Opinion, reflections and information

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

45. Hawaiian revitalization growth under quarantine

William Wilson
University of Hawai’i at Hilo


The case of the Hawaiian language is truly one of revitalization. The intergenerational use of the language had stopped with one tiny exception when the language revitalization began in earnest with the establishment of the non-profit ʻAha Pūnana Leo in 1983. A tiny core of Hawaiian language learner college students began the Pūnana Leo language nests to support and grow their efforts to use Hawaiian in the home. In order to protect the gains made with preschoolers in the language nest, an effort was made to remove the legal barriers to use of Hawaiian in public education. That successful effort resulted in a movement to reestablish Hawaiian language immersion and Hawaiian medium education in the schools through to high school.

I report here on how Hawaiian language revitalization is occurring during a time when schools are closed and the community of Hawaiian speakers centered around schools taught through Hawaiian must find other ways to strengthen themselves. An effect of the COVID-19 crisis has been to reinforce a sense of responsibility among parents for the Hawaiian language use of their children and a growth in the use of Hawaiian in homes. That sense of responsibility is part of a larger movement to move forward from this pandemic even stronger as a unique island community with a distinctive heritage.


Historical background

First contact between Hawaiʻi and the larger global community occurred in 1778 with the arrival of Captain James Cook of Great Britain. The neolithic indigenous Polynesian culture rapidly adopted a western form of government under a constitutional monarchy. Protestant Christianity spread rapidly along with a Latin based writing system. Through Hawaiian language newspapers, Native Hawaiians documented a substantial body of traditional culture, literature and history. The written record plus a substantial tape recording collection has served as an important resource for language revival.

Disease reduced the Native Hawaiian population by more than 80% resulting in the importation of workers from China, Japan and the Azores among other areas. Nevertheless the indigenous Polynesian Hawaiian language remained the largest spoken language and was used for interethnic communication up until the US supported overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy in 1893.

There was already widespread bilingualism in English in the majority Native Hawaiian population at that time. Universal compulsory public schooling for children had begun in 1841 with Hawaiian language medium schools attended by children of all ethnicities. English medium schooling spread first among the elite. Then due to political and economic pressures from the American derived sugar planter class more and more English medium schools opened for the non-elite in the Native Hawaiian and immigrant populations (R. Fernandez in https://www.linguapax.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/linguapax19-1-1.pdf). Once that group overthrew the Hawaiian Monarchy they made English the only medium of education. With annexation of Hawaiʻi to the United States in 1898, US policy to eliminate indigenous languages in favor of English solidified and children were punished for speaking Hawaiian in schools.

In response to the punishment for use of Hawaiian and predictions that there was no future for the Hawaiian language, children adopted a pidginized English as their peer group language. This language then creolized as the dominant language of the multiracial non-elite groups replacing Hawaiian https://www.hawaii.edu/satocenter/langnet/definitions/hce.html).

By 1920 the last generation of children who used Hawaiian as the primary means of peer group communication had been born throughout the eight Hawaiian Islands, except for the most isolated of the inhabited islands – Niʻihau. On that island Hawaiian remained in use by about 200 people into the 1980s, when they began to migrate to the nearest larger island where their children began to assimilate to Hawaiʻi Creole English.

The 1980s was also a time of cultural awakening in Hawaiʻi – what is often called the Hawaiian Rennaissance. College enrollments in optional Hawaiian language courses grew exponentially. More advanced students began to consider the possibility of raising their own children speaking Hawaiian as a first language as had been the case two generations earlier. My wife Kauanoe Kamanā and I were among those students. A small group of us and our teacher Larry Kimura founded the ʻAha Pūnana Leo non-profit organization to follow the lead of the Kōhanga Reo language nest movement in New Zealand. Our family was one of the very first group of second language speakers to raise children with Hawaiian as the first language of the home. The Pūnana Leo language nest was a means of protecting our children from losing Hawaiian that would have occurred through enrollment in the English medium schools. Such loss of Hawaiian among children was then happening with the Niʻihau community and had happened in earlier generations for other communities.

When the Pūnana Leo movement began in the early 1980s, there were still elders proficient in Hawaiian who could work in those total Hawaiian medium childcare centers, as well as a few younger people from Niʻihau also available as teachers. However, from its initiation the ʻAha Pūnana Leo was keenly aware that second language speaking teachers needed to be developed. Today, the teachers in the Pūnana Leo and follow up programs are all second language speakers or first language speakers who acquired Hawaiian as a first language from second language speaker parents https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eVMNXNMVY_M). The Pūnana Leo preschools give enrollment preference to children who already speak Hawaiian through parent use in the home. The rest of the enrollment is made up of children of parents committed to learning Hawaiian with their children.

While the movement faced many difficulties and barriers, it has continued and grown since the 1980s, with the ʻAha Pūnana Leo remaining a core force in serving and developing Hawaiian speaking families. One of the key victories was removing the legal barriers to eduction through Hawaiian in the public schools. In most of the resulting Hawaiian immersion public schools a large majority of students enrolled come from Hawaiʻi Creole English speaking homes. Such Hawaiian language immersion schools run under the standard public school system which is English medium focused. While classroom teaching is delivered through Hawaiian, school operations are through English and English is dominant in those schools outside the classroom, even for children from Hawaiian speaking homes.

There is a smaller number of Hawaiian language medium charter schools that are funded by the government, but where operations follow the Pūnana Leo model. In Hawaiian language medium charter schools, Hawaiian is the operational language. Over half of the children in such schools enroll already speaking Hawaiian from a Pūnana Leo site. About one third come from homes where Hawaiian is regularly spoken. Parents at the Pūnana Leo are required to study Hawaiian, even if they already speak it, and grow the language in the home. The Hawaiian medium schools also hold regular parent instruction nights to move parental use of the language forward.


Ni’ihau language loss – Exponential growth elsewhere

Hawaiian has been largely lost in the Niʻihau community due to migration away from their small isolated island to an economically depressed region on the neighboring island of Kauaʻi (http://www.niihauheritage.org/). Socio-economic forces have instilled in many from Niʻihau the fear that their children will be hampered by speaking Hawaiian. English medium schooling there has further weakened use of Hawaiian among them. Even when grandparents in the home use Hawaiian, children use English among themselves and often with their young parents as well. There is one small charter school, however, seeking to maintain Hawaiian among Niʻihauans, albeit in a model that has had to respond to fears regarding the prospect of not knowing English with use of English beyond what would be needed to produce bilingualism.Even among the Niʻihau families affiliated with that school, English has come to be the dominant language of most younger generations in the home.

The strongest use of Hawaiian currently in homes comes from second language speaker parents or descendants affiliated with the laboratory Hawaiian language medium school Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu in Hilo on Hawaiʻi Island https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhELoIta084). That school is also the site of the largest Pūnana Leo. Second language speakers are similar to survivors of an epidemic who have a certain immunity to the disease that disseminated earlier generations. The second language speakers realize that the Hawaiian language is not a detriment to the socio-economic success of their children. The school focuses on college preparatory education and is affiliated with the rather recently established Hawaiian language medium college (https://www.hawaii.edu/news/2014/01/13/new-hilo-home-for-hawaiian-language/).

At Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu, high proficiency in Hawaiian is associated with socio-economic success. Therefore, children enrolled at Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu who speak Hawaiian at home are resistant to pressure to abandon Hawaiian as their language of primary use and identity. They also provide a model for other children from Hawaiʻi Creole English dominant families in their school to emulate. Regardless, as children enter adolescence at Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu and interact more with the dominant society in sports and social activities they begin to use a mixture of Hawaiʻi Creole English and Standard American English as a peer language, among many informal activities that they associate with the larger world. Because of the strength of the school and overall language revitalization community, however, they remain fully proficient in Hawaiian, and begin to move out of their external language exploration phase as they mature in their understanding of themselves and society.

As Hawaiian language and culture have gained prominance throughout Hawaiʻi, the status of Hawaiian has grown. More and more young parents who grew up speaking Hawaiʻi Creole English or Standard English in the home are trying to use as much Hawaiian as possible in the home. Doing this is facilitated in Hawaiʻi by the large number of Hawaiian terms, place names, personal names, songs and other connections to the Hawaiian language in the common Hawaiʻi Creole language and culture. It is fairly easy for parents in the home to mix more and more Hawaiian language into their daily life as so many Hawaiian terms are already used in informal Hawaiʻi Creole English.

United States census numbers reflect the growth of Hawaiian use in the home. When the ʻAha Pūnana Leo began in 1983, the organization counted less than 50 children under age 18 proficient in Hawaiian. All but three of these children were from the Niʻihau community. The latest figures collected by the United States Census from 2010-2014 indicate that the number of children between the ages of 5 and 18 speaking Hawaiian in the home had reached 5,200. This is an amazing figure and most surely indicates increased status for Hawaiian rather than actual numbers of children who use Hawaiian as the dominant language in the home. The numbers of actual Hawaiian dominant homes are especially high on the island where Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu School is located, making Hawaiian the largest language spoken by children on that island and the only non-English language where there are more children speakers than adult speakers (http://files.hawaii.gov/dbedt/economic/data_reports/Non_English_Speaking_Population_in_Hawaii_April_2016.pdf)

College students who are studying Hawaiian and also students in English medium high schools who are studying Hawaiian are indicating aspirations of raising their children with Hawaiian as their first language. High school students attending the Hawaiian medium school Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu are also indicating that they would like to raise their children with Hawaiian as their first language. This is especially encouraging as it is often the case that students who know the most Hawaiian are the most likely to take it for granted. It is generally only after Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu School students leave high school and attend an English medium university that they fully realize how distinctive their experience of being educated totally through Hawaiian has been. In the past it was generally at that point that they began to think about their own future families and continuing Hawaiian language in that context.


The COVID-19 pandemic and growth of familiy use of Hawaiian

As with the rest of the world, the COVID-19 epidemic resulted in the closure of schools in Hawaiʻi. This included the Pūnana Leo language nests for children aged 3 and 4 and its few infant toddler programs as well as the Hawaiian immersion schools and Hawaiian language medium schools. Learning went on line and children were suddenly isolated from the strongest Hawaiian speaking communities in existence – the schools. This outcome highlighted for parents who had minimal use of Hawaiian in the home the importance of improving their own Hawaiian and moving toward realization of the goal of becoming a Hawaiian speaking home.

For the past two months, parents have been at home with their children joining in with them as they receive distance education through Hawaiian from their teachers. Sitting with their children, parents have increased their own knowledge and use of the language as they struggled to support their children. As the rule in the schools is strict use of only Hawaiian in the classroom, parents weak in Hawaiian were in a position to integrating that rule into at least part of their daily routine with their children.

As parents became more aware of the importance of them moving more Hawaiian into the home, they have sought to learn more of the language. In order to support parents in their growth in use of Hawaiian, the ʻAha Pūnana Leo has long provided self-paced on-line lessons. There has been an increase in use of those lessons. Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu School obtained access to the lessons and provided them to all its parents as well. These on-line lessons did more than substitute for weekly parent classes, as they allowed for access at any time and a wide range of levels.

Small groups of parents, especially those where one or both parents are fully proficient in Hawaiian have created on-line groupings where they and their children can interact in a fully Hawaiian speaking environments that go beyond their individual households. Other families have joined together to play and sing Hawaiian music together on-line, reviving many songs that were sung by older generations in their youth, but which have not been familiar to younger generations.

For older students, the state has lessened its focus on standard academic content as some children lack access to the internet and it is more difficult for teachers to deliver standard curricula. There is therefore more attention to innovative use of the Hawaiian language. In a early college course for high school students from Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu that I teach, I have been using the internet to share tapes of elders where cultural topics from earlier times are discussed. This is exposing students to rich cultural vocabulary and conversational language normally not included in their daily experiences even in a total Hawaiian language medium context.


Future directions

Hawaiian language revitalization is but one aspect of a larger cultural movement in Hawaiʻi that seeks to maintain the distinctiveness of the islands. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge negative impact on the economy of Hawaiʻi. As tourism is the main economic driver of Hawaiʻi, none of the forty-nine states has been impacted as greatly in terms of economy as Hawaiʻi. The airlines are no longer bringing tourists and the tax base has evaporated.

With the growth of tourism, Hawaiʻi has become more and more dependent on external sources for its food and basic goods. While the idea of revitalizing local agriculture and traditional foods and producing basic goods locally has been discussed before, the COVID-19 crisis has brought those ideas to the forefront. The branding of those things as distinctive to Hawaiʻi involves use of the Hawaiian language.

The association of the Hawaiian language with a totally selfsustaining past, albeit a highly idealized one, has drawn the larger population of the state, not only Native Hawaiians, to identify more with the language. One hears government officials use more Hawaiian terms in their announcements. The local media has integrated features such as the traditional Hawaiian calendar based on the phases of the moon and associated with subsitence agriculture and fishing. Hawaiian music with sing along programs have been broadcast on local television with Hawaiian lyrics available on-line for those who needed help learning or remembering them.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also reminded the people of Hawaiʻi that imported diseases killed off over 90% of the Native Hawaiian population within the first 150 years after Western contact (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/04/06/native-hawaiian-population/). That population loss was also a major factor in the near total extermination of the indigenous Hawaiian language. The revitalization of the Hawaiian language to its present level of strength, where it is the most commonly reported non-English language spoken by children in homes in a highly multiracial state has come to symbolize the potential of the larger community to move forward to reach what may have seemed like impossible goals in the past. Such change is realized in its strongest form in the home. E ulu a ola mau nā ʻohana ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi! May there be continuous growth and health among Hawaiian speaking families.





44. Rhetoric codeswitching and its interpretation in social interaction

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


Language alternation between more or less bilingual speakers during a single speech event has been part of the sociolinguistic agenda for some time. It was soon noticed that such alternation or codeswitching can either evoke defined social situations either specific domains or express connotative or rhetoric uses over the course of the interaction.

Situational codeswitching produces a redefinition of the speech act: it involves a change in the definition that the speakers make of reciprocal rights and obligations. An example of this is the switch from Catalan to Spanish when a third Spanish-speaking person joins a conversation between Catalan speakers —once compulsory and still done today. The code switching first called “metaphoric” and later “conversational” does not redefine the fundamental speech act, but it does convey rhetorical or figurative meanings.

One case of the latter consists of a kind of doubling or repetition of what is said, first in one language and in the other language immediately afterwards. A classic example is the SPANISH/ENGLISH switch observed between Chicanos in the USA, in a situation in which a mother calls her son in Spanish – issues a command – but he ignores her. The mother’s voice is raised in crescendo and the boy continues to take no notice. Then the mother repeats the call in English (Gumperz 1982: 78):[1]



And the boy comes. The researcher interpreted that these language choices enable inferences to be made that are significant to the extent that they are associated with the connotations of power carried by each language. Whereas in this case Spanish expresses solidarity between conversation partners, English is the language of power and therefore has higher coercive value. It was also interpreted that the order of languages in the alternation is relevant and that there could not be a similar utterance in which the order of the languages could be reversed (ENGLISH/SPANISH) with the same effect, since there would not have been an increase in the coercive force of the command.

This interpretation was accepted and replicated in other cases of switching in dissimilar contexts, always conveying the expression of authority. An almost exact case to the previous one is the HUNGARIAN/GERMAN switching in a town on the Austrian side of the Austro-Hungarian border, where Hungarian is the inhabitants’ mother tongue, but they have historically been exposed to more or less stable bilingual practices and are now under strong pressure from German, the official state language.

A three-year old girl is playing in the shed and scatters a pile of logs with her cousin’s help. Both are being looked after by their grandparents. The grandfather realises what is going on and shouts (Gal 1979: 112):[2]






The grandfather knows that the little girl does not understand German, as they speak Hungarian at home and she has not started school yet. However, as the children are not taking any notice, he repeats the command in German and after that, following the third pause, he switches from a command to a familiar threat in Hungarian.

This association of the dominant language with power or authority is the most common situation in contexts of asymmetric language contact.

However, the world is wide and diverse, and each speech community, has its own dynamics and its own linguistic economy: the presence of codeswitching is as significant as its absence. Similarly, the weight of authority in doubling or repetition does not always fall on the language of repetition or on the dominant language.

In Val di Non, a valley in Trentino, in the Italian Alps, people speak a dialect of Ladin, called Nones. Following a fast-moving period in the 1970s in which Italian almost replaces Nones, due to reduced prospects for young people to make a living there and the belief that “speaking dialect” was socially shameful, the trend experienced a turnaround. On the one hand, the EU was promoting the status of regional and minority languages and advocating respect for these languages. On the other hand, EU agricultural policy increased the value of the region’s main farmed crop, a variety of apple that was successfully grown using traditional techniques. This created wealth, which also enabled improvements to be made in every walk of life and opened up educational opportunities for young people. Local pride was definitively restored and Nones experienced a strong resurgence. It is spoken by children (even by families in which the adults speak Italian at home) and it is used in a wide variety of situations, including various kinds of public discourse and texts. “Speaking dialect” is once again a source of pride. These circumstances would explain that codeswitching with the same historical value as in the previous cases happens in the opposite direction to the one predicted, that is, that Nones expresses connotations of authority that in the past were common in Italian (Fellin 2003).

The following is a situation involving a young girl (Erica) and her parents (Davide and Maria) at the table. The child wants a coconut to be opened and the parents accept, but she becomes impatient and stands on top of a bench and moves to one of the ends (Fellin 2003: 49):[3]












This is a family in which the predominant language is Italian, but the little girl also has learnt Nones. Both the command and the threat are expressed in Nones. The reversing of the language shift has resulted in an alteration in the rhetorical connotations; by recovering its prestige, Nones has recovered its connotation of authority in the sphere of the community and of moral commitment to it. The pattern follows what was established in the first case described earlier.

The local language of the inhabitants of Gapun, a village in the Sepik river basin in Papua New Guinea, is Tayap.[4] The official state language is Tok Pisin (from the English talk pidgin). In Gapun they are undergoing language shift, the replacement of one language with another. Work has been done on the importance of the communication practices of children’s caretakers in the primary socialisation period, including that of language switching. Cases of doubling or repetition can be found, often used for emphasising a command or a warning. With reference to this (Kulick 1992: 77-78):

A mother addresses her daughter who is playing with the baby (the examples do not reproduce attached turns of speech): [5]






As Kulick notes, in the verbal behaviour patterns of Gapun residents, this kind of emphatic codeswitching can occur both from Tayap and into Tayap. Here, it is not that Tok Pisin has more threatening connotations. The emphasis, or in the examples shown above the threat, comes from the act of codeswitching, not from the direction of that switch.

These cases of alternating ITALIAN/NONES and TAYAP/TOK PISIN or TOK PISIN/TAYAP, respectively, contradict the initial hypothesis on the directionality of the emphatic codeswitching with coercive value. In the first case because the connotations associated with the languages have been altered and “power” is not being conveyed by the dominant language; in the second case because the linear order between the doubling elements is less relevant than codeswitching itself.

The existence of a tradition of bilingual folk poetry – and other genres, such as theatre performances – is not a rarity in many societies. It is not unusual for the type of codeswitching being discussed here to be used in lyrical texts, like the FRENCH/ARABIC alternation in rai music by singers in the Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco). These bilingual texts, heard or read from the north shore of the strait, can evoke reminiscences of medieval Andalusian Arabic poetry. Unlike poetry contest (“glosadors” in Mallorca, “bertsolaris” in the Basque Country) – whose description as “lyrical” is dubious – lyrical poetry is usually associated with the expression of subjectivity and, therefore, of the first person, the self, rather than of the interaction with a you. The fact that there is no real interaction, however, does not prevent the poet or composer giving their verses an impression of being a conversation. See (Davies/Bentahila 2013: 40):[6]




The contact between French and Arabic in Morocco and Algeria is particular. French was the language of the coloniser and Arabic – or Afro-Asiatic languages, such as Amazigh – was that of the colonised, there is no doubt about that. From independence onwards – and quite a few decades have passed, more than half a century – Standard Arabic has become the state language and colloquial Arabic continues to be the majority language of the native population. But French continued to be taught in schools and most of the population were bilingual. People’s bilingualism continues up to nowadays. Earlier in time older people had a better command of French than younger people did. Nowadays, however, the decline of French at social level is complete and young people aged thirty or younger communicate in colloquial Arabic. Arabic can be considered the socially – not just psycholinguistically – dominant language and French can be regarded as the “recessive” language, the knowledge of which is a symbolic asset for groups who have been educated in the scientific or cultural sphere. In this sense, the order of the concurrent languages in the verses cited earlier follows the pattern originally expected by the first academics to study codeswitching.[7]

An interesting question posed is the interaction between rhetorical codeswitching and situational codeswitching in language shift. The case of Tayap is particularly striking (Kulick 1992). First, though, it is worth explaining that the cultural identity of people in Gapun is based on the combination of two cultural patterns of behaviour, known as save and hed, which we might translate, taking into account differences and the contextual interpretation, as ‘good sense’ and ‘passion’. The person possesses save and hed: the former conveys a caring, cooperative attitude towards the community, and also masculinity – because it is a trait typically associated with men rather than women – adult behaviour – rather than childish – and things that are good. The latter (hed), on the other hand, conveys an individualistic attitude, femininity – because it is a trait typically associated with women – childishness (rather than adult behaviour) and things that are bad. Before coming into contact with white men, in the pre-Christian period, both hed and save were expressed in Tayap. After that contact, new connotations were added to hed and save, respectively, without losing the ones they already had. This meant that the former conveys values like paganism, backwardness and lack of culture, whereas the latter conveys values like Christianity, modernity and education. Similarly, the reproduction of the cultural patterns has been accompanied by a language shift process. Tayap is no longer the language used to express hed and save, now Tok Pisin is associated with save and Tayap with hed.

These associations alter linguistic uses. The more an individual wants to present themselves as a “person of good sense [save]”, the more they use Tok Pisin and the less they use Tayap. As Kulick argues, and Gal stated previously (1979: 175), the accumulated effect of these choices made by speakers leads to the use of Tok Pisin in more contexts and by more people. As the number of competent Tayap speakers dwindles and the number of Tok Pisin monolingual speakers grows, the uncertainty about the meanings conveyed by codeswitching increases. When younger speakers lose their knowledge of these rhetorical meanings that are still mastered by older speakers, they are more likely to interpret them as “social”, as information about social situation and status. This process favours the language shift process.

The most interesting aspect of the case is that the local people in Gapun are reproducing their cultural patterns by passing on the virtues of save and the behaviours associated with it to children, and by so doing, they are contributing to language shift, as in that reproduction – originally always associated with Tayap – there has been a linguistic split: now save is associated with Tok Pisin and hed with Tayap. The people of Gapun are not aware of the change taking place. On the one hand, they teach children the same values that they were taught by their parents; on the other hand, they regard children as autonomous individuals, who learn what they want to learn. They do not realise the extent to which codeswitching towards Tok Pisin, used by caretakers to talk to children, is leading them to acquire Tok Pisin to the detriment of Tayap. As Kulick states (1992: 24), turning the saying around: plus c’est la même chose, plus ça change.


[1]The fragments in English appear in italics, the fragments in Spanish are in rounded writing. In the translations, which appear in bold, italics and rounded are maintained from the original. Small caps express emphasis, a higher tone of voice compared to the surrounding elements. The two last statements are applicable to the later examples.

[2]The fragments in German appear in italics, the fragments in Hungarian are in rounded writing.

[3]The fragments in Italian appear in italics, the fragments in Nones are in rounded writing.

[4] Kulick (1992) spells that language “Taiap”. In his more recent work, though, he has revised the spelling to “Tayap”, and that is the spelling used here (Kulick 2019, Kulick/Terrill 2019). His recent grammar also modifies the orthography of the language, but here I retain the forms used in his 1992 monograph.

[5]The fragments in Tok Pisin appear in italics, the fragments in Tayap are in rounded writing.

[6]The fragments in French appear in italics, the fragments in Moroccan Arabic are in rounded writing.

[7] The imperative conveys orders, indeed. Here we rather see a supplication. In fact, the function of doubling or repetition in both languages in rai lyrics is a stylistic device allowing the singer/songwriter to repeat key points without just using exact repetition.


Davies, Eirlys E./Bentahila, Abdelali (2008) “Code switching as a poetic device: Examples from rai lyrics”. Language & Communication 28: 1-20.

Davies, Eirlys E./Bentahila, Abdelali (2013) “From the Medieval ḫarğāt to Contemporary Songs: Patterns of Codeswitching Involving Arabic”. Arabica 61: 1-46.

Fellin, Luciana (2003) “Language ideologies, language socialization and language revival in an Italian Alpine community”. Texas Linguistic Forum 45 (2002), Austin: Texas Linguistic Forum, 46-57.

Gal, Susan (1979) Language Shift. Social Determinants of Linguistic Change in Bilingual Austria. New York: Academic Press.

Gumperz, John J. (1982) Discourse Strategies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kulick, Don (1992) Language Shift and Cultural Reproduction: Socialization, Self and Synchretism in a Papuan New Guinean Village. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kulick, Don (2019) A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea. New York: Algonquin Books.

Kulick, Don/Angela Terrill (2019) A Grammar and Dictionary of Tayap: The Life and Death of a Papuan Language, Pacific Linguistics: De Gruyter Mouton.

43. New speakers, minoritized languages and decoloniality in Europe

Joan Pujolar
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya


What are “new speakers”? Why is there so much interest in them? In this paper, I will explain how the concept of new speakers has emerged among certain linguistic communities and what debates it has given rise to. I will also reflect on what new speakers mean for minority languages that are threatened by language shift. I argue that new speakers could offer hope for the future for these languages but that for them to do so we need to do away with linguistic ideologies associated with the nation-state and colonialism.

Between 2013 and 2017, activities led by an academic network of sociolinguists researching the phenomenon of so-called “new speakers” were undertaken across Europe. The network was overseen by Bernadette O’Rourke, a specialist in Irish Gaelic sociolinguistics who at the time was a professor at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. During this period, around fifty conferences and seminars were organized, with more than three hundred people from twenty-eight European countries participating. And by 2017, the number of scientific publications on the subject had reached 150. More detailed information can be found at https://www.nspk.org.uk/ and in the following publication by Bernadette O’Rourke and Joan Pujolar: From New Speaker to Speaker: Outcomes, reflections and policy recommendations from COST Action IS1306 on New Speakers in a Multilingual Europe: Opportunities and Challenges. IAITH: Welsh Centre for Language Planning, Cardiff, 2019. ISBN: 9781900563123.

This topic emerged during the first decade of the twenty-first century out of a few very specific cases from the Basque Country, Galicia and Ireland that related to the promotion of these places’ respective minoritized languages. For decades, a specific type of speaker of these languages, respectively called euskaldunberriak, neofalantes and gaeilgeoir, had been spoken of within these contexts. All three terms have different lexical nuances: the Basque term literally indicates new “Basque speakers”; the Galician one (literally, “new speakers”) comes across as more generic; and the latter term can designate, according to the context, any speaker of the Gaelic language. However, the terms have traditionally been used to designate people who speak the country’s language but who are perceived as different from the speakers of these languages who have always been around.

To understand the reasons why these people are treated as special speakers, it is necessary to understand the history of European linguistic minorities, most of which share important aspects. They have directly suffered, so to speak, from the imposition of nation-states, a European invention that was subsequently exported across the world via colonialism. All nation-states were articulated around a linguistic group (the exceptions in fact being states with federal structures that are based on linguistic groups). As we know, however, the territories of a state could include speakers of languages other than that of the dominant group. Generally speaking, this dominant group controlled political institutions and held economic power, so nonstate languages suffered political and economic exclusion. The development of infrastructure, investment, technical innovations, services and new economic initiatives was primarily carried out by and for the dominant groups. Speakers of minoritized languages were for the most part second-class citizens left out in the cold in a rural or extractive economy. They could only become integrated into the dominant culture through school, military service or work in the public administration or industry, all of which used the dominant language. The population of these communities shrank: first, they disappeared from large cities and then from towns, until eventually they remained only in small villages and the most remote rural areas. Many states persecuted minority-language speakers through repression and propaganda. But often it was the speakers themselves who decided to stop speaking their language to their children so as to escape from poverty and shame.

This is the story of Europe’s communities of speakers of minoritized and threatened languages, with the exception of a few atypical cases such as Catalan or Flemish, which are spoken by larger and economically stronger communities. However, repression of and/or contempt towards these Europeans began to change after World War II, when civil rights began to be demanded and states started to consider minoritized languages as cultural heritage. As early as 1960, the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education set out the right to be taught one’s mother tongue, something the Council of Europe later specified to a much greater extent with the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages (1992). At very different rates and on very different scales, throughout Europe states have incorporated—or allowed the incorporation of—minoritized languages into education. Teaching of these languages was not limited to those who still speak them but also extended to the many descendants of those who spoke them and to the current residents of the original linguistic territories.

This whole process has facilitated these languages being learned by more people. Many people have wanted to take part in social movements that seek to recover them. There have been people who have learned them in courses for adults, and many others have taken their children to bilingual or immersion schools so that they can learn them from an early age. In many cases, the number of speakers of these languages has stopped decreasing or is even increasing slightly. That is far from all that has changed, however, because this new population that has become interested in these languages mostly corresponds to a different economic and geographical profile. It is no longer the usual rural population. These are educated people from all the different professional fields, and they mostly live in towns and cities. In some places for which we have data, such as the Basque Country and Ireland, censuses show that the majority of speakers of these languages are new speakers who fit this profile and live in cities. None of this means that these languages are experiencing recovery on a mass scale. In cities, their speakers are often still very much in the minority, and they can only speak the language to one another. Another development is that numbers of speakers in rural areas have continued to decline because rural depopulation has never stopped. This is why now, in the case of some languages such as Manx or Cornish, no speaker has learned them through conventional transmission within the family.

But this apparent progress of minoritized languages also has its contradictions, and these are what have sparked debates about new speakers. Generally speaking, the promotion of languages is linked to their modernization, which contradicts the symbolic values that have until now been associated with these languages and those who speak them. Promotion of a language nowadays means codifying it so that it can be taught and used in public administration and mass communication. It also requires the language to be spoken by an educated and specialist population that is both multilingual and socially and geographically mobile. These languages can no longer be linked to a place whose people are engaged in a very narrow set of disappearing professions and never move away from a handful of places and landscapes that are idealized as vestiges of the past. Modernizing a language has ultimately meant turning it into a code that is abstract and looks past those who speak it, and then using that code as a criterion for determining merit in education and in society. For the individual, speaking and writing the modern language—that of the state—represented alignment with the behavioural and expressive parameters of the rational man (who was supposed to be not only male but also white, heterosexual and able bodied). Minoritized languages represented the opposite of all this; they were linked to behaviours that bore the marks of tradition and were linked to sentimentality and femininity.

From this point of view, modernizing a language can ultimately displace and stigmatize the people who have always spoken it, reproducing old prejudices against the rural world. And this is a tension between these communities and new speakers whose emergence can be perceived in a variety of ways. New speakers are mainly so as an outcome of their studying these languages, and this has implications. First, a very specific variety of language is learned from studying: the standard form, or the formal or literary register, depending on the case in question. Second, the minority language is not the first that most new speakers learn, but rather their second or third. And so they can be identified immediately by the way in which they speak. On the one hand, they speak in a very formal manner that sounds artificial to traditional speakers. On the other hand, their accent and the fact that their ways of saying things come from other languages—especially the dominant one—stand out. They often have difficulty with the minority language’s sounds and grammatical features that vary from those of the dominant language. And so many “lifelong” speakers have the feeling that these new speakers are ultimately just imposing the dominant language’s pronunciation and ways of saying things. In some contexts, this is a particularly painful paradox, as people have different ideas about what they understand to be “authentic language.” The model taken up by new speakers corresponds to a language whose “barbarisms”—that is, the foreign elements (above all lexical ones) that the language’s habitual speakers have been using for a long time—have been carefully cleaned up by philologists. For example, the device that so-called “néobrétonnants” call “pellgomz” has always been called a “telefon” by Bretons. Many of the latter group roundly refuse to adopt a way of talking that they associate with a people who stress the final syllable of all words, something that is altogether strange in Breton and comes from the habit of speaking French. In the worst-case scenario, this may end up excluding traditional speakers from accessing the few symbolic and economic incentives provided by language-promotion policies, such as obtaining accreditation to teach the language or working in public administration or the media. It may even cause some to flatly refuse to associate with new speakers and to permanently give up using the language that is the focus of the defence efforts.

All of these dynamics pose new contradictions within minority-language communities and affect language planners, language workers (creators, linguists, journalists) and speakers in general alike. On the one hand, the process of modernizing the language is itself what triggers insecurities and sometimes a crisis in the communities, even though this process is still the only hope of preserving it. New speakers represent the future that efforts have always sought to secure for these languages. But the only way in which these languages can have this future is if most of what is imagined about them in terms of their place being in the past, in tradition and in sentimentality is overcome. Beyond the pigeonholes to which they had been confined, these languages are now being appropriated by other people, and they bear the marks of other languages and transcend their usual places. Although this transcendence and transformation must be seen as a testament to their continuity and vitality, the question remains whether this transformation must be made by breaking away from memory but maintaining the forms of hierarchy and exclusion that the modern world has constructed based on languages and that have always harmed their speakers.

If we accept that the linguistic ideologies of modernity are the focus of these contradictions, I would like to suggest that we follow the thread of this idea, which brings us to the subject of colonialism. Colonialism is, after all, the project developed by European nationalisms to take control of the rest of the world. It is no coincidence, then, that so-called “indigenous languages” have been treated in similar ways to European minoritized languages in many respects. Colonial subjects were also by definition considered excluded from modernity, as were their languages and lifestyles. In many of these contexts, new speakers have also become very important, as Fishman acknowledged in his renowned work Reversing Language Shift. In many communities, it is common for languages to be learned by adults, or even for them to be taught by grandparents to grandchildren or for them to be taught by people who do not usually speak the language but who are recognized by the community as having authority to teach it. The subject of indigenous languages also makes the link between the use of languages and the cultural and economic lifestyles of each community much more visible.

However, it is interesting to note that, at least until now, those whose work focuses on revitalizing indigenous languages have not reported the contrast we have seen between new and “old” speakers. Rather, the area of contention is the question of how to teach the language and why (it being understood that one thing leads to the other). The works of Duchêne and Heller (2007); Makoni and Pennycook (2007); Wesley (2017); and McCarty et al. (2019) agree in their identification of colonialism as the paradigm that guides the ways in which languages are codified, taught, presented, and represented in these communities. That is, colonialism determines a way of doing things that in the end symbolically confiscates from speakers the matters of what their language is like, what their relationship with it should be and how it should fit within the future they believe their communities should have. This is why there is more and more talk of “decolonial” approaches: it is no longer a question of dismantling the colonizers’ political and military structures, but one of constructing knowledge paradigms that are free of the ideological schemes that have been left behind on populations’ consciences.

Simply applying modernity’s ideological and procedural schemes to minoritized languages creates these contradictions. The challenges posed by new speakers to Europe’s minority languages are, in any case, an expression of the social and economic changes that the whole planet is experiencing, and they are therefore not altogether disconnected from those of other minoritized languages around the world, where people are also working hard to learn them. In Europe and the rest of the world alike, all this is the product of the penetration of capitalism into the last corners of the inhabited world—a capitalism that has always used colonialism to justify its conquering mission. Linguists around the world are sounding the alarm over the rapid disappearance of ways of life that are the basis for thousands of the planet’s small languages. The only way to prevent many languages from disappearing surely does not involve respect for their communities’ political and economic sovereignty alone. Their linguistic sovereignty must also be respected.



Duchêne, Alexandre, and Monica Heller. 2007. Discourses of endangerment: ideology and interest in the defence of languages. New York: Continuum International.

Leonard, Wesley Y. 2017. “Producing language reclamation by decolonizing ‘language’”. Language Documentation and Description 14 (September): 15-36. https://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2013.794806.

Makoni, Sinfree, and Alastair Pennycook. 2007. “Disinventing and Reconstituting Languages”. In , 1-41. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

McCarty, Theresa L., Sheilah E. Nicholas, and Gillian Wigglesworth. 2019. A world of indigenous languages : policies, pedagogies and prospects for language reclamation. Bristol: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

42. Turning pragmatics around: how to say things with objects

Amadeu Viana
Universitat de Lleida


When Alice complains about too many meanings being given to a word, Humpty Dumpty explains that when he makes a word do so much work, he always pays it extra. That is exactly what happens: words work for us, often too much, we move them into different contexts and make them adopt other meanings, we extend them with prefixes and suffixes, or we save them from oblivion when a new state of things emerges and we want to bedazzle with an old name. Similar things happen with the objects that surround us: we turn around their semantics, we rework them via intensive bricolage, we preserve them by invoking their primary function, or we make them undergo such striking transformations that the old denominations become but a reminder of their origin. The idea that human actors share a universe with nonhuman actions and processes is known as distributed agency. This supposes that human actions are effectively carried out by means of and through the operativity (the action) of different types of intermediations, material objects, networks of objects and artefacts, institutions, cooperation or shared action, symbolic activity and extensive collaboration with nonhuman actors, a battery of processes that elude the predominant Western philosophy’s traditional view of the idea of a single agent.

The idea of distributed agency stems from Bruno Latour’s transdisciplinary research and actor-network theory, a practice from the sociology of science that focuses on the role of the material transmission of scientific objects, cooperation or (conversely) controversy among institutions, the laboratory as the locus of intersection, the dissemination of science and the role of the different “translations” that concepts are subjected to from their birth and as they spread across society. Actor-network theory has contributed to a reassessing of the scientist’s role in the abstract as an autonomous agent in favour of a perspectivist approach and collective action.

It might be useful to shore up the notion of distributed agency with bioanthropological reflection, which reminds us that the manipulation of artefacts and the construction of objects long precedes the emergence of articulated language. The topic here is how growing tactile- and visual-coordination capacities laid the foundations for cognitive evolution (L. Malafouris) in a way that meant that the hand would become the visible part of the soul, as Aristotle would ingeniously point out. Objects and their meanings accompanied human evolution, complexifying and interlinking with our consciousness in such a way that it would soon become difficult to say where one thing began and another finished (A. Leroi-Gourhan), in the intricate combination of homo faber (who makes himself in making) and homo ludens (who unsuspectingly extends the time for play, experimentation and learning). Ornaments, clothing, living conditions, musical instruments (the flute mentioned at the beginning of the Aristotle’s Poetics), the variety of artefacts that have been part of life and societies: these are manifestations of human consciousness and extensions through which cognition and agency have earned a presence and become widespread and enduring.

As Cassirer highlighted, the different linguistic varieties owe a debt to this confusion of bodily projections, visual and manual organization, alienable and nonalienable objects, practical metaphors and occasional metonymies, bodily self-perception and classification of space: a production of the Palaeolithic that is also sufficiently complex as to disassociate ourselves from the immediate context. Those who study embodiment and extensionalism (A. Clark, M. Donald) have highlighted the idea that cognition is constructed and sustained from the bodily senses plus the objects we create and/or use as extensions of those senses—objects that give way to processes (actions) through which we not only intervene in the world but also conceive of and think about it. In some respects, we engage with these objects-and-processes as if they were the external part of the mind.

Language and writing (a practice of manual and visual memory) are powerful manifestations of this. But the variety of artefacts that overlap and intertwine with each other at different levels of complexity and that have historically had a substantial impact with industrial production and are having a second significant impact with the emerging autonomy of cybernetics and so-called artificial intelligence are an even more dazzling case of the mind’s presence and ability to externalize. Here it is necessary to clearly understand in what sense human action forms a continuum with the production of artefacts and how objects and different types of artefacts are true nonhuman mediators and actors in the production and articulation of knowledge, taking us away from the old idea of a stark separation between the natural and the artificial, which is often described in opposition to what is characteristically human.

Many of the ancient paradigms (mainly animist but also totemist ones) understood the existence of different modes of a spiritual continuity (one of interiorities, as Philippe Descola notes) between human life and the world. The truth is that language can often not do without these associations, and until recently vitalist metaphors such as talking about the life and the death of languages were seen as acceptable and natural (and for many people still are). The paradigm of naturalist research in the West, objective science, has often been accompanied by the idea of an autonomous rational agent who is masculine, educated and self-satisfied about his findings, who sometimes regrets being alone in the universe and who has imposed an instrumental view of the world around him, beginning with the very objects and instruments that he denies a soul. This idea of a rational agent has also made it preferable and acceptable to speak of languages as instruments, in terms of uses, in a manner consistent with the development of the natural and social sciences. By contrast, the paradigm of distributed agency does not suppose that the objects of the world have an essential soul, and nor does it dehumanize them by characterizing them as simple instruments. Instead, it understands them as mediation, as part of nonhuman action, which is part of us and at the same time redounds to us, very much in the line with Edgar Morin’s analysis of complexity. This is how languages do things for us, and how we participate in these objects-and-processes, halfway between indiscriminate animation and selfish instrumentalization.

One might consider, for example, commercial objects, which are often classified under brands or logos that do not determine exactly what they are but provide information about their origin and their social value (A. Semprini). There are many interlinked institutions and people located in strategic places that decide the processes of industrial objects; there is production, but there is also design; production hides the distribution of components, which in turn are of different qualities and origins; design hides the collaboration of different actors with different specialized competencies; there is the logo that identifies the product or the by-product, which in turn demands a specific design; and there is the attribution of value to it, a social action that has consequences, which could be defined as “an idea put into practice.” Research on traceability show this activity of the product in different contexts, its capacity for non-human action. We know that brands, somewhat like ancient heroes, live among us insofar as they actively participate in the social network, hence their hybrid nature.

The field of health and illness is another old acquaintance of research on distributed agency, from Sebeok’s old descriptions of immune systems as genuine actors with a capacity for interpretation to the agentive vocabulary of the fight for health, not to mention works on biological risk (F. Tirado) or technology and assistance (M. Domènech). Then there is the common idea that we are ourselves and our pieces, our prostheses, that ordinary pills are like external particles of our organism, that we treat with sympathy or indifference, reducing them to colours or attributing them with often uncertain interventional capabilities. We have not been modern at all: we have not at all abandoned the idea of an animated world, in which we work and which also works on us.

The musician, the performer, forms a unit with his instrument. The worker is identified with work, as our basic vocabulary denotes. Robert Frost, in a beautiful poem, imagines the mower’s scythe whispering to the field. When we misplace an object, what opens up before us is a breach of possibilities that we struggle to grasp, somewhat as if the object’s autonomy led it to travel in some unforeseen direction or to reside in some unsuitable place. Correlatively, we deploy a battery of emotions for certain objects often without an “objective value”: that pen or that cup or that cushion that perhaps we do not use so much but that we end up possessing as a part of our life, an untransferable segment that recalls this person or that situation, and a part of our experience is apparently linked to these things’ vicissitudes and activity. Let alone clothes, pictures or photographs, or the music that accompanied us and is also an untransferable part, one that is now neither visual nor tactile, of the soul’s journey. These networks of meanings, in terms of objects and processes, make up what we call distributed agency, in which we participate and of which we are a resultant part at the same time.

The structure of language unfolds over this material eloquence. It is a question not just of the contemporary passion for cognitive metaphors (“John is a snake”; the symbolic dimension or figuration) but also of the agency and projections of action in ordinary language use, of ways of stating things that we do not know how to render differently. Tools become old, dresses impress, signs advise, cars seduce. We say, “The fire didn’t manage to get into town,” without thinking about a final action, but conferring shared agency on the action of fire. We become angry when a zip in our clothes becomes stuck, as if this state of affairs overstepped the autonomy of action that we attribute to the artefact. In many languages, classifiers carry out this important distributive function of allotting agency, material dimension and shared action in many possible ways.

Curiously enough, the advent of cybernetics has contributed to a more extensive perception of animation, if that is possible, affectionately designating new information processors: Mare Nostrum is a supercomputer, Java is a programming language; Irgo wasn’t once the odd acronym for a local server but the name of a village in the Pyrenees; and Kubrick’s perverse HAL parodied the three letters of IBM, scrupulously reworking the Latin alphabet. In many people’s informal register, the algorithm that retrieves information from the Net has become Uncle Google or Saint Google, in a new, unexpected twist of animated thinking.

If material eloquence has scope over language, then discourse itself can be presented in terms of objects-and-processes, as shared action. This is how we unfurl the activity of the word, a topic that François Cooren has laid on the table again in ethnographic and sociolinguistic terms. We say not only that “a poem is sweet” or that a speech “is aggressive,” but also that “words betray him” or that “the document is spreading across the Net.” As classical rhetoric supposed, and as we have reelaborated now, to the extent that texts are part of action, they do things for us. We delegate to discourse so that it represents us. Res ipsa loquitur, the thing speaks for itself, as the old legal expression for defending an argument states.

Chesterton explained how language was invented by hunters, killers and other such artists, long before science was even dreamed of. Now that we have science and we have cybernetics, we have once again made the old idea of animation visible, as far as possible, through the analysis of distributed agency. The vocabulary of critical mediation highlights the communion or participation: halfway between fact and fetish, as Latour liked to say. The thing is that referring to “magical thinking” solely when talking about logical errors creates problems. Distributed agency helps us to formulate and understand the reenchantment of the world, escaping from former disjunctives (between the natural and artificial, between the rational and irrational) that have proved so pernicious.


Ihde, D. (2010). Embodied Technics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Izutsu, T. (2012). Language and magic. Kuala Lumpur: The Other Press.
Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lem, S. (2017). Summa Technologiae. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

41. The first thing we do and the last thing we forget: Catalan phytonymy and popular knowledge, radiating to literature

Joan Vallès 1,2, Teresa Garnatje3, Airy Gras1,3, Montse Parada1
1University of Barcelona, 2Institute for Catalan Studies, 3Botanical Institute of Barcelona-CSIC-ICUB


One of the first activities—if not the very first—that human beings do when they are faced with another living being or an object is give it a name. If it is a person or a thing that has been named before, they will simply try to understand it. When it is a new person or thing, they will label it. It can be argued that at some point every name has been a neologism. Once created, nouns sometimes change, acquire other meanings or find synonyms. Sometimes they end up being the origin of family names or place names. Finally, some names die out or at least become archaic and fall into disuse.

It does not fall to us, as botanists, to go into the history and evolution of names, but it is incumbent upon us to focus in particular on words that designate objects from the nature that we study, namely vegetal ones, a notion under which we group plants, some algae that would not fit the narrow definition of plants, fungi—which include mushrooms and lichens—and a group of microorganisms called blue-green algae, cyanophyta or cyanobacteria. In total, we are talking about approximately half a million species of living beings. If we focus on vascular plants (that is, plants that have a system for transporting sap), which are the most evolved and most of which we commonly tend to recognize as plants (the most typical—with flowers and fruits—being, for example, the rose or the daisy, conifers such as pines and firs, ferns and horsetails), the number falls to more or less 300,000.

Out of these, in the Catalan Countries, a territory of the Mediterranean region that has considerable biodiversity within Europe and highly diverse landscapes from sea level to altitudes of more than 3,000 metres, there are around 4,000. That is the figure for wild native flora, which make up the vast majority of plants here. If we include plants that have escaped from cultivation and are subspontaneous or naturalized, many since long ago (that is, nonindigenous species), we reach about 5,000. Adding cultivated plants, the figure would go up substantially and it would become difficult to keep a count, especially because of ornamentals, some of which are well established among us, while others come and go according to demand and fashions.

The world’s 300,000 species of vascular plants—and, among these, the 5,000 from the Catalan Countries—are candidates for names to designate them. They all have a Latin or latinized scientific name that allows us to unequivocally identify them. The simplicity of the current nomenclature system for plants, which dates from 1753 and was conceived by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, allows us to replace a long description for characterizing a plant with a binomial featuring a generic name and a specific epithet. For example, by saying Digitalis purpurea (didalera in Catalan and foxglove in English), we save ourselves the time of saying, as we did before, Digitalis calycinis foliolis ovalis acutis, corollis obtusis, labio superiore integro.

Anyway, despite the ease and practical value of this system, it makes sense that each language has given a name to the plants that its speakers have encountered. Not all plants have names (popular, vernacular common or vulgar names, each term with some nuance setting it apart from the others), and this is so not just within all languages, but even within the lands where the plant in question grows. It should be kept in mind that some plants come from a fairly small area, which means that they are not well known to people. Others, by contrast, are well known to people, and these are the ones that, as we said earlier, are the object of that first human activity of giving a name. Afterwards, in many cases, there will come (and there has come since long back) the use of that plant that now has a name.

Ethnobotany, the discipline that studies relationships between human societies and the vegetal world and deals with names and uses for and management of biodiversity, allows us to become aware of a matter that is complementary to the human activity of naming plants, in addition to collecting traditional uses and names. Just as one of the first things that human beings do is to give names to plants as soon as they meet them, one of the last things that they do is to forget those names. It is unimaginable that someone would say “this is called a table, but I don’t know what it’s for”, and this is still true if we change table to pitchfork, an instrument that few of us now use, or to even more uncommonly used objects. In contrast it is not uncommon during ethnobotanical interviews to hear, “This plant is called ‘x,’ but I can’t remember what it’s used for.” Use can become less widespread or disappear completely, but the name often continues to be known as a reminiscence of everything that was known about the plant in question (though in some cases, when traditional knowledge has become severely eroded, even memory of the name is lost).

Humankind—that is, the speakers of the world’s different languages—has strengthened its relationships with plants to a considerable extent through names. And precisely because of this, as we have stated, names are the first thing sought or created in meeting plants and the last thing that is forgotten traditional knowledge about them declines, dwindles or becomes depleted. In this regard, the names of plants, phytonyms, can function as indicators of the erosion of traditional knowledge about biodiversity. Before that, however, phytonyms are an important part of cultural heritage (because they are names that enrich one language and all languages) as well as of natural heritage (because they designate elements of nature and are normally associated with additional traditional knowledge about it).

Catalan can be considered one of the languages whose names of plants and allies have been the focus of significant collection and study. The teacher and botanist Francesc Masclans i Girvès initiated these activities and was their main driver, starting in 1948 with a modest work about the Virgin in Catalan and Spanish names for plants and continuing and concluding with two encyclopaedic volumes of Catalan phytonyms, published in 1954 and 1981 (the second was a revised and expanded edition). Masclans also published a book on Catalan names for mushrooms, but our focus here, as already mentioned, is vascular plants. In the two encyclopaedic volumes, Masclans gathered, respectively, approximately 6,000 names for 1,800 plant taxa and 9,000 names for 3,000 taxa.

Masclans’s work was the starting point for a study that went on for around twenty years under the auspices of Termcat (Catalan Terminology Centre) and that made possible the publication, in 2014, of a book and a website that bring together 35,000 Catalan names for around 6,500 plant taxons. For more information, readers will find, at the end of this text, the references for these and the aforementioned Masclans works. The figures are remarkable. The quantity of species for which there is a name in Catalan is very high. Considering that there are around 5,000 species of native or naturalized vascular plants in the Catalan Countries, and also that some are not known by Catalan names (for example, those whose distribution has been very restricted), the quantity of foreign plants that have received names in Catalan is far from negligible. This indicates not only that Catalan has been used to name many of the Catalan Countries’ plants—something that in itself is important—but also that Catalan has been used to give names to a large number of plants that are either grown by people here or simply live in other parts of the world. This is a positive indicator of the language’s vitality.

In parallel to this work, ethnobotany research in Catalan-speaking areas has produced a very robust corpus of phytonymic data. At present, our research group’s ethnobotanical database contains approximately 87,000 reports of phytonyms from almost 2,700 informants. These reports correspond to over 11,000 popular names (including variants) from around 1,600 plant taxa. Many of these names, which reflect traditional knowledge of the vegetal world in the Catalan Countries, now appear in the most recent aforementioned compilation, but others that do not appear could be used to update the compilation. To give a few examples to illustrate the phytonymic wealth of different areas, in the counties of Alt Empordà, Ripollès, Garrigues, the island of Mallorca and the central counties of Valencia, respectively 1,105, 804, 849, 1,401 and 2,138 plant names applying to 523, 457, 410, 517 and 514 taxa have been collected. This ethnobotanical database, made within the framework of the Institute for Catalan Studies’ research programme, will become publicly accessible, starting in 2020 with a version that, among other information, will contain plant names.

According to the creation process behind vernacular phytonyms, there are two types. On the one hand, there are those with a scholarly formation, such as descàmpsia flexuosa (Deschampsia flexuosa), created by a botanist who, in line with the approach essentially taken in the United Kingdom, favours each plant that exists within an area having a vulgar name. On the other hand, there are names with a popular origin. Many more of these, at least in Catalan, are created and sometimes nuanced or changed by the people. Of this latter group, some are ubiquitous in the linguistic domain—such as rosa (Rosa sp.; ‘rose’) or clavell (Dianthus sp.; ‘carnation’)—and others are particular to a dialect or linguistic variant—for example, farigola/timó (Thymus vulgaris; ‘thyme’) and romaní/romer (Rosmarinus officinalis; ‘rosemary’). Among phytonyms, there are many cases of synonyms—for instance, saüc, saüquer, saüquera, sabuc, sabuquer and bonarbre for Sambucus nigra (elder)—and of polysemy—for example, àrnica for a dozen species, including Arnica montana, Inula montana, Pallenis spinosa and Hypericum perforatum—as well as of a combination of the two—for example, til·ler, tell and tilloler, sometimes with adjectives as modifiers, though sometimes without them, to denominate various species of the genus Tilia).

In terms of the formation patterns of these words, an area in which there is still much to be studied, there are names that derive from scientific names, while others allude to some morphological or ecological aspect of the plant, to some curative property (often in accordance with the theory of signature from medical anthropology, according to which humankind has believed that plants bear indications of what they can be used for) or, in other cases, to geography, flavour or smell. There are plant names that refer to people—herba de Sant Joan (Saint John’s wort), Hypericum perforatum, among other species with this name in Catalan—or to places (camamilla de Núria or camamilla de Rojà, Achillea ptarmica susbp. pyrenaica). Phytonyms have been very productive for Catalan family names—we are thinking here of last names such as Alzina, Bruc, Roure and Rovira, the latter of which is a synonym, though no longer a widely used one today, for roureda (‘oak forest’)—and toponyms (place names such as Lloret, La Jonquera, Figueres and Poblet, the latter of which comes from Populetum, ‘poplar grove’, Populus nigra).

Plant names are both natural and cultural heritage. The cultural aspect, beyond their belonging to popular culture and their enrichment of language, is further strengthened by the very productive role of phytonyms in the literature. It goes without saying that nature is often a source of inspiration in literary creation. When Jacint Verdaguer compares the Canigó mountain to a magnolia and describes its parts based on a description of the flower, he reveals a little more than inspiration: botanical knowledge that in his case—and leaving aside the consulting of specialists that he is known to have done—came from a special interest in nature. Aside from this, popular plant names (and sometimes their traditional uses) carry substantial weight in Catalan literature. This is not surprising, because writers are, before anything else, people—a part of the people that has created, maintained and transmitted Catalan’s huge ethnobotanical corpus. Let us look at some examples of botanic and ethnobotanical knowledge of Catalan literary figures.

The lines “La ginesta floreix / i arreu del camp hi ha vermell de roselles. / Amb nova falç comencem a segar / el blat madur i amb ell les males herbes” (Salvador Espriu; “The broom flourishes / and all around the countryside is the red of poppies / with a new sickle we start to reap / the ripe wheat and with it the weeds”) denote this poet’s knowledge of the flowering of various plants, its coincidence with the harvest and the presence (before the widespread use of pesticides) of weeds in cereal fields. “El verd rosat, que espurna el tamariu / i anuncia les tardes de l’estiu” (M. Àngels Vayreda; “the rosy foliage that sparkles on the tamarisk / and announces the summer evenings”) indicates that this author knows when the tree that she evokes flowers and what colour those flowers are. Similarly, Joan Brossa shows his knowledge of the ecology of the trees that he refers to in “Vora del llac creixen verns, pollancs i saules” (“By the lake grow alders, poplars and willows”). With phrases such as “Cabells blancs com l’escorça dels bedolls” (“Hair white like birch bark”), “Rentar vestits negres amb aigua bullida amb fulles d’heura” (“Cleaning black clothes with water boiled with ivy leaves”), “Herbes remeieres i plantes perfumades per cuinar: poliol, sajolida, romaní, fonoll, maladuix” (“Medicinal herbs and perfumed plants for cooking: pennyroyal, savory, rosemary, fennel, marjoram), and “Infusions de valeriana per calmar la desesperació” (“Valerian infusions to soothe despair”), M. Àngels Anglada exhibits not only botanical knowledge (which allows her to make a highly original comparison for the colour of hair) but also ethnobotanical knowledge about the uses of many types of plants. Turning to a classic author, Joanot Martorell displays good knowledge of plants used for textiles when he writes in Tirant (all English versions come from the David Rosenthal translation): “Plaerdemavida, en scusa de traure un drap de li prim per al bany, obrí la caixa” (“Pleasure-of-my-life, with the excuse of taking out a fine linen wash cloth, opened the chest), “La Viuda se despullà tota nua e restà ab calces vermelles e al cap un capell de lli” (“Then the widow stripped down to her red stockings and linen cap”) and “féu-lo saltar en un terrat que y havia e donà-li una corda de cànem” (“She made him jump onto the roof and threw him a hemp rope”). Finally, had he not had considerable knowledge of popular phytonymy, Josep M. Llompart would never have been able to make his “Camí florit” (“Florid path”), a poem of 48 words that contains 38 phytonyms and ends with “i en l’aire color de vauma, / l’esgarrifança d’un poll” (“and in the mallow-coloured air, / the shiver of a poplar”).

At the interface between people and plants, between nature and culture, between botany and linguistics, the phytonymic corpus is a fundamental element of heritage for any human group, and phytonymy, especially the most common, popular rooted, traditional and ethnobotanical form of it, constitutes a vast and interesting field for investigation and disseminations from many standpoints.

Sources of further information

Masclans, F. (1954). Els noms vulgars de les plantes a les terres catalanes. Barcelona: Institut d’Estudis Catalans (Arxius de la Secció de Ciències, XXIII).

Masclans, F. (1981). Els noms de les plantes als Catalan Countries. Barcelona: Editorial Montblanc-Martín i Centre Excursionista de Catalunya.

Vallès, J., Parada, M. (2019). Etnobotànica i fitonímia: plantes, noms i cultura popular a l’Alt Empordà. In: Jornades de la Secció Filològica a Castelló d’Empúries. Barcelona: Institut d’Estudis Catalans, in print.

Vallès, J., Agelet, A., Bonet, M.À., Garnatje, T., Muntané, J., Parada, M., Raja, D., Rigat, M., Selga, A. (2005). “Algunes qüestions entorn de la fitonímia i els aspectes lingüístics de l’etnobotànica.” Estudis de Llengua i Literatura Catalanes, 51, p. 273-293.

Vallès, J., Veny, J., Vigo, J., Bonet, M.À., Julià, M.A., Villalonga, J.C. (2014). Noms de plantes. Corpus de fitonímia catalana. Barcelona: Termcat – Centre de Terminologia and Universitat de Barcelona. Online at: https://www.termcat.cat/ca/diccionaris-en-linia/191.

40. Vergangenheitsbewältigung und ihre sprachlichen Aspekte

Georg Kremnitz
Universität Wien

Freiheit ist immer die Freiheit des anders Denkenden
Rosa Luxemburg, 1919

Zur Verständigung: jede politische Herrschaft hat ein gewisses Gewaltpotential; das staatliche Gewaltmonopol ist bis zu einem gewissen Grade für die Funktionsfähigkeit einer modernen Gesellschaft unerlässlich. Wo es versagt, sprechen wir von gescheiterten Staaten (failed states). Gewöhnlich genügt das Prinzip, nur in besonderen Fällen wird die Gewalt sichtbar. Nicht von diesen Staaten möchte ich im Folgenden sprechen, sondern von denen, in denen die Gewalt zur Unterdrückung der Bürger oder gewisser Gruppen unter ihnen systematisch eingesetzt wird, das was wir Gewaltherrschaften nennen.

Meine These ist folgende: Gewaltherrschaften hinterlassen immer ihre Spuren in Gesellschaften; selbst nachdem sie abgelöst werden, bleibt ein hohes Gewaltpotential in einer Gesellschaft erhalten, die Unduldsamkeit gegenüber allem, was „anders“ ist. Diese Gewaltsamkeit kann sich über lange Zeiten erhalten, wenn sie nicht bewusst bekämpft wird. In manchen Gesellschaften ist es zu einer solchen Aufarbeitung gekommen, es sei nur als Beispiel an die Wahrheits- und Versöhnungskommission unter Leitung von Desmond Tutu in Südafrika erinnert, an die Bemühungen um die Bewältigung der (letzten) Diktatur in Argentinien unter der Präsidentschaft von Nestor Kirchner, oder auch an die (späte) Aufarbeitung der Verbrechen der Hitler-Diktatur in Deutschland. Sicher ist durch diese Maßnahmen das Gewaltpotential in den jeweiligen Gesellschaften nicht völlig verschwunden, sie haben immerhin zu einer Abnahme der Gewalt in der Gesellschaft geführt und zum Aufbau eines höheren Toleranzniveaus. Dagegen ist etwa der Genozid an der autochthonen Bevölkerung in den USA – auch das eine Form von Gewaltherrschaft – nie ernsthaft problematisiert worden, darin könnte ein Grund für die vielfach vorkommende Gewalt in diesem Staat sein, wohl auch für seine oft aggressive Politik nach außen. Auch im heutigen Russland ist die Aufarbeitung der Folgen der Diktatur, vor allem unter Stalin, nach kurzer Zeit wieder eingeschlafen, auch hier fällt das hohe Niveau der Gewalt in der Gesellschaft auf. Die Zahl der Beispiele ließe sich vervielfachen. Wo eine Gewaltherrschaft nicht gesellschaftlich aufgearbeitet wird, bleibt das innewohnende Gewaltpotential für lange Zeit höher als dort, wo es zu einer solchen Aufarbeitung kommt.

In ähnlicher Weise ist es in Spanien bisher nicht zu einer Aufarbeitung des Unrechts und der Gewaltexzesse der franquistischen Diktatur gekommen. Nur in einigen peripheren Regionen ist das ansatzweise gelungen. Dabei hing die Intensität der Bemühungen gewöhnlich von der politischen Couleur der jeweils herrschenden Gruppen ab. Die Frage muss sich stellen, ob es nicht mittlerweile schon sehr spät ist für eine solche Aufarbeitung, da nur noch wenige der damals Verantwortlichen am Leben sind. Andererseits dürfte es für solche Versuche nie zu spät sein, wie die fortdauernde Beschäftigung mit der Shoah in Deutschland zeigt; sie schafft noch immer eine gewisse Sensibilisierung für die Menschenrecte. Leider zeigt die Erfahrung, dass neue Rückfälle in Gewalt nie auszuschlieβen sind. Ein Konsens über das Verwerfliche einer Diktatur erschwert immerhin neuerliche Bestrebungen in diese Richtung.

Worin zeigt sich, dass eine diktatorische Vergangenheit in einer Gesellschaft nicht oder unzureichend bewältigt ist? Dafür gibt es Indizien aus vielen Bereichen; am deutlichsten (und am verräterischsten) ist oft die Sprachverwendung. Das Gefährliche liegt darin, dass der Sprachgebrauch nach einiger Zeit nicht mehr bewusst ist. So wird im Deutschen für die Hitler-Diktatur noch vielfach der Begriff „Drittes Reich“ (ohne Anführungszeichen) verwendet, obwohl darin eine – gewöhnlich unbewusste – Übernahme der Vorstellungen der damaligen Machthaber suggeriert wird. Vielfach wird Vokabular verwendet, das Gewalt evoziert oder zu ihr aufruft – gerade bei den Staaten oder Gruppen, welche heutzutage keine Flüchtigen aus anderen Ländern aufnehmen wollen, wird ein solcher Wortschatz oftmals verwendet. Der Diskurs mehrerer Regierungen und vor allem regierungsnaher Organisationen in Staaten wie Ungarn oder Polen, in den letzten Jahren auch Italien, gibt genügend Beispiele dafür. Jede Gewaltherrschaft hat ihre eigenen Kennwörter geschaffen, die dann wieder aufgenommen werden – in Spanien galt das lange Zeit alle Verbindungen mit rojo – das ist nicht der Sinn dieser Zeilen. Wichtig ist, dass ein solches Vokabular Tür und Tor öffnet für eine Verrohung des Diskurses, wie wir sie derzeit in vielen europäischen Gesellschaften erleben – und diese dann für den Ausbruch von (nicht nur) physischer Gewalt; in Großbritannien lebende Ausländer können derzeit ebenso ein Lied davon singen wie Studenten oder Flüchtlinge aus Lateinamerika in den USA in den letzten Jahren.

Diktaturen hinterlassen nach ihrem Verschwinden ein geringes Bewusstsein für die Rechte von Minoritäten, wenn ihr Erbe nicht aufgearbeitet wird: die Mehrheit hat Recht, die Mehrheit bestimmt. Die Toleranzschwelle gegenüber Differenz ist gering. Das betrifft nur politische Fragen im engeren Sinne, die Unduldsamkeit erstreckt sich besonders auf kulturelle Themen, dazu gehören an vorderer Stelle auch sprachliche. Das zeigt sich angesichts des in Frankreich auf die Revolution und das zweite französische Kolonialreich zurückzuführenden geringen sprachlichen Toleranzpegels, wo noch immer den Sprachen der Peripherien (die Existenz von Minderheiten wird nach französischem Recht nicht anerkannt) nur ein minimaler Entfaltungsraum zugestanden wird, der dazu fühtr, dass die meisten dieser Sprachen heute nur noch eine Randeexistenz als Kommunikationsmittel führen können. Dass das nicht der Fall sein muss, zeigt die unterschiedliche sprachliche Entwicklung Großbritanniens.

Die neueren gesellschaftlichen Entwicklungen in Spanien lassen sich teilweise mit meiner eingangs erwähnten These erklären: die Vernachlässigung der Folgen der Diktatur hat dazu geführt, dass auf der einen Seite das Gewaltpotential in der Gesellschaft insgesamt hoch bleibt und auf der anderen die Achtung vor Differenz bei der Mehrheit der Bevölkerung (zu) wenig entwickelt ist. Nach durchaus vielversprechenden Anfängen, die der Erleichterung über das Ende der Diktatur und den friedlichen Übergang geschuldet waren, kommt es seit mehr als zwei Jahrzehnten wieder zur zunehmenden Rückkehr zu einer assimilationistischen Politik. Bereits gewährte sprachliche Rechte der Peripherien, vor allem des Baskenlandes und Kataloniens, werden in Frage gestellt, eine überfällige Reform der spanischen Verfassung, die 1977/78 noch unter der genauen Überwachung durch das franquistische Militär verabschiedet wurde, bleibt aus (wir, die wir die Entstehung dieser Verfassung aus relativer Nähe miterlebt haben, gingen davon aus, dass sie nach einer gewissen Zeit überarbeitet und vervollkommnet würde). Hinzu kommt das Paradox, dass die „anderen“ Spanier zwar die Katalanen oft nicht schätzen, wie viele Umfragen zeigen, sie aber auch nicht über ihre Zukunft entscheiden lassen wollen. Das geht im Falle Kataloniens bis zur Kriminalisierung politischer Positionen, die friedlich vertreten werden. In Spanien hat das eine lange Tradition: fast jede politische Forderung im Baskenland auf mehr Selbstbestimmung wurde lange Zeit als von der ETA abhängig diskriminiert und bestraft, heute spricht man von den Forderungen der Katalanen als versuchtem golpe de Estado. Der Gipfel der Intoleranz wird erreicht, wenn eine spanische Vize-Regierungschefin im Oktober 2019 öffentlich erklären kann, es gäbe kein Recht auf Selbstbestimmung – und das entgegen allen internationalen Deklarationen der Menschenrechte! Nicht anders verhalten sich Diktaturen. Dass die Europäische Union in diese Auseinandersetzung nicht eingreift, entgegen den von ihr vielfach verkündeten Prinzipien dieser Menschenrechte, ist – sagen wir es höflich – verwunderlich. In einigen anderen Fällen war sie weniger restriktiv, denken wir nur an Montenegro oder Schottland. Sollte auch in Europa das Prinzip der Staatlichkeit über das des Selbstbestimmungsrechts die Oberhand gewonnen haben? Damit wären die letzten noch verbliebenen Hoffnungen in die Europäische Union hinfällig geworden. Wollte Spanien diese konkreten Spannungen lösen, müsste es, konkret seine jeweiligen politischen Mehrheiten, auf alle seine Bürger zugehen.

Doch das Thema ist von weitaus allgemeinerer Bedeutung. Je höher das Gewaltpotential in einer Gesellschaft ist, desto höher auch das Gefühl der Unsicherheit der Bürgerinnen und Bürger. Erst wenn vergangene Gewalt aufgearbeitet und in ihren Motiven verständlich gemacht ist, kann zukünftige Gewalt besser abgewehrt werden. Erst wenn die notwendigen Entfaltungsmöglichkeiten für alle Bürger geschaffen sind, können diese sich einem Staat zuwenden. Dazu gehören ganz besonders auch die kulturellen Rechte, etwa der Sprachgebrauch. Erst wenn ich reden darf, wie ich will, kann ich mich wohl und akzeptiert fühlen. Andernfalls bleibt immer Frustration, bleibt immer das Gefühl der gesellschaftlichen Unterlegenheit. Erst wenn ich selbst bestimmen kann, in welchem Maße und für welche Zwecke ich meine Sprachen verwenden will, kann ich mich unabhängig fühlen. Das gilt für autochthone Gruppen ebenso wie für Zuwanderer. Sicher ist es sinnvoll, dass diese die Sprachen der sie aufnehmenden Länder lernen, daneben sollten sie auch ihre Herkunftssprachen pflegen und bewahren können, denn in deren Beherrschung liegt ihre Besonderheit. So können sie Brücken zwischen den Völkern und Kulturen bauen – eine Möglichkeit, welche Einwanderungsländer auszeichnet, nur haben die meisten sie im Zuge des sich entwickelnden Nationalismus nicht genutzt und damit großen potentiellen Mehrwert in der Kultur achtlos verkommen lassen. Erst allmählich – sehr spät – ändert sich da und dort das kollektive Bewusstsein und – wichtiger noch – das Verhalten. Besonders dort, wo die Migration sich an einen früheren Kolonialismus anschließt, dem Gewalt inhärent ist/war, bekommt die kulturelle Freiheit eine zusätzliche Bedeutung; solche Migrationsflüsse sind ja im heutigen Europa bei den ehemaligen Kolonialmächten weit verbreitet.

Die Wahrnehmung der eigenen Rechte stößt dort auf ihre Grenzen, wo die der anderen betroffen sind. Diese Dialektik ist unauflöslich. Um sie zu verdeutlichen, sagte der frühere deutsche Bundespräsident Gustav Heinemann vor ziemlich genau fünfzig Jahren sinngemäß: „Wer mit dem ausgestreckten Zeigefinger auf andere zeigt, um sie anzuklagen, sollte nicht vergessen, dass drei Finger auf ihn selbst zurückweisen”.

39. A rooster for Asklepios: the death and life of Socrates

Gregory Nagy
Francis Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature
Harvard University
Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies, Washington, DC


This work is a lightly re-edited second version of an essay originally published in Classical Inquiries 2015.03.27. https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/?s=last+words+of+Socrates


§1. I will analyze here the passage in Plato’s Phaedo 117a–118a where Socrates dies. His last words, as transmitted by Plato, are directed at all those who have followed Socrates—and who have had the unforgettable experience of engaging in dialogue with him. He tells them: don’t forget to sacrifice a rooster to Asklepios

§2. I will quote the whole passage in a minute. But first, we need to ask: who is this Asklepios? Briefly, he was a hero whose father was the god Apollo himself, and, like his divine father, Asklepios had special powers of healing. More than that, Asklepios also had the power of bringing the dead back to life. That is why he was killed by the immortals, since mortals must stay mortal. But Asklepios, even after death, retained his power to bring the dead back to life.

§3. So, what does Socrates mean when he asks his followers, in his dying words, not to forget to sacrifice a rooster to Asklepios?

§4. On 16 March 2015, a group participating in the 2015 Harvard Spring Break travel study program visited the site where Socrates died—and where he said what he said about sacrificing a rooster to Asklepios. On the surface, this site is nothing much to write home about. All we can see at the site is the foundation stones of the State Prison where Socrates was held prisoner and where he was forced to drink the hemlock in the year 399 BCE. But I feel deeply that, just by visiting the site, our group managed to connect with a sublime experience. We were making contact with a place linked forever with the very last words of one of the greatest thinkers in world history.

§5. I now quote my own translation of Plato’s Phaedo 117a–118a, which situates these last words of Socrates:

“Go,” said he [= Socrates], “and do as I say.” Crito, when he heard this, signaled with a nod to the boy servant who was standing nearby, and the servant went in, remaining for some time, and then came out with the man who was going to administer the poison [pharmakon]. He was carrying a cup that contained it, ground into the drink. When Socrates saw the man he said: “You, my good man, since you are experienced in these matters, should tell me what needs to be done.” The man answered: “You need to drink it, that’s all. Then walk around until you feel a heaviness |117b in your legs. Then lie down. This way, the poison will do its thing.” While the man was saying this, he handed the cup to Socrates. And Socrates took it in a cheerful way, not flinching or getting pale or grimacing. Then looking at the man from beneath his brows, like a bull—that was the way he used to look at people—he said: “What do you say about my pouring a libation out of this cup to someone? Is it allowed or not?” The man answered: “What we grind is measured out, Socrates, as the right dose for drinking.” “I understand,” he said, |117c “but surely it is allowed and even proper to pray to the gods so that my transfer of dwelling [met-oikēsis] from this world [enthende] to that world [ekeîse] should be fortunate. So, that is what I too am now praying for. Let it be this way.” And, while he was saying this, he took the cup to his lips and, quite readily and cheerfully, he drank down the whole dose. Up to this point, most of us had been able to control fairly well our urge to let our tears flow; but now when we saw him drinking the poison, and then saw him finish the drink, we could no longer hold back, and, in my case, quite against my own will, my own tears were now pouring out in a flood. So, I covered my face and had a good cry. You see, I was not crying for him, |117d but at the thought of my own bad fortune in having lost such a comrade [hetairos]. Crito, even before me, found himself unable to hold back his tears: so he got up and moved away. And Apollodorus, who had been weeping all along, now started to cry in a loud voice, expressing his frustration. So, he made everyone else break down and cry—except for Socrates himself. And he said: “What are you all doing? I am so surprised at you. I had sent away the women mainly because I did not want them |117e to lose control in this way. You see, I have heard that a man should come to his end [teleutân] in a way that calls for measured speaking [euphēmeîn]. So, you must have composure [hēsukhiā], and you must endure.” When we heard that, we were ashamed, and held back our tears. He meanwhile was walking around until, as he said, his legs began to get heavy, and then he lay on his back—that is what the man had told him to do. Then that same man who had given him the poison [pharmakon] took hold of him, now and then checking on his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard and asked him if he could feel it; and he said that he couldn’t; and then he pressed his shins, |118a and so on, moving further up, thus demonstrating for us that he was cold and stiff. Then he [= Socrates] took hold of his own feet and legs, saying that when the poison reaches his heart, then he will be gone. He was beginning to get cold around the abdomen. Then he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said— this was the last thing he uttered— “Crito, I owe the sacrifice of a rooster to Asklepios; will you pay that debt and not neglect to do so?” “I will make it so,” said Crito, “and, tell me, is there anything else?” When Crito asked this question, no answer came back anymore from Socrates. In a short while, he stirred. Then the man uncovered his face. His eyes were set in a dead stare. Seeing this, Crito closed his mouth and his eyes. Such was the end [teleutē], Echecrates, of our comrade [hetairos]. And we may say about him that he was in his time the best [aristos] of all men we ever encountered—and the most intelligent [phronimos] and most just [dikaios].

So I come back to my question about the meaning of the last words of Socrates, when he says, in his dying words: don’t forget to sacrifice a rooster to Asklepios. As I begin to formulate an answer, I must repeat something that I have already highlighted. It is the fact that the hero Asklepios was believed to have special powers of healing—even the power of bringing the dead back to life. Some interpret the final instruction of Socrates to mean simply that death is a cure for life. I disagree. After sacrificing a rooster at day’s end, sacrificers will sleep the sleep of incubation and then, the morning after the sacrifice, they will wake up to hear other roosters crowing. So, the words of Socrates here are referring to rituals of overnight incubation in the hero cults of Asklepios.

§6. On 18 March 2015, the group participating in the 2015 Harvard Spring Break travel study program visited a site where such rituals of overnight incubation actually took place: the site was Epidaurus. This small city was famous for its hero cult of Asklepios. The space that was sacred to Asklepios, as our group had a chance to witness, is enormous, and the enormity is a sure sign of the intense veneration received by Asklepios as the hero who, even though he is dead, has the superhuman power rescue you from death. The mystical logic of worshipping the dead Asklepios is that he died for humanity: he died because he had the power to bring humans back to life.

§7. So, Asklepios is the model for keeping the voice of the rooster alive. And, for Socrates, Asklepios can become the model for keeping the word alive.

§8. I follow through on analyzing this idea of keeping the word from dying, of keeping the word alive. That living word, I argue, is dialogue. We can see it when Socrates says that the only thing worth crying about is the death of the word. I am about to quote another passage from Plato’s Phaedo, and again I will use my own translation. But before I quote the passage, here is the context: well before Socrates is forced to drink the hemlock, his followers are already mourning his impending death, and Socrates reacts to their sadness by telling them that the only thing that would be worth mourning is not his death but the death of the conversation he started with them. Calling out to one of his followers, Phaedo, Socrates tells him (Plato, Phaedo 89b):

“Tomorrow, Phaedo, you will perhaps be cutting off these beautiful locks of yours [as a sign of mourning]?” “Yes, Socrates,” I [= Phaedo] replied, “I guess I will.” He shot back: “No you will not, if you listen to me.” “So, what will I do?” I [= Phaedo] said. He replied: “Not tomorrow but today I will cut off my own hair and you too will cut off these locks of yours—if our argument [logos] comes to an end [teleutân] for us and we cannot bring it back to life again [ana-biōsasthai].

What matters for Socrates is the resurrection of the ‘argument’ or logos, which means literally ‘word’, even if death may be the necessary pharmakon or ‘poison’ for leaving the everyday life and for entering the everlasting cycle of resurrecting the word.

§9. In the 2015 book Masterpieces of Metonymy (MoM), I study in Part One a traditional custom that prevailed in Plato’s Academy at Athens for centuries after the death of Socrates. Their custom was to celebrate the birthday of Socrates on the sixth day of the month Thargelion, which by their reckoning coincided with his death day. And they celebrated by engaging in Socratic dialogue, which for them was the logos that was resurrected every time people engage in Socratic dialogue. I go on to say in MoM 1§§146–147:

For Plato and for Plato’s Socrates, the word logos refers to the living ‘word’ of dialogue in the context of philosophical argumentation. When Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo (89b) tells his followers who are mourning his impending death that they should worry not about his death but about the death of the logos—if this logos cannot be resurrected or ‘brought back to life’ (ana-biōsasthai)—he is speaking of the dialogic argumentation supporting the idea that the psūkhē or ‘soul’ is immortal. In this context, the logos itself is the ‘argument’.

For Plato’s Socrates, it is less important that his psūkhē or ‘soul’ must be immortal, and it is vitally more important that the logos itself must remain immortal—or, at least, that the logos must be brought back to life. And that is because the logos itself, as I say, is the ‘argument’ that comes to life in dialogic argumentation.

Here is the way I would sum up, then, what Socrates means as he speaks his last words. When the sun goes down and you check in for sacred incubation at the precinct of Asklepios—that is to say, you sleep at the site and hope to dream a salvific dream—you sacrifice a rooster to this hero who, even in death, has the power to bring you back to life. As you drift off to sleep at the place of incubation, the voice of that rooster is no longer heard. He is dead, and you are asleep. But then, as the sun comes up, you wake up to the voice of a new rooster signaling that morning is here, and this voice will be for you a sign that says: the word that died has come back to life again. Asklepios has once again shown his sacred power. The word is resurrected. The conversation may now continue.

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