Languages, Linguistics, and Legislation: Some Reflections on Supporting Revitalization Programs in Canada

Sometimes, I am amazed at the opportunities afforded to me by my life and work as an anthropologist. I have just returned home after an 8 day visit to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, where I had the opportunity to teach a course on Language Policy and Planning for Indigenous Language Communities, run through the University of Alberta’s CILLDI program. The goal of CILLDI (the Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literacy Development Institute) is to provide training in linguistics, language planning, and pedagogy to Indigenous communities in Canada in order to support their language documentation and revitalization efforts. Students are typically members of Indigenous communities, either native speakers or learners of their Indigenous languages, working in various capacities to support these languages (many are language teachers, others are coordinators or staff members of language programs or cultural centres, others are translators, some are students, etc). I could talk for a year – and if you know me in person, you may confirm this is true – not only about the value of a program like this for supporting language work, but also about how being involved with CILLDI is a life-changing experience for students and staff alike, but I want to focus here on what I learned from the opportunity to deliver this particular class in Yellowknife.

In order to better serve the needs of Indigenous language communities, and with the support of various funding agencies, CILLDI has increasingly been offering its courses outside of its standard venue (hosted at the University of Alberta campus in Edmonton for three weeks each July). These new versions mean that the instructors come to the students (or closer to them), at various times throughout the year, instead of always having all the students relocate for several weeks in the middle of the summer, often at considerable inconvenience and expense. The course I taught last week was part of a block of three courses organized and funded by the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) Department of Education, Culture, and Employment, which houses their Indigenous Languages and Education Secretariat. Students were from all over the territory and included speakers of Nehiyawewin (Cree), Dene Zhatie (South Slavey), Dene Yati/Sahtu (North Slavey), Gwich’in, Tɫicho, and Inuvialuktun. They were regional language coordinators, language project workers, teachers, translators, and administrative personnel, some were fluent speakers and others were learners, and ranged in age from Elders to a 24-year-old social media guru. It is a truism of any teaching situation that the best part is always the students, but this was a particularly powerful example, as this group brought energy, creativity, and strong knowledge of their languages and communities. They came with different levels of experience and comfort in project planning and thinking big picture about language revitalization, and each one of them took the opportunity to learn something new about how to best do this work.

It’s always incredible to be in a room where there is so much positive energy and a commitment to action in support of language, culture, healing, and Indigenous autonomy, but it was especially so during a week in which the discourse about Indigenous people in this country has been so ugly, so dismissive, and so violent. There is a need to confront all of that awful reality, but there is also a need to be able to take concrete steps toward improving things, whether the rest of the country wants to come along for the ride or not.

It was also an eye-opening experience to have led this course with the direct support of the territorial government, and to spend time with some truly great public servants who are genuinely dedicated to making Indigenous language revitalization work. The NWT has had an official language policy in place since the 1980s, which recognizes 9 Indigenous languages alongside English and French, and which emphasizes the revitalization of these languages as a formal priority of the official languages act. My work in the Brazilian Amazon, where official language policy has also been used as a strategy for revitalization, has made it very clear to me that while such policies can be important symbolic acts, examining how they work and what they mean requires much more careful consideration of how they are being enacted, taken up, and talked about by the local populations (here’s a recent article I wrote about this, apologies for paywall). To say that colonial governments are inevitably fraught with problems in relation to Indigenous peoples and languages is the understatement of the last several centuries, but one thing I saw in Yellowknife was what it can look like if a government actually wants to see Indigenous languages succeed. The primary outcome, for students, of the course is the preparation of a mock (or actual!) grant proposal for a realistic potential project for supporting their language, and in this case, we were able to get a lot of help and guidance about what kinds of projects would have the potential to receive government funding, and how students could reframe their ideas in ways that would strengthen their chances of success.

I admit: “reconciliation” is a Canadian politics buzzword that is eminently critiquable, both in its overall framework (which implies that there was a positive, healthy, mutually sustaining relationship that we will be able to return to, somehow, rather than an entire foundation of violence and theft) and in its incredible overuse (seriously, doesn’t it seem like people throwing a few coins in the cup of a homeless person who appears Indigenous will then write a Facebook status about their contribution to reconciliation?). But with that caveat in mind, I feel like this course was driven by the spirit that the term ‘reconciliation’ should imply. The foundation for this is, in part, the way that Northern Canada operates on a different set of rules than we do here in the South (Ed: South? Shulist: Why yes, it is weird to call Edmonton the South, but all such things are relative). One of those rules is that movement toward Indigenous self-government is much more of a reality, and several groups have either an established agreement or are working towards one. Indigenous languages also have a distinct presence on signage, on the radio, and in other aspects of public life (this could definitely be strengthened, but it is far more significant than in much of the rest of the country). This was my first visit to the North, and there is much that I don’t know, but I learned enough to know that I want to know more, and to think that lots of others should want to know more as well (just because it was -50 one day while I was up there doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go! It’s actually totally great).

This is an important moment for Indigenous languages in Canada as a whole, as the Trudeau government is currently developing the research around how to create the Indigenous Languages Act they promised after they were elected, and in light of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Sadly, I don’t really have a lot of faith that the federal government is going to create something truly meaningful with this act. I think such an act has the potential to be an important symbol, and while I’m definitely not someone who dismisses symbolic change as meaningless, I think that the primary goal of any Indigenous language revitalization legislation at the federal or provincial/territorial levels should be to get the funding in to the hands of Indigenous people who can do the work of making their languages viable again. And in order to do this most effectively, a genuine commitment to Indigenous self-government is needed. Language programs that rely too much on expensive, university-based resources and researchers*, that are incredibly narrow and specific in their requirements, and that create endless mounds of paperwork people must do, are doing everything they can not to actually work on language revitalization. While this may be the topic of another post (because complicated), we also need to seriously engage with the ways in which official bilingualism and the political influence of French influences our ability to focus attention on the needs of Indigenous languages and communities (again apologies for the academic paywall, but this article by Eve Haque and Donna Patrick, if you have access, is a great primer on this). It is true that the federal government has made funding available through programs like the Aboriginal Languages Initiative, but I’ll leave it to the reader to consider whether the process and requirements outlined on that website really make this opportunity accessible to those that need it.

I left Yellowknife feeling really invigorated, but also angry. Invigorated because the students did such excellent work, and because I think there is the real possibility that their projects will get support, and because taking action to support change is so much better than sitting in the narrative of decay and death in which we ‘tsk tsk’ about

Your friendly neighbourhood linguist blogger outside the best-named business in Yellowknife, featuring multilingual English/Tlicho wordplay

language loss without ever attacking it as a problem. But angry because throughout Canada, the political story remains one in which Indigenous people and communities are portrayed as incompetent and incapable, requiring oversight and paternalistic intervention. This emerges from both the left and the right, with the difference being that the right places the causes in some kind of cultural dysfunction or backwardness, while the left acknowledges the role of colonialism, but still situates the pathology in Indigenous communities, with the solutions coming from benevolent outsiders. This obviously isn’t just about language revitalization, but that’s my entry point in to it. I’m not sure we’ll be able to get out of the damn way enough to enable real change, but I want to believe that it’s possible. At the very least, we can look to the North for some paths to improvement.

*Yes, this includes me. We definitely have a role to play in this, but we don’t belong at the centre.


Symbols, Poetics, and Change: A Quick Thought on the Canadian National Anthem

There are certain situations in which changing just one or two words can become matters of immense political significance. An example of such a situation has been brewing in Canada for some time, with the introduction, by a Member of Parliament who has since passed away, of a bill to change the English lyrics of “O Canada” to a more gender neutral form.

The relevant words are in the opening lines of the anthem (emphasis mine):

Oh Canada! Our home and native land
True patriot love in all thy sons command

The changed version replaces this last phrase with “in all of us command“. Earlier this week, this bill was passed by the Canadian Senate, after receiving “overwhelming” support in the House of Commons when it was voted on last year. This means that, barring some truly unusual behaviour by the Governor General, we will be singing the new form in the very near future.

download (1)Observing both the heatedness and the specific nature of the debate about this has been interesting, as in many ways both sides share certain fundamental positions about language use, rather than coming at it from completely opposite perspectives. The heart of the debate, on both sides, is about the value of the national anthem as a profound symbol of identity, and about the performative function that singing it has. Changing the lyrics is intended to signify an inclusive form of Canadianness, and to allow those of us who don’t identify with the word ‘sons’ to more fully feel the nature of our belonging as we sing these familiar words. In other words, the whole reason to change it is because this song and its words matter a lotRefusing to change the lyrics is also centered in the importance of the anthem, with the claim being that history, continuity, and the aesthetic quality of the lyrics are more significant aspects than transparent inclusiveness. Manitoba senator Don Plett, for example, said that “A nation’s national anthem is not meant to be edited and revised periodically, but rather, it is meant to stand the test of time and to allow us to remember where we came from” (quoted here). The whole reason not to change it is because this song and its words matter too much.

There are obviously some differences in beliefs about language that emerge in each of these positions. Many people who favour the ‘sons’ lyric also express a general belief that it’s okay to use words that are semantically masculine to refer to humans in general (ranging from pronouns to words like ‘mankind’, or even to common expressions like ‘Hi guys’, used in gender diverse settings). Those who prefer the change see these terms as enshrining images of men as the default and others (including women, trans, and nonbinary folks) as marked deviations from this norm. There are also positions about what constitutes “grammatically correct” language, as well as opinions about the aesthetics of the change – the move from an archaic second person possessive reference (thy sons) to a first person voicing (of us) is clearly troubling some people, as that same article above also includes an ‘ardent feminist’ who nonetheless opposes the change as ‘grammatically incorrect’. Plett himself, apparently, was willing to allow for some change to national continuity if it would keep that second person (and archaic) structure, suggesting “thou dost in us command” as a ‘less clunky’ alternative. This amendment move, of course, may simply have been an unsuccessful delaying tactic to avoid passing the bill at all, but that’s pure speculation on my part.

To my mind, what this story illustrates is less about debating moves toward gender neutral language and more about the poetics, politics, and performativity of national anthems and other similar texts that carry immense symbolic power. On that, it seems, there is much more agreement than conflict across the political spectrum.



Saying No: A Quick Linguistic Take

In observing the last several months of public discourse about sexual violence in the wake of the allegations against several powerful Hollywood men, I am both heartened and incredibly frustrated by the way this conversation is happening. It is, for me, positive to see the spaces being created for people to articulate the big and small ramifications of male dominance, rape culture, and gendered economic inequality. The structure of sexual violence is not one in which every attack is equally vicious or harmful, it is one in which there are thousands of constant paper cuts coexisting with just-say-nolife-threatening stab wounds. It is a world where the ability to say ‘no’ to powerful men is undermined not just through their use of physical force or economic coercion, but also through repeated, minor dismissals of our wishes, our pleasure, our consent.

Fast forward to this week, when a woman using the pseudonym Grace came forward with a story about a “bad date” with comedian Aziz Ansari. This story has quickly become the most hotly debated sexual encounter of 2018, as countless people are writing think-pieces about the nature of consent, digging in to the details of the interaction as Grace describes it, considering Ansari’s apology, and offering their conclusions about whether this was criminal, whether it was simply terrible, or whether Grace is just completely over-reacting. Here are a handful of the more well-done pieces on the topic:

But then there is a piece in the New York (won’t link it, sorrynotsorry) entitled “Aziz Ansari is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind-Reader”, and plenty of people are on board with that basic notion.

Here’s the thing – sexual encounters are communicative encounters, and the giving of consent is a socially rooted linguistic/communicative act. The debate about this encounter is fundamentally one about how language, meaning, and understanding work. An important ideological position is being staked out in the NYT article, and it’s one that articulates concepts ‘consent’ and ‘intent’ as properties within the various parties’ minds. Since that is their locus, we cannot possibly access through observation of their actions. How was Ansari supposed to recognize her lack of consent, the reasoning goes, if her communication was only nonverbal, if she was merely hesitating rather than outright shouting, if she didn’t get around to saying ‘no’ until after several rounds of deflection?

However, as all of the sociolinguists and linguistic anthropologists I follow on social media have been observing, this interaction reflects very common patterns used in communicating refusals. Conversation analysts Celia Kitzinger and Hannah Frith published an excellent article on this way back in 1999. Kitzinger and Frith illustrate the way that politeness expectations dictate our expression of refusal, and note that we are very strongly socialized against giving a hard no – and further, that men and women alike are, in general, perfectly capable of recognizing refusals that are communicated through deflection, hesitation, subject changes, and mitigation. We generally don’t even imagine that people wouldn’t be able to see this…except when the interaction in question is one of the most intimate possible.

Think of the last time someone invited you to do something you really didn’t want to do. Did you say “NO!” and run in the opposite direction? Or did you say “I’m busy that night”? Or maybe you gave an explanation, like “I actually really hate mountain climbing, but thanks for the invite!” What if someone offers you a taste of food that they clearly love, but you think looks like warmed up snotballs? Do you say “OH HELL NO”? Or do you hesitate, move your face away, give a bit of a grimace, and shake your head?It’s true, maybe your answer to these questions is that you jump straight to the no. And it’s worth thinking about what makes you able to do that – if you’re in a power position, it’s somewhat easier to say “no” directly, than if you’re not. If you ask your boss for a raise, they have more ability (and actual training, in many cases) to say “absolutely not” in a direct way than you have if said boss comes to you and asks you if you can take on an additional work task. So you can also think about the last time you invited someone over for a party – if their answer was ‘maybe’, you were probably considering any number of other aspects of how they said it (intonation, eye gaze, posture, other added comments) in figuring out whether they meant “I really want to but I have to check my work schedule” or “Don’t actually count on it”.

My point here is, there is empirical linguistic evidence about how refusals work in a number of different contexts, and there is additional empirical anthropological work examining how meta-discourses about our ability to interpret different forms of communication can either reproduce or reconfigure relations of social power. My frustration, then, is twofold: first, that these powerful and dangerous ideologies about consent and its elusive, gray nature are still circulating in high-profile contexts as well as in general discourse, and second, that I have seen almost no engagement with work on the linguistics of refusal and consent in any of the discussions. This is an area where our expertise is highly relevant and easily accessible (in the sense that the information presented is generally not hidden behind jargon and complex social theory), so it’s frustrating to see journalistic commentary fail to use the evidence provided to support the arguments they are making. I know linguists and linguistic anthropologists are making these points on their blogs and social media feeds, but they don’t seem (to me) to be cracking the mainstream discourse.

There’s more to unpack here about, again, the recognition of expertise and validation of different forms of empirical research, which I’ll just file away as a side point. For now, I’ll sum up – refusals are always complex linguistic acts, and we use a ton of contextual cues to identify them, because they’re a highly socially regulated territory. This doesn’t mean consent falls into so-called ‘gray areas’ or that we require mind-reading abilities to identify anything other than a direct ‘no’. It means we have a ton of skills around this, the evidence from linguistic research demonstrates our ability to navigate these acts, and we need to think about claims not to recognize refusals in sexual encounters as deliberate acts that go against all social training, rather than as accidents and natural misinterpretations.

Literal Nonsense

In recent years, several groups in Eastern Canada, and especially Quebec, have been pushing for recognition as “Métis”, or otherwise Indigenous. Their claims rest on a number of ideas that are, at best, dubious, and that ultimately function to undermine, erode, and erase Indigenous rights and identities. Excellent work outlining both the ideology of “métissage” that they invoke and the anti-Indigenous ways in which they function has been published by scholars like Chris Andersen, Adam Gaudry, and Daryl Leroux (academic book by the former here, excellent and easily accessible article by the latter two here). As these authors illustrate, these “self-Indigenization” strategies ultimately support the agenda of a settler colonial state in which “Indigeneity” is a meaningless concept.

I have little to add to the work that these scholars have done on the historical and political complexities of these claims and their implications for Indigenous (and particularly Métis) people, but I do want to say a bit about the ways in which words and meaning are invoked in this discussion.

It was through Leroux’s Twitter feed that this (especially heinous) example came to my attention. In this case, the leader of a white supremacist organization claims the label of “autochtone” (translated as “Aboriginal”) for himself because all it takes, in the “literal sense of the word”, is for you, personally, to have been born in the territory you wish to claim. This is, as Leroux and others make clear, a way of directly undermining the rights of Indigenous nations by rendering “autochtony” or Aboriginality something that essentially anyone can have access to. This also occurs through efforts to “prove” a shallow time depth for Indigenous presence in the Americas, a topic that Dr. Biittner dives into from the archaeological perspective in this post, and through discourses that situate Indigenous people as “just earlier settlers” in order to invalidate their positions.

In addition to dubious grasp of politics and history that these claims represent, they also draw on a view of language and meaning that is both flimsy and incredibly common in mainstream North American contexts – the idea that meaning is best determined by examining origins, etymology, and the breakdown of components of a word. Jane Hill refers to this as a “baptismal ideology” and shows, in her fantastic book The Everyday Language of White Racism, how it shapes a variety of positions in relation to the use of slurs (I unpack this a bit here). It emerges in slightly different ways here. The attempts to gain power of a particular form depend on enregistering a very specific definition of the words that are involved . “Métis” must be “directly” translated as ‘mixed’, so that Métis identity is not a political category, but rather one determined within white Euro-American biological categories. “Aboriginal” must be broken into its component parts to say that it is based on a personal – again, in contrast to a legal and political – ability to place oneself as an individual within the history of the land. Other borrowed words are allowed to undergo changes of meaning –  the story that the name “Canada” derives from a word meaning “village” does not cause anyone to object that it can’t be a real label for an entire nation, for example, so why are the Métis asked to be so beholden to etymology?

In making this claim, then, people are articulating a position on the politics of Indigeneity, and about the nature of language and the source of its meanings. And this latter element is remarkably prevalent, despite the fact that many who disagree with these political claims see it as transparently ridiculous when applied in these cases. In this example, it is further intriguing that the journalists translate the word for which the writer offers a “literal” definition (“autochtone) into English (as “Aboriginal”) and, in doing so, imply that his claim about literality and meaning transcends the linguistic boundaries. I would suggest that in translating and then uncritically repeating his claim, the authors of the newspaper article are doing even more work to assign authority to his view of how meaning works, and further revealing assumptions about some kind of permanent core to semantic connections that hold no matter what transformations happen in space and time. [Ed: What now? SS: Sorry. That’s probably more complex than I can manage for a blog post].

Mainstream dictionaries ultimately help to support this position, whether they want to or not, in the degree to which they refer to etymologies, origins, and first uses, which are then taken as markers of authoritative meaning. So, too, do linguists providing glosses of unfamiliar languages, where we love to show how we can work out a morphological puzzle and reveal how the word for ‘computer’ in some language is built out of words for, say, ‘brain+machine’. This is fun to see, but, especially as these linguistic stories are popularized for mainstream audiences, can lead to the perception that speakers of these languages perceive these objects in terms of those components, when in fact this is simply a widespread pattern of word formation.

You-keep-using-that-word“What a word really means” is a powerful rhetorical tool. The “literal” definition, often invoked by referring to “the” dictionary (a topic I looked at, along with Lavanya Murali Proctor and Michael Oman-Reagan, from another angle in this Sapiens article), by pointing to the “original” meaning, or by deconstructing the morphemes in a word, is something that North American English speakers believe in very strongly…when it suits them and upholds specific types of political beliefs. The word “literally” is a good example of this in and of itself, as many people insist that the movement to using it as, essentially, a qualifier, is the current crisis in the English language (but hint: think about the breakdown of the word “really” and ask yourself whether you always use it to describe that which is straightforwardly real).

The meaning of words (and expressions, and any number of other symbols) comes from a number of different places, and it’s difficult to pin down the notion of a single ‘true’ or authoritative meaning. What we can see well in these discussions isn’t necessarily the ‘true’ meaning of the words themselves, but in fact the beliefs that people hold about where that meaning comes from, and what they do both to the meaning of the words and their political implications by making those claims about meaning. It isn’t an accident that there is a relationship between these political positions and the perception that semantics must work in a particular way, that there is a ‘rational’ (read: rooted in white masculinist literate thought traditions) way of understanding ‘meaning’. Indigenous people and those who seek to support Indigenous rights are forced to argue not only about the political enactment of their rights, but about the very conceptual foundation of their existence, represented in the availability of terms that can describe the legal relationship that they have to the land on which they live.

I was pithy about it in my response to this tweet on Twitter, where I said “that’s not how words work”, but the point holds – this isn’t how meaning works. The so-called ‘literal’ meaning of a word is a construct, just as a legal, political, or yes, dictionary descriptive, definition of a word is a construct. The relationships of specific meaning, and the nature of meaning in general, is a highly political project, and it is one that right wing organizations like La Meute clearly understand as having power. Disrupting that power is necessary, and a lot more significant than simply “arguing semantics”.

Language & Power Student Projects

In my teaching, I’ve been experimenting more and more with inviting my students to use a variety of formats for communicating their research projects, and not necessarily to produce a standard academic essay. My reasoning, heavily influenced by pedagogical blogs like The Tattooed Professor, is that the central skill I am helping them to develop is not “write an academic essay”, but “develop, organize, and transmit your thoughts about a topic”. Depending on their post-undergraduate goals, they may benefit from learning how to do this in, for example, a podcast form, or as an informative website, or as a video. They may benefit most from developing their essay writing skills, in which case, they are encouraged to write an essay, but it’s entirely up to them whether that’s the approach they want to take.

In my advanced seminar on Language & Power this term, I included an “unessay” option for presenting their research project results. Reader, the outcome was wonderful. As a

The “suppotter” (supportive otter) became the class mascot to mark the emotionally and intellectually sustaining environment the group created for themselves. (Suppotter artwork by Amanada Cole

colleague said on Twitter – it’s amazing what students will do if you let them. Since a few of their projects were web-based, or easily shareable on the web, I’ve asked for and received permission to link some of the great work that they did here. Another principle I’ve been working on encouraging, inspired by a talk given by Rajiv Jhangiani (@thatpsychprof) at MacEwan’s Faculty Development Day this past August, is sharing their work with people other than me, as their professor. It truly is tragic how much pedagogical effort goes in to an exchange of information between two people – the individual student, and the professor grading their work. The students whose work is linked here are fully on board with this idea, have been developing their ideas in collaboration with one another all term, and have expressed to me that these two premises have helped them to learn more from this class than from any they’ve previously taken – which I consider to be the highest possible student praise, and I’m immensely glad to be able to share their work through this medium.


  1. Hear My Words. This is an ethnographic film produce by Daliso Mwanza (@prophetdali) and Megan H. about “how artists of colour experience double consciousness…in a society that speaks in a dominant white voice”. It’s an extremely ambitious project to have undertaken in a one-semester course, and well worth watching.
  2. Deconstructing Constructs. A tumblr by Delainey Neddow (@apatheticpotate)  about the language of sexual violence, inspired by and drawing heavily on the news stories from the last few months and the #MeToo hashtag campaign (read backwards, of course).
  3. Broification. A tumblr by Shannon Jubinville (@shannjub) about the linguistic construction of  “bro” culture and identities. She investigates how this playful piece of language is an important part of the establishment and maintenance of hegemonic (hetero)masculinity.
  4. Language Standardization zine. This Twitter thread includes the digital form of a zine produced by Ruth Werbiski that examines the various ways in which language standardization and standard languages constitute tools for upholding unequal power dynamics. As I have told Ruth, I find this project to be particularly strong as a possible teaching tool to use in my introductory linguistic anthropology classes, because it captures so many themes in concise and accessible ways.

This is just a sample of some of the topics and approaches that students used – I also received podcasts, presentations, an invented Twitter account with analysis, and many more. The success of this semester makes me suspect this type of post will become a semi-regular thing, so stay tuned for more in April.


For the last few months, we’ve experienced a growing onslaught of stories about powerful men (in Hollywood, politics, and academia) being accused of sexual violence of various forms. I will state up front that this is not a conversation in which I am willing to debate the merits of the accusations – telling these stories publicly requires great courage on the part of victims, who have little to gain and much to lose, and I believe them.

The responses from the accused have been varied, and subject to much discussion that I want to weigh in on here, however briefly, as I poke my head out from under a mountain of grading. Two in particular stand out: those of Louis CK and Kevin Spacey. Both of these have been described as “apologies”, but simultaneously criticized as non-apologies. Within the last few days, Al Franken’s statement has been added to this list of questionable apologies, even though his includes just about all the formal elements one could possibly expect to see in such a statement. One question worth asking, as Jacob Sugarman does here, is whether a ‘public apology’ will ever be judged as ‘good’.

From a linguistic anthropological perspective, there are several elements at work here that are worthy of discussion.

  1. Apologies as speech acts, and the conditions that are needed to make them felicitous.
  2. The participants and participant roles that are involved in a public apology.
  3. The social and structural motivations leading to the performance of different types of apologies.

First off, while I have talked previously about the ways we can consider multiple types of

xkcd gets it with apologies as a pragmatic, not a formal thing

speech as actions, apologies live in that category of speech for which the concept of ‘speech act theory’ was prototypically developed by philosophers like Searle and Austin. Speech acts are forms of language where the speaking constitutes the doing – making promises, for example – and whose meaning should be judged not in terms of propositional truth, but in terms of ‘felicity’. A speech act is judged felicitous if it works to do what it says. For promises, this is contingent on the sincerity of the speaker, both in the moment and in future, and on the  perceived or actual ability of that speaker to successfully carry out the actions associated with the promise in question (I could promise that I will get something done on time, for example, but you may have many reasons to doubt that I will successfully do so, one of which might be that you know I’m writing this blog post right now instead of doing that thing). Anthropologists have critiqued the original formulations of this theory as failing to account for widely varying cultural perceptions about the relationship between a speaking ‘self’ and the types of statements encoded under speech acts, but it remains a useful concept to examine in its culturally specific manifestations.

Apologies are, in most English speaking environments, clearly speech acts, and the set of conditions needed to make them ‘work’ has been widely discussed. These properties, for the most part, emerge as functional criteria rather than formal ones. In other words, we cannot assess the merits of an apology based on the specific words or structures it does or does not include; rather, we attune to what happens in the social relationship within which the apology is situated. Janet Holmes* describes them as ways of “restoring the equilibrium” between the parties involved by addressing the “face-needs” of the victim of the action being apologized for.

The context here is a somewhat unusual one – these are public apologies for more or less private offenses. They differ from ‘political’ apologies (a topic about which my Language & Power class had a fantastic discussion emerging from Bonnie McElhinny’s** recent article on Canadian political apologies) in that they are issued by a public figure as a result of their actions as an individual, not in their role as a representative of a political organization. In part, what this means is that there is some discussion about who is receiving the apology, and who the participants are in this speech act. There are the specific, sometimes named, victims, which would make the apologies of the ‘normal’ interpersonal type. But at the same time, there is a public that is clearly invoked as receiving the apology. There are audiences, constituencies, co-workers, and fans who are situated as having been harmed and, if the explosion of responses and assessments of these apologies is any indication, who view themselves as appropriately able to accept or reject the proffered apologies. As that linked Alternet/Salon article indicates, this is a tough crowd to please, and it’s possible that there is no way to deliver an apology of this type that will be received without contestation and pushback. One element that became clear in our class discussions about political apologies is that in North American society, we retain a heavy emphasis on “actions speaking louder than words”, especially when it comes to apologies. The best anyone of these men can hope for is that we will wait and see what kind of change may come with respect to behaviour.

Before looking specifically at the three exemplars referenced here, I want to give an overview of my third point – there is a reason this is all happening now. One element I really like about McElhinny’s article is that she examines why, in the last 10-15 years, we’ve seen such an explosion of apologies offered by states for wrongs of the past. Specifically, she highlights how it serves the needs of neoliberal multicultural politics by legitimating certain claims to redress and implicitly delegitimizing others by not offering apologies for them. It’s clear to anyone observing right now that the apologies being offered by these men cannot be detached from current political concerns and debates – not only are they occurring as a result of the dam that was opened with the Weinstein accusations, they are also a response to outrage at the election of a president who admitted on tape to sexual assaulting women simply because his power let him do it. These circumstances obviously lead us to question the sincerity of the apologies in light of the public relations necessity they have become, but they also offer useful lenses into what else the accused men invoke in their statements.

With all that in mind, let’s look at what is happening in the language of these apologies. First, how do they fit in to different apology ‘types’?  While an explicit apology (a statement that directly says “I am sorry”) is most obvious, it is possible to have a successful apology without these words – there are no formal universals, after all, and someone saying “I will never do that again” may be just as or more meaningful that “I’m sorry” in defining a victim’s response. Expressions of regret are also key components, and the way in which an ‘explanation’ is invoked in apology statements becomes subject to heavy scrutiny.

Of the three apologies in question, a formal consideration of what they do and don’t include reveals that Franken’s is the most direct and explicit in its apology. He says “The first and most important thing [to say]….is I’m sorry”. He prefaces this with a list of people to whom he is offering the apology, then expands into an explanation and reflection on the social context in which he situates both his past actions and his present apology. Various listeners will have different responses to his sincerity here, and to how this apology relates to his previous denial that the events happened as they were remembered by his accuser. His, in particular, however, clearly exists in a framework in which all of these other apologies, responses, and statements have taken place, and in which he wants to take a stance directly about violence against women and gendered power.

Spacey’s statement, by contrast, does have the words “I owe him the sincerest apology” and “I am sorry”, but they are heavily mitigated with the surrounding language, which notably avoids direct admission that the accusations are true and sets the harm in the victim’s feelings rather than in the accused’s actions. This construction is famously lambasted as a part of insincere apologies, and again manifests the ideological belief that a focus on action is paramount, because actions are the primarily source of impact. What is most heinous about Spacey’s apology, of course, is the qualifying information he offers. Although he doesn’t directly say that his sexuality is the explanation for his behaviour, the position it takes within his short apology statement clearly suggests it is intended to play that role. He aims to place his response in a political context that celebrates coming out, that recognizes the struggles that gay men and queer people specifically continue to face, and that challenges heterosexist dominance. In putting this coming out in the explanation position, however, he ultimately suggests that sexual assault is caused by gayness, as well as re-centering his apparent apology on his own closeted suffering. The felicity conditions in this one are…pretty clearly not there.

Louis CK I have saved to the last because it has been, from what I can tell, the most contentious of the three, in that there is wide variation in whether or not people believe it meets the conditions of a true apology. The statement has been labeled an apology even though, as many have been quick to point out, CK never says “I apologize” or “I am sorry”. He does, however, do many of the other things associated with an apology, which Spacey clearly does not. He admits the truth of the stories, he discusses his regret, he assesses the various types of harm that he has done, and he outlines a specific plan of action that he will take (in this case, simply listening). The key feature that is making many dismiss CK’s statement as an infelicitous apology is his explanation section, in which he seems to reproduce exactly the problem that women are calling attention to in the current climate – the ways in which powerful men justify their actions precisely through reference to their social, economic, and political power. He did not understand these actions to be wrong, he says, because he was convinced of the weight of these women’s admiration. That, coupled with the degree to which CK talks about the pain of others primarily through reference to his own experience of struggle with that pain, is a sign that his entry into this sadly-still-repeating drama of public apologies will be judged on the ‘failed’ side. He sees the politics in which the apology takes place, but he misses the mark on how they work.

What’s the takeaway message from all of this? I’m not entirely sure I have one, to be honest. I am watching with skepticism the claims emerging that we have seen a watershed moment that shifts the view of sexual violence by powerful public figures, as I’m not confident we have yet reached a point that will really change things. The debates and assessments and ideologically rooted analyses of these various apologies are examples of why I feel pessimistic. There are a great number of people who, especially with respect to CK and Franken, feel that these statements mean that discussion of their actions should be over, and to me, this shows exactly what many are highlighting that all of this is about – the basic needs of women, as humans in the workplace and as victims in a public apology, are to be put aside for the comfort, economic advancement, and egos of powerful men. And if I can fight that with linguistics, well, I’ll do my best.

*Holmes, Janet 1989. Sex Differences and Apologies: One Aspect of Communicative Competence. Applied Lingusitics 10(2): 194-221

**McElhinny, Bonnie 2016. Reparations and Racism, Discourse and Diversity: Neoliberal Multiculturalism and the Canadian Age of Apologies. Language & Communication 51: 50-68

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.