Names and Patriarchy

Names are a remarkable form of linguistic material. Group names, place names, personal names – all have functions and social roles that are far more complex than we often credit (I’ve written before about the use of endonyms for Indigenous peoples/languages, and will put a bookmark in my brain to try to write about place names at some point as well). Names carry a lot of weight in defining identities — and this means they do a ton of social work in establishing relationships among people.

I am well behind on blogging things I’ve found interesting, so forgive me for delving into ancient internet history of a full month ago, but the story of Serena Williams’ baby’s name was too fascinating to let go entirely. As the link notes, the name is apparently highly conservative, putting a junior on the father’s name – except that in this case, Alexis Ohanian Jr. is a little girl.

For all that we, in Anglo-North American society, have moved away from many aspects of patrilineal descent (like for example in terms of inheritance), names are one of the ways we cling quite strongly to it. Without wanting to get in to any kind of discussion about the merits of name changing at marriage (seriously, don’t @ me. It’s always the same conversation), one point that’s always raised is that women choose between “their partner’s name or their father’s name”. It’s a claim that depends on the notion that our names have and will come from our fathers, and that it is primarily boy children who get to claim ownership of the name. While there is now a proportion of heterosexually married women who have, either completely or partially (e.g. using one name professionally and another personally) kept their original names, this has not yet translated into a widespread change in how offspring are named. Hyphenation has a definite presence, but the most common pattern remains that children receive their father’s names. My own family is an exception here, because I said I wanted a child that would carry my name, and my partner and I quickly agreed to have one of each. Our older child has their father’s name, and our younger child has mine.

This is meaningful to me because my lineage is marked in our family. Last names, though, are not the only ways that we put that identity forward. Giving our children family names, particularly ‘Junior’ from an immediate parent, also carries those meanings. And while the practice is generally waning, it remains much more strongly associated with father-son bonds than with any relationship involving women and girls. Gilmore Girls made a joke of this by having teenage mom and highly quirky Lorelai name her baby daughter Lorelai (called Rory) for exactly this reason – men do it all the time, why couldn’t she want her girl to carry on her name? (I have a general theory that this is why we see much greater variation in the “Top 100” baby names for girls than for boys – decade after decade, William, Michael, John, David, Daniel, and Matthew hold strong, while Sarahs and Katies – to pick two entirely not random examples – peak and fade relatively quickly. This theory is entirely the product of my brain and fascination with reading baby name lists, however, and no real stable evidence).

Little Alexis Jr. inserts another interesting exception to the pattern, having a daughter carry on her father’s name/identity. Honestly, it’s somewhat unsurprising that a powerhouse mother like Serena would be willing to push the boundaries of how her baby daughter will be named and seen. At the same time, I am a bit surprised that this little Junior is taking on the name of her much less famous parent. A Serena Williams Jr strikes me as a name that would inspire an impressive reaction (although perhaps too much weight to put on a tiny person, but that didn’t stop countless famous men from assigning that burden to their sons).

The whole conversation speaks to the way we see names and identity, and yes, the ways in which our perceptions of descent and family lineage remain oriented around fathers and sons. An era of acceptance of non-traditional family structures, including gay and lesbian couples (as well as decades of feminist pushback against the ways that names connote ownership) may have made a dent on this view, but its prevalence shows just how deeply engrained this part of patriarchy is. And this is why names are so meaningful and powerful – ultimately, this is a part of linguistic and cultural practice that holds force long after we have stopped thinking of our descent practices as inherently passing through a male line. I agree with the linked blogger that a female junior, in this context (and adding in the racial dynamic, which is also hugely important in defining young Alexis’ relationship to her white father) is a bold step. What strikes me, though, is that these bold steps seem to be taken in isolation, and I’m interested to see what it might take for them to start adding up to a march away from the status quo.

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Maps, Vocabulary, and Enregistered Identity

I admit it – I love a good map as much as the next giant nerd. As a kid, I literally spent hours in our home office, pouring over atlases that my geography major dad had kept  on hand. Maps are great tools for visualizing the distribution of social relationships in space. So language maps in particular, which help us to examine the ways language is used different across space, are guaranteed click bait for me. I’m clearly not alone on this one, as recent ‘dialect survey’ maps have gone viral over the last few years. This one for the US came out a few years ago, and includes tests that purport to guess where you’re from based on your preferred word for nine or ten common items. I tried it myself, and it wanted me to live in either Detroit, Pittsburgh, or Buffalo. While I’ve lived geographically close to a couple of those places, it still felt off.

So now, finally, someone’s done the same for Canada (though I haven’t seen a quiz version), and mapped out various expressions across the country. I’ve seen it linked a lot, and I’ve looked through it with my language/map nerd brain going ‘ooh, that’s fun’. But at the same time, I have to ask – what else is going on when we create maps like this? Note this CBC article reporting on the project, with the title “Lost in Translation“. The story suggests that English Canadians are “not all speaking the same language”, and that there is a “surprising amount of diversity in vocabulary and pronunciation”. Popularizations of research are, of course, notoriously frustrating, and it’s fairly easy to push back against this framing – are a few words, many of them relatively infrequent items in people’s lexicons (the sport either called ‘kickball’ or ‘soccer baseball’ is not one that I refer to more than, say, once a year, for example) really sufficient to define as major differences? Are we actually unable to understand each other across these differences – are people from Saskatchewan unaware of what a hoodie is? And even if these differences are significant, is it really that surprising that expressions are regionalized?

Beyond the journalistic accounts, though, there are also questions about the research process itself, and how well it captures what it says it does. Ben Zimmer touches on this in a Language Log post on the US version – the data emerges based on self-reporting, from a multiple choice format, using online participants. This has an advantage of gathering a quantity of data from a range of geographical areas, but it also has a number of significant limitations. We are often surprisingly unaware of what we actually say (especially when it comes to pronunciation), a multiple choice list may make a number of assumptions about what the options even are, and, of course, the sample of people who do online surveys is not exactly representative of the population as a whole.

The most interesting point, to me, though, is how these visualizations don’t just represent regional variations, but also create and enshrine regional variants as identity markers. I was thinking about this while doing the reading for my Language & Power seminar this week, which includes Barbara Johnstone’s (2013) article “100% Authentic Pittsburgh”. i-speak-fluent-canadian-canada-humor-funny-vacation-souvenir-blue-t-shirt-m-0b8972b813fe1ce48315898cb05ffb32One point that Johnstone makes is that the creation, selling, and wearing of t-shirts that include certain expressions, under the headline of local ‘authenticity’, do a wide range of types of semiotic work, creating a character image that is rooted in certain forms of class, racial, gender, and personal identity. It’s fairly easy to jump from Johnstone’s Pittsburgh example to Canadian versions – like the one pictured here. Artifacts like these t-shirts – or, I would argue, these dialect maps – shape the meanings of the linguistic resources that people choose to use, as well as the identities that are purportedly represented by them. As with some of the people Johnstone interviewed, I look at this list of supposed markers of speaking “fluent Canadian” and don’t really see myself in them. What are the features that we associate with supposedly Canadian phrases like “Take off, ya hoser”, and what does it imply that they are used to market an entextualized Canadian identity?

The maps are a good deal more sophisticated than McKenzie brother parodies of Canadian English, of course, but some of what they accomplish is the same – especially when they are repackaged by journalists looking to create a narrative out of them. They highlight a few select items that can be used to index certain regions, erasing many other aspects of the language in these areas, and possibly attaching other semiotic baggage to the mix.

That said, having moved to Alberta from Ontario, I really wish the maps had told me what a “windrow” was, because it took me 2 years to figure that one out.

 

Speech, Action, and Freedom

It’s been a difficult week to be paying attention to the media. The events at the University of Virginia this weekend, where a white supremacist demonstration turned predictably violent, and many legitimately fear that the current President of the United States refuses to denounce these actions because he agrees with them. There are many things to say about these events, and many others who are better equipped to say them, but I want to zero in on the commentary about how to address the question of “freedom of speech” in light of this significant social threat.

Now, first off, remember that I’m Canadian, and while there are many in this country who believe in an absolute and unfettered “right to free speech”, our actual Charter of Rights & Freedoms places somewhat more restrictions on the concept than does the United States Bill of Rights. In particular, “hate speech” is disallowed, though in practice this remains difficult to define, and many marginalized groups in this country (especially Indigenous people) would note that a significant amount of violent rhetoric gets through the pages of our mainstream newspapers, but is never labeled as “hate speech”. These are longstanding debates, and I am only using the legal context to establish and remind others that it is, in fact, possible to develop a legal framework in which restrictions are placed on certain kinds of speech and still have a functioning democracy. This point seems often forgotten or ignored in discussions on this topic.

I’ll take a step back from the violence in Charlottesville for a moment to point to another case in which “free speech” has been on the public radar this week – the firing of a Google employee who sent out a company wide memo suggesting that the effort to get more women into engineering positions within the company was misplaced, since women are biologically ill-equipped for these roles. It was backed up with multiple pseudo-scientific arguments that have been debunked by multiple people, but nonetheless, certain segments of the internet have claimed that he was fired for his ideas and that this represents thought policing. In fact, he was fired for his actions – he wrote and sent a memo to his entire company outlining not only his beliefs, but also his suggestions for how the company should implement policies based on his beliefs. And these actions – the writing and the sending – entail acts of aggression against a specific group of co-workers (women). He has presumably thought these things for a significant amount of time, perhaps even prior to his hiring at Google, but he was never fired for thinking them – he was fired for the act of writing them in “manifesto” form, and sending it to the entire company.

The idea of “freedom of speech” in its broadest sense is premised on an ideology that posits speech is not action. There are any number of idiomatic expressions and signs that this is a commonly held belief among many English speaking North Americans. You have to “walk the walk, not just talk the talk”. “Stick and stone will break my bones” and all that. And to be clear, speech should be protected in some ways in a democratic environment – government silencing of dissent is a necessary part of authoritarianism, and people are rightfully highlighting press restrictions as one of the scary signs coming from Trump’s administration. But a robust theory of freedom of speech has to address the fact that ‘to speak’ is a verb – in other words, it is always an action.

How does this relate to what happened in Charlottesville? The march clearly crossed the line between acceptable speech and unacceptable acts of violence at some point, under all but the most hateful defenders’ definitions, as people were killed by the protesters. As many others are also noting, that point comes well before the killing, before the beating with torches even. It comes when they adopt the language and symbols of genocide as the semiotic frame for their speech. The use of swastikas, the “Heil Hitler” arm movement, and Hitler quotations on t-shirts — these are acts of symbolic violence. In and of themselves, they do harm to people (the ideas that they represent, if implemented, would do horrendous amounts of harm, but even in the absence of that implementation, their being stated publicly, justified by those in power like the police who responded only tepidly, or Trump who suggested it was somehow proportionate to violence on the left, does actual harm).

I’ve seen a lot of people suggesting “rights are rights” and that if I want to right to continue to speak openly in the way that I do here, I have to allow even actual Nazis to organize and publicly speak. That I must counter their positions with rhetorical force, and that it would be unconscionable to suggest that they should be legally silenced. This kind of argument assumes that these people can be reasoned with, and in making that assumption tacitly implies that promotion of genocide is a reasonable position that one should argue with. I refuse that assumption and its implication.

It is, of course, easy in principle to say that we will easily be able to recognize what forms of speech are acts of violence, and that we can guarantee that no democratically elected government would suppress legitimate speech. This latter point is obviously false, and the former is much more complex in practice. But at the same time, it’s not always easy, in practice, to spell out any clear cut rules that place limitations on actions. The same physical actions can, in one context, be loving, and in another, be violence, because of the presence or absence of consent. The presence of a law against arson doesn’t preclude us from setting a campfire. We are imperfect at interpreting legal and moral culpability and consequence in many of these situations as well, but it doesn’t lead to an interpretation that the underlying actions must be allowed to exist unchecked by legal authority.

All of this is to say: in order to effectively account for the impact of these forms of speech, it is important to move beyond an ideology that speech is not action, and therefore cannot be limited in the same ways as we limit physical actions. The oft-quoted statement that “my right to swing my arm ends at your nose” is meaningfully applied to the act of speaking as well. Because speech is an action, not an impactless idea floating meaninglessly in people’s minds, it can also be violence. Violence that not only can, but must, be restricted and stopped.

Film Review: Conlanging (Warning: May nerd-splode)

This past weekend, I was lucky to be able to attend the premiere of the documentary film Conlanging: The Art of Crafting Tongues. For those unaware, “conlang” is short for “constructed language”, so “conlanging” would be the verb form, because of course it

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Film logo from http://conlangingfilm.com/

needs a verb form. In contrast to natural languages, which develop in social groups without a large scale plan by a single creator (or a few creators), conlangs are consciously developed for various purposes. This is a film that engages with the people who create languages, professionally or privately, and those who learn and use them. It’s a film that cares deeply about the conlang community, and many of the people in it were present at the premiere because it was scheduled to coincide with the 7th Language Creation Conference. I will cut to the chase in my review here: this movie is fantastic. If you are in any way a language nerd, it is amazing. If you are some other kind of nerd, I think it would also be amazing. If you are not a nerd at all, I don’t know what you like, so I have no idea, but maybe one of you can tell me what you think after I make you watch it for my class. [Full disclosure: One of the executive producers, Christine Schreyer, is a close friend of both of the bloggers here, and the reason I went to the film in the first place. You should still believe what I have to say about it].

 

The film traces the history of constructed languages, which dates back to the 11th century or so. I was fascinated to learn that the first known (incomplete) conlang was developed by a relatively anonymous nun, who was subsequently followed by some well-known luminaries in philosophy, like Sir Thomas More. From the beginning, the filmmakers establish a thread of examining what motivates people to create languages, and this human focus is what gives the examples weight beyond the fun language nerdery. There are two main threads that run through these motivations, which actually pull in opposite directions. On the one hand, encapsulated in relatively well-known languages like Esperanto, there is the desire to overcome the messy baggage of trying to communicate across deep differences. One woman, raised with Esperanto as one of her native languages in the former Soviet Union, expressed her appreciation for the language as transcending culture and politics  (something that made this anthropologist give the screen a little eyebrow raise, but it’s an interesting view of linguistic utopia). On the other hand, several language creators found something profound in this craft because they were able to give voice to the profound difference that they felt, to a sense of self that was indescribable using the limited tools of socially developed and agreed upon tongues. One of the most powerful expressions of this view comes from a young trans man who found not only honesty, but also safety and secrecy, in a language his abusive parents could not access.

What all of the creators share, and what I think many linguists and others would find surprising, is a deep sense of the artistry of what they do. Language creation is complex, planned, expressive, and creative. This might make sense, as many of the most well known conlangs (like Klingon or Na’vi) are part of elaborate alternative worlds, but there are also those who play more directly with the forms available to them in their chosen medium of language. When they share their creations with others, whether it’s through conference presentations, online chats, or actively learning the languages someone else has created, there is a powerful admiration for and consciousness of both form and meaning embedded within them. The film highlights both product and process, giving examples of languages based on communication by handholding touch (developed by a couple who can communicate subtly when in a crowd), languages that are exclusively written (drawing attention to all the ways that this would be different from the ways we currently use writing in a linear way to represent speech), or even to creative ways of expressing verb tense. A resonant image comes from the language creator who articulates how, when pre-existing language is stripped away and you try to imagine how you would describe an object like a flower, you see that flower differently, recognizing its component parts, its placement, its smell and feel.

And of course, there were also some wonderful pieces of pop culture and behind-the-scenes anecdotes of language creation for film and television, which is probably the easy draw of this film. Finding out how constructed languages change differently from natural languages (a lot of weight can be given to what happens when an actor makes an error in their Klingon, for example) was something I desperately wanted more of (and, fortunately, was able to get, as Paul Frommer, who created Na’vi, and Mark Okrend, who created Klingon, were both extremely forthcoming in a Q and A session, as well as in conversation afterwards, revealing patterns of emergent language ideologies in conlang communities that I have filed on my list of research topics for when I run out, because that will totally happen). I also appreciated the amount of time dedicated to what I know to be my friend Christine’s incredibly insightful work on how revitalization efforts for endangered languages can learn from conlang communities. In both cases, traditional second language learning methods are not necessarily available (you can’t just move to Pandora for a summer for immersion Na’vi, for example), speakers and learners may be geographically and socially distant from one another, and an awful lot of work may have to be done from written texts. This is a connection that, I noted several times in conversation, more endangered language activists need to think about.

I walked away from the film inspired to try my hand at conlanging, just to see what I might find myself having to say if I did it (and if I do, I will definitely blog what I learn). If I do, I may also find an answer to my most burning question: what makes a bad conlang? I can’t imagine a bad language, so it feels to me that as long as the language is a complete one, it will have something interesting in it. A few creators talked about their earliest efforts as teenagers, noting that, like my old terrible teenage poetry, these would be better left uncovered, and…that just made me want to uncover them, to see what a bad language might look like. The only clear consensus on bad language creation was that not bothering to create the language (putting up meaningless gibberish) would be bad (note: during the Q and A, both the panelists and the conlangers in the audience were clearly anti-Arrival on this basis).

In sum: The film should be available to order in August, and if you are interested in language, in diverse arts, or in how people see the world through multiple lenses, you should buy it. If you teach in a linguistics or anthropology department, you should get your library to buy it, and you should show it to your intro classes. It does a better job articulating what is fascinating, exciting, and fun about linguistics than just about anything I’ve come across.

Conscious Word Creation

Members of primarily English-speaking communities (and those of many other large, widely-spoken, culturally dominant languages) rarely encounter a situation in which their language doesn’t have a word for something they need to say. Sure, there are the proverbial “untranslatable” words (which is a whole other thing to unpack, really), but English does have a word for the German-associated emotional concept of ‘schadenfreude’. It’s schadenfreude. If the term can be the title and central focus of a Broadway song, it’s pretty thoroughly integrated into our lexicon. In any case, when we encounter a situation where we don’t feel like we have a word for something, we borrow it, or we make one up. All speakers are essentially able to make words up; the question of whether they are taken up broadly and clearly enough to really ‘count’ as lexical items in that language is the one that dictionary-makers wrestle with constantly (I will almost certainly have a post about whatever word becomes the cause of outcry when it is authenticated as a ‘real word’ by Oxford, or Websters, or whatever, next year).

Speakers of very small languages have a fundamentally different experience. One of the defining features of a language that is losing ground to one or more dominant others is that it becomes used in fewer and fewer domains or contexts. It is less likely to be spoken in schools, in political leadership, in media, in business, in courts of law, in medical centres, etc. A common goal of language revitalization and reclamation is to bring it back into all areas of life for its speakers. In trying to do this, speakers and learners often encounter situations in which no one knows the word for a given concept – in some cases because it never existed (like with words for newer technology) and in some cases because it’s been forgotten as no one has used the language in those domains for several generations. In these cases, the stakes are different – borrowing words from the dominant language might be fine, sometimes, or for some languages, but there is often the (legitimate) fear that this will simply result in the complete use of those dominant languages because they’re ‘easier’. Inventing new words can be fine, but usually, there isn’t the body of speakers who can take the word for a test drive and see if it works in context; in addition, many communities have different beliefs about who has the authority to create new contributions to the language (it may be Elders, it may be a group of local linguists, it may be a community as a whole). The values that inform what makes one form a ‘good’ representation of its meaning are often deeply rooted in the cultural framework.

All this is to lead up to what I think is an especially lovely example of conscious, considered word creation, discussed in this short article about New Maori words for disabilities and mental health conditions. The story describes the specific words for ‘autism’ as translating directly as ‘his/her own time and space’ and for what we call ‘disability’ as ‘to have ability, otherly abled, enabled’. It clearly describes the values underlying these choices – consultation with the community of people the words describe, with the goal of having them feel inclusion, safety, and lack of judgment from their potential health caregivers. It also drop some information between the lines about how both Maori language and whanau health are being addressed as parts of a broader approach to improvement in their lives. Language development is a process incorporated within mental health initiatives, not one that is being done by linguists and then stapled on to these other concerns. In other words, language is embedded in understandings of health and wellbeing, and in treatment for health concerns. In addition, the ‘preferred language’ of Maori is being welcomed into these domains, so even where people may be fluently bilingual, they are able to access vital services that support their greatest vulnerabilities based on preference and comfort.

At the same time, there are elements of the process that tweak my anthropological eye, notably that the idea of ‘autism’ is treated as a straightforward, translatable concept, without addressing the implications of such a diagnosis as a socially-embedded phenomena. Some insights from medical anthro would be very welcome here. There’s also the pattern of reporting the ‘meaning’ of newly invented terms using the more literal gloss into English. Obviously, this is a phenomenon based in the use of English for reporting, but its widespread prevalence deserves more scrutiny than it gets. This isn’t to return to the ‘untranslatability’ trope mentioned above, but it is to note that translation is much more nuanced than this framing might suggest. There is often a notion that by presenting these kinds of glosses, we English speakers are able to gain a clear insight into the cultural world of speakers of these languages, when that strikes me as dismissive of the full weight of socially embedded meaning. This makes sense for short, journalistic reports, of course, but is something I see in more academic work in the area, and it is definitely something we need to think about changing.

(PS. Shortly after I bookmarked this post, I saw someone tweet about disliking the word for autism in one of the Canadian Indigenous languages – I believe it was Anishnaabemowim – but my internet research skills are suffering from summer atrophy and I lost it. If anyone knows anything about words for these concepts in other Indigenous languages, I would be very interested in expanding this discussion).

 

Another Slice of Linguistic Racism

Recently, a video of the racist ranting of a white woman in a Mississauga, Ontario, medical clinic has been getting a lot of media attention across Canada. This has been used to exemplify how, despite the ways that Canadians love to situate themselves as free from racism or more tolerant of multiculturalism than our neighbours in the US, we still see even the most overt forms of racism manifesting here. And make no mistake – as others have pointed out, it is the overtness of this instance, the direct demand that this woman makes to have her son seen by a white doctor, that forces many people to acknowledge that it is, in fact, racism (and even then, some will refuse and find ways to justify this behaviour, as Paradkar documents in a follow-up post).

Among all the articles covering this story, though, this column by Shree Paradkar caught my linguistic attention (h/t @meg2386 for firing it at me on Twitter). Paradkar outlines a number of characteristics of linguistic racism, including the ways that certain types of speech are given authority and seen as ‘correct’, as well as how the apparent compliment that someone is ‘articulate’ or ‘well-spoken’ is deployed in classist and racist ways. The article, and the follow-up, make a lot of good points, but there is one aspect in particular I think deserves further attention – the role of racism in perceptions of accents, and the racial implications of demands that others speak English (and often, as here, perfect English).

I think these points matter because I suspect that, in the absence of the specific inclusion of race qualifications about the type of doctor this woman wanted her son to see, other elements of this demand would have gone less noticed. In other words, if she had simply asked for a doctor who speaks English, many more people would view that as a reasonable request, because who doesn’t want a doctor that they can understand? There are a number of complicated angles around this, including the question of how ‘official’ languages work in different places, how linguistic standards relate to licensing standards for professions like medicine, and who is expected to accommodate whom in a ‘multicultural’ society, and these bigger picture questions help to create a terrain that fosters racist beliefs. On top of that, we can see how these “speak English” demands take specific forms in specific types of interactions – even when it’s not relevant, people speaking certain languages (like Spanish, Arabic, Hindi, or Chinese) are subjected to random others who tell them they can’t speak those languages, that those languages mark them as not good Canadians (or Americans). Nelson Flores’ blog often addresses this topic, specifically in reference to how bilingualism and bilingual education are not neutrally interpreted, as native Spanish-speakers, regardless of their level of fluency in English, are frequently subjected to tests and categorizations that render their language use “deficient” and requiring surveillance. This is the same type of thing that emerges in this woman’s rant – certain types of speakers are put in a position of repeatedly having to prove their capacity in English, both to authoritative bodies and to members of the general public with whom they interact. It’s tiring, it’s time-consuming, it’s degrading, and it can, as in many of the examples Flores uses in his work, it can have material consequences on where a student is placed in classes.

I realize I keep saying “certain types of speakers” without clarifying what I mean by that, though I’m assuming that most of you are able to read in to my intent there anyway. This is, however, extremely important – when people try to legitimize their desire for a specific type of doctor by saying they find certain accents, or strong accents, difficult to understand, they are tapping into what is, of course, a reasonable requirement for certain relationships. We all need to be able to understand our doctors, or our teachers, or other people in positions of public service. But they are also making a tacit assumption that there is an objective, measurable, degree of intelligibility, or proximity to ‘normal’ English, that these other speakers are failing to meet, and that it is not the listener’s fault that they can’t understand them. This is driven home, in this woman’s rant, by the demand for a doctor whose English is perfect, as though this is an objective assessment, like the 10/10 you can get on an elementary math quiz. Paradkar’s follow up post makes note of part of the problem underlying this idea by highlighting that intelligibility is, in part, a matter of custom and familiarity. One reason people might find certain accents difficult to understand, then, is because they have, as a result of structural racism or pervasive patterns of racial/cultural segregation, avoided the need to learn to understand them. In other words, while members of minority communities almost always have to accommodate dominant speakers in order to function, part of the function of dominance is to allow people to never have to try to accommodate others.

There are, however, deeper levels to this limited understanding that I think also need to be addressed. The main one is that perceptions of people’s speech is not, in fact, detached from their physical appearance. In various types of experimental and statistical studies (one example is discussed here), sociolinguists have shown that students judge professors whose names or features are Asian as less comprehensible, and complain about their accents – even when these instructors are actually native speakers of English. Our brains absorb information from other sources – like visual appearance and indexical associations with names, ways of dressing, etc – and develop a much more complex, and decidedly not straightforward, interpretation of what that person sounds like. In so many ways, the presence or absence of an “accent” is a socially constituted thing, not an objective reality in the world, and so it is subject to all the dynamics of categorization and power that exist within the social matrix.

This woman’s rantings, along with some of the ways people have reacted to them, are examples of how racist discourses work, in both overt and more covert ways. Linguistic racism is a complex and multifaceted topic, and discussions of racism (or the limitations of idealized Canadian multiculturalism) need to attune to things like expectations of accommodation and effort in mutual understanding, as well as the interrelationships between different types of information that go in to interpreting someone as “intelligible” or not. This particular incident was absolutely vile, and blatantly racist and white supremacist, but it also included some more subtle reinforcements of these power dynamics that may have, in the absence of those other statements, gone unnoticed, when in fact they are pernicious and potent elements of racial inequality.

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.