Opinion, reflections and information

33. Every Rose Has Its Thorns: Poetics and Linguistic Heritage

Folklore Studies, University of Helsinki


Poetics is an often-overlooked part of linguistic heritage, and getting a handle on it in today’s complex societies is becoming increasingly difficult. Romantic views so popular in the nineteenth century saw language as emblematic of both ethnic or national  identity and the corresponding historical or rural culture that united a society through a common heritage. The idea of culture and ethnic/national identity being homogeneously linked to a particular language remains commonplace, although it does not seem to match up with realities of most cities and the dynamic virtual arenas of the internet. I live on a quiet street in Helsinki, Finland, a country with two rather than one national language (Finnish and Swedish). Like so many mayor European cities, countless languages can be heard on the way to work in the morning. My neighbourhood is considered among the most linguistically diverse: at the elementary school down the street, tens of different mother tongues are found among the students. I recall my surprise when realizing that in my daughter’s second grade class (at a different school), only a quarter of the students had a national language as their mother tongue. This level of linguistic diversity is sometimes called ‘superdiversity’, which seems to be becoming a norm in major cities, but for many of us, this is just daily life. My wife and I are both immigrants who met in Finland with three (non-national) mother tongues between us. In our family, we speak three languages, sometimes in the same sentence: our daughters both speak the respective mother tongue that my wife and I use with them, but Finnish is now their strongest language. Of course, a shared language of communication is important for the functioning of a society, but a plurality of languages can also operate as part of a society and its identity, as well as offering resources for creativity with potential to stimulate language vitality and impact its trajectory of evolution.

Poetry tends to be seen as the highest form of language. This is because, in poetry, language transcends the mechanics of lexicon and grammar, allowing it to blossom with ideals of ordered arrangements of form, texture and musicality. Poetry is thus set apart from everyday speech like the emboldened colour of a rose’s bloom amid a thicket of dark leaves, thorns, and the cacophonous tangles of twisted vines from which it blossoms. And like that rose’s bloom, the ideals of poetics are bound to the language from which they grow. There is truth to the saying that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, but beauty in poetics is also linked to language, and especially to speech communities, in which we learn to recognize certain things as opposed to others that make something ‘poetry’ or at least ‘poetic’. Poetics depends on a sense of language internalized through uses of the language itself, a sense that even native speakers can lack, and it can be especially challenging to learn for a non-native speaker. Poetics –not just individual poems or a particular tradition of poetry– is a remarkably subtle and easily overlooked part of linguistic heritage.

But what makes something poetry or poetic? Abstractly speaking, poetry is customarily distinguished from other uses of language by organization in verses rather than simply in clauses and sentences according to content or function. Versification occurs when organizing principles of form and phraseology are given precedence over more common principles of syntax and prosody in speaking and writing. This can be done with formalized meter, sound patterning like rhyme or alliteration, or parallelism (see further Fabb 2015). Rhythms may be flexible and vary, particularly in so-called free verse, but a poem is characterized by versification of a whole text, whether or not editors organize it as verses on a printed page. When these features or uses of language occur only in some parts of a text but not others, we can recognize them as poetic, such as uses of metaphor or a rhythmically organized description in a novel or an advertisement. However, the key remains the perception of poetics when language is used.

Poetics build on sounds and other features of words that are perceivable to speakers and thus are linked to the particular language, but how poetic devices are perceived or whether they are noticed as poetic at all is something that is internalized or learned. For example, alliteration, the recurrence of the same sound at the beginning of words or stressed syllables, easily passes unnoticed by native English speakers, and is mainly used in contexts like advertising, titles and names. Speakers may sense it as a subtle aesthetic texture, but alliteration is not something associated with organizing language as poetry. Of course, alliteration’s prominent and persistent practice penetrates into perception, but its presence doesn’t make poetry or seem particularly poetic: people will probably perceive it as protusive, peculiar and perhaps even painful. In English poetic creation, rhyme marks inspiration with a smoother collocation in sounds’ organization than the rougher irritation of ongoing alliteration, so that attenuation to its patterned operation, gives, by association, a subtle inebriation in the rising anticipation of an inevitable deviation since all rhymes must end. Both alliteration and rhyme can be made salient, but their perception is within frameworks of the language’s poetics or a community’s sense of poetics.

If we were to jump back a thousand years or so, the situation in English would be reversed: alliteration was central to versification in Old English, as exemplified by the epic Beowulf, and rhyme was the feature with a more limited range of uses. Since that time, of course, the language underwent transformative changes. English is seen as a dominant language today, making it easy to forget its distinctive roots as a bastard child of Old English and Norman French, like a creole produced by the medieval colonization of the Norman Conquest. But the rise of rhyme is not simply a function of language change. Rhyme seems to have spread through Europe from language to language with new forms of poetry that were valorised, gradually becoming a general principle in local vernacular poetics. Finnic languages, where alliteration was a primary poetic principle, seem to have initially resisted rhyme: it appears that medieval rhymed ballads were initially recomposed into alliterative verse rather than immediately adopting the rhymed form (Kuusi, Bosley & Branch 1977: 56–57). We may appreciate poetry individually and subjectively, but such appreciation is normally dependent on shared (or at least overlapping) senses of poetics. This is particularly evident for oral poetry: it circulates through active reproduction by different people rather than as static text codified through writing, so shared frames of reference are essential or poetry will simply not be reperformed.

The spread of forms of expression from language to language and from culture to culture has probably been happening since there were such forms to spread, a process particularly familiar today through everything from the novel to rap music. When a word is borrowed, sooner or later it inevitably gets adapted into the receiving language’s sounds and structures. For example, Finnish distinguishes between long and short vowels, so English yes becomes Finnish jees, while English verbs won’t work in Finnish without an ending, so to scan becomes skannata. Poetics work in more or less the same way, except that, rather than a phonology, we have what can be described as a poetic ecology. It is practical to speak in generalizations about poetics of a language, but those poetics are always linked to different things that people do with language in verse, and the way poetics are used might be quite different in a ballad than in a lullaby or a sonnet. A poetic ecology is comprised of all of the different types of poetic forms and their distribution across genres and contexts of use. Thus, an earlier Finnish poetic ecology was dominated by alliteration to such an extent that it was initially difficult for rhymed poetry to find a place, but the ecology gradually changed as rhyme began to be adopted for use in one genre, and then another, and another after that. Different poetic devices are then understood and interpreted within that ecology. The adaptation of freestyle rap into Finnish involved the assimilation of a form of rhymed versification with conventions for how to organize words and syllables in relation to beats. However, rather than the type of end-rhyme customary in English, Finnish rap employs what is called systematic vowel rhyme, which is found already in forms of pre-modern Finnish oral poetry. In this type of rhyme, a series of vowels are used in the same order although the consonants may vary, as in the series läppäni ässämmis bäkkäril, and ‘multi-rhymes’, rhymes of four or more syllables, are particularly esteemed, as in jätkä vielä – bätläät siellä or tiputusta – vitut susta – kidutusta (Sykäri 2017: 140). How rhythms of language relate to the beat also had to adapt, not least because Finnish has much longer words than English and far fewer particles such as articles (a, the) or prepositions (to, from) – the language is very different.

On the surface, this may just seem like a few formal differences that need to be recognized for the poetry to be appreciated, but its significance runs much deeper. When I first heard Finnish rap in 2000, I couldn’t really appreciate it because I listened to it through the wrong poetics. My ‘feel’ for rap was rooted in hearing people rap and talk about what was ‘good’ and ‘bad’ while I was growing up in an American inner-city during the 1980s, back in the days when rap was more on the street than on the radio. Through that lens, I simply didn’t ‘hear’ läppäni and ässämmis as rhyming and Finnish multi-rhymes were completely off my radar, not to mention rhythms. This can be read as an anecdote about problems of interpreting poetry in one language through the poetics of another. However, the significance changes if we turn attention from the encounter to the differences in the poetics of a genre. When rap moves into a new language, it is not simply transplanted unchanged: if it is to continue there, it evolves into something sustainable, an evolution driven by the creativity of those adapting it.

Rather than simply one language and culture influencing a second, these processes occur today within dynamic, multilingual poetic ecologies. In a city like Helsinki, poetic principles like vowel rhyme may be particularly linked to the poetic heritage of Finnish language, but youths with diverse and potentially multiple mother tongues live in rich and flourishing poetic ecologies. They are continuously internalizing and negotiating shared principles of poetics within their multilingual communities. When speaking of a heritage of poetics, language or anything else, we tend to refer to or create ideal and static images of the past that we can connect with the present, with the implication that they are important to preserve it for the future. Such constructions of heritage normally emerge within Romanticism’s mythology of one language and one culture per nation or ethnicity, segregating diversity and devaluing what is other. The multilingualism, which will be the heritage of so many children today, becomes marginalized. More significantly, the valorization of heritage easily produces a competition between ossified images of what culture ‘should be’ and the creativity of innovation that both expresses and stimulates vitality, making inherited culture current through change. Much as change in a language is always built on continuities, so too is change in poetics. The spread of new forms of versifying such as rap attest to the vitality of the languages in which they become used, even as the new poetic form impacts the broader poetic ecology of the particular language. These impacts are perhaps most pronounced and dynamic in multilingual environments where different languages offer complementary and competing resources, facilitating and stimulating creativity in the negotiation of shared frames of reference across communities.

Works Cited

Fabb, Nigel. 2015. What is Poetry? – Language and Memory in the Poems of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kuusi, Matti, Keith Bosley & Michael Branch (eds. & trans.). 1977. Finnish Folk Poetry – Epic: An Anthology in Finnish and English. Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society.

Venla Sykäri. 2017. “Beginning from the End: Strategies of Composition in Lyrical Improvisation with End Rhyme”. Oral Tradition , 31(1): 123–154.

32. Frisian – Basque – multilingualism

Durk Gorter1,2

  1. Ikerbasque, Basque Foundation for Science
  2. University of the Basque Country, UPV/EHU


Multilingualism comes with many attributes and has a lot of aspects. In this note, two European minority languages, Frisian and Basque, are briefly compared in order to show how they are historically embedded in a complex multilingual context.

Frisian is mainly spoken in the land of the black-and-white cows with the same name as the language and its inhabitants. About half of the population of the province of Friesland in the Netherlands, usually speaks Frisian at home, although almost all of its 640.000 inhabitants can speak Dutch, the socially dominant language. In traditional macro-sociolinguistic terms this could be characterized as a ´bilingual province´. However, the label ´bilingual´ does no justice to far more complex language practices of its inhabitants. Historically, various language varieties have been used in some towns, on its islands and in specific areas. In the capital Leeuwarden-Ljouwert, probably in the 16th century, a variety emerged called Town Frisian (Stedfrysk / Stadsfries) due to political and economic changes leading to intensified daily contact between speakers of Frisian and Dutch. Over time a common variety developed which can also be found in at least six other Frisian towns. Furthermore, different varieties are used on three of the four Frisian Islands. There are speakers in northern, eastern and south-eastern parts of the province who use still other varieties, some related to Low-Saxon.

The foregoing is a succinct, almost classic description of ´the´ language situation in Friesland, but even if all the other varieties are taken into consideration, the approach is still based on separate languages and their distribution in society. The description remains incomplete and is founded mainly on assumptions of monolingual speakers in specific homogeneous geographic locations, who as a rule would use only one variety among each other, or, at most, two in contact with others. This view, of course, does not do justice to the multilingual complexity and language diversity of the area. For example, Latin played a role as language of the church (less so after the Reformation) and of academia (less after the 19th century). Also ´German´, including varieties of Low German, played a role due to groups of seasonal labourers, mainly from Westphalia, who came during the summers from the 17th century onwards. Today immigrants, expats, refugees and others come from all over the world and bring their languages with them: probably over a 100 named languages are spoken on the territory. English is an important language among migrants and visitors, but English is also common as a second or third language. In surveys over 90% of the population reported that they can have a conversation in English. The old image of a bilingual region where Frisian and Dutch are spoken needs to be replaced by an image of a multilingual assemblage in a geographic, socio-economic and political area where speakers use multilingual repertoires and where communication takes place in numerous languages.

In their daily lives, however, most people will be confronted, most of the time, with Dutch, because it is socially dominant. English needs to be added, a language that cannot be avoided because of its strong presence in old and new media, in the linguistic landscapes of public spaces and in education. Frisian will be included in the daily mixture for about half of the population. The minority language has shown a remarkable tenacity, notwithstanding predictions of rapid language loss. Other languages play a role in the lives of relatively few people. For example, the secondary school teacher of Latin will have a deep daily involvement with a language that 99.9% of the population rarely is confronted with. Even though people may see Latin words when reading their medical record, visiting the botanical garden, or during their school days, probably most speakers will not recognize loanwords of Latin origin incorporated in their vocabulary. German and French used to be characterized as ´modern foreign languages´, a designation that now sounds old-fashioned, although the two languages are still taught as a subject to a large proportion of the secondary school students. Some groups with a stronger presence in society have Turkish, Moroccan, Chinese or Antillean origins. They are not only speakers of Turkish Arabic, Mandarin, or Papiamentu, but also of Kurdish, Berber, Cantonese or Spanish. For them their languages are crucial for communication in local and global (!) networks, but in Frisian society-at-large or in education those languages hardly play a role. Other languages are spoken inside a handful of households and even if those varieties may occasionally be overheard in public space, they play an insignificant role at a societal level.

Basque is the oldest language in Europe with unknown origins, as many of its speakers are eager to inform. Basque is respected and renowned among linguists because of its ´exotic characteristics´ and classified as an ´isolate´, because it has no demonstrable genetic relationship to any Indo-European language. Among language policy makers and specialists in minority languages, Basque is known for its resilience and the remarkable revitalization that has taken place over the last 40 years. The label Basque is also known to a larger public because the name of the language coincides with the name for the people, for the region, and for many things originating there. The government recognizes Basque and Spanish both as official languages, but to characterize the region as just ´bilingual´ does not do justice to the complexity of the language mosaic. The many dialectal varieties of Basque have been spoken in the territory since time immemorial and the standardized version, Euskara Batua, was only created in the 1960s. After Basque declined in the 19th and 20th century due to economic developments and a 40 year political dictatorship, the minority language has regained some ground during the last decades of the 20th century. It has advanced literally, because Basque is now taught and used again in geographic areas where it was (almost completely) lost for a long time. It has also made progress figuratively, because the language has gradually reconquered the education system to such an extent that today over 80% of newly registered children in pre-primary school go to the Basque medium model. However, also Basque is part of a wider configuration of languages, in which Castilian (or Spanish) plays a hegemonic role. Not just that Spanish has the largest number of speakers and is used by a majority of the inhabitants of the Basque lands, but also because Spanish continues to dominate the public sphere in almost any domain of social life. However, Basque is making some headway due to a robust language policy. Today Basque is held in high esteem and treated with profound respect by many. Still, Basque is the underdog and there is a strong awareness of a continuous struggle against Spanish, which is taken for granted and has a nearly invincible position.

During industrialization in the 20th century immigrants from other parts of Spain, such as Andalucía, brought their varieties of Spanish; more recently the largest groups of immigrants come from Latin-American adding several other varieties. Today newly arrived immigrants, refugees and expats come from many different parts of the world, mainly from Africa and Europe and obviously, they take the language(s) first learned with them. Nowadays English gradually makes inroads into the schools and into Basque society, as almost anywhere else in the world. English has high social prestige and becomes a marketable product: diplomas for achieving a level in English are sold to parents as a valuable addition to the CV of their children. In a way similar to Friesland, one can count over a 100 different languages that are spoken in the Basque Country. However, also here most people will be confronted with a rather limited number of languages in their everyday lives. Anywhere in the Basque Country people are exposed to varieties of Basque and Spanish and increasingly so English. Other languages may only be seen here and there in the linguistic landscape, for example, Chinese on shops and restaurants in the cities and towns. Other varieties are probably overheard very little as they are used by relatively small numbers of speakers.

Similarities and differences

Ideas about languages and language groups have been revised in recent years as sociolinguistics has taken a ´multilingual turn´. An idealized vision would possibly like to conceive of Friesland as historically only speaking Frisian and the Basque Country as just speaking Basque. Even if such monolingual assumptions seem outdated and can easily be refuted, they are sometimes persistent. As shown above, the designation ´bilingual´ is also inaccurate, but then the issue is how can the multilinguality of these two European areas be characterized? Probably, these language constellations with over a hundred languages can be portrayed as ´superdiverse´. In the linguistic landscapes in public spaces in both regions various language or at least traces of them, can be observed. It is known that the boundaries between languages are more fuzzy and fluid than usually thought. In the case of Frisian and Dutch, two closely related Germanic languages, distinguishing the two is often impossible, but also in the case of Basque and Spanish, languages said to have a substantial linguistic distance, differentiating them can be challenging. Speakers of Frisian and Basque can be said to ´translanguage´ as they move seemingly effortless between their various languages. Legislation and language policies concentrate on measures to support revitalization of the minority language. In the case of Frisian, a modest and relatively weak set of measures is in place, whereas the policies developed for Basque are much broader and far more engaging and dynamic. In both cases, education is seen as of utmost importance, but desired language practices of students are not guaranteed as an outcome. In general terms, a hierarchical order between the languages relates to differences in social and political power and socio-economic prestige.

In the end, an image of a rich multilingual assemblage emerges both in Friesland and in the Basque Country, because languages are used in dynamic, ever changing constellations. In research studies a focus on multilingualism can bring about new insights about multilingual speakers in their own right, about their linguistic repertoires and about practices that depend on historically evolving social contexts.

Suggestions for further reading:

Cenoz, J. & Gorter, D. (2017). Minority languages and sustainable translanguaging: threat or opportunity? Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 38:10, 901-912, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2017.1284855

Cenoz, J., & Gorter, D. (2014). Focus on multilingualism as an approach in educational contexts. In A.Blackledge & A.Creese (Eds.) Heteroglossia as practice and pedagogy (pp. 239-254). Springer, Dordrecht. DOI: 10.1007/978-94-007-7856-6_13

Gorter, D., & Cenoz, J. (2011). Multilingual education for European minority languages: the Basque Country and Friesland. International Review of Education57(5-6), 651-666. DOI: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11159-011-9248-2

Gorter, D., & Cenoz, J. (2017). Language education policy and multilingual assessment. Language and Education31(3), 231-248. DOI: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09500782.2016.1261892

Website: www.ehu.eus/multilingualism

Video: “Let’s make the most of multilingualism” with some of our ideas can be found here:

31. Language Loss and Language Ideology in the Sepik Region of Papua New Guinea

William A. Foley
University of Sydney


A men’s cult House with marks of the tòtems from a village of the Sepik River basin


The Sepik region of Papua New Guinea is unquestionably the most complex and diversified area linguistically in the world. In an area of a hundred thousand square kilometres or roughly the size of the US state of Kentucky (ranked 37th by size in the United States) are spoken over a hundred languages belonging to sixteen different language families, and all of these distinct on the order of Indo-European or Austronesian. There is a number of causes of this stupendous diversity, which I cannot go into here (see Foley 2017), but what is relevant for our purposes is that this remarkable heterogeneity is now greatly in jeopardy, as nearly all of the languages spoken in the region are gravely threatened and many not being passed onto children. Transmission for many ceased as far back as the 1980s and for some, like Kopar spoken at the mouth of the Sepik River, even earlier, and this process has been accelerating, so that languages that seemed vital in the 1990s are now exhibiting tell tale signs of language shift. And is what perhaps even more remarkable is that these languages are not being threatened and supplanted by a major metropolitan or national language like English, Chinese, Indonesian, French, Spanish or Portuguese, which is what is happening elsewhere in the world, but by what was originally a trade language, a pidgin which has creolised, Tok Pisin, or New Guinea Pidgin English. What was a showcase of linguistic efflorescence in the world is rapidly become one of monolingualism and linguistic scarcity, and surprisingly, as we shall see, some of the same social forces that contributed to the rise of the former are at work now in the development of the latter.

To understand this we need to understand the sociocultural patterns of the peoples of the Sepik region and the beliefs about language, that is, linguistic ideology, that arise from those. Consider how Newton (1975:197) profiles the social structure of communities there: ‘the result of groups of people, under pressures of fighting, famine, or for other reasons, having moved about freely and regrouped as they could. Consequently no village is a monolithic unit. It is, rather, a more or less stable congeries of clans having closer ties with each other than with those of other places.’ Each Sepik village is the result of numerous immigrations, and its clan structure, a recapitulation, albeit, as we shall see, a typically mythologized one, of the migration history. Although each individual village community is a unique amalgam of immigrant groups, due to its individual migration history, the overall effect of this pervasive pattern of population migrations is a largely homogenized Sepik culture, as the cultural practices common to fissioning communities are dispersed to new sites through emigration. Forge (1972) estimated 200 to be the optimum population of a Sepik village before internal conflict led to fission and emigration of some clans to new villages, and the oral histories of Sepik communities amply attest to this as the major demographic process in the region.

Within the Sepik, the history of migration has been rendered cosmological (see Keesing (1981) on ‘celestialization’), and, as such, provides a social charter. The world is understood as being created by the activities of the ancestors as they migrated over land and rivers to individual village sites. These ancestors are totemic, creative spirit beings, and they are the focus of ritual and, ultimately, mundane interest, with any concern with actual distant historical figures tenuous at best. Because of the constant fission and reforming of villages along clan lines, the same basic cosmological beliefs and migratory schemas are shared across Sepik villages, regardless of the language spoken. Villages speaking Iatmul or Manambu of the Sepik language family and those speaking Yimas or Karawari of the Lower Sepik-Ramu family largely share the same cosmology and social structure regardless of the deep linguistic differences, a pattern repeated throughout the Sepik region. Within the region, there is no sense of intervillage solidarity based on shared linguistic allegiance; villages speaking the same language may have closer cultural and social links to neighboring villages speaking a different language than to each other. It is the shared cosmology and linked social structure that bind the region together in spite of the very high linguistic diversity.

This mythology has powerful implications for local conceptualizations of personhood The person sees himself as a member of a clan and bears names to which he is entitled as a member of a clan. The clans are not village-bound, but through the complex of myths, rituals and the activities of totemic ancestors, are shared with other villages, often speaking distinct languages and in the very nature of the cosmos itself. For example, the names a man bears are those of the totemic ancestors, and, indeed, through them, he is of the same nature as these totemic ancestors; the same name and totems for example are shared by villages speaking Chambri, a Lower Sepik-Ramu language and adjoining Iatmul of the Sepik family. A man’s place in the world and the kinds of relationships he enters into with others is largely ordained by his place in this wider cosmologically enjoined system. The kinds of exchange relationships, secular and ritual, he and his clan have with others has been set by the activities of the mythological ancestors, and, to a large extent, the advantages and disadvantages of these relationships and, hence, the relative rankings of his clan in ritual status, is predetermined. Because the clans are defined relationally in terms of exchange and trade potential, both in ongoing exchange activities and by the activities of their totemic ancestors as they passed through the lands where these exchange an trade partners now reside, exchange relationships, secular and ritual, current and primordial, are implicated integrally in the definition of the person. A person is partible, constructed by the elements of exchange built up over a lifetime, and these in turn are ordained by the person he was born into in terms of the wider totemic system.

This conception of personhood has direct implications for beliefs about language and its usage, the local linguistic ideology. Sepik peoples conceive of language as action, as a way to get things done in ongoing exchange, both economic, commodities, and verbal. Language is not for making our internal thoughts known, expressing ourselves, but rather for maintaining ongoing sociability to achieve goals; indeed thoughts in these languages are commonly expressed as internalized speech, not the other way around, as in the Conduit Metaphor (Reddy 1993), which guides much Western theorizing about language, both lay and professional. These cultures commonly make a distinction between what can be loosely glossed as ‘understanding/care/heart’ (Yimas wampuŋ) and ‘will/image/spirit’ (Yimas aŋkaŋkaɲa) (Harrison 1990; Kulick 1992; Telban 1998). The Yimas word wampuŋ also means literally the bodily organ heart, the phonological form of the word an obvious onomatopoeic icon of the sound of its beating, so I will henceforth gloss it as ‘Heart’. It is also clearly linked to the idea of ‘insideness’, the word ‘inside’ being a derivative of it: wampuŋ-n < wampuŋ ‘Heart’ + -n ‘at’, and through this, to the pith of a tree and so softness: wampunŋ ‘sago flour’ (the soft, washed pith of the sago palm, the society’s staple food). The wampuŋ ‘Heart’ is the seat of desire and affect, and from the culture’s moral perspective this should be socially directed. One should be mindful of one’s social embeddedness and show concern for others, hence my alternative translation of ‘care’. Properly with wampuŋ one should ‘hear’ ant- the call of others’ needs. To heed the calls of others results in generosity, a very highly valued trait in Yimas culture; stinginess is, not surprisingly, deplored, and such behavior is described as kalck- ‘hard’ (like the hard outside bark of a tree), the opposite of the softness and ‘insideness’ associated with wampuŋ ‘Heart’.

The counterpart of wampuŋ ‘Heart’ in Yimas, as in other Sepik languages is ‘Will, spirit’ aŋkaŋkaɲa. Aŋkaŋkaɲa ‘Will’ is the powerful life force of a person, expressing itself in assertive claims to one’s prerogatives and staking claims to those of others. ‘Will’ can be increased in power by ritual, especially those involving the calling of secret totemic names and associated myths. In contrast to wampuŋ ‘Heart’, aŋkaŋkaɲa ‘Will’ is associated with the assertive, often aggressive individuality of the person; it is the image one sees reflected in a still pool, or nowadays, a mirror. A man in whom ‘Will’ is strong is described as kalck- ‘hard’, but in the context of aŋkaŋkaɲa ‘Will’ this is a term of admiration rather than the opprobrium attached to it when used in commenting upon wampuŋ ‘Heart’. Whereas hearing the calls of others through prior social responsibility is proper to wampuŋ ‘Heart’, aŋkaŋkaɲa ‘Will’ finds its articulation through assertive speaking. Wampuŋ ‘Heart’ is linked to the ear, but aŋkaŋkaɲa ‘Will’ is tied to the mouth. Speaking is metaphorically linked to hitting and striking in Sepik thought and hence copulation. Speaking can be penetration by the ‘Will’, and this is often resisted, leading to disputes.   Indeed, the Yimas word karm ‘spoken language’ is most commonly taken to mean ‘quarrel’: for example karm papk language there.is typically means ‘there’s a quarrel (going on)’.

Sepik peoples therefore harbor a deep ambivalence about language and its uses. Language can be used to help and support through hearing its call and attending to social concerns with wampuŋ ‘Heart’, but it can also be used to harm and exploit by the aggressive assertion of the individual’s wants with aŋkaŋkaɲa ‘Will’. Furthermore, language allegiance is and has been inherently unstable, as quarrels lead to fights and fissions in villages, leading to migrations to new areas and the taking up of other languages as fresh trading relationships are formed and marriages leading to the adoption of new totemic ancestors are entered into. This ongoing process of social fission has contributed much to the great linguistic diversity of the region.   In effect, a village language is very much a negotiable currency; when, because of altered social and trading relationships, it becomes devalued, people will switch to a new one more highly prized. This has happened over and over again in Sepik villages.   A language is esteemed for its value in trade and exchange relationships and little else; in other words, it is its wider sociocultural usefulness that matters. There is no sense of allegiance to a village language for identity, because identity does not come from the village language; rather it comes from totemic myths and exchange links, which are commonly crosslinguistic.  Sepik villagers do not trust language to reveal truth; yes, it can be used to solicit wampuŋ ‘Heart’, but is just as likely to enforce aŋkaŋkaɲa ‘Will’. Sepik villagers are consummate pragmatists in their understanding of language: language is conceptualized in terms of the effects it has, and these are taken to be largely negative; such a distrust of language has been reported as a widespread feature of Papua New Guinean communities (Robbins 2001). The constant shifting of language due to these factors, the ambivalence over its use, but the at the same time its essential value in trade and exchange, has resulted over the centuries in the remarkable linguistic diversity mentioned earlier.

But unfortunately this is now a large part of the cause of its demise, for Tok Pisin is the exchange and trading relationship language par excellence. By its use trade relationships are available with others on a scale unimaginable before.   Globalization in its own local way has come to Papua New Guinea and the Sepik region, and the language of the region’s absorption into more globalized networks and integration is Tok Pisin. Given the local linguistic ideology it is obvious why language shift is happening there so rapidly and on such a massive scale. Whatever we as linguists may feel about this process, it is clear that Sepik villagers have a different view and that needs to be understood and fully respected.   The linguistic world as we knew it in the last century was still an effect of cultural, social and geographical isolation.   That isolation is now ending and is not going to return, regardless of the anti-globalist nationalist demagogues now on the contemporary political scene. The unstoppable forces of globalization are bringing all of us into closer and closer integration and interchange, and this inevitably will affect and supplant many if not most of the languages that developed in the long periods of isolation. New Guinea was the last area of the world to be colonized, and most of the island’s peoples developed in isolation from the rest of the world for millennia, the Sepik region particularly noteworthy in this respect. But that has now ended and its people are now becoming increasingly integrated into the modern world, a development they, with their strong emphasis on trade and exchange, largely welcome. The loss of some of their heritage from their period of isolation, their linguistic diversity, is a price they generally regard as well worth paying in order to facilitate their access to the wider world. And given their traditional linguistic ideology it is easy to see why they might look upon such a loss in this way. We may hold a different view, as linguists from our professional interests, or laypeople in Euro-American cultures due to our own Herderian (Foley 2005) linguistic ideology, but certainly no one can deny them that right to make their own choices, albeit to a large extent clearly guided, as we have seen, by their own linguistic ideology.


Foley, W. 2005. Personhood and language identity, variation and purism. Language Description and Documentation 3.9-38.

Foley, W. 2017. The languages of the Sepik-Ramu basin and environs. In Palmer, B., ed., The Languages and Linguistics of the New Guinea Area, 177-411. Berlin: de Gruyter-Mouton.

Forge, A. 1972. Normative factors in the settlement size of Neolithic cultivators (New Guinea). In Ucko, P., Tringham, P., and Dimbleby, G., eds, Man, Settlement and Urbanism, 363-376. London: Duckworths.

Harrison, S. 1990. Concepts of the person in Avatip religious thought. In Lutkehaus, N., Kaufmann, C., Mitchell, W., Newton, D., Osmundsen, L., and Schuster, M., eds., Sepik Heritage: Tradition and Change in Papua New Guinea, 351-363. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Keesing, R. 1981. Cultural Anthropology: A Contemporary Perspective. Second edition. New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston.

Kulick, D. 1992. Language Shift and Cultural Reproduction: Socialization, Self and Syncretism in a Papua New Guinea Village. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Newton, D. 1975. Kubru shields: style and history. In Egan, P., ed, Art Studies for an Editor: 25 Essays in Memory of Milton S. Fox, 191-225. New York: Museum of Primitive Art.

Reddy, M. 1993. The Conduit Metaphor. In Ortony, A., ed., Metaphor and Thought, 164-201. Second edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Robbins, J. 2001. Ritual communication and linguistic ideology. Current Anthropology 42.589-612.

Telban, B. 1998. Dancing through Time: A Sepik Cosmology. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

30. What we say, and how we feel about it: Focus on Catalan in France

James Hawkey
University of Bristol


All students of sociolinguistics quickly learn that language is highly variable, and that such variability can convey a great deal of social information. Let’s take the United Kingdom as an example. As soon as a native speaker of British English utters the word bath, they are opening themselves up to an onslaught of social judgement… Where is this person from? What kind of school did they go to? What kind of job do they have? What political party do they vote for? The answers to all of these questions are potentially coded within the pronunciation of that one little word: does the speaker use a short vowel, like in hat, or a long vowel, like in car? Is that last consonant pronounced with the tongue between the teeth, or in the same way as the last sound in staff? Just this one tiny word, with its three different sounds, reveals a number of possible pronunciations, each conveying its own social information. So, how do we go about patterning this complex variation? What sort of social categories can predict or govern a speaker’s preference for using one sound over another? And, of particular interest to us in this discussion, do our own opinions about the languages we speak affect the way we speak them?

In order to answer these questions, we need to draw on the most recent scholarly advances from two related sub-disciplines of sociolinguistics: variationism and language attitudes. Variationism seeks to establish correlations between the preferred use of a given variant (so, for example, whether you use a long or a short vowel in bath) and some broader social category (such as your age, social class, etc.) Language attitudes examine the views and belief systems we hold about the language(s) we speak. Social psychologists have long maintained that attitudes are made up of different components, including our emotions about a given object, our beliefs and thoughts about said object, and our enacted behaviours regarding the object. Attitudes and behaviours are therefore closely linked, and much social psychological scholarship seeks to understand how our feelings about something tie into our actions. Bringing all of this together, my work looks at the question of whether our opinions about a language reflect patterns of variation, with a particular focus on situations of bilingualism and language endangerment. My latest book, Language Attitudes and Minority Rights (Palgrave Macmillan 2018), constitutes an in-depth study of the Catalan language in Southern France, and asks whether language variation in Catalan can be correlated with speaker attitudes.

Firstly, I used anonymous questionnaires to paint a clear picture of the language attitudinal landscape in Northern Catalonia (the area of Southern France where Catalan is an autochthonous variety, based around the city of Perpignan). Language attitudes are typically quantitatively measured along two dimensions: status (‘the desire to get ahead in some way’) and solidarity (‘the desire to be accepted by another group’) (Woolard 1989: 90). Of course, it should come as no surprise that, in France, French was seen by almost everyone as the main language of status in the region. For centuries, regional and minority languages in France (like Catalan) have been subjected to processes of marginalisation and its speakers forced or encouraged to move towards French monolingualism. However, one thing that is particularly interesting in Northern Catalonia is that, even for speakers of Catalan (who, according to official statistics, number around 35% of the population, though the real figure is likely to be lower), French is a language of solidarity. That is to say, French is a language that all speakers hold dear as a vehicle of in-group communication and identity, even if these people are also speakers of Catalan. The centuries of French dominance have led to this language leading the way not only as a means to get ahead socially, but also as a strong identity marker. This being said, while French is viewed as the preferred vehicle of in-group solidarity and social advancement across the population of Northern Catalonia, people are not necessarily negative about Catalan: some speakers view Catalan as a language of potential status, social mobility and international advancement. So, what are the consequences for language variation? Do Northern Catalans who view Catalan positively as a language of status speak in a certain way? What about those people who do not view Catalan as a language of status, but instead as a vehicle of in-group solidarity? Do they sound different?

Turning to the study of language variation in the region, I focused on a number of different variables, only one of which we’ll briefly look at here. One of the most salient differences between varieties of Catalan spoken in France and those spoken elsewhere is the ‘r’ sound. In Northern Catalonia, many speakers use the uvular fricative rhotic, more familiar to most people as the guttural ‘French r’. This is basically limited to Catalan as spoken in France, with speakers from other areas using the alveolar tap or trill, recognisable as the rolled ‘r’ sound used in languages like Spanish or Italian. Within Northern Catalonia, this rhotic variable proved highly unusual, since there was very little intra-speaker variation, but large amounts of inter-speaker variation with little apparent accommodation. In short, this means that people were very consistent in their own use of either the ‘French r’ or the ‘Spanish r’ when speaking in Catalan, and that this didn’t depend on their conversation partner. So if people were categorically using one variant or another, and if they weren’t influenced by the person to whom they were speaking, how could this variation be predicted? What was the social meaning carried by the use of the ‘French r’ or ‘Spanish r’? The answer turned out to be language attitudes…

If a speaker rated Catalan highly as a language of in-group solidarity, then this person was more likely to use the uvular (‘French’) rhotic. A sense that the local language is important to interpersonal relations is clearly linked to use of local variants: remember that the uvular rhotic is not found outside this region. Local orientation on an attitudinal level is aligned with usage of local language patterns. In very broad terms, people who feel that their identity is bound up with use of the local language, sound more local. People overtly comment on this kind of variation too, as I discovered during the interviews I conducted in Northern Catalonia:

El meu accent és pas un accent totalment tradicional per la gent del sud. Per exemple, potser és anecdòtic, però les bromes pel fet de fer les erres guturals i no de les fer rulades.

My accent isn’t exactly traditional for somebody from the south [i.e. the Autonomous Community of Catalonia]. For example, it might be anecdotal, but the jokes (I get) because I have my guttural r instead of a rolled one (Hawkey 2018: 119).

This variable is merely one example of the complex variation that characterises this (and indeed, every) language variety. The links between variation and attitudes have been, until now, largely overlooked. Variationism has become increasingly focused on locally constructed categories as correlates for language variation: instead of simply saying ‘person X is more likely to use a given variant if they are male/working class/White, etc.’, scholars are now examining the different ideological stances that language variation might imply. My work is taking this a stage further, by using large-scale questionnaires to look at societal-level attitudes and belief systems, and then relating these to language variation. By marrying the different methodological approaches from variationism and language attitudes, it is possible to shed light on how our belief systems influence what we do. In short, perhaps the way we speak is indeed affected by how we feel about language itself, and this conclusion represents an interesting move forward for sociolinguistic scholarship. Moreover, this kind of holistic approach to linguistic communities (particularly those that find themselves in situations of endangerment) allows us to better understand the rich linguistic and cultural diversity that surrounds us, and ultimately, to better connect with other people.



Hawkey, James. 2018. Language Attitudes and Minority Rights: The Case of Catalan in France. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

Woolard, Kathryn. 1989. Double Talk: Bilingualism and the Politics of Ethnicity in Catalonia. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.


29. Déclin et résilience : les dilemmes de l’arménien occidental cent ans après

Anaïd Donabédian
Inalco, Paris


1.1. Langue, identité et normes

Comme l’ont montré les travaux sur l’idée moderne de nation, la conception de la langue comme support de l’identité s’appuie dès le dix-neuvième siècle sur l’élaboration d’un norme dotée de prestige social et culturel. Aujourd’hui, la langue occupe toujours une place de choix dans la représentation que les Arméniens se font de leur identité. Pourtant, après cent ans de Diaspora, cette représentation de la langue comme un substitut de la patrie perdue est un piège, tant dans les pays òu l’arménien occidental est vernaculaire que là où il ne l’est plus.

Bien après l’entreprise fondatrice, la norme linguistique demeure un point de focalisation chaque fois que l’identité du groupe est menacée. Le Proche-Orient, jusque-là conservatoire de l’arménien occidental, est fragilisé par la réforme des systèmes scolaires (en Syrie depuis les années 1960) ou par les conflits (au Liban dans les années 1970, en Syrie depuis 2011). Le sentiment de déclin a conduit à une sorte de raidissement normatif, sous-tendu par l’idée que la défense de la langue passe par la maîtrise de son évolution. En diaspora, où l’identité arménienne n’est pas aisée à définir, il est tentant, plutôt que de chercher à penser cette identité, d’investir idéologiquement, aux côtés de la religion et de la revendication politique, la langue, parfois au mépris de ses règles internes.

Idéologiser la langue conduit à l’investir d’un sens qui dépasse celui d’un simple moyen de communication: l’enjeu identitaire, dramatisé par le contexte du déclin, en fait un sanctuaire dont l’accès est hautement codifié. La langue littéraire, idéalisée, est toujours plus normative, et le vernaculaire est privé de la légitimité qui devrait être celle du locuteur natif. Ce type de diglossie n’est pas rare, mais ce qui fait sa spécificité pour l’arménien occidental est sa situation de langue dominée et le bi- multilinguisme généralisés en contexte diasporique, qui explique la virulence avec laquelle la normativité se manifeste à divers niveaux de la société. Au Liban, le quotidien Aztag Daily, le plus diffusé en arménien occidental, reçoit régulièrement des courriers de semonce avec citations à l’appui, remettant ainsi en question la légitimité des auteurs des articles incriminés. Des jeunes, lassés de corrections interrompant un échange entre pairs, font sciemment le choix de parler anglais, français ou arabe avec les jeunes qu’ils pensent plus performants qu’eux en arménien littéraire. Les enseignants eux-mêmes sont soumis à des jugements remettant en cause leur légitimité.

L’insécurité linguistique est la perception négative qu’un locuteur a de sa propre pratique linguistique, du fait d’une stigmatisation explicite ou imaginée de la part d’une majorité linguistique porteuse d’une variante plus prestigieuse. D’abord introduit par Labov pour évoquer les situations de diglossie en anglais, le phénomène est décrit plus récemment dans la dynamique de la mort des langues. L’inconfort ressenti face au jugement réel ou imaginaire de l’interlocuteur affecte sa pratique. Quand le locuteur n’a pas les moyens d’échapper à cette angoisse, il peut s’agir de stratégies comme l’hypercorrection (production d’une forme erronée visant à corriger une faute imaginaire). Mais en situation plurilingue, lorsque le locuteur dispose d’un autre code pour communiquer avec son interlocuteur, la stratégie d’évitement est souvent à la fois économique au plan linguistique, et gratifiante en termes de prestige.

L’évitement de l’arménien et le passage à la langue dominante est plus souvent lié à une compétence insuffisante pour s’exprimer de manière complète. Les mécanismes à l’oeuvre sont dans ce cas le code-switching, passage d’une langue à l’autre dans la même interaction, ou parfois de code-mixing. Quant à la partie de ces communautés qui n’en a pas eu la transmission, la langue, tout en étant un « impératif moral », est hors de portée, et l’identité est investie par d’autres voies. L’attachement au folklore, observé chez les générations précédentes, est supplanté par le militantisme politique lié à la reconnaissance du Génocide, c’est-à-dire un domaine présentant un enjeu idéologique à la hauteur du défi indentitaire.


1.2. Transmettre la langue : le grand défi

En contexte éducatif, le discours sur la langue varie de pays à pays selon que l’arménien occidental y est plus ou moins vernaculaire, on relève des constantes, comme la notion de ‘hayabahbanum’ (préservation de l’arménité), rarement justifiée (que préserver, comment, pourquoi, dans quel but?). Difficile à traduire, la notion peut même être idéologiquement douteuse pour la société environnante, et les écoles sont souvent tiraillées entre cet objectif interne à la communauté, et un discours officiel qui vise à former des citoyens bilingués équilibrés.

La dévernacularisation de l’arménien occidental, dont le danger semble préoccuper jusqu’aux élites éducatives et culturelles du Liban, suppose de modifier les modèles d’enseignement : il ne s’agit plus d’enseigner la littératie à des locuteurs d’arménien (langue maternelle), il faut désormais avant tout transmettre les competénces de base en langue parlée (langue seconde). Les moyens des écoles ne permettant pas de créer des classes différenciées,  elles doivent choisir un modèle pédagogique sans tenir en compte de la diversité des profils de leurs élèves. Ainsi, au Liban, les enfants dont la compétence vernaculaire en arménien est jugée insuffisante ne sont pas pris en charge dans les écoles arméniennes, tandis qu’en France, l’évaluation du niveau des élèves s’appuie sur des compétences scolaires surestimées par rapport à leurs compétences réelles en langue.

Cette situation conduit à des impasses en termes de résultats (fétichisation de l’alphabet au détriment des compétences communicatives, compartementalisation linguistique, perte de prestige) et en termes de cohésion sociale (l’absence de réflexion collective générant frustrations et incompréhensions entre enseignants, administrateurs, familles et élèves, l’école devient un lieu de tension associée à l’arménien).

L’ambigüité entre hayabahbanum et transmission de la langue dans l’objectif fondateur des écoles se reflète aussi dans les motivations des familles choisissant l’école arménienne : les primo-arrivants pour les facilités de communication ; d’autres familles y trouvent un refuge contre la mixité sociale et ethnique qu’ils perçoivent comme une menace; d’autres enfin souhaitent une sociabilisation arménienne pour leurs enfants, reproduisant souvent leur propre expérience scolaire. La demande vis-à-vis de la langue est variable et d’autant plus floue que les familles ne sont pas arménophones (et ne peuvent évaluer les compétences acquises par l’enfant). Les familles ne choisissent généralement pas l’école arménienne sur la base de son niveau général d’enseignement, mais en contrepartie, la compatibilité avec le système local, qui rend leur choix réversible, les sécurise. De fait, aucune école ne choisit un modèle totalement innovant et sans contrat avec l’Etat (comme les écoles immersives bretonnes Diwan en France). L’école arménienne semble donc intrinsèquement traditionnelle, parents comme administratifs (et souvent financeurs) étant souvent mus avant tout par le désir de reproduire un modèle du passé, et peu soucieux de repenser les modèles pédagogiques.


2. La croisée des chemins

Alors que la transmission familiale régresse de manière critique dans la diaspora occidentale, l’école est plus que jamais essentielle pour l’avenir de la langue. Pourtant, aux prises avec des impératifs idéologiques et conservateurs, les écoles peinent à opérer un diagnostic réaliste et un plan d’action adapté. Certains incriminent l’absence de structures de gestion de la diaspora arménienne, mais sans fournir des alternatives convaincantes.

Je propose de voir là plutôt la nécessité d’un tournant que je qualifierais de post-ideologique, dans le contexte d’une postmodernité touchant déjà l’ensemble des pays occidentaux, et dans une certaine mesure le Liban, mais n’a généralement pas droit de cité dans les institutions communautaires. De ce fait, les représentations collectives liées à l’identité créent donc potentiellement chez les Arméniens de la diaspora une fracture entre deux grilles de lectures irréconciliables : un criticisme postmoderniste appliqué l’identité locale de citoyen, et une sanctuarisation de l’identité arménienne. Il en résulte une polarisation entre les porteurs de l’idéologie, souvent les plus actifs dans les institutions de la diaspora, et la masse des membres de la diaspora, les premiers oubliant souvent, surtout en occident, que les seonds ne sont pas captifs des structures communautaires et peuvent s’en détourner.

Cette situation reflète ce que je schématise ici comme le « paradoxe du ghetto ». Ce dernier, désignant de manière figurée le modèle proche-oriental dans sa dimension dirigiste, est capable d’assurer la transmission de la langue, mais pas de la penser : le raidissement et la normativité peuvent y accentuer le déclin au lieu d’y remédier. Ce sont les limites de l’idéologie même qui a été jusque-là associée au maintien « miraculeux » de la langue pendant un siècle. A l’opposé du « ghetto », le point de vue post-moderniste sait innover sur la base d’un diagnostic réaliste, mais sa masse critique des locuteurs est fragile : il peut penser la transmission mais est moins bien armé pour l’assurer. Ces deux approches sont donc  condamnées à l’échec si elles ne se nourrissent pas l’une de l’autre : la première pour mieux répondre aux défis réels et éviter les mouvements centrifuges à un moment critique de son historie, la seconde pour et éviter la rupture de transmission. La rencontre entre elles porte en elle est la possibilité de réussir le tournant post-vernaculaire sans perdre la transmission du vernaculaire.

Des initiatives récentes ont émergé dans ce sens[1] (innovation pédagogique, traduction d’ouvrages majeurs de la culture mondiale, développement de Wikipedia, camp d’été créatif). Il s’agit de renverser le « devoir de langue » pour en faire un « désir de langue », notamment à l’âge critique où les jeunes éduqués en arménien s’éloignent pour construire leur propre univers dans la société environnante. En contexte post-vernaculaire, cet objectif est en effet aussi essentiel que la norme est inutile. Ce cercle vertueux propose également une issue au paradoxe qui fait de l’enseignant d’arménien un mal aimé de l’école arménienne, alors même que sa discipline est aux fondements du projet de l’école. Reconnaître que l’arménien occidental, rarement monnayable par des examens nationaux, n’a pas de valeur marchande, permet également de repenser la mission de l’enseignant. Libéré des contingences des autres classes, il doit ancrer dans l’enfant le désir d’arménien, celui qui lui permettra de saisir les opportunités futures pour l’améliorer, et qui lui donnera le désir de transmettre la langue à la génération suivante.

Passer du paradigme du devoir au paradigme du désir : c’est sans doute là, bien au-delà des enjeux linguistiques aussi, que siège la résilience qui nous occupe ici. Une résilience qui pourrait bien expliquer pourquoi ce tournant n’était pas possible plus tôt. La résilience, celle de la langue et des communautés, serait-elle une piste post-moderniste pour repenser l’articulation entre arménien occidental et identité arménienne en diaspora, cent ans après ?

[1] Largement portées ou encouragées par le plan d’action de la Fondation Calouste Gulbenkian en faveur de l’arménien occidental.


28. Amerindian Silence

Montserrat Ventura i Oller
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona


The silence of languages

Silence is cultural, just as words are. For many different reasons, our languages contain silences, and we are raised to know how to interpret them. Sometimes they make us unsure, often because of discord on an individual level or as a result of circumstances involving conflict. Respect, fear, ignorance: silence tells us things without words, and often it does so very eloquently.

But in some cultures, it is not so easy to classify silence as one of the functions of speech. There are societies in which silence is not just appreciated but also pervasive in communications, and even in relationships. Ellen Basso1  was a pioneer in highlighting silence as a cultural form of behaviour among the Western Apache, and alongside them, other Amerindian groups. In her classic study, she tries to explain why, in certain circumstances, the Western Apache avoid talking and do so for reasons that go beyond the socially determined verbal behaviour. Basso outlines a few of these scenarios: meetings with foreigners, which involve social distance; first meetings between lovers (which sometimes may go on for months); reunions between parents and children after long absences, where silence is attributed to the need to rebuild the relationship; in the face of insults or off-key words from people who are not in control of their mental faculties (for example, due to an excess of alcohol), as if reasoning is not possible, it is better not to talk; during mourning rituals, where speaking would be inconsiderate to those who are sad; and, finally, during healing ceremonies, where a patient for whom the specialist is chanting cannot be spoken to out of respect for the powers and spirits and to avoid these having a harmful effect on the patient. Despite this disparate range of situations, Basso believes that the conditions are always the same: silence, in the culture of Western Apache, is associated with social situations in which participants perceive their relations towards another person as ambiguous and/or unpredictable. Rather than being a question of this or that contextual situation, it is one of the social relations perceived, which are not structural but dynamic. But there are other ways to conceive of such silences.

In 1991, I started to conduct fieldwork in the Cóngoma community, one of the seven Tsachila communities in the western lowlands of Ecuador. At the time, there were about 2,000 people—in 2018, there are now about 2,800—and they were the only speakers of Tsafiki, a South Barbacoan language. They are a society that used to hunt, cultivate and fish but that was transitioning to a market economy. They maintained an animist view of the world, in spite of the relatively recent efforts of Catholics and Protestants. At the time, bilingualism was still the preserve of men, and everyday life occurred in Tsafiki2. It was common to see two interlocutors sitting with their backs to one another and one suddenly rising and leaving without a goodbye. Or, at most, the person leaving would say “I’m going”(majinayoe), which would be met with a rhetorical reply of, “Are you going?” (majinayun). And that’s all they would say.

A sociality that avoids conflict

Tsachila men and women are very restrained in their linguistic displays when they meet or say goodbye, unlike other ethnic groups that highly value the rhetoric in some of their stereotyped dialogues—for example, salutations. The Tsachila salutation at a crossroads boils down to a matter of good manners that has a meagre semantic content: “Where are you going?” (nunchi?), to which one responds with the obvious: “I’m going up that way” (fechi) or “I’m going down that way” (pelechi). To be sure, spotting a person coming from afar can trigger a communicative exchange focused on general information about the visitor, the host, and their respective surroundings, but in general, the arrival of a visitor to a home happens very discreetly, almost imperceptibly. Likewise, during group outings to the village, the cemetery, a shaman’s home, parties or meetings, or to go fishing, it is not unusual for it to be the case that, while women above all drift into informal and cheerful conversations, long silences also take hold, as if it were necessary to avoid bothering the others, and these silences are never considered signs of social tension. Avoiding disturbing others could be considered rather a sign of respect for one of this society’s key values, namely the appropriate weighing up of words. This corresponds to what I said earlier about goodbyes. Restraint over words, which certainly reduces the possibility of conflicts, is also expressed in other aspects of communication, such as the avoidance of eye contact during dialogue, where clearly the words are more important than the expression that accompanies them.

Linguistic exchanges are therefore very discreet, and oratory is not valued, unlike other societies in the lowlands of South America. People who attended public events such as major ceremonies during other times were not accustomed to speaking in public; happiness was expressed through singing and music, especially when fermented drinks had begun to have their effect. Today, in collective events such as community meetings, the leaders, the only people who are believed to be proficient in spoken discourse, are also laconic: they avoid big speeches and instead seem embarrassed to have the floor or be the main figures in meetings, especially if there is a high attendance. Embarrassment about being the focus of public attention is patent during interactions that correspond to situations of inferiority. Embarrassment (lu, red; lu tenka kano “be embarrassed,” literally “red heart take”) suggests discretion and shyness to us.

Weighing up the right words

The Tsafiki language system3 shows us the importance of the authority of speech, a fundamental aspect of weighing up the right words. Tsafiki has a marker for indirect speech, ti, which may be repeated to indicate up to three sources between the speaker and the original event. The indirect style seems designed to locate the source of information beyond the speaker, without this carrying connotations linked to suspicion, as would be the case in English or other European languages. Furthermore, this linguistic system allows an extremely high level of personalization of information sources (“he/she says that he/she said that he/she said that …”), and it therefore restricts the possibilities of invention even where rumours and gossip continue to exist, fostered by the great distances that separate homes from one another. Nevertheless, talking too much (tsanke epele palakiman4) is met with condemnation, and a large number of individual actions are intended to avoid revealing private acts to others, precisely so as not to give rise to rumours. These acts include preferring short cuts to main paths, walking late at night or very early in the morning in order to maintain discretion over movements, or even erasing tracks left when walking. Mythology itself punishes excessive use of words, and its repertoire offers constant demonstrations of this precept. The tale of Biali (“otter”) is a good example of this:

Biali helped a Tsachi with fishing, and he agreed to never tell anybody about it. But one day, while inebriated, he broke the agreement. After that, he lost his good relationship with Biali who had helped him to fish and, consequently, the ability to catch fish in abundance that he had been given 5.

But on the other hand, the ability to speak is not anathema. One of the terms that means stupidity, ignorance or irresponsibility is, paradoxically, epela, which in a strict sense is equivalent to “dumb, one who does not speak.” It is worth noting that this correspondence is found in other parts of the Amerindian world, particularly where people have experienced colonial domination most intensely, such as the Andes. According to Howard-Malverde (1990), a lack of mastery of Spanish was to the conquistadores equivalent to ignorance; but the insult of “dumb,” as well as the refusal to speak before the Spaniards, would have been accepted by the victims of this contempt themselves. It does not seem that this was the case regarding the Tsachila, for whom colonial pressure was less far reaching. For them, talking is a sign of wisdom, and although it is not possible to make a direct correlation, it seems pertinent to note that the body organ that allows words to be produced, the tongue, is called mikaka (“The eye or the fruit of knowledge”).

Moreover, silence as an expression of a communication barrier is also a response of rejection in situations of disagreement. Tsachila behaviour that guides most cultural practices leads, as mentioned above, to the resolution of conflicts by means of withdrawal, rather than by open confrontation. Keeping quiet is also a coded response for the Tsachila. They may decline to attend an appointment without apologizing if they consider that they have not received fair treatment. Silence, which can sometimes be difficult to maintain, can be replaced by the concealment of the truth, which can mean the same thing: denying the interlocutor good communication. However, escape and avoidance of conflict cannot be satisfactorily explained only by colonial rule or inferiorization. Everything seems to indicate that these behaviours are part of a cultural ethos taken to extremes during times of crisis. The acceptance that the Tsachila externalize in their everyday relations does not prevent prudence or protection of their privacy.

And in the field of ritual there is also a value associated with silence: secrecy. In any matter involving spirits, it is necessary to avoid causing them to lurk around or bothering them. In any remedy or treatment from shamans, people have to maintain secrecy and discretion. Secrecy and an absence of words are conditions of the ritual, unlike in other Amazonian societies, where remarkable communication takes place, especially in the aural form of recitations, songs, music and different sounds. It is necessary to avoid calling certain spirits by name, and the relationship with them must remain within individual privacy or be shared only with a small number of people. The shaman does recite litanies, but sometimes in a cryptic language, or directly in Spanish, or even Quechua, languages removed from everyday speech. Shamans learn these litanies elsewhere, and their literal sense may not be understood by the shaman: their therapeutic efficacy is not in the meaning of the words but in their aural effect, and this is explained by the power that this society attributes to otherness. Gestures and sound dominate over words in the shamanic ritual act.

The refusal to share information, confinement of language, silence and secrecy result from the same caution. It might even be suggested that forgetting, which manifests itself in extreme form in passivity and a refusal to transmit myths or certain traditions, may be an expression of this attitude. If this set of practices can be explained by the same logic, that logic would be a predominant sensitivity towards silence, the avoidance of conflict, and discretion: a cultural silence beyond linguistic pragmatics and verbal and nonverbal practices, as well as beyond the specific circumstances of interaction.

  1. Ellen Basso, “To give up on words: Silence in western appache culture”, Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 26 (3) (1970): 213-230.
  2. Montserrat Ventura i Oller, Identité, cosmologie et chamanisme Tsachila. À la croisée des chemins, l’Harmattan, Paris, 2009. Spanish version: En el cruce de caminos. Identidad, cosmología y chamanismo tsachila, FLACSO / Abya-Yala / IFEA, Quito, 2012.
  3. Connie Dickinson, “Mirativity in Tsafiki”, Studies in Language 24(2) (2000): 379-421.
  4. Taken from an unpublished interview by A. Aguavil of J. Aguavil and C. Calazacón, Congoma, 1997. This expression has been translated as, “One who speaks for the sake of it.” I am grateful to the Pikitsa collective, a Tsachila group that collects documents about the Tsachila language and culture, for passing it on to me.
  5. This story was explained by Florinda Aguavil in Cóngoma in 1997.

27. Parler des couleurs sans termes de couleurs

Alexandre Surrallés
Laboratoire d’anthropologie sociale, Collège de France


En ce qui concerne la diversité linguistique et culturelle, un sujet saillant est la variabilité des façons d’exprimer l’expérience sensible suscitée par les textures, les couleurs, les odeurs et tout ce qui s’offre à nos organes des sens. Or, cet objet de recherche se trouve d’emblée confronté au problème de ce qu’on appelle en anthropologie linguistique l’ineffabilité, c’est-à-dire la difficulté ou même l’impossibilité d’expliquer par des mots des expériences pour lesquelles les concepts nécessaires sont soit inexistants, soit moins évidents, un domaine récemment constituée à part entière (Levinson i Majid). L’existence de fossés sémantiques concernant en particulier la dénomination de perceptions se pose de surcroît comme un des problèmes les plus importants pour une anthropologie intéressée par le sensible. Car ce n’est pas la même chose de décrire l’odeur d’une fleur, par exemple, que de décrire la forme d’une figure géométrique. Une dimension de cette interaction sensible échappe à toute conceptualisation ou codage culturellement stabilisé par des conventions sémantiques.

L’ethnographie de la façon dont la langue amérindienne parlé par les Candoshi de la haute Amazonie évoque les couleurs des objets sans termes de couleurs pour les nommer, m’a offert la possibilité de réfléchir à l’ineffable. En effet, ces chasseurs, cueilleurs et horticulteurs forestiers parlant une langue de la famille jivaro évaluent les impressions sensorielles relatives aux couleurs sans l’un des principaux outils descriptifs utilisés à cet effet : les noms de couleurs. Cette donnée a suscité la controverse puisque l’anthropologie a en général considérée qu’on dispose partout d’une notion de couleur et de termes pour nommer celles ci. Cela n’a rien d’étonnant pour les « universalistes » (Berlin, Kay, Rosch) qui affirment l’existence d’une terminologie des couleurs de base commune à toutes les langues. Mais leurs détracteurs, qui prônent une approche relativiste et signalent la diversité culturelle des manières de découper la gamme chromatique, ne nient pas non plus l’existence partout de la notion de couleur et de termes pour les couleurs (Davidoff, Roberson, Sahlins). Cette unanimité semble cependant s´ébranler avec l’apparition d’une série de publications récentes d’anthropologues et de linguistes de différents horizons et sans concertation préalable (De Vos, Everett, Levinson, Saunders, Senft, Wierzbicka) confirmant la conclusion formulée par Harold Conklin dans un texte publié en 1955 selon lequel la couleur, dans le sens qu’on lui donne en Occident, n’est pas un concept universel et n’existe pas comme tel dans nombre de langues. Mon expérience chez les Candoshi, aboutit à la même conclusion. La question est alors de savoir comment les Candoshi parlent des couleurs sans noms de couleurs et sans que cela ne les empêche ni de percevoir des variations chromatiques, ni de pouvoir les exprimer.

En effet, la langue candoshi ne dispose pas de terme général pour nommer la couleur et le mot « couleur » est absent du seul dictionnaire candoshi publié à l’heure actuelle (Tuggy), sans qu’il s’agisse là d’une erreur ou d’une omission. Des notions telles que « multicolore » ou « coloré » ne semblent pas non plus exister, non plus qu’une forme de référence attributive de la perception d’une couleur comme par exemple dans la phrase « ce pot d’argile est rouge». Bien entendu, mes entretiens ne procédaient pas avec des questions du style « de quelle couleur est cet objet ? », laquelle ne peut pas être formulée dans la langue vernaculaire. La question que je posais en montrant par exemple une vignette de couleur était « ini tamaara ? » (déictique, ini, suivi d’un terme se traduisant par « comment est-il ? »). Par ailleurs, s’il n’y a pas de terme pour la couleur ou les couleurs, leur connaissance ne constitue pas un domaine autonome et, par consequent il n’y pas d’intérêt à en parler de façon abstraite. Les Candoshi, pourtant, s’intéressent aux couleurs et je dirais même que les couleurs les passionnent. Quand ils parlent des animaux, des plantes et des minéraux, ou notamment des fruits et des plumes, c’est-à-dire de choses spécifiques dans des situations concrètes, une façon d’évoquer les couleurs sans termes de couleur se fait jour. Si, par exemple, on présente à un locuteur candoshi une pomme de terre qu’il ne connaît pas bien parce qu’elle est cultivée à une plus haute altitude, et qu’on lui demande ini tamaara ?, sa réponse ne consiste pas seulement à essayer de la décrire superficiellement. Il saisit le tubercule, le sent, le pèse et le fait pivoter, de sorte que sa réponse exprime une expérience polysensorielle recourant à des comparatifs pour souligner les propriétés de la pomme de terre qui l’intéressent. Il s’agit d’une description hésitante, volontairement subjective, interactive, évolutive et relative. La couleur des choses, ou plutôt la similitude des couleurs entre les choses décrites et d’autres, apparaît liée à des caractéristiques autres que visuelles : au toucher, au goût et à l’odeur qui sont alors mobilisées dans le cadre d’une action intentionnelle propre à un environnement donné. En résumé, il semble que la couleur comme caractéristique isolée des autres propriétés d’une chose, ne soit pas pertinente pour la décrire, l’identifier, ni même la classifier. Peut-être parce qu‘elle n’est est pas pertinente en soi dans un monde où les objets, les animaux et les plantes sont inextricablement liés à celle qu’ils possèdent. Car ce qui importe à un chasseur ou à un pêcheur qui veut décrire une espèce est un ensemble de propriétés perceptives que l’espèce en question transmet, accompagné d’une description de son comportement et de son habitat écologique spécifique.

J’ai compris que les Candoshi ne cherchaient pas une catégorie mais une ressemblance, quand je leur ai montré l’une des vignettes du nuancier chromatique. Un débat vif s’est produit entre deux d’entre eux qui participaient aux conversations autour des vignettes disposées sur la table. Je me suis intéressé aux termes de la discussion et comme je ne parvenais pas à comprendre, l’un de mes interlocuteurs a pris un type de gingembre et en a coupé un morceau pour faire apparaître la couleur et la comparer à la vignette. Le débat était de savoir si la couleur orange ambre de cette vignette ressemblait davantage à un type de gingembre ou bien à une substance de couleur similaire secrétée par un poisson (probablement de la famille des Loricariidae) lors du frai. J’ai compris alors qu’un malentendu culturel survenait. Ils répondaient à mes questions leur demandant de donner des noms de couleurs associées aux vignettes au moyen d’un autre exercice : trouver dans l’environnement des choses de la couleur la plus ressemblante possible.

Quand un Candoshi décrit un objet, il le compare à d’autres en faisant ainsi référence à ses propriétés pertinentes dans le contexte de la description. Et comme la gamme des choses susceptibles d’être évoquées pour la comparaison sont toutes celles existant dans le monde, les possibilités descriptives apparaissent infinies et le résultat peut donc être d’une grande précision – cette forme de communication étant seulement possible si les locuteurs ont une connaissance partagée de l’environnement. Dans ces conditions, des termes pour les couleurs limiteraient les grandes possibilités expressives qu’offre la comparaison entre les choses. En somme, du point de vue candoshi, la couleur des choses est subsumée sous d’autres dimensions perceptuelles et entremêlée avec elles. Les couleurs sont perçues sans être nommées parmi d’autres caractéristiques sensibles des objets dans un acte de perception ou technique que j’appelle « perception contrastive » et qui consiste surtout à les comparer ; une technique alternative à la « perception catégorielle », souvent considérée la seule façon de décoder les sensations.


Pour approfondir sur le sujet voir :

Jones, Nicola, 2017, “Do You See What I See? “,   Sapiens, Anthropology/Everythink human, 9-Feb-2017. https://www.sapiens.org/language/color-perception/

Surrallés, Alexandre, 2016, “On contrastive perception and ineffability: Assessing sensory experience without colour terms in an Amazonian society“, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (incorporating Man). Vol 22(4). : 810-829.

 Couple candoshi et la passion pour les couleurs

26. Australia’s indigenous wordscape

Nicholas Evans
Australian National University


Australia is a predominantly monolingual country with a deep multilingual past, located at the epicentre of the world’s linguistic diversity. During its first forty to fifty millennia, indigenous cultures developed a mosaic of over three hundred languages in which high levels of multilingualism were the norm and which evinced great interest in language in all its forms, and grammars of formidable grammatical sophistication – Kayardild weighs in with twenty cases (to Latin’s six), the same freedom of word order that classical poets could exploit, and a terseness that allows one to express something like ‘(watch out), lest it get away from the one belonging to your opposite-sex sibling’ in a single word, kularrinkarranmulanharranth.

The phrase ‘epicentre of linguistic diversity’ is not chosen lightly. Of the world’s roughly 7,000 languages, a fifth are spoken in the southwest Pacific — some thousand on the island of New Guinea, 250–400 in Australia depending on the measure (and these are languages, not dialects — counting the latter sends the figure much higher), over 130 in Vanuatu (the world champion in Gross Linguistic Product at close to one language per 2,000 speakers). And among the world’s top dozen countries measured by number of endemic languages, half are in the neighbourhood — #1 Papua New Guinea, #2 Indonesia, #4 India, #5 Australia, #10 Philippines and #12 Vanuatu. The linguistic prodigality on the island of New Guinea alone is comparable to that of Eurasia as a whole, from Ireland to Japan, from Siberia to Sri Lanka — a statement that holds up whether one counts the number of languages, the number of language families, or the amount of ‘disparity’ in language structures. Languages like Iau (in West Papua) with nine tones sit cheek by jowl with others with no tones at all, and the language with the largest sound inventory in the western Pacific (Yélî-Dnye on Rossel Island) is just a couple of hundred kilometres from that with the smallest, Rotokas on Bougainville Island.

This voluptuous linguistic landscape is one reason for the thriving linguistic scene in Australia. For many linguists working here, however, there are other more personal motives — a wish for a more authentic view of who we are in this part of the world, grounded in the intricate and diverse cultural products of fifty millennia of human occupation and the mosaic of world-views these have elaborated. Add to this the fact that so many nonindigenous Australians grow up with an aching sense of unconnectedness to their land, stemming from the invisibility and inaudibility of Aboriginal culture and the peremptory way its insights were briskly swept aside by the British colonisation process. This makes linguistic research — and one day, I hope, the broader cultural and educational awareness that grows from it — an opportunity to create a type of culture that so far we have failed to nourish in this country.

I spent a lot of my childhood in the bush around Canberra, whether after school in the bush behind Campbell or on long camping trips. Nonetheless, I am probably typical of non-indigenous Australians in the shallowness of what I learned about my environment, and in the mismatch between my monoglot English upbringing and the inchoate feelings I held for my surrounds. In northern Australia, on other hand — where I was lucky enough to have a ‘second childhood’ under the welcoming instruction of my many indigenous teachers — almost every plant and bird now bears a vivid charge. Not only have I carefully been taught their names, in Dalabon or Bininj Kun-wok or other local languages, but also their uses, what their flowering says about the availability of food resources, and a whole rich panoply of myth.

The web of life, in languages like this, is mirrored in the web of words, from different verbs for the distinct hopping gait of every different macropod species, male, female and child, to retriplicated nouns for ecozones dominated by a particular plant (e.g. Kunwinjku mi-djoh-djo-djo ‘mixed scrub with wattle, acacia difficilis, dominant’ from an-djohacacia difficilis’). This is mingled with a rich affective lexicon for the sensations and emotions the landscape brings out — words such as, from Dalabon, karddulunghno ‘smell of first rains’, or from Iwaidja, angmarranguldin ‘change in environmental conditions, bringing back memories and inspiring longings for an absent person or place through the recollection of the smell of the sea or of a dying bushfire as the wind turns.

There is also the intriguing phenomenon of ‘sign metonymies’, which signal the fact that one natural phenomenon is a guide in space or time to the presence of the other — e.g. in Gun-djeihmi alyurr denotes the Leichhardt’s grasshopper (Petaside ephipigera), two herb species which it eats (Pityrodia jamesii and Cleome viscosa ) and whose location is thus the best way to locate these grasshoppers, and the lightning spirit, which starts to manifest itself in the first monsoonal storms at the same time as the herbs are ready for these grasshoppers to eat. At the time of the first monsoons, Leichhardt’s grasshopper is said to don its sumptuous orange and blue outfit and go looking for the lightning. Local cave paintings depict lightning spirits with axes on their heads – the grasshopper’s antennae. A central place in Yolngu symbolic thought is held by likan, literally ‘elbow’ but also ‘joint, connection’ — close to what would be called tropes in the Western tradition. ‘Likan names’ are used, in contexts of art and ceremony, to indicate more allusive readings to the culturally knowledgeable.

Alyurr: Leichhardt’s grasshopper, herb and lightning man

These examples illustrate how indigenous languages contain a vast network of knowledge about the natural world, but also how the cultures that nourished them were fascinated by language and developed a range of metalinguistic terms, practices and products.

Few aspects of indigenous culture better illustrate the intellectual sophistication of indigenous Australian traditions than the special auxiliary linguistic systems they created. Many of these were linked to initiation rites, making clear that the passage to adulthood was not just a matter of physical trials and self-discipline, but also of attaining a new understanding of how language articulates with the world.

Take the problem of antonymy. Giving ‘up’ as the opposite of ‘down’ or ‘tall’ as the opposite of ‘short’ are trivial. But semantic textbooks remain mute on the question of where antonymic oppositions stop — an errant omission in a world seeking to decompose all representation to binary code. What is the opposite of ‘mother’ — ‘father’, or ‘child’? Or of ‘kangaroo’, or ‘countryman’, or ‘(s)he’? The antonym of ‘deaf’ is evident, but what about ‘see’? The special register known as Jiliwirri, learned by Warlpiri initiates, is as far as I know the only case in the world’s intellectual history of a thoroughgoing investigation of antonymy applied to the entire lexicon. To speak it, you must replace all lexical items (though not grammatical affixes other than pronouns) with their opposites. As the following example shows, to convey the proposition ‘I am sitting on the ground’, you use a Jiliwirri utterance which would translate literally into everyday Warlpiri as ‘someone else is standing in the sky’. Jiliwirri has been used to investigate antonymy in Warlpiri lexical semantics, including such nonobvious issues as whether the perception verbs ‘see’, ‘hear’ etc. have antonyms, and how one determines antonyms for natural species names like ‘red kangaroo’.


Even more spectacular is a special initiation register known as Damin, which was taught to Lardil men on Mornington Island as part of their initiation as warama (second degree initiates). Damin is said to have been created by an ancestor known as Kaltharr (Yellow Trevally fish), and has a rich inventory of sounds, supposed to echo what ‘fish talk’ would sound like. In fact, its phoneme inventory is unique among the world’s languages and employs types of sound not found anywhere else, such as the ‘ingressive lateral fricative’. There are also a range of click sounds, like those found in Southern Africa. Because grammatical affixes are simply taken over from everyday Lardil, it is only the lexical roots that display these special sounds, as can be illustrated by the following sentence equivalents from everyday Lardil (2a) and Damin (2b): Damin substitutes ŋ͡!aa for ngada, didi for ji– and m͡!ii (with a clicked m) for werne, but leaves the grammatical suffixes intact.


But it is the semantic structure of Damin which represents a true tour de-force in metalinguistic analysis. Since the time of Leibniz philosophers and semanticists in the Western intellectual tradition have been seeking an ‘alphabet of human thought’ which would allow all meanings to be decomposed into a small stock of elements. Damin comes close to achieving this goal — out of nowhere in terms of prior philosophical traditions, and without drawing on any tools of written logical notation. It maps the thousands of lexical items of everyday Lardil onto around 200 words by a combination of highly abstract semantics, extended chains of meaning extensions, paraphrase, and supplementation by hand signs.

Thus in the above example, ŋ͡!aa does not simply correspond to ngada ‘I’. Rather, it can denote any group including ego. Now everyday Lardil has eight ways of translating English ‘we’ — given by the three-dimensional binary matrix of ‘inclusive’ (i.e. we, including you) vs ‘exclusive’ (we, but not you), ‘dual’ (two) vs ‘plural’ (more than two) and ‘harmonic’ (referents in even-numbered generations with respect to each other, such as siblings, or grandkin) vs ‘disharmonic’ (odd-numbered generations such as parent and child or great-grandkin). This exuberant semantic specificity in the everyday language is mapped onto the sober, highly abstract Damin word ŋ͡!aa ‘I, we, here’, opposed to ŋ͡!uu ‘you, (s)he, they, there’. Integration with gesture is an important part of what makes communication possible in Damin — as well as ‘there’, ŋ͡!uu can also mean ‘north’, ‘south’, ‘east’ and ‘west’ in Damin. The distinction between these is indicated by pointing in the appropriate direction while uttering the word — in the process giving a valuable insight into how a type of language functions in which the communicative load is more evenly distributed between speech and gesture.

As another example of how Damin semantics works, the rich particularity of verbs in the everyday language are mapped onto highly general designators in Damin, reminiscent of attempts at semantic decomposition of verbal predicates which linguistic philosophers began experimenting with in the 1960s. Thus the Damin verb didi takes in, among many other correspondents, jitha ‘eat’, but also all actions producing a physical change on their object, such as barrki ‘chop’, betha ‘bite’, bunbe ‘shoot’, and kele ‘cut’. Another word diidi, which sounds similar but has a long vowel, includes all actions of motion and caused motion, such as waa ‘go’, jatha ‘enter’, murrwa ‘follow’, jidma ‘lift’, and kirrkala ‘put’. Sometimes the motion is to be understood metaphorically, such as a change in possession (wutha ‘give’, wungi ‘steal’), a transfer of information (kangka ‘speak’), or the movement of food from outside to inside the body (jitha ‘eat’). The net effect is to produce a totally indigenous analysis of the semantics of the entire vocabulary into a small number of elements, and Hale justifiably refers to Damin as a ‘monument to the human intellect’. Elsewhere he has drawn attention to the fact that its association with rituals outlawed by the missionaries in power on Mornington Island meant that its transmission was interrupted well before the transmission of everyday Lardil, as well as to the invisibility of this achievement to the outside world:

The destruction of this intellectual treasure was carried out, for the most part, by people who were not aware of its existence, coming as they did from a culture in which wealth is physical and visible. Damin was not visible for them, and as far as they were concerned, the Lardil people had no wealth, apart from their land.

It is a task for our times to make awareness of such intellectual wealth widespread. Never before in human history have we been losing languages so fast, but never before have we had such a dawning realisation of their value, or the means – conceptual, human, technological – to do something about it. In writing this article, I hope that Catalan readers, who have so valiantly maintained their magnificent tongue against historical odds, will be inspired to join the growing number of people who see the conservation of the world’s wordscape as one of the great quests of our time.


This is an abridged and modified version of Evans, Nicholas (2017).
Ngurrahmalkwonawoniyan. Listening here. Humanities Australia 8:34-44. The reader is referred to that publication for bibliographic references

25. Measuring sociolinguistic groups: The most significant transformations in Catalonia and the Balearic Islands

Natxo Sorolla
Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Xarxa CRUSCAT-Institut d’Estudis Catalans i
Centre de Recerca en Sociolingüística i Comunicació (CUSC) de la Universitat de Barcelona


Alongside Xavier Vila, I have been working for some time on sociolinguistic groups in Catalan language area. A single person’s linguistic usages may vary greatly from one area of life to another. An individual might speak in Catalan at home, in Catalan and in Spanish with friends in quite similar proportions, only in Spanish with the doctor, and only in Catalan with the person who serves him or her at the bank. The idea behind sociolinguistic groups is to create a usage index of spoken Catalan in 10 fields (IUP-10), which we believe is much more precise than more general propositions such as usual language or percentage of use in everyday interactions. The idea has certain parallels with studies on happiness, and above all, with what Daniel Kahneman, the only Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, suggests in relation to the polemics accompanying Easterlin’s studies on whether money can buy happiness (see the excellent episode on this from the Catalan TV show Economia en colors). These discussions centre on how to measure happiness, and how things differ if we ask about our state of happiness in general, as opposed to measuring happiness from moment to moment. To a certain degree, when we ask about happiness memories, we are more generous when it comes to our lives than we are when we have to note each moment of happiness, because even though we think that we are (in general) fairly happy, a good part of our day involves situations of stress, sadness or boredom. The idea that we strive for in sociolinguistics is to a certain extent that, beyond the memory that we have of our language usage, it is much more useful to measure and summarize what language we speak in specific areas or with specific interlocutors, such as the language used with friends, spouses, children and neighbours, or when in large commercial establishments, and so forth. The first way to measure happiness is certainly more related to what we would like to do than is the second way, which ought to be more realistic in terms of what we really do.

And so this index has been presented as very useful when summarizing information on language usage in a single variable, observing different sociolinguistic groups based on people’s family linguistic origin, and above all comparing different situations. We have started to work with the current methodology, which has allowed us to compare different waves and contexts, with data for Catalonia (Sorolla & Vila 2015). We first of all used the methodology to detect that a large part of the population predominantly uses its initial language, but there is a very significant non-Catalan-speaking population group that predominantly uses Catalan (7.3% of the population), which indicates the vitality of the language in the region (see the chart below). But at the same time, we have been able to detect that in the last decade there have been significant losses in the use of Catalan in Catalonia, concentrated mostly around the metropolitan area of Barcelona. These losses are not only caused by demographic issues such as the arrival of immigrants or the fact that the younger generation comprises fewer Catalan speakers, but also by sociolinguistic factors. And it is the latter that should raise greater concerns: members of the same generation with a shared social composition make less use of Catalan now than they did 10 years ago. For example, older Spanish-speaking generations seem to be using Catalan less than they were a decade ago, possibly due to changes in their everyday lives.







The second study that we have undertaken has been in the Balearic Islands (Vila & Sorolla 2017). It has just been published. The work that we undertook adopted the same technique, and it allowed us to observe that, once again, the most significant sociolinguistic groups are those in which linguistic use combines with family origin. But, unlike in Catalonia, the group of Catalan speakers from non-Catalan-speaking backgrounds is proportionally smaller (2.8%), and in contrast, its size is similar to the group which predominantly speaks Spanish but is of Catalan-speaking origin (2.5%), which is undergoing the opposite process. But in addition to not observing Catalonia’s vitality, we detected in Palma, Ibiza and Formentera that a lack of integration on the part of newcomers has unleashed a widespread process of Spanish use, even among some sectors of young Catalan speakers, through which they are abandoning use of their own language. See the chart below: a fifth of young people habitually use Spanish, despite being of Catalan-speaking origin.

Finally, and as a complement, we have reviewed the history of this process to create sociolinguistic groups. Xavier Vila began developing sociolinguistic groups through exploiting the Survey of Language Use for Catalonia 2003 (Vila 2005), and we continued the development with analysis for the Andorra 2004 (Sorolla, Bretxa &Vila 2006; Sorolla 2011), Franja 2004 (Sorolla 2014), and Catalonia 2008 (Sorolla & Vila 2011) surveys. But it was not until the 2013-15 wave of surveys that we consolidated the methodology by proposing that sociolinguistic groups should be defined theoretically, and not on the basis of empirical results, in order to be able to compare surveys conducted in different years or in different territories. Moreover, this approach has also been adapted to sociolinguistic surveys of Galician by Xaquín Loredo (Loredo 2015; Monteagudo, Loredo & Vázquez 2016).

Sorolla, N., & Vila i Moreno, F. X. (2015). Els grups d’ús lingüístic i els grans canvis en els usos entre el 2003 i el 2013. In Generalitat de Catalunya (Ed.), Anàlisi de l’Enquesta d’usos lingüístics de la població 2013. Resum dels factors clau. (Generalitat de Catalunya, Departament de Cultura, p. 30-33). Barcelona.


Vila, F. X., & Sorolla, N. (2017). La realitat i l’evolució a partir dels grups d’orígens i usos lingüístics. In J. Melià & M. del M. Vanrell (Ed.), Enquesta d’usos lingüístics a les Illes Balears. 2014 Anàlisi (Conselleria de Cultura, Participació i Esports (Govern de les Illes Balears) ­- Departament de Cultura (Generalitat de Catalunya) – Universitat de les Illes Balears, p. 106-124).


24. What is language revitalization about? Some insights from Provence*

James Costa
Sorbonne Nouvelle / UMR LACITO (CNRS), Paris


Should you find yourself in Provence this summer, you might wonder why some villages have bilingual signs at the entrance. Your surprise would be forgiven, since you are unlikely to have heard anything but French in most places, and likely a lot of English as you approach the Mediterranean. But if you listen more closely, observe more closely, you might come across a world that is fast vanishing, but that is still present. You might stumble upon a concert in a language that you cannot identify, or wonder why some street names don’t sound French. You might even hear people speak Occitan — for this is what it is, a language also known as Provençal, one which many locals will refer to as “Patois” (a derogatory term in France to refer to anything other than French traditionally spoken in the country).

This sort of experience might happen to you in Provence, but not only. Across the European Union, several million people speak a language that is not the official language of the state they live in. Across Europe, there are language advocates who defend and promote the right to speak one’s language. This struggle for language rights also extends to Latin America, North America, Australia, and many other places. This, many scholars assert, is a consequence of globalization—a backlash against uniformity if you like. A way of being oneself, of finding meaning locally in a world that seems to be getting smaller. In my recent book, Revitalising Language in Provence: A Critical Approach, I argue otherwise. Those movements are not a reaction to globalization—they are, on the contrary, a way of taking part in this process, on the very terms defined by those who define what globalization is (and not on their own terms, as Leena Huss [2008, 133] asserts).

But let’s start from the beginning. This book focuses on Provence, home to what is perhaps the earliest language reclamation movement, or at least one of the earliest. Poets had already started writing texts in defense of Gascon, Provençal or Languedocien (all dialects of what most scholars of Romance linguistics view as Occitan) back in the 16th and 17th centuries. This is perhaps a consequence of an increasingly aggressive move to promote French in all administrative domains at the expense of Latin and Occitan, which had been in use for official usage for centuries in what is now Southern France. But it was after the French Revolution Terror government (after 1793) sought to eradicate the “patois” that a genuine interest was born in various parts of France, resulting in the south in a rediscovery of the poetry of Medieval Troubadours and in a scholarly interest in the history of Provence and Languedoc before their annexation to France. It wasn’t, however, before the 1850s that an organized language-based movement was formed, under the aegis of poets such as Frederic Mistral or Joseph Roumanille.

The Felibrige was the name they gave to their movement, a name whose origin remains mysterious. The Felibres sought to revive the Provençal or Occitan language (which was still almost universally spoken in all of Southern France) through poetry and literature. And indeed, Mistral published a series of long, epic poems that were hailed across Europe as monuments of literature. Mirèio is probably his most well known poem, a love story set in the Crau region of Provence and an allegory of the language revival movement. Mirèio was acclaimed in Paris as a chef d’æuvre, and was prefaced by Lamartine.

I recount parts of the history of the movement in the book but for this article, suffice it to say that while successful on a literary level, it never succeeded in political terms. Provençal was long banned in education, and despite a strong Occitan movement throughout the 20th century, the use of Provençal continued (and continues) to decline. But the story I tell in this book isn’t the story of the language movement. Instead, following a 2 year ethnographic study in Provence, I ask why the movement was based on language at all, like so many others afterwards—but, crucially, none before, or at least none before the 1840s.

What struck me as I started the work on the PhD thesis that led to this book, back in 2006, was that anthropologists had long written about what they called “revitalization movements”. Anthony Wallace was perhaps the scholar who coined the term back in 1956, but others before him such as Ralph Linton had talked about nativist movements. Those movements, anthropologists argued, could use religion as their basis, or cultural elements, or political institutions. In 1943 Ralph Linton wrote: “The avowed purpose of a nativistic movement may be either to revive the past culture or to perpetuate the current one, but it never really attempts to do either” (Linton 1943, 231). In 1956, Wallace stated that revitalization movements are “a deliberate, organized, conscious effort by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture. Revitalization is thus, from a cultural standpoint, a special kind of culture change phenomenon: the persons involved in the process of revitalization must perceive their culture […] as a system […]; they must feel that this cultural system is unsatisfactory; and they must innovate not merely discrete items, but a new cultural system, specifying new relationships as well as, in some cases, new traits” (Wallace 1956, 43). For Wallace, Revitalization thus starts with a steady state period which gets shattered by an outside event (such as colonization), leading to individual stress and later cultural (collective) distortion which then prompts the revitalization process to happen, often triggered by a Prophet. In turn, revitalization is meant to lead to a new steady state.

Two elements (at least) interested me in this body of work. First, revitalization could happen to something other than language. Second, while the very fact that steady state periods ever existed is itself probably an illusion, what I did observe during my ethnographic fieldwork in Provence was that the language movement did tell a story that adhered closely to the pattern described by Wallace. Those two observations led me to ask two sets of interrelated questions:

  • If revitalization can be about many things, why language? When (and why) does language become something that one can revitalize? Is it, as many sociolinguists claim, because of the realization that many languages are now endangered, and on the brink of disappearance? Or is there something else?
  • Whatever actually happens in the revitalization process, aren’t the movements that generate and support revitalization primarily involved in creating a narrative of revitalization, in order to provide (and ultimately impose) a particular reading of the world? In that sense, aren’t revitalization movements not like most other social movements, seeking to provide collective interpretations for individual events, in this case using language as a focus to take part in a struggle over categorization (to use a term employed by Bourdieu [1991])? And if this is the case, which categorizations are those movements seeking to challenge?

In the book, I thus propose that if language revitalization movements should not be dismissed offhand as romantic pipedreams or as ethnic inward-looking enterprises, they shouldn’t be idealized either as leading a resistance against globalizing and uniformizing forces. Instead, they should be analyzed as human enterprises that seek to provide collective interpretations of the world, using language as a prism. Neither romanticized nor dismissed, language revitalization movements should nevertheless be studied more extensively as social movements. This needs to be done not with the aim of vindicating or extolling their actions, but primarily because their multiplication in the 21st century tells us something about what it means to be human, to struggle as humans, in the world.

I thus propose the following approach in order to problematize the types of social actions that actors involved in language revitalization engage with:

  • First, language revitalization movements are about “groupness,” to use a term coined by Rogers Brubaker to describe how groups are always collective projects. As he writes, “a group is a variable, not a constant; it cannot be presupposed” (Brubaker 2004, 4). Groups, in other words, are what we want to explain, “not what we want to explain things with” (Brubaker 2002, 165). In that sense, language revitalization isn’t about regenerating pre-existing groups, but about inventing new ones, on new terms, while drawing on a construction of those groups as timeless or ancient. What, then, are categories of language and groupness mobilized for, and by whom?
  • Second, language revitalization is fundamentally a struggle over classifications—“struggles over the monopoly of the power to make people see and believe, to get them to know and recognize, to impose the legitimate definition of the divisions of the social world and, thereby, to make and unmake groups” (Bourdieu 1991, 221). The struggles implied here concern what the group that is the object of revitalization is, what are its defining features, what counts as language, as legitimate language, and what rights and duties members have towards each other.
  • Third, language revitalization is a consequence of social contact. Such an approach allows us to shift our gaze from the group that the language movement apparently addresses to the interstices revitalization generates between the minority group and a majority group that gets constructed at the same time. The consequences here are twofold: revitalization is neither an inward-looking movement, nor a way to deal with oppression on the minority group’s own terms. Rather, it is a way to renegotiate the very terms of contact between groups that are created through contact, more often than not on terms imposed by the dominant group (as already suggested by Sanford 1974). In order to exist, in other words, minority groups have to appeal to categories that already have currency among those who they view as the majority. In order to address the cultural elite in Paris, Frederic Mistral had to appeal to categories that they viewed as legitimate: high literature and a codified language with a prestigious, legitimate past.
  • Finally, language revitalization is ultimately not primarily about saving languages, but it is perhaps essentially about finding a terrain to frame other types of claims and projects—social, political, related to land rights etc. In that sense, it is important to consider conflicts within language-based movements not as something that must be overcome, but as an indicator of tensions locally and globally over what the world should look like, who should be allowed to take part in its daily affairs, under what moral and political conditions.

In the book, using those preliminary propositions and applying them to the Provençal case, I seek to show how we, as scholars, can reframe questions relating to language revitalization. While the case is approached ethnographically, I intend to raise questions beyond revitalization in Provence, and to generate a wider discussion as to why so many language-based social movements have emerged worldwide since the 1990s. Because it has been so well documented over the past 150 years, the Provençal revitalization movement is a good point to start this discussion. What then, if anything, has this explosion got to do with the fall of the Soviet Union? If we accept that revitalization is about renegotiating terms of contact on terms imposed by dominant groups, what does this interest in language tell us about global ideologies of language? How does language, rather than, say, race, religion or politics, allow minority groups worldwide to frame their plight in a way that affords them a voice—through Unesco for instance?

* An earlier version of this note appeared in The Philological Society Blog (https://blog.philsoc.org.uk/about/)


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1991. Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Brubaker, Rogers. 2002. “Ethnicity Without Groups.” Archives Européennes de Sociologie 43 (2): 163–89. doi:10.1017/S0003975602001066.

———. 2004. Ethnicity Without Groups. Cambridge [MA]: Harvard University Press.

Huss, Leena. 2008. “Researching Language Loss and Revitalization.” In Encyclopedia of Language and Education, edited by Kendall A King and Nancy H Hornberger, 10: Resear:69–81. Springer.

Linton, Ralph. 1943. “Nativistic Movements.” American Anthropologist 45 (2): 230–40.

Sanford, Margaret. 1974. “Revitalization Movements as Indicators of Completed Acculturation.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 16 (4). Cambridge University Press: 504–18.

Wallace, Anthony F C. 1956. “Revitalization Movements.” American Anthropologist 58 (2). Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association: 264–81.