Apologies

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

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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

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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.

tenor

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)

 

E3bSiX6
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.

But-Thats-None-Of-My-Business

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

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

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Film logo from http://conlangingfilm.com/

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Conscious Word Creation

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

OK. I’ll covfefe.

See what I did there?

I took that weird typo Donald Trump made last week and I stuck it into a sentence. I used it as a verb, and a specific type of verb at that – you can tell, because this is a familiar sentence format in English, where we would usually use something like “play”. And because covfefe has no actual denotational meaning, it gets to take on the meaning of the usual word, but with a strong connotational or indexical meaning of “I am making fun of Trump”.

The bulk of the covfefe fun went down while I was sleeping, and by the time I got to the internet, it was a tired mess of its usual self, the stink of the covfefe hangover lingering strong in the air. Since then, covfefe has gotten the linguistic treatment in media from Gretchen McCulloch, who writes about the morphophonemics of the word, on the popular blog Language Log, where they’ve mostly focused on compiling the best examples of covfefeism, and by Language Jones, who ran a complex semantic analysis of Trump’s tweets to define the lexical space into which covfefe would fit.

There’s something about covfefe, though, that helps break my blogger’s block and gets me wanting to add to the pile. What’s interesting from a linguistic anthropological perspective is how this word, with it’s really unusual origin story, is having its meaning assigned, changed, extended, and changed again in very rapid succession by the ways it is used. There are people suggesting it should be a Starbucks drink. Companies are incorporating it into their advertising slogans. Hillary Clinton inserts it twice into a common cliché, making it play the role of both the fragile glass and the damaging stones in Trump’s metaphorical house. On the pro-Trump side, several people react to the mockery by using covfefe to murbandictionarycovfefeean things like “irrational“, or “deserved punishment“. While traditional lexicography can’t possibly deal with something that moves this quickly or has this much oddness to it, the user-driven Urban Dictionary and game-based Words with Friends dictionary operate by different rules and have each tried to summarize the meaning of this elusive new ‘word’.

In trying to understand what covfefe means, it quickly becomes apparent that it means nothing, but also everything. As I mentioned above, we ascertain some basic information about each use of covfefe by interpreting it in light of what it’s replacing within familiar phrase structures, but it’s still hard to define what it actually means even in those limited contexts. We can basically understand that Clinton’s use makes covfefe refer to some kind of material, but not what kind of material it is – it’s both like glass and like stone, and it doesn’t really matter that it’s performing a dual function. I’m not sure there’s a word for this type of item, but I want to call it something like an empty lexeme, because we can pour whatever meaning we want to into it, and it takes it on. In another sharp point of insight, Gretchen McCulloch points out that the -fefe morpheme is self referential – they refer back to the meme itself, not to anything outside of it. Usage patterns for covfefe tell us little about what the speaker thinks about this very new word with an already odd birth story, but that doesn’t mean they’re meaningless. What they actually tell us is how the speaker feels about Donald Trump, his careless Twitter presence, and his tendency toward bullshittery in the extreme. This last component was only made more prevalent when White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer claimed that “the president and a small group of people knew exactly what he meant” (Ed: Wait, what’s up with that headline, though? Covfspiracy? Seriously? SS: Too many morfefes, too little time).

Maybe it’s my tired brain, but I honestly can’t think of another example of a word with this kind of flexible denotation but very specific implication. And while of course I know there are more important things going on in the world, there’s something about this particular brand of language fun that I can’t quite let go of, so excuse me while I go grab myself some covfefe and get down to serious covfefe.

 

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.