Amidst discourses of language death, this panel focuses on social movements aimed at revitalising or reforming language. We ask how people seek to transform their lives by transforming their languages.
Among the many manifestations of human creativity that seem to be under threat today are languages. Predictions of language death have prompted linguists and others to document languages they fear may not survive the onslaught of globalisation. Scholars and laypeople alike are seeking to revitalise moribund languages or relearn the languages of their ancestors. Often, though, discourses of language endangerment focus primarily on the health of language, not the lives of the people who are remembering or forgetting old languages and embracing or inventing new languages. In this panel, we explore questions including, how is the flourishing of a language related to the flourishing of a community? How do linguistic practices shape or constrain socio-economic mobility or a sense of belonging? How are people seeking to transform their lives by transforming their languages? Or, how are changes in language transforming their lives in ways they may not recognise? We invite papers that focus on the revitalisation of small languages, the development of new linguistic repertoires, or negotiations around national or global languages. While the specific focus of the panel is language movements, the broader aim is to foster new conversations among anthropologists interested in any aspect of the social dynamics of language.
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.
Words that move: the case for an ethnography of poetics in Melanesian anthropology
Using a phenomenological approach to the language of the Vula'a I suggest that while attention to poetics is useful for understanding the creativity of language, more importantly it is crucial for the accurate preservation of the cultural knowledge and historicity embedded in Austronesian languages.
Poetic language as it is understood by Heidegger, Ricoeur and Derrida is opposed to both the 'conceptual, univocal language of philosophy and the everyday language of normal conversation' (van der Heiden 2008:10). Moreover, it is this aspect of language that opens up new possibilities for expression and thus brings the world to appearance (ibid). For the Vula'a people of south-eastern Papua New Guinea (PNG) the preservation of their language (known as Hula) equates to the preservation of their unique identity and lifeworld. Lillian Short, who was a linguist and wife of the Reverend H.J.E. Short of the London Missionary Society, documented the Hula language and grammar during their post at Hula village in the 1930s. Her work has been valuable to linguists and anthropologists alike and is also highly regarded by the Vula'a. Yet it bears the failings Malinowski (1948) described for the Trobriand grammars compiled by missionaries; notably, their inability to capture the expressiveness of native languages so different from 'our own'. It is evident from my research that poetic language is prevalent not only in immediately recognisable forms such as song and magic, but also in the realm of everyday experience. Using examples from my fieldwork, I argue for a phenomenological approach to language; that the mere documentation of indigenous languages does not go far enough. Further, while attention to poetics is useful for our understanding of the creativity of language, it is crucial for the accurate preservation of the cultural knowledge and historicity embedded in Austronesian languages.
The changing role of film in documenting language life, danger and death
Film has played a key role in the documentation of ancestral languages and their speakers as a cycle of life, endangerment, death and revival. This paper explores ways that film and AV technologies represent and constitute social dynamics of language for language communities of Cape York Peninsula.
Film has played a key role in the documentation and representation of ancestral languages and their speakers within a cycle of life, endangerment, death and revival. This paper explores the movements of film and AV technologies in representing and constituting social dynamics of language and considers the shifting discourse surrounding the production and re-representation of audio-visual records in the context of language communities of Aurukun on the west coast of Cape York Peninsula.
From Wik peoples' use of ethnographic films produced in the 1970s (Sutton 2014), ongoing community-led documentation of house-openings and key events using video, ipads and phones, to the production of 'comprehensive' and 'preservable' records of language in context in recent language documentation projects, film as a medium to record language knowledge has been integral to language support endeavours in Aurukun and surrounding regions.
However, within the current discourse of language endangerment and death, the speakers, semi-speakers, hearers and identifiers of ancestral languages are increasingly required to produce a complex representation of both loss and revival to secure funding for language support activities and for reporting and promotion. Requirements for quantifiable indicators of language programmes (e.g. number of languages, increased speaker numbers, volume of archivable materials (see Dobrin et al. 2007)) construct languages as discrete and quantifiable objects often at odds with the shifting dynamics of social interaction. In multilingual communities this can include political tensions between the cultural currency that comes with maintaining a minority language and the social benefits of a move towards a communalect.
Preserving language or empowering people: the Kulu Language Institute of Ranongga
More than one thousand residents of Ranongga (Solomon Islands) have invested energy and money into studying their own languages. Few participants are primarily motivated by a desire to preserve language or culture. Empowerment, not preservation, seems to be what this movement promises.
In regions with small languages, linguistic work is often undertaken to preserve or revitalise languages. Often, the focus is more on the languages and less on the lives of the people who speak them. This paper focuses on a grassroots language movement of the island of Ranongga in Western province of Solomon Islands: the Kulu Language Institute. This movement began twenty years ago and has grown exponentially in the past five years. Today, around 20% of Ranongga's population has taken Kulu classes. This talk draws on Kulu Institute materials and interviews with participants to understand why so many people have invested time, energy, and money into studying their own language. In contrast to vernacular language initiatives driven by national governments or linguistic experts, the Kulu curriculum is aimed at adults. The mono-lingual materials comprise more than a thousand pages of grammatical analysis, exercises, and reflections. The linguistic terminology and the texts expand the meaning of ordinary language. Some participants are fascinated by the idea that their own language has an underlying structure. Others feel that the instruction helps them understand the Bible, speak confidently in crowds, or achieve good scores on English exams. Surprisingly, though, no one interviewed was primarily motivated by a desire to preserve language or culture. Empowerment, not preservation, seems to be what this movement promises, and that helps to explain why it has experienced such remarkable growth.
Language endangerment and revitalization in the Ignaciano dialect of Chiquitano
Chiquitano is a language spoken in southeastern Bolivia. It is seriously endangered, being spoken by a few thousands of people. With data from my fieldwork, I will analyse the case of the Ignaciano dialect of Chiquitano, showing how linguistic analysis can contribute to its revitalization.
Chiquitano (aka Bésɨro) is an indigenous language spoken in the lowlands of southeastern Bolivia. The Chiquitano (aka Monkoka) are one of the largest ethnical groups of Bolivia, with over 145,000 people recognizing themselves as Chiquitano. Chiquitano in the past played an important role as the lingua franca of the Jesuit Missions of Chiquitos, but now it is seriously endangered, being spoken by a few thousands of people. Chiquitano was recently included among the official languages of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, so that there are efforts to teach Chiquitano at school and to favour its use in the public context. The language taught at school reflects the Chiquitano dialect with most speakers, located in the region of Lomerío. However, since Chiquitano was spoken in a very large area, it consists of several underdescribed dialects, which are still spoken by a few people in their respective communities. The difference of these dialects from the main variety of Chiquitano is a problem for the preservation and revitalization of the language in these communities. Here the population perceives that the language taught in schoolbooks is not the same as the one spoken by the old people, who are the keepers of local cultural traditions. In this talk, with data from my fieldwork, I will analyse the case of the Chiquitano dialect spoken in the area around the mission of San Ignacio de Velasco (aka Ignaciano), showing how linguistic analysis can contribute to the revitalization of the language and its dialects.
Local-language acquisition and social transformation in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea
Based on long term field study of parent-child interactions in the Ku Waru region of highland PNG, we discuss fluctuations between 2011 & 2015 in the use of Tok Pisin vs Ku Waru and their implications for understanding the relations among language use, language ideology and social transformation.
Since 2001 we have been studying children's learning of Ku Waru, a Papuan language of Highland PNG. Most Ku Waru speakers are also fluent in the main national lingua franca Tok Pisin. During 2001-11 all of the children we recorded spoke almost entirely in Ku Waru in the sessions, as did their parents. In 2013 there was a shift on the part of some parents to using Tok Pisin along with Ku Waru when addressing their children, and a corresponding earlier onset of fully bilingual language learning. The parents told us that their shift in language use had been motivated in part by a national shift in language policy away from bilingual education back to the English-only policy that had been in place until 1997. They believed that their early use of Tok Pisin at home would facilitate the children's eventual learning of English. Here we present comparable language acquisition data from the same children during 2014-2016. Rather surprisingly, these data show a decrease in use of the Tok Pisin by all of the children who had been using it in interactions with their parents, and very little use of Tok Pisin by the children when interacting with each other. We offer an ethnographically based account of the overall language ecology in which these patterns are found, and develop its implications for understanding the relations among language use, language ideology and social transformation.
The orthography of identity: signs of revitalization among the Koita of Papua New Guinea?
Noting some small but significant recent orthographic and terminological developments in the language of the Koita of Port Moresby, PNG, this paper makes some linguistic and social observations towards an understanding of the politics of land, language and culture in a contemporary urban context.
Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, has grown and spread during the past century and a quarter across the traditional territory of two ethno-linguistic groups, the Koita and Motu, who nowadays identify themselves jointly as the 'Motu-Koitabu'. An increasing loss of land to the city and its overwhelmingly migrant population in recent decades has generated a sense of cultural atrophy by the Motu-Koitabu, who have addressed it through political advocacy and cultural revival projects. These strategies, however, have tended to emphasize Motu, rather than Koita, history, traditions and artefacts. Moreover, the early colonial administration's favouring of English and a pidgin form of Motu language contributed to a diminution of the Koita language in Port Moresby, and by the late 20th century urban Koita had no fluency in it.
In recent years I have noticed some small but significant orthographic and terminological developments specific to Koita, rather than to Motu, language. These have been coterminous with intensified Motu-Koitabu attempts to regain control over their land, and therewith their cultural identity. This paper makes some historical linguistic and social observations towards understanding articulations of politics of land, language and culture in a contemporary urban context in Melanesia.
Language survivance: holding (onto) your tongue in times of war
This presentation explores how language movements work in extremely hostile environments.
How do communities maintain languages under extreme conditions? Recent research on language movements has identified several factors that help communities to maintain and revitalize languages, including: non-assimilatory policy frameworks, economic empowerment, self-determination, and the capacity to form and participate in trans-local support networks. But what happens when all of these are absent? Can language movements take place without such broader contextual support? To explore these questions, this presentation will examine language maintenance in conditions of war: not in the sense of military violence, but in the Hobbesian sense employed by philosopher Ann Cudd, of continuous, inescapable insecurity. In terms of language, a community faces conditions of war when the language ecology is perpetually hostile to the language's survival, and all avenues for organization in its defense are blocked. Under such circumstances, language movements must focus on survivance, a term coined by Anishnaabe scholar Gerald Vizenor to refer to "an active sense of presence," which may involve radical change in order to resist erasure. This presentation will describe a case study of language survivance under conditions of war by drawing on research conducted on the northeast Tibetan Plateau with speakers of the Manegacha language, a population facing conditions of war generated by their position at the frontlines of a globalized symbolic conflict between the Chinese state and Tibetan nation.
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.