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Getting Language Rights: The Rhetorics of Language Endangerment and Loss
ABSTRACT Endangerment loss, death, and related terms are increasingly familiar in descriptions of sociolinguistic change now oc-
curring at an unprecedented scale because of forces of globalization. They can serve both as names for shared concerns of linguists and anthropologists, and as descriptions of otherwise different scenes of social encounter, because they are subject to multiple uses and interpretations. This article focuses on tacit, enabling assumptions of three distinct strategies for framing and redressing "threats" to marginalized languages and speech communities. Recognition of their ideological grounds helps develop a sharper sense of their different uses, and the different social saliences that linguistic descriptions can have in and for marginalized communities. [Keywords: linguistics, ideology, language change]
HIRTY YEARS AGO there was a parting of disciplinary ways between linguists, whose new formalisms led them to Language as a universal object of study, and cultural anthropologists, who became increasingly involved in the politics of postcolonial representation. As increasingly abstract models propelled linguists in the direction of cognitive neuroscience, anthropologists were abandoning the notion that "culture" could be conceptualized along the lines of any sort of language-like system. But now, as hundreds of languages become marginalized, endangered, and "die" around the world, globalization is casting a shadow over the science of language that is hard even for the most theoretical and lab-oriented practitioners of this science to ignore. This progressive diminishment of empirical resources is obliging linguists to think about languages not only as durable objects of description but also as collective projects that can be abandoned from one generation to the next, like a sinking ship. With the 1992 publication of a group of articles on endangered languages in Language (Hale et al. 1992), this problem came into open professional view, at least in the United States. But since then, there has been little evidence suggesting that linguists are thinking through the ways this rapid sort of language change is bound up with broader issues of culture or identity. This article deals with some of these larger questions as they have tacitly figured in different framings of language endangerment, and in practical work aimed at redressing threats to marginalized communities of speakers.
These are situations in which linguists may find that their objects of description are also objects of claims to "rights," and that projects aimed at "getting"—that is, procuring—such rights are shaped by broader ways of "getting"—that is, understanding—what those rights are. This can mean that their own descriptive interests, however sharply defined, cannot always be separated easily from the more diffuse values of those marginalized languages for their speakers. Nor can they be sure that their work will circulate or be used in ways they might choose. It is important, then, for linguists to be willing to recognize the meanings and uses of their work outside the academy, for persons with other investments, direct or indirect, in endangered languages: speakers of these languages and their descendants; officers of funding institutions, governmental agencies, and nongovernmental organizations; writers in the popular press; and so on. In all these ways globalization is making old questions about language and culture new again, and also making it useful for linguists to think about lessons that cultural anthropologists have already learned about multiplying meanings and interpretations of research and writing outside an academic in-group. Certainly there can be conceptual dissonance between enabling premises of linguists' "professional" work and rhetorics that they can mount on behalf of endangered languages. A good example can be taken from a publicity flyer circulated by the Endangered Language Foundation (discussed further below). It prominently displays the assertion by Steven Pinker, prominent cognitive neuroscientist
AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST 105(4):723-732. COPYRIGHT © 2003, AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION
for instance. and other acts of genius" (Endangered Language Fund n. languagespecific "acts of genius. whales. themes that he developed in that essay and in his later work have continued to shape the politics of ethnic nationalism and language scholarship alike. morality. and not just citizens living on segments of national territory. These are activist efforts to mobilize indigenousness as the basis of claims on behalf of communities whose members count as inheritors and stewards of particular locales. In fact. . Questions of rhetoric like these may be hard to avoid when endangered languages become topical for "nonprofessional" audiences.724 American Anthropologist • Vol. allow diffuse processes to be concretized. metaphors. Crystal 2000) or "extinction" (e. that "every time a language dies. . which lends practical importance to a third notion of language endangerment. these particulars of language structure are most readily mobilized as the concrete evidence and bearer of "alternative values and types of being-in-the-world .. Herder can be identified as a founder of the relativist tradition of thought tacitly invoked by Pinker in the quotation discussed above. and community resonate clearly with Romanticist traditions of political thought that have been important in Europe at least since Johann Herder (1772. When lexicons count as mirrors of nature and sedimentations of cultural knowledge. we lose thousands of unique insights. . which are generally more interesting for linguists. When knowledge of language is referred to a sense of place. This broad rhetoric has specific practical implications. But that is a tradition that is very much at odds with linker's own antirelativist approach to linguistics. which makes it worth considering here more specific questions about relations of the rhetoric and practice in the emerging linguistics of endangered languages. and so on) in the prose of groups like the World Wildlife Fund. But each involves a different biological metaphor. in which they are made focal for the work of preserving natural environments. and make generalizations easy to draw across otherwise different situations. Aboriginally can be leveraged in this way into claims of ownership. But their rhetorical strengths come at the cost of limited applicability. lexical systems were a recurring reference point for portrayals of languages as concretizations of lived local knowledge. over and against phonological and morphosyntactic systems." and so play naturally into the specter of language "death" (e. their lexicons—can be portrayed as symbolic embodiments of intimate. Both may seem like intellectual throwbacks for anthropologists. and as likewise under threat of encroachment. and that anthropologists may associate with the writings of Edward Sapir. No. Nettle and Romaine 2000). At the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development. LANGUAGE AND THE MAKING OF PLACE Endangered languages have recently begun to figure into the kinds of "place-making strategies" that Amy Muehlebach (2001) describes as having coalesced in the transnational UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1982. and environments. reprinted in 1966) propounded his organistic conception of language and culture in his "Essay on the Origin of Language. To do so I suggest that we can usefully distinguish three broadly different ways of engaging the problem of language endangerment." but he accomplishes this shift easily as he shifts audiences and purposes.) Rhetorically powerful appeals to "metaphors" and "acts of genius" draw on relativist traditions of thought that animate some of the work on endangered languages I discuss below. which closely parallel those of other activist organizations devoted to the preservation of endangered species.g. their internal makeup— specifically. Images of language as aboriginally embedded in a nexus of place. It is this tacit parallel that makes it rhetorically plausible for language endangerment to be represented as a "third extinction crisis" (Maffi 1999:21). in self-descriptions of the language activist group Terralingua. Terralingua's mission statement (2003) describes endangered languages in terms that recall the importance given to charismatic megafauna (pandas. lived relations among speakers. each of which draws on a distinct tradition of thought about language and involves different strategies for redressing threats to languages. the notion that language falls under the broad purview of a contestable tradition of human and social rights. Two of these are traditions of thought that help to present languages as forms of "life. It is a long way from his arguments about universal "mentalese" (1994:59-64) to images of precious. insofar as it places greater symbolic weight on relatively culturally salient lexicons. At the same time that languages can be value-laden diacritics of local distinctiveness. after biodiversity and the erosion of traditional cultures. because they circulate easily across contexts. who have long since jettisoned biological metaphors of culture. Organistic conceptions of language-in-nature figure prominently.. 4 • December 2003 and social Darwinist.g." These are situations in which languages can take on value if they are portrayed as organically bound up with place and culture. 105. for instance. trumping rights of access that might otherwise be claimed by and granted to encroaching "out- siders." Although Herder himself was oriented to the inadequacies of biblical accounts of human origins and animated by a broad crisis of German national identity. [and] specific notions of an indigenous morality" (Muehlebach 2001:416). communities.d. loss of language can be seen as a harbinger not just of language death but also of the "extinction of experience" (Nabhan and St. Antoine 1993). associated with distinct purposes and different issues: One keys to valueladen links between language and natural locales while the other figures individual languages into a broad spectrum of quasi-natural diversity. but it is hard to deny their usefulness in this new field. "repositories of vast accumulations of traditional knowledge and experience" (Brundtland 1987:114).
which I discuss below." over and against those accorded to languages spoken by members of migrant "groups. that document contains relatively stronger claims for language rights of members of indigenous "communities. at least for nonanthropological audiences. so with language: Sylvain's observations are easily transposed to localist rhetorics of language rights. rational decisions that individuals make in the course of their lives. For the same reason. Indonesian regions. under the International Labor Organization Convention of 1989. such that "the more essentialized the 'cultural' features become. is in fact written into the Draft Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights of 1996. led to progressive loss of knowledge of Penan ethnobotanical lexicons (2002:188-193). one 725 of which is spoken by members of a community that sedentarized about forty years ago. In different ways these observers all argue that "language death" is a misnomer for what is actually "language shift. it is relatively restricted in applicability and more plausibly invoked for languages with rich lexical resources. both referential and existential. By localist criteria like those set out by Luisa Maffi (1999) and Skuttnab-Kangas (1999). in press) of a Penan community in the interior of Brunei. can in turn be rebutted by calling into question easy distinctions between self-interested "choice" and institutional "coercion. This kind of nativism. localist rhetoric can be interpreted as involving totalistic linkage between language and identity. By a kind of linguistic "taxol" argument.. on the island of Borneo. ethnoscience becomes new again.. this partial dislocation would make it a less valuable target for efforts of revitalization. production of cash crops. When lexicons become the focus of rhetorics of language death. even though these people continue to live in close proximity to the forest." This very broad difference can make for surprisingly fine distinctions.g. with collateral effects like those described by Renee Sylvain (2002) for the "indigenist" claims to territorial sovereignty made by and for the San people of South Africa. It also names the closely related native dialects. Localist rhetoric also keys crucially to a sense of inalienable links between language and place. in both cases the ecological context is ignored. [Maffi 1999:40] This can be called a broadly "localist" framing of endangered languages as embodiments of knowledge and identity—endowed with value that makes each a target of local language activism aiming to redress "outside" threats." especially in circumsUimvs of rapid sociolinguistic change (e. Its youngest members continue to use the Penan language among themselves. which likewise make it easy to devalue or residualize language change arising from extended contact with "outside" groups and institutions. encyclopedias. with a long-term collateral effect of bracketing future San participation in a larger political economy. Ladefoged 1992. Sercombe indicates. Just as seed banks cannot preserve a plant's biological ecology. . Mufwene in press). and more or less ethnocentric editorialists such as John Miller (2002). cultural critics (e. or before the uses of information they embody are discovered. These include a kind of loyal linguistic opposition (e. and so on—which are in danger of falling out of use before they are codified. helps to motivate not only linkage between communities and environments but also steps that are taken to prevent language death through "in situ" preservation: There is a very close parallel between [ex situ] language preservation and ex situ conservation in biology: while both serve an important function.. This can be seen as a kind of linguistic correlate of a break with the "natural" environment. This rhetoric is powerful in part because it keys so specifically to locales. at least for the time being. embodied and mediated by indigenous communities of speakers. which happen to include choices between and transmission of one language rather than another. A double linkage between words and place. Like the Romanticist tradition that it invokes. a point that has emerged as a leitmotif in criticisms of language activism made from otherwise differing points of view. in which Sercombe spent time. which may only become apparent in the future. the more they are seen as contrary to the historically transitory features of political economy" (2002:1076).Errington • Getting Language Rights This image has a strong moral tenor that can be complemented by appeals to lexicons' values as means of reference." Localist rhetoric can invoke a quasi-purist sense of boundedness in time as well as space. As with culture. As Tove Skuttnab-Kangas (1999:50) notes. lexicons can be figured as relatively isolable information bases—in dictionaries. and so on. even if its speakers may not be migrants in the usual sense or count as members of a "group" rather than a "community." the sort of cumulative process of language change that results from the self-interested. but these new residential patterns have led members of that community to acquire one or two other languages (Malay and Dayak). spoken in and about relatively biodiverse environments.g. ex situ linguistic documentation can not preserve a language's linguistic ecology. than others. perhaps because speakers themselves have reduced local biodiversity in course of subsistence activities (hunting. Maffi 1999:37). knowledgable social agents. Cultural rights that are linked to natural resource use key also to preservation of a way of life. Dorian 1993:575-579.g. These arguments. Malik 2000). founded on the premise that speakers are autonomous. "Penan" is commonly used to name groups of nomadic forest dwellers and hunter-gatherers who live in this part of the island as well as its eastern. She shows how such claims operate to perpetuate lines of cultural difference they presuppose. as can be shown with one example taken from descriptions by Peter Sercombe (2002. This has also. entirely consistent with Herder's vision of ethnolinguistic identity. It applies less well to languages whose relatively limited lexical resources might be a function of relatively nondiverse environments in which they are spoken. agriculture).
foregrounding structural properties exhibited in data of language use over the life of language in a community or environment. for instance. Far from requiring in situ language preservation. This is a project whose scope is knowledge of language diversity on a global scale. Strategies of engagement motivated by comparativist approaches to language endangerment differ considerably from those sketched earlier. This broad linkage continues to motivate writing about language death and diversity—including. 105. In important comparative work like Johanna Nichols's (1992) Linguistic Diversity in Space and Time. So. it motivates research rationales and descriptive techniques that make it possible to alienate languages radically from interactional contexts. which I take up in discussion of ideas of language rights below. because they privilege the gathering of data over the revitalizing of communities." "the world. natural environments. for instance. cultures. This approach to language endangerment shows strong continuity not just with received goals and methods of contemporary linguistics. to both the native communities and the scholarly world. ecologists—for example. Robert Dixon's (1997) account of linguistic diversi- fication that has explicit recourse to Stephen Gould's punctuated equilibrium model of speciation. for instance. 4 • December 2003 This debate is not easily resolved because it reproduces. William Sutherland (2003)—see the problems of endangered languages and species on a global basis as broadly parallel. and environments." or "humanity" at large. This transformation will be aided by the power of computer technology not only to aid the analysis of data sets but also to make them highly portable via the World Wide Web. and about patterns of migration that led to dispersion of speakers and the rise of language difference. and so it confers value on endangered languages around the world. to cite one of many other examples. one that frames endangered languages within the context of global diversity. so that what is threatened by the death of any one language is the cumulative diversity of the whole. that two distinct phases of research be recognized: comprehensive documentation on the one hand and data assessment on the other. Conversely. Hill (2002:123-125) provides good grounds. in specific terms. This involves a broad comparative framing of languages as tokens of a quasi-biological semiotic type. not just for the sake of their speakers but for "us. No. rather than local particularity. But first this organistic image of language endangerment needs to be contrasted with another biological metaphor. but with the 19th-century paradigm of comparative philology. Contemporary proponents of work on endangered language have now globalized this picture of the past. of the fruits of these efforts"—are in the first place aiming to appropriate local linguistic knowledge. and communities. This work can be self-interested in ways that may be clearer to speakers of those endangered languages than to outsiders whose interests may not even extend to the goal . statistically relatable processes. Jane Hill (2002) has rightly called for recognition of the nonneutral values this work involves and the collateral effects it can have for others. the Endangered Language Fund—that new information about endangered languages will transform theoretical linguistics. The same concern with bodies of data is evident in predictions by Douglas Whalen (in press)—professional linguist and president of an academic-cum-activist organization. August Schleicher. Schleicher developed what are now canonic styles for presenting structural evidence and historical conclusions about the diversity-within-unity of Indoeuropean languages. forward-looking linguists like Robert Dixon (1997) and John McWhorter (2001:248)—who argue that the study of at least one dying language should be a general training requirement in the field—are oriented to problems of language endangerment for the profession as much or more than for communities of speakers. The Rise and Fall of Languages. or species of a genus. From this point of view the properties of languages take on importance and value in the aggregate. This rhetoric can be seen as mobilizing universal claims about the value of languages in general to license claims of access to languages in particular. VALUING LINGUISTIC DIVERSITY Where localist rhetoric foregrounds unitary relations between threatened languages. for example. such that the study of "genetic diversity" among more or less related languages can be integrated with a survey of "structural diversity" of configurational traits distributed across all languages. too. One need only understand languages to be differentiable members of a species. typological and historical questions are brought together on a global basis. instead of part of the fabric of shared experience in communities of speakers. for being suspicious of the kinds of "hyperbolic valorization" of diversity evident in Pinker's comment quoted above or. Linguists who seek to document global language diversity—what the Endangered Language Fund's mission statement calls "the dissemination. this second approach emphasizes the unity of all languages with each other as specific manifestations of universal human capacities. But it does not follow that such work can be carried out with due regard for interested observers. much broader ideological differences. which can be sketched here with reference to one of that discipline's major figures.726 American Anthropologist • Vol. as in Nikolaus Himmelman's suggestion (1998). Schleicher is also famous as the first linguist to transpose Darwin's natural history of speciation to the study of linguistic diversity (and using it to develop what now seem egregious conclusions about subjugated peoples and the fatedness of their languages to die). Leanne Hinton's comment that "the world stands to lose an important part of the sum of human knowledge whenever a language stops being used" (2001:5). So in this field the problem of language death has led to a refinement in use of received field methods. most particularly speakers from whom linguists seek data.
endangered languages' values are linked to speakers' shared social biographies and collective identities: They are not natural conditions to be maintained but. as Benjamin Elson's (2002) Linguistic Creed shows. employees of a U. just east of Bali in Indonesia. Steedly 1996). Although these strategies might be suspect from a radically localist point of view. was brought in as a team member to help develop "a sense of ownership of what is going to be done in and through the project" (1996:14). quite different sense of endangerment presupposes languages to be possessions of speakers. The simplest.S. all languages deserve equal respect and careful study as part of the heritage of the human race. but anthropologists should be more sensitive to parallels between these sorts of encounters and claims centering on other natural resources. rather. as the second. can create hierarchies of language (and. rights to be recognized by sources of political authority. For members of this group. then. Harries 1988. As cases in point. such authority. In fact. involve tropes of language as life. he recognizes that these language rights are in fact bound up with a dou- ble mission of conversion—of pagan to Christian. 1985). most powerful claims to language rights are made to and motivated by God—the ultimate source of authority and underwriter of the oldest and largest organization devoted to the preservation of endangered languages. Such claims to language rights presuppose and are shaped by different understandings of such authority. Elson asserts. in and through their own language. colonial history (see. suggests strongly that a by-product of work by missionaries to convert people through their own languages was the creation of linguistic hierarchies. When Elson notes almost in passing that each language is also deserving of being published. say. They actually constitute a complex continuum that can be broken down into two mutually unintelligible groups. speakers). and elaborating a dialect into a language. AUTHORIZING LANGUAGE RIGHTS Localist and comparativist framings of endangered languages. Secular efforts to respect language rights involving print technology can have similar homogenizing effects.g. involving political and philosophical issues that I can broach here with an eye to just three relatively narrow issues: (1) the kinds of legitimacy presupposed for. NGO sought to implement a vaccination program against Hepatitis B on Lombok with full respect for the rights of local people as active participants.. e. Appeals to the common linguistic heritage of humanity can be heard as resonating with the rhetoric of the "common natural heritage of humanity" which governments and NGOs have mobilized to license interference in local community and prevention of their access to natural resources.Errington • Getting Language Rights 727 of learning to speak them. His research led him to select one dialect. In this way language rights are grounded in religious doxa that can be universal in scope—keying to salvation through direct acquaintance with translatable scriptural truth—but is not universally accepted: What works for the SIL would not work. or attributed to. as most useful for use in the printed material and educational programs that helped to implement the project around the island. national language. Secular development. Though done in the name of local rights. and (3) the shaping effects of those claims on languages that are their objects. Hill cites speakers of Hopi and Cupeno whose felt rights of ownership of their languages lead them to reject claims of access by nonspeakers. and speech to text—for which print technology is crucial. My own brief inquiries suggest that speakers have little sense of the nature or degree of variation that exists in these forms of speech. These studies and others demonstrate how the deployment of print technology has the collateral effect of privileging some speech varieties relative to others and. as I have sketched them here. proselytizers for Islam. (2) the scope of claims that can be legitimately made. Those who would seek to preserve or be stewards of language diversity should keep in mind these (post)colonial precedents for their engagements as outsiders with speakers and communities. A third. Daniel Ajamiseba. this project accomplished a de facto codification of a kind of protostandard Sasak by the process Einar Haugen (1966) long ago described as selecting. respect for language rights is a piece of the mission to save souls. "to writing." This way of figuring local languages in universal missions of conversion shows strong continuity between the work of the SIL and earlier generations of missionaries. "natural" conditions. Given that language is the most distinctly human and basic of God-given characteristics. codifying. as shown by the case of linguistic work done as part of a development project among speakers of the little-studied languages of Lombok. what linguists have come to call Ngeno-ngene [rpnorpne]. for. The moral of these older stories. it is hard to gainsay their practical logic if they serve. perhaps. rather than natural phenomena. Ranger 1989. the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). These languages have been described as comprising five "dialects" that are ordinarily lumped together under the rubric "Sasak language" (Indonesian: bahasa Sasak) (Thoir et al. Rights to language are best respected when they are "reduced. perhaps. Under this profile. A linguist consultant. Indonesian is known by some. like religious conversion. say. is that SIL missionaries are obliged to define the languages to which speakers have rights." as an expression prevalent in the colonial era has it. which intimate that threats to languages are threats to preexisting. not all. Linguists may choose to regard such cross-cultural disagreements as rare or specious enough to be negligible. stimulating cumulative processes of "shift" from less to more "valuable" oral varieties. Steps taken to respect language rights in relatively limited engagements with relatively homogeneous communities may seem not only morally legitimate hut also . a monolingual mother's interests in the health of her children. In keeping with recent trends in the field of development.
such that the legitimacy of the former is recognized as being bound up with reciprocal recognition of the latter's authentic (linguistic) distinctiveness. rational decision-making speakers. centered on autonomous. It is this latter scenario. each for herself or himself. a region of Spain where claims to linguistic and political autonomy are being mounted on the basis of shared historical experience and territorial residence. This document invokes the Universal Declaration on Human Rights of 1948 and (at least implicitly) the French Declaration of Human Rights in 1791 as general precedents for its specific claim that all individuals are naturally endowed with the capability to choose between languages. it accords greater strength to claims to native languages for indigenous "communities" than for migrant "groups. core values of democratic pluralism require that claims to cultural. and so on). classes. these critics highly practical. But that does not mean they are accepted universally. 105." as a member of a collectivity. who portrayed it as the thinly disguised extension of the "soft power" of enduring Euro-American imperialism. the politics of territorial autonomy. as part of the good life. knowledgeable choices by social agents between one language rather than another. dominant. In these and other instances the politics of linguistic rights can map onto. At that time. So. the universal document tacitly privileges collectivities of speakers that can be identified by locality. They must be articulated and accommodated. instead. it tacitly privileges place as a criterion for identifying language communities without specifying how to determine whether a "dominant" language is "imposed" or "chosen. I can only consider these culturally fraught issues of scope here with an eye to the 1996 Draft Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights. such that rights must be claimed for one that is in some way counterposed to another. and so on." Illegitimate language shift is the causal outcome of coercive forces external to a minority community and needs to be distinguished from that arising from cumulative. which Peter Ladefoged." whether a local "minority" language is "authentic" or "limiting. now further complicated by the new politics of identity involving Canada's First Nations. This problem is at the center of a considerable literature on language rights that is oriented not to the "extinction" of languages as such but. and coarticulate with. as Seyla Benhabib observes. voting booths. political. 4 • December 2003 tively.) Against the Euroamerican tradition of the Enlightenment. but they take a different form when claims are mounted on behalf of members of migrant groups. And. So it can be difficult to avoid or resolve a politics of linguistic identity in linguistically plural democracies that. In these situations questions of language rights play out in tacit or official specifications of institutional contexts in which they should be accommodated (schools. On the other hand. Their native languages are doubly asymmetric with one or more others that are spoken natively by dominant segments of a national population and are also focally associated with rights and obligations of citizenship. then. Salikoko Mufwene. No. its appeal to universal human capacities elides questions about social forces that differentially affect members of different generations.728 American Anthropologist • Vol. But more complex conditions of social and linguistic pluralism raise difficult questions as to how minority speakers' rights to native languages can be disaggregated from the sum total of civic rights and obligations accruing to them. This complementarity helps Taylor to articulate his own position on the politics of Francophone identity in Quebec and Canada. It seems no coincidence in this regard that the promulgation of the universal declaration was held in Catalonia. which is in some way superordinate. the universal declaration of human rights distinguishes between two kinds of language "death. they are framed as being universal in scope. "act in the name of universal rights which are then circumscribed within a particular civic community" (2002:450). In these situations questions of language rights play directly into what Charles Taylor calls the "politics of recognition" (1992). and rational agents who are capable of espousing one view or other. discussed briefly above. and all other speaker-citizens. relativist criticism from representatives of the Malaysian. to individuals' biographical fated ness to acquire some particular language from childhood. In this way the document's breadth allows for strategic invocation in a variety of specific situations. Whether the kinds of claims to language rights I have discussed here are grounded in claims of faith or philosophy. or linguistic rights not be arbitrated on a demographic. it predicates rights of choice of autonomous. this statement brackets their collective nature as resources shared by members of some collectivity. motor vehicle departments. "na- . religious. as one can see from an interesting parallel that developed during the late 1970s and early 1980s between the so-called Asian values controversy. self-interested. to the loss of coherence of communities that are distinguished by the use of some native language. finally. he argues. and others invoke in their cautionary critiques of images of language death. and so on. and a language engineering project undertaken by the city-state of Singapore. In effect. (A convenient example of this anti-Western critique is presented by the Singaporean author Chee-Meow . and Chinese governments. This is because. selfinterested. genders. too." and so on. in a democratic society. The declaration further presupposes that languages can be objects of choice." On the one hand. as also noted above. But beyond its overt focus on individuals as speakers. By foregrounding languages as possessions of individuals. or economic basis. According to Taylor. within broader relations between state institutions and minority communities. its universality keys not to human capacities to acquire any natural language but. adopting one course of action or other. Singaporean." In this way it appears to straddle two views of language rights in relation to "the good life. instead. Western doctrines of human rights came under broad. or useful.
instruments of thought or bodies of identity. which must be made in order that claims to any language rights may be redressed. different visions of the past inform each of the three strategies I sketched above tor valorizing "endangered . the "core" work of linguists—to metalinguistically objectify languages as lexicons. to their own language. well known for its elaborate stylistic variants. Because "language" figures as an unanalyzed notion in the universal declaration. as symptomatic of the legitimacy that citizens accorded to claims made on them by the state. and grammatical systems— remains mute with respect to the ways speakers engage. The success of the Speak Mandarin campaign can be read. Each image derives rhetorical strength from cultural and political traditions that it respecifies and recycles. resist. are readily appropriated to this logic. But this is an observation that can be phrased differently. it has been useful here as a way to survey the complex presuppositions involved in efforts to redress threats not only to languages but also to language rights. language endangerment. The gap between abstract language structures and social life will seem barely reducible as long as one perceives the former as having what William Sewell calls the most "modest resource effects" (1992:23) of any aspect of social life. the Javanese. Languages are seen as mirrors of nature or unique formal systems. whose national constitution explicitly guarantees citizens' rights to speak their native languages in addition to the national language. The larger social and cultural importance of such choices can be illustrated here with another example from Indonesia. a long-term target of trade and economic cooperation. On the face of things. then. In the 1980s state functionaries publicized worries that Javanese. As a result the Department of Education made it a subject of instruction in national schools in predominantly ethnic Javanese areas. Because the constitution (like the universal declaration) does not specify how those rights accrue to different forms of a single language. in this way tacitly helping represent the shape of social change and possible futures of marginalized communities. community. sound systems. These and other ambiguities give the universal declaration of language rights its tremendous scope but also make it. Hakka. Two contingencies contributed to that success: Mandarin's orthographic privilege over these nonmutually intelligible "dialects" and the specter the Singapore government held out that "local" Singaporean Chinese identity was threatened with fragmentation in the face of the rise of English as the city-state's lingua franca. The result is a multiplicity of images that might lend rhetorical force to claims about the values of endangered languages. Whether or not its rhetorical sweep gives it practical purchase on any particular situation. the program had already shown considerable success in inducing Singaporeans descended from southern Chinese migrants to abandon their native "dialects"—Hokkien. the city-state of Singapore was embarking on its "Speak Mandarin" campaign. The last important issue I must note here involves a return to linkage between language rights and print literacy. But beyond such rhetorical considerations. then they are available for mobilization in the service of larger claims on the past as a scarce resource (Appadurai 1981). "a linguistic time bomb" (Gatera 1998). Fifteen years later. as research by Christina Hvitfeldt and Gloria Poedjosoedarmo (1998) shows. was becoming corrupt and losing ground to Indonesian. By this he means that patterns of sound and grammar have little purchase on the social dynamics in which agents construe contexts and mobilize resources (material and symbolic) for particular purposes. taken to accrue to collectives—family. it did not prevent the state functionaries from arriving at a curious way of preserving the rights of the nation's dominant ethnic group. But this language engineering campaign had another collateral effect: It produced a community of speakers of the dominant language in the People's Republic of China. never widely known among Javanese at large. in 1979.Errington • Getting Language Rights 729 pitted a no less reified Asian "tradition" of rights. with an eye to questions of sociolinguistic change and language endangerment. the state's respect for speakers' rights to their native language led to a linguistic museumification that had the collateral effect of devaluating everyday kinds of speech (Errington 1996). CONCLUSION: THE POLITICS OF LINGUISTIC REPRESENTATION I have juxtaposed in quick succession three different senses of "language change" that are presupposed to be part of the "bad" consequences of rapid social change: language death. in the name of the collective. Around the same time. a fact that can legitimize roles assumed by states as arbiters of their values and associated identities. Fujianese. Languages. and also are embodied in that part of social practice which is talk. Sewell suggests that the neutrality of language systems with respect to dynamics of power is evident in their relative durability over time: They are the most stable of all structured aspects of social life. restricted variety that was emblematic of an imagined courtly past. or exploit social change. objects of inalienable rights or situated resources. and loss of language rights. But the variety selected for such treatment was just that refined. a technology that requires not only selection of speech varieties for which rights are recognized but also deselection of others that are not. etc. subsistent as they are on collectivities of speakers. state—of which individuals are first and foremost members. to suggest a different conclusion: If those structures are among the clearest traces of the past in the present. In fact. for better or worse. the document must remain vague with respect to the politics of choice among varieties. in the words of one UNESCO witness to its promulgation. and so on—for Mandarin. because they refer to questions of social authority on the one hand and the politics of linguistic identity on the other.
for instance. One such community is on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). and of fraternity among members of an imagined community in the present. linguistic expertise itself has little purchase on these possibilities and cannot make descriptive work speak to any particular historical and cultural circumstance. Here purism is embodied in performative connections with the past. as linguists would expect. No. As Sarah Thomason and Terence Kaufman suggest. enhancing its distinctiveness and authenticity for the community at large. was in increasingly common use by Rapa Nui natives. Nor are these the only ways that the durability of language structure can take on value as a symbolic resource. a linguistic sense of tradition and identity can key. At the same time. As more tourists have been attracted to the island's famous archeological remnants. And when controversy coalesces around marginal dialects like African American Vernacular English (Ebonics). Rapa Nui is a prototypically moribund language that has undergone enormous grammatical simplification and relexification as a result of contact with Spanish (Makihara 2001). language of the nation-state. and decimated by illness from the very onset of contact with Europeans. 4 • December 2003 these compartmentalized performances. rather than made the object of normative structural descriptions.730 American Anthropologist • Vol.000. to grammatical and phonological elements of kiva talk. "Locals" (mostly women) are exploiting economic opportunities offered by tourism. These claims are now being asserted in a new sort of local public sphere. On the face of things. it may be that there are grounds for recognizing or augmenting alternative linguistic traditions through linguistic descriptions. This appears to be a situation in which the work of linguistic description has little purchase on community integrity. a Pueblo Indian group that has maintained its language as a minority within a minority. displaced from large tracts of land by colonialists in the 1870s. in Paul Kroskrity's (1998:104) words. and so on. it also points to the possibility that language might be a focal resource in alternative forms of invented traditions." which invoke lived continuity between present conditions and an environment that was once pristine but is now threatened. however. Performative linguistic norms. originary acts of creation by God. It may also be that such alternative traditions can develop independently of linguistic descriptions or even technologies of literacy. and their descendants continue to use an indigenous Kiowa-Tanoan language in bilingual and trilingual language repertoires. 105. In the absence of external national and global forces. the land has taken on value beyond its use as pasturage for sheep. helping to mark speakers' local allegiances and to distinguish its audience. their descendants were kidnapped by Blackbirders in the 1860s. But in communities that are marginal not only to dominant languages but also to dominant language ideologies. grounded in communities of discursive practice (McConnell-Ginet and Eckert 1992). Notwithstanding inadvertent osmosis of foreign words into . the work of linguists might be put to service as a means for invoking the past in the present. "heavy structural borrowing" (1988:91-95). Since 1988. the new Rapa Nui language might be a languages. have proven an effective means of resisting outside social forces for 300 years among the Tewa. To be sure. Benedict Anderson (1991) makes broadly similar arguments by identifying languages as crucial sources of continuity with indefinitely deep national pasts. such that recognition of local "dialects" or "languages" can be presented as valid symbolic substrates for collective identities and legitimate instruments of collective agency. a scene of articulation of representative democratic politics in a new sort of Rapa Nui language. not just of lexical items but also of syntactic and phonological elements from the dominant language. which represent the most stable embodiments of the past in the present. thanks to ritual continuity in the gendered. new laws have modified the Chilean state's asymmetric power relations not only with "ethnic" minorities on the mainland but also on Rapa Nui. the expert testimony of linguists might sway a judge in a court of law but has no place in the court of public opinion (Labov 1998). the situation on the island has changed in ways that are giving it new value and new life. exemplary space of the kiva. But in the last two decades. Massive outside influence broke down old clan structures by the time the Chilean navy took control in 1953. Ancestors of those now living on the easternmost of the Hopi mesas removed themselves from Spanish influence in 1700. but socially distinctive in local contexts—has become appropriate for oratory. for instance. and Spanish. a massively Hispanicized genre of Rapa Nui—structurally impure by historical standards. In Imagined Communities. many of whom were migrating to the mainland with increasing frequency. The upshot is that new claims can be made for local rights to newly valuable land. when an improvised Council of Elders began to assert local rights of control to the entire island. for instance. off the coast of Chile. linguists can demonstrate the empirical gaps between reality and a dominant "complaint tradition" of English (Milroy and Milroy 1999) but can claim no privilege for those findings in public discourse. along with encroaching institutions. But this may not be true of others that have already engaged with techniques and products of literacy. to be paragons of linguistic conservatism. It was initially settled by Polynesians. a language like Rapa Nui can only survive through syncretic. ideologies. Although the rest of his argument centers on just those technologies and ideologies that now seem to be causing death and endangerment of nonnational languages around the world. Notwithstanding this double marginality the Tewa appear. From this point of view. So. migrations by ancestor-speakers in recent or distant history. who were reduced in numbers to less than 1. and languages. This process has given rise to an impure but authentic language that embodies a prenational past and identities shared with indigenous ancestors. which are not directly dependent on mainland institutions.
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