Scaling Linguistic Diversity

Academic, Language

The conference panel, Scaling Linguistic Diversity: Language Standardization as a Scale-Making Project,” which I organized together with Sonia Das, was accepted for the 112th AAA Annual meeting to be held at the Chicago Hilton November 20-24, 2013.

Session Abstract

Language standardization can be usefully understood as a scale-making project” (Tsing 2000). Standardization and linguistic differentiation (Irvine and Gal 2000) can solidify existing sociolinguistic hierarchies at the level of the nation-state, or they can challenge them, redrawing the map so as to link the local with the global in new ways. The metaphor of sociolinguistic scale” (Blommaert 2007), based on the notion of indexical order” (Silverstein 2003), rejects the simplistic micro-macro dichotomy, instead measuring processes of typification and framing through linguistic practices. This allows scholars to talk about the role of language in social as well as geographic mobility. Also, by treating scale as a project,” it becomes possible to articulate its contested, ideological nature. Doing so opens up new possibilities for productive exchange between work on language ideology” (Woolard and Schieffelin 1994) and language and political economy” (Irvine 1989), as well as for interdisciplinary exchange around issues of heteroglossia, mobility, and indigeneity. In situations of linguistic superdiversity” (Blommaert and Rampton 2011), scale accomplishes a lot of the work done by ecological approaches (Mühlhäusler 1996) without the burden of biological metaphors. Viewing language standardization as a scale-making project also helps to focus discussion of linguistic fields” (Bourdieu 1977) onto processes by which official and alternative linguistic markets” (Woolard 1985) are created. Finally scale has a temporal dimension, bringing together language trees and language maps to create vertical linkages that can either reinforce or transcend horizontal boundaries. Whether working with minorities, migrants, vernacular or endangered language communities, the papers on this panel treat language standardization as a scale-making project to explore contestations and debates surrounding language ideologies, interdiscursive processes, code-switching, and acts of sociolinguistic boundary-making. Through their attention to various scalar dimensions, metaphors, and processes, each of these papers breaks away from teleological views of language standardization that envision the authoring and institutionalization of dictionaries, religious texts and pedagogical materials as unilinear processes whose end results are a foregone conclusion. Some highlight how orthographic standards index competing language ideologies at different scales (Falconi), or how similar ideologies of scale index contradictory language ideologies pertaining to standards (Friedman). Others destabilize ideologies of diglossia (Fenigsen) and challenge simplistic notions of code-switching (Spreng) by revealing actors’ ability to negotiate evaluations of standards at multiple levels of scale. Another highlights temporal dimensions of scale by exploring how standardization naturalizes globalized pasts and futures (Das). In doing so, each of these papers raises important questions about the role of language standardization in social reproduction and social change: How do linguistic boundaries map onto geographic and temporal boundaries at different scales? How do language practices deploy scalar metaphors to index local, global, primordial, modern, and other identities? How do official language ideologies shape and, in turn, get shaped by scaling processes? How does one characterize standardization projects that cross multiple dimensions of time and space? Such questions relate scale to standardization by demonstrating the contested ideological natures of both.

Individual paper abstracts below.

Standardizing Languages and the Virtual Globalism of Tamil Sociolinguistic Worlds

Sonia N Das (New York University)

Tamil sociolinguistic worlds have often defied hegemonic ideologies of time and space associated with projects of colonialism, nationalism, and globalism (Ramaswamy 1997). Drawing from this history to advance the discussion of sociolinguistic scales (Blommaert 2007), I explore how scale-making projects (Tsing 2000) constructing globalized pasts and futures get naturalized through processes of language standardization. My analysis identifies scalar units of directionality, durability, and discreteness implicit in the structure and use of language. Through scaling processes, these units recursively map onto historical narratives that either challenge or reinforce the view that progress, newness, and radical change are prototypical signs of globalism. Focusing on the complementary experiences of Tamil-speaking refugees living in francophone Quebec and indentured laborers from colonial French India to demonstrate how their travels are alternatively imagined through narratives of primordialism, antiquity, and continuity, I argue that immobile migrants preserve their textual heritage and standardize their spoken languages to instead participate in a more virtual type of globalism. Toward this end, pedagogical materials transnationally produced for Sri Lankan refugee children attending heritage language schools in Quebec teach them to self-identify as speakers of an ancient style of literary Tamil, whereas bilingual dictionaries written in a spoken variety of Tamil and published in Pondicherry for Indian indentured laborers living in French Guiana teach children attending plantation schools there about the global pervasiveness of their language. Through the perceived antiquity and actual circulatory routes of these standardized texts, Tamil migrants learn to honor the globetrotting pasts and futures central to their identity.

The Drama of Dictionaries: Semi-Standardized Practices in the Upper Sorbian Community

Elizabeth A Spreng (Miami University and Miami University)

Working with the Sorbs, an endangered language community in eastern Germany requires an understanding of emotional impact of historical inequality, lexical change, and scale-making. Though a detailed accounting of language ideologies, processes of enregisterment, and multi-scalar linguistic evaluations of language standards, I redefine bilingual practices as semi-standardized. This hypothesis challenges an analytical perspective focused on code-switching between German and Sorbian resources highlighting movement between scales as horizontal and vertical. Furthermore, the local Sorbian dynamics speak to the multiple navigations of space and time using the difficulties that Sorbs encountered when choosing between German and Sorbian resources as evidence. In building a trilingual digital dictionary, I worked with Sorbs who feel multiple linguistic anxieties about language mixing and language standards. Their concerns revealed the awkward interconnections between local notions of diglossia and /mish-mash/,” an array of practices using standardized/non-standardized resources. In response to my questions about borrowings, Sorbs often relied on multiple intra-lingual rather than simple diglossic distinctions of the urban-village registers. When Sorbs referred to the village register, they valorized their decisions as spoken vernacular, learned as a child, located in the village, and untouched by standardization. In contrast, when Sorbs considered the urban register that mobilizes discourses of a written standard, post-secondary education, and purity from German, they capitalized on their cosmopolitan expertise and notions of modern standards. I hope that this intervention and its focus on the everyday dramas about lexical choices can restructure the ways we consider scale-making strategies and register variation in the globalized moment.

Inside-Out: Jamaican Patois’ Scales of Belonging

Janina Fenigsen (Northern Arizona University)

In 2001, concerns with the exclusive official status of Jamaican Standard English in a society where only a minority claims competence in it, led to the establishment of the Jamaican Language Unit at the UWI, Mona, in order to pursue the officialization of Patois and to standardize its writing. The subsequent use of the modified Cassidy-LePage phonemic system in Patois literacy materials, translations of the Bible and Jamaican Charter of Rights, and in Patois advocacy websites attracted controversy. Drawing on records of communication in and about Patois in print media and online, and on sociolinguistic surveys, the paper examines how these dialogues involve and destabilize Jamaican language ideologies of diglossia, of nested sociolinguistic communities, and of monoglot standard. Informed by concerns with scale and scale-making, the paper addresses the ways in which controversies about Patois writing and officialization not only reveal predictably conflicting language ideologies but also underscore complex scalar grids summoned and emergent in the process of sociolinguistic boundary-making. The project itself as well as debates and practices that surround it mobilize sociolinguistic frames through which efforts to situate and legitimize sociolinguistic categories, selves, and linguistic practices and features take place. They call up different scales of belonging where local Jamaican identities float within global internet spaces and diasporic ones latch onto local portals; where orthographic choices collapse characteristics such as glottalization with spatio-temporal projects of global citizenship. Through indexical entailments, reference, and erasures these efforts involve yet transcend the boundaries of linguistic forms, colonial histories, and late-capitalist futures.

Scaling Zapotec Orthographies

Elizabeth A Falconi (Wellesley College)

This paper discusses an example of incipient language standardization, in a multilingual Zapotec transborder community formed by migration between San Juan Guelavía, Oaxaca, Mexico and Los Angeles, California. Using the lens of sociolinguistic scales” (Blommaert 2007) I examine contestations underlying two distinct orthographies developed to represent San Juan Guelavía Zapotec (SJGZ). One variety was developed by a linguist from the Summer Institute for Linguistics (SIL) who worked in the village for decades, and the other by the former municipal president of the village, a native anthropologist. I consider how these orthographies index distinct ideologies of linguistic authority at different scales simultaneously. The SIL linguist’s alphabet incorporates IPA symbols, which index the authority of academic linguists, while its use in translations of Christian religious texts evoke a Protestant evangelical framework in which linguistic fidelity is privileged as the medium for authentic religious conversion. In contrast, the alphabet produced by the former municipal president is informed by an ethos of indigenous cultural autonomy shaped by his participation in state and national organizations promoting the education and deployment of native social scientists. Comparing these two orthographies thus demands a consideration of how they engage at least four different sociolinguistic contexts and scales: 1) scientific linguistics, 2) global evangelism, 3) Oaxacan ethnolinguistics, and 4) local revitalization efforts. My analysis highlights the complex layers of indexical meaning that extend outward from these two written varieties of SJGZ, a linguistic variety spoken by less than 5,000 people, and written and read by many fewer.

Mapping Language Ideology in Taiwan: Indigenous Language Standardization As a Scale-Making Project

P. Kerim Friedman (National Dong Hwa University)

Two overlapping and contradictory ideologies of scale are frequently deployed by those working for the revitalization of Taiwan’s Austronesian languages. On the one side are discourses of indigeneity which emphasize Taiwan’s role as the starting point in the Pacific migration of Austronesian peoples. On the other is the language of place-based multiculturalism, adopted as official state policy in the early nineties, which locates minorities within the Chinese cultural sphere. Where these two very different scale-making projects” (Tsing 2000) overlap is in their definition of the basic units that make up the sociolinguistic scale” (Blommaert 2007). For Taiwanese Aborigines, these units are largely defined linguistically, and so the process of language standardization offers a unique window onto the tensions between these two sometimes competing, sometimes complementary ideologies of scale. Fourteen Aborigine ethnic groups are officially recognized by the Taiwanese government, yet the national Proficiency Test of Aboriginal Languages (PTAL) is currently offered in forty-three different language varieties. Drawing on interviews with language activists, educators, policy makers, and linguists, this paper focuses on the process of standardization among the five Amis (Pangcah) language varieties used on the PTAL, as well as the closely related Sakizaya language. The paper concludes with a look at the very different ideologies of scale informing Maori language revitalization efforts in New Zealand. It is argued that ideologies of scale both inform and are, in turn, informed by language ideology and can help map the location of ideological fractures.

Discussant: Judith T. Irvine (University of Michigan)