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.


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

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.

Archaeological Field Methods (Anth396): Week 3 in Review

One of the toughest parts of archaeology is that no matter how much time, effort, planning, people, and/or money you put into a field season, the weather can and will throw a wrench into the works. Edmonton is particularly problematic; it has a reputation for having terrible weather…well… year around. The winters are cold (but it’s a dry cold! even if there is too much snow) and the summers are hot or wet or plagued by extreme weather (thunderstorms and/or tornadoes). By undertaking an early field season (say May) you may be able to avoid the worst of what the summer can throw at you but you may also find yourself dealing with late snow or too much rain anyways. A July-August field season was what worked for the head of the research project so we knew we’d need to be flexible and deal with what is thrown at us. So to briefly recap: week 1 was hot and week 2 was wet. Week 3 was too smokey. Where there’s smoke, there’s no fieldwork.  At least for us there isn’t. The week started off with air quality alert warnings, which would only get worse as the week went on.

I notified the students, after a Sunday with an air quality index of 7, that we’d still meet at the site Monday as usual. Monday started off chilly and overcast but warmed as the day went on. While we got the occasional whiff of smoke, it really wasn’t too bad out. I took advantage of having several volunteers on site that day to spend some time with each and every student individually to talk about their research papers. Typically I’d have students write up a technical report about their 1 m x 1m unit to submit at the end of the season but because the students were working collaboratively on 1 m x 2 m or  2 m x 2 m units and because they were contributing to the research of a PhD student, I thought it could be more informative for them to be flexible with what they wrote up. Some are addressing the types of materials recovered from the site (bricks, glass, or clinker), others are examining the change in land use/place over time (one via plants, others via peoples), another is applying the knowledge obtained from an internship at an art gallery to propose a curated exhibit about the site, and finally one is interested in critically reviewing how our introduction to anthropology course (Anth206) lab assignments and exercises do or do not prepare for our students for the technical skills required in the field. As an instructor I appreciated the thought the students had clearly already put into the topics so tried to take the time to make sure that they were taking on manageable projects. With less than four weeks to research and write the papers up I really wanted to make sure the scale of their projects was appropriate. Otherwise work proceeded as normal at the site. Unit 1 had finally dealt with most of the really tough sediment and were starting to proceed faster through level 2. Unit 2 was working on level 4 and taking out the wooden plant feature they’d uncovered the previous Thursday. Unit 3 was finding a lot of metal objects and glass, and started to find animal bone – this was in line with what the associated test pit had found so the shift quickly became getting the level down to the bone bed originally identified in that test pit.


Tuesday began as another overcast day with light drizzle in the morning. We met again in the field; we’d discussed on Monday that for the week the plan was we’d always start in the field if the air quality in the morning was low so we’d get at least a half day in and retreat to the lab if necessary. The day got off to a slow start; people trickled in late and it took some time before the units were uncovered and work was actually started for the day. I knew that this would be the case as we reached the half way point of the course as it is always a challenge to keep students motivated and engaged once the initial excitement of a new term, a new course starts to wane and as the workload starts to increase. I was also aware my own dwindling energy reserves were not allowing me to be as enthusiastic as I needed each day. Such is the reality of courses and especially of field work. But we still had a productive day. Unit 1 was finishing levels and doing an excellent job of uncovering and mapping their feature 1 (the cement feature); compared to their slow initial progress, they were really “flying” through their levels now (soft, unconsolidated sediment really is a blessing). Unit 2 was closing out the unit – the last level was pretty much sterile so they focused on”cleaning” the walls of the unit; we ensuring the walls are as flat as possible so the stratigraphy can be clearly seen then captured in a profile drawing.  Unit 3 was focused on mapping the bone bed, which they had reached and carefully revealed by the end of the previous day. Both stratigraphic or wall profile drawings/maps and floor plan maps are valuable pieces of the record of the site. They are used to illustrate the context of the finds and as such are important interpretive tools.


I made the call Wednesday morning to again start in the field. The morning was a little smokey but not too bad. Units 2 and 3 continued with their mapping; I checked in regularly with the students, who were doing an excellent job with their maps but really focused on helping Unit 1 screen. Unit 1 had encountered another tough sediment – clay. For those of you archaeologists when I say their AHN was a G you’ll know what they were facing. For those of you non-archaeologists, AHN is a type of “tests” we do to figure out what the overall composition of the sediment is (sand, silt, and/or clay) based on its texture. An AHN of G means that when a handful of sediment was collected and a little bit of water was added (or in our case no water was added) it could be kneaded into a ball then rolled out into a cylinder which could then be thinned out into a longer tube that could then be joined into a loop (i.e., we could make a donut with the clay). The clay was first hard but pliable quickly turning into wet, sticky, and sterile. It was hard work to dig out and even harder work to screen. We had to hand sort through all the lumps of clay feeling for the smallest inclusions that might represent artifacts. By the end of the day everyone was helping squish their way through the buckets of clay coming out of unit 1 as the air quality had gradually gotten worse over the day to the point that we needed to not be outside any longer. My eyes were sore and it felt like I had a brick on my chest.



We woke up Thursday to an air quality that was close to what it was at the end of Wednesday – far too bad to head to the field so I emailed everyone to tell them to head to the lab. The conditions can be best described like the filter you see in a horror movie – an orange sun surrounded by dulling fog. It was gross. The air conditioning in the lab was much appreciated and we had a really productive day cleaning and cataloging. Haeden and his partner JP still had to venture out to the site to meet with people from the Archaeology Survey (the branch of the Provincial government that provides permits for and oversees archaeology in Alberta) but were happy to report upon their return to that the Arch Survey was very pleased with the work done on the site and that we’d passed inspection. Haeden, JP, and I chatted and decided that it was best to stick to our usually schedule and spend Friday in the lab as well.

Our Friday lab was a little different. We spent a little time first thing talking about our plans for the Public Archaeology Day, which is quickly approaching (see poster below). One of the students and I went down to CAFE to see their space as they’d shown interest in hosting an exhibit relating to our work. We also were visited by children from the MacEwan University Early Learning and Child Care Lab School; my daughter was so proud to show off her mama’s lab and the children loved running around with the magnifying glasses I loaned them looking at what we’d found so far and interacting with my students. It was a great burst of energy and activity and a nice way to end our week.

The air quality has improved since then so we’ll be back on site this week. So far it looks like we’ll get wet then be very hot…so typical Edmonton weather.

Week 4 update to follow…


Archaeological Field Methods (Anth396): Week 2 in Review

On Monday we were welcomed to the site with overcast skies and the threat of rain. While the rain never came, the relief from the low temperatures was much needed and appreciated. We set up the excavation base lines so that units could be established. Three excavation blocks (1- 2m x 2m, and 2- 1m x 2m) were set up based on the results of our Shovel Test Pits (STPs). This is always a slow process but is a very important one. Next we began outlining our strategy for excavating the units. Basically day 1 of week 2 was information overload. Luckily the students have weeks to ask questions, to learn, and to practice the art of excavation.

The promise of rain that never was became the reality of downpour by lunch on Tuesday. Luckily we’d taken some time in the morning to set up tarps. It was a busy morning with visits from the Edmonton Journal and our social media team from MacEwan (look for a story about the field school from the students’ perspective on the front page of the MacEwan website soon!). My colleague Dr. Hugh McKenzie visited with his children and their friend; they assisted with excavation and with screening in Unit 1 as part of their “summer camp”. It was a great opportunity for the students to share what they’ve learned this far by teaching it to others.

We are excavating in 10 cm levels (baring any clear and/or significant changes in sediment) using a pass method – the students begin along either the southern or northern border of the unit then slowly proceed towards the opposite boarder. They are tasked with removing only a few cm at most of sediment slowly and uniformly across the unit. All of the removed sediment is screened.

I began my Wednesday (July 12th) morning with a 6:55 am interview on 630 CHED’s morning show. We talked about the project, the field school, and the great pleasure that comes from being an archaeologist. It was a busy day at the site with much material culture (concrete, brick, nails, various metal objects, glass, bone fragments, clinker) and our first feature revealed – a concrete “patch” in Unit 1, which could be part of a foundation or a wall or something else that, hopefully, our ongoing excavation will hope us figure out. As larger accumulations of rubble (mainly clinker, cement, and brick) were encountered in all of the units, sampling strategies were developed. In most cases all pieces were collected then counted and weighed in the field as types; only representative samples brought back to the lab for further cleaning, cataloguing, and analyses.

By Thursday the sun and heat was back. The process of excavation was becoming routine; students were figuring out the tools needed, when and what to record, how to work around and with roots, what to collect, etc. Our second feature, two overlapping boards with nails still in-situ, was slowly and expertly uncovered in Unit 2.

Friday was our first full lab day began with a quiz, included an introduction to cataloguing, and ended with lecture/discussion on the assigned readings, which are:

  • Casella, E.C. 2005. Social Workers: New Directions in Industrial Archaeology. In Industrial Archaeology: Future Directions, edited by E.C. Casella and J. Symonds, Springer, pp. 3-32.
  • McGuire, R.H. and P. Reckner. 2002. The Unromantic West: Labor, Capital, and Struggle. Historical Archaeology 36(3): 44-58.
  • Shackel, P. 2004. Labor’s Heritage: Remembering the American Industrial Landscape. Historical Archaeology 38(4): 44-58.
  • Silliman, S.W. 2006. Struggling with Labor, working on identities. Historical Archaeology (ed.) M. Hall and S.W. Silliman. Blackwell. 147-166.

I must admit these articles got me all fired up about Historical and Industrial Archaeology (and the possibilities of bring these concepts to my work in Tanzania next summer…).

It is unlikely that the students will complete all of the lab work required but that’s an important part of the learning curve for them – the recognition that field work, while fun, produces an enormous amount of data. Simply recovering artifacts will not lead to meaningful interpretations of the past; intensive time and effort in the lab is required.

Week 3 to follow…

Archaeological Field Methods (Anth 396): Week 1 in Review

IMG_7695The 2017 Mill Creek Historical Archaeology Project (MCHAP) and MacEwan Archaeological Field Methods (Anth396) Crew. 

This summer I’m teaching a course on Archaeological Field Methods (Anthropology 396). It runs for six weeks and I’ll (try to) post a summary at the end of each week. My preparation for this course began last summer when, long story short, I was put in contact with a PhD student from the University of Chicago, Haeden Stewart, who had a number of our students volunteer with his project, the Mill Creek Historical Archaeology Project (MCHAP). After some discussion and much thought I agreed to run a field school during Summer 2017 that would provide our students an opportunity to get formal training and credit, while providing Haeden with much needed bodies for his field research. It would also provide me with the unique opportunity to get back in the field (I was last in Tanzania in 2010) but stay in the same city as my kid. Haeden and I had to do paperwork to get the required permit and to ensure that the Archaeology Branch was satisfied with this unique hybrid of a field school and research project. After advertising the course and reviewing applications back in January and February, I ended up with eight students enrolled in the course. All of the students were excited by the opportunity to learn archaeology in their own backyard, as it were, which meant that the course costs were relatively low. We had a pre-field orientation session in the lab on June 22nd to discuss supplies, safety, and ethics, and to introduce MCHAP.

The course officially started on July 4th; our first day began in the lab – we loaded up the supplies I’d been accumulating over the past few months in my car and headed down to the site. Haeden met us there and took the students on a tour of our field site, Mill Creek Ravine, a vibrant park in the heart of Edmonton.

IMG_7672Haeden showing the students the location of the 2016 MCHAP excavations, which focused on the shantytown of Ross Acreage. 

Haeden’s research examines the relationship between industrialization (the development of infrastructure, the standardization of commodities, and the development of a labouring class) and settler colonialism in the context of early twentieth century meat-packing plants in Edmonton. Mill Creek Ravine is a cultural landscape of deep history and of competing and contrasting claims from Indigenous groups, the local community, and the municipal government. It was the center of the early Albertan meat-packing industry as well as one of the sites of the most blatant appropriations of an Indigenous reservation at the end of the nineteenth century. After the construction of the Edmonton, Yukon, and Pacific Railway through Mill Creek Ravine in 1901, the area became one of the first major sites of industrial production in the city and the province. By 1910, three large meatpacking plants (Gallagher-Hull’s, Vogel’s, and Gainer’s) were located along Mill Creek, employing approximately 1 in 8 of Strathcona’s male population. By the end of the First World War, economic depression and incoming European settlers produced numerous ad-hoc shantytowns throughout Edmonton, including one of the largest and most stable informal shantytowns along Mill Creek. This shantytown, known as Ross Acreage, lasted until the 1940s and at its height consisted of over fifty shelters. Haeden’s fieldwork in 2016 focused on locating and excavating Ross Acreage. In order to uncover the history and impact of early industrialization in Edmonton, our focus this season will be on surveying, sampling, and excavating the first of these meat-packing plants, Vogel’s.


Following the tour we got right into Shovel Test Pits (STPs). The strategy for the placement and execution of STPs was explained – three main areas (labelled A, B, and C) were identified based on pedestrian and ground penetrating radar (GPR) surveys conducted prior to the start of the field school. Our STPs are 35 cm x 35 cm in size, excavated in 10 cm levels to a depth of approximately 70 cm. As the location of Vogel’s could be established through the use of archives, the STPs are used to establish the exact placement of the buildings and thus to inform the excavation strategy. The tools required were listed and their use was explained; how to fill out the necessary and critical forms for documenting context, method, and finds was also discussed at length. Finally it was time – the satisfying crunch of shovel cutting into turf was heard as the students conducted their first ever STPs.

The rest of the first week focused on STPs. In all 25 STPs were excavated in the three areas. Plastic, glass, clinker, bone, brick, cement, and various metal objects (mostly nails) were carefully extracted to the thrill and delight of our students. Honestly! It is hard to capture in words but all were excited by their first finds while I was excited to see them learn how to first identify something as an artifact then to distinguish different artifact types. The amount of learning that occurs in that first week is immense.

During week one, the students faced high temperatures, a veritable fog of mosquitos, and much interaction with the public (people are constantly hiking, biking, or walking with and without dogs throughout the ravine and thus the site). Chief Bruno of the Papachase came by to share with our students some of the Indigenous history and use of the ravine, Edmonton, and Strathcona. We were also visited by local media, which resulted in an article in the Metro newspaper and a CTV interview featuring yours truly (our feature is around the 7:30 mark). The realities of being in the field, and becoming familiar and dealing with the unique attributes of each field setting, are also part of that critical learning curve.

Our week concluded by heading to the lab, where students got set up for cleaning their finds (we’ll start cataloguing and analyzes in the second lab during week two). While a field methods course, I have also built in a significant lab component as I firmly believe that students should not only learn how to excavate but also how to clean and catalogue, and begin the analysis, of what they recover.

Week 2 update to follow….


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).


Another Slice of Linguistic Racism

Recently, a video of the racist ranting of a white woman in a Mississauga, Ontario, medical clinic has been getting a lot of media attention across Canada. This has been used to exemplify how, despite the ways that Canadians love to situate themselves as free from racism or more tolerant of multiculturalism than our neighbours in the US, we still see even the most overt forms of racism manifesting here. And make no mistake – as others have pointed out, it is the overtness of this instance, the direct demand that this woman makes to have her son seen by a white doctor, that forces many people to acknowledge that it is, in fact, racism (and even then, some will refuse and find ways to justify this behaviour, as Paradkar documents in a follow-up post).

Among all the articles covering this story, though, this column by Shree Paradkar caught my linguistic attention (h/t @meg2386 for firing it at me on Twitter). Paradkar outlines a number of characteristics of linguistic racism, including the ways that certain types of speech are given authority and seen as ‘correct’, as well as how the apparent compliment that someone is ‘articulate’ or ‘well-spoken’ is deployed in classist and racist ways. The article, and the follow-up, make a lot of good points, but there is one aspect in particular I think deserves further attention – the role of racism in perceptions of accents, and the racial implications of demands that others speak English (and often, as here, perfect English).

I think these points matter because I suspect that, in the absence of the specific inclusion of race qualifications about the type of doctor this woman wanted her son to see, other elements of this demand would have gone less noticed. In other words, if she had simply asked for a doctor who speaks English, many more people would view that as a reasonable request, because who doesn’t want a doctor that they can understand? There are a number of complicated angles around this, including the question of how ‘official’ languages work in different places, how linguistic standards relate to licensing standards for professions like medicine, and who is expected to accommodate whom in a ‘multicultural’ society, and these bigger picture questions help to create a terrain that fosters racist beliefs. On top of that, we can see how these “speak English” demands take specific forms in specific types of interactions – even when it’s not relevant, people speaking certain languages (like Spanish, Arabic, Hindi, or Chinese) are subjected to random others who tell them they can’t speak those languages, that those languages mark them as not good Canadians (or Americans). Nelson Flores’ blog often addresses this topic, specifically in reference to how bilingualism and bilingual education are not neutrally interpreted, as native Spanish-speakers, regardless of their level of fluency in English, are frequently subjected to tests and categorizations that render their language use “deficient” and requiring surveillance. This is the same type of thing that emerges in this woman’s rant – certain types of speakers are put in a position of repeatedly having to prove their capacity in English, both to authoritative bodies and to members of the general public with whom they interact. It’s tiring, it’s time-consuming, it’s degrading, and it can, as in many of the examples Flores uses in his work, it can have material consequences on where a student is placed in classes.

I realize I keep saying “certain types of speakers” without clarifying what I mean by that, though I’m assuming that most of you are able to read in to my intent there anyway. This is, however, extremely important – when people try to legitimize their desire for a specific type of doctor by saying they find certain accents, or strong accents, difficult to understand, they are tapping into what is, of course, a reasonable requirement for certain relationships. We all need to be able to understand our doctors, or our teachers, or other people in positions of public service. But they are also making a tacit assumption that there is an objective, measurable, degree of intelligibility, or proximity to ‘normal’ English, that these other speakers are failing to meet, and that it is not the listener’s fault that they can’t understand them. This is driven home, in this woman’s rant, by the demand for a doctor whose English is perfect, as though this is an objective assessment, like the 10/10 you can get on an elementary math quiz. Paradkar’s follow up post makes note of part of the problem underlying this idea by highlighting that intelligibility is, in part, a matter of custom and familiarity. One reason people might find certain accents difficult to understand, then, is because they have, as a result of structural racism or pervasive patterns of racial/cultural segregation, avoided the need to learn to understand them. In other words, while members of minority communities almost always have to accommodate dominant speakers in order to function, part of the function of dominance is to allow people to never have to try to accommodate others.

There are, however, deeper levels to this limited understanding that I think also need to be addressed. The main one is that perceptions of people’s speech is not, in fact, detached from their physical appearance. In various types of experimental and statistical studies (one example is discussed here), sociolinguists have shown that students judge professors whose names or features are Asian as less comprehensible, and complain about their accents – even when these instructors are actually native speakers of English. Our brains absorb information from other sources – like visual appearance and indexical associations with names, ways of dressing, etc – and develop a much more complex, and decidedly not straightforward, interpretation of what that person sounds like. In so many ways, the presence or absence of an “accent” is a socially constituted thing, not an objective reality in the world, and so it is subject to all the dynamics of categorization and power that exist within the social matrix.

This woman’s rantings, along with some of the ways people have reacted to them, are examples of how racist discourses work, in both overt and more covert ways. Linguistic racism is a complex and multifaceted topic, and discussions of racism (or the limitations of idealized Canadian multiculturalism) need to attune to things like expectations of accommodation and effort in mutual understanding, as well as the interrelationships between different types of information that go in to interpreting someone as “intelligible” or not. This particular incident was absolutely vile, and blatantly racist and white supremacist, but it also included some more subtle reinforcements of these power dynamics that may have, in the absence of those other statements, gone unnoticed, when in fact they are pernicious and potent elements of racial inequality.