Opinion, reflections and information

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

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


The speech-writing division

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

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

Computer-mediated communication and Arabic

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

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

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

The spread of Romanized Arabic

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

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

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

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

Attitudes to the use of RA

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

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

A wider perspective

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

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

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

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

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

17. Identity is not what it seems

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stanford University. November 2016

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

Víctor Corona
École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, ASLAN-ICAR


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

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

Some results

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

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

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

Example 1.

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

547. RAL: es una mierda\<0>

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


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

552. ALX: eh/|

553. VCR: por qué los odias?|

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

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

555. IGN: Colon sí\|

556. OSC: un culón de mierda|


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

Corpus 2006-2007 Support group

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


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

547. RAL: it’s shit\<0>

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


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

552. ALX: eh/|

553. VCR: why do you hate them?|

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

555. IGN: Columbus yeah\|

556. OSC: what an asshole|


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


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

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

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

Example 2.

‘cruzar el continente pa encontrarme con mi madre

empezar de cero sin conocer a nadie           

problemas en la clase por mi acento por mi carne

esperar a que acabe esta angustia incontrolable

que suene la campana corriendo para ir a pelearme                      

y aunque tuviera miedo nunca quise ser cobarde

la vida se hace dura cuando está ausente tu padre

tener que echar palante sin que nadie te eche un cable

ya con los dieciséis yo dejé el instituto

dedicándome al chanchullo y a pequeños hurtos

con una idea clara ganas de comerme al mundo’


‘crossing the continent to meet up with my mother

starting from nothing without knowing anyone

problems in class because of my accent and my skin

waiting for the end of this uncontrollable anguish

the bell rings for me to run out and fight

and even when afraid I never wanted to be a coward

life’s hard when your dad’s not there

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

when I was sixteen I quit school

spending my time on scams and petty theft

with a clear idea and wanting to conquer the world’


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



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

Ten years of research

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



15. Being Visible: Processions, Celebrations and Religious Protests in the Street

Maria del Mar Griera
Carlota Rodríguez Ruiz
Sociology of Religion Research Group, ISOR-UAB


Some decades ago it looked as though religion was destined to become a residual practice in 21st century Catalonia. This was not a hasty verdict. Surveys showed that the Catholic Church was losing believers and worshippers at an alarming rate, and it was becoming an increasingly discredited institution in the Catalan context. Whereas in 1980 people who thought of themselves as Catholic made up nearly 80% of the population, by 2015 this figure was closer to 52%. Plus, out of this number, less than half said they were non-practising, meaning that although they were people who described themselves as Catholic they hardly ever attended mass or other forms of worship.

However, not all religious faiths are losing followers in our country, quite the opposite. In the last few decades, religious minorities have been gaining ground and nowadays, more than 15% of Catalans say they are members of a religious minority, with Islam, Protestantism, Buddhism and Orthodox Christianity being the faiths that attract the largest numbers of people (Baròmetre, 2014).  It is estimated that, at present, there are more than 1,360 places of religious minority worship in Catalonia (ISOR, 2014). Evangelical churches, Sikh Gurdwaras, Buddhist monasteries, Orthodox churches and Hindu communities are just some of the religious centres that have been set up in recent years and that have contributed to diversifying the religious map of Catalonia. Nevertheless, despite this remarkable growth, most places of worship remain tucked away in the urban landscape, camouflaged amongst industrial warehouses, commercial premises or in spaces lent temporarily by the administration or by social organisations. In Catalonia, the architectural invisibility of places of worship stands in contrast with the increase in all kinds of religious activities in the streets, including processions, religious festivals, open-air prayers and concerts of religious music that year after year are becoming more visible in the public domain.

In 2015, the ISOR sociology research group embarked on a project to explore the growth of this type of activity in the metropolitan area of Barcelona. The project was entitled “Religious Expressions in Urban Space. Negotiations, tensions and opportunities surrounding the visibility of religious diversity in the Catalan public domain”. (“Expressions Religioses a l’Espai Urbà. Negociacions, tensions i oportunitats entorn la visibilitat de la diversitat religiosa a l’espai públic català”)[1] and focuses on analysing the (in)visibility of activities carried out, the bureaucratic and political processes that communities have to go through to hold these activities and the negotiations that take place with the local community and the audience they target. The research was designed following a case study methodology and five studies were completed, each one focusing on a single religious faith: Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism, Buddhism and Sikhism.[2]

‘Why do religious communities take to the streets?’

Celebrating and/or commemorating significant dates in a community’s religious calendar is one of main reasons for organising activities in the public space. An example of this is the Shiite Muslim community in Barcelona, which has been holding the Ashura procession in the Rivera district every year since 2006. The aim is to publicly celebrate the death of Hussein Ibn Ali, grandson of the prophet Mohammed, and remember his suffering simultaneously all over the world. Memories of death also colour the Catholic procession organised by the brotherhood of ‘Germandat del Gran Poder i l’Esperança Macarena’ every Good Friday and that goes along the Ramblas in Barcelona as well as through the city’s historic quarter. The commemoration serves to collectively remember the basic origins of the faith and to reactivate emotional bonds with the community of believers. Both in the Ashura and in the Catholic procession, the ritualised staging of pain is a key element that transports the participants emotionally. In the case of the Ashura the ‘matam’ ritual structures the pace of the procession; the recitation of rhythmic chants that rise and fall in volume in a loop, while participants beat their chests[3]. In the Catholic procession, the passage of the holy images of Christ and the Virgin of the Macarena are what structure and stage the ritual. The sight of the images unlocks the emotions of the people taking part and triggers a public ovation, as people with outstretched hands literally try to touch the images, amidst cries of “Beautiful, beautiful, you’re the most beautiful! Long live the Virgin of the Macarena!” (field material), demonstrating the complementarity between images, ritual high spirits and emotions.

The reason for taking to the street is not always linked to the expression of pain. For example, every year, the Sikh community holds the Guru Nanak festival in Barcelona and all over the world, to commemorate the birth of the founder of Sikhism. This festivity remembers the joy of the religion’s origins and involves men, women and children from the community, who walk in procession through the streets in the centre of Barcelona. The procession ends with a community meal to which everyone is invited and that is intended to symbolise the hospitality of Sikhism. In mid-April, the Sikh community also holds Baisakhi or the harvest festival, which celebrates the founding of Khalsa, the institution that baptised Sikhs all belong to. As one of the community members explains: “Baisakhi is the baptism festival, commemorating the creation of Khalsa. Khalsa means a pure Sikh, when a Sikh decides they want to be Khalsa, we hold this festival. (…) From this moment onwards they have to follow a series of rules like not cutting their hair or wearing a wooden comb…”.

Sometimes the reason why communities take to the streets is also because they want to complete a spiritual or religious ritual. The collective baptisms that some Protestant churches hold on Barceloneta beach also show this desire to take ritual into the public domain, away from the centre of worship.

All the activities we have described up to this point are largely aimed at the members of religious communities. In contrast, some activities are intended to show the faith of those involved to the heterogeneous audience that gathers in city streets and squares. We are referring, for example, to the so-called “evangelical campaigns” organised by Protestant communities in parks and squares, in the hope of attracting new followers, or handing out leaflets, brochures and magazines to publicise their faith. However, organisers of this kind of event frequently come up against reluctance from public authorities, who disapprove of the use of public space for what could be regarded as religious canvassing. The boundary between publicising one’s own faith and what is regarded in a derogatory sense as intrusive religious crusading is very fragile and often causes controversy. What some see as simply being part of religious freedom and the right to express oneself freely is regarded by others as a proselytizing act that should be restricted in our society.  The problem is that the line between both these views is often difficult to determine using objective criteria and it is then that social and cultural biases come into play, tending to prejudice communities that are little known, stigmatised or recently established.

The latest way of using public space by religious communities is the protest demonstration. The desire to make unrest visible is what pushes them into organising an event outside the centre of worship. In a global and interconnected world like ours, these protests are frequently held in response to events happening far away from our borders. This is the case, for example, of the protest held by Sikhs in October 2015 in the Rambla del Raval to show their unrest at the attacks carried out against the holy book –’Sri Guru Granth Sahib’– in their home land, the Punjab in India. We could also point to protests held by the Muslim community on issues such as the controversy about the publication of the caricatures of the prophet Mohammed and other similar matters. This kind of event reinforces transnational bonds and the creation of a community conscience in the diaspora.

‘The importance of place: social recognition and the public space’

Being able to make oneself seen, being visible to other citizens is one of the growing demands of religious communities. They lay claim to their “right to the city”. The spokesperson for the Sikh community told us that for them it is very important to go along the Rambla. They know it is difficult because the area is very busy with traffic but, as they explained, “the community has this wish, to be able to walk along the Ramblas, so that people can see and meet us”. They also point to an unfair situation that allows the Catholic procession to parade along the Ramblas, with permission to cross the city’s most important roads.  In the spirit of goodwill, they say that they understand Catholicism has a long tradition in the city but they also point out that being more recent arrivals should not make them second-class citizens. After much insistence, the Sikhs have managed to obtain permission for their procession to cross the Ramblas, although they have not been authorised to actually take it along this street. For the Shiite Muslim community it is also important to be able to hold their festival in one of the city’s iconic spots, the Arc de Triomf. It is a symbolic issue and part of their desire to be recognised. In this case, the community has expressed its strong disagreement with the proposal that they move the Ashura procession to a closed site, like a pavilion, or to somewhere on the outskirts of the city. As citizens of Barcelona they demand to be able to make their religious and cultural beliefs visible and not have to hide away. There is also another reason for their refusal to move to a peripheral location: they want to be acknowledged on global networks, like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, as citizens of Barcelona, and they need an iconic landmark to be in the photos so the city can be easily identifiable for people watching from faraway locations. They are citizens of Barcelona, but they are also travellers in a globalised world with networks of friends, family and acquaintances across the planet, and they want them all to be part of this gathering.

‘Final notes’

The separation between the sacred and the profane space is an issue common to most religions. However, the border between one dimension and the other is often blurred and expression emerge that take place on the periphery. Religious activities out on the street are frequently characterised by having a hybrid relationship with the sacred and the profane space: they are expressions of sacredness produced in a space defined as profane. In our country, historically speaking, the majority of religious expressions on the street were Catholic and part of the Catholic Church’s public ritual. But times have changed and the religious landscape has been transformed over recent decades. Religious diversity has become very important and minority groups demand their right to take to the streets and make themselves visible to other citizens.

Foto 2 - Nota 15_MarFoto 1 - Nota 15_Mar

[1] The project was funded by AGAUR and the Religious Affairs Department at the Generalitat de Catalunya government. The following researchers took part: Avi Astor, Rafael Cazarín, Anna Clot, Miquel Fernandez, María Forteza, Mar Griera, Antonio Montañes, Carlota Rodríguez and Wilson Muñoz.

[2] In all cases, one or two rituals were chosen out of all those organised in the street by religious communities, and a qualitative methodology was followed consisting of ethnographic observation, collection of audio-visual material and semi-structured interviews with various people involved in the community events.

[3] Self-flagellation is practised in some other countries but this is not the case in Barcelona.

14. Culture: substance and idols

Joan F. Mira 
Institut d’Estudis Catalans


Before we talk about the “concept of culture” or about any attempt to define such an over-used term, we should remind ourselves of a few self-evident truths, like this one: society, the majority of the more or less enlightened population (“cultured” people in all countries, and in each country…) only apply the term culture – in its “elevated” sense, in the dignified, superior sense – to that which is presented and promoted with this attribute by those who have the power to do so; in other words, by the political, institutional, social, “media” or academic power, or whoever else that may be. This is how it is, it’s undeniable, but it needs to be repeated from time to time, because we often forget the simplest facts, especially when they don’t lend themselves to theoretical brilliance. Culture theorists, on the other hand, usually examine their colleagues’ books or papers in great detail, extracting even more theory from them (more contemplation and more ‘spectacle’, which is what ‘theory’ also means in Greek) and they tend to pay little attention to the trivial and very unassuming normal function of people and words. However, we should really be following the advice of Sir Francis Bacon, founding father of the empirical method. He recommended arriving at the knowledge of form or essence by starting with the facts and by means of induction: observing, checking, comparing, and then finally, if possible, reaching some sort of conclusion and definition. It could be, in this case or field we’re working in, that culture doesn’t have an “essence” or a form of its own, but in any case, if it does, it isn’t a substance nor does it have ‘a priori’ any identifiable and definable attributes, it is that which functions socially as “culture” and that receives this name and this recognition. An extremely sad conclusion, empty of content, redundant and perfectly useless, probably because there is no possible definition. Not, therefore, any independent and “objective” idea, let’s say, of culture, but instead an often scattered set of facts and realities that circulate and operate more or less effectively. In the same way that “intellectuals” are a normally disperse set of people who circulate and function as such, who are seen or identified by others, or who identify themselves as such. But if we ask in a survey, “what is an intellectual?” or the person concerned, “are you an intellectual (and why)?” they may not know how to answer, or the answers may be quite strange… They are hazy voices, with no substance. So expressions like “contemporary culture is…”, “the values of modern culture are…”, “today’s society lives in a culture that…”, “cultural trends in the late 20th century and the early 21st century are…”, and so many others in the same vein, are little more than a ‘flatus vocis’. But there’s a lot of theory and many texts, and very well qualified ones at that, on “culture, etc., etc.”, that without these puffed up voices would deflate until there was nothing, just an empty appearance, a coloured balloon.

Let’s remember. Who thought, at the start of the 20th century, that machines, locomotives or factories ‘were’ culture? Nobody. Well, soon afterwards, Marinetti and the Futurists thought it, but in a very particular way: they thought that they were art or the subject of art, the powerful art of the industrial future. In any case, industrial infrastructure a century ago was not “culture”, and now ‘those same’ factories, locomotives and machines are ‘cultural objects’ in museums of industrial archaeology, they are the topic of discussions and conferences, of beautifully illustrated books and major exhibitions. All organised by departments and institutions that administer ‘culture’. The objects are the same ones, but whereas before they functioned simply as industrial or transport objects, they now function as cultural expressions, presented with the added value of history and aesthetics, and therefore worthy of a new form of appreciation and contemplation. This is the issue: they’re presented (by intellectuals, those in the know, experts, specialists, etc.) as worthy of intellectual respect, and that means they’re already “high” culture and their agents are highly respected. Up until the 18th century, musicians were not “high” or “respectable” for example, and until the second half of the 20th century, neither were cooks, dressmakers and hairdressers, etc.; now they are personalities who people listen to, high culture, members of the “intellectual class”. They do the same things but they aren’t perceived or seen in the same light, now they’re part of the “high” level of culture (as well as in terms of money, social presence and contact with “power”), now their words, actions, products and ideas all exercise public influence via the media, etc.; they’re intellectuals! Aren’t they? And why not? Let’s look at idols…

Clearly, for Sir Francis Bacon, Earl of Verulam, the “idols of the tribe”, the “idols of the cave”, the “idols of the marketplace” and the “idols of the theatre”, which he criticises in ‘Novum organum’, were false images and false forms of perception, preventing us from getting to the reality of things as they really are. But precisely in this field of culture things ‘are not what they are’, but what they appear or are represented to be: their cultural ‘reality’ is their presentation, or representation, or image, or appearance. So, their recognised value is as solid or as shifting as shares on the stock exchange or currency converters, it depends on credit, on confidence, on institutional support, maybe on speculation, perhaps on expert opinion (another plague, pest or epidemic – another idol). And this, evidently, doesn’t prevent, but rather enables, monumental frauds occurring from time to time (three quarters, no less, of so-called “contemporary art”, including a considerable proportion of exhibits in the most prestigious galleries of museums in this sphere, are a perfect fraud, I have absolutely no doubt about it, fraud with a multitude of accomplices and beneficiaries; the other quarter is probably a solid and well thought out investment. In terms of examples, anyone interested can find them in practically all the cities in Europe). This also doesn’t prevent what often happens on the stock exchange or in publishing fashions, that, to use physically noisy terms, we can go from ‘boom’ to ‘bust’, or from explosion to fart. We already know that the visible use of idols is to attract, unite and congregate believers around images and representations familiar to the community, and thereby – with worship, veneration, ritual and in short, faith – consolidate the cohesion we normally call “social”. This is why the people of Israel had so many problems remaining united over the centuries, because Yahweh insisted that they should be tribes without idols (and if they did not completely disintegrate it was thanks to the Ark, the Law and the Temple, which all played an equivalent role). It’s a role that Imperial Rome was very clear about with the cult of images of the Emperor, or Christian Europe with saints and holy mothers of God. Now we think, what would a contemporary country do with no “cultural” works and names commonly or mainly recognised as valuable role models? To whom would it attribute this ‘worship of culture’ – the worship of universal gods and of the particular gods of each country – that has become necessary in every human society that regards itself as modern and more or less well run? Whether idols are divinity itself or simply a representation of it is largely irrelevant, the same as whether this divinity is “true” or “false”: what counts is the extent of public devotion, the impact and effectiveness of the rituals and the strength of faith.

The most visible result is that, in the same way that (five centuries or two centuries ago or one, or in many cases and circumstances more than half a century) “the people” of any country we would call western, ‘lived’ in an atmosphere “loaded with religion”, surrounded by religion, breathing religion, saturated by religion, now breathe culture; now we’re saturated and surrounded by culture, we ‘live in’ “culture”, whether we search for it and whether we like it or not. I mean that the presence of what we usually call “culture” (whatever its content…) is so abundant, dense, vague, every day and penetrating – even publicly imposed and you might say compulsory – as it was “before” the presence of what we normally call “religion”. With its temples, hierarchies and ceremonies, with public and private worship, and with the occupation of the mental and emotional space of both individuals and groups. The idols of culture (and especially the people idolised) are not only obstacles to knowledge, as Francis Bacon would say, they are not only images and representations, they also frequently appear to be divinities themselves – in human form, or living in eternal glory – worthy of the most diverse forms of worship, worthy of idolatry. Who is, then, the brave one – the heretic, the excommunicated – who practises a healthy and moderate form of iconoclasm and dares to say in public that, for example, that this building by this famous architect is a pretentious piece of nonsense and out of place, that most of the work by this celebrated and extremely expensive painter is complete rubbish, or that many texts by this great writer are actually meaningless and of no interest?   When we think about doing it, we can think of a good many reasons but we might perhaps lack the courage…

13. The Road Forward for Endangered Languages: How Long, How Hard, and How Expensive?

Nancy C. Dorian
Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania


In the summer of 2015, a Canadian journalist writing for the Calgary Herald reviewed the very considerable measures that the Canadian government had taken in recent years to support maintenance and revitalization of First Nations languages in that country.  There are about 60 aboriginal languages at various degrees of risk in the country, most of them very seriously at risk, and First Nations leaders continue to seek funding for such things as language institutes, aboriginal language programs for students and teachers, immersion schooling, dictionaries, online tutoring, and other supportive measures.  Naomi Lakritz, the journalist, points out that government-funded Aboriginal Head Start pre-schooling has been available since 1998 and costs $59 million (Canadian) per year. An initiative called “First Voices” that provides tutors, interactive dictionaries, and online language labs receives part of its funding from the government’s Department of Canadian Heritage. Five years prior to publication of her article, Lakritz reports, Ottowa quadrupled its funding for preservation efforts in British Columbia alone, supporting instructional materials and youth language camps.

Lakritz is by no means hostile to language preservation and revitalization initiatives. “Languages are precious and they deserve to survive”, she writes, “for they represent the unique and irreplaceable way their speakers perceive and think about the world”. But at the close of her article, after recounting the many streams of government support for aboriginal languages in Canada she asks, “How can this not be enough? If languages are dying out and remaining unlearned despite the millions of dollars spent annually on teaching and preserving them, the problem is not a lack of multimillion dollar initiatives. At some point, people have to take advantage of the opportunities offered them.  If they won’t, that’s not something more money and more programs can fix.”

This is an understandable position, and Lakritz is not the only one to take it.  Journalists in Scotland have raised the same question about government expenditure on behalf of Scottish Gaelic, for example.  A large part of the answer – the major part – is that by the time governments such as Canada’s and Scotland’s have become sympathetic to minority language speakers’ hopes for maintaining or revitalizing their languages, it’s very late in the day. The damage done by previous distinctly unsympathetic governments and by what is often centuries of societal and institutional mistreatment has been so extensive that minority-language populations have little left of their linguistic heritage (often a small number of elderly speakers) and in many cases a painfully understandable reluctance to re-acquire a language that was deliberately stamped out of their parents’ and grandparents’ lives. The worst of these stories are by now well known, though no less horrific for that:  North American Indian and Australian Aboriginal children removed from their families and sent to boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their own languages and subjected to harsh assimilationist pressures. Even in countries where treatment was less overtly and oppressively cruel, membership in a long-standing minority group such as the Sámi in the Nordic world or the Arvanites (Albanian speakers) in Greece meant social bias and disadvantage that shadow the histories and even the present-day lives of ethnic group members.

Severe biases against minority languages and their speakers often stretch back many generations into the past, sometimes many centuries into the past. The rise of nationalism in the last century and a half has had a tendency to exacerbate the situation for minority-language populations, increasing direct central government influence over outlying regions which in the past enjoyed more independence in spheres that affect language use. More and more exposed to majority-group governance and ideology, members of small language communities can come to perceive adoption of the dominant language as the likeliest route to social acceptance and economic opportunity.

Because of the cumulative effects of long-continued social bias, one can encounter in one and the same heritage group both deep yearning to strengthen or recover the traditional language and great reluctance to reassociate themselves with a language that brought scorn and disdain to parents and grandparents. Languages have no standing of their own, but instead reflect the standing of the people who speak them. If a particular language is spoken exclusively by the poorest and least esteemed segment of the society, it will itself be poorly esteemed. For this reason languages can go rapidly from highly favored to severely disfavored if the fortunes of its speakers change radically, as happened for example with the Incas of Peru and their Quechua language. It was socially supreme before the arrival of Europeans, but reduced after conquest to a stigmatized local language subordinate to Spanish.

If social bias coincides, as it often does, with lesser economic development in an identifiable minority-language region, the combination of stigma and lack of prosperity is likely to undermine the vitality of the language and interrupt transmission of the disfavored minority language in the home and the community. Economic self-interest will then favor acquisition of the majority language in such circumstances, and if the standing of the minority language is low enough, it also favors abandonment of the minority language. If it’s better not to be identifiable as an Arapajo in Wyoming, or an Arvanite in Greece, or a Quechua speaker in Peru, then one of the simplest forms of dissociation is to abandon the ethnic language.

When the failure of home transmission has become severe enough, hopes for maintaining and revitalizing the language necessarily become a matter of providing educational support for children’s acquisition and provision for the even more extensive support that might produce adult second-language learners. Both of these approaches are unavoidably expensive. For minority-language schooling, such things as classroom space, staffing, and some level of curricular development will be needed, and in many cases also orthographic planning, lexical expansion, archiving mechanisms, and so forth.  For adult second-language learning, teaching techniques and materials hat are specially targeted to breaking through the deeply established first-language habits must be developed, and then also social environments provided that encourage use of the second language in the learners’ lives. Adult second-language learning is slow compared to children’s acquisition, requiring extensive reinforcement, and it, too, involves considerable cost.

But Lakritz is right to point out that money is not the ultimate barrier to preserving endangered minority languages.  The people who belong to the ethnic groups in question have to be themselves the major force for revitalization. They have to want their languages to survive fiercely enough to work through the difficult process of transforming what are often private-sphere languages, used mainly in hearth-and-home settings, into more public-sphere languages, used for example in broadcasting and political life. They have to reorder their social interactions so that they can feel comfortable speaking to contemporaries, children, and non-group members in a language that they previously used almost entirely for small-group solidarity or perhaps only with older relatives. They have to feel strongly enough about the value of reclaiming a heritage language to stand up to critics within their own group who see the effort as futile and fear that it will reawaken painful stereotypes that the group suffered from in the past. This is the truly hard part of maintaining and revitalizing minority languages, and it’s true that it can’t be done by other people or brought into being by official funding, even when it’s generous.

Where this fierce desire is present, however, and heritage-language activism is strong enough to refocus group members’ attention on the heritage language, outside funding can make a real difference, supporting measures to reverse some of the damage done over the long — often very long — period when the language was disdained or suppressed. The damage was done over a long time, and repair will also take a long time. Today there is a rising sense that people are entitled to their own language, that human rights include the right to one’s own group language. Undoing injustices and repairing damage are worthy goals, no less with regard to language than with regard to other facets of life. Certainly not universally, but at least increasingly, rights-oriented governments like Canada’s are lending substantial support to maintenance and revitalization efforts. Revitalization initiatives have proliferated around the world in recent years, as minority-language groups have recognized the precariousness of their linguistic heritages and are trying to improve the odds against the survival of their languages. These groups have difficult histories behind them and difficult challenges ahead of them. They will need help, legal and financial, from governments willing to do as the Canadian government has done in moving to counteract the effects of historical wrongs and long-term social disadvantage. Majority-language populations will also need help. They will need journalists who can make clear the long gestation period that led up to the world-wide language endangerment crisis of our time and will make understandable the investment of time and money that is needed to help at-risk language communities recover.

12. Linguistic ideologies in Japan

Makiko Fukuda
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, UAB

The Myth of Monolingualism

Japan’s monolingualism has been deeply rooted in Japanese society for many centuries and today it is still preserved, both explicitly and implicitly. In 1986, Yasuhiro Nakasone, Japanese prime minister then, publicly stated that “Japan is a monoethnic country and therefore minorities do not exist.” His words were controversial and organisations defending the Ainu nation (Japan’s indigenous people) protested furiously against the prime minister. Later, politicians who see Japan as a monocultural, monolingual and monoethnic country repeated similar arguments, as though there were no linguistic diversity in Japan. This view is underpinned by the firm belief that Japan’s linguistic problem is not politicised, although the truth of this view has been called into question over the last decade.

The three basic concepts: ‘kokugo, nihongo and bokokugo’

We can observe this traditional view of monolingualism in several ways. Firstly, we focus on the various names used for the Japanese language: ‘kokugo, nihongo and bokokugo’. The term ‘kokugo’, which literally means “the State language” ―often translated as the “national language” ― appeared when the modern Japanese nation state was established in the late 19th century and has functioned as a synonym for the Japanese language up to the present day. The second term, ‘nihongo’, is normally used to refer to Japanese as a second language for foreigners in a more neutral way, although the concept originated in the historic sense of Japan’s colonial policy for Taiwan and Korea during the Second World War. This term was put in place to preserve the national symbolic and sacred nature of the ‘kokugo’, as applying the same idea of ‘kokugo’ to inhabitants of the colonies was felt to be unsuitable.

The term ‘kokugo’ refers to Japanese as a school subject. The ‘Encyclopedia for Studying the Teaching of Kokugo’ by the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics defines the teaching of ‘kokugo’ on the assumption that all Japanese people speak Japanese as their mother tongue. Here we find another key concept, that of ‘mother tongue’. The two translations normally made of this term, ‘bogo’ and ‘bokokugo’, are used interchangeably without a very clear criterion. The fact that the ‘Iwanami Kokugo Dictionary’ defines ‘bogo’ as a synonym of ‘bokokugo’ confirms the confusion between these two terms. The use of the term ‘bogo’, meaning “mother tongue” is not at all normal in Japan, so it is rarely listed in the dictionaries. On the other hand, ‘bokokugo’, which literally means ‘the language of the home country’, is much more familiar to the Japanese. This term evidences the coherence between state, people and language.

All in all, Japanese enjoys the status of being the country’s sole language, which can be demonstrated by the fact that the concept of ‘official language’ is not used in Japan. Neither is there any legal ruling on the Japanese language declaring its status as official language, except for article 74 of the ‘Saibansho hô’ law on the administration of justice, which states that Japanese must be used in the country’s courts of law.

The ‘Kikokushijo‘: reflection of Japan’s ideology

One example that clearly reflects the predominant ideology in Japan that places nationality on a par with the Japanese people’s language is the name ‘kikokushijos’ used for children. ‘Kikoku’ means ‘returning to their country ’ and ‘shijo’ means ‘children’ . These are Japanese children who were born and/or lived abroad because of their parents’ jobs and who have returned to Japan. Depending on factors such as the country they were living in, the type of school they went to, their interpersonal relationships and so on, these children had different experiences in each country and their language skills can also vary. Equally, it is assumed that these children are fluent in the foreign language — which is presumed to be English — and their schoolmates in Japan typically demand that they ‘say something in English’. This phenomenon illustrates the fact that the image of a bilingual person in Japan is often thought of as someone who is fluent in English. Plus, these children are also presumed to have a much lower level of Japanese, which leads to them being seen as “Japanese strangers”, “half Japanese” and even gaijin (“foreigners”). This means that having a standard level in this language serves as a criterion for “being Japanese”.

These children have had a major impact as, up until a few decades ago, living abroad was not at all common in Japan, and the return of Japanese children with the experience of having lived in a foreign country was regarded as a threat. Instead of accepting heterogeneity, Japanese society makes ‘kikokushijo’ give up everything they have acquired abroad, including their foreign language skills, as this is incompatible with Japanese society and they are under pressure to re-adapt. This ungenerous attitude to heterogeneity comes from ‘Nihonjinron’ (Japanese identity theory), an ideology that values Japan’s homogeneity and distinctive nature. There is a Japanese proverb that says, “Deru kui wa utareru” (“The stake that sticks up gets hammered down”); it is difficult to stand out with a “different” way of behaving as this breaks harmony and uniformity. This means that ‘kikokushijo’ often prefer to blend into Japanese society rather than keep up their fluency in other languages in order to protect themselves, as being bilingual or multilingual is incompatible with Japanese society’s preference for uniformity. Despite this, in the 1980s, when the Japanese government began using the concept of ‘internationalisation’ more frequently, the negative view of ‘kikokushijo’ ceased to be predominant and these children went from being a discriminated minority to becoming a symbol of internationalisation and even objects of admiration.

‘Hyôjungo, kyôtsûgo and hôgen’

Japanese society’s huge respect for uniformity can also be seen in the Japanese language itself. In the 19th century, with the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan embarked on a period of modernisation, which gave rise to a new government. To form a sufficiently strong nation state that could compete with other countries, the people had to be united. The unification of the language was one measure, as up to then, Japan’s linguistic diversity had been huge, and the country was divided into two hundred and fifty-six ‘Han’ (domains governed by a feudal lord who paid taxes to the central government) with very little contact between them and with such a different range of variants spoken that it was impossible for people from different ‘Han’ to communicate with each other. Plus, differences between social classes also contributed to this linguistic diversity.

To achieve ‘a uniform language’, the variant spoken in the high area of Tokyo was chosen as the standard (‘hyōjungo’). The standard language is also called ‘common language’ (‘kyôtsûgo’), and started being used in 1951, as set out in the regulations governing teaching in schools, as opposed to regional dialects, since the standard could be understood all over Japan.

Other regional variants were given the status of dialect (‘hōgen’); they began to be regarded as “bad” habits to be corrected or excluded. In Okinawa, for example, the islands in the south of Japan, they even adopted a punishment system known as ‘Hōgen-fuda’ (dialect label). Regional variants were simply seen as an ‘accent’ of standard Japanese and were not usually written down. We can see this treatment of regional variants in the guidelines for teaching ‘kokugo’ up to the late 1950s, intended to correct accents and promote the standard language.

This meant that teaching ‘kokugo’ prompted a hierarchical relationship to be set up, with the variant spoken in Tokyo at the top and all the other variants below it. As a result, people who could only speak their own dialect started to feel inferior. Plus, the speakers of each dialect were given a stereotyped image, often negative (so, the people speaking the northern Japan variant were viewed as simple and rustic; speakers of the Osaka variant were seen as funny, tight-fisted, vulgar; speakers of the southern Japan variant were regarded as masculine, abrupt, etc.). But the situation gradually changed; not only did the speakers of regional dialects begin to master the standard language thanks to a mass media campaign, but social attitudes to regional variants started being more positive. Lately, these variants have even become ‘trendy’ with the younger generation, with the media often discussing the dialects issue; dialect conversation guides are available to buy, and ‘famous’ young men and women who would never have dreamt of speaking their dialect to the media twenty years ago are doing it now. In fact, some words or expressions from the various dialects ― especially those spoken in Osaka because of the success of the comedy culture there ― are being used by the younger generation to communicate with each other, even though they may not be speakers of these variants. So, dialects have become a kind of entertainment in which people choose a particular one according on the image assigned to it and ‘virtually transform themselves’ by speaking it. We do need to remember, though, that these words or expressions used by young people are not necessarily based on those that have become part of real everyday life, but that they frequently contain ‘virtual dialects’, in other words, dialects associated with their images. Yukari Tanaka, a Japanese dialectologist, has called this phenomenon ‘hōgen cosupure’ (costume play of dialects), meaning that these young people dress up in the dialect rather than in clothing. The ones who do not have their own dialect ― especially people from Tokyo or the surrounding areas where the difference in dialect is barely noticeable ― are envious of the ‘native’  dialect speakers and often become ‘false speakers’ of the dialect they like. As a consequence, regional variants have left their inferiority complex behind and acquired a kind of prestige with added value.

As we have seen, Japan’s linguistic diversity was not accepted because of the huge respect for uniformity and an ungenerous attitude towards heterogeneity. It is quite ironic that both ‘kikokushijo’ and speakers of regional variants have gone from being objects of disdain to being objects of admiration.

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

Eden Naby
Harvard University


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

In the following article I will address three issues:

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


Changing Language Use Patterns

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

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

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

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

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

Who and Where are Aramaic Speakers?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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




Aramaic in the Middle East

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Effect of State Languages on Aramaic

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

Iraq and the Preservation of Aramaic

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

10. The Ainu in Japan

Tjeerd de Graaf
Fryske Akademie, Ljouwert


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

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

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

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

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

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

Laws and linguistic rights for the Ainu

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching of the Ainu Language and Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thiago Chacon
University of Brasilia


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sociolinguistic situation of the Kubeos

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

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

Landscapes and the right place of language for the Kubeos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community-based research on Kubeo landscapes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A conclusion of an ongoing work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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