Opinion, reflections and information

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

Susan Gal
University of Chicago


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Endangered Sámi languages

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

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

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

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

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

Rebuilding the lost generation through language education

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

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

New speakers of Sámi languages: Who are they?

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

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

Moving forward with the new language

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

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

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

Understanding, accepting and supporting new speakers

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

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

50. Towards a New Language of the Global Language Crisis

Gerald Roche
Senior Research Fellow
La Trobe University, Australia


Another Global Crisis

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

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


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

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

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

Beyond Biology

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

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

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

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

Towards a New Language of the Global Language Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

Endangered and Oppressed Languages in Tibet

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Shifting our Language

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

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

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

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

Francesc Queixalós


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

Une diversité de langues exceptionnelle

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

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

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

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

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











Une vaste champ d’études encore à explorer

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



Des écoles bilingues pour préserver cette pluralité

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

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

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

Sociodiversité et biodiversité ne font qu’un

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

47. Diversity and the Latin language

James Adams
All Souls College Oxford


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

(Te Puni Kōkiri, 2019)


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

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

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

Figure 1
Kupu App

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


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

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


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

Figure 2
Tomokanga Rauemai Reo Māori

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.