, greed. We could all be hit by the consequences of this new infestation that is causing enormous damage to the economy and that we cannot control. And the feeling of insecurity caused by a situation like this is what leads to the creation and subsequent dissemination of the legend in its various variants.

Very often, legends’ motifs are reused and updated, thus becoming part of new stories that have emerged as a result of new problems that have arisen. So, for example, the reason behind the intentional introduction of the infestation, which we saw in the latter version of the weevil legend, can be found in a legend that arose as a result of the current situation that we have been facing in Catalonia since February 2020 owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. A characteristic of this pandemic is that it is evolving over several waves, so that, when it seems that we have it under control, there is another outbreak of it and a rise in case numbers.

There is a legend that, based on this real fact, seeks to explain why the pandemic is evolving in this way. The legend, which a student sent to me a few months ago, holds that COVID-19 came into our lives because of planes whose role is to spray the civilian population with biological or chemical agents. From time to time, these planes apparently fly over the country and release the virus, and that is why these waves of contagion occur when everything seems to be going well.

According to this legend, the pandemic has been caused by the acts of people who have absolutely no scruples and are endangering the population. The legend also includes a strange element that allows us to question its truthfulness. In this case, that element is the difficulty posed by releasing a virus from an airplane (that is, from a considerable height) so that it gets inside human bodies. One of the recommendations that health authorities have made during the COVID-19 pandemic is to avoid close contact with other people inside closed spaces and, instead, to opt for interacting in open spaces. In addition, a distance of two metres is apparently enough to prevent airborne contagion.

Through these brief examples, we have seen how legends can be created from real facts and can be identified by applying particular criteria to them. Contemporary legends allow us to indirectly manage the uncertainties and insecurities we have as humans in the face of facts that are difficult for us to explain. This is their function. And that is why it is so important to study them.

53. My encounter with Hebrew

Joan Ferrer
Universitat de Girona


In 1977, at the age of 17, and feeling more worried and scared than joyous, I began my university studies at the Faculty of Theology in Barcelona and at the University of Barcelona. There I found myself enrolled in a Hebrew course—it was a compulsory course in the first semester for theology programmes. It was one of those courses that everyone passed and that (like most university courses) was forgotten with incredible speed. But I found it fascinating, and it changed my life.

Historically, Hebrew was taught as a dead language that gave access to the original text of the Hebrew Bible, which Christians often call the Old Testament. Normally, you had to memorize paradigms—in the case of verbs, these can be rather complex—and lists of words. Historically, the results of this teaching had been catastrophic: (almost) never did anyone manage to reach the end of a verse without becoming entangled in Hebrew roots, which in some cases were virtually impossible to identify. But I was fortunate to have a young teacher, Dr Enric Cortès, who had spent time in Israel, where he had learned modern Hebrew. He had been in a kibbutz in 1968, that legendary year and returned speaking the language of the Bible! A language that had been “dead” for millennia was once again being spoken in one corner of the world: Israel. For me, a young man who was moved when he heard Raimon sing Espriu’s line «Però hem viscut per salvar-vos els mots» (“But we lived to save your words”), this was a kind of revelation: a human community had managed to save words! With Enric Cortès’ help—I will never be able to thank him enough for it—, I immersed myself in studying the world he had introduced me to.

Hebrew is part of the group of so-called “Semitic languages.” This was the name that the linguist A.L. Schloezer gave in 1781 to the set of languages spoken by the peoples whom Genesis 10:20-31 classifies as the sons of Shem. The term really caught on.

According to E. Lipiński, Semitic languages can be classified as follows:

  1. North Semitic

1.1. Paleoassyrian  1.2. Amorite  1.3. Ugaritic

  1. East Semitic

2.1. Old Akkadian  2.2. Assyro-Babylonian  2.3.Late Babylonian

  1. West Semitic

3.1. Canaanite

3.1.1. Old Canaanite

3.1.2. Hebrew

3.1.3. Phoenician

3.1.4. Ammonite

3.1.5. Moabite

3.1.6. Edomite

3.2. Aramaic

3.3. Arabic

  1. South Semitic

4.1. South Arabian  4.2. Ethiopic


Hebrew is the language of the people who inhabited the geographical area that the Bible calls “the Land of Canaan” (Gen 11:31) from 1000 BC onwards. During the first millennium BC it consisted of two main dialects—Israelite in the north and Judean in the south—, but the text of the Bible retained almost no dialectal features. The oldest Hebrew-language artefacts that have survived to the present day are epigraphic (the “Gezer calendar,” tenth century BC, several ostraca, the Siloam inscription from about 700 BC, stamps, coins, funerary inscriptions, and so on).

We can distinguish two major periods in the history of the Hebrew language of the Bible: pre-exilic Hebrew (until the fall of Jerusalem to the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 587 BC) and post-exilic Hebrew. In the post-exile era, Hebrew changed markedly due to the influence of Aramaic, which became the language of Jews’ daily life. The most advanced stage of biblical Hebrew is found in the Ecclesiastes, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, and the two books of Chronicles.

The text of the Bible, along with the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Mishnah (c. 200 AD), and Tosefta belong to a time when Hebrew was still a spoken language, at least in some parts of Judea.

The original text of the Hebrew Bible was only consonantal. Vocalization was added to it later and represents the pronunciation of the rabbinical schools of the city of Tiberias in around 900 AD. The Hebrew Bible uses a lexicon of 8,253 words (F.I. Andersen – A.D. Forbes). At the time of writing, and as a result of more than ten years of work, my student and collaborator Daniel Ferrer and I have completed a version of a large Biblical Hebrew-Catalan and Biblical Aramaic-Catalan dictionary that extends to over a thousand pages, which we are currently revising.

From the first century AD onwards, a Hebrew different from that of the Bible emerged in written texts: Mishnaic Hebrew. Some scholars thought it was an artificial language created by Aramaic-speaking Jews. Today, we know it is a language based on the spoken Hebrew of that time. It contains a large number of words that come from the language of the Bible and a set of about 14,000 words, most of which we can be sure come from the biblical era but are not found in the text of the Bible.

At the time when the era changed, the Jews of the Diaspora spoke the languages of the various countries where they lived. In Palestine, Jews mostly spoke Aramaic or Greek.

In the fourth century AD, Mishnaic Hebrew ceased to be spoken but continued to be used in texts written in prose, in the same way that Biblical Hebrew was used in poetic texts. Hebrew was the language of prayer and the language educated people used for written expression in the Jewish communities of the Diaspora countries. Jews’ mother tongue, however, was the same as the one used by the community among which they lived.

The scientific and religious prose used by Jewish sages during the Middle Ages took Mishnaic Hebrew as a model and developed it. It should be noted, however, that the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula who lived on regions under Muslim rule generally wrote their prose works in Arabic. Liturgical prayers, poetry and literary narratives were written in a biblical style that, as knowledge of the language of the Bible deepened, became a perfect imitation of Biblical Hebrew.

Medieval translators’ needs in terms of expressing scientific concepts and philosophical arguments—these were initially expressed in an Arabic heavily influenced by Greek—compelled the creation of many new words and linguistic expressions.

In the mid-eighteenth century, the Jewish Enlightenment in France and Germany promoted the use of the biblical language in texts such as newspapers and scientific works. In the nineteenth century, novels began to be written in biblical Hebrew. These dealt with aspects of everyday life, and characters who needed to be “real” had to express themselves in a solemn style, like the great patriarchs of Israel’s history did. This caused very talented writers such as Sholem Yankev Abramovich to abandon Hebrew as the language of literary expression and to begin writing in Yiddish. Sholem Yankev Abramovich did so under the pseudonym Mendele Mocher Sforim.

In 1879, an article published by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda unleashed the idea of creating a Jewish cultural centre in Palestine where Hebrew would become the language spoken in everyday life. The notion emerged into a world where ideas of national and linguistic independence among the peoples of Central and Southern Europe were boiling up. The Jewish world was not indifferent to these ideas, and Jewish societies began to appear throughout Eastern Europe. In Palestine, Ben-Yehuda started speaking Hebrew within his family and began elementary education in Hebrew.

The spirit of Jewish nationalism led Mendele Mocher Sforim to rewrite his novels in Hebrew in 1885, although he did so in Rabbinic (Mishnaic) Hebrew, a language that was more familiar to moderately cultivated Jews than purely biblical language was. In 1890, H.N. Bialik used Rabbinic Hebrew in a poem for the first time. In 1908, Ben-Yehuda began to write his great historical dictionary of the Hebrew language, the Thesaurus Totius Hebraitatis. This work brought together for the first time the words and structures of the rabbinic and medieval languages, which became the basis for the modern written and spoken language.

Modern Hebrew in Israel is, in fact, a natural continuation of medieval Hebrew, energized by the spoken language’s strength. The canonical opinion in Israel about the origin of Israeli Hebrew is that Mendele made a synthesis of two dead languages: the Biblical and the Mishnaic, the latter as it was written between 100 AD and 600 AD. According to this view, the morphological and syntactic rules of these two stages of the language are those applied in contemporary Hebrew. Until very recently, school grammars contained rules borrowed from the Hebrew of the Bible.

The language of Hebrew literature until the 1950s was Rabbinical Hebrew, which constantly recalled the language of the Bible and of Mishnaic-Talmudic Literature. S.Y. Agnon, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is the writer who wrote in this type of language most charismatically.

It seems that from the moment when Hebrew began to be spoken among the Jewish communities established in a Palestine dominated by the Ottoman Empire, grammar, syntax and vocabulary that were independent and distinguishable from the language of earlier periods began to develop. This informal language has been a constant source of enrichment for modern Hebrew. The path to a written version of this new Israeli form of Hebrew was not easy. Some writers began to experiment by introducing the language of Sabras—Israelis born in the Land of Israel—into dialogues within novels and plays. During the War of Independence (1948), some young Israeli-born soldiers and writers such as Moshe Shamir began writing stories in a more informal register. But consolidation did not come until the mid-1960s, and when it did, it was based at first on translations of foreign literature, with informal elements. Out of this experimentation, the spoken language began to appear as written word.

Written standard Hebrew exhibited a rather notable difference relative to informal speech. Schools strove to inculcate the rules of the written language, but the spoken language followed a parallel path, and so informal language was what was used in daily life, while “correct” language was what was used in formal situations. The distinctive features of the spoken language have been gaining ground in the world of written expression, first through journalistic language and then in works of literary creation.

Modern Israeli Hebrew is one of the most unique linguistic phenomena of all time. It has inherited more than 3,000 years of history but is a present reality, one full of life.

The first translator of modern Hebrew into Catalan was Eduard Feliu (Sant Feliu de Llobregat, 1938-Barcelona, 2009). The first translated novel was El meu Mikhael (My Michaelמיכאל שלי) by Amos Oz, first published in 1973 by Barcelona’s Edicions Proa (volume 166 of the “Biblioteca a tot vent” series). At that time, Edicions Proa was run by Joan Oliver, who wrote poetry under the name Pere Quart. The work was something totally new in Spain’s literary milieu, so much so that Joan Oliver commissioned Ramon Planas to produce a Spanish-language translation of Eduard Feliu’s Catalan version and subsequently published it.

With this novel, Eduard Feliu triggered the creation of Catalan-language literary translations of prose written in modern Hebrew. He was also the author of the first translations of poetry and children’s stories.

Eduard Feliu, Pere Casanellas, M. Antònia Nogueras and I have drafted the Diccionari Girona (hebreu modern-català), a modern Hebrew-Catalan dictionary. The work has been completed, and following a long process of revision, we hope to be able to publish it in 2021. It is our attempt to strengthen ties between two languages that strive to “save words.”

52. From gendered language to the discourse of far right politics

Susan Gal
University of Chicago


Those of us engaged in research on gender and language are often scholar-activists. That is, in addition to our research, we have worked to make changes in public linguistic practices: for instance, to limit the deleterious effects of generic pronouns, discriminatory address terms and occupational labels for women. Attention to linguistic matters such as naming, politeness and the dynamics of power differentials in interaction have long been central in feminist politics. We have even studied our own practices of “consciousness raising” as a political genre. Communicative phenomena are crucially involved in all sorts of political activism, like fighting for reproductive rights and marriage equality. These too have attracted close analytical attention. The personal continues to be political; discourse – including our own – is crucial to both.

Yet, research paradigms have changed. Scholars, over the years, have repeatedly risen to the challenge of analyzing changing feminist dilemmas in the everyday sociopolitical world. One of these, currently, is the attack on feminist goals and policies by powerful figures of the extreme right in many parts of the world. Right-wing activists undermine feminist projects of equality in employment and wages, they counteract movements for reproductive and sexual rights, and obstruct attempts to stop domestic abuse. There is a linguistic aspect to these attacks. One way in which right-wing politicians challenge feminist projects is by creating a category of talk they deceptively label “genderism” and “gender ideology,” which they then anathemize and stigmatize in rightist speech and writing. Right-wing activists say they are “anti-gender,” a view that – to scholars who study how gender-relations work – seems to make as little sense as being against “gravity.” Political scientists point out that anathemizing of “gender” in this way is, in part, a backlash against the notable successes of feminist organizing that have made the policies of international organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union more woman-friendly, more willing to attend to the rights of women and sexual minorities. What can sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology add to this political insight? I believe we have the analytical tools to grasp how talk of “anti-gender” spreads and how it gains its authority and persuasiveness, as it increasingly does.

For understanding the communicative aspects of this right wing discourse, the most important analytical change in language scholarship has been the turn to reflexivity or metacommunicative processes. On the one hand, reflexivity is the recognition that we are part of what we study; analysts have positions, ones we inevitably consider when describing the positions of others. There is no “view from nowhere.” On the other hand, reflexivity means that we study not just talk, but the presumptions and ideas with which we and other participants approach any instance of talk. Just as feminist theory shifted from studying women and men to studying gender as a more abstract category and a set of relations, so lesbian and gay studies shifted to conceptualizing sexualities in relation to sexual normativities. These reconceptualizations are reflexive moves. In linguistic anthropology, the same kind of leap led to posing questions not only about how men and women speak, but about what regiments and organizes the categories of masculinity and femininity and their expression in communicative practices. If these differences are neither natural, nor a matter of essences, then how can we track empirically how they are made, how they might be re-made or unmade? What kinds of authority sustain them? These are questions about communication, to be sure, but also reflexively about meta-communication.

The focus on metacommunication arose in part from unexpected complications encountered in our research. Since the 1970s and with more energy in the 1990s, gender and sexuality have been investigated as questions of “identity.” Yet, scholars have repeatedly found that “women” and “men” – “straight” and “gay” – are not homogeneous groups or categories. On the contrary, even within a single society, stereotypes of men, women and their speech vary dramatically. This is why the classic question of whether women are leaders or followers in language change is simply unanswerable. As Penelope Eckert argued long ago, stereotyped contrasts between “men” and “women” are inadequate for tracking linguistic variation. These contrasts are invariably part of wider systems of differentiation: ethnicity, race, class, cultural distinction, among others.

A further important complication was whether we were investigating stereotypes or practices. One could not take for granted which everyday linguistic and interactional practices signalled which stereotyped categories in specific sociocultural contexts. Furthermore, although speakers sometimes were found to be stigmatized for not speaking as generally expected for the local gender stereotype to which they were relegated, equally frequently, and to the surprise of scholars, speakers stretched the bounds of gender and sexuality stereotypes. The evidence from many societies and social groups has been overwhelming: sometimes women speak like men and vice versa; homosexuals speak like heterosexuals or the reverse; ethnics of various kinds imitate each other and so on and on. That is, speakers are not simply performing pre-existing selves or identities, nor are they constructing gendered practices simply through performative iterations. Rather, they are creating selves in ways that rely on presupposed normative stereotypes as starting points for interpretation, even when transgressing or contesting those very norms and creating new ones.

A key theoretical point has emerged: stereotypes are powerful not (only) because they sometimes force conformity to a norm, but because they are part of what we would now call ideological constraints to which speakers must orient in some way in everyday talk and interpretation. Participants orient in many ways: by aligning with norms, but also by disaligning, rejecting, changing or fudging norms. Or by imitating and thus citing and acquiescing with them; or by citing in a mocking frame, parodying or faking what is normally expected. One cannot speak without inviting such inferences.

We have learned that the social effect of gendering emerges out of  a three-way dynamic. Linguistic forms of many kinds – phonological, syntactic, discursive – cohere for speakers into “ways of speaking.” We would now call these “registers” of talk, what John Gumperz called contextualization cues. They index interactional stances. Such stances come to “count” as “feminine” and/or “masculine” (intersecting with other axes of difference). Participants construct and then presume the social meanings of registers, in communities of practice. On the basis of those presumptions, speakers take up and interpret what they hear and produce; they often also reconstruct how they interpret practices. Crucially, this triangulation – category presumption/ practice/ interpretive uptake – works because ways of speaking are discursively constituted as part of cultural conceptions about social difference. In short, they are aspects of language ideologies. “Ideology” here does not presume a correct vs. false consciousness. On the contrary, language ideologies are metacommunicative presuppositions – regimes of value –  that are necessary for any and every interpretation of a sign system. There is always more tan one ideology in any social scene, so a sense of contestation is built into the notion.

To put it in semiotic terms, speakers take up various ways of speaking in interactions, thereby “voicing” the social types (personae) that those forms index, and thus aligning (or disaligning, differentiating) not only with respect to their immediate interlocutors, but also simultaneously and necessarily with respect to categories of typified (stereotyped) social persons that are recognized as part of linguistic ideologies. New combinations of speech features are typified – enregistered – when a new set of speech forms is heard to index a typified persona within a field of circulating possibilities: when the forms are taken up in further interactions. A first order of indexicality, as Michael Silverstein argued, points to the stance and hence the social relationship that the register indexes in a specific situation. A simultaneous second order points to the “kind of person” who is enacted by speaking that way in such a situation for those who recognize the enacted person type. Every repetition of using the register is a citation-with-a-difference, interdiscursively linking the earlier use to the current one, indeed often constructing the new context, in relation to but distinct from the earlier context of use.

It would be a mistake to imagine that registers, stances and their related categories of personae emerge spontaneously from the interactional routines and cultural patterns of particular communities of practice. On the contrary, the making of gender stereotypes and registers is often a political and always an ideological process. Discourses about many matters – modernization, nation, moral worth – metacommunicatively constitute the “voice” of personae, even when the types of individuals who would instantiate the social categories do not exist. Miyako Inoue’s demonstration of how “modern Japanese women’s language” was constructed by intellectual men in the early 20th century is a classic example. No such educated Japanese women existed at the time, but intellectual men’s eagerness to write realist novels that would help modernize Japan led to the invention of that category of woman and its “voice.” Whether or not women actual used the idealized forms – or should do so – became a second-order issue on which politicians could take a stance, thereby expressing positions on modernization and other matters.

The concepts of language ideology, register and the discursive construction of stereotypes are all needed in conceptualizing the rightwing discourse that is currently opposing international policy towards the rights of women and sexual minorities. There is deep contradiction in this opposition. Right-wing public figures distort and ridicule feminist ideals even as these figures gain authority by “riding” on – grafting their positions onto – the increased global legitimacy of claims to rights, autonomy and equality. My own research has focused on eastern European cases. But the same processes are appearing in other regions as well. Indeed, the global circulation of the phenomenon is among its central features.

For instance, as Agnieszka Graff and others have noted, it was a shock to feminist researchers in Poland in the early 2010s to find newspaper headlines protesting against “genderism.” Most Poles had never heard of “gender” till then; it was a term limited to a small group of researchers. Yet, the terms “genderism” and later “gender ideology,” were invented in the late 1990s by Pope John Paul, taken up by Popes Benedict and Francis, and are now used widely by far right groups, journalists and writers in Europe, as well as the World Congress of Families – a U.S. based transnational group – and most recently by authoritarian leaders such as the prime minister of Hungary. The label is part of a register of denunciation against equal rights for women, civil unions, marriage equality, LGBTQ rights, reproductive rights, IVF and contraception. “Genderism” or “gender ideology” is framed, moreover, as a “colonial imposition,” a totalitarian force that is “worse than communism and fascism,” a threat to children, parents and the nation, a violation of nature, and a secret means of de-populating the world. A full analysis of this phenomoneon is beyond the task of this brief essay, but let me provide a start.

Armed with an understanding of metacommunication, we can recognize the term “genderism” as part of a discourse register. Its propositions function pragmatically as a first-order index, identifying one side of an implicit argument, arguing against the claims of feminists and sexual minorities. To simply contest its propositional content or its definition of “gender” would miss the more important second-order effect: the label identifies a political position that enables disparate rightist groups to recognize and collaborate with each other despite their vast differences. The rapid spread of the discourse suggests as much. When interviewed recently about state policies towards sexual minorities, the Hungarian prime minister promised tolerance and liberality, ending his response with: “but leave our children alone.” The phrase would have been incongruous, were it not recognizable as an exact quote (citation) from concurrent and much more rancorous Polish debates on sex. The Hungarian prime minister had not taken a substantive stance against LGBTQ people; on the contrary, he explicitly promised tolerance. But, by citing a snippet of talk common in Polish pronouncements against “genderism,” he succeeded in subtly aligning with Polish government discourse, which had. Clearly, propositionality alone is less important than pragmatics and an ideological field: what are the positions such a declaration occupies and what collaborations and opponents does it evoke. A more complicated question is how this discourse register shifts shape as it circulates. We need a parallel to Deborah Cameron’s deft anatomy of “political correctness” some twenty-five years ago.

It is also important to ask how this register gains authority, when it does. Much research has effectively analyzed several ways of establishing linguistic authority. The norms of standard languages are authorized via ideologies of correctness and reason; these erase the arbitrariness of standard forms and their positioning as gatekeeping devices. The legitimacy of ritual transformations is established by the performativity of the rituals themselves. In another kind of authority, as Judith Irvine and I have argued, one site of practice can anchor another site that is interdiscursively connected to it, and thus authorizes it, as in baptism or licensing.

The authority of “anti-gender” discourse – its persuasiveness for some audiences – is achieved in yet another way. It resembles citational phenomena of irony and parody, and the appropriation by dominant groups of forms associated with disdained subordinated groups, as in the “mock” forms described by Jane Hill. However, “anti-gender” is not based on irony; nor does it use the forms of the subordinated. On the contrary, anti-gender discourse deceptively adopts the terms and forms of the most powerful international organizations, grafting itself onto the authority of their widely accepted moral values, while directly opposing and undermining those very values. In this it is akin to “reverse racism” in the United States, which accuses subordinated racial minorities of racism. “Anti-gender” discourse presumes that “rights” are valuable, the protection of children is important, and “colonialism” and “fascism” are to be resisted. And then it accuses those speaking for the rights of women and sexual minorities of trampling rights, harming children and imposing colonial hegemony and fascism. Grafting itself onto the declared values of the EU and the UN, “anti-gender” discourses deceive by riding on the authority of values espoused by powerful international organizations, and redirecting that authority to themselves, indeed to their own diametrically opposed purposes.

The effectiveness of activist responses to this increasingly present mode of political discourse that undermines feminist and egalitarian goals will depend in part on how it is further analyzed. Our tools – especially a consistent move to reflexivity and register – are necessary to this understanding. At the same time, comprehending the mechanisms by which such counter-discourses operate under conditions of political polarization will surely extend the reach of sociolinguistic and its analysis of gender and language.


51. New speakers are building a future for the Sámi languages

Annika Pasanen, Ph.D.
Sámi University of Applied Sciences (Guovdageaidnu / Kautokeino, Norway)


The Sámi languages——nine separate languages as a whole—form a continuum that runs, geographically, from central Scandinavia to the east coast of the Kola Peninsula. The Sámi are an Indigenous people—the only officially recognized one in the EU region. Their languages, livelihoods and worldview have evolved in the diverse conditions—from taiga to tundra, from inland riverbanks to the shore of the Arctic Ocean—of this large area. Reindeer herding and fishing play an important role in the life of the Sámi, and the annual cycle of seasons regulates their livelihoods and households. However, a constantly increasing proportion of the Sámi live in urban surroundings outside the traditional Sámi region. All Sámi groups have experienced drastic cultural and linguistic assimilation. As a result, their languages have become endangered. An increasing need for language revitalization has therefore emerged.

Nowadays, most Sámi languages are actively being revitalized and strengthened. One of the most effective ways to fight against language loss is the one-year intensive education programmes in Sámi languages and culture that are offered to adults. This article is based on my postdoctoral research on people who have participated in this education and started using a Sámi language in their lives. This research began in 2017, and the data include results from a survey of 132 respondents who are new speakers of Inari Sámi, North Sámi and Skolt Sámi. I am interested in how Sámi languages are learnt, used and also passed on by people who did not acquire them during their childhood. I call them new speakers of Sámi languages.

Endangered Sámi languages

Out of the nine Sámi languages, three are spoken in Finland: Inari Sámi, North Sámi and Skolt Sámi. They are all endangered languages. Sámi people originally populated large areas of the current state of Finland, but for centuries, the Sámi languages have been spoken only in northernmost Finland. As in other countries, in Finland the Sámi have suffered language deprivation, faced widespread language shift from Sámi to the dominant language, and live nowadays with the complex reality of assimilation and language revitalization. The official domicile area of the Sámi in Finland covers the three northernmost municipalities—Utsjoki, Inari and Enontekiö—as well as the northern part of Sodankylä. However, nowadays the majority of Sámi live outside this area. For instance, there is a significant group of Sámi living in the metropolitan area of Helsinki. Preserving, revitalizing and passing on Sámi languages, as well as giving effect to the linguistic rights of the Sámi, are naturally much more challenging endeavours in urban areas.

In sociolinguistic tradition, intergenerational transmission of the language is widely considered the most important factor in a language’s vitality. It is the process through which children acquire the language of their community from the previous generation(s)—usually their own parents. When a language becomes endangered, its intergenerational transmission weakens and finally stops, with the dominant language gradually replacing the functions of the minoritized language. These breaks on intergenerational transmission happen when parents are recommended—and sometimes forced—to shift to a dominant language, allegedly in their children’s best interests, as shift that they are often just silently supposed to make. In societies where institutional education plays an essential role, parents’ language choices are usually closely linked to the education sector’s language policies.

When transmission of a language is interrupted, children grow up without the ethnic language of their family and community. A group of children of this kind is sometimes called the lost generation. The term does not necessarily refer to a homogeneous age group with the same linguistic situation; it may also refer to a very diverse group of people, some of whom did not acquire the language of their family at home. There may be differences between the members of such groups when it comes to how they feel about not knowing the language of their community. For some, it may be a huge trauma that impacts their whole identity, while for others it is not a big deal. In Sámi communities, more and more people want to have their ancestors’ language back.

Intergenerational language transmission is a critical question in all Sámi communities, but it is especially so in those where transmission was totally interrupted as a consequence of assimilation. This is the case of the Inari Sámi and Skolt Sámi languages. Both of these have a smaller number of speakers nowadays. Inari Sámi has approximately 450 speakers and Skolt Sámi maybe 300 speakers. Historically, these languages have apparently always been spoken by no more than a couple of hundred people. North Sámi has the biggest number of speakers—possibly 20,000—and it is spoken in Norway and Sweden as well as in Finland. Although North Sámi has constantly been passed on to children in its core areas, it has been lost in many others, and there are similar needs for revitalization of North Sámi as there are for the less commonly spoken Sámi languages.

Revitalization of the Sámi languages has gradually been taking place since the 1970s. In Finland, the main revitalization tools have been language nests for children under the school age, mother-tongue-medium education at school, and intensive language education for adults. One of the main challenges of constantly widening revitalization efforts has been the lack of educated adult speakers. Linguistic assimilation can be seen as a vicious circle, within which all the negative forces speed each other up. Revitalization, by contrast, can be seen as a virtuous circle that works in the opposite direction. All acts of revitalization influence and depend on each other. Language nests and mother-tongue-medium education have increased parents’ motivation to learn or relearn Sámi. Language education for adults has strengthened the basis for language nests and mother-tongue-medium education when there are more adult speakers capable of working in the Sámi language. Revitalization activities outside the home have increased the use of Sámi language at home, and strengthening the language situation of families has increased the need for and resources of the whole revitalization.

Rebuilding the lost generation through language education

One-year full-time study programmes in Sámi languages and culture are arranged by Saamelaisalueen koulutuskeskus, the Sámi Education Institute in Inari, in all the three of Finland’s Sámi languages. This education programme comprises approximately nine months of full-time studies, five days a week, seven hours a day. Learning a Sámi language is the focus of the year, and students cannot, for example, work at the same time. In addition to formal language instruction, other methods are also deployed, including practical cultural courses, trips, language training in Sámi-speaking workplaces, and master-apprentice language learning, which is based on interaction between the learners and native speakers of the Sámi language in question. This method has been applied to Sámi-languages adult education since the first education initiative for the Inari Sámi language, and both students and the elder, first-language speakers of Sámi languages, have warmly welcomed it.

This kind of education has been developed into its current form over several decades. North Sámi has been taught intensively at the Sámi Education Institute since the beginning of the 1990s, and in the current form of a one-year programme since 1999. Inari Sámi was first taught in an intensive five-month period in the spring of 1999. The first full-year education programme was organized for the 2009-2010 academic year by the Giellagas Institute of the University of Oulu, together with the Sámi Education Institute and the Association of the Inari Sámi language. In 2011, Inari Sámi intensive studies were arranged for the first time by the Sámi Education Institute. Skolt Sámi became part of the institute’s curriculum in 2012. This education has produced at least 250 or 300 new speakers of Sámi languages in total. For many of them, learning a Sámi language has been a kind of turning point in their lives, as it has opened up entirely new career opportunities and new social networks to them.

New speakers of Sámi languages: Who are they?

In my postdoctoral research, I have studied former students of Inari, North and Skolt Sámi who studied language and culture in an intensive education programme run by the Sámi Education Institute between 2009 and 2016. I had three main lines of inquiry: (i) the backgrounds of the students and their motivations for language learning; (ii) the students’ experiences of the year in education and the language-learning process, and (iii) the impact of learning and use of Sámi in different domains and individuals’ identification with the speech community. On the basis of my research, new speakers of Sámi languages are a very heterogeneous group in terms of age, education, motivation for language learning, results of the language education—and even ethnic identity. In addition to the Sámi, there are almost as many Finns among the students, and occasionally some other ethnicities, too. There is, however, one dominant background factor: gender. Women form a large majority in Sámi language and culture classrooms as well as in institutional professions linked to Sámi languages and culture. Both practical reasons (related to, for example, livelihoods) and cultural, ideological and emotional factors explain this situation.

Participants’ motivations for attending the year-long intensive language course fell into two main categories: Reclamation of the heritage language and “other reasons.” The most common motivation for learning Sámi was the reclamation of one’s own language or heritage language. Other motives for language learning included, for instance, widening one’s prospects in the labour market, having a general interest in language, and wishing to support the Sámi-speaking community. The Sámi in Finland have reached a stage that many Indigenous peoples and minorities around the world can only dream of: Knowing Sámi is clearly an advantage in the labour market. This is partly because of the Sámi Language Act, which obligates authorities to offer public services in Sámi, but of course, it is also about the widespread change of attitudes towards Sámi and the increasing prestige of it. However, these observations mainly apply only to the domicile area of the Sámi. Outside this area, awareness of the Sámi is quite low, and the Sámi have very limited linguistic rights.

Moving forward with the new language

My research data paint a picture of new speakers using Sámi languages very actively in different domains of life: work, social networks, and even the family. Almost half of the respondents of the survey, carried out in 2017, reported active, daily use of the language. Only a fifth of them responded that they use Sámi language seldom or not at all. The rest were using the language actively, but not daily.

A remarkable proportion of the new speakers in my data had started to use Sámi in their work—by either starting a new job or starting to speak Sámi in the position they already held. The vast majority of working-age speakers of Inari and Skolt Sámi are new speakers, which means that they are found in all professions in which these languages are used. This is not quite the situation in the case of North Sámi, but there are also many professionals who have learned North Sámi through intensive studies. New speakers are working, among other roles and workplaces, as employees in language nests or mother-tongue Sámi kindergartens; as teachers in primary and secondary schools; in institutions like the Sámi Parliament, the Sámi radio service or the Sámi Education Institute; in various cultural or scientific projects; in organizations; and at the University of Oulu. There are also new speakers of Sámi languages working in municipal social and healthcare services—for example, in dental and elderly care.

An even more significant proportion of new speakers have started to use Sámi language with their friends, relatives and other members of their social networks. Many have managed to switch the language they use even with their closest ones. For instance, some new speakers of Sámi origin who used to speak Finnish with their parents have started to speak only Sámi with them after their experience of studying the language. Examples of this kind reflect deep motivation and commitment—things that play an essential role in the revitalization of any endangered language. What is especially interesting is that it is not unusual nowadays for a parent learning Sámi at the adult age to choose it as the language they speak at home with their children. In fact, almost all parents who currently speak Inari or Skolt Sámi to their small children are new speakers, and so are a remarkable proportion of North Sámi-speaking parents. Furthermore, there are also ethnically mixed couples whose non-Sámi member has chosen to transmit Sámi language to their children, e.g. because the Sámi member of the couple does not speak Sámi.

Understanding, accepting and supporting new speakers

The phenomenon of learning and using Sámi languages as an adult is obviously going to continue in Finland and elsewhere. Although language revitalization has gained momentum, the lost generation is still still felt like a tragedy on both the individual and collective levels. Rebuilding the lost generation will take many generations, and reclaiming the Sámi languages should be understood as a constant need and a linguistic right of the Sámi people. New speakers are visible across the Sámi-speaking world. Nevertheless, we know very little about their backgrounds, motives, learning processes, efforts, ideologies, aims, challenges and achievements. Both research and open discussion are needed to develop the picture of the speakers of Sámi languages and to create conditions in which all speakers can strengthen the Sámi languages together.

For the sake of the future of Sámi languages, as well as that of other endangered languages that are being revived, it is very important to understand, accept and support the role of new speakers, with regard to intergenerational language transmission too. For people taking back the endangered language of their community, recommendations concerning the language spoken in the home and multilingualism—“Always speak your mother tongue to your child!” or “The language between you and your child should be the language you know best”—often seem inadequate, even hurtful. When a language is reviving, and the community is healing following assimilation, recommendations must be rethought. Transmitting an endangered, reviving language to children should be a right of any parent, regardless of when and how they learned the language. It is essential for the future of the world’s linguistic diversity, and it is essential for the next Sámi generations.

50. Towards a New Language of the Global Language Crisis

Gerald Roche
Senior Research Fellow
La Trobe University, Australia


Another Global Crisis

While our attention remains consumed by the global crisis of the COVID pandemic, we are also living in the midst of another, slow-motion global crisis. This crisis sees millions of people around the world stigmatized, marginalized, excluded, and discriminated against, and even killed because of the languages they speak, sign, and use. This crisis affects Australia, where I live, and also Tibet, where I have lived and conducted research. This global language crisis means that at least half of the languages used today will most likely no longer be used by the end of the century.

The town of Guza in eastern Tibet, where many Tibetans speak the Gochang language.
Like the Manegacha language discussed below, Gochang is one of Tibet’s unrecognized languages.


This crisis is fundamentally political: it is an issue of social justice. In any given country, and within our world at large, different languages and the people who use them receive unequal respect, resources, power, and attention. It is these inequalities, this linguistic injustice, that drives the global language crisis.

In order to escape the worlds of suffering created by these inequalities, people are everywhere ‘choosing’ to learn dominant languages in order to achieve economic and social mobility. They are also ‘choosing’ to stop using languages that are denied equal recognition and support. This unjust world of forced choice, gross inequality and suffering is the architecture of the slow-motion global language crisis.

However, if we look at dominant representations of the global language crisis in the popular imagination and in academia, we could be forgiven for failing to notice that it is a crisis of social justice on a global scale. We could be forgiven for seeing something else altogether.

Beyond Biology

For the past thirty years, our dominant way of thinking about the global language crisis has used models borrowed from conservation biology and the environmental movement. This approach, known as ‘endangerment linguistics,’ has mapped global linguistic diversity, created vast databases of linguistic data, raised public awareness about endangered languages, and developed new methods to teach and learn languages.

But despite its success as an academic field, endangerment linguistics has failed as a discourse: as a way of thinking and talking about a problem, and a way of perceiving and acting on the world. It has, for example, promoted problematic analogies between human languages and biological species. But more importantly, it has veiled the social injustice that lies at the heart of the global language crisis.

If we want to address the global language crisis, we need to stop talking about endangered languages, and thinking about this human problem through the lens of biology and ecology. However, it’s not enough to simply point out how endangerment discourses are problematic. In addition to critique, we need a positive project to bring a paradigm shift to our view on the global language crisis. Most of all, we need new language to help us think about and address this problem.

In other fields of social justice, we already recognize that how we talk impacts how we think and how we act on the world. We use gender neutral pronouns. We capitalize Indigenous. We refer to ‘undocumented migrants’ rather than ‘illegal immigrants’. We avoid slurs and language that belittles and demeans. It’s time we applied the principles of just language to the global language crisis.

Towards a New Language of the Global Language Crisis

We need new language to talk about the global language crisis, to help us see it as a social justice issue. But what does that language look like? I think the following four points should be central to our new language of global language injustice.

Oppression, not endangerment. Oppression, not endangerment, lies at the heart of the global language crisis. Languages, and the people who use and identify with them, are dominated, deprived, marginalized, stigmatized, excluded, and subordinated. These languages are not endangered. The distinction between oppression and endangerment is the distinction between an approach that is explicitly political, and one which consistently works to depoliticize the problem. Furthermore, while endangerment is a feature of languages and populations, oppression is a feature of systems, structures, and relationships. Talking about language oppression centers the political and the relational; endangerment blames the victim. While endangerment highlights symptoms, oppression focuses on the causes of the underlying problems that need to be solved.

Languages don’t oppress themselves. A failure to identify unjust political relations, and a tendency to blame victims, are entrenched in the language of endangerment discourses. These problems are often seen in the use of passive language. Languages are said to decline, vanish, die, and disappear. Populations dwindle, recede or get depleted. When active language is used, it often blames the community: languages are forgotten, lost or abandoned. Or, blame is deferred by referring to false protagonists that are described as causing endangerment, such as modernization, urbanization, migration, or globalization (none of these processes ever seems to endanger dominant languages). In order to center relations of inequality and injustice, we need use active language that places the onus on the perpetrators and aims to identify the institutions and individuals that create and maintain structures of injustice.

People, not languages. Endangerment discourses focus on languages: how languages are lost, how many are endangered, how we can record or revitalize them, what it means when a language dies, what the value of language maintenance is, and so on. A social justice approach focuses on people. Speakers and signers of a language are oppressed. Communities are excluded. People are stigmatized and suffer. To constantly remind ourselves that language oppression is a human tragedy, and not an abstract decline in knowledge or diversity, we must constantly work to center people. The global language crisis is, in truth, a global crisis of human suffering.

Disadvantage, not deficit. Endangerment discourses often portray languages as suffering from deficits. Languages ‘decline’ because they are not written, or not taught in schools, or lack prestige or vitality, or have failed to expand into new domains, or because speakers have negative attitudes. Languages are seen as failing to withstand the challenges posed by false protagonists like globalization. Instead of focusing on language deficits, a social justice approach centers how speakers of oppressed languages are harmed and disadvantaged by inequalities. Languages don’t wither because they lack the tools to survive in the modern world, people stop using them because injustice connects those languages to social disadvantage, pain, suffering, and trauma.

Endangered and Oppressed Languages in Tibet

Let me contrast these two ways of speaking about this issue, with an example from my own research. I originally began working with endangerment discourses, but now use a social justice approach. My work focuses on the languages of Tibet. Here, I will introduce my research twice: once using an endangerment discourse, and again using a social justice discourse.

Endangerment discourse: Endangered languages in Tibet. Tibet is linguistically diverse. Many of its languages are endangered. Under the impacts of rapid urbanization and unprecedented development, these languages are losing speakers. Different languages in Tibet are endangered to different degrees. While Tibetan is threatened by the national language (Putonghua, or Modern Standard Mandarin), other languages are much closer to extinction. Soon, some of them may vanish completely.

One such language is Manegacha, spoken by about 8,000 Tibetans on the northeast Tibetan Plateau. This language is currently spoken in four villages, but many families in these communities are abandoning it and shifting to Tibetan instead. Furthermore, the language has failed to expand into many new domains, such as digital media. If this situation continues, this unique aspect of human heritage and the knowledge it contains will be lost.

Overlooking the village of Tojya Wodkor, where the majority of people currently speak Manegacha,
one of Tibet’s unrecognized languages.


Social justice discourse: Language oppression in Tibet. Tibetans in China speak and sign several languages. National policy promotes the national standard language, known as Putonghua or Modern Standard Mandarin, at the expense of all other languages in Tibet. Policy also unofficially creates a distinction between recognized minority languages, like Tibetan, and unrecognized languages, which the state refuses to acknowledge. While recognized languages are under-developed and deprived relative to Putonghua, they do receive limited state support. Meanwhile, unrecognized languages are slated for elimination and denied all support. Often, the state achieves its goals through measures beyond language policy, by refusing to support languages in the course of highly disruptive state-building  processes, such as urbanization and development.

Manegacha is one of Tibet’s unrecognized languages. The 8,000 Tibetans who speak it are denied the right to use their language in education, employment, media, healthcare, and other crucial contexts. In order to provide better life chances in their children, and to spare them from facing linguistic discrimination, many Manegacha speakers are making the difficult decision to not transmit their language to their children. Without significant political change, this program of elimination and the hardship it causes will continue.

These two discourses provide very different pictures of the same situation. The social justice framing identifies the perpetrator, puts the onus for change on them and demonstrates how injustice negatively impacts victims, while also emphasizing the possibility for positive change. In contrast, the endangerment discourse presents a world that is abstract, impersonal and mechanical, where certain processes seem inevitable, and where languages are lost but nobody suffers.

Shifting our Language

In my research, I have been working hard to shift my language. I am constantly trying to center social justice and eschew endangerment discourses in how I talk about languages in Tibet. I think this is the best way to do justice to the people I work with and write for, the best way to represent their interests, and to repay the generosity they have shown me.

But shifting language isn’t easy. Endangerment discourses have predominated as long as I have been thinking about these problems. And although they have been repeatedly critiqued, they still haven’t been shifted from their position of prominence. Often, I find endangerment discourses speaking through me – choosing my words, and shaping the way I portray the world.

If we want to help build a new language for addressing the global language crisis, one thing we can all do is hold ourselves and each other accountable for our language. This doesn’t mean we should attack and blame one another. Instead, we should endeavor to work together so that the language of social justice is always at the tip of our tongue, always at the ready to shape the way we describe, think about, and act within the global language crisis.

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