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Where is the Poetry?

Review of Jane Freeland and Donna Patrick ed., Language Rights and Language Survival

312 pp., (pb £17.99 / $32 incl. P&P), Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing 2004: ISBN 1-9000650-74-6

If truth is beauty, or at least contains it as a part, something is missing in this learned and wide-ranging discussion of the concepts and ethics at the root of language maintenance policies.

It is a collection of essays informed by the language situation in a striking variety of countries. But every one is troubled by the same moral conundrum: is our concern for disappearing languages based on naïveté, or even on a pack of lies? Can you believe a language is worth maintaining without also holding that the culture and identity of its speakers depend on its continued use? Is an old language, when more and more mixed up with parts of a newly dominant tongue, necessarily worth less for being impure? They all hope not, because they are well-informed and sophisticated sociolinguists, and they know that people and some of their traditions go on even when their former languages are being replaced, and that small language communities seldom have the luxury of a language clearly distinct from those of all their neighbours, let alone a chance to speak it without admixtures due to migration, urbanization or ever more intrusive global media. Yet they struggle to convince, despite their plucky insistence that languages are worth defending for all that.

Overall they identify three of what Plato might have called “noble lies”, which have been commonly – but they all feel, invalidly – used to defend linguistic human rights:

1. the claim, once associated with German idealists such as J.G. Herder, and more recently American cognitivists like Benjamin Lee Whorf, that there is an essential link between a particular language and a people’s identity, that even extends to give them a distinct understanding of reality 2. the belief that a language can be identified with a clear and distinct grammar and dictionary, which can be standardized to define it as an ideally pure code, and 3. the creed that members of a community share an identity, which defines what is to be preserved if their rights to survival, and maintenance of cultural attributes, are to be respected.

As against these comforting but apparently illusory cultural tenets, they point up some facts that we may term “ugly truths” of the struggle for survival, when language are under threat of decline or extinction:

1. what they term Mufwene’s “wicked problem” : this is the situation where a community is confronted with the choice whether to survive economically but without its language, or to stay put with its culture and language, but at the cost, ultimately, of all its members. To borrow a tune from Mozart, ‘la gente è mobile’: in modern conditions, it is impossible to survive through isolation, but to open the borders is to invite dispersal of the community, even as it risks being overrun by outsiders. 2. the resilience of cultural identity through language change: as language transmission begins to break down, identity will be preserved to some extent through language mixing, and the resulting mixed codes – even if their subtleties are lost on linguists – may become very important to their speakers. Creolized languages, even when the differences are reduced to a matter of accent, need to be accorded parity of esteem by would-be cultural guardians. 3. the side-effects of the linguistic human rights ideal: the case is made that in many places – notably in modern South Africa – official implementation of these rights can oppress and endanger the many languages which they inevitably marginalize. This, they hold, is because they stem from liberal political theory (infused with the individualism of 18th-century Enlightenment!) and hence cannot see the values of group asset like language diversity, which can never be applied consistently and uniformly.

This is heady stuff, and not always easy to assimilate at a first reading: after all, as Laakso and Östman put it, “the foundations of linguistic unity have to be scrutinized once we bring polyvalent narratives of identity to bear on our analyses … the very balancing on the edge of ambivalence and hegemony requires ethnographic standpoints, standpoints that are negotiated among the sociolinguist and the villager, the human being.” It does not make it easy for the less theoretically-primed reader that most of this kind of discourse is found in the early chapters of the book, where descriptions of particular communities and their linguistic colouring are rather outweighed by ponderous sententiosity.

Nevertheless, there are some ideas offered to justify ways of language activism to more refined conceptual consciences, ideas that are likely to be interestingly new precisely to readers (such as the present reviewer) who are indeed less theoretically-primed. A favourite remedy for these writers is to appeal to the work of Pierre Bourdieu , who has been here before, and has detected some ways round and about the conundrums. He posits a ‘language economy’, seeing an interplay within a multilingual community that accords the languages a variety of values in use. And his idea of ‘habitus’ provides a third way between half-falsehoods: culture is not an essential property of a people, but is created and propagated in their discourse; nevertheless, it has an identity that persists beyond the mere instrumental patterns, which are all that a positivist or reductionist might see, and hence gives us something that we really can value.

Even if the theoretical cases remain opaque at times, the book is also useful as a compendium of local language policy details by experts with direct experience. A list gives the best idea of the variety available here: · Finland – Solv-speakers amongst Swedish: Ville Laakso and Jan-Ola Östman
· S.W. Ontario – Iroquoian and Algonquian: Regna Darnell
· E. coast Nicaragua: Jane Freeland
· N.E. China – Oroqen: Lindsay Whaley
· Sabah Malaysia – Rungus: Jeannet Stephen and Veronica Atin
· E. Canadian Arctic – Inuktitut: Donna Patrick
· S. Africa: Christopher Stroud and Kathleen Heugh
· European Union: Sue Wright
· Central Spain: Luisa Martín Rojo

There will be points of interest here for everyone. For me, high points were to learn that the linguistic social layer-cake of Nicaragua’s eastern coast (Spanish above English above Miskitu above Ulwa above Rama) goes back to English buccaneering of the 17th century, spreading a consciousness of distinct identities that contrasts to this day with the mestizo “melting-pot” theory of society that prevails in the rest of country where the Spanish empire prevailed; and that members of the European Parliament Patijn and van der Hoek (though both sadly mis-spelt in the book, p. 233) proposed in vain in 1974 that Latin be the language of the European institutions.

All the same, there is throughout this book a decided feeling that the authors are wrestling with their own theoretical consciences, rather than coming down from the mountain with the new doctrine worked out. I would hesitate to put this book into the hands of a monolingual politician or civil servant. It may be that language rights are a bad basis for linguistic policy: but how are governments to be persuaded to give the smaller languages a break if legal guarantees do more harm than good? Too little is said for my taste to convey the real values of all these languages, and to convince the unconverted that we all really are better off with many languages than with few.

Probably it is the unremitting stance of the sociolinguist that makes them miss this fundamental point. The aim appears to be to show that languages can be defended on a basis that is tough-minded, even objective. There is not, and apparently cannot be, anything here about beauty, mystery or inspiration, or even loyalty to an age-old tradition; there is no awareness, not even one fraught with intellectual guilt, that one’s own, and above all other people’s, languages contain treasures that are unique. To re-apply a memorable utterance of the head of linguistics at MIT :

I think that I shall never see
A tree as lovely as little old me.

For this we’ll need a new sociolinguistics, one that is not a stranger to aesthetics.

Salem Mezhoud & Joan Moles in conference with a hospitable Aranese