The Politics of Naming: Languages Edition

After my last post on the use of Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) in the Canadian House of Commons, I received a comment on Twitter that asked why I was changing the name of the language. When I objected that I was not, in fact, the one making the change (since the name I was using was the one used by its speakers for generations prior to colonization), the commenter responded:


I was…a bit swift and facetious in my dismissal of this comment on Twitter (Ed: You kind of have to work on how Twitter does that to you. SS: Yeah, that’s fair). I was somewhat surprised (because Twitter) to learn that the commenter, Martin Haspelmath, is actually a linguist who has thought quite extensively on the implications of language naming. As another commenter pointed out, he has, in fact, written an article on the subject which was published in the (OPEN ACCESS!) journal Language Documentation and Conservation. So stepping back from my initial reaction, I wanted to consider the argument presented.

The first point to note is that proper names – for people, places, and things like languages – are complex and unique linguistic items. Their degree of specificity (in other words, the limited nature of their referent) makes them function differently than other nouns, including with respect to processes of translation, which is particularly relevant to the example discussed. In Haspelmath’s article, he outlines principles for naming languages for the purposes of the English-language resource Glottolog, which is intended to provide accessible information about lesser-known languages of the world. These principles include some motivations for changing the name of the language, including the possibility that old names become “unacceptable” for some reason and therefore require changing, and that speakers themselves should be the central in bringing forward that objection. He also acknowledges complexity in establishing how these objections emerge, especially in cases where there is no formal body that speaks for “the community” to which the language belongs (the idea of an easily definable “community” is one that I have also pointed out as problematic for purposes of “community-based” research, so I appreciate this point).

At the same time, I think there is a fundamental point missing in the article as a whole, and definitely in the short conversation that emerged under the constraints of 140 character interactions. That point is one that we, as anthropologists, are always hammering at: context.

Part of my snappy response to Haspelmath’s tweet was based on what I still find to be incredibly condescending in his judgment about the use of “Kanien’kéha” instead of “Mohawk” – the idea that the decision to use the former term denies the language an English form and therefore impoverishes it. In this formulation, the English language name, and the apparent accessibility that it provides to a general audience, is a pathway for transference of wealth, a formulation that reeks of colonial ideologies. And, as others commented in the Twitter exchange, this is precisely the grounds on which a name like “Mohawk” is only now starting to fall out of favour – the language acquired its English-language name under circumstances of genocidal violence, land theft, cultural destruction, and linguistic elimination (aka “colonialism”). The quick comparison to Japanese or German completely erases that vast difference in context, and the use of a metaphor like “deprivation” of an English name (when English naming has been primarily used to deprive Indigenous peoples and languages of their value and place in the social order) is downright offensive.

As noted, the article acknowledges a much greater degree of complexity, but still, to my mind, shows some disturbing trends. For one, it unquestioningly accepts certain forms of authority as entitled to sanction name-changes. These include academic prominence (“the usage of prominent authors is given substantial weight”, point 11 on the list outlined on p. 91), or minimally, status as an academic linguist. Where speakers’ own valuations are introduced, it’s with caveats that this is best done within defined structures of community authority – and while, as I’ve already noted, communities are incredibly complex things, these types of organizations are often formed in relation to and using models based in colonial governments. All in all, the result is a context in which colonial terms of reference and academic hierarchies are used as gatekeepers to a community’s right to self-definition and self-labeling, and that’s uncomfortable at best.

In the end, I want to call in to question the central assumption Haspelmath introduces to the conversation – that language names are, first and foremost, English words. Without delving in to a long theoretical argument about how the boundaries – and even the idea of boundedness – of languages are socially constructed, and not objective, entities, this claim works to define the context on terms that centralize English-speaking users of the names. In other words, rather than attuning to nuanced multilingual contexts of the meaning of different types of English-language names, it creates a context in which the rules are set, first and foremost, by English speakers, and, ultimately, colonial ideologies about language and its meanings. This is not to dismiss the problem Haspelmath faces with respect to his Glottolog project, which requires him to make decisions about the names assigned to and information given about a huge range of languages, many of which are currently undergoing shifts in sociopolitical status and meaning as a result of language revitalization projects and other Indigenous rights initiatives. But it is to emphasize that the project of naming and cataloguing languages is an act of power, situated within fields of power that are both pre-existing and actively created by the language namers.

Power and context, and the power to create context, may not be explicitly acknowledged, but they are never in fact absent from discussions about languages and the language we use to talk about them. Indeed, in the context of motivating his work on Glottolog, Haspelmath’s tweet makes a lot more sense – but even there, the role that English (and those who define the boundaries of what counts as English) plays in these descriptions should not be presumed as a neutral field. I could outline some specifics of my discomfort with “Mohawk” over “Kanien’kéha”, but ultimately these are less significant than my discomfort with accepting English as the field that sets the rules about language names. Hard to change? Of course it is. But no one said decolonization would be easy.


11 thoughts on “The Politics of Naming: Languages Edition

  1. Many thanks for engaging with my article on language names! I full acknolwedge the roles of power and context, and I’m aware of the social responsibility that comes with an academic position. But what I’m questioning is whether the widespread practice of renaming languages (adopted by many other, equally powerful English-speaking acadamics) benefits the communities. Maybe it is primarily an expression of the bad conscience of those whose ancestors engaged in genocide? In practice, re-naming well-known languages, such as Nootka and Mohawk, means that they will not be recognized anymore. English speakers may have been land robbers, but they generally admired the Mohawk and the Nootka, so these names do not sound bad (unlike “Gypsy” or “Lapp”, which therefore needed to be replaced). I fear that the main effect of the renaming is that only a very small group of anthropologists and activists can find their way around the various indigenous nations and groups, and everyone else prefers not to talk about them, for fear of leaving out a diacritic or an apostrophe (or for lack of an appropriate special character on their keyboard). This would mean that we have restored their pristine dignity, but at the cost of invisibility. Is that in everyone’s best interest? And as for setting of the rules by English-speakers: This applies to Glottolog (primarily English-speaking), but it does not apply to Chinese or Russian or Spanish – these are also major languages, and the Chinese word for Mohawk will definitely not be “Kanien’kéha”. Moreover, Glottolog does include names in other languages (click on “Alternative names” here: In fact, given our data model, we could easily have Mohawk names for all the world’s languages. Maybe this would be the best way to show that we are no longer land-grabbing colonialists.


    1. You’re right that this is a more complex issue than many would immediately think. I take your point about the possibility of essentially using these names to perform a highly educated form of what Indigenous authors have called “settler moves to innocence” – ways of rebranding ourselves as “one of the good ones” or immune from critique, essentially. I am a bit less convinced that you’re correct that “Mohawk” is viewed positively and isn’t derogatory, and I suspect this may be a difference between perceptions for Europe and from Canada. Here it’s really important to take a step back and evaluate assumptions about what does or does not “sound bad”. To me, because I am not so deeply embedded in the politics of Northern Europe, Lapp doesn’t sound terrible (I know it has fallen out of favour because I am an anthropologist paying attention to these things, but it doesn’t bring all those negative connotations for me), while within Canada, where Haudenosaunee people (yes, I know it’s even more complicated when we get in to separate names for peoples and for languages) have been part of some very heated, very public, and sometimes quite violent protests against government and industry, there is probably more hostility attached to “Mohawk” than you might be aware.

      Aside from the specifics of how and on what terms a name is determined to “sound bad”, I am also questioning the premise that we need to operate on a one language: one name model. I can see how, for the purposes of Glottolog, you want to make certain decisions, and broad recognizability and searchability are part of the criteria you might use. But the purposes that I have, on this blog, in writing about an event that happened in Canadian parliament, are different. It doesn’t bother me to use both “Kanien’kéha” and bracket in “Mohawk” so those who aren’t familiar with the former term will understand the context. It doesn’t bother me that the title might be a bit obscure to some people who read the blog, as they can figure it out from context. I frame my use in that environment as an act of respect, because this is what I have heard speakers of the language involved in this particular story using for themselves. Whether that use is generalizable to all contexts and all uses is not, to me, a relevant criteria for whether I should use it. Is it merely a shallow symbolic effort? Maybe. But I talk about that in the original post as well, in terms of what these symbols mean in the context of 2017 Canada.

      In the end, I find that your positions outlined in the article mostly make sense to me for the purpose that you identify in that article (though there are still a few that I think could be scrutinized further). I don’t, however, think those positions are generalizable past that purpose, and it’s dismissive to take examples, such as my use of Kanien’kéha in my blog post, and hold them up as though all aspects of your argument must inherently apply.


  2. I admit that I don’t know much about the Kanien’kéha/Mohawk case, and if there are indigenous activists who strongly prefer the former over the latter, that should be respected by all means, of course. What I object most strongly to is the practive of generalizing the renaming to situations where there are no indigenous activists, and where people generally don’t care about English names, e.g. in non-English-speaking countries of Latin America and Asia. For example, linguist Patience Epps renamed the Hupdah language to “Hup”, because the latter is the way the language is called in Hupdah/Hup. These marginalized Amazonian people have traditionally been dominated by the Tucanoans, and they’re so poor that they probably don’t even think about how outsiders perceive them. It seems to me that the renaming sometimes (maybe unconsciously) serves to stake out a scholar’s territory: “I renamed this language, it’s my territory”. I haven’t done systematic research on this, but over the years I’ve come across many cases of this sort to suspect that this is part of what’s going on. So I think that anthropologists and linguists should think more about what it means to rename a language, and so I welcome your post. Maybe it will lead to further discussion (I hope to comment on the matter further on my own blog).


    1. I look forward to your longer post on this, for sure. I will comment directly on the example you give of Patience Epps’ work with Hup, because I have direct knowledge of this situation. I’ve done fieldwork in the same region, and because my topic was multilingualism, urbanization, and language revitalization, I didn’t focus specifically on Hup, but I did talk to several speakers of this language and other related ones. Contrary to your assumption that their poverty would make them ignore things like labels, they are in fact keenly aware of the implications of these labels, as others in the area (including both non-Indigenous people and more powerful Indigenous groups like the Tukanoans) continue to use these older terms as slurs or as ways of describing “really uncivilized people”. They were profoundly affected by work that helped them to see their language was not, in fact, inferior to these others (both colonial and Indigenous), and that it was worthy of being written, being learned in schools, and receiving support for revitalization, and pushing back against these labels was not detached from their battle against poverty and marginalization. It is possible that there is a linguist out there who is making these language name changes as a flag-planting exercise of neo-colonialism, but I will definitively assert that Patty is not that linguist.


  3. Concerning the Hup language: I’m fully aware that “Makú” is a label that linguists should not use because it has associations similar to “Gypsy”, but this surely doesn’t apply to “Hupdah” (which is just the root “Hup” plus the plural suffix “dah”). So by renaming the language, Pattie did not improve the situation, and arguably, by making the name shorter (and hence much harder to google), she made the language somewhat less visible. I don’t know what her motivation was – but I suspect that she thought that the language should be known in English by a freshly borrowed name, closer to the name of the language in Hup(dah). But as I argue in my LD&C article, there is no reason why English names of small languages of disadvantaged peoples should be treated differently than names of languages of powerful peoples. There was no reason to re-borrow the name, because a well-established name (Hupdah) existed before she started her fieldwork. I admit that my speculation on the unconscious motivations of linguists is not based on robust findings, but it seems to be widely recognized that the wish to stake out territories does influence the behaviour of anthropologists and linguists in some cases, probably often unconsciously. I recently had an interesting experience with the Ik language of Uganda, for which Terrill Schrock wrote a very good dictionary/grammar, published in open access by Language Science Press ( Terrill had previouslly called the language “Icétôd” (as the speakers do when speaking Ik), but after discussion with me, he seemed to realize that the language actually had a well-established name in English, and that there was no reason to rename it, so late in the project he returned to the well-established name (in this case, “Ik” is not so googlable, but “Ik language” is easy to find, and much easier to type and remember than “Icétôd”).


    1. That is an important clarification, thanks. Working in the region and having occasional need to describe these languages, I can relate to the fact that it is a bit frustrating to feel like you are wading through different possibilities and having to decide in a context where it feels like there is no clear correct answer. That said, I also heard “Hup” as the more frequent form used among people there, and it seems to me like the choice of the pluralized form in English was a mistake by older linguists. So while it’s not necessarily offensive, per se, it seems inappropriate that we should have to go by the conclusion of someone who did their work less carefully than Epps has, simply because they got there first.

      I am, admittedly, particularly inclined to push back against the accusation of territory staking as applied to this case because it is a linguist I know and respect (and who I know to be *very* well regarded by the people she works with). As a general phenomenon, I do think it’s worth talking about the role that our personal motivations (and the academic culture of recognition and other forms of capital in which we formulate them) play in shaping the scholarly decisions we make, and it’s too often excluded from consideration.

      In the end, on the language naming issue, I continue to question whether the idea that a language has one and only one English-language name that should be used in all contexts is a criteria that holds water. The example you give of the Ik language and the desire for googlability is a good one, but googlability is not a universal criteria to apply when one is making decisions about any type of word choice or label to apply. I’m perfectly comfortable, for example, with the implication that my little blog post on the use of Kanien’kéha in the House of Commons would be difficult to find on a google search by someone with a general (linguistic?) interest in the Mohawk language or people. In this case, I think the merits of signaling a willingness to learn what the speakers call their own language outweigh the costs of searchability and accessibility to a range of academics or other actors. I other contexts, I can and do make different choices, and I think that’s only appropriate.


  4. Sarah Shulist says “I continue to question whether the idea that a language has one and only one English-language name that should be used in all contexts is a criteria that holds water”. In contrast to this, I object to the idea that some (small) languages should be known by several names (some of which are really hard to remember and to pronounce), while the big, powerful languages should have single names. But it’s probably realistic to accept that the small languages are just that – small and powerless…


      1. (Sorry, accidental send)…but this comment refuses to acknowledge my point and instead implies that, despite the fact that language revitalization (not description, documentation, cataloguing, or classification) is the primary aim of my work, I am consigning small languages to obscurity. My work and engagement on this complex contextual issue is far from taking the easy way out, nor do I think your implicit claim that your work on naming is effective at improving the status of these languages is one that should go uncontested. I think this is an important conversation, but I won’t approve further comments that refuse to substantively address my points.


  5. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of June 18, 2017 | Unwritten Histories

  6. Pingback: Language links 6/26: language names and gender-neutral titles | Everyday linguistic anthropology

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