How should we talk about language endangerment?

On February 14, 2019, Mary Louise Pratt gave a fascinating and well-attended Sawyer Seminar lecture entitled “Toward A Geolinguistic Imagination.” Pratt, a renowned scholar of Latin American cultural studies whose theoretical concepts, such as “contact zones,” have contributed contributions to a variety of fields, has recently turned her attention to questions of language justice and the relationship between language and ecology on a planetary scale. Her talk challenged us to rethink the terms by which we approach the issue. The questions she raised have informed subsequent discussions held within the framework of the Sawyer Seminar this past semester. As the work she discussed with us is a work-in-progress, we are very grateful to have had the chance to explore these ideas with her.

Pratt discussed many concepts and issues, but here I will focus on the biggest questions she raised in terms of how to think, write, talk about, and act upon the question of language endangerment—and what this means for how we think about global language justice within the framework of the Sawyer Seminar and beyond. The Global Language Justice Sawyer Seminar “takes language justice as the humanistic equivalent of environmental justice and responds with a sense of urgency to the simultaneity of the rapid dwindling of linguistic diversity and endangered biodiversity.” Pratt’s talk asked us to interrogate the terminology and concepts that we—and other groups fighting for language justice—use. 

Pratt began by noting that much of her thought has been informed by Language, Capitalism, Colonialism by Monica Heller and Bonnie McElhinny, and Discourses of Endangerment, edited by Alexandre Duchene and Monica Heller. She proceeded to historicize a number of concepts that are fundamental to our current understanding of, and discourse surrounding, languages and their vitality. She noted that the notion of a “mother tongue,” as well as the concept of “languages as bounded wholes that correspond with bounded communities,” are products of the nineteenth century. Pratt suggested that, contrary to this prevailing discourse, languages in fact “tend to have fuzzy borders.” Furthermore, “the standardization of language produces stratification” and “forms of differential citizenship, not homogeneity.” How might we best talk about languages, then? And what terms might we use? 

Pratt noted that the current prevailing discourse surrounding language endangerment, which began to emerge in the 1990s, is imbued with urgency, in a moral sense. (“Urgency,” as mentioned above, is among the terms the Global Language Justice initiative has used to convey our mission.) We speak of “language loss” and “language death.” Pratt challenged this terminology, noting that a language disappears only when it is replaced by another, and in that sense is very different from species extinction. She suggested that instead we might speak of “language substitution” or “language shift,” and consider that when we mourn the loss of a language, what we are actually mourning is the violence that often accompanies it. Furthermore, we must not assume that language speakers or communities feel the same as those outside of them do about language loss, mourning it and approaching its preservation or revitalization with the same sense of moral urgency. Language can be thought of in other ways. Language shift or substitution occurs, for example, with the appropriation of standard English in African American and Chicano communities, where it becomes Black English or Chicano English. It’s not that the imperial language wins out—it’s that it becomes something different, and supplants what came before it.

Pratt further questioned the usefulness of our prevailing discourse on the subject, including what she called UNESCO-style language. Following Heller and McElhinny, she noted that this type of discourse relies on Western ideas about identity and that it in fact homogenizes, even as it claims to resist globalizing and homogenizing forces. Furthermore, this type of language produces and justifies outside interventions—from UNESCO or other groups—that can have imperial characteristics. These ideas invite us to face head-on the question of who gets to decide what happens to languages that are threatened—someone from within the community, or someone from outside it. It’s worth mentioning that in the Q&A session afterwards, several Global Language Justice affiliates who were present at a UN session last year featuring indigenous leaders recalled how these leaders had in fact asked the UN to intervene, in an example of communities reaching outwards to request action. These discussions take place against the backdrop of the UN Year of Indigenous Languages (2019).

Pratt also tackled the crucial issue of linking linguistic diversity and the threats to this diversity with ecological and species diversity, and the threats to these. This linkage is one of the principal areas of inquiry for the Sawyer Seminar. Responding to Monica Heller’s conceptualization of “language as a bicultural formation,” she argued that “languages are not life forms” and that the reasons why biodiversity and linguistic diversity often occur in the same locations, and why extractive capitalism threatens both in these places, can be boiled down to features of the land: the thickness of the forest prompts both biological and linguistic diversity, and water is necessary both for a multiplicity of species to survive, and for extractive capitalism. She noted, crucially, however, that languages are “not inseparable from their ecologies” because they travel. 

Pratt’s provocations, questions, and suggestions provide much food for thought. Are languages and species fundamentally different? Can a language “die” even if it is not, technically or biologically speaking, a life form? As graduate fellow Chloe Estep pointed out in a discussion following this talk, things that are not considered living are often said to die—like ideas, or phones when the battery runs out. Is the connection we make between language diversity and biodiversity fundamentally due to accidents of topography that link the two? It may be worth noting that these land features (the forest, the water) are indeed ecological factors that affect language formation, transmission, and preservation. If languages travel beyond their ecologies, does this make them fundamentally different from species in that they are less bound to their ecologies? It may be useful here to consider that species historically travel as well: to give just one of myriad examples that could be given, the tomato, native to the Americas, is now of course a staple and even an emblem of Italian cooking.

Pratt ended the talk by inviting us to ask not “How do languages die?” but rather “How do languages live?” That is, what creative ways are there of thinking about the issue? How do languages shift and morph? How can we think of language preservation and revitalization in terms of creative actions? Pratt noted a Chippewa idea that a language might be sleeping like the ancestors, but that it can be called forth when needed. People have thus been recording the Chippewa language for that very purpose. Are there perhaps other ways of thinking about what we have come to see as a crisis of language diversity that in fact celebrate the way people appropriate and re-appropriate language for their own uses? How can we approach the question of language endangerment, and of how we should respond to it, using terms and methods that are not always marked by a mournful pall? 

By Alexandra Méndez, Global Language Justice Graduate Fellow

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