Opinion, reflections and information

22. Over the rainbow

Don Kulick
Uppsala University


Note: this essay is a chapter from a forthcoming book titled The End: how a language dies. The book is a series of short stories that document the author’s thirty years of linguistic anthropological research in Papua New Guinea, on an isolate Papuan language called Tayap. Tayap is spoken in a village called Gapun (pop. about 200 people). The language is dying: villagers under the age of 35 all speak Tok Pisin, a creole language that is Papua New Guinea’s most widely-spoken national language. It currently has fewer than 50 active speakers.  


One morning after a night of heavy rain, a wide vibrant rainbow appeared in the sky. On my way to wash my clothes in one of the village waterholes, I looked up and saw it, and I realized that I didn’t know what a rainbow was called in Tayap. So I asked the first person I saw – Michael, the village prayer leader, who I knew was fluent in the language – what the word for rainbow was in Tayap.

Renbo”, he responded, without missing a beat.

Um, no, I told him, that must be the Tok Pisin word – the Tayap word had to be something else.

Oh, he said. In that case he didn’t know. I should go ask his father, sixty-five-year-old Mone.

So carrying my plastic bucket with dirty clothes and bar of soap to wash them with in it, I went off to find Mone. Little did I know that my innocent query about the word for rainbow would spark a month of acrimonious debate from one end of Gapun to the other.

Mone was sitting in his usual morning spot, on his veranda chewing betel nut. I said good morning and I told him I had a question. What is the Tayap word for rainbow?

Instead of simply saying the word, as I expected he would, Mone paused and put a finger to his chin. He pondered. After a minute, he told me he couldn’t remember the word offhand; he needed to think about it. I thought that was odd. On the other hand, though, it isn’t as though rainbows are exactly common occurrences in the rainforest. I only saw that one the entire nine months I was in the village that year. So I thought that maybe Mone was just having a senior moment or had been caught off guard with my unexpected question about a word that villagers didn’t have occasion to use very often.

It turned out that Mone’s thinking about rainbows took several days. Finally, when I passed by his house late one afternoon on my way to take my end-of-day shower at the water hole, he called me over to his house and told me that “rainbow” had no single word in Tayap. Instead, “rainbow” was expressed through a verb phrase which meant “cloud is marked with color”.

This sounded reasonable to me, and I duly recorded it. But when I repeated it to other people in the village to check their reactions, I was universally met with disdain. Em giaman – “He’s lying”, everyone sneered, using their favorite expression to dismiss another speaker’s expertise in Tayap. Even though no one could think of the correct term themselves, they all told me they knew that the phrase Mone had volunteered was wrong.

I had encountered this kind of collective disagreement several times before. People disagreed testily on the word for “caterpillar”, for example. And then there was the wind problem. There are four named winds in Tayap: awar, ngamai, mbunim and mbankap. On this all the older villagers are agreed. They are also agreed that the winds are differentiated primarily by the directions of their origin. What they absolutely could not agree upon, however, was what those directions of origin are. One old man was adamant that the ngamai wind came from the mountain to the south of Gapun. An old woman was equally adamant that the wind came from the sea, which lies to the north of the village. Likewise, the awar wind was held by some people to come from the mountain (i.e. the south) and others to come from the mangrove lake (i.e. the north). Old people argued vigorously with one another whenever this topic came up, but they never resolved it.

By sheer luck, the four winds are listed and defined in a list of 125 Tayap words that was published in 1938, by a German missionary and anthropologist named Georg Höltker. In 1937, Höltker traveled to Gapun in the company of another missionary, thereby becoming one of the few white people to ever actually visit the village. Höltker and his companion spent only three hours in the Gapun. He took two photographs and collected a word list. A year later, he published the list, together with the weary remark that “it will be awhile before any other researcher ‘stumbles across’ Gapun, if only because of the small chances of worthwhile academic yields in this tiny village community, and also because of the inconvenient and arduous route leading to this linguistic island”.

Aside from Australian linguist Don Laycock’s unpublished word list that he gathered from two Gapun villagers whom he met in another village in about 1973, and my own work on the language, Höltker’s word list is the only documentation that exists on Tayap. For having been gathered in three hours by someone who had never before heard Tayap (and who would never hear it again), Höltker’s list of 125 words is impressively accurate. To resolve the controversy regarding the four winds, I decided, therefore, to go with the definitions listed by Höltker. He had, after all, spoken to language informants who still lived in a completely Tayap-speaking village. Also, one of the oldest speakers still alive in Gapun defined the winds as Höltker does in his wordlist. So the problem of the winds was solved.

Unfortunately though, “rainbow” wasn’t one of the words on Höltker’s list.

Days went by and no one could come up with the Tayap word “rainbow”. Old villagers explained to me that their parents and relatives had warned them about rainbows, saying they should never walk underneath one, because if they did, their minds would become clouded and their sense of direction confused. But even though they remembered these cautions, nobody could recall the word for rainbow that their parents and relatives had used while articulating them. The word for rainbow, villagers told me, “i hait”– it was hiding.

Eventually Mone’s old wife, Sopak, had a dream in which she said the true word for rainbow was whispered in her ear by a dead ancestor. The word, the ancestor had revealed, was mɨnuomb – a word that otherwise means “large round lake”. Sopak said that the way to say “rainbow” in Tayap was to say akɨnnɨ mɨnuomb utok, “a round lake appeared in the clouds”.

I told other old people in the village about Sopak’s revelation. They were unmoved. “Em giaman”, they all intoned impassively.

A few days after Sopak recounted her dream, one of the oldest men in the village told me that he had remembered the word – it was wagurmos.

The other speakers’ judgement fell predictably: “Em giaman”, they all pronounced. They explained that wagurmos meant the white veil of stars that appears in the sky at night – in other words, it is the Tayap word for the Milky Way. It doesn’t mean rainbow at all. Many of the people I asked about that word also took the opportunity to disparage the linguistic knowledge of the old man who had offered wagurmos. That man may be old, they said belittlingly, but he’s “lapun nating” – he’s grown old without having learned anything. All he has, people said, is “bebi sens” – the sense of a baby.

Weeks passed and frustration grew. Finally, having heard about the old peoples’ disagreements and disputes over the rainbow, a man in his thirties came to my house one day told me that he remembered once having heard his grandfather, old Kruni, say the word for rainbow. Kruni had been one of the old people who had taught me Tayap in the 1980s; he died in the early 1990s. For the last few decades of his life, Kruni had been universally respected and vaguely feared as an elder who knew everything about Gapun’s history and who spoke flawless and eloquent Tayap.

The young man reported that as a child, he had once been in a canoe together with Kruni when they paddled through the mangrove lagoon. In the middle of the lagoon they met a canoe full of women from the neighboring village of Wongan who were talking about rainbows. In the Kopar language spoken in Wongan, rainbows are called mamor. The young man remembered that the women had called out to Kruni and asked him what the word in Tayap was. Kruni told them that it was mamar.

Rather than being the happy breakthrough that I thought this was, mamar, too, was rejected. “It means ‘banana’”, all the old people responded dryly when, without telling them why and hoping to jar their memory, I asked them to define mamar.

And indeed, the word does mean a kind of banana. But lots of words in any language are homonyms, like the word “mole” in English, which has at least three different meanings: a small burrowing animal, a raised blemish on the skin, and a unit of measurement in chemistry. Couldn’t mamar, in a similar way, mean more than one thing? Might it not maybe also mean rainbow?

Nope. Kruni giaman. Or the young man who reported what Kruni said giaman. Somebody, in any case, was lying, the old speakers were agreed.

In the end, after a month of squabbling, unable to come up with a word or expression that satisfied them all, and undoubtedly growing annoyed at my persistence in questioning them, the older villagers begrudgingly allowed that mamar must be the word for rainbow, since Kruni apparently (and here several of them rolled their eyes furtively) had claimed it was.

My own conclusion is that mamar probably is the correct Tayap word for “rainbow”. Tayap and Kopar are completely unrelated languages, even though the villages where they are spoken are only two hours apart. But because speakers of the two languages have been in contact with one another for a very long time, they share quite a few lexical items. The kind of slight phonetic variation between mamor and mamar are common in the words shared by Tayap and Kopar. For example:

Because I had already recorded similarities like these, I told the villagers that I would enter mamar in my dictionary as the word for rainbow. This announcement was met with muttering.

The villagers’ inability to agree on proper Tayap is a feature of village life that is contributing to the language’s demise. I was continually struck by how vigorously (and, to my mind, how gratuitously) the old speakers of Tayap discounted and ridiculed one another’s linguistic competence. Early on during my stay in the village, I stopped trying to discuss Tayap in groups of old people because any discussion of any aspect of the language would inevitably result in bickering. Speakers might eventually grouchily agree on whatever it was I was asking them about, but later on, they would always arrange a private moment with me to heartily dismiss the knowledge and opinions of their fellow speakers.

It escapes no one’s attention in Gapun that Tayap is a tiny language spoken nowhere else but there. But a difference between Gapun and many other communities around the world is that language in Gapun is not regarded as a communal, shared possession. Like everything else in the village, knowledge of language regarded as private property. Gapun villagers would shake their heads in absolute bewilderment at the persistent Western stereotypes about how a rainforest-dwelling people like themselves supposedly eschew ownership and magnanimously share their natural resources in a kind of prelapsarian socialist ecological bliss.

On the contrary. In Gapun, nothing is communal, nothing is equally owned and shared by everyone. Everything – every area of land, every sago palm, every coconut palm, every mango tree, every pot, plate, axe, machete, discarded spear shaft, broken kerosene lamp, and every anything else one can think of – is owned by someone. This includes people’s names and the right to bestow them, as well as knowledge of myths, songs, and curing chants. Villagers always know who owns what. They have to know who owns what in order to take things freely, or steal them. They guard their rights of ownership energetically and they defend them fiercely. I have heard bitter arguments and shouts that “It’s not yours, it’s mine!” over objects as trivial as a discarded piece of string that a woman who had thrown it away saw her sister salvage from the rainforest.

Understandings like those of possession and proprietary ownership have consequences for language: they mean that the Western truism of a common “shared” language has little purchase in Gapun. In their own view, villagers don’t “share” a language. Instead, each speaker owns his or her own version of the language. And the older those speakers become, the more they regard their version as the proper one and everyone else’s as “a lie”. This absence of an understanding that regards a common language as something “shared” means that speakers are predisposed to not regard the loss of Tayap as particularly traumatic.

Fluent elder speakers still have ‘their’ Tayap; if younger speakers don’t possess a version of it as, well, wari bilong ol, that’s their problem.

21. The languages of the poets in northern Egypt

Dwight F. Reynolds
University of California, Santa Barbara  


When I was still a graduate student studying in Cairo in the early 1980’s, my mentor, a renowned folklorist, sent me out into the countryside of the Nile Delta to experience first-hand some of the oral artistry to be found in villages there.  He suggested several sites and I eventually found myself in a village that was known as “the village of the poets” because it was home to so many singers of the epic song of the Bani HIlal Bedouin tribe, known in Arabic as Sirat Bani Hilal.  To my astonishment there were fourteen households of professional, hereditary epic singers, men whose only occupation was to perform this oral epic sing in vernacular Egyptian dialect at weddings, in cafes, at festivals, at private gatherings and other occasions.

On that first visit I recorded some samples no longer than a half-hour each, and, I must confess, I scarcely understood a word of what they sang.  Though I had read written versions of the poetry, I found it difficult to understand the verses when they were sung, and, I soon learned, the versions these poets sang were marked not only by the local dialect, but also by a level of speech that might be termed ‘artistic colloquial.’  It is neither the language of everyday conversation, nor the ‘standard’ or ‘classical’ form of written Arabic, but rather something in between, a linguistic register used primarily in various forms of verbal art.

For nearly 15 years I made repeated trips to visit this village, eventually living there for a year and on other visits sometimes staying for several weeks at a time.  I recorded approximately 75 performances and took notes during many conversations and interviews (the poets, as with everyone else in the village, would under no circumstances allow me to record our casual conversations).  I also took lessons from a singer, Shaykh Taha Abu Zayd, whom many in the village deemed to be the best and most knowledgeable when it came to repertory and history.  I learned to play the rabab (a two-stringed spike fiddle) and to sing a small fragment of the epic.  The poets of this village had repertories that ranged from as little as 20 hours to over 120 hours of material.  And all of them were completely illiterate, unable even to spell their names (they commonly used a thumbprint when a signature was required, as did many of the older villagers).

Over time my understanding of the various unusual turns of phrase in the epic song grew and I was able to follow the story without difficulty.  But I soon stumbled upon a completely different language issue that involved the poets and their families.

The epic singers are from a special, distinct social group, similar to (but not directly related to) the Roma of Europe.  They call themselves the “wilaad halab” or “wilaad halaba,” a term that seems to mean “the children of Aleppo” since Aleppo is ‘Halab’ in Arabic.  But this makes no historical sense and the poets have not preserved any narratives that link them to Aleppo in northern Syria.  Scholars have hypothesized that the word might be a colloquial form of “halaqa” (a ring or circle), since the poets performed in the center of open circles to outdoor audiences, or that it refers to “milk” (‘haleeb’ in Arabic), and indicates a link to grazing animals.  But there is no real evidence that supports any of these ideas.

In any case, members of this social group do not marry outside the group except in very rare cases, and one of the features that sets them apart is their use (only among themselves) of language or argot that they refer to only as ‘ratana’ (gibberish).  Some of the young men in the poets’ community thought that it was fun to teach me to say things in ‘ratana,’ but elders in the community found out and put a stop to this.  This American researcher seemed perfectly nice and respectable, and it was fine that he wanted to record and learn to sing the epic, but as for matters that should be kept within their community (such as speaking ‘ratana’), that was off limits.  Everyone continued to help me with the epic project, but I never heard another word of ‘ratana’ during the remaining years of my research.  By 2000, all of the epic poets I had known had passed away, and none of their children had taken up the craft.  They had instead been sent to schools, learned to read and write, and now held more respectable jobs.  Though the epic lives on in other regions, in this village, the epic has disappeared and now lives on only in the recordings we made between 1982 and 1995.

Audio recordings, photographs, and selected translated texts can be found at:



20. The Crimean Tatars: Who they are and where they come from

Miquel Cabal Guarro, PhD
Centre for Research in Sociolinguistics and Communication, University of Barcelona (CUSC-UB)
Endangered Languages Study Group, University of Barcelona, (GELA-UB)


What language do Crimean Tatars speak?

Crimea’s Tatar belongs to the Turkic branch of the Altaic languages. It is one of the languages spoken by the Turkic population of the Crimean Peninsula. The Turkic languages form a dialectical continuum with a very high degree of intelligibility, which decreases only between varieties separated by large geographic distances. Crimean Tatar is a transitional language that includes elements from the Oguz and Kipchak groups.

Where do Crimea’s Tatars come from?

Since antiquity, with the Greek colonies established on the coast of the peninsula that Herodotus called Tauris, Crimea has been inhabited by people of very diverse origins, such as the Scythians and the Sarmatians. Until the Goth invasions of the third century, several rulers maintained different forms of state there, but they always had good relations with the Greeks and, later, with the Roman Empire. After the Goths, the peninsula was the subject of numerous occupations. Chronologically, the occupiers were Huns, Bulgars, Khazars, Byzantines, (Turkic) Kipchaks and Mongols. In the thirteenth century, the Genoese also settled in the coastal fortifications built by the Venetians for eastern routes, and they gained economic and commercial control of Crimea and the Black Sea for almost two centuries.

In the 1240s, the Mongols conquered all the plains in the south of modern Ukraine and also the Crimean Peninsula. The merging of the Mongols and the Turkic population in the north of the peninsula and of the same Turkic population and the Greeks and Byzantines from the south coast configured the Tatar people of Crimea, who were the main group in the peninsula until the beginning of the twentieth century, long after the Russian annexation of 1783.

Crimean Tatars in the USSR

In the 1920s and 1930s, during the phase of indigenization policy, the Soviet state encouraged Crimean Tartar language and culture as expressions of the indigenous people of the peninsula.

At the end of the Second World War, in May 1944, Red Army troops defeated the Nazis in Crimea. The People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs, Lavrentiy Beria, immediately sent a letter to Stalin to suggest that the entire Tatar population be deported. One week later, in the early hours of 18 May 1944, NKVD personnel loaded 190,000 Crimean Tatars into cattle and goods trains and sent them primarily to Central Asia (82% ended up in Uzbekistan). The main objective of the Stalinist deportations was to cleanse strategically sensitive areas. In this case, it seems that Stalin had the intention of occupying two Turkish provinces that bordered Armenia, and he therefore wanted to cleanse all territories of Turkic and Muslim populations, who could have hindered those plans.

Crimean Tatars spent about fifty years of exile in Central Asia, deprived of rights and national recognition. Of course, the language disappeared from the catalogue of languages of the USSR, as though it had no de facto existence.

The Return to Ukrainian Crimea

The Tatars were not able to begin to return legally to Crimea until after the fall of the USSR. Between 1991 and 2014, while the peninsula was part of Ukraine as an autonomous territory, the Tatars fought to retake the rights that they had lost with the deportation. The struggle covered various areas: they requested the return of lands and possessions, and they wanted a restoration of linguistic and cultural rights. As the indigenous people of the peninsula, the Crimean Tatars have always been backed by international treaties and law. Unfortunately, neither Ukraine nor Russia has ever signed those treaties.

The Crimean Tatars managed to open as many as fifteen schools with Crimean Tatar as the language of instruction, and Tatar-language education streams in another three schools. All in all, however, only 10% of Tatar pupils to a greater or lesser extent received education in their mother tongue. In 2005, Radio Meydan, the first Crimean Tatar-language radio station, began broadcasting. In 2006, ATR, a TV channel that broadcasts in Crimean Tatar twenty-four hours a day, was established. All this created the impression that Tatar had undertaken a hopeful path toward normalization that, in the long run, might contribute to remedying a language shift toward Russian that was already well under way.

With regard to the political situation, the constant tensions between the regional government of the Crimean region and the central government in Kiev always kept the Tatars in a difficult position. The Crimean government always adopted pro-Russian stances. This is not to say that it had secessionist intentions, as the only Crimean secessionist party (Russian Unity) traditionally achieved very modest electoral results (around 4% of the vote in 2010). But it did mean that the Crimean government tended to defend and demand national and linguistic rights for the Russian population, which in 2001 represented 60% of the population according to the census (77%, if the Russian-speaking population is counted).

The Ukrainian languages law of 2012

In 2012, Viktor Yanukovych’s government presented a bill on ‘the principles of state language policy.’ Its approval process involved many irregularities and an open and violent conflict between the two sectors of the Ukrainian parliament (the Rada): the so-called nationalists were directly opposed to it, while the so-called pro-Russians were in favour of it. The opposition argued that it was a law that would end up casting Ukrainian aside in many regions with a Russian-speaking majority and that, moreover, the aim of the law was to satisfy the Kremlin, which was dissatisfied with Ukraine’s treatment of the Russian language. The other side, meanwhile, called for linguistic rights not only for Ukraine’s Russian speakers, but for all the country’s national minorities.

The law introduced a notion that until then had not been raised in the Ukrainian language debate: regional languages. It stipulated that any language that was the mother tongue of at least 10% of the population in a particular territory (whether it was a region, province, district or municipality) could attain co-official status in that territory provided that the representatives of the minority in question requested this from the competent governing body. This regulation opened the door to co-official status for eighteen languages at the various territorial levels.

The law was implemented in Ukraine’s territory, and the results were nowhere near as devastating as the picture that the opposition parties had painted. Russian was declared a co-official language in eight regions in the east and south of the country, while Romanian/Moldovan and Hungarian were recognized as official languages in around fifteen municipalities and districts in Southwestern Ukraine.

In the case of Crimea, where Russian was the language of the public sphere, administration and the media, the regional government felt that the region’s statutes had already solved satisfactorily the linguistic question and that, therefore, the new language law was not applicable. This, of course, was rejected by the Tartars, who once again felt that they had been prevented from finding a legal shelter for establishing the public presence of their language.

The annexation of Crimea

In April 2014, the Russian Federation annexed Crimea through an initial covert military invasion that was followed by a self-determination referendum held without democratic guarantees and within a wartime atmosphere. The Tatars, who have always seen Russia as the heir of the same USSR that deported them and denied them civil and national rights, feared that this event would drastically reduce the few national and linguistic rights that they had won over many years of struggle.

The closure of the Crimean Tatar broadcasting network, the inclusion of Crimean Tatars’ national council on the list of extremist organizations and its subsequent outlawing, the ban on entry into Crimea for key members of the national movement (Mustafa Jemilev and Refat Chubarov) and the disappearance of young pro-Ukraine activists would make one think that Crimean Tatars’ fears were justified.

In addition, the education budget for teaching Tatar has been slashed considerably, and the process of readopting the Latin alphabet, which the Crimean Tatar language had used in the 1920s and 1930s, has been stopped.

All this, alongside the already very advanced process of language shift towards Russian that the Tatar language has suffered for decades, does not augur well for Crimean Tatars’ cultural and linguistic recovery and development.

Dufaud, G., 2011. Les Tatars de Crimée et la politique soviétique des nationalités. Paris: Éditions Non Lieu.

Uehling, G.L., 2004. Beyond memory: The Crimean Tatars Deportation and Return. New York [etc.]: Palgrave Macmillan.

Williams, B.G., 2015. The Crimean Tatars: from Soviet genocide to Putin’s conquest. London: Hurst.

Williams, B.G., 2001. The Crimean Tatars: the diaspora experience and the forging of a nation. Leiden: Brill.

19. Da multimodalidade das rezas contra o mau-olhado: covariações de texto e gesto

Isabel Galhano [1] & Mariana Gomes [2]

[1] Faculdade de Letras da Universidade do Porto, Centro de Linguística da Universidade do Porto

[2] Centro de Linguística da Universidade de Lisboa

Associação iGesto – Investigação do Gesto


Tradicionalmente, a investigação da literatura oral tem sido feita a partir do registo áudio ou de transcrições de textos orais. Com base na análise multimodal de um exemplo de benzedura, texto do género lírico mágico-religioso, pretende-se salientar a importância das várias modalidades de comunicação no contexto de transmissão verbal e, consequentemente, a necessidade do seu registo em formato vídeo, do seu estudo multimodal e da criação de um arquivo digital. Para isso, será analisado um exemplo de rezas contra o mau olhado, ou seja, um texto do género mágico-religioso.

A multimodalidade na comunicação: o composto gesto-fala

O entendimento da comunicação, mais concretamente, da interação face a face como sendo um fenómeno multimodal está presente nas várias vertentes de investigação das ciências sociais e humanas, sobretudo na linguística pragmática, etnolinguística, psicolinguística e neurociências. Estudos da área dos Estudos do Gesto (www.isgs.com) têm vindo a comprovar que fala e gesto funcionam em conjunto como diferentes meios que se coordenam na expressão de ideias, partilhando o mesmo sistema conceptual subjacente). Este pressuposto implica que o estudo completo e exaustivo da oralidade em qualquer tipo de evento comunicativo exige a consideração não só da fala, mas também dos movimentos do corpo coverbais, ou seja, das diferentes modalidades cinésicas envolvidas no processo de enunciação. Outro aspeto a considerar na oralidade é que a interacção face a face é uma “construção” com um dinâmica própria, cujo desenvolvimento é condicionado por todo o contexto comunicativo: não só pelas intenções comunicativas dos participantes e pela relação que estes mantêm entre si – que, por sua vez abrange atitudes, sensibilidade interpessoal, expetativas, pressuposições, valores individuais e coletivos e conhecimentos compartilhados sobre o mundo -, mas também pelo local e o momento da sua realização. Ou seja, género, função e características do texto produzido são condicionados por todos os fatores contextuais. Impõem-se assim expectativas relativamente ao que vai ser dito e feito pelo falante, a que tipo de destinatário ele se dirige e o conhecimento que este tem sobre outros eventos comunicativos do mesmo tipo. Todos estes aspetos justificam a necessidade de estudar a literatura oral com base no registo vídeo, recorrendo a uma metodologia de análise que disponibilize tanto fundamentos teóricos da literatura oral, como da linguística de texto e da vertente linguística dos estudos do gesto.

Textos de âmbito mágico-religioso ou textos mágico-religiosos

Das práticas mágico-religiosas, destacamos as práticas de cura. São reconhecidas como tal pelos seus intervenientes: os que as executam e os que assistem e/ou usam (utentes). São normalmente realizadas por um praticante especialista e prestigiado dentro da comunidade em que está integrado. As práticas de cura são compostas por várias partes, caracterizadas por uma forte ritualização de natureza religiosa e mítica. O conjunto de todos os elementos constitui uma unidade de significado simbólico, de tal forma que a sua execução é do domínio protocolar, isto é, está sujeita a normas reguladoras, como é típico das atividades cerimoniosas. Nesse sentido, a sua eficácia depende do cumprimento de uma estrutura (mais ou menos fixa), ou seja, à execução de todas as partes constituintes desta unidade de significado. Embora nem sempre exista consenso na academia quanto às partes que compõem o ritual e a ritualização, a grande maioria dos estudiosos tem distinguido três características típicas centrais: formalidade, fixidez e repetição Numa perspectiva linguístico-pragmática, o texto enunciado nestas práticas mágico-religiosas tem um carácter performativo, ou seja, são textos cuja enunciação implica a realização da ação que explicitam devendo, por isso, ser estudados na sua relação com as ações não-linguísticas: gestos convencionalizados e manipulação de objetos.


As benzeduras são um tipo específico de composições mágico-religiosas. Funcionam como um meio de cura de um mal que pode estar presente, tanto no animal como no ser humano. Assemelham-se a outras práticas de cura ritualizadas como os exorcismos ou os ensalmos na medida em que têm o objetivo específico de alterar a realidade. Ou seja, de “atuar sobre a realidade, com base no poder da palavra” (Pinto-Correia, 1996: 66). Há benzeduras para todas as doenças, hoje mais ligadas à cura pela medicina institucional, desde males físicos – como inflamação nos olhos, o cocho ou a ciática – até aos males menos físicos, tais como o mal de inveja ou o mau-olhado). Tradicionalizada ao longo dos tempos, esta prática associa-se normalmente a um contexto rural (sendo justificada pela falta de recursos medicinais nas zonas afastadas dos centros urbanos), onde são um método de cura prestigiado, credível para os seus praticantes e os seus utentes. Atendendo a que são praticadas por mulheres e herdadas de mulher para mulher, as benzeduras são elementos importantes na criação de “dinastias familiares” (Lopes 2016:181).

A sua modalidade linguística já tem sido alvo de estudo e descrita como sendo constituída por repetições de palavras, de frases, por invocações e por séries enumerativas No entanto, sendo o gesto um meio de execução indispensável nesta prática mágico-religiosa, não só no manuseamento dos objetos e materiais usados nesta prática, mas também na execução de movimentos simbólicos e como instrumento de marcação rítmica correlacionado com a fala, é indispensável ser considerado nestes estudos. Levantam-se assim questões sobre a variabilidade ou invariabilidade das características das benzeduras de idênticas funções conforme a benzedeira ou a região do país. Para isso, o estudo tanto das características formais do gesto – configuração da mão e dos dedos -, como das propriedades do movimento nas diferentes partes do texto – orientação do golpe e velocidade de execução, assim como das palavras que compõem o texto e a métrica rítmica merecem toda a atenção. As questões que se prendem com a relação entre gesto e texto falado e o fenómeno da repetição serão exemplificados através da análise do gesto e texto de uma benzedura contra o mau-olhado. Por razões de espaço, não podemos dar ênfase a variabilidade.

Uma benzedura

A benzedura que se segue – exemplo de práticas ritualísticas e de cura em particular – tem a função específica de combater o mau-olhado:


Ref: Música Portuguesa a Gostar Dela Própria, por Tiago Pereira, gravado em Monsanto, Idanha a Nova, Castelo Branco, a 2 de Novembro de 2014, nome da informante: Amélia Mendonça.





Em nome do Pai,

em nome do pai:::?

MD [4] na testa


do Filho,

 do filho;

MD no peito


do Espírito

do espírito

MD ombro esq




 MD ombro dir




mantém pos.





 e depois,





 1 = frente-trás


Deus te deu,

deus te deu.     

 2 = dir – esq


Deus te criou,

deus te criou.

 3 = frente-trás


Deus te livre

deus te livre.

 4 = dir – esq


de quem mal olhou.

de quem mal olhou.

 5 = frente-trás


As pessoas

as pessoas-

 6 = dir – esq


da Santíssima Trindade

da santíssima trindade;

 7 = frente-trás


são três.

são três.

 8 = dir – esq


Assim como Elas querem

assim como elas querem;

 9 = frente-trás


e podem,

e podem.

10 = dir – esq


que este mal

que este mal;

11 = frente-trás


pra lá volte.

pra lá volte.

12 = dir – esq


Três to deram,

três to DEram,

13 = frente-trás


três to tirarão:

três to tirarão.

14 = dir – esq


São Pedro

são pedro

15 = frente-trás


e São Paulo

e são paulo;

16 = dir – esq


e o Apóstolo São João.

eo apóstolo são joão.

17 = frente-trás


Vai-te mal

VAI-te mal.

18 = dir – esq


prás águas salgadas,

prás águas salgadas,

19 = frente-trás


que eu não sou que o atalho

que eu não sou que o atalho;

20 = dir – esq


é a virtude

é a virtude

21 = frente-trás


de Nosso Senhor Jesus Cristo,

de nosso senhor jesus cristo;

22 = dir – esq




23 = frente-trás

Descrição de texto e gesto

Os versos estão sincronizados com gestos de cruz, cujos golpes desenham percursos no plano horizontal, alternadamente ao longo do eixo distal (frente-trás) e do eixo lateral (esquerda-direita). Cada um destes movimentos corresponde a uma unidade entoacional, composta por elementos linguísticos que representam partes de sintagmas (cf. 24), sintagmas (cf. 26) ou frases completas (cf. 21). Não se verifica nenhuma sincronização entre o climax do golpe do gesto e algum elemento linguístico específico, parecendo assim que o que mais importa é a quantidade de sílabas que se podem encaixar numa determinada unidade de tempo. A configuração da mão mantém-se invariável ao longo do texto: mão aberta, palma vertical (MAPV). O texto é composto por uma primeira parte (em que a benzedeira se benze) e uma segunda parte, constituída por duas repetições de três grupos de versos. O fecho contém um único elemento (cf. 30).






(8) <<f>tiago.>






(9) Deus te deu.



Como em muitos outros rituais, a verbalização dos versos e a execução dos gestos não só estão nitidamente correlacionados, mas também constituem um bloco multimodal: nem a fala funciona sem os gestos, nem vice-versa. Pode-se aqui falar de uma corporização do ritual. No ponto de vista formal, as benzeduras caracterizam-se por terem uma estrutura repetitiva. Constata-se que a estrutura repetitiva dos diferentes grupos sintáticos (palavras, sintagmas, ou frases paralelas) é reforçada não só, a nível auditivo, pelas suas propriedades prosódicas (repetições de unidades entoacionais), mas também, a nível visual, por gestos coverbais, cujas caraterísticas cinésicas revelam uma sincronização precisa com as unidades entoacionais do texto falado. O aspeto repetitivodas unidades entoacionais e dos elementos lexicais é ainda reforçado pela execução de gestos com características formais muito idênticas no que diz respeito a orientação do golpe do gesto, ou de conjuntos de dois golpes seguidos – por exemplo, no plano horizontal, da frente para trás e da esquerda para a direita; ou no plano vertical, de cima para baixo e da esquerda para a direita – , assim como da configuração da mão – por exemplo, sempre mão aberta, palma para baixo; ou sempre mão aberta, palma vertical, ou outras formas. Ou seja, o efeito repetitivo parece ser importante, na medida em que é conseguido por meio de três modalidades: através da linguagem verbal (ou fala) (por meio de paralelismos sintáticos e de repetições de palavras e de frases), através da prosódia (por meio de repetições de unidades entoacionais com as mesmas caraterísticas prosódicas) e, por último, através da modalidade cinésica (por meio de repetições de gestos idênticos). Confrontado com outros, este exemplo demonstra ainda a existência de variações em benzeduras contra o mau-olhado, tanto a nível de texto, como na configuração da mão na execução do gesto. Seria por isso importante recolher mais exemplos, de forma a procurar as regularidades marcantes neste tipo de prática, assim como as diferentes formas de variação.

Esperamos ter comprovado a necessidade de aplicar uma metodologia que possa dar conta de fala, gesto e prosódia e contexto comunicativo no estudo não só deste tipo de texto, mas de todos os géneros de literatura oral. Isso obriga à recolha e arquivo de versões o mais completas possível, que abrangem todo o contexto comunicativo. Considera-se ainda importante a criação de arquivo digital, elaborado de acordo com princípios consistentes. As metodologias desenvolvidas no âmbito das Humanidades Digitais e da Linguística Documental podem viabilizar o registo, o estudo e a análise dos conteúdos textuais orais Sugere-se aqui a metodologia seguida na documentação linguística, uma sub-área da linguística aplicada que tem em vista o registo duradouro e bem documentado de dados linguísticos). Desta forma, garante-se que os registos documentados possam ser utilizados para diferentes fins, permitindo ainda um melhor aproveitamento dos recursos vídeo e áudio.



Lopes, Aurélio. 2016. Ritual, natura e magia. Lisboa: Apenas Livros.

Pinto Correia, João David. 1993. “Os géneros da literatura oral tradicional: contributo para a sua classificação.” Revista Internacional de Língua Portuguesa, no. 9: 63–69.


[3] Transcrição prosódica de acordo com o sistema GAT (https://www.mediensprache.net/de/

medienanalyse/ into-Correia com o sistema GAT.T.transcription/gat/gat.pdf).

[4] MD = mão direita.

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.