Discover more from Just Emil Kirkegaard Things
Comments on Linguistic Anthropology (Laura Ahearn)
Consider Marx’s famous words in “The Eighteenth Brumaire o f Louis
Bonaparte” : “Men make their own history, but they do not make it
just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by
themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and trans
mitted from the past” (Marx 1978:595). In place o f the word
“history” in this remark, one could easily substitute “ language,” “soci
ety,” or “ culture,” and the statement would remain equally insightful.
At the core o f what is known as “practice theory” is this seeming
paradox: that language, culture, and society all apparently have a pre
existing reality but at the same time are very much the products ot
individual humans’ words and actions.12 Many linguistic anthropolo
gists explicitly or implicitly draw upon practice theory in their work.
Correct. Equally insightless.
In sum, as important as the interview is as a research method, it is
often mistakenly assumed to provide a simple, straightforward path
toward “ the facts” or “the truth.” Interviews can indeed provide rich
insights, but they must be appreciated as the complex, culturally
mediated social interactions that they are.
I cringe every time I read ”the truth” and ”the facts”. Social constructivism -_-
A researcher interested in language ideologies might conduct a
matched guise test, a process that involves recording individuals as
they read a short passage in two or more languages or dialects
(“guises”). In other words, if four people are recorded, eight (or more)
readings o f the same passage might be produced. For example, a
researcher interested in whether listeners judge people who speak
African American English differently from those who speak standard
American English might choose four individuals who can code-switch
fluently between these two ways o f speaking. Each o f these four
individuals would record two readings o f the same passage, one in
African American English, the other in standard American English.
These eight readings would then be shuffled up and played back to
other people who do not know that there were only four readers
instead o f eight. The listeners would be asked to rank each o f the eight
readings, rating each according to how honest, intelligent, sophisti
cated, likable, and so on, they thought the reader was. By comparing
the scores listeners give to the same speaker reading in African
American English vs. standard American English, it is possible to hold
a person’s other voice qualities constant and thereby determine how
much influence simply speaking one or the other o f these language
variants has on listeners’ attitudes toward the speaker. In other words,
matched guise tests can provide a measure o f people’s unconscious
language ideologies - which can be related to racial prejudices.6
It is telling that the author uses ”prejudices” instead of, say, ”beliefs”. Since it is well known that american blacks ARE less intelligent, and that there is a certain dialect used mostly by black americans, this the usage of this dialect can hence be used as a diagnostic tool for identifying american blacks. This in turn makes it a useful proxy for low intelligence (white american standards). Indeed, not using the information for that purpose if one knows about these correlations, would be to ignore relevant data.
The message to scholars interested in language acquisition, therefore, is
that they should consider cultural values and social practices to be
inseparable from language and its acquisition (Slobin 1992:6). And the
message to cultural anthropologists and other social scientists interested
in processes o f childhood social practices, education, apprenticeship, or
other ways o f learning or entering into new social groups is that they
should look closely at linguistic practices. In other words, learning a first
language and becoming a culturally competent member o f a society are
two facets ot a single process. It is virtually impossible for a child to learn
a language without also becoming socialized into a particular cultural
group, and, conversely, a child cannot become a competent member o f
such a group without mastering the appropriate linguistic practices.
What about learning foreign languages? Especially dead foreign languages. Or constructed languages? Does one become a member of the nonexistent Klingon soceity if one learns that as a child? They must have some other way of thinking about this, if these obvious counter-examples do not work.
Franz Boas (1858-1942) is often considered the father o f anthropology
in the United States. An important part o f Boas’s research agenda
involved disproving racist assertions about the existence o f so-called
“primitive” languages, races, and cultures. At the turn o f the twentieth
century, when Boas was writing, some scholars were arguing that
people in certain societies were incapable o f complex, abstract, “scien
tific” thought because o f the seeming lack o f “logical” grammatical
categories in their languages. Boas, who was keen on demonstrating
the essential equality and humanity o f all people despite their tremen
dous linguistic and cultural diversity, disputed this interpretation,
proposing instead that all linguistic and cultural practices were equally
complex and logical. The particular language spoken by a group o f
people merely tended to reflect their habitual cultural practices, Boas
maintained. Language might facilitate certain types o f thinking and
could provide a valuable way o f understanding unconscious patterns
o f culture and thought, Boas declared, but it would not prevent people
from thinking in a way that differed from the categories presented
most conveniently in their language.
I found it difficult to believe that there is nothing to this general idea. I expect there to be some correlations between population IQ and their language. And just trivial things like that indo-european and chinese languages are associated with high IQ. Something like that high IQ is associated with some measure of the advancedness of the language in question. But perhaps it's not true. In any case, I don't presume to know to begin with and am willing to look at the data. Apparently, this wasn't true for Boas.
Another possible way o f researching the influence o f language-in-
general on thought is studying children who have not yet learned a
language. Clearly, it would be highly unethical to deprive a child o f
access to a language; furthermore, studies o f abused children who have
not been exposed to any language involve so many complicating fac
tors that the causes o f cognitive differences are impossible to ascertain.
Researchers interested in the effects o f language-in-general on human
thought have therefore turned to subjects such as very young, prelin-
guistic infants, or deaf children who are raised in normal circum
stances but who have been deprived o f early exposure to language
because they have hearing parents who do not use sign language. In
the case o f infants, as noted in chapter 3, the language socialization
process begins from day one (if not before), so it is impossible to study
a truly “prelinguistic” infant. [...]
It does begin before, at least, so claims this TED talk I saw a while back. http://www.ted.com/talks/annie_murphy_paul_what_we_learn_before_we_re_born.html
Much research remains to be conducted before a definitive under
standing of the potential effects o f language-in-general on various
dimensions o f thought can be obtained. It may even turn out to be the
case that there is no such general effect, since no one actually learns
“language-in-general” but instead learns one (or more) particular lan
guage. In this regard, additional research is needed to explore the timing
of theory o f mind development in children who speak languages other
than English. There are some studies o f Baka- and Japanese-speaking
children, among others, indicating that they are able to pass the stand
ard false-belief tasks at the same age as English-speaking children, but
other children, such as those who speak Junin Quechua, seem not to
be able to pass the classic false-belief tasks until much later, perhaps
because o f the specific grammatical structures o f Junin Quechua or a
very different cultural context (Villiers and Villiers 2003:372—373).
Many linguistic anthropologists question whether standard experi
ments devised in the United States can be exported, either in their
original form or in “culturally appropriate” versions, to be used with
children (or even adults) from very different linguistic and cultural
backgrounds. At the very least, what little research there is o f this sort
must be closely scrutinized for cultural and linguistic bias.
Knowing that the japanese are similar to whites in intelligence, and not knowing the intelligence of the people speaking the mentioned language, this immediately gives one the idea that it might be an intelligence thing. The crucial test for that is whether false-belief tests correlate with intelligence.
Nothing useful on Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False-belief_task#False-belief_task
Did a brief search on GScholar, with terms: false-belief task, IQ. Result? IQ does predict better scores on false-belief tests. Cites:
Hughes, Claire, et al. "Good test‐retest reliability for standard and advanced false‐belief tasks across a wide range of abilities." Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 41.4 (2000): 483-490.
Brüne, Martin. "Theory of mind and the role of IQ in chronic disorganized schizophrenia." Schizophrenia Research 60.1 (2003): 57-64.
Happé, Francesca GE. "Wechsler IQ profile and theory of mind in autism: a research note." Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 35.8 (1994): 1461-1471.
The group seems to be this one: http://www.ethnologue.com/language/QVN
Lynn lists Peru's population IQ at 90. So, this explanation might fit. Or it might not. Difficult to say about some specific subgroup of that population. Presumably, the indegenious peoples have lower IQ due to lesser admixture of white genes.
Think o f all the taken-for-granted ways in which reading and writing
saturate our daily lives. Even if we put aside schooling, the most obvi
ous realm in which literacy plays a central role, an average day in the
life o f a person living in the United States or any number o f other
countries in the twenty-first century will most likely involve more
interactions with written texts than can be counted. “ [M]ost social
interactions in contemporary society,” David Barton and Mary
Hamilton proclaim, “ are textually mediated” (Barton and Hamilton
2005:14). From cereal boxes, billboards, and newspapers to the inter
net and words written on clothing, many people engage more fre
quently with the written word than they realize. And even when
people are alone while reading and writing, they are engaged in social
activities because reading and writing are enacted and interpreted in
culturally and socially specific ways. Moreover, these activities are also
bound up with social differences and inequalities. Patricia Baquedano-
Lopez writes: “Literacy is less a set o f acquired skills and more an
activity that affords the acquisition and negotiation o f new ways o f
thinking and acting in the world” (2004:246). And since the social
world is not composed o f neutral, power-free interactions, Janies Gee
notes that we should therefore not expect this to be true o f literacy
practices: “The traditional meaning of the word ‘literacy’— the ‘ability
to read and write ’ — appears ‘innocent’ and ‘obvious.’ But, it is no such
thing. Literacy as ‘the ability to read and write ’ situates literacy in the
individual person, rather than in society. As such, it obscures the
multiple ways in which literacy interrelates with the workings of
power” (Gee 2008:31).
Garbage like this is found consistently throughout the book.
Junigau women’s literacy practices did not just facilitate a shift away
from arranged marriage toward elopement, therefore, but also reflected
and helped to shape the new ways in which villagers thought o f
themselves. Along with these changes, however, came some rein
forcement o f pre-existing norms, especially in the area o f gender rela
tions. While it might seem to readers used to having the right to
choose their own spouse that acquiring such a right would inevitably
improve someone’s life, in fact, the opposite was true for some Junigau
women who eloped after love-letter correspondences. In cases where
their husbands or in-laws turned out to be abusive, the women found
that they had no recourse and no support from their own parents.
If they had encountered these kinds o f problems after an arranged
marriage, most could have returned to their parents’home or expected
their parents to intervene on their behalf. Such was not the case tor
most women who had eloped. Indeed, because most o f these women
ended up moving into their husbands’ extended households as low-
status daughters-in-law, their social positioning and daily lives were
virtually identical to those o f women whose marriages had been
arranged - except that they did not have the same recourse if things
went poorly In some respects, therefore, the women’s new literacy
practices created new and different opportunities and identities, but in
other respects, long-standing gender inequalities remained or were
Interesting, even if sad.
An alternative source o f theoretical illumination for literacy
researchers, according to James Collins and Richard Blot (2003), is
French post-structuralist thought. Pierre Bourdieu,Michel de Certeau,
Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault all provide important analyses
o f the workings o f power in society in ways that are especially apt for
scholars interested in studying reading and writing. Drawing on these
theorists, Collins and Blot attempt to provide something they argue
has been lacking in NLS: “ an account o f power-in-literacy which
captures the intricate ways in which power, knowledge, and forms o f
subjectivity are interconnected with ‘uses o f literacy’ in modern
national, colonial, and postcolonial settings” (2003:66). Lewis et al.
(2007) draw upon some o f these post-structuralist theorists as well as
others to create a “ critical sociocultural theory” by focusing on con
cepts such as. “activity,’’“history” and “communities o f practice,” which
they claim help literacy scholars to incorporate a better understanding
o f identity, agency, and power into their research.
Oh no. Not more of this garbage.
The challenge o f identifying the many possible interpretations and
emergent possibilities o f any given performance - or, indeed, any
social interaction — has been a central issue in some o f my own
research. In particular, I became intrigued by a specific woman’s festival
in Nepal known asTij. From my first experiences o f the yearly festival
in the early 1980s when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Nepali
village ot Junigau through my subsequent stints o f research there once
I became an anthropologist,Tij has always been o f interest.The festival
is based on Hindu rituals for married women that require them to
pray for the long lives o f their husbands (and even pray that they die
before their husbands). The rituals also require women to atone for
having possibly caused men to become ritually polluted by touching
them while the women were menstruating or recovering from child
birth. In Junigau, however, the celebration ofTij goes far beyond these
rituals, extending weeks in advance and involving feasts for female
relatives and many formal and informal songfests at which women
sing, men play the drums, and both women and men dance, some
times even together.
Mehl and his colleagues conducted a study of almost 400 college
students - the study mentioned at the outset o f this chapter - in order
to measure gender differences in the average number o f words spoken
over the course o f the research subjects’ waking hours (Mehl et al.
2007).The college students (divided roughly equally between women
and men) were rigged up with digital recorders that were programmed
to record for 30 seconds every 12.5 minutes. The students could not
tell when they were being recorded. The researchers then transcribed
all the words spoken by the participants and extrapolated from these
figures to estimate the total number o f words spoken over the course
o f an average day for these individuals. The findings showed that
female college students spoke an average o f 16,215 words per day,
while men spoke an average o f 15,669 words per day - but this dif
ference was not statistically significant. “Thus,” write Mehl and his
co-authors, “the data fail to reveal a reliable sex difference in daily
word use. Women and men both use on average about 16,000 words
per day, with very large individual differences around this mean . .. We
therefore conclude, on the basis o f available empirical evidence, that
the widespread and highly publicized stereotype about female talka
tiveness is unfounded” (Mehl et al. 2007:82).
In the source referenced to just prior to this Language Log is mentioned a study about the talkativeness of the sexes, which found that females used 45% more words.
I tried to find some more recent studies on Google Scholar, but didn't find anything useful. Wrong key words?
It the realities o f language and gender are really so complex and varied,
however, why are the language ideologies concerning female talka
tiveness or male verbal competitiveness that can be found in the
vignettes presented by Tannen (1990) and others so recognizable
to us? Cameron (2007b) explains that it happens because o f the
tendency o f all people to rely at least in part on stereotyping when
processing information. It is not just ignorant or prejudiced people
who stereotype, Cameron states, but everyone because stereotyping
provides us with convenient shortcuts in determining what people
are like and how we should treat them.The downside, however, is that
such stereotypes “can reinforce unjust prejudices, and make us prone
to seeing only what we expect or want to see” (Cameron 2007b: 14).
When we see someone who fits our preconceptions - say, a woman
who is extremely talkative, for example - we easily “supply the cultural
script that makes them meaningful a n d ‘typical’” (Cameron 1997:48).
When we encounter someone who does not fit a particular stereo
type, however, we tend either not to notice or to explain the case
away as an aberration.
Why should we care i f one or more o f our gendered language
ideologies might be inaccurate or at least overly simplistic? There are
many real-world implications o f inaccurate language ideologies — in
the workplace, in family life, in court cases, and in interpersonal
relationships. Women, men, and children all suffer when gendered
assumptions regarding communicative styles and identities are inac
curate or overly rigid. What the research described in this chapter
clearly demonstrates is that complexity and variability best character
ize the relationship o f language to gender. We will come to a similar
conclusion in the next chapter after exploring the ways in which
language relates to race and ethnicity.
They are also useful in remembering base rates and making correct judgments. Cf. Jussim, Lee, et al. "10 The Unbearable Accuracy of Stereotypes." Handbook of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination (2009): 199.
Defining Race and Ethnicity
Many misconceptions surround the concept of race. Jane Hill, a
well-known linguistic anthropologist and the former President o f
the American Anthropological Association, maintains that most
white Americans share a largely inaccurate “ folk th eo ry ” ot race and
racism, one o f the main components o f which is a belief in “race” as
a basic category o f human biological variation, combined with a
belief that each human being can be assigned to a race, or some
times to a mixture o f races (Hill 2008:6—7). Hill argues that this folk
theory is widespread and taken for granted - but mistaken in most
respects, according to the vast majority o f anthropologists and other
social scientists. Indeed, the official statement on race o f the
American Anthropological Association begins with these two
In the United States both scholars and the general public have been
conditioned to viewing human races as natural and separate divisions
within the human species based on visible physical differences.
With the vast expansion of scientific knowledge in this century,
however, it has become clear that human populations are not unam
biguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence
from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical
variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional
geographic “racial” groupings differ from one another only in about
6% of their genes. This means that there is greater variation within
“racial” groups than between them. In neighboring populations
there is much overlapping of genes and their phenotypic (physical)
expressions.Throughout history whenever different groups have come
into contact, they have interbred. The continued sharing of genetic
materials has maintained all of humankind as a single species.
Physical variations in any given trait tend to occur gradually rather
than abruptly over geographic areas. And because physical traits are
inherited independently of one another, knowing the range of one
trait does not predict the presence of others. For example, skin color
varies largely from light in the temperate areas in the north to dark in
the tropical areas in the south; its intensity is not related to nose shape
or hair texture. Dark skin may be associated with frizzy or kinky hair
or curly or wavy or straight hair, all of which are found among different
indigenous peoples in tropical regions. These facts render any attempt
to establish lines of division among biological populations both
arbitrary and subjective.
As definitive as the AAA’s statement is about the lack o f a consistent
biological basis for the concept o f race, it should not be read as argu
ing that race does not exist. Race is clearly an important social cate
gory that influences people’s life trajectories and identities. Many
scholars in fact view it as a, or even the, central organizing principle
in the United States. But the social fact o f race does not support the
folk theory described by Hill above.2 Reflect for a moment upon
the following paradox: because o f the so-called “one-drop rule,” a
white woman in the United States can give birth to a black child, but
a black woman cannot give birth to white child. Such reflection
should lead to an appreciation for the social foundations o f the con
cept o f race (Ignatiev 1995:1).
This one was bound to happen. The usual socialconstructivism.
Edwards, Anthony WF. "Human genetic diversity: Lewontin's fallacy." BioEssays 25.8 (2003): 798-801.
As usual, these socialconstructivists attack strawman accounts of race. Who believes in an essentialist, clearly separate account of human races? No one. It's biology, clear bounderies are a rarefind. :)
At one point in the history o f the United States, for example, many
groups now unquestioningly considered “w h i te ” were initially not
included in this privileged category.3 Benjamin Franklin, for example,
wrote in the eighteenth century that Swedes and Germans were
“swarthy,” and he did not include them among the “white people,”
who consisted, according to Franklin, solely o f the English and the
Saxons. “This example,” Jane Hill comments, “shows how what seem
to us today like fundamental perceptions may be o f very recent his
torical origin . .. Contemporary White Americans can no longer see
‘swarthiness’ among Swedes, and find it astonishing that anyone ever
did so” (Hill 2008:14).
Never heard of this one. But it seems true. http://www.dialoginternational.com/dialog_international/2008/02/ben-franklin-on.html
24. Which leads me to add one Remark: That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red? But perhaps I am partial to the Complexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind.
Good old racism. In reality the Swedes are very white, and the British are partly Swedes due to Viking settlements... https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viking_Age#England
Gene tests can surely confirm this, if they haven't already done so.
The parameters and nuances o f racial classifications in countries
other than the United States have been studied by anthropologists and
other social scientists for many years. In Brazil, for example, scholarly
debates have focused on the meanings o f multiple Brazilian racial
categories that intersect in complicated ways with class, gender, and
sexuality.4 In Nepal, the country I know best ethnographically, there
is nothing like the black—white binary commonly attributed to the
United States, and until recently, the concept o f “race” was not men
tioned in public debates at all. Instead, caste, ethnicity, and religion
have been the most salient forms o f social differentiation for Nepalis.
During the 1990s, however, a group o f activists from various Tibeto-
Burman ethnic groups drew upon outdated social science research
from the last century to posit three main races in the world (Hangen
2005, 2009). Susan Hangen, an anthropologist who has conducted
fieldwork on this topic in Nepal, reports that a politician in eastern
Nepal stated the following during one o f his speeches in 1997:
We are a M on go l community, we are n o t a caste either; we are Mongol .
For example, in this world there are three types o f people. O n e is
w h i te w i th w h i te skin like Americans, for example like sister here
[referring to me] . . . T h e o th e r has black skin and is called N e g ro .T h e
o th e r is called the red race like us: sh ort like us; stocky like us; with
small eyes and flat noses like us. (2005:49)
L5y invoking this outdated tripartite racial classification, the politician
was attempting to unite a number o f linguistically and culturally
diverse ethnic groups, such as Rais, Magars, Limbus, Gurungs, and
Sherpas, under the umbrella o f one political party, the Mongol
National Organization (MNO). The hope was that unifying these
disparate but similarly disadvantaged groups would help them oppose
Nepal’s high-caste Hindu ruling groups. One person told Hangen,
“We didn’t know that we were Mongols until the M N O came here”
(2005:49). Hangen’s research is a fascinating example o f the com
plexities, contradictions, and cross-cultural differences involved in the
concept ot race.
Actually those three are the three superclusters found using modern methods and not a all wrong. They are however less informative than are the lesser clusters, say, the 10 clusters identified by Sforza (1994). Depending on how much data one has, and how much detail one wants, one can find a larger number of clusters, aka. races.
Bonnie Urciuoli approaches the process o f ethnicization differently
in her research on Puerto Ricans in New York City, contrasting
ethnicization with racialization and situating both within the context
of class and gender identities in the United States. According to
Urciuoli (1996), racial discourses “frame group origin in natural
terms.” Ethnic discourses, in contrast, “frame group origin in cultural
terms” (1996:15). Racialized people, Urciuoli writes, are considered
out of place; they are dirty, dangerous, and unwilling or unable to
participate constructively in the nation-state. In contrast, the cultural
differences said to be characteristic o f ethnicized people are consid
ered safe, ordered, and “ a contribution to the nation-state offered by
striving immigrants making their way up the ladder o f class mobility”
(1996:16). Within this landscape o f social inequality and exclusion,
Urciuoli states that language differences are often racialized.That is, an
inability to speak English, or an inability to speak English “without an
accent” (cf. Lippi-Green 1997), marks someone as disorderly and
unlikely to experience social mobility - as someone, in other words,
who does not fully belong in the United States.
But the asians are doing just fine and speak with an accent. Likewise with other high IQ immigrants.
Some people argue that using two negatives is “illogical" because
two negatives is a positive according to formal logic or mathematical
principles. But if this were so, then the use o f three negatives, as in the
sentence, “ I can’t get n o th in ’ from nobody,” would go back to being
a negative and would no longer “violate” these principles. Clearly,
this sentence would be as objectionable as ones with only two nega
tives to the prescriptivists who want to impose the grammatical rules
o f one dialect o f English (the standard one) on all other dialects.
While there may be many good reasons for preferring standard
English over other dialects o f English in certain instances, neverthe
less, as Labov (1972a) famously demonstrated decades ago in his
classic article, “The Logic o f Nonstandard English,” logic and gram-
maticality are not among them. The preference o f one dialect over
another is one based on social, political, or economic factors - it
cannot be based on linguistic factors because all dialects are equally
logical and grammatical.
Nonsense. Some languages are more logical than others. The obvious case being lojban which is directly translateable to predicate logic. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lojban
In any case, the author seems to have no good understanding of formal logic, as she uses confusing simplistic terms. The sentence she uses as an example: I can’t get nothin’ from nobody.
I can't get nothing from nobody.
I can get something from nobody.
I can't get anything from anybody.
These are all equivalent in standard predicate logic.
¬(∃x)¬(∃y)¬CanGetFrom(I, x, y)
substitute ¬(∃x) for (∀x)¬
(∀x)¬¬(∃y)¬CanGetFrom(I, x, y)
Double negation elimination
(∀x)(∃y)¬CanGetFrom(I, x, y)
For any x, there is an y such that it is not the case that I can get x from y.
In other words, for every person, there is something I can't get. I can't get anything from anybody.
That's using the internal negation interpretation. Using external negation, the situation is easier, and that is left for the reader as an exercise in logic. :)
Turning to the second question about how or whether AAE should
be used in schools to facilitate the acquisition among AAE-speaking
students o f the standard dialect o f English, it is important to note the
serious educational crisis that the Oakland Board o f Education was
trying to address (however ineffectively or controversially) in its
December 1996 resolution. As John Rickford (2005) reminds us, the
Oakland school district was not alone in experiencing extremely high
rates o f failure and drop-out among its African American population.
O th e r school districts throughout the United States faced similar
disparities in school performance at the time - and still do today.
The question remains how to address these educational disparities.
Although this issue is far beyond the scope o f this book, involving as
it does complex issues o f poverty, racial discrimination, and residential
segregation, among other possible contributing factors, the extent to
which speaking a nonstandard, stigmatized linguistic variant such as
AAE contributes to school problems deserves to be studied further
(cf. Labov 2010; Rickford 2005).
It is called intelligence.
Aside from the obvious racist slurs, what constitutes racist language?
Jane Hill (2008) argues that the language ideologies that are dominant
in the United States, combined with a widespread American folk
theory o f race, combine to ensure that the everyday talk produced by
average white, middle-class Americans and distributed in respected
media “ continues to produce and reproduce Whi te racism” (2008:47).
Far from being an element o f the past. Hill maintains, racism “is a vital
and formative presence in American lives, resulting in h ur t and pain
to individuals, to glaring injustice, in the grossly unequal distribution
o f resources along racially stratified lines, and in strange and damaging
errors and omissions in public policy both domestic and foreign”
(2008:47-48). And this racism, Hill suggests, is largely produced in
and through everyday talk - not through the obvious racist slurs that
most people today condemn (though these o f course contribute), but
through unintentional, indirect uses ot language that reinforce racist
Ah, the racism theory of blacks problems. Obviously doesn't work due to the fact that blacks in African countries perform likewise badly. And they have done so for the last 100 years, so far back as we have data.
Cf. Jensen's discussion in The g Factor. http://emilkirkegaard.dk/en/wp-content/uploads/The-g-factor-the-science-of-mental-ability-Arthur-R.-Jensen.pdf
In a similar set o f experiments, Rubin (1992) and Rubin and Smith
(1990) conducted matched guise tests with undergraduates (Hill
2008:12). All their research participants heard the same four-minute
tape-recorded lecture featuring a woman who was a native speaker ot
English, but half o f the students were shown a slide o f a white woman
while they listened to the lecture and were told that this was the
speaker, while the other half were shown a slide o f an East Asian
woman. The students in the latter group tended to report that the
speaker had a foreign accent, and they even did significantly worse on
a comprehension quiz on the material in the lecture — even though
these students had heard exactly the same lecture as the students who
were shown the photo o f a white woman while they listened to the
lecture! Clearly, racial categories and racialized language ideologies can
influence perceptions even without our being aware o f the process.
That sounds interesting. Inb4 small sample size and publication bias.
The cites are:
Rubin, D.L. (1992) Nonlanguage factors affecting undergraduates’ judgments of nonnative English-speaking teaching assistants. Research in Higher Education 33:51 1—53 I .
Rubin, D.L. and Smith, K.A. (1990) Effects of accent, ethnicity, and lecture
topic onundergraduates’ perceptions of non-native English-speaking teaching assistants. International Journal of Intercultural Relations 14:
I looked into the newest one, from 1992. It had a sample size of 62 (with apparently, self-selection before that). And it reported non-significant results for the things the author of the book claims. Color me not impressed, although interesting study. The results did tend to go in the direction the author claims, but they had a huge variance.
What are the problematic assumptions underlying the desire to
count the number ot endangered languages, and the number o f speak
ers each endangered language has? Jane Hill (2002:127-128;
cf. Duchene and Heller 2007) names several. First, although she
acknowledges that numbers can be powerful “ calls to action” that have
been used to mobilize activists to reverse the trend toward language
death, and although Hill herselt has been involved in such efforts, she
warns that journalists and the mass media are soundbite oriented and
cannot or will not devote enough time or space to explaining the dif
ficulties or subtleties involved in quantifying languages or speakers.
Second, Hill warns that numbers and statistics that are meant for one
kind of audience — speakers of dominant languages, perhaps, who have
the power to do something about the extinction o f smaller languages
— can have very negative effects when heard by a very different kind o f
audience - the speakers o f endangered languages themselves. Hill
reminds her readers that numbers have often been used by colonial
powers in the past as one means o f control, what Foucault would call
governmentality through enumeration. Speakers o f endangered lan
guages are often fearful, she warns, that numbers can be (and have been)
held against them, and they can therefore become fearful or resentful.
K. David Harrison, another linguist who works on endangered lan
guages all over the world, lists three areas o f loss if we fail to safeguard
and document languages at risk o f extinction: (1) the erosion o f
the human knowledge base, especially local ecological knowledge;
(2) the loss o f cultural heritage; and (3) failure to acquire a full under
standing o f human cognitive capacities (2007:15-19). With regard to
the first area o f loss, Harrison notes that an estimated 87 percent o f
the world’s plants and animals have not yet been identified or studied
by modern scientists. If we are to hope that a cure to cancer or other
horrible diseases might be found in the Amazon, or in Papua New
Guinea, or it we want to learn about more sustainable forms o f agri
culture from people who have been living in harmony in their envi
ronments for many hundreds o f years, then we should recognize,
Harrison writes, that “most o f what humankind knows about the
natural world lies completely outside o f science textbooks, libraries,
and databases, existing only in unwri tten languages in people’s
memories” — that is, mostly in unwri tten endangered languages
(2007:15). O f course, some o f this knowledge can be communicated
in a different language, assuming the person speaking the endangered
language is bilingual, but oftentimes there is a “massive disruption o f
the transfer o f traditional knowledge across generations” when a
group switches from an endangered language to a dominant language
(2007:16). Particular languages are often especially rich in certain
areas o f the lexicon, such as reindeer herding, botany, or fishing, that
are the most important to the speakers o f those languages, and a great
deal o f ecologically specific knowledge is encoded in that language
that goes along with those particular cultural practices. It is not sur
prising, then, that much o f that knowledge is not passed on when the
language (and often the way o f life as well) dies.
I thought the point about loss of local knowledge was good. Although this is only relevant for useful local knowledge. Map knowledge, not useful. We have satelites. Properties of local plants. Might be very useful for medicine.
The third area o f loss Elarrison identifies is the ability to acquire a
full understanding o f the capabilities o f the human mind. Linguists
and cognitive scientists make assumptions about what the human
brain can and cannot do based on experiments and existing data. One
source o f such data is the group o f languages that have been studied
by linguists. Whenever a language is analyzed for the first time, schol
ars look to see what patterns it shares grammatically with other lan
guages in the world and which features it has that might be unique.
The more languages that die, the more likely it is that the conclusions
scholars draw about the limits o f human cognition might be mistaken.
For example, the language o f Urarina, which is spoken by only 3,000
people in the Amazon rainforest o f Peru, has a very unusual word
order for its sentences. Unlike English, which generally uses the
Subject -V e rb - Object (S-V-O) word order, as in sentences such as,
“The girl rode the bike,” Urarina uses the Object - Verb — Subject
(O-V-S) word order, which would have a literal translation for this
sentence as, “The bike rode the girl.” O-V-S word order is extremely
rare among the world’s languages. “Were it not for Urarina and a few
other Amazonian languages,” Harrison writes, “scientists might not
even suspect it were possible. They would be free to hypothesize —
falsely - that O-V-S word order was cognitively impossible, that the
human brain could not process i t” (2007:19).
Eh. It is obviously 'cognitively possible' since we just understood an English example with OVS order... Another route is just to make construct a language to test it with. Similarly for other candidates for impossibility.
Still useful, sure, but not that useful.
As a language is in the process o f dying out, it often undergoes
simplification in its grammar and lexicon. Speakers have fewer oppor
tunities to use the language and so either forget or do not acquire a
large vocabulary. Grammatical structures can also be lost or simplified.
For example, in Dyirbal, an endangered Aboriginal language in
Australia, there used to be a four-part classification o f nouns. (See
chapter 4 for a discussion o f the four categories.) Nowadays, however,
young people are less familiar with the ancestral myths and cultural
practices that motivated the four-part classification, and they are less
fluent in Dyirbal, having attended school mostly in English, and so
they have replaced the four-part system o f noun classification with a
two-part one. It is still different from English and retains some of the
features o f the older system, hut it has become much simpler to use
(Nettle and Romaine 2000:66-69).
Now, if only all other languages would get rid of noun classes/genders... :)
The chapter on language extinction is really lacking in content. They don't discuss the overall cause of the huge diversity of languages to begin with, why there is a lot of diversity some places, and others not. And they fail to mention one very good reason, which is indeed the primary reason to use a language at all, to have fewer languages: it makes communcating easier! The cause of diversity of languages is 1) lack of long distance communcation between groups of people. Consider it a proces similar to genetic drift. Those places where there is lots of language diversity, are exactly the kind of backward places with no decent technology to facilitate long distance communication. When we use introduce it, they need to use a different language to talk with other people, and hence switch from their now not very useful language to one more useful. Nothing mysterious here.
One o f the most useful terms for our purposes in understanding how
power intersects with language is hegemony. According to Raymond
Williams, a cultural Marxist who builds on the work o f Antonio
Gramsci, hegemony refers to a dynamic system o f domination based
not so much on violence or the threat o f violence, or merely on the
economic control o f the means o f production, but rather on political,
cultural, and institutional influence. “That is to say,” Williams writes,
“it is not limited to matters o f direct political control but seeks to
describe a more general predominance which includes, as one o f its
key features, a particular way o f seeing the world and human nature
and relationships” (1983:145). Having military power or economic
wealth can certainly lead to power, but social status and cultural dom
inance can also come from other sources, and hegemony is a term that
helps us understand this process. Hegemony is saturated with the spe
cific forms o f inequality belonging to particular societies at particular
historical moments, according to Williams, and is “ . . . in the strongest
sense a ‘culture’, but a culture which has also to be seen as the lived
dominance and subordination o f particular classes” (1977:110).
Emphasizing the dynamic nature o f any “ lived hegemony,” Williams
reminds us that “it does not just passively exist as a form o f domi
nance. It has continually to be renewed, recreated, defended, and
modified. It is also continually resisted, limited, altered, challenged by
pressures not all its own” (1977:112). In other words, Williams con
cludes, while any lived hegemony is always by definition dominant, it
is never total or exclusive (1977:113).
Oh boy here we go...
Antonio Gramsci (Italian: [anˈtɔːnjo ˈɡramʃi]; 22 January 1891 – 27 April 1937) was an Italian writer, politician, political theorist, philosopher, sociologist, and linguist. He was a founding member and onetime leader of the Communist Party of Italy and was imprisoned by Benito Mussolini's Fascist regime.
Gramsci was one of the most important Marxist thinkers in the 20th century. His writings are heavily concerned with the analysis of culture and political leadership and he is notable as a highly original thinker within modern European thought. He is renowned for his concept of cultural hegemony as a means of maintaining the state in a capitalist society.
In a contribution that ties in nicely with one o f this b o o k ’s key
concepts, that o f language ideologies, Bourdieu describes how differ
ent levels o f symbolic capital can turn into symbolic dominance and even
symbolic violence. When individuals in a society are not proficient in
the most highly valued ways o f speaking (such as English in the
United States, especially Standard American English), they do not
benefit from the access such proficiency often provides to prestigious
schools, professions, or social groups (cf. Lippi-Green 1997). And yet,
speakers o f stigmatized variants (for example, in the United States
these might include speakers o f nonstandard varieties o f English
such as African American English or Appalachian English) frequently
buy into the system o f evaluation that ranks Standard American
English as superior. These people’s own language ideologies, in other
words, stigmatize the ways in which they themselves speak. This
acceptance o f differing social values accorded various ways ot speak
ing is in actuality a misrecognition, according to Bourdieu, because the
differential levels o f prestige constitute an arbitrary ranking. Every
language or dialect is as good linguistically, even though not socially, as
It just isn't true. Languages differ in many relevant linguistic properties. Good luck discussing advanced physics in some amerindian language with no words for the relevant physics terms. This is even the case for a large language such as Danish. This is one of the reason we see what is called domain loss - a domain of life is spoken about in a different language because no suitable terms exist in the standard language. Cf. ex. http://sprogmuseet.dk/sprogpolitik/ingen-fare-for-dom%C3%A6netab-naturvidenskabelige-forskere-vil-altid-have-brug-for-dansk/
And some are easier to learn than others, due to grammar or phonology (ex. English <th> sounds are difficult to learn).
And so on.
Why such a change in the understanding o f these languages? Irvine
and Gal argue that the answer it was not so much because o f better
scholarship or improved data but instead because, “There have also
been changes in what observers expected to see and how they inter
preted what they saw” (2000:48). Nineteenth-century linguists and
ethnographers assumed that linguistic classifications could be used to
judge evolutionary rankings o f groups. (White Europeans were of
course at the top o f this ranking, and various African groups clustered
toward the bottom.) They also assumed that ethnic groups were
monolingual and that a “primordial relationship” existed that linked
languages with territories, nations, tribes, and peoples. In the case o f
Fula, Wolof, and Sereer, racial and linguistic ideologies led nineteenth-
century linguists to consider the Fula language and its speakers (who
were often lighter skinned than the others and who tended to espouse
a more orthodox Islam) to be o f higher status and intelligence. The
Wolof language was deemed “less supple, less handy” than Fula, and its
speakers less intelligent. The Sereer language, nineteenth-century lin
guists claimed, was “the language o f primitive simplicity” (Irvine and
Never heard of them, but lightness of skin does correlate well with population intelligence world wide.
They might be smarter than their neighbours. At least, there is a list of prominent fula people. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fula_people#Notable_Fulani_people_by_country
Googling “fule people intelligent” yields 13.1e6 results.