18. New uses of colloquial Arabic: A quiet revolution?

Eirlys E Davies
École Supérieure Roi Fahd de Traduction, Tanger, Royaume du Maroc


The speech-writing division

For many centuries, the language situation in Arabic-speaking countries has been characterized by diglossia: the coexistence of two varieties sharply opposed in both form and function. Standard or Classical Arabic, the high status variety used in formal contexts and writing, has remained almost immutable in form, and therefore serves a unifying function across the Arab world; the various colloquial dialects, in contrast, have evolved, diverged, borrowed from other languages, and been generally regarded as inferior, inadequate varieties incompatible with writing and sophisticated discourse. The gulf between the two varieties has traditionally posed considerable challenges for children starting school, who are expected to move quickly from the dialect they speak at home to the very different standard variety in which they must learn to read and write.

 There have been many attempts to reform this situation: some 20th century thinkers called for the use of colloquial varieties in education or even as national languages, others for reforms of the Arabic writing system, and even in some cases for adoption of the Roman alphabet. More recently, in Morocco, some canonical European literature has been translated and published in Moroccan colloquial Arabic (MA), in an attempt to demonstrate that MA can be a vehicle for more elevated discourse. However, these attempts by scholars, politicians and ideologists to change people’s language habits and attitudes have had very little impact. This may perhaps be related to the fact that they have all been very much top-down initiatives.

Computer-mediated communication and Arabic

Over the last two decades, however, a dramatic shift has occurred, and the apparently impregnable embargo on writing the colloquial dialects seems to be weakening. We are now seeing colloquial Arabic functioning more and more as a medium for written communication, and more remarkably still, it is being written using the Roman alphabet. What we will designate here as Romanized Arabic (RA) has now become an everyday medium of communication for millions of mostly young people across the Arabic-speaking world. And this development has sprung, not from the work of language planners or ideological preachers, but from ordinary people’s responses to changing communication needs, most notably to the rise of computer-mediated communication (CMC).

CMC has encouraged the use of the written medium where previously oral communication would have been used; for instance, people now send text messages instead of making phone calls. However, the ASCII code initially used for representing characters could handle only the Roman alphabet, so users of other alphabets were obliged to devise ways of representing their languages in Roman script. RA soon became the norm for communicating in Arabic on computers and mobile phones. The later introduction of Unicode means it is now easy to write Arabic script in CMC. But meanwhile, RA seems to have become an entrenched habit which has not been abandoned even though the original reason for its adoption has disappeared. Moreover, its use is now spreading beyond the domain of CMC which triggered it.

In fact, transliterating Arabic using the Roman alphabet was nothing new, for this has often been resorted to in contexts where users of Arabic are in contact with users of other languages. In Morocco, for instance, Arabic place names and personal names have standard Romanized forms, based largely on French orthographic conventions. The system adopted for CMC differs from this in its use of numerals to represent certain phonemes for which the Roman alphabet offers no obvious symbols.  And of course in the past some individuals did write in the colloquial dialects, for instance to send letters to poorly educated family members who could not understand standard Arabic. What is different about the current trend is the extent to which RA is now being used, not just for intimate communication with the uneducated, but for much more public messages, and for messages written and addressed to well-educated persons, who are quite capable of writing and reading Standard Arabic.

The spread of Romanized Arabic

The extent of this new trend can be illustrated by a brief description of Moroccans’ use of RA. It is now commonplace for Moroccans to communicate with friends and family via text messages, emails and Facebook posts formulated in RA. But they also use it in social media communications directed to a wider audience, including people not personally known to the writers, such as Twitter feeds and posts on many types of website, such as blogs, forums and classified ad sites. Many company websites also feature RA on their pages.

Advertisers in particular seem to have been quick to exploit RA, and not merely on line.  RA is now seen in billboard advertisements, in supermarket brochures and in advertisements in print magazines. Walking the streets of a Moroccan city, one may come across RA in posters advertising concerts or other events and in shop window displays. Early uses of RA in marketing tended to be associated with an appeal to the masses, as when it was first exploited by certain telecom companies targeting lower socio-economic groups, but now it is used to target more diverse audiences. It is seen in communications by both local companies and multinationals, is used by banks to label some of their products such as credit and transfer services, and sometimes even features in the promotion of luxury goods.

Beyond computer screens and print, RA can also be seen in handwritten messages, most notably in graffiti on walls in urban neighbourhoods.  In a survey of 248 Moroccan university students, conducted in 2015, over 30% also claimed to use RA for handwritten notes in class, either to record information provided by a teacher or for messages to be passed on to classmates. 15% reported using handwritten RA in other contexts, such as to leave a note for their parents before leaving home, to write a to-do list or a diary entry. While handwritten RA was admitted only by a minority of the respondents (compared with the 99% who reported using RA for phone and internet messaging), it nevertheless suggests that the use of RA is expanding far beyond its origins in CMC.

One further point worth noting is that discourse written in RA by Moroccans is frequently combined with strings in French, in ways which mirror the patterns of codeswitching between Moroccan Arabic and French which are a common feature of conversations between bilingual Moroccans. Since RA is the written form of an essentially oral variety, this is hardly surprising. It also illustrates how the adoption of the Roman alphabet for colloquial Arabic makes possible further stylistic innovation; codeswitching involving Arabic script, written from right to left, and French, written from left to right, would be far more difficult.

Attitudes to the use of RA

Early comments on the phenomenon, by both scholars and laypersons, suggested that it was simply a fad, a fashionable way for young people to mark themselves out from the rest. It was natural that young people should be the first to experiment with RA, since they constituted society’s most computer-literate group.  However, it would seem that what started off as an innovation by the young is now making its way steadily into the habits of older people. In our 2015 study, 36% of the students claimed to use RA not only to their peers but to older people, mostly parents, aunts and uncles but in some cases even grandparents. The original users of RA are of course themselves growing older, and if the current trend continues, it may soon be a normal medium of communication across all age groups.

Reactions to the use of RA by the general public and the media have often been critical and highly emotive. It has been described as a malignant language, a crime, a threat to the Arabic language and to Arabs’ identity, and even as part of a war against Arabic. Such panic-stricken remarks are to some extent understandable. After centuries in which the colloquial varieties of Arabic have been considered suitable only for oral communication, with children having to learn SA in order to write, this sudden and very public intrusion of the colloquials into the sphere of writing may seem quite alarming, provoking fears that it might weaken or even supplant the revered and cherished status of SA. And given that alphabets are often perceived as strong symbols of identity, it is perhaps not surprising that many have seen the recourse to a Western writing system as a rebellion against tradition and a rejection of established cultural values.

A wider perspective

In fact, however, the use of RA in Arabic-speaking communities is no isolated phenomenon. In many other speech communities the spread of CMC has led to similar developments, with the use of Romanized versions of languages such as Greek, Russian, Cantonese, Farsi and many others. In some of these cases, like Greek and Cantonese, languages with a long established writing system and a prestigious literary heritage are now being written in a Romanized form in CMC by people perfectly able to use the standard system. The use of ‘Greeklish’ in CMC provoked media reactions similar to those noted above for RA.

In other cases, the development of a Romanized writing system actually offers access to writing for those who for one reason or another have not mastered the traditional writing system, For instance, those of Russian descent living in the USA may find a Romanized script allows them to communicate in Russian on line. Likewise, Sindhi speakers living in the West, with no proficiency in either the Arabic or Devanagari scripts used for this language in Pakistan and India respectively, have recently begun to communicate in Sindhi online thanks to its Romanized version. In such cases, far from harming the language, its Romanization may actually help keep it alive within a diaspora.

Finally, there are other cases where a language hitherto little used in writing is empowered through the development of a written form for use in CMC. In Senegal, for instance, French has long been the usual medium for writing, with Wolof as the oral lingua franca, but nowadays Romanized Wolof is extensively used in CMC.

Set against this wider perspective, the language-related anxieties of those who protest against the use of RA may seem less justifiable. Rather than a revolution specifically targeting Arabic language traditions, the adoption of RA may perhaps best be seen as simply the development of a supplementary tool. The students surveyed in our study did not agree that by using RA they were neglecting or harming SA; they felt that SA should be upheld and valued, and very strongly rejected the possibility of ever writing SA in the Roman alphabet. In fact, far from blurring the distinction between MA and SA, the strategy of writing colloquial Arabic in the Roman alphabet, while maintaining Arabic script for SA, could be seen as a way of emphasizing the distinction between the two, through a clear visual differentiation.

The recent shifts in the use of colloquial Arabic surveyed here are certainly just one example of a much wider trend for linguistic innovation which seems to have been sparked off by the new electronic media of communication. While the spread of printing in the sixteenth century ultimately paved the way for the standardization of orthography and grammar in many languages, the arrival of CMC seems to have had a more liberating effect, allowing the development of ways of writing which are free from the norms imposed in other contexts. These changes illustrate the power of bottom-up processes of change, which have in the case of Arabic brought about innovations that many would-be reformers of the past could only dream of. The extent to which these innovations will continue to spread and grow remains to be seen.

17. Identity is not what it seems

Salvador Cardús
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and member of the Institut d’Estudis Catalans


In ‘Je, nous et les autres’ (Le Pommier, 1999),the anthropologist François Laplantine argues that the concept of identity is as ideologically powerful as it is epistemologically weak. He is absolutely right. We talk about the identity of countries, age or gender groups, political parties, or individuals as though we knew what we were referring to. We refer to alleged identity conflicts as though they were the cause of most of the current major confrontations. As Ferran Sáez explained in “Ara tot són conflictes identitaris” (El Temps, 23/05/2016), there has been a shift from seeing ideological clashes everywhere to seeing them as being based on identity, almost without our being aware of this. A great deal of literature from the social sciences, but above all plenty of political analysis and journalism, resorts to the idea of identity to describe social processes, but such works always end up at—or start out from—a blind spot: knowing exactly what they are talking about.

Common sense, often aided by simplistic theories, implies that identity is something profound, and that it answers the question about “what is” Catalan or to be Catalan, or Spanish, or young, or a woman, or a socialist or so-and-so. And to do this, people turn to a series of content that supposedly is not only common to all involved in this identity but also consistent and sufficiently internally coherent so as to be characterizable. And, of course, a certain stability is supposed, without which there would be no way for these elements—which are about “character,” “culture,” “mentality” or who really knows what—to really constitute something shared. And yet, there is nothing as impossible as making this list without falling into stereotype, caricature or cliché.

The error of these approaches is precisely this: the question about identity that helps us to know what we are talking about is not the “what is being” this or that. In other words, the error is to consider identity as an essence or as content, whether this essence refers to the past, a tradition or a history, or whether it refers to the future, a project or a desire.

One could be radical and kill off debate by saying that identities do not exist, as Laplantine asserts. After all, dead dogs don’t bite. But let’s be clear: what does not exist is identity as content—essential identity—whether as a past, present or future. On the other hand, what do exist—and then some!—are discourses on identity. And they all refer to a system of social relations in which there is a fight for recognition and, therefore, for a space of social power. That is, they are discourses in a powerful sense of the word: expressions of a will to power. And, to demand this recognition, a supposed “essential substance”—one often attributed with an almost sacred, untouchable character—that apparently must justify the space of power occupied is turned to. We might say, paraphrasing Benedict Anderson (‘Imagined Communities’. Verso, 1983) when he discussed nations, that identities are also “imagined.” That is, we tell “stories” or narratives that serve the fight to exist socially, whether we are talking about nations, gender identifications, age groups, institutions, ideologies or individuals.

If all this is the case, it is possible to arrive at some conclusions that I soon hope to develop through an essay of a length that a line of argument of this gravity requires. First of all, it seems obvious that debates on identity are debates on crises of recognition. If recognition is satisfactory to both parties—the recognizing party and the recognized one, generally on a reciprocal basis—then there is no concern regarding identity and there is indifference toward it, as Albert Sánchez Piñol masterfully explains in the article “La metàfora del Pigmeu” (‘La Vanguardia’, 16/11/2014). Second, and paradoxically, it is necessary to realize that identities are only exacerbated and expressed so explicitly, and sometimes violently, if they lack recognition. I say paradoxically, because recognition is what makes them invisible, or if one prefers to put it another way, unquestionable and, in short, obvious.

Third—and perhaps this is the most amazing consequence for the common approaches—recognized identities do not exhibit themselves but instead hide. That is, they avoid the impossible mission of saying who or what people are. As individuals or as a social group, we usually comprise diverse, contradictory and confusing elements. And the elements that are not confusing often make us the same as the people from whom we attempt to differentiate ourselves. The day when we Catalans can go around the world and answer the question “What are you?” with a simple “I am Catalan” and instead of receiving the usual reply of “And what is being Catalan?” we simply get an “Ah!” of positive recognition (whatever the implicit assumptions of this “Ah!” may be) will be the day when our identity problems are over.

Fourth, and consequently, identities only recognize rather than know one another. Successful coexistence—the result of respecting everyone’s social spaces—is not based on a thorough knowledge of the other, but simply—and precisely because there is mutual recognition—on overlooking the other’s identity. Or, as Manel Delgado puts it more accurately, it is based on respecting the other’s “right to indifference,” which is what is required to regulate and guarantee the public space. That is, it rests on there being no obligation—on the part of individuals as such, or of men or women as a gender, or of nations as a cultural or political unit—to give an explanation of what they are, why they are what they are, why they want to be what they want to be, and so on. To put forward an example that I have already argued in favour of at other times: a good relationship between various faiths that occupy the same public space does not involve undertaking complex—and well intentioned—processes of interreligious dialogue and gaining a deep understand of each belief system (a perfectly respectable goal from other points of view). Instead, it is simply a matter of getting to a point where such personal affiliations are not the object of interest and may be deserving—if I may put it thus—of an Olympian indifference. Precisely what we appreciate so much about a secular society is that nobody has to give explanations of whether or not he or she is a believer, or of “exactly” what he or she believes and why.

Certainly, there are identities that kill when they are affirmed by denying those before them, as Amin Maalouf says (‘In the Name of Identity’. Arcade, 2012). But there are ones that become an instrument of self-defence and that save and allow survival in the face of genocide attempts against peoples, languages, cultures, gender identifications or people individually considered. All this is based on the understanding that what kills or saves is not any specific content but rather the type of relationship that is established to annihilate others or to gain recognition that they must be saved.

In view of the above, my thesis is that identity is a skin. This metaphor greatly facilitates an understanding of this alternative analytical perspective that makes current debates on identity much clearer, and it is one that I am happy to expand upon for anyone who may be interested.

Stanford University. November 2016

16. ‘Lo latino’ in Barcelona: Young people, linguistic styles and identities

Víctor Corona
École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, ASLAN-ICAR


I arrived in Barcelona in 2004 not to do a PhD but to earn a living, as many other Latin Americans do. I discovered that there was another language apart from Spanish. The curiosity about and interest in languages that I have always had helped a great deal in drawing me to Catalan. I immediately noticed how Latin Americans in Barcelona occupied a space similar to that of Latin Americans in the United States, and this caught my attention. I found that the young people who I saw in the park spoke more like Spaniards than they did like people from Latin America. At that time, the media was very alarmed about young people of this origin. There was a great fear about failure at school, violence and marginalization.

In 2005, I started a PhD in language teaching on a part-time basis, combining my studies with other jobs. I started to undertake ethnographic research with a group of young people who had quit their studies and who met up in the park: they called themselves “latinos“. Through participant observation, I lived alongside them for a period of eight months. My study continued at the school that they had attended. Through this research in various social-interaction spaces—for example, the school, parks and discos—I put together a corpus of data based on interviews and discussion groups in which these young people reflected on the role of languages and linguistic varieties of Spanish in the construction of a “Latin” identity (‘lo latino’) in Barcelona [1]. Some years later, once I had completed the thesis in 2012, I got back in touch with some of the young people who had taken part in the research [2]. Since then, I have explored other subjects that are less related to school—for example, the rap music made by young latinos in Barcelona [3]. It must be pointed out that this research focuses almost exclusively on males. That is, this is a subject in which the construction of masculinity is important, although I have not addressed this in depth in my work. However, it appears to be the case that Latin girls do not follow the same patterns of language socialization neither at school nor in neighborhood.

Some results

One of my first questions was whether Catalan had been the main problem faced by these young people in continuing their studies. I was surprised that, for a vast majority, Catalan was not raised as a difficulty—or at least not the most important one. Instead, they found that the way in which the school received their way of speaking Spanish was not fully appropriate. Despite being native speakers of Spanish, the school questioned the legitimacy of their varieties, positioning them as “less correct” that the Peninsular variety. Far from making the ‘latino’ boys adopt the variety promoted by the school, this hierarchy of linguistic varieties caused many of them to strengthen the more “latino” features of their speaking: a “seseante” variety that features aspirated consonants such as “s” and a lateralized “l” at the end of a word or syllable. These features are not shared by all the varieties of Spanish spoken in Latin America, but in the data collected the young Latin Americans would speak in this way regardless of their “variety”.

This variety or stylization emerged in conversations and interviews in which participants expressed their membership of “lo latino” as an identity or style. They described conflicts with the school or with the host society. This “latino” variety was constructed with words and features of the Spanish of Latin America, but also of the Peninsular Spanish of Barcelona, and even of Catalan. In fact, without the effect of the accent and the musicality of this way of speaking, it could be taken as basically Peninsula Spanish. Talking ‘latino’ was a response to certain discriminatory dynamics in the school, for instance, those qualifying their way of speaking as deficient. It was also a form of defence and protection for boys who were strongly lacking in affection and for whom the friendship group played a central role. This use of a particular form of speech as a method of resistance is not a new phenomenon. In fact, there is a long tradition of these stylization phenomena in other European contexts—for example, those studied by the British researchers Mark Sebba [4] and Ben Rampton [5]. In the context of Catalonia, Joan Pujolar’s [6] study is a reference point for all ethnographic research on young people’s speech.

But the emergence of this way of speaking does not correspond only to questions of resistance. It is also a natural consequence of young people’s socialization. Although they come from different countries, the fact of going to Barcelona, of sharing spaces such as the host school, or of living together in a given neighbourhood, made them discover that they shared a common past. It is a story of migration, but it also involves more ancient history: that of Latin America, and specifically Spain’s conquest of the Americas. It places them in opposition to Spain, as we can see in the following example:

Example 1.

546. VCR: ustedes qué_ qué piensan del catalán?| en general\|

547. RAL: es una mierda\<0>

548. ALX: que es una mierda\| tío\| no sé ni para qué vinieron_ para qué vinieron los putos españoles allá a cogernos nuestro dinero\| los odio tío\| los odio a los españoles \|


551. VCR: por qué no quieres a los españoles?|

552. ALX: eh/|

553. VCR: por qué los odias?|

554. ALX: porque vinieron allá a jodernos nomás\| nomás para jodernos \|

hace mucho tiempo Colón-| dicen que es español o algo así\|| Colón\|

555. IGN: Colon sí\|

556. OSC: un culón de mierda|


557. ALX: vino-| se supone que fue a conquistar América \| pero fue con toda_ con toda su peña ahí\ con sus barcos\-| con sus armas a joder a América Latina\| a robarnos nuestra plata y toda esa huevada \|

Corpus 2006-2007 Support group

Participants: Alex, Raúl, Roberto, Ignacio, Oscar, Víctor


546. VCR: what_ what do you think about Catalan? | in general \ |

547. RAL: it’s shit\<0>

548. ALX: what do you mean it’s shit\| bro\| I don’t even know why they came_ why the fucking Spanish came to take our money from us\| I hate them bro\| I hate the Spanish \|


551. VCR: why don’t you like the Spanish?|

552. ALX: eh/|

553. VCR: why do you hate them?|

554. ALX: because they just came to fuck us\| just to fuck us \| a long time ago Columbus-| they say he’s Spanish or something like that\|| Columbus\|

555. IGN: Columbus yeah\|

556. OSC: what an asshole|


557. ALX: he came-| he’s supposed to have conquered\| but he went with all_ with all his crew there\ with their boats\-| with their weapons to fuck Latin America\| to steal our silver from us and all that crap \|


In the previous conversation, there were boys from Peru (Alex), Bolivia (Oscar) and Ecuador (Ignacio, Raúl and Roberto). It is interesting to see how they draw a direct relationship between Catalan and the Spanish conquest of the Americas. The negative categorization of Catalan has nothing to do with the language’s taking precedence over Spanish. For many of these young people, Catalan is as Spanish as the Spanish language in the hierarchical relationship that positions them further down.

Pierre Bourdieu claimed that, despite the fact that all languages have the same value, society values them through their speakers. At the school, I very often found a close relationship between evaluations of Latin Americans’ way of talking and the Spanish conquest. It was taken as assumed that the Peninsular variety of Spanish was better than others as a matter of colonial authority. Latin American migrants were often seen by teachers themselves as impoverished people not just in economic terms, but also in linguistic and intellectual ones.

Another recurring theme in the talks was the separation from their mothers that many of the boys felt. The Latin American diaspora in Spain is primarily female. Many women from countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and Bolivia came to work in Barcelona as cleaners or as carers for elderly people. These women had children, and many of them had to be apart from them for a long time. Their sons and daughters came later and were schooled in Catalonia. Mothers and separation also made for one of the most frequent themes. I could provide data from interviews, but I prefer to illustrate this argument with data that I have been collecting recently from the rap music made by young ‘latinos’ in Barcelona.

Example 2.

‘cruzar el continente pa encontrarme con mi madre

empezar de cero sin conocer a nadie           

problemas en la clase por mi acento por mi carne

esperar a que acabe esta angustia incontrolable

que suene la campana corriendo para ir a pelearme                      

y aunque tuviera miedo nunca quise ser cobarde

la vida se hace dura cuando está ausente tu padre

tener que echar palante sin que nadie te eche un cable

ya con los dieciséis yo dejé el instituto

dedicándome al chanchullo y a pequeños hurtos

con una idea clara ganas de comerme al mundo’


‘crossing the continent to meet up with my mother

starting from nothing without knowing anyone

problems in class because of my accent and my skin

waiting for the end of this uncontrollable anguish

the bell rings for me to run out and fight

and even when afraid I never wanted to be a coward

life’s hard when your dad’s not there

having to push on with no one to give you a hand

when I was sixteen I quit school

spending my time on scams and petty theft

with a clear idea and wanting to conquer the world’


Mi niñez’, (‘My childhood’) by Pielroja (Nicolás Chavarro) –rap musician from Colombia and resident of Barcelona–, 2015:


While he raises the theme of mothers, Pielroja allows us to see the conflicts that he encountered at school. He talks about his skin colour, his accent and the absence of his father as the prelude to dropping out of school. These are themes that are unfortunately present not only in the ‘rap’ music of these young people, but in the vast majority of students from this background, who came to Spain and failed to finish the minimum compulsory education.

Ten years of research

The boys who participated in my research now have children. Now when we meet, they are unable to hide a certain regret about some of the attitudes that they had when they were younger. Their relationship with the Catalan language depends to a large extent on the job that they have—if they have one—as well as on their friends and their expectations. They have also qualified their discourse on their identities. They no longer miss their countries of origin or claim a “latino” identity as they did before. They are much more concerned about finding a job [7]. The years have passed, but Barcelona’s latinos continue to exist. Moreover, on Youtube it is easy to find white Catalan boys copying latinos and drawing on traits such as those mentioned earlier. And I remember that teachers told me that the problems with these young people were that they had just arrived. And the ‘latinos’ who are at school now? Have they just arrived?

In my view, Catalan sociolinguistics should look more carefully at what is happening in the street right now. For example, by observing phenomena such as ‘rap’, we discover that new forms of speech are emerging, as well as new forms of cultural practices that tell us about the emergence of hybrid identities. What we find are young people telling us stories not about Santo Domingo or Guayaquil, but about El Raval, the Barri ‘Xino’, Canyelles and l’Hospitalet. To be sure, they do so in a ‘latino’ Spanish, but they use words and sounds that remind us that they are from Barcelona. What are these voices asking for? What are their opinions on debates that continue to seek linguistic purity in a hypothetical interdependent Catalonia? How are ways of speaking at school now evaluated? How is the subject of linguistic varieties taught in diverse classrooms? How is the history of the Spanish conquest of the Americas taught? How do we train future teachers in response to this diversity?

[1] V. Corona, L. Nussbaum & V. Unamuno, ‘The emergence of new linguistic repertoires among Barcelona’s youth of Latin American origin’. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 16:2 (2012), 182-194.

[2] ‘Latino trajectories in Barcelona: a longitudinal ethnographic study of Latin American adolescents in Catalonia’, Language, Culture and Curriculum, 29:1 (2016), 93-106

[3] V. Corona & S. Kelsall, ‘Latino rap in Barcelona: Diaspora, languages and identities’. Linguistics and Education (2016)

[4]London Jamaican: Language Systems in Interaction’. London: Longman, 1993.

[5] ‘Styling the other: Introduction’. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 3(4) (1999), 421–427.

[6]De què vas, tio?’ Barcelona: Empúries, 1997.

[7] ‘Latino trajectories in Barcelona: a longitudinal ethnographic study of Latin American adolescents in Catalonia’, Language, Culture and Curriculum, 29:1 (2016), 93-106.



11. The Assyrians and Aramaic: Speaking the Oldest Living Language of the Middle East

Eden Naby
Harvard University


Abstract: Far too many people are surprised when they hear that a substantial community exists worldwide that still speaks Aramaic as its mother language. But in another 50 years, will today’s surprise be the reality?  Can Aramaic survive as a living language if its speakers are driven into diaspora and scattered worldwide?

In the following article I will address three issues:

  1. How have Assyrians retained Aramaic into the 21th century?
  2. Will they be able to continue the language?
  3. Under what circumstances can Aramaic survive?


Changing Language Use Patterns

In this ever more global cultural environment, language has ceased to be associated with a region or country. Instead, the rise of English as an international language of business is creating a new paradigm for global language use different from French when used for international diplomacy, and Latin or Arabic as used in the past.

English today (and some posit, Chinese in the next century), serves to connect people whose schooling language is not English. In China today, teaching English is big business.

Where does this switch to English leave the speakers of small languages, some of which, like Aramaic were the international languages of their day (8th c BCE – 8th c CE).

Aramaic speakers face a dilemma: to what extent can they embrace multi-lingualism? Through what means?

For speakers of  small languages multilingualism is an absolute necessity. Managing three languages on a written and spoken level, people like the Baluchis, Lezgin or Assyrians is a major challenge. Depending on circumstances, the written form of the native language of small groups often gives way, even if the spoken language is retained. Will this scenario explain Aramaic retention?

Who and Where are Aramaic Speakers?

Nearly three thousand years ago, Aramaic speakers were concentrated in the Near East, with their heartland in Mesopotamia.  Writers and readers of Aramaic, an elite group trained specifically for political, commercial and religious employment, centered in the areas covered by Iraq, Syria, and adjacent areas.

Aramaic is the oldest continuously written and spoken language of the Middle East, preceding Hebrew and Arabic as written languages. Equally important has been the role of Aramaic as the oldest continuously used alphabetically written language of the world.  Aramaic influenced both Arabic and Hebrew, sister Semitic languages, and even contributed to the writng of Mongolian and Uighur, in terms of alphabet development, lexical borrowing, and cultural habits like alphabet numbering.

The influence of Aramaic is widely studied by ancient historians. Aramaic inscriptions have been found from the central mountains of Afghanistan (Kandahar and elsewhere) to Egypt, and second century CE Palmyrene. Aramaic is found in northeast Britain on a tombtone associated with Hadrian’s Wall.

Aramaic is easily recongnizable in the lowest line, below the Greek inscription. It is dated to 129 CE.


With the Christian period, the form of Aramaic adopted for Christian texts became the Syriac of Urhoy(Gr. Edessa). Classical Syriac as the advanced language of science, medicine and philosophy east of the Greek world, provided the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258) in Baghdad with a ready source of knowledge that was reborn in Arabic while Syriac withered as did the churches that had tended it.

At the start of the 20th century, modern spoken dialects of Aramaic survived chiefly among Christian Assyrians and to a lesser extent among Mandeans and Jewish Aramaic speakers (the Nash Dedan).

The number for the world Assyrian population varies but the general agreement is that fully half of this population now lives in Diaspora outside the Middle East. Persecution of Assyrians, beginning with Kurdish attacks during the mid-19th century, followed by Ottoman Turkish genocide attempt during World War I, and culminating a hundred years later in the anti-Christian expansion of radical Muslim extremists, have displaced and driven into refugee camps a large number of Assyrians.  The largest Diaspora lives in English speaking regions – the United States, Canada, Australia and the UK – possibly as high as one million – while large numbers live in the former Soviet Union, Brazil, Argentina, Sweden, France, Holland, Belgium and Austria.  This latter group constituted about 500,000 at the start of the 21st century but Diaspora numbers have been growing with the increased persecution of Christians in the Middle East.

The largest Diaspora,  or a significant portion of modern Aramaic speakers, live in English speaking and writing environments, while another large percentage is exposed to English through schools in Europe, South America and Russia. In this single fact of Diaspora may lie the seeds for the retention of Aramaic.

All sources agree that knowledge of modern Aramaic, in whichever dialect, has declined in Diaspora. The communities in Diaspora face major roadblocks to language retention:

  1. strength and attraction of the state language no matter where they live
  2. educational institutions use of the state language or bilingualism with narrow definitions prejudicial to smaller languages
  3. broadcast and entertainment use of the state language




Aramaic in the Middle East

In the Middle East, the situation of modern Aramaic is in turmoil. Most specifically in Iraq, the status of modern Aramaic is both hopeful and desperate.

Northern Iraq has the largest concentration of Aramaic speakers in the world. Largely located in villages scattered north, east and southeast of Mosul, many of these villages have been depopulated and destroyed over the course of Iraqi history.

In the era of Saddam Hussein, when Assyrians were dropped from the 1977 census in favor of the sectarian name Christian, some 200 villages were systematically razed. Their survivors sought shelter in larger cities – Dohuk, Arbil, Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra.  For many, these urban centers served as the stepping stones to emigration from the region.

The breakdown of ancient villages, coupled with the virulent nationalism that came to fruition in the mid 20th century in autocratic Middle Eastern States from Turkey to Iran to Iraq and Syria, devastated use and knowledge of Aramaic.

In Iran, on the contrary, prior to World War I, Aramaic expanded into strong educational institutions as well as print media, no less than four Assyrian periodicals were published in Urmiah (northwest Iran), all under Western missionary tutelege.  After the “cleansing” of the area of its Christians, no books, no periodicals, no publications reappeared at all.

A similar demographic downturn is seen in Turkey – despite current hopeful signs – in the West Bank, and in Lebanon.  Syria and Iraq remained the possible islands of hope for Aramaic. But these countries have dissolved into chaos as have whatever institutions such as Aramaic teaching schools that had existed.

The Effect of State Languages on Aramaic

Throughout the world where Assyrians live the rise of nationalism and national languages has broken down knowledge of Aramaic.  In Iran after 1934 when foreign mission schools were forced closed, literacy in Aramaic dropped by about 90% in one generation.

Iraq and the Preservation of Aramaic

Out of the chaos of Iraq grows the hope for Aramaic.  Out of the immigration to English dominant countries may come the hope for Aramaic retention in Diaspora.

In Iraq, an embryonic system of elementary and secondary Aramaic instructional schools was developed in the north mainly on the Nineveh Plain, that area southeast of Mosul where a substantial number of Assyrian villages such as Alqosh and Baghdeda provided concentrated numbers, perhaps as high as half a million persons. They functioned under the guidance of Mr. Yonan Hozaya who served as the cultural pivot of the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM) during the late 1990s and into the early decade of the 21st century.

The preservation of Aramaic has also made halting progress in English-speaking areas of the world.  In Sydney Australia, an elementary school appeared in 2002.  At the same time, another school appeared in Los Angeles under the aegis of the Assyrian Church of the East. But the communities in Los Angeles are scattered geographically and drawing a core student body has proven difficult. The school closed after a few years. Another church affiliated school has come into being in 2012 among the large Assyrian community of San Jose in Silicon Valley. Some hope exists for a charter school in the Chicago area.

For the first time, spoken Aramaic has been offered to students during the 2015-16 academic year as an elective at San Jose State University. This offering differs considerably from the academic study of Talmudic Aramaic, Empire Aramaic and other highly specialized but dead languages that relate to either Biblical or ancient studies.

The most systematic and institutionalized schools for Assyrians were established in the former Soviet Union because Aramaic, as spoken by Assyrians was one of the 100 nationality languages recognized by Moscow, and therefore funded on a cultural and educational level. With the breakdown of the Soviet cultural system that sponsored “nationalities,” these Assyrian schools have decreased or disappeared except in locations such as Urmiah (sic) an Assyrian enclave in Krasnodar.

In many respects, Aramaic may be more easily preserved in English speaking areas due to the fact that it need not be studied as a third language, but as a second or first language.


The obstacles in the the preservation of Aramaic are many: immigration from concentrated areas like Urmiah, northern Iraq, the villages of Tur Abdin, Qamishly and Hasake is just the most obvious reason.  Added to this is the decline in vocabulary, spoken dialects, the loss of prestige to state languages, and the lack of recognition of its cultural role in the Middle East.  Some of these reasons are tied to the general decline and abuse of Christian populations in the Middle East.

But the trend may be partially reversible in Iraq under the following conditions:

  1. Establishment of an Aramaic using cultural and administrative zone
  2. Support for the elevation of Aramaic, Syriac and the spoken language of the Iraqi Assyrian community at institutions of higher learning not just in Mosul, but also in Arbil, Dohuk, Baghdad.
  3. Support of internet language teaching programs for the diaspora

Many factors mitigate against the preservation of small languages. In the case of Aramaic, many historical factors work for its preservation.

10. The Ainu in Japan

Tjeerd de Graaf
Fryske Akademie, Ljouwert


Originally the northern part of the Japanese main island Honshu was inhabited by Ainu people, whereas there are indications that they also lived on the southern tip of Kamchatka. Traces of the Ainu on Honshu are found in geographic names, but as a result of historical developments the Ainu also disappeared from Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands.

In the sixteenth century many Japanese immigrants began to settle on Hokkaido and to engage in large scale fishing and trading. The Japanese area (‘Wajinchi’) was located in the southern part of the island (‘Matsumae’), while the Ainu people lived in the areas called ‘Ezochi’: the rest of Hokkaido (the name of the island since 1868), ‘Karafuto’ (Sakhalin) and ‘Chishima’ (Kurile Islands). The original inhabitants southern of the islands of ‘Etorofu’ and ‘Kunashiri’ were also the Ainu.

On Hokkaido the Ainu fell completely under the control of the Japanese, who claimed these territories as part of Japan. As a result of Japanese-Russian conflict and the establishment of political boundaries, a large number of Ainu from Sakhalin had to relocate to Hokkaido. They suffered from the abrupt change in lifestyle and the prevalence of diseases, and many of them died. Later resettlements of the Ainu would follow and the result is that their number has decreased and that at present they can only be found in Japan, mainly on Hokkaido.

The modernisation of Japan caused the central government to pay serious attention to the exploration and economic development of Hokkaido. For this purpose the Hokkaido Settlement Mission (‘Kaitakushi’) was established as an administrative organisation to rule the region, and a large number of former samurai and farmers emigrated from the Japanese mainland to Hokkaido. ‘Ainu mosir’ (“the people’s land”), where the Ainu had freely hunted and gathered food, became part of the territory of Japan and was given to Japanese immigrants.

The government forced the Ainu to assimilate, and the ‘Kaitakushi’ prohibited the traditional way of hunting and fishing, and confiscated their lands. Under state-sponsored assimilation policies, discrimination and poverty relegated the Ainu to the lowest ranks of Japanese society. With the introduction of the Japanese way of life and special compulsory education, the traditional system of learning from one’s elders was broken down and the original social and cultural patterns of the Ainu population were destroyed. As a consequence, the Ainu language, together with the traditional lifestyle almost completely disappeared within a couple of generations.

According to a survey conducted in 2006 by the Hokkaido government, the Ainu population of Hokkaido then numbered 23,782 people. Many Ainu and people of mixed origin were eager to forget about their Ainu origin and until the present there are many of them who fear discrimination and prefer to hide this origin. Therefore it is rather difficult to estimate the right number of people having the Ainu ethnic background. At present, the number of Ainu living mainly in Hokkaido is estimated at between 24,000 and 50,000, but only very few of them still speak the language.

Laws and linguistic rights for the Ainu

The Ainu have lived in Hokkaido, Sakhalin, the Kurile Islands and Honshu since ancient times, and have built their own history, language and culture. When the government enforced its law in Hokkaido, it incorporated the land of the Ainu, basically confiscating their land, forcing assimilation policies, and denying the Ainu people their traditional culture. In this process, discrimination and prejudice toward the Ainu were strengthened.

In 1946, the Hokkaido Ainu Association was established with the aim to provide better education for the Ainu and to create social welfare facilities. This association is actively engaged in solving various problems experienced by the Ainu. In 1984, the Hokkaido ‘Utari Kyookai’ (Association) has conducted an active campaign to demand that the national government enact a law on the promotion of Ainu culture as soon as possible. Furthermore, various activities have been promoted to revive the Ainu language and to preserve and maintain Ainu culture, such as traditional dancing and various ceremonies.

The ‘Law on the Promotion of Ainu Culture and Facilitation of Popular Understanding of Ainu Tradition’ was passed in 1997. Regretfully, it does not mention the rights of the Ainu as an indigenous people anymore, which would allow for the provisions related to the United Nations’ ‘Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ (2007). However, in this law the Japanese government acknowledges for the first time the existence of a separate ethnic group inside the country and calls for respect of its culture and traditions.

The Ainu then have become an internationally recognised indigenous population. In July 1997 the Japanese government finally introduced the ‘Ainu Shinpo’ (New Ainu Law). The purpose of this new law is “to realise a society in which the ethnic pride of the Ainu people is respected and to contribute to the development of diverse cultures in the country, by the implementation of measures for the promotion of Ainu culture, the spread of knowledge related to Ainu traditions, and the education of the nation, referring to the situation of Ainu traditions and culture from which the Ainu people find their ethnic pride”. According to article 3 of this ‘Ainu Shinpo’, the national government should make efforts “to promote measures for the nurturing of those who will inherit Ainu culture, the fruitfulness of educational activities concerning Ainu traditions, and the promotion of the study of the Ainu culture”.

In 1997, after the preparations for the ‘Ainu Shinpo’ were made by the Hokkaido government, the Hokkaido Development Agency approved the establishment of the ‘Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture’ (FRPAC) as a public service corporation. One of the tasks of the Foundation is to preserve and promote the Ainu language and traditional culture and to disseminate knowledge on Ainu traditions to the nation. The Foundation promotes comprehensive and practical research on the Ainu, the Ainu language, and material culture, and disseminates knowledge on Ainu traditions.

Teaching of the Ainu Language and Culture

The language is unique to the Ainu and forms the core of their ethnic identity. Because the number of people who use the language has been decreasing yearly due to the aging of native Ainu speakers, Ainu language education is in a very difficult state. For the improvement of Ainu language education, the FRPAC provides learning opportunities to train Ainu language instructors in cooperation with Ainu language researchers.

Ainu language classes are offered in various community centres on Hokkaido and in the ‘Ainu Culture Centre’ in Tokyo. These centres are very well equipped with modern facilities and often offer interesting expositions related to the Ainu culture. In order to disseminate the Ainu language to the general public, the FRPAC provides opportunities for many people to have contact with and to learn the Ainu language. Language textbooks are provided free of charge and special books on the Ainu history and culture are edited for primary and secondary schools. People who want to practise the language can take part in special speech contests and storytellers of traditional oral Ainu literature, such as ‘yukar’ (epics of heroes), ‘kamuy-yukar’ (stories of deities) and ‘uwepeker’ (old tales), give direct instruction to train their successors. Special attention is paid to the remnants of the Ainu language in the local culture, in particular the interpretation of geographic place.

Since the 1980s the Ainu cultural and ethnic movements have created a public awareness of Ainu heritage, and popularised Ainu culture. The purpose of teaching Ainu history and culture is to promote understanding of the Ainu and their culture, and to refute the Japanese stereotype of the Ainu as uncivilised people. The Hokkaido Board of Education and the Hokkaido University of Education have taken the lead in funding Ainu studies and education. The Hokkaido Board of Education prepared teaching materials for Ainu history and culture in 1984, and in 1992 it produced a handbook, ‘Guidelines for the Teaching of Ainu History and Culture’, for every high school in Hokkaido.  In 1987, the ‘Utari Association’ requested that the Hokkaido University of Education teach a course in Ainu history and culture, and in 1991 the five campuses of the University offered seventeen courses wholly or partially devoted to Ainu history, culture, and language. The Ainu themselves, as well as several scholars, are actively researching and writing about Ainu history, language and culture.  The 1997 ‘New Ainu Law’ provides public funds to museums, performance theaters, research centres, and community cultural centres.

Japanese students learn about Ainu history and culture as part of the social science curriculum in elementary, middle and high schools. Ainu issues first appeared in the social studies textbooks in 1961. In addition to textbook-centred instruction, elementary school students and preschoolers become familiar with Ainu culture by making handicrafts, reading folktales, and performing music and dance. Watching a documentary on the lifestyle of the Ainu can also give students a sense of Ainu culture. Since 1978, middle school textbooks have included chapters on Ainu history and cultures. A popular history textbook portrays the Ainu as the victims of Japanese exploitation and prejudice. It refers to Ainu revolts as justifiable resistance against exploitation by Japanese settlers and merchants prior to the 1868 Meiji Restoration. ‘Shakushain’, one of the leaders of the resistance, is portrayed as a hero.

More recently, in 2007, Hokkaido University opened the Centre for Ainu and Indigenous Studies (CAIS) with the aim of promoting comprehensive and interdisciplinary research activities concerning indigenous peoples with a special emphasis on Ainu. It also strives to establish networks connecting various organisations at home and abroad with the aim of promoting research programmes on Ainu and indigenous peoples.

The CAIS collaborates with the Ainu people and Ainu organisations such as the ‘Ainu Association of Hokkaido’ and the ‘Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture’. Together with these organisations research activities and administrative matters are planned and this will serve as a bridge that connects the university with the Ainu. These activities result in symposia, public lectures, social surveys, museum exhibitions, lecture tours, ecotourism and overseas fieldwork. This will encourage widespread understanding and support among members of different ethnic groups.

An important aspect of the Centre is its emphasis on education. Currently, at Hokkaido University, the Centre offers courses that help students develop interest in and gain an accurate understanding of the Ainu people and other indigenous groups throughout the world. Furthermore, an ambitious project for developing teaching programmes and materials for junior and senior high school students in collaboration with local school teachers is being realised. Through such educational efforts, social justice will prevail in Japan, which increasingly is becoming a multi-ethnic and multicultural country.

Education for the Ainu about the Ainu is as important as education for young Japanese people. The Centre has a positive role to play in this regard. The Centre takes as its responsibility the creation of a space in which the Ainu people are able to learn about themselves in both academically and socially useful ways.

9. Finding the right place for languages in the community landscape: language conservation in interdisciplinary projects among the Kubeos in the Northwest Amazon

Thiago Chacon
University of Brasilia


It is past 5pm in the house of Ricardo, a 60 year old Yúriwakɨ man, living in Açaí – a village of the Kubeo Indians at the Vaupés river in the Brazilian Northwestern Amazon. Roque, an older Yúriakɨ, is telling Ricardo and me about how the ancestral group of all humankind came into existence in the rapids of hipana in the Aiyari river, “the center of the world”. After the demiurge Yúri pushed humanity out from a hole in the rapids, he blew them with the sacred tobacco and each human group was set off into a journey in search for land, ceremonial power and spiritual nourishment (opeko ‘breast milk’). The journey is a process of transformation from a pre-human state in the aquatic world (moawɨ “fish-people”) to true people in the terrestrial world (põewã “humans”). For the Yúriwawa and brothers-in-law, the Yuremawa, the final point in their journey was Wakaipani, the rapids from a small tributary of the river, the unique ancestral birth-place of both groups.

Map of South America and the Upper Rio Negro Region where the Kubeos are located

Map of South America and the Upper Rio Negro Region where the Kubeos are located

Roque has never been to the Aiyari river; he has never seen most of the places of the journey he was describing. His voice, however, is firm, his memory is vivid and his words are galloping in a characteristic rhythm as he talks about places, events and make connections between mythical happenings and present affairs. As he speaks, Kubeo grammar makes it clear to the audience that Roque’s knowledge comes from retellings by his ancestors and from his own mind-travels to the places holding particular mythological significance.

Seven years have passed since I first heard the Kubeo creational myth. I was just starting my PhD, eager to document, learn and preserve the Kubeo language. As a linguist, who enjoys everything the linguistic code can teach about the Kubeos and their language, I started to think that language conservation should be more of a secondary objective, and that the emphasis should instead be on themes transversal to a number of aspects of community life. Since languages are “incidentally” also transversal to culture and society, it makes sense – at least in sociolinguistic situations like those of Kubeos – that language conservation should focus strategically on promoting community-based experiences of language use.

In our case, the Kubeos chose general traditional culture, sacred landscapes, territory and the environment as transversal themes. This text describes our initiatives related to these topics and considers the broader issues related to language and indigenous groups.[1]

Sociolinguistic situation of the Kubeos

The Vaupés is a unique multilingual region of the world, predating the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. Speakers of about twenty-two languages from four different linguistic families co-exist in a complex network of sociocultural exchange, embedded within a system of social and linguistic exogamy. In the twentieth century, and increasingly in the past decades, however, there have been dramatic changes that made an impact in language vitality. The most notable changes have been related to the presence of Christian missionaries, national armies, guerrilla wars, intense urban migrations, schooling, television, monetization, and diminishing supplies of fishing and game.

There are about eight thousand people who speak the Kubeo language; they are agriculturalists and rely heavily on fishing, as well as hunting and seasonal gathering of wild crops. Villages typically have about ten families (bigger ones can go up to one hundred families) and are dispersed along the banks of the Vaupés, Querari and Cuduyari rivers. In these villages, one usually hears, in addition to Kubeo, Kotiria, Tukano, Desano, as well Portuguese and Spanish. Most people are at least bilingual and others speak more than two languages. However, there has been a considerable break of language transmission to younger generations in certain areas of the Kubeo territory, not to mention the typical loss of specialized vocabulary and traditional linguistic performances. Nevertheless, although Kubeo can be regarded as a threatened language, its situation is not the most critical in the Vaupés, where smaller language groups are facing greater threats.

Landscapes and the right place of language for the Kubeos

My work with the Kubeos started with a series of workshops for an encyclopedic dictionary in 2008. Kubeo teachers from the local school requested that the dictionary should include translations from Kubeo to Kotiria, Tukano, Portuguese and Spanish. From the start, the connection of language and worldview, embodied in the native conception of an “encyclopedia”, has always guided the direction of our work. Workshops were thematically organized (natural world, human world and metaphysical world). They have proved very successful in engaging the entire community with an average attendance of 70 people from several distinct villages and ethnic groups. Besides the workshops, we also invested in the training of a group of young native speakers in the use of audio and video recordings, transcriptions and translations.

A group from the first workshop of the Kubeo encyclopedic-dictionary

A group from the first workshop of the Kubeo encyclopedic-dictionary

However, Kubeo community had many other needs in their daily life than “just” working with their language. While we could never tackle all the problems at once, there was a clear demand that future projects should bring more tangible components and resources. As a response, we came across with the idea of “sacred landscapes”, which then expanded into a project of territory and environmental management research.

Landscapes – as we realized after the research of anthropologists in the area, including Robin Wright, Geraldo Andrello, Ana Gita and my colleague Luís Cayón – are a central component for the understanding of how local indigenous groups relate myth, collective memory territory, the environment and the “mundane” present life. In fact, every piece of the landscape is a stronghold for Kubeo tradition and identity. One particular place is part of a complex network of mythical and mystical power, relating physical and metaphysical worlds, past events with current cultural practices. Shamans manage the substances that are utterly related to the evolution of the universe and humankind, bringing harm or well-being to the current world. Petroglyphs, topographical features and taboos to the “unprepared” persons are evidence of the active forces of certain places overtime. Means of subsistence too, such as fishing sites, hunting spots, agricultural areas, are all regulated by the power that flows from place to place. Several petroglyphs standing in different rocks along the rivers were made by the demiurges when the world was still in its genesis. Entire rivers and mountains were also the product of mythological events, such as the wanderings of the Sun in persecution of the Kubeo ancestors who have gotten the Sun’s daughter pregnant.

Language is, to a large extent, the key to every place. Comprehensive access to any place is only possible by knowing the true name of a place (not only some “nickname”), by the proper use of ceremonial dialogues with the mythical forces of that place and by knowledge of the correct position of a place within the chain of verses in a healing monologue or mythological narrative. Metaphor, metonyms and euphemisms abound in toponyms, which are also interrelated by a “grammar” of naming practices and hypertexts. It is only natural that the loss of language or particular linguistic skills by the younger generations could threaten not only a specific state of knowledge related to geography and territory, but also – and more profoundly – the entire conception of life and self for the Kubeos.

This kind of approach, where language is at the background of more tangible cultural practices and values, seems to be the right place for language programs among the Kubeos. In this framework, we are now experimenting a process that let us tackle several issues in Kubeo life, namely:

  • intergenerational gap in cultural and linguistic transmission
  • school curriculum, teacher training and integration between formal education and community education
  • knowledge about fishing, gardening, hunting, income generation and sustainability
  • discrepancies between traditional and modern life
  • political and economic situations of the Kubeo community and the supra-local scenarios for indigenous peoples
  • production of linguistic and cultural resources on toponyms, cartography, mythology and collective memory

Community-based research on Kubeo landscapes

In an evening of May 2013, a group of 30 people, comprised by schoolteachers and students, parents and other folks from the Kubeo communities in Brazil, arrived at Wakaipani, after a one-day trip through the jungle and the Marakarĩya river stream, a tributary of the Vaupés. The group arrived exhausted after wandering in the jungle in search for trails that have barely been used in the past decades. Those trails used to be the very source of game two generations ago, when the Kubeo Yúriwawa were still living in longhouses at the tributaries of the Marakarĩya stream. The culmination of the project was the trip to Wakaipani, a rocky flat area of the size of a football pitch, with several petroglyphs representing mythological events. The clear waters cut the rock in half along a North-South axis. The place is guarded by ancestors who take the form of shaman-jaguars (jawi) and harpy eagles (mi yawi ‘jaguar bird’).

As their graduation project, students from the last years of high school and mid-school had to do a research about the origins of the Kubeo clans Yúriwawa, Yuremawa and Betowa. They participated in a weeklong workshop with the elders, who narrated and chatted about events that occurred at Wakaipani just after the clans have emerged from the mythical aquatic journey. Students also received training in audio, video and photographic documentation, as well as in techniques of interviewing, ethnographic annotations and transcription.

Students were able to “feel” the Wakaini place to the fullest. They cleaned the lichens and grass from all petroglyphs; prepared fish and game locally caught; heard the long story about how the Kotirias and the Kubeos met at Wakaipani, how the territory was passed from the Kotirias to the Kubeos, and how the Sun demiurge was finally defeated by the Kubeos. Cameras, voice recordings and notebooks in the hand of the students documented everything, which resulted in a “home-made” documentary film about their experience.

A petroglyph representing Piaða – the chief of the ancestral cult among the Kubeos

A petroglyph representing Piaða – the chief of the ancestral cult among the Kubeos

More important than concrete results, the Wakaipani project has proven as a fruitful process of learning and dissemination of ideas and practices by all participants. However it only happened once. Lack of funding and lack of initiative from school members for conducting similar graduation projects without direct participation of outside researchers prevented it from perpetuation. If such a project is disconnected from subsequent collective actions, it will become just good memories in the minds and hearts of those 30 people who were part of it, but nothing more lasting.

It did, however, spread valuable seeds. One of them is a new momentum in Kubeo schools, supported by recent educational policies more open to indigenous way of life, where traditional knowledge is being more explicitly demanded in the curriculum. Some interesting ideas being discussed include hiring elders as regular instructors in the schools, locally produced pedagogical materials, and making graduation projects similar to the one in Wakaipani as a regular activity in the school calendar.

Another important consequence of this project was a subsequent project on territory and environmental research, whose general goal is to create local knowledge of the territory and its sustainable use for the future. This ongoing project is funded by the Ministry of the Environment in Brazil, and is conducted by the Kotirias and the Kubeos, engaging fifteen villages and ten local researchers, plus an interdisciplinary research team composed by a linguist (me), a biologist (Igor Richwin) and three anthropologists (Pedro Rocha, Diego Rosa and João Pimenta da Veiga). The project expands the focus from sacred landscapes in order to cover knowledge and management of the space regarding economical and technical use of the territory, history and demographic information of the villages, traditional knowledge about the environment and ongoing transformations, as well as the mythological configuration of the landscape. It also raises several issues about the current life in each village and the region as a whole, demanding collective discussions and further organization of local society.

The project lasted for 2 years and used a varied methodology, such as workshops, community discussions, mental maps and GIS, census, a log about local daily practices completed by local researchers, and documentation of traditional texts. As a result, we are currently writing a trilingual book (in Portuguese, Kotiria and Kubeo) that will cover chapters including geographical and environmental units, local cartography, sacred landscapes, demographic and sociolinguistic diagnosis of the communities, etc.

A conclusion of an ongoing work

After eight years working with the Kubeos, we feel that this is the moment to start something that could render more lasting results. Probably this will be true in ten years from now. Life never stops and the struggle of indigenous people is getting tougher every day.

Several challenges lie ahead of us. The most important from a language conservational perspective is keep the use of the Kubeo language vibrant in every way, in the digital world, in small talks and jokes, in rituals and in profanity, in writing and speaking, in thinking about the world and dialoguing with all kinds of social groups the Kubeo are open to.

Grants and thematic projects are still the best strategy for raising language awareness and reinforcing language use in threatened domains. A sociolinguistic survey followed by language planning is likely one of the next projects we will develop. In the meantime, I will go back to listening to Roque’s story about the creation of humankind by the Yúri god, the story that this note opened:

– ‘Hipanaka põewamu maha arehame. Mahãrẽ mahẽ ñekũ Yúri batekemawɨ̃ arehame’.
“We are from the Hipana rapids”, “For us, Yúri is our grandfather”, grampa said.

– ‘Yúri buçibɨre kɨwatekemawɨ̃ arehame. Buçibɨre kɨwarĩ, mahãrẽ mahẽ põe eta kobede buçibɨre nurĩ hapukemawɨ̃’.
“Yúri had a certain cigar”, he said. “With his cigar, he was blowing smoke into the hole from where people were created (born)”.

Yúriwawa men talking in their longhouse: Roque is the little one in red

Yúriwawa men talking in their longhouse: Roque is the little one in red

[1] This is what I could learn working with the Kubeos and seems to be a valid conception for several other sociolinguistic situations. Besides the Kubeos, I would like to give the right credit the institutions which supported my research on language conservation: the University of Brasilia where my colleague Luís Cayón and I are running a comparative project on the languages and groups of the Northwest Amazon; the University of Utah and the University of Hawa’i, where I finished my PhD; the University of California in Santa Barbara where I was a post-doc fellow; and Unesco and Iphan (Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional) where I worked as a consultant for language policy issues in Brazil.

8. How do adoptees and the children of immigrants become Catalan?

Susan Frekko
Goucher College, Baltimore, United States


“Does speaking Catalan allow children whose physical appearance differs from that of other Catalans to be accepted as Catalan?  Through what processes can they become Catalan?  In which situations is their Catalan-ness questioned, and in which might they themselves choose not to be Catalan?” I sought to answer these questions in an anthropological research project that I carried out in the Barcelona area from 2011 to 2015.[1] In the project I spent time with two sets of people who are negotiating access to Catalan-ness: immigrant families and transnationally adopted children. Children from both groups in theory have access to the Catalan language, either through the school or through both the school and the home. Do both sets of children have equal access to “counting” as Catalan?

This research project grew organically out of my previous research project. In that body of work, I try to understand what it means for Catalan to have become a public language again after its exclusion from the public realm during the Franco dictatorship.  I argue that while in many ways, Catalan is now seen as a neutral public language available for all to use, many speakers still view it as a language with strong ethnonational ties that keep it from acting as the taken-for-granted language of public life.

My interest in adoption began when participants in my first study as well as other friends and acquaintances in Catalonia began to adopt children from abroad. I realized that I was witnessing a major social phenomenon, one that would permit me to continue to ponder the Catalan language.  If Catalan is a public language and Catalan-ness is an identity available to all, adoptees should have the same opportunity to “become Catalan” as children born to Catalan families. The fact that the boom in international adoption coincided with the boom in immigration—often from the same countries—allowed me to design a comparative study that would tease apart place of origin, physical appearance, and home language and culture.

Kids imagining themselves at age 30

From summer 2011 to spring 2015, I used a range of anthropological techniques for collecting data, including spending time with participants informally, observing them, asking questions and conducting formal interviews and focus groups. Here I will describe a technique that I used to compare the experiences of adopted and immigrant children. I wanted to know about young people’s experience of Catalan-ness, but this is not a question one can easily ask directly, especially of children. Instead, I devised a focus group activity in which participants drew a response to a series of questions and then explained their drawing to their peers. This approach gave children the opportunity to express themselves in two different modes, providing a richer set of data and also accounting for the needs of children who might be more comfortable in one mode than the other. For logistical reasons, for the adopted children I conducted four small focus groups of three children each.[2] For the children from immigrant families, I conducted one larger focus group with eight children. The participants ranged in age from 9 to 16.

I first carried out the activity with adopted children. The children were all from upper-middle class families from a Catalan-speaking neighborhood of a city in the Barcelona metropolitan area and they lived their lives in Catalan. I brought colored pencils, markers and blank paper to the sessions. I invited the children to draw a picture that would answer the following questions, “When you are 30 years old…What will you be like? Where will you work? Where will you live? With whom will you live?  Anything else?” I let the children draw for 15 or 20 minutes, emphasizing that artistic skills were not important. Children drew themselves in professions such as SWAT team member, banker, hotel manager, computer programmer, nuclear engineer and musician, and many drew themselves large detached single-family homes. Then I asked the children to interview each other about their imagined life stories and how they had come to this point in their lives (the imagined age 30).

Autoretrat a l’edat imaginada de 30 anys per una adolescent adoptada de la Xina. Llegenda de l’exemple 2: autoretrat actual i a l’edat imaginada de 30 anys per una adolescent immigrada del Pakistan.

Example 1: self-portrait at the imagined age 30, by an adolescent girl adopted from China

In setting up the activity, I did not mention adoption, physical difference, the Catalan language, or Catalan-ness; I wanted to see if these things would come up on their own. They did not. Not a single child mentioned his or her own adoption as an important life event (or in fact, at all). The adopted children participating in this activity were of Chinese and Moroccan origin. People of Moroccan origin and people of Catalan origin are not necessarily distinguishable by their physical appearance, but people of Chinese origin obviously are. Still, nothing in the drawings of children adopted from China marked a phenotypic difference. For example, none of them depicted themselves with almond-shaped eyes and one child drew decidedly round eyes (see example 1). Relatedly, these children took the Catalan language and their Catalan-ness for granted. Catalan is the only language that they used for the activity and the fact that they had begun life as something other than Catalans never surfaced. Of course this is unsurprising, since they had all been adopted at a young age. Only when I specifically brought up the issue of adoption or physical difference did the children mention limits on their ability to receive social recognition as Catalans—for example a child of Moroccan origin with darker skin and curlier hair than is common in Catalonia reported being called the racial epithet “Moor” by classmates.

When carrying out the activity with the children of immigrant families, I modified the technique slightly to account for the fact that I didn’t know these children as well as the adopted kids and I needed information about their current lives. I had them divide their paper down the middle. On the left they drew themselves now and on the right at age 30. The participants came from working and lower-middle class families from Morocco and Pakistan. Some of the children had been born in Barcelona, while others had immigrated.

Frekko ex 2 small-web

Example 2: self-portrait now and at the imagined age 30, by an adolescent girl immigrating from Pakistan

As with the adoptees, these participants did not mark themselves as different in their drawings, with the exception of a teenage girl who drew herself wearing a headscarf (see example 2). Their aspirations for themselves at age 30 were also quite similar; professions included included FBI/Guardia Civil, marine biologist, social worker and banker—the children did not see themselves as emulating their parents’ roles as grocery owners, taxi drivers, cleaners and housewives. Catalan was not taken for granted among these young people. Their drawings and speech showed a range of uses, with some of the kids using almost exclusively Castilian, one using exclusively in Catalan (because he had arrived two years previously and had not yet learned Castilian), and some speaking both languages comfortably.

At the end of the session, I asked about advantages and disadvantages of having parents from elsewhere. Most kids pointed to advantages, such as getting to travel and know other cultures. The only disadvantage was given by a 10-year-old girl who complained that her mother asked her to do her Castilian homework for her! When asked, the kids reported instances of racism—from being called “Moor” to being told to “go back to your country.” When asked if he felt Catalan, a 14-year-boy born in Morocco who immigrated to Spain at age five said he felt Moroccan but not Spanish or Catalan. A girl of Moroccan origin born in Catalonia said she felt Catalan and a little bit Moroccan, but not Spanish. Other kids reported feeling all three. And a teenage girl who was born in Pakistan and moved only recently to Catalonia Pakistani and not Catalan, but then added, “una mica sí perquè sé parlar el català.”

In fact, when I asked explicitly, “Què vol dir ser català?,” the teenage daughter of a Moroccan mother and a Spanish father responded, “Parlar català.” When I asked if anyone had helped them to feel Catalan, the ten-year-old Moroccan girl responded, “Sí, a l’ escola ensenyant-nos a escriure el català.” These kids clearly see becoming Catalan as a process and identify access to the Catalan language as key. These data also point to the apparent success of the public school system: the kids seem to identify it as an institution that facilitates rather than impedes their ability to belong. Also, their aspiration to middle-class professions indicates they believe (correctly or incorrectly?) that they have a chance at upward mobility. The adopted kids, on the other hand, are not “becoming Catalan.” They take the Catalan language and their Catalan-ness for granted, although they do experience instances of racism and privately some of their parents shared their worries about what will happen to their children when they leave the protection of their schools and neighborhoods and engage with the world of strangers.

What I have described here are early findings and observations. As I undertake a more detailed analysis, it will be important to pay attention to nuances related to gender, country of origin, social class and locality. My hope is that this analysis will help social scientists think about the relationship between language, difference and belonging in Catalonia and beyond.

[1] Of these children, three were non-adopted friends or siblings of the adoptees. The present analysis focuses on the responses of the nine adoptees.

[2] This research was supported by summer funding and a research leave from Goucher College, as well as a grant from the Reed Foundation’s Ruth Landes Memorial Research Fund.

7. Remembering

Joan Miralles i Monserrat
Universitat de les Illes Balears


Working with oral history is both rewarding and enjoyable, as it gives knowledge, information and good vibes. I started doing interviews in 1969 – AD, of course – with people who would now be a century and a half old. The oldest person, who was from Llubí, was 103 and she was from the tribe of the wife of Gabriel Janer Manila, the writer. This tribe thing is absolutely true and correct. We’ll be judged by tribes, already we often are. My colleague at the Institut d’Estudis Catalans and friend, Joan Argenter, asked me for an article on something connected with my work on oral history or on popular culture. Straightaway I thought it might be good for me, and quite fun, to share some of the experiences that I’ve rummaged around for in the depths of my memory for this piece. They are anecdotes, in fact, about people who are often illiterate but frequently incredibly powerful, and it seems to me that their experiences, what they’ve lived through, could be turned into a fantastic life lesson. Such people would never have read Sartre or Camus, not to mention Marx or Mao’s Little Red Book (and what’s more they couldn’t care less), because their culture has been adjusted to suit their needs, like a skin-tight stocking.

Once, in Sant Joan de Sineu, I was trying to get to interview an old priest, the former parish vicar. It was a baking hot summer day in the early 1970s. I hadn’t learnt to drive a car back then, so my youthful body had to lug around the wonderful eight-kilo Grundig TK 14  tape recorder, which I’d bought on the never-never for 100 pesetas a month. The priest lived on the outskirts of town. It was harvest time. I didn’t know exactly where he lived. Suddenly, on the edge of the town, I could just make out a long cart coming towards me, loaded with bundles, all spilling over, like in a Botero sculpture. The cart slowly trundled towards me. Astride the driver’s seat was an anthropological Mallorcan specimen, chubby, hatted, ruddy-skinned, pensively smoking his pipe, sitting on his throne. A few metres before coming alongside me I gave him a friendly greeting: “Good day to you, sir!”. From the entrails of this example of ‘pithecanthropus maioricensis’ came a primeval, cosmic, full-on “oooou!”. The bundles made the cart swing alarmingly.  “Good day, what’s up?” “Would you be able to tell me where Father Bauzà, the old vicar, lives?” “I’ll tell you. You follow the road straight on, then you take a left turn, you go downhill and you cross a little bridge. Afterwards, when you get to a barrier, go left, you’ll see a path, don’t take it, go straight on, to the right, and after fifty paces, more or less – I’m not being exact here – you’ll find the house!” “Thanks very much, sir!” I followed his directions as best I could and after walking maybe two hundred metres I could hear the sound of animals, things and people. Turning round, I caught a glimpse of the cart coming straight for me at high speed, like a war chariot, with the driver standing on top, eyes glittering, face aflame and sweating. The road was narrow and it wasn’t going to be easy to shake this thing off. Defenceless, I saw that life’s too short, with all the things I still had left to do. I felt like Verdaguer’s worm.  I was asking myself what on earth I could have said to that little man to provoke such a reaction. Suddenly, when the war chariot was four paces away from me, I could see Ben Hur standing up with the reins in his hand yelling “oooooou!”, and once again I could see how flexible that war weapon was, as it swung back and forth but with its parts rigid. It turned out that it wasn’t a war cry and the man, by using these words, couldn’t have been wiser, kinder and more generous: “I’m so sorry, sir. I got it wrong. I told you to go left and you have to go right!” Dear reader, I was stunned, shell-shocked and rooted to the spot. As God is my witness, if that man had been Marilyn Monroe I’d have given him a kiss full on the lips.

One of the most interesting families or clans in my village is that of Can Rei. One of the members of this family married a girl from Montuïri who I was able to meet and interview.​ The couple got married by proxy because the man was in Mendoza working as a doctor and she was in Mallorca. When the bride went to Argentina to join her husband, she met the poet Josep Carner on board the ship and apparently she made a huge impression on him. Carner dedicated a piece to her, “Casadeta de Montuïri” (little bride from Montuïri), which is a good example of his humour. Later on, the doctor ended up going funny in the head and became a recluse in his home town. I had the opportunity to talk with the little bride and also with a brother of the doctor who ended up crazy. The experience shows you, I think, the flexible nature of memory and how memories from our childhood and our youth stick in our subconscious, unlike other memories formed closer to the present. This man, Joan Mateu ‘Rei’, told me various stories from his childhood, one of which was that his father had given him a bicycle when he was a child. He told me this apparently trivial anecdote in the early 1970s, when he was in his nineties, so it must date back to the late 19th century. Anyway, after two days his son, who worked in the Town Hall, turned up at my house and said: “Joan, you have to come to my house urgently and place the tape in front of my father!” “What, just like that, what’s happened?” “Nothing, but he hasn’t slept for two days because he says he told you his father gave him a bicycle when he was a child and he’s worried that his brother, who’s still alive, is going to get jealous.” (!)

This story is a reminder of the scope of historic memory. I’ll tell you another. Around thirty years ago the residents of our block of houses were summoned to a meeting at Montuïri Town Hall so they could tell us about the project for a road extension that would run through the middle of our properties. There were about a dozen of us altogether. At some point in the meeting, Joan Vermell, already an old man, launched an impassioned defence of the advantages of opening up the road. Suddenly, the chap next to me, Moreno, leapt up from his chair, strode up to Vermell and blurted out: “Look here Vermell, now you’re telling us it’s a really great idea to have this road coming through! You weren’t saying that in 1932, in the Republic, when we met right here. This is no time to change sides!”

Each interview is an unknown and we can always learn and have fun. I remember very well an interview in a farmhouse in Petra, on the outskirts of town. The old, old-fashioned house was inhabited by an elderly couple who had that typical wisdom for practical stuff coupled with a pretty sceptical view of the human condition. After the interview they showed me round the house, disparaging the old and singing the praises of modern life. At some point, they led me down a dark passageway: “And now we’ll show you something we think you’ll like”. As the old man said this, he stopped, pulled a large key from the depths of his trousers and opened the door… “Look, sir, this is called a bathroom. We had it done for our granddaughter when she got married two years ago. We’ve never needed it, thank God!” I don’t need to tell you that the bathroom fittings still had the polythene from the factory on them.

Another time, in Porreres, a tall, lanky old man with a hooked nose, a reincarnation of Quevedo’s Dómine Cabra, showed me the formula for curing warts and gave me the list of the town’s Falange members during the Republic, plus a lengthy account of the Republican disembarkation on the eastern shores of Mallorca by Captain Bayo and his troops in 1936. It appeared that this guy had had both the time and the inclination to get married three times, and in fact he had enthroned all three wives, like a Holy Trinity, over the sewing machine. He went on to introduce them to me post mortem: “Look, sir, this is Maria, a good woman, 130 kilos. This other one was called Antònia. She was good too… She weighed 120 kilos at her heaviest. And this other one, the last one, Aina, she was a bit skinny but she still made 100 kilos.”

For many interviewees, the tape recorder was a completely unknown tool, but some of the old people had clearly heard about these machines that recorded your voice. In Vilafranca de Bonany I interviewed a woman who was reputed to be a witch. I remember that it was the time of year when almonds were picked and cracked open. On summer evenings in the streets of Mallorcan villages it was normal to hear the sound of hammers striking stone as people cracked almonds open and extracted the nuts. The interview meandered through increasingly tricky but fascinating terrain, and we soon got onto taboo topics, like the Spanish Civil War, smuggling, intimate hygiene, witchcraft and the evil eye. At one point, the tape ran out and the recorder I was using at the time gave a rather loud “click!” Then the woman realised that I had been recording her voice. She hadn’t realised the purpose of the machine up to that point and she began to complain, then started to issue threats: “And what was that noise. Isn’t that one of those machines that takes your voice. Watch out, lad, I’m not joking and it’ll be the worse for you, you’ll pay for this!” I quickly came up with something for maximum dramatic effect, personally I think it was a master-stroke. On hearing these words, I quickly grabbed the hammer the old woman was clutching in her right hand, pulled out the used tape, threw it in the hippy basket on the stone block and took out a clean tape from the same basket. Wearing a furious and tragic expression, I then proceeded to hammer the clean tape to pieces on the stone block. It only lasted a few seconds and before the crone realised what was happening the tape was in bits. After my performance, her attitude changed completely: “Oh, oh, oh, now what have you done, lad? That’ll have cost you a lot. These things must be very expensive, you know. Look at it, good heavens and now what? Look, look…!”. So I now went on the attack: “Now you’re saying that, good woman, after you scolded me unfairly. I wouldn’t have misused what you told me, don’t worry…”

Other times, the experience involves new sensations. Anyone working with oral history needs to be prepared to put up with anything. For example, the place and the conditions in which the interview takes place. I think things are a bit better nowadays, but in those days it was quite common to find that the tanks where all human and animal excrement ended up would be located in the same courtyard where people stayed. I remember an interview I did with a poet and musician right alongside the privy or toilet and the resulting effluent flow. To make matters worse, the guy was reciting ditties about the healthy outdoor life. The sanitary conditions our old folk were living in were sometimes woeful too. Whenever I talk about this, I always remember the experience I had once on the outskirts of town with an elderly man who lived alone with his mother, aged nearly a hundred, a fountain of wisdom and good humour, and of patience too. She had a hole in her nose from a tumour and you could see the raw flesh through it, and the wound was always being sucked by a bluebottle. Every so often the poor woman raised her hand patiently and waved the beast away, but it was futile. After a moment the insect would be back making her life a misery. Back then, I used to wear Kissinger-style black rimmed plastic spectacles, and I had to invent something so I wouldn’t have to see the damned thing. The invention was simply to position my glasses so I couldn’t see the pierced nose and the invasive fly. Another experience: In Algaida I was interviewing the oldest woman in the town. It was extremely interesting. It lasted three and a half hours. My bladder was demanding to be emptied. It was no use. Whenever I tried to get up, the old woman would grab my arm with a strength I had no idea she could muster and keep me firmly at her side.

I think I’ve said enough for now.

In Montuïri, on 23 August, eve of the festival of St. Bartholomew, surrounded by the aroma of lavender and waiting for the medieval ‘cossiers’ dance to start.

6. Etundi Etundi Ambroise

Lluís Mallart i Guimerà
Centre for Ethnology and Comparative Sociology (CNRS – Paris X)


The Spokesman of the Evuzok (Cameroon) and other Masters of the Spoken Word

Etundi Etundi Ambroise had been chosen his country’s ‘zomolo’ or spokesman. He was called e ‘dzomdzomo dzal’, the equivalent of «the nation’s most important figure». He presided over all the clan’s daytime rituals, with Akoa Ignace and Atangana Dominik as his assistants. He opened up many doors for us, teaching us many things at a time when his authority and prestige were acknowledged by all. He gave us his blessing on several occasions. In the midst of a conversation at his home about certain plants’ social and symbolic connotations, he moved us by suddenly interrupting the conversation and starting to sing, improvising lyrics in which he thanked us for our visit. Indeed, many were the occasions on which I heard him improvise a song in the middle of a speech, at rituals to reconcile family members or clans, or at farewells and funerals. He was a discrete figure who lived in simple style in a mud house in a clearing by the Kpwa.

I shall only recall him here in his capacity as a superb speaker, although, through him, I would also like to remember all the Evuzok who so impressed me with their gift of speech, particularly when talking in public. I refer here to men and women. Obviously some were better than others, but generally the Evuzok had a command of the spoken word far greater than ours, here in the Western world. They knew how to improvise without stammering or getting nervous. They knew how to be coherent, to follow the thread of conversation or discourse, and to put forward arguments when proof was needed. And, if necessary, in their demonstrations, they would recall the words of their ancestors, quoting sayings or proverbs. In important speeches, the speakers would resort to established forms of speech in which a kind of dialogue was forged between the speaker and his or her audience. The latter would respond in unison by giving short or onomatopoeic replies, which I found spectacular. To cite an example:


The most conventional wordings are shown in bold.



Etundi Etundi Ambroise

On track 15 of the CD ‘Sóc fill dels Evuzok’ (‘I am a Child of the Evuzok’)[1], I give another example. We are in Aseng-Bede. It might rain (or the recording come out badly). We are at a farewell gathering. The following day, I am going to Europe. Etundi Etundi Ambroise begins to speak, displaying all his oratory expertise, this time in a somewhat entertaining way. He is a true showman. I had heard him many times at important rituals – in the midst of a gathering, generally badly dressed, perhaps to insinuate that he did not profit financially from the position that he held (I think that was the reason), allowing one group and then another to take the floor, picking up the thread of the discussion or discourse, inviting everyone to join him in agreeing or disagreeing, defying criticism, invoking ancestors, bestowing a blessing with his saliva, anointing a body with the blood of sacrificial goats etc. He was not the only one. Other Evuzok were skilful at doing the same, men and women. Although I have seen it less frequently among the women, it is also true of them and indeed everyone. Boys and girls are taught and encouraged to speak in public on evenings when stories and folktales are told. On such occasions, it might be the women who speak more and it is perhaps then that riddles come to the fore, when the children learn the language of metonyms and metaphors.

Instrument mvet

‘Mvet’ harp-zither

Having said that, the true maestros of the spoken word are the troubadours of the ‘mvet’ harp-zither, like the ‘griots’ of other parts of Africa, western Africa. This must be why on one of my returns to Europe, I spent the whole time carrying a ‘mvet’ round with me, like the bearer of a much valued gift. It had been presented to me by Ekundu David, a man from Zok. He was not a troubadour but a craftsman. Thank you Ekundu David, although the people that I would like to thank, if possible, are Owona Apollinaire, Ngul Zamba and Amugu Pancrace, troubadours who specialize in playing the ‘mvet’. It was them that I was no doubt thinking about when in ‘Sóc fill dels Evuzok’ (‘I am a Child of the Evuzok’) I wrote:

«The epic deeds of the genre known as the mvet were sung in exceptional style by poets of a kind relatively comparable to our troubadours.
Such evenings’ aesthetic enjoyment did not necessarily reside in being able to understand the sung or recited texts. On most occasions, I only understood less than half. I found the literary language, particularly when sung, very hard to catch. I was fortunate to have a tape recorder and time afterwards to listen, transcribe and translate them. The aesthetic enjoyment was derived from the atmosphere that was created. Mvet evenings were a genuine delight. In a clearing in the open air, under a well-lit moonlight sky, the audience formed a circle around a man seated on a chair, the troubadour, dressed in a grass skirt, with a bare chest and bunch of feathers on his head. His arms and legs were hung with bells and he held a harp-zither in his hands. A mvet troubadour’s instrument is made of a slightly curved raffia palm branch with four strings made from its fibrous middle and half gourds, forming a sound box, fixed to the outside of the other side of the branch.
On such evenings, the atmosphere was filled with a certain exoticism. Everything was foreign, different, strange and incomprehensible to me: the rhythm; what were almost certainly complex chords from a series of seemingly very simple musical instruments; long semitonal tales that recounted the epic deeds of Akom Mba fighting against imaginary beings and peoples; melodies sung by the troubadour and taken up by the audience to create an exultant dialogue; the poet’s gesticulations; the expressive acoustics of his onomatopoeias, the audience’s ingenuity when it came to the tale’s heroes, the encouragement, the lamentations inserted into the story to recall the unfortunate life of the troubadour, initiated in the art of singing and playing the mvest. Books on anthropology say little of the fascination that spectacles like this can arouse. When we talk of Others, we forbid ourselves from expressing anything emotional, subjective or impression related as if the Other should only be regarded from a rational scientific perspective and as if, at no time, should we reveal our feelings or emotions ».

But these two things are not mutually exclusive.

During that same period, in another corner of the Equatorial jungle, in Gabon, close to the border between Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, a ‘mvet’ troubadour, Zwè Nguéma, sang an epic ‘mvet’ song that lasted one whole night long, recorded, transcribed and translated into French for the ‘Classiques africains’ [2]. I set out to study a specific theme of this ‘mvet’: the interludes and troubadour’s lamentations [3]. In this case, they allude to another epic: that of the troubadour, who compares his life – the life of a ‘mvet’ poet – to a struggle with the world of the spirits-of-the-dead from which he gets his inspiration.

I continue my research into this ‘mvet’. I have written a summary in Catalan, some fragments of which are shown below in English [4]:

“The people of the Engong or the Immortals are made up of thirteen big settlements. The troubadour mentions them one by one, indicating their location as you travel from the border that separates this group of people from the group known as the Mortals. Likewise, he mentions the leading figure for whom each group is known [5].
All the men of the Engong, without exception, leave their settlements to gather at the meeting point. The women leave their fields, watching as their warriors respond to the summons in all their magnificence, as if they were birds flying across the valleys, climbing the jagged high mountains, armed with spears that might touch the endless skies.
The people know the war drum only sounds with good reason. Some ask what has happened. Others comment that a brainless mortal has dared to defy Angone Endong Oyono and plans to kill him. The more levelheaded troubadour reminds them that «a tree is never disbarked on just one side», since if, on the one side, there are the Immortals, on the other the Mortals can be found.
Then, the troubadour invites them to contemplate that gathering of forces, which he describes in grandiose in-depth style.
The men, in their warrior gear, gather to form a single body. Along the way, the members of one clan or settlement meet up with those of another in response to the war drum. Some arrive like lightning or else they fill the esplanade like thundering drops of rain. The warriors proudly display their tattoos on their chests, backs, arms and legs. The so-called “Terrible Ones” arrive, the most powerful leaders, giving the impression of beings from another world. The people gaze at them, commenting on and approving of them, discussing things among one another as more warriors keep arriving.
The troubadour then begins a long soliloquy. The audience follows it, entering into dialogue with him. There is an exchange of sentiments. The wooden drums sound. The troubadour says that singing a mvet is like dying.
People continue to arrive. Medang arrives, making a spectacle of separating the clans when they argue. The voice of Mfule Engbang, a member of one of the three big families that make up the Engong, can be heard from the big river that acts as a frontier between the Immortals’ country and that of the Mortals. The troubadour describes this important figure. His long body swings from one side to another; his neck moves like a water snake; the pupils of his eyes look like those of a curved yellow-beaked hornbill. He is the strong man of his village, able to carry out work in a large piece of jungle all on his own. He arrives, passes in front of everyone and stops, he is here.
Now it is the turn of Otuang Mba, another leading figure from the country of the Immortals. He is an old man with a long white beard. He is bedecked with necklaces made of leopard’s teeth round his neck, forehead and ears. When he moves his head to one side or the other, the teeth jangle …kpazang, kpazang...
Suddenly the startled hens begin to cluck behind the houses. The lambs flee. The hairs on Otuang’s chest stand up. The earth trembles. A big din can be heard and the people jump. The elephant-contraption sounds loudly. The goats take fright. It is Angone Endong, known as «The iron bellows that smelt the iron » and «The odzam mammal from the rainy season that has thousands of lairs». He arrives with his elephant-contraption. Everyone draws near to see the great war machine arrive. The warriors form in three rows, raising their swords and piston-driven guns. Angone Endong says all of them must fear him, whether they are relatives on his mother or father’s side. And to ensure this, he lunges at them with his contraption. They dodge him and ring a magic bell that raises a big dust cloud. But the elephant-contraption comes at them once again. Then Elang Suga calls Mone Ebo and, with a tremendous leap, the latter lands in front of the elephant-contraption. He takes out his long, powerful, flexible sword and, as if it were a whip, he encircles and immobilizes it. Angone Endong gets out of the machine. «He is one of our leaders», exclaim the Endong people and silence falls.
Akoma Mba, the head of all the Immortals, stirs in his locally made bed like a wild beast. He gets up. He opens the door and gazes at all those people. Akoma Mba is bald with huge ears. He regards the throng of people and instructs them to wake up Engbang Ondo, the person responsible for keeping an eye on everything that happens in Engong, and to get him out of his house.
Everyone wants to see him come out of his house. His wife takes it as a joke, Akoma Mba insists. Then Akoma Mba’s order is transmitted from mouth to mouth until it reaches Nseng Ondo, a girl of outstanding beauty, with a long face, full cheeks and slender neck. «Women are beautiful in many ways», says the troubadour. In Nseng Ondo’s case, her skin is shiny like palm oil or the fruit of the adzab tree and of a colour like the branches of the raffia palm. She is a woman whose cheeks grow round when she smiles, and whose smile and words become one and the same when she talks. Her calves are big, as are her thighs. She has round knees like a fist, a navel that sticks out of her belly. She is a little shy and seems to be afraid of the men. She shines like the sun. She is more beautiful than anyone else and what makes her more beautiful than the other women is the luminous crevice that separates her right breast from her left one: a clear line like the vein of a banana leaf. Her hair shines so much that you might think she polishes her body with the rough leaves of a fig tree.
They ask her to wake up Engbang Ondo and to tell him that Akoma Mba has summoned him. She goes into his room. She pulls his legs, she touches his thighs, she shakes him but Engbang Ondo does not react. She pulls his legs again; she touches his thighs again, she takes him by the waist and shakes him again, saying: «I don’t like you when you are smug or play about with me. I know you are awake and just pretending to be asleep…» And she adds: «Some say you are cruel, bad, brave, astute and a liar; others say no one is better than you. I, on the other hand, find you feeble. How can you spend all day sleeping? Can’t you hear that Akoma Mba has summoned you to transmit great news to our country, that the wooden drums are sounding all around and that all the men are here?» Engbang Ondo takes a big leap and, all at once, he can be seen standing on the roof of Akoma Mba’s house, dressed in his warrior’s clothes with a bag full of magical objects under his arms. The men of the Engong watch open mouthed, without saying a word. He says: «Why did you call me?»
At this point, the troubadour embarks on a long soliloquy. The audience follows him and enters into dialogue with him. They exchange sentiments. The wooden drums sound. The troubadour recalls the more serious moments of his initiation and how he planned to reject the precious art of singing mvets….”

With this extract of this ‘mvet’ song that I am studying, I would like to pay tribute to these maestros of the spoken word, who are capable of spending a whole night singing and reciting the marvellous adventures of their heroes and entertaining their audiences [6].



1. Published by La Campana (2004, 3rd edition).
2. A ‘mvet’ by Zwè Nguéma. ‘Chant épique fang recueille par Herbert Pepper réédité par Paul et Paule de Wolf (Armand Colin, 1972)’.
3. Les interludes du mvet de Zwè Nguéma” in ‘Journal des Africanistes’, 79-1, p. 209-240.
4. A summary of the initial study, published electronically by URV Press (Servei de Publicacions de la Universidad Rovira i Virgili): ‘Un cant epic africà. Una crítica al poder absolut’ (2014).
5. The fragments written in normal print have been summarized, whereas those in italics have been translated more literally.
6. Oral archives. Lluis Mallart Guimerà Collection, Bibliothèque Enric de Dampierre, Université Paris X (Nanterre). CD 2.3.1. – 2.3.7. (troubadours: Owona, Amugu, Bikoe, Baana and Ngal Zamba).

5. Why save endangered languages, and what for?

Julia Sallabank
Endangered Languages Academic Programme, SOAS, University of London


My interest in language endangerment and revitalisation is long-standing. Ever since I was very young I have been fascinated by Guernesiais (“Guernsey Norman French”),  the indigenous language of Guernsey (in the Channel Islands between England and France), which I consider to be my “heritage language” because my mother comes from the island and my father spent some of his formative years there. I always wanted to learn it, but it was not until the age of 40 that I had the opportunity. I had always assumed that the aim of learning or knowing a language is to use it as much as possible, but I’ve recently found that this is not the case for everyone.

Even when I was a teenager I was aware that the number of speakers of Guernesiais was declining and that they mainly belonged to the older generations. I watched displays of traditional-style dancing and wondered why there were no young people taking part, whereas just across the water in Brittany, Breton dancing and ‘fest-noz’ (night festivals) were highly popular among young people in their late teens and early twenties. At the time of writing (2015) there are thought to be only five people under the age of 60 who are capable of holding a sustained, impromptu conversation in Guernesiais. So, I wondered, aren’t young people interested in traditional language and culture? Or is there some other reason why these are not being passed on effectively?

From an early age I was also aware that Guernesiais (and its speakers) were regarded with affection, but also with ridicule. It became clear that attitudes play a key role in the maintenance and loss of languages. As with many other minority vernaculars, until the last 30 years or so Guernesiais was seen as “not useful” compared to French or English, and even as an impediment to social advancement. Nevertheless, by the end of the twentieth century it became clear from anecdotal reports and the media that attitudes towards Guernesiais were becoming increasingly positive. I became interested in how attitudes can change, and in ways of “saving” endangered languages.

Much of the coverage of language endangerment, in both the media and in academic literature, has been fairly pessimistic in that it highlights “language death” and the “threat” to linguistic diversity, rather than on the numerous language revitalisation movements that have arisen in the last few decades. Media coverage also often focuses on the “last speakers” of a language. Both of these tendencies reinforce the impression that endangered languages belong to the past and there is “no hope” for the many small languages of the world. An interesting recent newspaper article, which seems to follow these trends but then challenges them, is “A Loss for Words: Can a dying language be saved?” by Judith Thurman, published in the New Yorker on March 30th, 2015. The “last speaker” that Thurman starts off by interviewing is aged  just 21, and the wide-ranging discussion is upbeat, focusing on indigenous people’s reasons for wanting to keep their languages alive and some examples of success stories.

I want to focus on efforts to raise awareness of language endangerment and to challenge, even reverse it, looking at the example of Guernesiais. I also want to look at why people want to maintain, learn and revitalise endangered languages, and what it means to “save a language”: particularly what it means to the people involved. All too often linguists forget that languages are not just patterns of words but are spoken by people: so it’s important to investigate people’s reactions to language loss, and their motivations for trying to reverse it.

The term ‘language policy’ is often used to refer to such reactions, especially at governmental level. But individuals and families also have language policies, although they are often not overt or conscious ones. For example, several people have told me how when Guernesiais speakers married non-speakers, English tended to become the family language. They explained that they wanted to avoid a situation where one parent felt left out of the conversation. But where one language has much lower social status than the other, societal attitudes must surely play a role in the choice of family language. One speaker recounted: ‘When I was little it [Guernesiais] was the first language that I learnt and my mother took a lot of stick for allowing me … it was early 50s, the war was over and so on and it wasn’t fashionable at the time. A lot of the other mothers [said]: “oh gosh you know you’re letting her speak patois and when she goes to school she won’t be able to learn – she’ll be a dunce” and all the rest of it.’

The influence of educational institutions on language attitudes and practices cannot be underestimated. Schools reinforced the belief that Guernesiais was merely a peasant dialect, fit only for illiterates. Many older people report that children who could not speak English had unhappy experiences at school, so parents started speaking English in the home to prepare and protect their children. These kinds of comments  are common in endangered language contexts:

‘My younger brother and sister were smacked at school for speaking Guernesiais – even in the playground.’

‘My daughters understand everything but they don’t want to speak it – because their friends made fun of them at school.’

‘I was put down at school for being from the country and didn’t admit to speaking Guernsey French’.

Because schools play such a major role in reinforcing the low status of minority languages, revitalisation movements often try to reverse this by promoting languages through the school system. Another reason is because language campaigners see that the future of the language is with young people. They recognise that the language is no longer being learnt in the home, and hope that school- teaching will enable the language to “skip a generation”: that the children will go on to speak it with their own children.

There is a wide range of ways in which endangered languages can be included in formal education.  In the most effective cases, such as Welsh in the UK or Māori-medium schools in New Zealand, all subjects are taught through the language (‘immersion’ teaching). Then there is bilingual education, with varying proportions of languages. In other cases, minority  languages are taught as school subjects. The minimum option (like in Jersey and Guernsey)  is extra-curricular “language clubs” taught by volunteer teachers.  All of these options require varying amounts of resources for teacher training, materials, etc. if they are to be done effectively.

Until 2007 there was little or no official support for Guernesiais, and most language support activities are still run by voluntary groups and individuals. The activities focus on two main areas: performance in cultural festivals and extra-curricular lessons for children. Volunteers go to schools once a week to run half-hour extra-curricular sessions in lunch hours or after school. These lessons are popular and have spread to eight out of 14 primary schools (public and private). The big problem with this kind of lesson, however, is that it provides too little, not often enough. The American Army Language School estimates that 1300 hours’ exposure to another language is necessary for fluent acquisition, even if the teaching is of high quality. It is clear that neither the quality nor quality requirements are being met in Guernsey: with 30 minutes per week, for a maximum of 40 school weeks a year, it would take at least 50 years to produce fluent learners. So far there is no evidence that any of the learners have progressed beyond beginner level.

In Guernsey, as in many other places, school-based teaching has not led to widespread use of an endangered language; indeed, it is often found that a focus on schools tends to replace home-based learning. People find it easier to campaign to change the school curriculum than to change their own and their neighbours’ behaviour.

Voluntary and charitable work is a strong tradition in Guernsey, but it also has disadvantages:  in the extracurricular lessons there is no syllabus, no teacher training, little coordination and no accountability. Another potential problem is that the lessons take up most of the available time and energy of the relatively small circle of people involved in language-related activities, which may have led to a decrease in other activities. As the volunteer teachers are mostly retired, there is concern that there are not enough proficient younger adults to take over in the future. It could therefore be argued that it should be a priority to increase the number of younger adult proficient speakers. There are evening and lunchtime adult Guernesiais classes available, but they currently extend no higher than elementary level. Language learning can also be carried out in less formal and more community-based ways, e.g. mentoring or buddying schemes. Recent examples in Guernsey have included pairing Guernesiais speakers with songwriters for a song project which culminated in a concert, and ‘language speed-dating in the pub’ sessions.

The main annual language event in Guernsey is the “Guernsey-French” section of the Eisteddfod, a general cultural competition named after the Welsh festival. This is now one of the few opportunities to speak and hear Guernesiais publicly. It includes recitations of poems, short stories and Bible readings, songs, sketches and plays, and has classes for beginners, intermediate and fluent speakers. The number of schoolchildren taking part has increased hugely in the last ten years; while the increase in participation from both children and their parents in the audience is to be welcomed, due to space restrictions it has become necessary to hold the children’s section on a separate evening, which has reduced interaction between older speakers and young learners. In the adult sections, participants and audience members welcome the opportunity to celebrate what they see as their traditional culture. Many participants dress up in old-fashioned clothes (not necessarily traditional dress) and there is a strong feeling of nostalgia, in the words of the 2011 adjudicator, for “the language of our youth … of our grandfathers”.

Although cultural festivals are an important expression of linguistic pride and identity, and provide an opportunity to meet speakers and to use the language during the event, the focus is on linguistic identity as display rather than on language as a living part of everyday life; even people who win prizes for their recitations cannot necessarily hold a conversation in Guernesiais. As more non-speakers enter who have learnt set pieces without much other knowledge of the language, judges “help” them by commenting in English, and so the Guernesiais environment is diluted.

This leads to the question of what it means to “save a language”. Local languages and dialects are often called “vernaculars”, which  means the language spoken by ordinary people (often contrasted with formal written languages). But highly endangered languages are usually no longer spoken in everyday life, and no longer passed on to children in the family. Linguists are increasingly referring to them as “post-vernacular languages”, which also opens up a range of other possible motivations for using a language, where communication is no longer the primary purpose. In this context, a major focus for language-related activities is the performing arts, which as mentioned earlier, do not necessarily require language fluency.

Returning to attitudes, the prestige of Guernesiais is growing, and it is generally now seen as a valuable part of island heritage. For example, local cheese, beer, coffee, etc. are given local-language names or slogans. Similarly, on the neighbouring island of Jersey, the government web page devoted to its indigenous language, Jèrriais, describes it as “precious because it is a treasury of information about the past as well as a symbol of Jersey’s independent identity in the present and something of value to pass on to the future”.

This reason for “saving” endangered languages is for their symbolic value as markers of local identity rather than for communicative purposes. It may be no coincidence that the main language-related activities in both Jersey and Guernsey, extra-curricular language lessons and language festivals are also, for all intents and purposes, also symbolic in nature. This is not necessarily a conscious decision, and people involved may sincerely believe that they are “doing something to save our language”. Nevertheless, such activities are unlikely to lead to Guernesiais becoming a primary language of socialisation again. Indeed, in an interview in the ‘Guernsey Press’ in 2004, Jonathon Le Tocq, a Guernesiais-speaking member of the island parliament who promoted the extra-curricular lessons (and who was elected Chief Minister in 2014), said: “I’m under no illusion that it’ll become our business language, but it is a vital part of our culture”.

Are greetings and symbolic phrases enough to “save a language”? They are a common feature of language revitalisation movements in Australia, where some indigenous languages are being pieced together from fragmentary records after not being used for up to 200 years. In such cases, any use is more than none. But Guernesiais still has native speakers.

It is important to learn from the experiences of language revitalisation in other places.  A book published in 1971 to inspire supporters of Celtic languages stressed that “A language cannot be saved by singing a few songs or having a word printed on a postage stamp. It cannot even be saved by getting “official status” for it, or by getting it taught in schools. It is saved by its use …”. The Māori Language Commission in New Zealand issued guidelines in 2007 stating that what they call “regenerating” a language involves:

(a) raising people’s awareness of language and language issues,

(b) having positive attitudes towards and valuing a language,

(c) learning the language,

(d) continuously developing the language, and

(e) using the language.


This illustrates the vital importance of thinking about why we want to save our endangered languages and what we want them for, before they slip into minimal symbolism without our noticing.

The next few decades will be a challenging period for highly endangered small languages like Guernesiais and Jèrriais, as practically all the traditional native speakers pass away. With the foresight to record them while we still can, and a core of committed language enthusiasts to keep them going, local languages might be retained and re-established as a core value: hopefully not only as symbols but as an accepted part of everyday language use.