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Linguistic Anthropology Roundup #10

Rounding Up the Web

It seems to be common practice among bloggers, at least among academic ones, to summarize interesting items from recent online texts. For instance, our colleagues over at Neuroanthropology have their longstanding “Wednesday Round Up” feature. And those at Savage Minds have “Around the Web.”

In some ways, these SLA roundups are our version of this. They’re meant to be informal, diverse, and potentially thought-provoking. The content and form of each roundup are a matter of personal approach and preference. Though some commonalities may be emerging, we don’t have a clearly stated editorial policy.

In other words, we don’t have a set way to do these things. And, at this point, we each do our own thing.

Getting Relevant Content

Personally, I’ve found it difficult to find items which are appropriate for an audience of linguistic anthropologists and which haven’t been covered extensively elsewhere. Not that we want to be exclusive but there’s no reason to repeat what has been said by others unless we can provide something of a unique angle.

(As an aside, if you have compelling items that you think we should cover in these roundups or elsewhere on this site, feel free to email us here.)

(Aside #2: We do accept guest bloggers, as long as they blog about issues relevant to linguistic anthropologists. Again, just contact us and we’ll see if it works.)

(Aside #3: There are new contributors to this site. Including Lindsay Bell, who is the SLA graduate student representative. An idea we’ve had is to post biographical profiles for each contributor. More on this later…)

So, back to the difficulty of finding things to post here…

One “problem” is Language Log.

For anyone with an academic interest in language studies (neurolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, psycholinguistics, philosophy of language, sociolinguistics, language acquisition, linguistics…), Language Log is pretty much what you’d call a “must-read.” Not only is it a valuable resource on issues related to language in a broad perspective but, as an academic blog, it seems to strike a rare balance between approachability and academic depth.

The “problem” is this: folks at LL cover so much ground that it’s hard to find something they haven’t discussed thoroughly.

But, this week, I think I have something.

Linktrail on Language Diversity


  1. In Defense of Difference § SEEDMAGAZINE.COM.
  2. Daily Data Dump – Wednesday | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine.
  3. Linguistic diversity = poverty | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine.
  4. Language loss | john hawks weblog.

Online, some of the most interesting issues unfold in a series of texts, coming from diverse perspectives. Retrieving the “trail of links” left by such an indirect written conversation can be a fascinating This week, the issue of language loss provides me with such a “linktrail.”

Linktrail Post #1: Seed Magazine

It all started with the following article which was posted on the Seed Magazine on July 9, 2010 (but “originally published in the October 2008 print issue of Seed magazine.”).

In Defense of Difference § SEEDMAGAZINE.COM.

In a way, that article features the work of fellow anthropologist Luisa Maffi. In part, this article links linguistic diversity to biological diversity conceptually and even causally. There might be a consensus as to the necessity to preserve biodiversity. This Seed magazine article discusses the importance of linguistic diversity in terms explicitly linked to the biodiversity discourse.

Not a new concept. For instance, I’ve used chapters of this book in some of my linguistic anthropology classes.

Though Wade Davis isn’t usually working on language, he used the same claims about linguistic diversity to offer a cultural analogue to biodiversity in this Massey lecture.

Some of this is reminiscent of Amadou Hampaté Bâ’s famous line:

«En Afrique, quand un vieillard meurt, c’est une bibliothèque qui brûle» (“In Africa, when an old man dies, it’s a library burning.”)

In my mind, the topic of linguistic diversity seems particularly relevant for linguistic anthropologists. If one were to define anthropology as “the study of human diversity,” linguistic anthropology would fit the four-field model common in North American department as being the part of anthropology devoted to linguistic diversity (the three other fields being concerned with diachronic, biological, and cultural aspects of human diversity). It may sound reductive, but it carries home the point that linguistic anthropologists typically care about language diversity. Not that linguistic anthropologists agree as to the effects or value of linguistic diversity. But it’s clearly a topic of central importance for our field. In other words, it’s not that we want to preserve diversity at all costs. It’s that we’re thinking about the wider implications of language loss. After all, we’re trained to think holistically.

Clearly (and fortunately), linguistic anthropologists aren’t the only people discussing these issues. In fact, language diversity and loss are rather frequently discussed in some contexts. For instance, issues surrounding social and cultural identities often connect with linguistic identity. In some cases, people want to associate themselves with widespread languages while in others uncommon languages are favoured. These are all well-known issues, in our discipline’s literature.

In several of these cases, the (post-Herderian, as one might call it) pairing of languages with cultures is a given. The idea goes that language carries culture and that language loss is directly equivalent to cultural extinction. In some contexts, this “one-for-one relationship” between “a language” and “a culture” is even the object of intense social and even political debate. Several years ago, while teaching linguistic anthropology at Université de Montréal, I’ve noticed a similar attitude among some other native speakers of Québécois French. In that context, language vitality is directly associated with cultural survival and “failure to maintain the French language” would imply the disappearance of Québécois culture.

The Seed article would merit careful analysis. It provides much ground for anthropological discussion, including some challengeable statements and some clear explanations of diversity in general. In fact, I thought about annotating that article in Diigo or some such. But this linktrail is based on the very basic premise that “language loss is a problem.”

Linktrail Post #2: Daily Data Dump

Because what transformed that 2008 article into the origin of a linktrail is this quick reaction, by Razib Khan, a researcher in biology and biochemistry blogging at Gene Expression, one of the blogs from Discover magazine:

Khan’s reaction included interesting tidbits, including the following, with which he opens his piece:

If Eyak language was so awesome, why wasn’t the article written in Eyak?

As Khan later admitted, his attitude was clearly dismissive.

Linktrail Post #3: Poverty

That admission came in the opening to a follow-up piece, posted the day after the first one.

Linguistic diversity = poverty | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine.

(This second piece may have been motivated by feedback on the first piece but I haven’t read all of those blog comments. Some of them are even more dismissive than was the piece itself. The use of terms like “stupid” and “vacuous” is, in my mind, keying a “confrontation” frame.)

Since the main feed for Discover blogs is in my Google Reader account but I don’t tend to read this kind of “daily data dump,” this second post by Khan was my first encounter with this emerging linktrail.

“Oh, neat!,” I thought, “A piece about language diversity in a new context!” Linguistic diversity isn’t that mainstream a topic for discussion, so I was quite enthusiastic about the prospects.

But, to be honest (and at the risk of editorializing just a bit too much), I have to say that some early parts of this piece reminded me so much of a linguistic equivalent of social darwinism that I had to stop reading it. An overreaction, to be sure. But one based on off-putting passages.

As an example of what made me react:

First, we’re not talking about the extinction of English, French, or Cantonese. We’re talking about the extinction of languages with a few thousand to a dozen or so speakers.

(Can’t help but wonder if an equivalent claim about biodiversity could provoke a similar reaction!)

Another excerpt which made me react (emphasis in original):

But this ignores the costs to those who do not speak world languages with a high level of fluency.

(What bothers me here is the reference to some elusive standards of both “language worldliness” and fluency, not the notion that there are costs associated with barriers to communication. The latter is a well-understood issue in our field while the former sounds like the rationalization of a language ideology.)

I eventually did try skimming this piece, again. It does seem to contain a few interesting tidbits. For instance, in retrospect, the following passage is reminiscent of both Hampaté Bâ and the opening of the Seed piece:

When the last speaker of English dies, or, when English is transmuted to such an extent that it is no longer English as we today understand it, our perception of the past and historical memory, our understanding of ourselves, will change.

However, that piece doesn’t seem to really address the breadth of the Seed article or even, surprisingly for a biology blog, the connection with biodiversity.

Linktrail Post #4: John Hawks

So I had put Khan’s second language diversity post in my reading list, with the intention of returning to it after reading up on what prompted it.

Meanwhile, blogging paleoanthropologist John Hawks contributed his own response to Khan.

Language loss | john hawks weblog.

(Hawks’s blog is also in my Google Reader account.)

In his short blogpost, Hawks described several things, including an issue of importance to linguistic anthropologists:

[W]e should enable people to learn about their history, yet we can’t keep communities pinned like butterflies in a cabinet of curiosities.

Given anthropology’s history and frequent discussions about the effects of our work, Hawks’s post could start a conversation across anthropological subdisciplines.


As Mark Lieberman, over at Language Log (!) seems to be fond of saying, these days, “context is everything.” (Since I worry about absolutes, my version is “context is key.” But the basic idea is the same.)

As someone with a background in life sciences, Khan couches his claims in the “survival of the fittest” discourse. Hawks, with his links to archaeology, offers a long-term view of the issue. Maffi and others try to address some of the complex relationships between language, nature, and culture.

Khan contextualized his position in terms of his family’s background (from Bangladesh). This bit of context precedes a discussion of political unrest associated (presumably in a causal relationship) with language differences. In such a context, Khan’s notion of a “world language” takes special meaning, as it was associated with political issues.

Extending the Linktrail

So we have divergent views on language diversity. Since, as an anthropologist, I tend to care about a diversity of viewpoints, this should be motivating.

Which leads me to the “prompt”: what can we, as linguistic anthropologists, contribute to this discussion?

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