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Standards and minority languages: contradictions

Minority languages are by necessity faced with a central contradiction when
it comes to being represented in the world. Their advocates in particular are
keen to derive their legitimacy as from the fact that they are linguistically
equal to dominant languages. And to achieve this they usually need to
present their languages with all the symbols and paraphernalia that other,
dominant languages have. In other words, if youre a minority language
advocate then having a language is often not enough, what you need is a
real language at least if youre serious about promoting your language
and making it a vehicle of administration, teaching, etc. And in the world that
we live in, this implies defining a linguistic standard of some sort.
On the other hand, the trouble with the term standard is that it relates to
all sorts of things that you are likely to dislike if you are a minority language
advocate. If you wish to promote Gaelic, Galician, Sardinian or Breton you
also need the diversity argument. The last thing you want is to impose
uniformity on a class of objects, in this case language which is exactly the
definition of a standardisation. So proponents of minority languages find
themselves facing a very serious predicament: what are they exactly to
promote? How can they reconcile the demands that modernity places on
languages and groups with the demands of late modernity in terms of
localised identity and the management of diversity both as a valuable
resource and as something that requires protection? How can they present
a language as a serious proponent in the competition for legitimate usage
in particular on linguistic markets in education, administration and the media,

and at the same time value the type of linguistic diversity within what is to be
considered as the language?

Standardisation: what problems do these processes generate?
One way to look at the types of issues raised by standardisation is in the
arch-legitimate linguistic forms that might result and that might yet again
overshadow the vernaculars, and that categories of speakers might lose from
that process and become even more stigmatised than they were before
not only for speaking a minority language, but for not speaking the right
form of said minority language.
More provocatively, it could be said that the main trouble with minority
language standards is not that they might generate exclusion and stigma. In
fact one big problem of minority language standardisation is that it is too
visible, too difficult to naturalise, and that debates over standardisation are
up for grabs among different types of proponents. If you look at standard
varieties of French, English and Spanish, to take but three examples, then
the reason why there is relatively little debate over whether there should be a
standard at all in those contexts is precisely because the process a. occurred
through a very long period of time and hence became naturalised, and b.
because standards were imposed through the powerful apparatuses of
Nation-states, and mainly through education. So basically the fact that there
is a standard version of English is seen mostly as a fact of nature, standard
English is the correct form that English should take when it is spoken
properly by proper people.

But this also tells us something else: standard languages are one of the
emblems and prerogatives of the state, and they require unprecedented
levels of legitimacy among those who seek to impose them. In Europe, the
diffusion of standard languages was part and parcel of both the rise of
nation-states, and of capitalism. In particular, it was access to the printing
press and to the book industry, the fist mass capitalist industry, that seems to
have sealed the fate of successful modern language standards. In fact it
could be argued that by becoming naturalised standard forms of language
become social norms, with explicit rules as well as implicit ones in particular
in terms of pragmatics. But most importantly, in the case of state languages,
standards as norms are particularly potent ways of stabilising linguistic

Standardisation and minority languages
You can see how what I have just said appears to be at odds with the theme
of this panel today. Standards are a linked with dominant languages and
long-term naturalised top-down policies, and yet here we wish to discuss the
role of users in the standardisation of minority languages. Of course it could
be argued that I have just called minority languages stands in fact for a wide
array of contexts: some contexts have strong institutional backing, others
merely comprise the actions of language advocates. Some processes are
several centuries old, as in the case of Occitan for example, others started 10
years ago when varieties previously thought of as dialects became known as
languages. What does unite those contexts however is that standards are not

necessarily the most legitimate variety even in the public sphere, and this is a
major characteristic of minority language standards.
But I think this is precisely where the interest of our contribution lies. It is a
fact that in all the contexts we are addressing in this panel, from Mexico to
northern Sweden, from Galicia and the Basque country to the Netherlands,
issues of standards are being debated, discussed, rejected or appropriated.
In other words more than standardisation processes themselves, which are
also very diverse in all those contexts, what unites the questions that we are
asking is the presence of discourses of standardisation. That itself points to
interesting issues, which is that whether people want a standard for the socalled minority language that they speak or reject it, they all live within a
linguistic ideological context that is involves standardisation at some point.
They already speak a standard language and for most of them use it on a
regular basis, the Mexican case being perhaps an exception. So they
approach the issue from the perspective of people who already function in a
standard language, who have invested in learning and practising a standard,
or whose family has done so. And it is in that particular light that the contexts
we are discussing today are particularly significant I think: learning a
standardised form of a language, even if it is only a written form, is a
considerable investment that not only redefines social hierarchies but also
how one relates to the state, the dominant group and how one positions
oneself with respect to investments in mastering the majority language. In
Valencia for example, the Catalan school of sociolinguistics has shown how
rejecting the Catalan norm is a way for the Valencian bourgeoisie, who has

shifted to Spanish as its main language of communication, to retain control

over the language, its usage, and ultimately its own position in society.
So the questions we will address here are the following: how and why do
discourses of standardisation emerge and get reproduced, and who do they
involve? On what linguistic markets do they gain currency, and what linguistic
markets do they generate?

When I say standard, the term also needs defining. Standards can be both
written and oral, and the term is usually an umbrella term for processes of
regimentation of correct and incorrect pronunciation, accent, syntax, choice
of lexis, and spelling. According to Milroy (2001) standards index values such
as correctness and incorrectness, fixity, homogeneity and anonymity. In the
case of minority languages, the first domain to be tackled is often the
spelling system, but again it will soon be clear that different contexts have
generated different types of standardisation processes depending mostly on
institutional needs.
Pia will be talking shortly about the different types of users that take interest
in processes of standardisation. What I want to do before I hand the
microphone over to her is to question the very notion of user. In this panel,
the choice of the term stems from the observation that standardisation is
usually studied from the perspective not so much of institutions but rather of
the standards themselves, and from the perspective of language status. In
other words, works on standardisation, including works in sociolinguistics,
tend to focus on languages rather than people and social processes. There
are of course numerous exceptions, including early ones, but generally

speaking the issue of agency in standardisation is rarely taken into account.

Looking at users, and the term is clearly debatable in particular it has
implications as to how standards are viewed, as technology rather than as
social norms, is an innovative and useful way of conceptualising all types of
social actors that are concerned with standardisation, whether to embrace it
fully or partially, or to reject it.