Student Guest Post: Play Ball, But Stay on Your Own Team!: Language and Gender Differences in Athletics

Editor: This is a guest post by Ash, a student from Dr. Shulist’s Language, Gender, and Sexuality class, on the many ways that the idea of binary gender affects the world of sports. Ash is a science major who was taking this course mainly for fun, and we love this example of how to use anthropological tools to think through topics that surround us literally constantly. 

The gender binary has been, throughout history, rigorously upheld in the field of athletics. Presently, we still have strict divisions between men’s and women’s leagues, and more often there are now recurring issues with transgender athletes being put into either category regardless of their gender under the guise of a fear of unfair advantage (Gleaves & Lehrbach 2016) . In ancient times, women were excluded from participating in large events and athletic activity altogether, but more modern times are where the league division by gender has emerged. The only “co-ed” teams appear in non-serious, recreation-type leagues. Even non-contact sports such as curling have leagues divided by binary gender within the upper ranks. In the latest winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, the long standing statistic of more male athletes to female athletes persisted, despite female athletes in teams such as the USA obtaining more medals than their male counterparts. Even when discussing gender in athletics and critiquing its use of binary here, it is nearly impossible to avoid separating men’s from women’s athletics.

This brings us to the obvious question of: Why? Why are sports inherently viewed and treated as more male dominated and suited? Likely it is the common association of physical strength with masculinity, whereas we have seen in class what “feminine power” is portrayed as on Google images. This fractal recursivity whereby masculinity is strong and femininity is inherently weak, among other negative traits, contributes to this. There is also related and specific language difference used when describing each group’s athletics and athletes in disappointing trends over the years, and this language surrounding athletics continues to uphold the gender differential within the community. Examples of this include women’s sports as being marked, whereas men’s categories are left unmarked (ex: “hockey” implies men’s hockey but “women’s hockey” must be denoted as such), and occasionally the female leagues are not called “women’s” leagues but rather, unfortunately, “ladies” (ex: Wimbledon Ladies Singles). Men’s leagues and teams, in my experience, are not called “gentlemen’s”. Even the athletes themselves are often marked as female, including at times when it’s not entirely relevant or necessary (ex: woman golfer).

This relates to our class lecture on men and masculinities where we discussed athletics and associated spaces (such as locker rooms and “man caves”) as creating sites of toxic, male-only culture. These hyper-masculine spaces simultaneously prohibit women’s presence yet demand that they exist in the periphery simultaneously for sexual experiences and heterosexual indexing (Kiesling 2005). In the male-only spheres, misogyny is able to flourish as masculinity can reach an un-compromised and un-rivalled peak. An example of this is Donald Trump’s infamous “locker room banter” comment whereby he insinuates that conversations about sexual harassment and misogyny are appropriate in male-only spaces such as gendered locker rooms. This “old boys club” mentality contributes to the underlying parts of rape culture that are pervasive in society but often less detectable and thus more likely to be ignored or dismissed, as, for example, just “locker room banter”. Even when changing clothes in preparation for the sport at hand, the binary precedent is already being set.

More specific examples of language upholding toxic gender binaries can be seen abundantly in the hockey community. Only the men’s leagues (as with most professional sports) are considered popular and profitable. The highest league in the sport, the NHL, is not specifically men-only yet a single female athlete has only ever played one game. Furthermore, within the broader hockey community, it is a culture of high masculinity with that same pushing of all femininity, women included, into the periphery. Specifically, female players and fans alike are required to understand the vast lingo and jargon associated within the hockey community and culture, yet they are not permitted to use or access it themselves. Furthermore, there is a very limited and particular pool from which male players may choose to form romantic relationships, and that group does not overlap with their female hockey playing counterparts. It is also assumed and reinforced that male hockey players are not homosexual, despite movements such as the NHL’s “Hockey is for Everyone” campaign. There are explicitly drawn lines between the two binary genders within hockey culture, and each has very obvious and laid out roles and rules. When sports are so heavily divided by gender, these rigid systems within are able to emerge, and language further enables it to do so.

Language upholding this rigidity also extends to the differences among interviews between male and female athletes. Many female athletes have taken issue with being asked questions that they felt were extremely inappropriate given the contexts. For example, being asked about their “ultimate date”, why they aren’t smiling, which male athletes they “like”, and general comments and questions about their attire. Generally it is reported that male athletes are not asked questions of these unrelated natures. The hashtag #CoverTheAthlete made a point of imploring journalists to ask consistent types of questions regardless of the gender of athlete they were interviewing⁹.  A video in support of the #CoverTheAthlete movement highlighted the baffling inappropriateness in the difference in the line of questioning between athletes genders by having multiple journalists ask some of the most outlandish but actual questions that have been asked of professional female athletes to their male counterparts.

Sexism in sports is nothing new, but I used this opportunity to explore the ways in which language and league divisions within athletics perpetuates it. It is commonly assumed that athletics require division by gender at all due to perceived differences in strength and skill whereby women are understood as the lesser, despite several sports, leagues, and statistics debunking this¹¹. From the initial gender division, we see right away that this causes negative implications for transgender athletes. From there we see how highly segregated leagues can create hyper-masculine spaces resulting in unbalanced sports cultures including justifiable “locker room banter” and exclusionary attitudes and expectations. Lastly, and even more language focused, we examined the differences in interview questions between male and female athletes wherein the women were asked remarkably inappropriate and unrelated questions compared to the men: When the lines of questioning were reversed as seen in the #CoverTheAthlete video, the male athletes were less than impressed. Unfortunately, athletics and surrounding culture embodies many more categories and examples of sexism and gender differences than what was mentioned here, such as outstanding differences in pay. It remains a highly divided area and progress within it is slow. It is hard to say what the next 100 years of professional sports will look like: Will gender divisions between leagues be demolished? Will transgender athletes not be a controversial issue of feigned unfairness? Will the #CoverTheAthlete campaign and similar movements lessen the amount of absurd questions that female athletes receive from journalists? Will sports stop being a site of hyper-masculinity due to gender division causing rampantly created and perpetuated sexism?

The ball is in our court.

 

Bibliography

  1. Gleaves, John, & Lehrbach, Tim. “Beyond Fairness: the Ethics of Inclusion for Transgender and Intersex Athletes”, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 43:2, 311-326. 2016.
  2. Kiesling, Scott Fabius. “Homosocial desire in mens talk: Balancing and re-Creating cultural discourses of masculinity.” Language in Society, vol. 34, no. 05, Dec. 2005.
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Student Guest Post: A Peer’s Wry on Netflix’s Queer Eye

Editor’s note: This guest post comes from our student Becky, who has revised it from a piece of work for Dr. Shulist’s ANTH308 class on Language, Gender, and Sexuality. As your usual bloggers are currently digging their way out of the end-of-term grading pile/why-won’t-it-stop-snowing grumpy funk, it’s great to be able to highlight some of the insights our students are bringing. Also, this editor is putting Queer Eye on the Netflix queue for a post-term binge-watch (thanks, students!). 

 

To preface this, I would like to admit that I’m an avid viewer of all things transformative in nature in reality TV set-ups. There’s something so appealing in seeing someone’s life get turned around in 40 minutes or less- especially if you consider yourself a before rather than an after effort.

(Side note: HGTV producers, if you’re out there, call me.)

Netflix’s Queer Eye certainly offers all this and more. The show’s premise is that a group of five gay self-identified men come to renovate a straight self-identified male individual’s life through multiple focuses like food, culture, style, and home renovation; Hence to what the title refers to, in giving a queer eye for the straight guy.

It makes for an entertaining concept, but it became all the more compelling to start this series right we started to discuss the concept of masculinity in one of my anthropology classes.

At it’s most basic, masculinity is the association to what is culturally assumed in being a ‘man’. Masculine ontology would therefore be one’s pursuit to be a man (in establishing particular associations linked within masculinity). But, being a man means different things, which diversifies masculinity in how it relates to the relevant cultural discourses at play that are created through the social practices of those that enact them. There’s a dominant discourse but there are always competing discourses that create these conflicting ways people may express their masculinity.

In Kielsing’s (2005) article, men’s talk is described to respond and recreate four main cultural discourses that surround the dominant discourse of masculinity. While these cultural discourses – gender differences, heterosexism, dominance, male solidarity – are examined through the language community of an American fraternity, let us now turn to Tom, from the first episode of Queer Eye.

In episode one, the ‘Fab 5’ introduce a middle-aged man from Georgia named Tom. What follows is how Tom reacts to the group’s questioning of Tom’s choices, and a push towards a competing discourse that works to challenge what Tom uses, while also making continuous acknowledgment of the dominant discourses. In this respect, this parallels to what Kiesling also describes, that when one engages with a competing discourse, one can still find themselves evaluated in reference to the dominant discourses withstanding. So no matter what you choose sooner or later you’re going to have to acknowledge the bulking frat-boy in the room.

Towards the beginning we get a sense of the schema of what Tom identifies as part of his self through repeated use of words like redneck, ugly, country, old, and fat. Based on what Tom uses to describe himself, there’s a lack of self-confidence is readily apparent. This is where I question Tom’s use of gender difference as Tom often uses his ex-wives as those behind many of his stylistic choices, in that there is some innate separation between caring for one’s appearance (and home) to being separate from masculine. Tom’s lack of confidence and physical masculinity is oddly balanced towards gender difference as having that relation to his masculine identity both negatively and positively impacting his confidence.

Further in the episode, when Bobby mentions to Tom that he’s been married to his partner of 13 years, Tom questions if Bobby is the ‘wife’ or the ‘husband’ of the relationship. In seeing Bobby as masculine, Tom still assumes a degree of heterosexuality despite the fact that Bobby is very direct about the whole husband-husband thing. To rectify Bobby’s masculinity then, Tom assumes a positionality relatable to a hetero-relationship. From previous experience with a similar line of questioning (y’know, the ‘who wears the pants’ debacle) this brings up the subordination of the woman role as being natural by placing an association to the dominating role as masculine.

This also comes to naturalize the heterosexual relationship as the representative of all relationship types. The straight couple is the original, and everything outside of that is just a spin-off series.

Moving back here, Tom also briefly demonstrates the cultural discourse of male solidarity. This is particularly emphasized by his group, the ROMEOS, or the “Retired Old Men Eating Out” … and I’m trying not to think too hard on that one.

This group represents Tom and other retired old men who meet up once a week to eat out at a restaurant, who then go and admire each other’s classic cars. Judging from these activities, there isn’t any necessarily that would suggest a gender divide to being necessary, but the important of male solidarity is emphasized by the men as being important. I mean, it’s in the title!

Besides forming the basis of Tom’s social life (in exclusion to his grandson, and his ex-wife) they’re also a heavy influencer on what social practices therefore become acceptable to establish the types of social practices to engage in. When he is recorded with a group of men, he often uses swears to accentuate his speech patterns and play into his physical masculinity.

These social practices are part of the journey the Fab 5 take on with Tom. By accepting some of the discourse that the ‘Fab 5’ utilizes for themselves, and encourages in Tom, we see a difference between Tom and the fellow ROMEOs at the end of the episode. When he is presented to the men, he is complimented with a degree of emotional restraint to the achievement of his transformation by the men merely pointing out changes (“Look at that beard”) or veiled compliments in the form of insults (“You look vaguely familiar”). Tom instead is openly boisterous and presents himself with a right bit of flair. Tom reflects on these changes when he says goodbye to the ‘Fab 5’, in stating his experiences of being open with them and himself, hoping to continue this into the future.

So, while there isn’t necessarily all four of the dominant cultural discourses present that Kiesling has outlined—there’s certainly some recognizable parallels to be drawn. Tom is definitely one of the more relaxed straight individuals that are introduced on the show, and there certainly isn’t too much push in getting him to accept the group’s mentalities. What I am suggesting still is the balance between how masculinity is practiced and conceived within the narrative of the show, as it dissects how these various men actively construct and promote their identities.

Maybe there’s a little more anthropological footwork at play than the show recognizes, but then again, that’s what nerdy bloggers are for.

 

References

Kiesling, Scott Fabius. (2005) “Homosocial desire in mens talk: Balancing and re-creating cultural discourses of masculinity”. Language in Society 34 (5): 695-726. doi:10.1017/s0047404505050268.

Gender Role “Reversal” Requires Revision

Photographer-Eli-Rezkallah-reverses-the-roles-in-the-sexist-pubs-of-the-60s-and-the-result-is-very-interesting-5a5f135dab6da__700

Recreated ad by artist Eli Rezcalla

I’ll admit that my first response to these vintage sexist ads where the photographer, Eli Rezcalla, “reversed” the gender roles was “lol :D”. By “simply” switching the genders of the subjects, Rezcalla was easily able to show how these ads, much like many today, reinforce sexist gender roles. Now I’m always a fan of calling out the patriarchy and sexism, however, as I scrolled down through the images my initial feeling of glee was overwhelmingly replaced by feelings of grossness. Why? Because with many of the ads selected, for both the original and the reversal, toxic heteronormativity is represented and reinforced. So what do I mean by heteronormativity and what about it is toxic? Well as is well described here and here, heteronormativity packages ideas like there are only two genders representing two sexes, that members of these two sexes/genders are heterosexual, that this heterosexuality must be strictly monogamous, and that sex serves for reproductive purposes only and then argues that these are the only “normal” or “natural” ways to be human. This is toxic because it has serious consequences for individuals who aren’t heteronormative simply and importantly because it invalidates their existence. Clearly it’s not just ads that represent toxic heteronormativity; this article is a good discussion of toxic monogamy in F.R.I.E.N.D.S. because yes, heteronormativity dictates not just who we have sex with but what kind of sex we can/cannot have, how many partners we can/cannot have, and what is/is not acceptable in relationships in terms of jealousy, commitment, competition, and communication including whether or not you can have other kinds of relationships like friendships (*coughs* “But we were on a break!”*coughs* smdh). So really heteronormativity is toxic for everyone including heterosexuals and cisgender individuals.

I was also bothered by the choice to represent domestic violence. As several commenters noted on the “if your husband/wife ever finds out” ad – it’s not o.k. or funny to hit your partner. Listen I get that spanking can be a very exciting and healthy part of a consensual relationship (especially if it IS being used as “punishment”) BUT there’s nothing about that particular ad that reads as consensual (and no it’s not representing BDSM and I am also tired of that being misrepresented in media too!). And I won’t accept “but it’s supposed to be funny” as a counter-argument because no, domestic and/or sexual violence are never funny. The broader use of domestic and/or sexual violence in advertising is a problem that only serves to promote misogyny and sexism.  I know that challenging all of the problems represented by the “everyday sexism” of these ads wasn’t the point of the project but simply “reversing” the players only serves to reinforce other toxic aspects of heteronormativity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

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.

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.