Snapshots of Multilingualism

As I write this, I’m sitting in an airport in Brussels waiting for a flight back to Toronto. I’ve spent the last week mainly in Barcelona, attending the First International Conference on the Revitalization of Indigenous and Minority Languages. My brain and my heart are both full and energized by great conversations, interesting presentations, and supportive colleagues (both familiar and newly encountered).

In addition to the book-learning that was happening, though, being in highly multilingual spaces (first Barcelona, and then a day in Brussels due to stopover scheduling) with highly multilingual (and language-savvy) people meant that even the simplest interactions included linguistic negotiations, moving between or across different languages, and meaning making not only through the words chosen, but the codes chosen to say them in. Some snapshots to capture my point:

  • The opening of the conference was delivered in Catalan, Spanish, English, and Quechua. Some of the speakers self-translated what they had said from one language into another, while others used one to say some things, then said different things in another of the languages, and still others used one of the languages and stopped. There were Catalan sign language translators for these and the plenary sessions, and I was incredibly impressed with their ability to translate from multiple languages (the only one that vexed them was Quechua).
  • Mutual intelligibility across romance languages gets really interesting when you throw in some of the lesser known languages. One conference presenter, Guillem Belmar Viernes, a native Catalan speaker, told me how joyful he felt being able to speak Catalan with a speaker of Lombard (a Northern Italian language), and understanding each other perfectly (an interactional variety I called ‘Lombardalan’). Another linguist mentioned that he had taken a year of Catalan language classes in his undergraduate days, and that the prerequisite was one year of either French or Spanish, because the instructor used the two to triangulate to the in-between point of Catalan.
  • At the absolute opposite end of the language-learning technique spectrum were some Indigenous language instructors and teachers who emphasized the need to move away from the use of previously known languages like English (especially since the differences between these is likely to create far more confusion than bridging). I was in a group of people, speaking English, and as we got into an elevator a stranger also stepped in, and the very inspiring Cherokee language professor that was with us, Ben Frey, immediately told the stranger, entirely in Cherokee, that he liked his hat. The stranger was evidently confused, but Ben simply repeated his statements with more gestures and a bit slower. “Context-based language teaching”, Ben said when I complimented him on the interaction. I mentally filed this away under the category of “awesome”.
  • While almost everyone I encountered was very comfortable using English to interact with tourists like myself, I still prefer to make an effort to communicate using one of the local languages. In Spain, this meant fumbling through Spanish mainly by way of Portuguese, which worked a lot of the time but also caused people to give me odd looks. At one point, I was asking a fellow customer to help figure out which lineup I needed to be in, and we were both using somewhat broken Spanish and a lot of gestures…and about 30 seconds after that was finished I heard him talking to his family in Brazilian Portuguese.
  • My day in Brussels tells me it is a really interesting linguistic place, at least in the tourist area, and probably elsewhere as well. The number of different languages being spoken around me, on the train, in the museum, and in the chocolate shops, was just staggering. The way this shows up in stores and restaurants, like the Korean “Chez Kimchi” just outside my hotel, or the photo below, would be especially fun to unpack. Another instance of minor mutual intelligibility in the Romance languages emerged, as I went to an Italian restaurant and one of the two servers primarily used Italian to speak to me, while I responded in French. I didn’t see the same degree of similarity across the Germanic languages, as it seemed German speakers would switch to English to interact with service personnel, rather than attempting Flemish.

All of these snapshots give examples of how multilingualism is far more complicated than most people generally assume. There aren’t bounded spaces for using specific languages, and there aren’t even clear boundaries on how languages are divided from each other within interactions. Languages and multilingualism are made up of how they’re used, and people are endlessly fascinating in how they do that.

They Who Shall Not Be Named: Taboos, In-Laws, and the Maintenance of Cultural Order

Cultures around the world use language in richly varied ways to form and define social relationships, hierarchies, and maintain a sense of order. One example of a linguistic practice that seems incredibly challenging and opaque to many Western folks is popularly referred to as “mother-in-law” speech. Bryant Rousseau recently gave a pretty decent overview of what this means in the NY Times, in an article called “Talking to In-Laws Can Be Hard. In Some Languages, It’s Impossible“.

As the article quickly illustrates, it’s less interesting to note that there are specific cultural restrictions on how, or even whether, you are allowed to speak to your spouse’s parents, and that where such restrictions exist they are often applied in gendered ways. What’s more interesting is the fairly widespread practice that extends this restriction to saying the names of in-laws, or even to names that sound like those names – possibly forbidding pronunciation of the same root, or the same opening syllable, or even the same first sounds (the article says “letters”, but that is, of course, an example of literacy-based thinking that doesn’t accurately describe what the author intends). Although the article uses the fear of in-laws as an amusing framing device, name taboos aren’t limited to the names of in-laws – they may even prohibit married women from using their own husbands’ names, or forbid the use of deceased people’s names, or insist that particularly powerful individuals should not be named (as the title of this post indicates, this idea has crept in to English speaking popular literature). To an extent, we can even see this avoidance in our own Anglo North American systems for encoding respect – we restrict the use of first names, for example, and ask that honorifics (Mr. Somethingorother, Dr. Soandso) be used as a substitution.

With any situation of taboo words, there are strategies people use to communicate their meanings that don’t require them to break restrictions. Sometimes this involves simple substitutions, sometimes it involves borrowing from neighbouring languages – it always involves creative practices that allow the speaker to say what they mean without violating norms.

Rousseau’s article does a good job describing the range of such practices in different contexts, but to my mind gives short shrift to the most interesting element of all – why do these practices exist? In other words, what’s the social function of name taboos, and what is being accomplished with the acts of avoidance and substitution that affected speakers use? By focusing only on in-laws, he emphasizes the relationship between these taboos and the expression of respectful deference, but shame and social consequences aren’t the only possible reasons for avoidance. Think again of He Who Shall Not Be Named – in the wizarding world, naming that person is an act that risks giving him power in a literal sense, helping him to be reconstituted into a physical form. These kinds of magical consequences and invocations may also be among the reasons for avoiding certain names.

While certainly oversimplifying, the idea that names carry exceptional power is a robust enough cross cultural pattern that we can make a few generalizations about why it happens and what it tells us about language. First, we use avoidance to define specific relationships, and because personal names refer to specific individuals, this category of word is especially ripe for exploitation in this regard. Second, there is a relatively common pattern that sees power expressed through the use of the particular sounds, not in relation to the meaning those sounds refer to. This is why you see items that are phonetically associated with the taboo names also restricted, but not, generally speaking, semantically associated ones (and in fact, it’s those semantic and descriptive connections that speakers draw on for substitutions). Even though “He Who Shall Not Be Named” has come, in the Potterverse, to function as a referent to one particular individual, and thus indicate the exact same meaning, Harry still shocks everyone by defiantly choosing to utter the synonymous sounds Voldemort. Finally, the practice of taboo avoidance works to performatively create, reinforce, and structure the meaning and nature of power in multiple senses of the word, including social hierarchy, spiritual distance, and, well, magic.

Language is central to the maintenance of order in given cultural worlds, including both appropriate expectations for behaviour in certain relationships and deeply-rooted spiritual meanings connected to the boundary between life and death, the protection of health and well-being, and the bringing into being of desired effects (or the avoidance of undesired ones). It’s not just about your in-laws – not being named can be an enormous form of power.

(For those with academic access, several examples and some of the analysis used here come from the following article: Fleming, L. (2011) “Name Taboos and Rigid Performativity” Anthropological Quarterly 84 (1):141-164