Opinion, reflections and information

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55. Languages and Linguistics: Scientific Paradigms and Hidden Devotions

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carme Oriol
Universitat Rovira i Virgili


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

53. My encounter with Hebrew

Joan Ferrer
Universitat de Girona


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

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

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

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

  1. North Semitic

1.1. Paleoassyrian  1.2. Amorite  1.3. Ugaritic

  1. East Semitic

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

  1. West Semitic

3.1. Canaanite

3.1.1. Old Canaanite

3.1.2. Hebrew

3.1.3. Phoenician

3.1.4. Ammonite

3.1.5. Moabite

3.1.6. Edomite

3.2. Aramaic

3.3. Arabic

  1. South Semitic

4.1. South Arabian  4.2. Ethiopic


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Gal
University of Chicago


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Endangered Sámi languages

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

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

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

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

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

Rebuilding the lost generation through language education

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

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

New speakers of Sámi languages: Who are they?

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

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

Moving forward with the new language

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

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

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

Understanding, accepting and supporting new speakers

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

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

50. Towards a New Language of the Global Language Crisis

Gerald Roche
Senior Research Fellow
La Trobe University, Australia


Another Global Crisis

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

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


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

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

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

Beyond Biology

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

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

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

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

Towards a New Language of the Global Language Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

Endangered and Oppressed Languages in Tibet

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Shifting our Language

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

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

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

49. Les langues d’Amazonie : la sociodiversité à la rescousse de la biodiversité

Francesc Queixalós


L’UNESCO a proclamé 2019 l’année internationale des langues autochtones. Le territoire amazonien, qui en recèle une multitude exceptionelle, est emblématique des enjeux qu’elles portent. En effet, c’est à travers la langue que se transmettent principalement les traditions, la culture et les modes de pensée d’un peuple. Si bien que dans une grande mesure l’avenir des sociétés autochtones amazoniennes se jouera sur la préservation de leurs langues. Quel est l’état des lieux des langues en Amazonie aujourd’hui et quel futur se dessine pour ces communautés fragilisées par notre mode de vie occidental ?[1]

Une diversité de langues exceptionnelle

Si l’on ajoute au bassin hydrographique de l’Amazone des régions qui en partagent le type de milieu naturel et les formes d’occupation humaine, telles que les Guyanes, le bassin de l’Orénoque des sud vénézuelien et est colombien, les affluents septentrionaux du Plata à la frontière Brésil-Bolivie, et les ouest et nord du bassin du Tocantins, on se trouve en face d’une mosaïque caractérisée par une extrême diversité linguistique. Autour de soixante familles s’y côtoient, dont trois comprenant chacune quelques dizaines de langues et débordant les contours de l’Amazonie telle que définie ci-dessus : l’arawak, depuis la Bolivie — anciennement, depuis le nord de l’Argentine — jusqu’à l’extrême nord-ouest de l’Amérique du Sud (jusqu’en Amérique Centrale, si l’on considère les effets des déportations coloniales); le tupi, dont le rameau tupi-guarani s’étire de l’Argentine jusqu’en Guyane française, et depuis les affluents occidentaux de l’Orénoque jusqu’à — anciennement — la côte est du Brésil; enfin le caribe, du Brésil central à la côte nord nord-ouest du sous-continent et jusqu’à la pointe septentrionale de la Cordillère des Andes. Hormis une petite poignée de langues ayant migré à des époques récentes, l’ensemble jê se situe hors et à l’est de la région considérée. Une variété de tupinamba, la langue parlée sur le littoral brésilien à l’arrivée des Européens, est devenue la langue des métis issus du contact entre Indiens et Portugais. Récupérée par les missionnaires coloniaux, elle a servi de langue véhiculaire dans la conquête et l’évangélisation du bassin amazonien, et fut parlée depuis l’embouchure de l’Amazone jusqu’aux tributaires colombiens et vénézuéliens du Rio Negro. Cette langue générale s’est substituée à beaucoup de langues autochtones. Elle est encore vivante chez certaines communautés du Rio Negro.

L’arc ouest amazonien correspondant approximativement au piémont andin présente la plus grande diversité linguistique. On pense qu’il peut contenir les zones résiduelles de régions d’où seraient parties des vagues d’expansion vers l’est. Il a pu également servir de lieu de refuge devant les catastrophes naturelles ou les guerres. Le nombre de langues amazoniennes approche les trois-cents, la moitié, d’après certaines estimations, de ce qui aurait existé à l’aube du seizième siècle. Les épidémies, conjuguées au travail forcé, aux déportations et aux guerres d’extermination, sont la cause de cette extinction massive, qui se poursuit de nos jours.

En Bolivie il existe des personnes s’identifiant comme Guarasugwe, Huacaraje, ou Maropa, mais ces trois langues ne sont plus utilisées par personne. Côté Brésil, les Akuntsu du Rondônia étaient sept dans les années deux mille. Tous monolingues, mais les seuls individus aptes à procréer à l’époque ou à court terme étaient des consanguins biologiques ou classificatoires. Trois femmes ont survécu en 2020. Si l’on prend les seuls exemples de l’Amazonie bolivienne et péruvienne, en 2008 on comptait, pour la langue isconahua, 28 locuteurs; pour le kayuwawa, 27; canichana, 12; muniche, 10; taushiro, 7; cholon, baure et shimigae, 5 chacun; moré et iñapari, 4 chacun; loretano, 3; leco, 1. Projetons sur ces chiffres la courbe descendante observée chez les Akuntsu, et nous aurons une idée de ce qu’en 2020 peut donner leur extrapolation.

Cette situation de désastre généralisé explique peut-être le nombre relativement important de langues isolées, c’est-à-dire sans parentes identifiables : une quinzaine. Les langues dépassant la dizaine de milliers de locuteurs — piaroa, sikuani, yanomami, makuxi, wapishana, kali’na, shuar, aguaruna, ashaninka, shipibo, tikuna, guajajara — sont vues comme étant comparativement vigoureuses. On compte plus de trente langues parlées de part et d’autre d’une frontière internationale, le kali’na étant un cas extrême, puisque ses locuteurs habitent, tout au long du litoral atlantique, le Vénézuela, le Guyana, le Surinam, la Guyane française et le Brésil.

Sociétés de petite taille et grande diversité linguistique sont des conditions favorisant l’apprentissage de plusieurs langues. Deux régions au moins sont connues pour le multilinguisme prononcé de leurs habitants : le haut Xingu, et le haut Rio Negro avec ses affluents occidentaux. Dans cette dernière les relations entre groupes sont régies par l’hexogamie linguistique : les locuteurs d’une même langue se tiennent pour consanguins; on épouse obligatoirement quelqu’un parlant une langue différente de soi. Si bien que les enfants grandissent dans des maisons collectives où s’entendent au quotidien la langue des pères, qui est aussi celle du lieu de résidence, plus les différentes langues des mères, toutes venues d’ailleurs.











Une vaste champ d’études encore à explorer

Une petite fraction de ces langues a été décrite de façon scientifiquement satisfaisante. Jusqu’à il y a quelques décennies, la recherche menée avec des visées prosélytiques a prédominé, les fondamentalistes anglo-saxons ayant largement succédé aux catholiques surtout européens vers le milieu du vingtième siècle. Chacune à son tour, ces deux facettes du christianisme ont épousé les visées hégémoniques de leurs respectives puissances tutélaires — les monarchies ibériques suivies des républiques indépendantes d’abord, puis les Etats-Unis — dont elles étaient le fer de lance dans des régions de difficile accès mais potentiellement attrayantes au plan géopolitique. De ces époques nous avons hérité quelques descriptions de haute qualité, informées évidemment par l’horizon scientifique de leur temps, mais aussi beaucoup de listes de vocabulaire, des traductions ou adaptations de textes religieux, des analyses phonologiques ou morphologiques souvent rudimentaires. C’est dire l’immensité du champ qui reste encore à explorer. Les pays commencent à prendre en charge la formation de professionnels qualifiés, aptes à relever le défi de la documentation de cette richesse, et les travaux monographiques approfondis se multiplient. Il est rare qu’on découvre dans les langues d’Amazonie des phénomènes totalement originaux. En effet, le degré de variabilité des systèmes linguistiques trouve sa limite naturelle dans la structure de l’esprit humain et dans la fonction de communication. Il y a été néanmoins attesté un ordre des mots dans la phrase tenu, à une époque, pour impossible. Une situation assez commune consiste en l’observation de traits grammaticaux aux propriétés notablement différentes de ce qui est connu ailleurs. Cette originalité relative oblige à des réaménagements locaux de nos idées théoriques, comme c’est le cas pour les systèmes de classification nominale (la grammaire est soucieuse d’expliciter que les êtres que l’on nomme tombent dans des catégories différentes selon leur forme, leur fonction, etc.) ou les systèmes de prise en charge de la source d’information (la phrase doit contenir des marques qui indiquent si l’information est de première main, rapportée, inférée à partir de l’observation, du raisonnement logique, etc.).



Des écoles bilingues pour préserver cette pluralité

En même temps qu’elle se fait plus exigeante, la recherche s’implique dans les processus de récupération de la vitalité linguistique où s’engagent les sociétés indiennes à la faveur des nouvelles formes d’action politique qu’elles se donnent. De nombreux programmes alliant les Indiens organisés, le monde universitaire, les organisations non gouvernementales et les administrations d’Etat, voient le jour. Ils passent souvent par une reformulation de l’école officielle, reformulation qui prend pour principes de base le bilinguisme et l’interculturalité. L’un des plus remarquables de ces programmes est l’expérience menée à Iquitos depuis trente ans. Une véritable école normale d’instituteurs prend en charge des promotions de jeunes issus des communautés indiennes de l’Amazonie péruvienne et en fait des enseignants capables de travailler dans la langue officielle du pays et dans la langue première des enfants, capables d’ouvrir les enfants à la connaissance du monde non-Indien autant qu’à celle de la culture de leurs parents, capables, enfin, de contribuer depuis l’école à une meilleure maîtrise, par les Indiens eux-mêmes, du processus de contact. Un résultat intéressant de ce programme, sous tutelle de l’organisation indigène régionale, est que l’ethnie cocama, nombreuse mais ayant délaissé fortement l’usage de sa langue puisqu’aucun individu de moins de cinquante ans ne l’a eue comme langue première, réintroduit le cocama dans le cursus scolaire, comme seconde langue bien sûr, et étudie les mécanismes au travers desquels la langue pourrait reconquérir des espaces dans l’interaction quotidienne des membres du groupe.

En Guyane française, partant de l’idée que l’acquisition harmonieuse de la première langue est vitale pour le développement cognitif de l’enfant, un groupe de linguistes a lancé à la fin des années quatre-vingt dix un programme appelé aujourd’hui Intervenants en langue maternelle, grâce auquel l’école, dans les villages Indiens (et Noirs Marron), est devenue bilingue. Parmi les obstacles qu’il a fallu surmonter, l’appareil de l’Education Nationale occupe une place de choix.

Un autre type d’expérience est tenté à Manaos, immense île d’asphalte au coeur de l’Amazonie brésilienne. Dans un pays où le nombre de groupes indiens isolés est estimé être encore supérieur à cinquante, le phénomène des Indiens urbanisés commence à attirer l’attention. A Manaos ils sont vingt-mille, principalement Tikuna et Satéré-Mawé venus du haut et bas Amazone respectivement. Ces derniers occupent deux quartiers, et, s’ils ne défrichent plus la forêt, ils produisent toujours des objets manufacturés traditionnels, réalisent des fêtes collectives et des rituels, transmettent la tradition orale, et parlent leur langue dans le cadre de la vie communautaire, utilisant le portugais pour la communication avec les gens de l’extérieur. Ces “villageois urbains” ont pris l’initiative d’introduire la langue propre dans les activités de l’école de quartier en engageant, à leurs frais, un enseignant bilingue. L’administration de l’Education, là encore, peine à s’investir, mais les linguistes de l’Université s’associent à l’expérience au travers d’un programme pour la documentation et la revitalisation de la langue et la culture sateré-mawé.

Sociodiversité et biodiversité ne font qu’un

Ces Indiens, nos contemporains, ont eu de la chance d’arriver vivants au vingt-et-unième siècle. En effet, depuis maintenant plusieurs décennies la sauvagerie des descendants des Européens à leur endroit se voit un tant soit peu tempérée par différents facteurs tels l’exercice de la démocratie dans les pays, les pressions exercées par les institutions et organisations internationales, l’influence de certains secteurs du monde académique et, surtout, la structuration de courants indigènes de revendication politique aux niveaux local, national et international. Mais rien n’est joué. Le modèle économique dominant dans les pays riverains continue de voir en l’Amazonie une terre promise, et les gouvernements de la tenir pour la clé d’un développement capable de tirer vers le haut de larges secteurs de la population la plus démunie. C’était le programme dit d’intégration nationale conduit par la dictature militaire brésilienne des années soixante-dix quatre-vingts, et c’est le programme de l’actuel gouvernement du même pays. Cependant, loin d’améliorer significativement les conditions de vie de la majorité pauvre, cette façon d’aborder la question ne fait au bout du compte que favoriser les activités de prédation de la forêt telles que l’extraction de bois et de métaux précieux, ainsi que l’enrichissement des groupes agro-industriels tournés vers l’exportation de viande et de soja. Les conflits sont nombreux, les morts fréquentes et toujours du même côté. Les politiciens locaux partagent les intérêts des entreprises et des grands propriétaires terriens, quand ce ne sont pas les mêmes personnes physiques. Bien entendu, les effets délétères d’une telle convergence se trouvent décuplés quand cette dernière se situe au niveau national. Le triste spectacle de la forêt en feu de 2019 illustre parfaitement les moyens que se donne une telle politique. Le résultat est que la forêt part en fumée de manière chaque jour plus paroxystique. Parallèlement, il ne fait pas de doute que la présence des groupes indiens sur un territoire contribue à la préservation de sa biosphère. Nul ne peut dire si ces derniers sont des écologistes nés ou s’ils manquent de moyens de destruction. Mais le fait est que vingt pour cent de la surface du Brésil est constitué de terrains dont la couverture forestière a été rasée, alors que dans les territoires indiens la proportion tombe à un pour cent.

A travers le monde, la distribution géographique de la diversité met les espèces vivantes et les langues en corrélation directe. Nulle surprise, donc, à observer la plus grande diversité linguistique dans les régions intertropicales (Afrique sub-saharienne, Sud-est asiatique, Nouvelle Guinée, Mélanésie, et, bien sûr, Amazonie). Il y a néanmoins quelque chose de paradoxal dans le constraste, au sein des sociétés industrielles, entre d’un côté le déploiement des actions en faveur de la biodiversité et son impact sur le financement de la production de connaissances, et de l’autre une relative mais claire indifférence quant au sort de la sociodiversité. A bien y regarder, le souci de la biodiversité prévalant sur le souci de la sociodiversité n’est rien d’autre que le nouveau visage du colonialisme. Explication. 1) Les sociétés industrialisées, ou en voie de l’être, d’une main cherchent à préserver la nature et de l’autre éliminent les sociétés ayant établi une relation différente avec la même nature, en détruisant à cette fin les bases culturelles de la différence : cosmovisions, technologies, style de vie et, bien sûr, langues. 2) Il n’y a qu’une raison plausible à une telle duplicité : les sociétés industrialisées ou en voie de l’être veulent certainement une planète vivable, mais pour elles seules. Le moins qu’on puisse dire est que dans l’action des groupes écologistes cette façon de mettre les choses en perspective ne saute pas aux yeux.


[1] Ces quelques lignes laissent de côté la dévastation qu’engendre à l’heure actuelle la conjugaison de deux fléaux: la pandémie virale et l’action du gouvernement brésilien.

48. The International Year of Indigenous Languages: a call for linguistic diversity

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


When I used to teach courses on the introduction to linguistics, I liked to start by talking about the two most impressive phenomena of language, which are its universality and its extreme diversity. These are facts, not theories, so they are less questionable, and it was also a good way of talking about what we would be tackling. By universality of language we understand that all peoples possess a system of communication of the kind we call natural language. This system is always complete in terms of its internal structure and is suitable, in terms of its function, for meeting the expressive needs of the people who speak that particular language.

The universality of language is rooted in human nature as a whole – it is a feature of the human species – and diversity is a consequence, structurally speaking, of the fact that there is no necessary link between sound and meaning, between the words of languages and the reality they describe – which is why the Catalan word taula and the Spanish word mesa, ‘table’, can refer to the same object – and functionally speaking, of the different evolution of human cultures, of the public dimension of language and of its ability to adapt to specific environments. Universality implies that there are no cognitive differences between human beings based on the grammar of their language. There are differences that can be attributed to greater or lesser cultural development, whatever the criteria used for measuring, at a particular moment in history, but not to grammar. In this sense, I am more inclined to think that every language belongs to the same single species and I do not share the view of those who currently identify language diversity and the diversity of natural species in the endangered languages discourse. This is not just because of its radical unity, but also because the naturalist metaphor can lead to the belief that no role is played in the fate of languages by relations of power between human groups, even though predation also exists between natural species.

It is also plausible to suggest –at least, as much arguable or more than arguable– that various types of languages could play some part in guiding how their speakers experience reality, that is, their knowledge of the social world they are part of and the natural environment in which they live. It is appropriate to go back to this when debating language diversity. All in all, this diversity creates, in the strict sense, the uniqueness of our language, to use the case closest to each person. Our language –whether it is Catalan, Basque or any other– is what it is because for many others it is not their language, it is another language. The singularity of our language and of any other language comes from the plurality of languages out there.

However, the “formal equality” of languages is not accompanied by a “functional equality” that goes beyond “covering the expressive needs of speakers at a point in history”, so in the end, they do their job. But, not all languages can be written, nor are all languages taught at school, neither are they teaching vehicles, official languages or languages for international communication, nor are they sacred languages nor is their continuity guaranteed.

Respect for diversity is a question of rights and of ecology –and therefore of coexistence and survival– as well as of respect for the human beings with whom the language is not shared. Human beings with a historic, cultural and sociolinguistic trajectory, with emotional bonds and with expectations for the future. Building a “common sense” on denial of the rationality of these bonds and these expectations, simply because they are not shared, is a way of naturalising and hiding the interests and privileges that are inherent in those who hold this “common sense”.

Diversity is also important because, among other things, it allows us to face a problem from more than one perspective and perhaps finding more than one solution.

Let us focus now on what the UN calls indigenous languages and on the peoples who speak them, which, after all, is the majority of peoples and languages across the world. Many of these languages are at risk of extinction and this is one of the reasons for holding an International Year. Often the speakers of these languages are associated with poverty; their territory is the target of abusive exploitation of resources and of pillage by others, sometimes by the very people governing their institutions, those who should be protecting them as citizens who, in the end, are part of a state. A metonymic shining example of this is Bolsonaro and the Amazon rainforest. However, here and there, these peoples are showing signs of a struggle for dignity.

We need to ask ourselves: What is lost when a language is lost?

For linguistics and linguists, the answer is clear: When a language disappears without a trace this conditions the development of both historical-comparative linguistics and theoretical linguistics. I cannot go into technicalities here. In brief: it could be the case that if linguists had been able to analyse that language when a protolanguage was rebuilt or when formulating the general necessary principles or human language, the scientific conclusions drawn would have been diferent to those held now without that information. We could say that the secret of one language is often found in another language. And if the latter disappears without a trace it can take with it information that is lost for ever. This is not a trivial issue, but, as human beings, we are interested in knowing what speakers lose rather than what linguistics loses.

It has been said that “the person who loses their language loses their identity”, in fact it has been said so often, it sounds like a slogan. It is true that every social reality is dynamic and, in a sense, every language is also a social reality. All languages evolve, but internal evolution is one thing and supersession is quite another. There is a difference between linguistic and social dynamics. Language shift, frequently resulting in the extinction of the shifting language, is a phenomenon that has repeated itself throughout history. However, this traditionally happened at local level: In many places European state languages have replaced other “minor” languages that were either spoken there or spoken in the overseas colonies. But major indigenous languages have also replaced other minor indigenous languages, with no intervention by state-run structures. Examples of this are Quechua (in South America), a widely spoken language in the Pre-Colombian era, and Wolof (Senegal). Expansion was sometimes helped by colonisers, who promoted one of the indigenous languages concurrently. Good examples of this are Swahili (East Africa) and Guarani (South America). The problem today is that language shift is happening globally and the world linguistic diversity is under serious threat. Language shift involves a loss of speakers, domains, vocabulary and structure, ways of speaking, personal names and place names that forge individual and collective identities. The recessive language takes on an increasing number of creations from the dominant language and, little by little, fewer things can be said in the recessive language, while the dominant language becomes needed more and more to say things. The recessive language stops being used on formal and public occasions, it becomes confined to the neighbourhood and people’s homes, until the dominant language also enters the home and the recessive language is abandoned and not passed down to the next generation. The fact is, however, that these losses do not affect all peoples in the same way. There are communities out there in the world for whom there is no link between language and cultural identity or where a language is not seen as a “blood legacy”. There are also peoples who have shifted their distinctive identity from language to another cultural characteristic (or characteristics), like religion in the case of the Irish, ethnicity, land and ties with traditional institutions in the Basque case, and the vindication of genocide in the Armenian diaspora. Neither Irish nor Basque nor Armenian have completely disappeared, in fact, they have developed, more or less successfully, linguistic revitalisation processes. In any case, speakers had already selected the values that would enable them to continue “being themselves” from the resources in a cultural and ideological repertoire.

It has also been said that when a language –or a final word– vanishes, a whole world vanishes with it. This rallying cry tries to highlight how a language is something more than a means of communication. Every language is a vehicle for a particular way of encoding social relationships, the notion of self, a set of classifications of the social world and the natural world, a particular knowledge of this medium, as well as being a vehicle for certain locally relevant social practices. The loss of a language involves the loss of a particular social order, of cultural and pragmatic knowledge of the world around. And the indigenous languages can provide many examples of this.

It is illustrative to compare the different ways in which languages express spatial location and direction as well as time relations. Conceptually, this is because for Kant – for the sake of argument – space and time were an initial requirement for knowledge: space and time were not learnt but rather a prior condition for all learning. According to this, the extent to which language is the expression of thought, and because of the unity of human nature, it might be expected that there would be no differences in the expression of those relationships in the languages of the world. And yet, there are.

Indeed, languages make use of distinct reference frames to express localization and directional orientation. These frames are defined by intrinsic, relative or absolute systems of coordinates. Let us consider the answer to WHERE IS IT? in the horizontal plane. Catalan, like many other European languages, makes use of a system of relative coordinates: spatial relations are defined according to the self, the body axis, the position and the orientation of the person speaking. Thus, we situate objects on our right or on our left, in front of us or behind us, according to our orientation: If we turn 180 degrees, what was on our left is now on our right, and what was in front of us is now behind us: “The ticket window is entering on the right” (when leaving, it is on the left), “The knife is on the right and the fork is on the left” (for the dinner guest who sits in front, the same knife is on the left and the same fork is on the right). We also partly make use of intrinsic coordinates when we situate an object in relation to another, without reference to any of the conversation partners and without implying an observe’s point of view: “The piano stool is in front the piano”, “Gardunya square is behind La Boqueria”, “The prow is the front part of a boat”, “The ball went into the left upper corner” (the speaker may have the left upper corner on the right, but he construes it as fixed part of the goal) . Needless to say, there are ambiguous cases: “The bookrest is on the left of the altar (from my/your point of view/the altar’s left side). Given the weight of the speaker as a point of reference, we could name these languages (i.e. those making use of relative coordinates complemented by intrinsic coordiantes) “egocentric languages”.

However, other languages, like many of the first Australian languages, have referential frameworks with absolute spatial coordinates based on the points of the compass: north is always north and south is always south, etc. So, the speaker verbally situates objects to the north or to the south, to the east or to the west, and if they turn 180 degrees they still place them in the north, south, east or west, and this is expressed in the grammar of the language and in discourse. We call these geocentric.

There are still some languages that use a system of absolute coordinates, like the previous examples, but rather than being guided by compass points they use the features around them. So, Maya languages in Central America express location and direction according to the slope of the mountain: “uphill”, “downhill”. The objects are up the mountain or down the mountain, but not in our relative sense, compared to the speaker’s position but in absolute terms: what is uphill the mountain is always uphill the mountain. When speakers of these languages are away from their habitual surroundings, they continue to situate objects uphill or downhill, even when they are on flat terrain. Siberian languages express direction with respect to a river (“upriver”, “downriver”) and the languages of people living on an island, say the Pacific, can similarly express direction pointing to the land or the sea (“inland”, “seawards”). I call them ecocentric languages because the absolute coordinates consist of features in the surroundings where the speakers live.

It is worth noting that the expression of location or direction in these languages not only works for long distances (like when we refer to the north or to some other compass point), it is valid for short distances too: “the bottle is on the table, east of the glass” or “the bottle is on the table, downhill from the glass”. In these languages the expression of the compass points or of features in the surrounding area is grammaticalised, just as the expression of singular or plural is for us: we cannot refer to objects without indicating if there is one or more than one. It is a compulsory grammatical category. The notion of north/south, uphill/downhill, etc. is incorporated into words that can be either nominal or verbal, like the distinction between singular and plural in Catalan or English.

This typology of reference frames is a simplification. The question is that not all languages make use of all three systems. There are languages that use almost exclusively intrinsic coordinates while others use almost exclusively absolute coordinates. Many languages combine all three or only two systems. Indeed, the only combination that seems to be excluded is relative without intrinsic coordinates.

In the end, everything to do with languages is highly permeable and all grammars have somewhat fuzzy edges, so an egocentric language can also have non-egocentric nooks and crannies – we have seen up the case of intrinsic coordinates. However, one thing is compulsory grammatical categories and another is the ability to express the same relations with the expressive means provided by every language. People from Barcelona, whether they were born or settled there, sometimes use an ecocentric system of coordinates to express location or orientation, which has nothing to do with the language they speak, neither is it a grammatical feature. Barcelona lies between two rivers, the Besós and the Llobregat, and between mountains, the Collserola range, and sea, the Mediterranean. One way of identifying the place where we want to meet a friend might be: “Let’s meet in Provença street on the corner of Passeig de Gràcia, on the sea and the river Besós side”. We would come face to face with each other in front of Gaudi’s la Pedrera. One more example, F.C. Barcelona’s supporters all know that “the southern goal” and “the northern goal” are neither a goal at all nor change the score, but they know whether their seat in the Camp Nou is closer to the one or the other.

If at some point in history all geocentric languages and all ecocentric languages had disappeared without leaving any documented trace, today’s linguist might feel prompted to devise the hypothesis that the system of relative coordinates (on the right/left, in front/behind, on/under, etc.) is a linguistic universal –and therefore a necessary feature in the cognitive system of the human brain that we call language– when in actual fact it would be an accident of history.


*This text was produced from lectures given to mark the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages.

Sapir, Edward, Language: An introduction to the study of speech, New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1921.

Sapir, Edward (1924) “The grammarian and his language”. In The selected Writings of Edward Sapir in language, culture and personality, ed. David G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California, 1949, 150-159.

Levinson, Stephen, Space in language and cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

47. Diversity and the Latin language

James Adams
All Souls College Oxford


Those learning Latin grammar for the first time may be tempted to look upon the language as a fossilised thing, rigidly standardised. And yet it was to evolve in the different parts of the Roman Empire into a variety of different (Romance) languages, closely related to one another but different enough that a native speaker of one will usually have to learn how to speak another. Latin was once a living language, evolving gradually. In the last forty years or so much has been learnt about the diversity of Latin during the Roman period, thanks particularly to the ongoing discovery of writing tablets from different parts of the former Empire. These reflect not the usage of high literature but that of ordinary people, who in some cases were dictating to scribes, so that we may sometimes be observing specimens of mundane speech. Tablets have been found in various parts of the Empire, with Britain a particular source of new discoveries. Many tablets come from the Roman military base, Vindolanda, on Hadrian’s Wall, dating roughly from the early second century AD. These are often private letters. A different category consists of curses directed against someone who has wronged the writer. These, sometimes a substitute for a police service that did not exist, have been turning up over a long period from all over the ancient world in Greek and Latin, but substantial Latin discoveries have been made in Britain, at for example Bath and Uley in Gloucestershire.

One of the Vindolanda letters (Tab. Vindol. 291) has possibly the earliest piece of handwriting by a woman extant. Claudia Severa invites her friend Lepidina to her birthday party. The letter is written in two hands, one for the formal invitation, and the other for the endearment addressed to Lepidina at the end. The invitation was written by a scribe, and then Claudia took over and closed with her affectionate greeting, calling Lepidina anima mea. . . . karissima, ‘my dearest soul’. Lepidina uses the spelling with k for carissima, which was recommended by grammarians before the letter a. The change of hands is not uncommon in such letters.

The regional and social diversity of the Latin language receives comment from as early as about 200 BC. For instance, the rustic character Truculentus in Plautus’ play of that name uses the word rabonem for arrabonem, which is picked up at once by another speaker and described as a ‘monster’ (beluam). Truculentus defends himself by citing as a (supposed) parallel a regional term ‘as used by the Praenestines’. It was no doubt thought to be funny that before a Roman audience he justified a linguistic abnormality by citing a usage from Praeneste. In the late Republic the recognition that there were regional varieties of the language outside the city began to generate an ideological debate, with some city ‘purists’ damning the ‘harshness’ of rural varieties (see e.g. Cicero, De oratore 3.42) and attempting to stamp out their influence in the city. Cicero in particular pronounces on the merits of Roman Latin, which he thought to be under threat because of the influx of outsiders (Brutus 258). Some comment on ‘rustic’ Latin was however more neutral, consisting of phonetic observations. Cicero’s learned contemporary Varro, author of a work on the Latin language, mentions a rustic pronunciation of via, as veha. Attitudes to the variation perceived between dialects of the city and those of the country were not uniform. There were some who found rural varieties old-fashioned, and cultivated them. Cicero (De oratore 3.42) refers to L. Cotta, who took delight in the ‘rustic sound of his voice’ and thought that it reflected the speech of an earlier time.

I turn again to new writing tablets and other discoveries and some evidence they provide for aspects of the diversity of Latin.

The literary word for ‘horse’ was equus, which occurs hundreds of times in classical texts. This is a word which, despite its frequency, does not survive (except in the feminine: equa ‘mare’) in any of the Romance languages, where it is caballus that provides the term for ‘horse’, a loanword into Latin of unknown origin. Caballus is rare in Latin literature, and it tends to be in low genres or to be pejorative in tone, denoting a horse of low quality. In the Vindolanda tablets equus has not yet turned up. Remarkably, caballus is the term used instead by the military personnel stationed there (four examples so far, one in a tablet just published, in 2019). As these are army animals they are unlikely to have been of low quality. The Vindolanda tablets are perhaps the only corpus extant from the Roman world in which caballus is preferred to equus. Here is evidence for the social diversity of the language in the early second century. The man in the street used caballus, whereas high literature used equus. The everyday term remained largely submerged, but writing tablets have brought it to the surface and shown that it was not merely derogatory.

Another such case is provided by the form of the word for ‘blood’, classical Lat. sanguis, accusative case sanguinem. In writing tablets from Uley, Bath and the Hamble Estuary in Britain a modified accusative form sanguem has appeared recently five times, reflecting a standardisation of the number of syllables of the different case forms. It now becomes clear that it was this submerged form (and not the literary, neuter, word sanguen, as was previously thought) that generated Romance terms such as Italian sangue, French sang, Catalan sang and Portuguese sangue.

Or again, the verbal abstract noun vectura of classical Latin (of the action of transporting someone or something) is now attested in a Vindolanda tablet (600), not only in an assimilated form (vetura with ct > t), but also with a concrete meaning (= ‘wagon’). Here at an early date we have an anticipation of Fr. voiture and It. vettura.

New discoveries also throw light on contacts across the Roman Empire that contributed to the diversity of the language. For example, various Greek loanwords were introduced into Latin in Egypt, probably in military circles, during the Empire, and had no currency in Latin beyond that region. An example is amaxa ‘wagon’, < ἅμαχα, which is found in the ostraca from Wâdi Fawâkhir and also in a letter from the Myos Hormos Road. The word is also in the Greek ostraca from Wâdi Fawâkhir, and it had obviously found its way into Latin locally without spreading.

Moritix, a Celtic word meaning ‘sailor, seafarer’ (lit. ‘one going by sea’), in 2002 turned up in a Latin inscription from a site in Southwark, London (British Epigraphy Society Newsletter 8, 2002). Here is a word that had entered Latin in the Celtic provinces, denoting a type of trader. The latest attestation is suggestive of trading links between London and Celtic regions across the Channel.

Another striking item came to light in 1994 in a curse tablet from Brandon, Suffolk. The object stolen is referred to as popia. Popia is recognisable as a word without etymology meaning ‘ladle’. The word survives in Gallo-Romance, mainly with the meaning ‘ladle’. The attestation from Brandon again suggests a connection between Gaul and Britain. Popia must be a dialect word for ‘ladle’, as there were other terms with this meaning, such as trulla.

We do not of course depend only on writing tablets and the like for information about the linguistic diversity of Latin and its causes. Some literary evidence from the Republic was cited above for dialect variation between Rome and rural areas of Italy. I mention here just one other body of literary material, of imperial date (Christian texts), that gave an impulse to language variety. A new influence on Latin during the Empire were Bible translations. These were texts translated from Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament), and syntactic features were sometimes taken over into the Latin versions from the source language. With verbs of saying, for example, in classical Latin the dative case was normally used to express the addressee, whereas in the Romance languages reflexes of Lat. ad have replaced the dative, except with pronouns. Latin Bible translations seem to have been one influence giving impetus to the replacement of the dative by ad. In the Latin version of the OT ad is common with verbs of saying, under the influence of the Hebrew, and in the Gospel of John ad is also so used, under the influence of the Greek. Some Christian writers seem to have picked up this use of ad from the Vulgate, and they admitted it in their own works. Jerome in his letters was one such. It would be wrong to imply that Biblical influence was the main determinant of the switch from the dative to ad (with nouns and names), a change with a drawn-out history and complex determinants, but it played a part.

The Church fathers also made attempts to influence the language. A notable case is that of names for the days of the week. The pagan names, which alluded to pagan gods (e.g. dimarts < dies Martis in Catalan), were stigmatised, and an effort was made to introduce, after the ‘Lord’s day’ ((dies) dominica/dominicus), circumlocutions such as secunda feria ‘Monday’, tertia feria, etc. Feriae, a plural in Classical Latin, originally meant ‘festival, holy day’. The reform succeeded in Portugal (e.g. Pg. segunda-feira ‘Monday’). The circumlocutions were used in late Latin by Christian writers from other parts of the Empire too. The pilgrimage text the Peregrinatio Aetheriae, written by a woman from Gaul, makes extensive use of the circumlocutions, with ordinals from secunda to sexta. Another Gallic writer, Caesarius of Arles, in one of his published sermons urged the new names on his addressees. Despite this, the usage did not survive in Gallo-Romance.

A lexical success of Christian origin was the Greek word parabola (παραβολή), which was used in the Greek New Testament and from there as a borrowing in the Latin translations, with the meaning ‘parable, illustration’. It was to survive throughout the Romance languages with the meaning ‘word’, probably via an intermediate meaning ‘Word (of God, Christ’).

Latin thus had a diversity determined e.g. by trading contacts, army movements, the efforts of reformers, morphological simplifications, and distinctions of attitude to lexemes across different social classes, about which we are learning more form new discoveries. I have merely touched the surface above.

There is however more to diversity than regional and social variations of a single language. In a wider sense linguistic diversity is significantly diminished by imperialism and modern communications leading to language death. It has been estimated that in about 100 BC 60 different languages were spoken around the Mediterranean, whereas by AD 400 only about half a dozen of these (apart from Latin and Greek) survived. Latin had begun by eliminating the languages of Italy, and then spread further. Greek retained its high prestige and coexisted with Latin in eastern parts of the Empire. Language death is a phenomenon of widespread concern in the modern world.

We do not however hear of an aggressive Roman policy of eliminating local languages. Punic for example continued to be spoken in Africa well into the Empire. New discoveries, once again, have thrown light on local bilingualism, revealing some local languages coexisting at least for a time with Latin, and interacting with it. By far the most important evidence of this kind is provided by the records of a pottery at La Graufesenque, near Millau, France, on the left bank of the river Dourbie (published in 1988). The pottery produced Samian wares of Italian type in the style of Arretium in N. Italy. Some of the potters working there have names of Latin origin, and others have names of Gaulish origin. There had probably been immigration of potters from Arretium to South Gaul. Some of the records are in Gaulish, and some in Latin, but in others there is language switching. Latin inflections are applied to Gaulish words, and Gaulish inflections to Latin. On the whole the two languages are differentiated, but changes of language (code-switches) occur in single texts. This code-switching is consistent with a partially bilingual community in which the potters were communicating in both languages.

The diversity of Latin is revealed by various sources, but it is important to be aware of the abundant and increasing non-literary documents, which, if they come into the hands of public collections rather than private collectors, may gradually contribute to a revision of the history of the language.




46. A Personal Note – The Māori Language Landscape in Aotearoa New Zealand, 2020

Tania M Ka’ai
Te Ipukarea Research Institute / Auckland University of Technology (AUT)


Māori, as the Indigenous people of Aotearoa New Zealand, constitute 16.5% of a total population of 4,699,755 or 775,836 (Statistics New Zealand, 2019). According to Statistics New Zealand (2019), 185,955 people (4.0%) of the total population identified as being able to speak te reo Māori (the Māori language) at various degrees of proficiency. This figure includes non-Māori.  There are 159,645 Māori (20.6%) who identify as being able to speak te reo Māori at various degrees of proficiency.  However, this number is problematic as it is often the case that lesser able speakers of the language can inflate their ability, while more proficient speakers of the language tend to understate their ability.  The reality is that te reo Māori struggles to survive because there is still a paucity of proficient second language speakers and even fewer native speakers of the language.

The Māori Cultural Renaissance period which has its roots in the 1970s in Aotearoa New Zealand, gave rise to several Māori language revitalisation initiatives for the next 20 – 30 years including the revival of taonga pūoro (traditional Māori musical instruments), Māori performing arts, educational initiatives such as Te Kōhanga Reo (early childhood nests using Māori as the medium of instruction) and Kura Kaupapa Māori (primary school operating under Māori custom and using Māori as the medium of instruction), tā moko (traditional art of tattoo), Māori broadcasting such as iwi (tribe) radio stations, a Māori television channel and the reclaiming of Māori tribal land.

These initiatives have emerged against a backdrop of Māori protest and lobbying of government and are best described as Māori assertions to sovereignty. The ability to speak te reo Māori became an intrinsic component of Māori cultural identity. The recognition of te reo Māori as the first language in Aotearoa New Zealand continues to be put on the government agenda by Māori. This has in the last decade, given rise to the New Zealand government introducing the Māori Language Act 2016.

This response has been realised by setting specific targets. Te Maihi Karauna – the Crowns Strategy for Māori Language Revitalisation 2018-2023 that emerged out of the Te Ture mō te Reo Māori 2016 (The Māori Language Act 2016) has created a new way of approaching language revitalisation. The Act established a partnership between the Crown, iwi (tribes) and Māori, who are represented by Te Mātāwai, an independent entity. Te Mātāwai focuses on homes, communities and the nurturing of Māori children as first language speakers of te reo Māori, hence Te Maihi Māori. The Crown, focuses on creating a New Zealand society where te reo Māori is valued, learned and used by developing policies and services that support language revitalisation, hence Te Maihi Karauna.

The Maihi Karauna proposes three very bold goals to achieve by 2040:

  • That 85% of New Zealanders (or more) will value te reo Māori as a key part of national identity;
  • That one million New Zealanders can speak at least basic te reo Māori; and
  • That 150,000 Māori aged 15 years and over will use te reo Māori as much as English.

(Te Puni Kōkiri, 2019)


This presents a huge challenge for us as a nation because it requires a change of attitude particularly by non-indigenous New Zealanders to embrace te reo Māori. A study undertaken in 2019 called, Ki te tahatū o te rangi: Normalising te reo Māori across non-traditional Māori language domains assessed the non-indigenous New Zealand landscape about attitudes within their organisations towards te reo Māori. The research explored the integration of Māori language in various organisations across Aotearoa New Zealand. According to Haar, Ka’ai, Ravenswood & Smith (2019), the research identified why organisations use, support and champion the use of te reo me ngā tikanga Māori (the Māori language and culture) in Aotearoa, New Zealand and the challenges that prevent them from doing so. Understanding the drivers and barriers of te reo Māori terminology and Māori culture workplace usage is a crucial element for achieving a greater use of Māori language across New Zealand society.

Technology is also playing a vital role in normalising the language. Increasingly technology is being used for the documentation and revitalisation of endangered languages and many endangered languages appear to be making a successful transition to new media. This includes the Māori language in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

One example of this is the Kupu app, available free on the App Store as Kupu Spark. It was a collaborative project between Spark New Zealand with Colenso BBDO (the creative designers), Google, and the Te Aka Māori Dictionary Team of the Te Murumāra Foundation, a not-for-profit Charitable Trust set up in memory of a much-loved colleague, mentor, and friend, Professor John Moorfield.

Figure 1
Kupu App

Note:   Kupu, which means ‘word’ in the Māori language, was launched during Māori Language Week in September 2018. The app enables users to take a photo of something in their surroundings, identifies it, and offers the Māori translation in real-time (it also does this for photos already stored on the device). The Te Aka Māori – English, English – Māori Dictionary (Te Aka) is the engine behind the Kupu app, providing quality assured translations.


The Kupu app was nominated as a finalist in the annual Māori Language Commission Awards in the Te Wiki o te Reo Māori / Māori Language Week category, which it won. It also received the overall award, Te Tohu Huia te Reo / Supreme Award. So, it is against this background that the Kupu app has gained extraordinary success. The following statistics are evidence of this:

  • Kupu was the #1 trending app on the App Store and Google Play stores during Māori language week 2018.
  • Since the launch of the app on September 8 2018 there have been 7,014,124 API calls by the app in total.  This means each time a person uses the app it makes a call to our API.
  • Total calls provided September 4 2019 was 5,043,765.
  • API calls since then is 1,970,359 to date (June 4, 2020 )
  • 294,597 people are now using the app (June 4, 2020)
  • 3,365,179 photos have been taken within the app, by 242,764 people (June 4, 2020)
  • 26,321 people have uploaded images (June 4, 2020)
  • 4,687,500 audio-clips have been played (June 4, 2020)
  • 62,106 people have visited the website, 72,762 times (June 4, 2020).
  • The feedback loop improves language; lets users input corrections or suggest other translations, moderated by a te reo Māori language expert


Another example is Te Tomokanga Rauemi Reo (TRRM) which is an online te reo Māori digital portal. The portal comprises a vast corpus of te reo Māori and mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) created through documentary research, wānanga (intense discussions on specific topics) and interviews. The construction of TRRM is informed by research already undertaken, user requirements and best practice to provide a user-friendly and effective environment of accessible Māori language and Māori knowledge.

Figure 2
Tomokanga Rauemai Reo Māori

Note: The Tomokanga Rauemi Reo Māori project has delivered a searchable directory with content and material resulting from search, review and research in the form of relevant Māori language material, references, collections and links.


The portal is future proofed by ensuring that other digital projects can be added to the site over the coming years. Other researchers will also be able to utilise the portal as an appropriate mechanism to share their digital Māori language resources with a wider audience.

Metadata and archiving standards have been employed for the portal and require archival research, implementation of national and international archiving standards as well as innovative information technology (IT) application and development.

The types of users envisaged include anyone searching for support in their Māori language and mātauranga Māori journey. The portal provides access to Māori language resources, including publications, iwi,radio, television programmes, community initiatives, websites and social media. With a focus only on resources for the Māori language, it is envisaged that over time, it will become the preferred and single portal used by those requiring and interested in Māori language resources.

As the first language of Aotearoa New Zealand, te reo Māori has an important role to play in the identity and wellbeing of Māori (Houkamau & Sibley, 2010). So akin to the research by Fishman, Hinton, McCarty and so many others, it is no surprise that there is an upsurge in Māori parents choosing to raise their children in te reo Māori; most of these are second language learners who have achieved a high level of proficiency in the language.

A study undertaken over a three year period was Te Reo o te Pā Harakeke.    This study sought to understand the factors that contribute to the successful intergenerational transmission of te reo Māori within the whānau (family) presents some interesting findings. The focus of the research was on the,

…challenges that families face, the strategies they employ, and the resources they rely on in raising Māori speaking children and ensuring that te reo Māori is the primary and dominant language of the home and related environments that families function in, such as the supermarket, the beach, the playground, the marae, the swimming pool, and the library (Ka‘ai, 2020, p.3).


The findings from the study fosters a stronger sense of awareness of the circumstances that constitute language endangerment in Aotearoa New Zealand and provides an impetus to efforts to promote the use of the Māori language as an everyday language used in a wide range of contexts. Throughout the report, the importance of promoting the use of Māori in the home could not be overstressed. Hence, educational initiatives, such as Kura Kaupapa Māori and Te Kōhanga Reo, can only be truly successful if the language is reinforced in the home. While schools have an important part to play in the maintenance and survival of Indigenous languages, Fishman (1991) has pointed out that successful revival of threatened languages requires reinstating the language firmly in the home through transmission from parent/s to the child. This view is supported by Hinton (2008) who states, “…if the parent is fluent, then that must be the language of communication between the parent and child, either at all times or during a significant amount of time” (p.13).

If the home is a stronghold of the Māori language, then children will not have to go to school to learn te reo Māori, rather, the school will reinforce and extend what the child receives at home. As Hinton (2008) further suggests, ”true ’reversal of language shift‘ cannot be successful in the long run unless families make it their own process”.

As a parent activist, I have had to learn my language as a second language. I sent my child to Te Kōhanga Reo and Te Kura Kaupapa Māori to be exposed to the language everyday. I then followed this up in the home with her which was often very difficult as I was the only parent who could speak te reo Māori with her in the home. The intention was to bring the language back into the home environment and stop any further decline of the language or language loss in my own family thus bringing about long-term transformational change. This process has worked for me as I have seen first-hand that the best time to learn a language is when one is a child. I am fortunate that the importance of te reo Māori was indelibly printed in the mind and heart of my child who, alongside her husband, also a speaker of the language, are raising their child (my grandchild) in te reo Māori as a first language and she is the first native speaker in my family since 1881. Joshua Fishman said that the vitality of a language is in its transmission between generations. ‘Those of us who were involved in the early days of the Kōhanga Reo movement, to give our children access to te reo Māori, could only dream of the day when our children would themselves become parents and would raise our grandchildren in the language, fulfilling the dictum that language learning begins at the breast.
For some of us, myself included, that dream has become a reality.’ (Ka’ai, 2020)

The many Māori language initiatives over the last 50 years in Aotearoa New Zealand to develop a landscape where te reo Māori can flourish are part of the Māori language revitalisation revival continuum. But it is hoped that with recent initiatives to normalise the language among non-traditional Māori domains within the dominant non-Māori society, offset by increasing numbers of Māori families raising their children in te reo Māori in the home, that te reo Māori will indeed flourish and we will see a return of intergenerational language transmission of te reo Māori across generations of Māori families and the emergence of native speakers of te reo Māori within Māori society once again.



Fishman, J. (1991). Reversing language shift: Theoretical and empirical foundations of assistance to threatened languages. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Haar, J., Ka‘ai, T., Ravenswood, K., & Smith, T. (2019). Ki te tahatū o te rangi: Normalising te reo Māori across non-traditional Māori language domains.

Hinton, L. (2008). Learning and teaching endangered indigenous languages. In N. Van Deusen-Scholl & N. H. Hornberger (Eds.). Encyclopaedia of language and education (2nd edition). Volume 4: Second and foreign language education (pp. 157-167). New York, NY: Springer.

Houkamau, C.A., & Sibley, C.G. (2010). The multi-dimensional model of Māori identity and cultural engagement. New Zealand Journal of Psychology, 39(1), 8-28.

Ka‘ai, T. (2020). Te Reo o Te Pā Harakeke – Final Report. Unpublished report.

Ka‘ai, T. (2020). Te Whare Matihiko o te Reo – Final Report. Unpublished report.

Ka’ai, T., Mahuta, D. & Smith, T. (2019). Te Aka Māori – English, English – Māori Dictionary: the engine behind the Kupu app, a high impact collaborative Māori language revitalisation project. [Paper presentation]. Australex Conference, Canberra, Australia

Ka’ai, T., Mahuta, D. & Smith, T. (2019). The Kupu App: A high impact collaborative language revitalisation project. [Paper presentation]. Pullima Conference, Darwin, Australia.

Moorfield, J. C. (n.d.). Māori Dictionary, Te Aka Māori-English, English-Māori Dictionary. https://maoridictionary.co.nz/search?idiom=&phrase=&proverb=&loan=&keywords=Te+Aka

Spark New Zealand (2018) KupuTake a photo, learn a language: About. https://kupu.co.nz/about/

Statistics New Zealand (2018, 02 October). Expected updates to Māori population statistics. https://www.stats.govt.nz/news/expected-updates-to-maori-population-statistics

Te Puni Kōkiri, (2019, February) Maihi Karauna: The Crown’s Strategy for Māori Language        Revitalisation 2019-2023. https://www.tpk.govt.nz/docs/tpk-maihi-karauna-en-2018-v2.pdf

Te Puni Kōkiri (2018, August) Maihi Karauna: The Crown’s Strategy for Māori Language        Revitalisation 2018–2023 Consultation, August–September 2018,        https://www.tpk.govt.nz/docs/tpk-maihi-karauna-en-2018.pdf

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