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


Student Guest Post: An Emotional Mask to Murder

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Daliso Mwanza, a student in Dr. Shulist’s seminar class on Language and Power. It was completed as a response to the book Confronting the Death Penalty: How Language Influences Jurors in Capital Cases by Robin Conley, and originally posted on Dali’s own blog.  

The topic and environment of capital sentencing is quite frankly compelling when trying to capture the essence of state level violence. I could list a few theorists such as Michel Foucault, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Antonio Gramsci, Karrebaek, and Mehan that have all discussed the mechanics of meaning, socialization, power, and the language that perpetuates these three topics.  The entity of “The Law” often referred to as something all knowing or the order to our society, but to gain such formative power, society needs to feed into its legitimacy in all of our interactions. This sort of relationship between people and a system is best described by a fellow classmate of mine and brilliant critical thinker, Ruth Werbiski. How they put it, the entity of law itself creates codified rules and responsibilities that every citizen should follow through consent and coercion, which is understood as order by society. In a way this is a form of omnipresent violence that every citizen understands but some will follow and some will break, but the power is still in the hands of the law. The law feeds from the response of citizens, because it requires society to socialize each other to follow said entity, inherently feeding into it and making it grow bigger and bigger. Other institutions such as family, education, and politics aid in the growth of “Law and Order”, sometimes with the use of discourse of safety and also fear. This is where my colleague aided me in picturing the nature of Law- The Creaturetumblr_mgz91vfI6P1rl52wjo2_400.gif

This ^ is the nature Law-The Creature. 

As Ruth stated, it is comprised of multiple different parts (institutions) in our society that teach us to conform to the system of law, giving it more power. Within this process people gain an identity in relation to Law, and this is where we see the creation of jurors in capital sentencing.

Don’t get me wrong, capital punishment is pretty fucked up for so many reasons and I will get into those reasons, BUT (yes big ol but) the structures surrounding those reasons are extremely interesting and somehow offer us anthropologists a gaze into a striking aspect of human behaviour and socialization. Recall the relationship between the Law and society that was painted oh so eloquently? Yes? Great! Well in the center of that relationship is a driving force that allows the perpetuatuation and efficiency of the death sentence, and that is Objectivity.


Throughout the book, Objectivity is what allows jurors to perform the judgement of someone’s life. Firstly, objectivity is a socialized trait that is required of each jury member to remain unbiased and most importantly keeping emotion out of their judgments. The way Emotion was tied together with empathy, therefore it was not supposed to be offered  the defendants. How I see it, emotion is something that cannot be turned off whenever a person sees it fit, especially in the highly emotional act of taking someone’s life. Secondly, there is the use of  deitics/distancing when jurors are placed in “face-to-face encounters” with defendants. In my opinion I feel that deitics sole tool that allows the jury, defendant, and state to kill and do so while feeling sure that it was the right thing to do. We see this performance of dehumanizing, distancing, and judgement in colonial violence; war and within our modern society. Distancing allows us to be rid of empathy towards another humans life, and if we are to examine deitics within socialized objectivity in court, we can see that the state has created a language towards criminals that allows the jury to perform the act of killing. Jurors are found saying such things as “Murders are not people and do not deserve the oxygen they breathe”, this is an ideology to crime that is socialized and shared within our education systems that tell us to fear the other along with their behaviour. This made me think about the Sif Karrebaek article “‘Don’t Speak Like That to Her!’: Lingusitic Minority Children’s Socialization into an Ideology of Monolingualism”,  which has a lot of similarities in language socialization within juries (2013). Jurors are constantly told to keep objective from the begining all the way to the end, and as highlighted before it usually shows through dehumanization. Discourse is what allows them to maintain the identity of law abiding, but once placed in near proximity of criminal, the mask they are wearing begins to fall apart. tumblr_inline_o7u9hoKufU1tcrsjf_540.gif

The mask is what I was truly interested in, not only because I’m a Goffman groupie, but rather the reasons why we put it on! At the first layer, we put it on for our own safe. Something we can keep separate from who we really are, and once the act of killing is complete we can walk away without it being apart of us. This is very important because of how emotionally disturbing the act of capitol sentencing can be. Once brought up outside of the event jurors shared feelings of emotional trauma throughout the book, and to me this just means the mask was not really intended for the jurors. If we examine it from the second layer we can see that the mask is in place to benefit the state who must maintain control through “The Law” (DUN DUN)


Yaa, look at it growing and consuming. 

Order is why this whole performance is present. There are constant reminders of following the law throughout capitol punishment, and these reminders are what keep us from going against the law (SUPER FOUCAULT). If you ask me, this is clearly a form of discursive violence that begins to fester within our society. Only thing is, we see this system as our saviour not our oppressor.


Speech, Action, and Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conscious Word Creation

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

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

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

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

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


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.

Language Change, Racism, and White Ideologies

*Content note: This post is explicitly about language that some consider racist, and it’s extremely difficult to talk about that language without using the terms themselves. While I will endeavor to avoid some of the slurs when I can make my point without them, some will end up being used.

A week or so ago, a friend linked this post on social media. It’s a common type of post, really – here are some words you might be saying that actually maybe you should think about *not* saying, because racist. And as happens in many instances when this type of point is raised, some (generally white) people respond with some questions about whether all of these terms really are, in fact, racist. As I’ve observed the way these conversations happen, I notice two types of arguments that are raised:

  • Look, this term wasn’t originally intended to be offensive. Here’s an etymological dictionary that says it meant something innocuous. Therefore, it’s not racist.
  • But…language changes, doesn’t it? So just because this term originates as a racist insult, does that still matter if we no longer know about that original association?

If you noticed that these are inherently contradictory, ten points for you! They are, of course, not applied to the same terms, nor are they necessarily arguments used by the same people. But it is worth comparing and contrasting the ideas, assumptions, and beliefs about how meaning works that are underlying each of them.

The first comes up a lot in relation to the controversy surrounding the Washington NFL team name. This NPR article does a nice job outlining the point in detail. The work of linguist/historian Ives Goddard is the authoritative reference point invoked in these, and

Source website: Indian Country Media Network (image uncredited)

as that article outlines, it is possible to conclude that indeed, the word was not a hateful slur from its origin. There is, however, an alternative possible origin story for this word, which is indeed very offensive and violent, and which is cited by many Indigenous people as what they were taught about the word’s origin. It’s worth recognizing how this works as yet another example where Western academic knowledge is prioritized over Indigenous knowledge, but at the same time, I want to make the case that even if the benign story is the accurate one, using that as justification to keep the name and logo is still racist.

A very similar type of argument (complete with another etymological trace done by Goddard himself) is outlined in Jane Hill’s fantastic book The Everyday Language of White Racism, where she refers to this as a “baptismal ideology”. The idea is that the most authoritative definition of a word is found in its original meaning, and it’s one we use in a number of different contexts beyond debates about racism. In academics, for example, we often explicitly try to return to the original coinage of a term in order to ensure that we aren’t relying on misinterpretations or a kind of “broken telephone” effect. In addition to the weight of the origin, this argument treats linguists like Goddard as authorities not just about the history of certain forms of language, but about the actual meaning of particular words (to my knowledge, Goddard has never commented on these ways of deploying his name in support of the continued use of these words). This is rooted in assumptions not only about etymology, but about authority, in establishing meaning.


The opposite comes up with respect to words like “gyp”, meaning “to short change, rip off”. As the article linked above notes, this is derived from the word “gypsy”, which is itself a slur applied to Roma people (who remain a highly marginalized group of people living primarily in Europe). That meaning is, to a degree, opaque at this point, so the argument goes – if the vast majority of people using a term are not only not trying to be offensive, they’re not even aware that there is a semantic connection to this other word, has the meaning drifted enough from its source that we don’t have to call it racist anymore? This perspective is rooted in the (correct) notion that language changes, and places authority over what a word “really” means in the intentions and knowledge of the speakers who use it.

What is important about this argument, to me, isn’t to decide which of these two views is more “correct” than the other. Both contain some elements of truth, in a historical as well as a broad theoretical sense. Both also contain some ideological bases that assume meaning works in specific and limited types of ways. The overall picture of how meaning does work, especially in regard to heated and complex areas like linguistic racism and what constitutes a ‘slur’, is far more complicated than either of these positions can singledhandedly capture. As someone who is very much invested in expanding people’s acceptance of language change (because refusal to allow it to change is so often a tool used by the privileged to put down those most likely to change it), I will admit I wrestled for a while with what was wrong with the second one. And then I saw it – the position used changes depending on what is the most efficient ideological approach to allowing dominant folks to feel okay about using terms that are, at best, problematic (and at worst, overtly racist). Though they are, on their face, opposite to each other, they work to accomplish the same task. That task, at its core, is about the maintenance of privilege.

Slurs – whether racist, sexist, homophobic, or any other mode of oppression – are particularly potent forms of language. Because their meaning and the weight different connotations carry within them is subject to such constant commentary and debate, these meanings are enhanced – we don’t just hear them when they are used, we hear them when they are discussed, and analyzed, and discussed again (like I am doing right here, yes). To an extent, this is why the negative meaning is almost always going to outweigh any neutral version. At the same time, the very fact that such heated debates emerge whenever people point out that specific words are hurtful or upsetting to them illustrates how hard privileged people work to protect their privilege. The loss of a few (or even a lot of) words from my repertoire doesn’t really hinder my communicative creativity all that much – it limits me verbally about to the same degree that not being allowed to hit people limits my range of acceptable arm motions. The fact that we strive for ideologies of maximal offensiveness allowed is yet another ugly feature of a structurally racist society.

How Languages Get “Lost”: Did You Look in the Last Place you Colonized Them?

In my last post, I mentioned that the discourse around how Indigenous and minority languages are ‘dying’ almost inevitably involves erasure of the vibrant activity around learning them that has been taking place within these communities for decades. Another aspect of this metaphor that is also important to note, however, is addressed very clearly in this recent post by Rick Harp on MediaIndigena:

Yet make no mistake: None of these so-called ‘dying’ languages got where they are today by accident. Far from being ‘lost’, our mother tongues have been under constant attack – what some call premeditated linguicide – by forces hell-bent on their destruction.

Harp’s post directly attacks the colonial reasoning that continues to inform settler Canada’s approach to Indigenous languages – their presence is an inconvenient, nagging reminder that we are living on someone else’s land, and therefore, they must be eradicated. In anticipation of the federal Aboriginal Languages Act that Prime Minister Trudeau has promised is coming, Harp also calculates a baseline for the financial support that we should expect to see for each of Canada’s 58 (or so) Indigenous languages, given the amount that is spent supporting each of the English and French languages in regions where they are the minority. If that seems like a high demand to you, you might want to ask yourself why.

The point I want to emphasize here is how dominant narratives about languages being “lost” or “dying” are framed in such a way as to elide the agents who cause this loss. Indigenous voices often talk about having their languages “taken” from them in residential schools or equivalent institutions, but mainstream reporting presents the concerns in much more naturalistic terms. “Dying” is certainly a powerful and unpleasant explosion-123690_1280metaphor, but it’s something that occurs to living beings as they age; when applied to Indigenous languages it therefore performs double duty – not only does it naturalize the process, it also makes Indigenous languages seem old, like relics of the past more suited for museums than modern life. Where human subjects are present in these stories of loss, they are likely to be the Indigenous people – which on the one hand is appropriate, as this story matters deeply to them, but on the other, makes it appear as though these events are transpiring in some place and time that is detached from the actions of settler Canada. Non-Indigenous people only appear in benevolent roles, like linguists in rhetorical superhero garb arriving to save the day. Language loss, then, appears as no one’s fault, because the reality is, quite frankly, upsetting. This is a tale that has a villain, and it’s not a villain whose good intentions have gone awry. It’s a villain who has been very successful in working toward a selfish and malevolent goal, and who continues to manage the great diabolical trick of convincing the world he doesn’t exist.