Linguistic common ground as privilege

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Below is a guest post by Christian DiCanio:

2019 was named the International Year of Indigenous Languages by UNESCO. My friends and colleagues at the recent Annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) have been on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media discussing what this means for Linguistics as a field. With respect to publishing, several journals have pushed to emphasize linguistic research on indigenous languages. The LSA's own flagship journal, Language, has put out a call for submissions on different indigenous languages of the world. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America has even put out a call for submissions on under-represented languages.

There may be other journals too (which I am currently unaware of) attempting to emphasize how work on indigenous languages enhances our knowledge of language more generally, improves scholarship, and, in many cases, can promote the inclusion of ethnic minorities speaking or revitalizing these languages. This is all very positive and, as a linguist and scholar who studies indigenous languages of Mexico, I applaud the effort.

Will it be enough though? If linguists are serious about promoting the equality of indigenous languages and cultures in publishing, a greater type of paradigm shift needs to take place in what we believe is worthy of scholarship.

1. Not just a numbers game
When you read academic articles in linguistics, chances are that the topic is examined in a language that you know about. This is partly due to speaker population. There is extensive scholarship in English, Mandarin Chinese, Hindi/Urdu, Spanish, Arabic, French, Russian, and Portuguese because 4.54 billion people speak these as their first or second languages.

Where linguistic scholarship has developed has also played a strong role. There are 263 million first language speakers of Bengali and 23 million first language speakers of Dutch in the world. Bengali outnumbers Dutch by more than 11:1. Yet, a quick search on Google Scholar for "Bengali phonetics" reveals 4,980 hits, while a simultaneous "Dutch phonetics" search reveals 52,600 hits. A search for "Bengali syntax" reveals 11,800 hits while "Dutch syntax" reveals 180,000 hits. When it comes to academic articles, the numbers are reversed. Here, Dutch outnumbers Bengali by either 10:1 or 16:1.

Dutch phonetics and syntax are not inherently more interesting than Bengali phonetics and syntax. Bengali has a far more interesting consonant system (if you ask me as a phonetician). Even Bengali morphology, which is far more complex than Dutch morphology, is under-studied relative to Dutch. Dutch speakers just happen to reside in economically-advantaged countries where there has been active English-based scholarship on their language for many years. Bengali speakers do not.

2. Small phenomena in big languages, big phenomena in small languages
A consequence of studying a language that has a history of academic scholarship is that many questions have already been examined. There is a literature on very specific aspects of the sound system of English (look up "English VOT", for instance) and Dutch morphology (look up "Dutch determiners", for instance). If linguists wish to study these languages and make a contribution, they must take out their magnifying glass and zoom in on specific details of what is already a restricted area.

To a great degree, the field of linguistics respects this approach. Scholarship is enhanced by digging deeply into particular topics even in well-studied languages. Moreover, since many members of the field are familiar (at least passively) with the basic analyses of phenomena in many well-studied languages, linguists zooming in on the particular details benefit from shared common ground. Resultingly, linguists are able to give talks on very specific topics within the morphology, syntax, phonology, or pragmatics of well-studied languages. One can find dissertations focusing on specific types of constructions in English (small clause complements) or specific morphemes in Spanish (such as the reflexive clitic 'se'). This is the state of the field. Linguists all agree that such topics are worthy of scholarship.

But imagine if you were asked to review an abstract or a paper where the author chose to zoom in on the specific details of a particular syntactic construction in Seenku (a Mande language spoken by 17,000 people in Burkina Faso, see work by Laura McPherson) or how tone influences vowel lengthening in a specific Mixtec language (spoken in Mexico). These are minority and indigenous languages. Many linguists would agree that these topics are worthy of scholarship if they contribute something to our knowledge of these languages and/or to different sub-disciplines of linguistics, but where do we place the bar by which we judge?

In practice, linguists often think these topics are limited in scope – even though they are no more limited than topics focusing on the reflexive clitic 'se' in Spanish. A consequence of this is that those working on indigenous languages must seek to situate their work in a broader perspective. This might mean that the research becomes comparative within a language family or that the research is a case study within a broader survey on similar phenomena. Rather than magnifying more deeply, if they want their work to be considered by the field at large, linguists working on indigenous languages often take the "go wide" approach instead.

Note that this is not inherently negative. After all, we should all seek to situate our work in broader typologies and compare our findings to past research. It's just that the person working on the Spanish reflexive clitic is seldom asked to do the same. Their contribution to scholarship is not questioned.

3. Privilege and a way to move forward
For the most part, academic linguists believe that all languages have equal expressive power. It is possible to express any human idea in any language. Linguists also believe (or know) that language is arbitrary. De Saussure famously argued that the relation between the signified and the signifier is arbitrary. In other words, it is equally valid to express plurality on nouns with an /-s/ suffix (in English) or a vowel change (in Italian and Polish). No specific relation is better than another in a different language. If we take these ideas seriously, research on certain languages should not be more subject to scrutiny than research on other ones.

Whether intentioned or not, both people and languages can be granted privilege. Scholars working on well-studied languages benefit from a shared linguistic common ground with other scholars which allows them to delve into deep and specific questions within these languages. This is a type of academic privilege. Without this common ground, scholars working on indigenous languages can sometimes face an uphill battle in publishing. And needing to prove one's validity is a hallmark of institutional bias.

So, how do we check our linguistic privilege in the international year of indigenous languages? As a way of moving positively forward into 2019, I'd like to suggest that linguists think of the following questions when they read papers, review abstracts/papers, and attend talks which focus on indigenous languages. This list is not complete, but if it has made you pause and question your perspective, then it has been useful.

Question #1: What languages get to contribute to the development of linguistic theory? Which languages are considered synonymous with "Language"?

If you have overlooked an extensive literature on languages you are unfamiliar with and include only those you are familiar with, you might be perpetuating a bias against indigenous languages in research. "Language" is not synonymous with "the languages I have heard of." Findings in indigenous languages are often considered "interesting footnotes" that are not incorporated into our more general notions of how we believe language works.

Question #2: Which phenomena are considered "language-specific"?

There is value to exploring language-specific details, but more often than not, phenomena occurring in indigenous languages are considered exotic or strange relative to what is believed to be typical. Frequently, judgments of typicality reflect a bias towards well-studied languages.

Question #3: Do you judge linguists working on indigenous languages or articles on indigenous languages by their citation index? (h/t to Laura McPherson)

Citations of work on indigenous languages are often lower than citations of work on well-studied languages. In an academic climate where one's citation index is often considered as a marker of the value of one's work, one might reach the faulty conclusion that an article on an indigenous language with fewer citations is poor scholarship.

Question #4: Do you quantify the number of languages or the number of speakers that a linguist works with?

If a linguist studies one or two indigenous/minority languages, do you judge their knowledge of linguistics/language to be lesser than that of someone who does research on one or two well-studied languages? If so, you are privileging well-studied languages.

I'd like to specifically note that I am not a sociologist of language or a sociolinguist. There are undoubtedly others who have probably worked on this question.


Above is a guest post by Christian DiCanio.


  1. Michael Watts said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 5:39 pm

    No specific relation is better than another in a different language.

    Depending on the meaning of "relation", I might not go quite this far. I remember a Chinese teacher telling us that 这个星期二 means the Tuesday of the current week, 下个星期二 means the Tuesday of the following week, and 上个星期二 means the Tuesday of the previous week, regardless of whether it happens to be Monday or Friday today. (The week ends on Sunday and begins on Monday.)

    I was asked how English handles references of this kind, and had to admit that "Tuesday in the future, this week", "Tuesday in the future, next week", and "Tuesday in the future, week after next" are not consistently distinguished, and that this is a common source of confusion between native speakers. I would argue the Chinese system is in fact superior. (We do have the unambiguous option of, e.g., "Tuesday the 19th", but it remains common to just say "next Tuesday"…)

  2. Dan said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 6:11 pm

    Michael Watts, the Chinese system you describe is exactly how I have always used the English terms "last", "this", and "next" applied to days of the week.

  3. Bathrobe said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 6:28 pm

    Christian, that is an interesting post. You are very measured in your criticism but you make some telling points.

    With regard to the challenge of lack of background knowledge, I sometimes have occasion to look into papers on little-known languages that I am not personally acquainted with. Unfortunately the lack of context can make it difficult to understand what is going on, with the result that I will pass on such a language in favour of one that I actually know. Linguists tend to provide only a broad-brush background of a language in general grammatical categories along with a very small number of representative examples to illustrate their point, meaning that it can be difficult to get a feel for the language or the significance of the examples.

    Recently I was amazed to come across an article at a site discussing "the art, craft, and business of speculative fiction" that introduced obviatives in Algonquian languages. The article was so easy to understand and clear to follow that it actually seemed relevant not only to speculative fiction but to the kind of general knowledge that any educated person should have. Unfortunately such articles seem rare.

    If the year of indigenous languages is to make a real impact, I wonder whether there should not be more time spent putting knowledge about such languages in front of the educated public in an attractive, easily digested form. Popularisation as it's usually known. I don't expect that most people would necessarily feel a keen interest in indigenous languages, but I suspect there is a pool of intellectual curiosity out there that might find linguistic phenomena of indigenous languages to be of great interest. And the more people that know, the greater the possibility that such "esoteric, useless" knowledge will enter mainstream discourse.

  4. Michael Watts said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 6:34 pm

    Dan — I would be very surprised to hear "this Tuesday" in reference to a Tuesday that occurred in the past.

  5. Bathrobe said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 6:37 pm

    Incidentally, I recently also came across an article on Words as Feelings that specifically repudiated Saussure's axiom that 'any particular linguistic sign – a sound, a mark on the page, a gesture – is arbitrary, and dictated solely by social convention'. The article itself was interesting, however, as it discussed the topic of onomatopoeia and sound symbolism.

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 6:50 pm

    Michael Watts — I think I can imagine scenarios in which "this Tuesday" could refer to a day in the past. Consider a dialogue : "When did Charlie come in ? Was it this week or last week ?". "This week — he came in this Tuesday, I think".

  7. Claire Bowern said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 7:57 pm

    People wanting to increase the visibility of Indigenous languages on wikipedia could contribute to this remote wiki edit-a-thon, going on all year.

  8. Natasha Warner said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 8:07 pm

    Thank you for this post. All very well said, and it needs to be pointed out. It's still the case that any paper on a phenomenon in a language that's less familiar to most academics is viewed as "Oh, that's just a language-specific point" and often "that's just descriptive," while articles on English at least are viewed as general and theoretical. We need to do the things you suggest, and go further toward making sure indigenous scholars have every chance to succeed in linguistics, so that they can help define what gets talked about and valued.

  9. Bathrobe said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 8:30 pm

    I notice that all edits at the edit-o-thon so far seem to be at English Wikipedia. Is there a way to somehow draw editors in other languages in?

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 9:11 pm

    There's a separate phenomenon where a few languages with comparatively few actual speakers develop a relatively high profile in (English-language) linguistics scholarship because of chance or dumb luck. Dyirbal is maybe a good example: R.M.W. Dixon did fieldwork on it and for whatever reasons Dixon ended up being more influential and widely read than other people who did fieldwork on other indigenous Australian languages, such that as an undergraduate in 1986 I actually knew or thought I knew a little bit about ergativity in Dyirbal and nothing whatsoever about any other language indigenous to the same continent.

    But when the processes determining who studies what language outside the dominant ones are so contingent and haphazard, it's hard to accumulate a critical mass of lots of different scholars looking at different facets of the same languages other than the ones that are already dominant for non-linguistic reasons. A lot of B.L. Whorf's more striking-and/or-kooky ideas, for example, were based on Hopi, or at least his analyis of Hopi, and it wasn't like there were dozens of other people writing about Hopi grammar to either confirm or contradict his bolder claims.

    It almost seems like it might be helpful for the Sprachgewissenschaft Illuminati or some other central coordinating body to semi-arbitrarily pick six or eight medium-sized (in terms of speaker population) and understudied non-IE languages spread out around the globe and arrange for leading Western universities to push at least half of their linguistics Ph.D. candidates to study some aspect of one of those specific languages. Pick ones that are sizable but not the most prominent in their language family, e.g. Chichewa could be your Bantu language and Ilocano could be your Austronesian language. That sort of thing. Wait 20 or 30 years and you'll maybe have at least a Dutch-sized critical mass of scholarship about each of them.

  11. Michael Swanton said,

    February 10, 2019 @ 11:54 pm

    Bravo! A whole series of important observations.

    Maybe one more to consider: the privilege of English publications to linguistics.

  12. Jenny Chu said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 3:15 am

    The Bengali-vs-Dutch example made me think about the position of *politically* oppressed langauges. The one I'm familiar with is Cantonese, which has millions of speakers (or tens of millions of speakers, depending whom you ask), but whose political position is tenuous. Partially that's because of the uncertainty in Hong Kong, and partially that's because, like all Sinitic topolects, it suffers from the nasty "dialect" label.

    But how much worse must it be for smaller langauges whose peoples are supposed to "not exist" because their existence threatens some ruling group!

  13. The Other Mark P said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 3:59 am

    I appreciate that the world's great languages are spoken outside their homelands now, but they still have homelands (and one of the reasons for their success is that they had quite large homelands). Even Latin and Sanskrit were indigenous languages once.

    I presume Native American languages count as "indigenous" even when the speakers no longer live in their actual homelands. So not actually indigenous.

    Indigenous is a terrible word to describe what is being studied.

  14. Lai Ka Yau said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 5:40 am

    Hmm, perhaps it's my relative lack of experience, but the impression I get is that in the more core, 'humanities-ish' disciplines of linguistics like phonology, morphology and syntax, the tendency is to view detailed studies on major languages as boring (a view that I share). I have heard quite a bit about it being harder to do phonetics with indigenous languages, but mostly because of factors like journals requiring clean lab data controlled to such a degree that it is infeasible to do in field settings, or hiring committees considering candidates to be too much of a fieldworker for phonetics positions and too much of a phonetician for fieldwork positions – which are not exactly identical to biases against phonetic work on indigenous languages because it's too narrow or language-specific.

    I would like to offer a somewhat different perspective on why 'broader' work might be more useful for indigenous languages than for major languages in some kinds of questions, though. In syntax, for example, there are a plethora of discourse-pragmatic, semantic, phonological and other context factors that affect the choice of syntactic construction. A good study should consider all of these simultaneously to avoid confounding effects, and having more complex models requires a larger sample size. Major languages have large corpora that allow us to draw fairly reliable inferences about factors affecting syntactic choice easily, but minority languages may not have such luxuries, leading to highly variable estimates. In this case it may be useful to build hierarchical models that allow information from different languages in the same family to be used simultaneously to produce more reliable inferences in each of the specific languages. (This is something I hope to work on for my PhD, incidentally.)

    Lastly, I am wondering if there should be changes in how textbooks are written, so that linguistics students are aware that present in English != 'typical' from the start. I think it's pretty bad that syntax textbooks still exist in which more than half the numbered examples – in some cases every single example (!!) – are in English. (I can understand why, say, a psycholinguistics textbook has to focus on major languages for practical reasons, but surely for syntax there is no such need.) I think linguistics textbooks should be written so that indigenous languages should be used as examples by default, major non-English languages should be used if those are not possible, and English examples should only be used as a last resort, e.g. for do-support and preposition stranding (which, being rare, have little reason to be covered in an introductory syntax book anyway). And phenomena should be accorded weight according to their commonness across languages – interrogatives and anaphora should always be included in intro syntax in detail; split-ergativity and noun classes should also be covered extensively; mirativity is somewhat less important; and do-support and preposition stranding shouldn't be included as more than a footnote unless the textbook is really long.

  15. Bathrobe said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 6:32 am

    Despite it problems, "indigenous" is the preferred term now.

  16. Dan said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 9:25 am

    Michael Watts, I overstated it. I am aware that there are those who use "this Tuesday" to mean the very next Tuesday in the future and "last Tuesday" to mean the previous Tuesday whether in the current week or the previous.

    I use "last", "this", and "next" in the way I describe, but I sometimes add more words for clarity. Talking about Tuesday of this week on Friday, I would say "this past Tuesday", and if I wanted the Tuesday before that, I would say "last week Tuesday". If it's the weekend, and I want the next Tuesday in the future, I would probably say "this coming Tuesday".

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 11:12 am

    The Bengali v. Dutch comparison is perhaps a bit marginal to the broader point, but it strikes me that regardless of the economic condition of the median Bengali speaker v. the median Dutch speaker worldwide it perhaps ought to be relevant to the future of linguistics scholarship that the current population of the U.S. (a reasonably large and reasonably prosperous country with lots of university departments of linguistics) these days almost certainly includes more fluent Bengali speakers than fluent Dutch speakers. And while individual circumstances vary, South Asian immigrant populations in the U.S. are doing quite well economically and maybe even more to the point their children (with no doubt varying degrees of fluency and/or passive understanding of their heritage languages) are doing quite well educationally, being notably well-represented in high-prestige graduate programs in fields like law, medicine, finance, and engineering. In linguistics? I don't know the exact stats but I would expect not so much.

    The problem is not that linguistics grad school is some sort of reactionary citadel of privilege compared to engineering grad school. The problem frankly is that linguistics, as a discipline, is widely viewed as impractical, frivolous, and marginal. It might as well be art history. For perfectly understandable sociological reasons, at least in the U.S., frivolous and impractical courses of study tend to disproportionately attract the children of the privileged whereas children of poor families trying to move up the social ladder and/or immigrant families trying to make it in a new country will instead disproportionately focus on more practical and career-enhancing courses of study (such as those mentioned above). Thus, that a field of study disproportionately attracts the children of the privileged is typically a sign of of the field's weakness, not of strength. (Don't get me wrong – I am very happy that my parents took the hands-off approach of letting me choose to major in linguistics and my brother choose to major in English; I'm just keenly aware in hindsight that there were sociological factors that made that an easier sell that it might have been for parents in other socioeconomic circumstances.) Obviously these demographic correlations are not a permanent condition when it comes to ethnic origin — perhaps the university-educated children of the first waves of Ashkenazic immigration to the U.S. disproportionately studied practical fields like dentistry and accounting, but then the grandchildren or great-grandchildren ended up getting plenty of Ph.D.'s in more obscure/marginal/impractical disciplines, including but not limited to linguistics, and the same could occur with the descendants of the South Asian diaspora.

    How about in the old country? Well, I don't know the details, but India has lots and lots of universities and the graduates of the most prestigious ones in fields like medicine, engineering, and IT are commonly viewed as well-trained and well-qualified if and when they move abroad and subsequently pursue their careers in the U.S. If India's universities are not to the same degree training world-class linguistics scholars, it is again presumably because those in charge of setting the priorities for those universities simply do not value linguistics as highly as they do medicine/engineering/etc. And why don't they? What would be the best arguments for why they should, and how compelling ought they to find them?

    All of which is a long-winded way of saying that the best way to help fix many perceived internal problems with linguistics as an academic discipline would be (if it could only be accomplished!) to raise its perceived significance and non-frivolousness in the eyes of a wider audience.

  18. David Marjanović said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 5:47 pm

    As usual, a lot of problems would simply evaporate if linguistics, and science in general, were showered with a bit more money. Give people (better prospects for) job security, and they'll start researching questions other than the currently most fashionable ones. This is a question of political will.

    Maybe one more to consider: the privilege of English publications to linguistics.

    Practically all of science is in English these days. Your best best for finding scientific papers written in any other language is actually historical/comparative linguistics; that is probably the last field where people expect each other to read three or more languages fluently.

  19. John Cowan said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 6:04 pm

    Indigenous is a terrible word to describe what is being studied.

    It is, but there we are. Navajos in Denmark are not indigenous to Denmark, but they remain an indigenous people speaking (some of them) an indigenous language. Germans are indigenous to Germany if anyone is indigenous to anywhere, but they are not counted as an indigenous people or their language as an indigenous language. At this point, worrying about the meaning of indigenous as an attributive adjective is just the etymological fallacy.

    those in charge of setting the priorities for those universities simply do not value linguistics as highly as they do medicine/engineering/etc.

    "I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine." —John Adams to Abigail Adams (1780, from Paris)

  20. John Cowan said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 6:06 pm

    Recently I was amazed to come across an article at a site discussing "the art, craft, and business of speculative fiction" that introduced obviatives in Algonquian languages.

    Not all that amazing. World-building often involves conlanging, and conlanging is much the better for knowing some linguistics.

  21. Gerald Roche said,

    February 11, 2019 @ 6:26 pm

    Thanks so much for this. The situation you described here is also relevant for studies of language endangerment and revitalization. The literature leans very heavily towards examples from CANZUS (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, United States), but the vast majority of endangered languages, which are also languages in need of revitalization, are in Asia and Africa. It's typical to see, for example, reference works publish a chapter on Māori language revitalization, and then another chapter on language revitalization in (all of) Africa. We can do better – indeed, if we really want to understand language endangerment and support language revitalization, we must do better.

  22. rosie said,

    February 12, 2019 @ 3:42 am

    So Navajos are indigenous wherever they are, even Denmark, and Germans are not, even if they are in Germany, and challenging this view is "just the etymological fallacy"? Who brought up the etymology of "indigenous"? The issue is the word's meaning; specifically here, the scope of its usage. Nobody is indigenous pure and simple; everyone is indigenous to somewhere. To restrict the word to the ancestors of some homelands but not those of others implies a privilege. I agree with the other Mark P in considering this terrible. By all means speak of Athabaskan languages or Indo-European languages, but don't say "indigenous languages" and expect your listeners to understand that you mean the former and not the latter.

  23. Lai Ka Yau said,

    February 12, 2019 @ 6:11 am

    @David Marjanović: From what I hear, though, some subfields of mathematics still have an extensive literature in French, and grad students often need to learn French to understand papers.

    @J.W. Brewer: I think the 'perceived significance' (or lack thereof) of linguistics is very much a product of its nature, though. I don't think we can expect linguistics to mould itself into a subject that provides students with a well-defined and lucrative career path, and I don't think there's any way to change that without losing focus. Linguistics departments can, of course, change to devote more resources towards topics closer to where the money is, like NLP of major languages and TESOL; if weight starts shifting towards these areas, perhaps more people from less privileged backgrounds will be drawn towards the field. But surely that is going to draw resources away from, rather than towards, understudied and endangered languages, and would worsen rather than improve the imbalance in languages studied by linguists.

    In my opinion, rather than trying to be like law or engineering, the best we can do to attract people from less privileged backgrounds is to make the choice of linguistics over engineering etc. less of a sacrifice by offering more transferable skills. And I think one viable solution – and one that will benefit the field in more ways than just increasing interest from minorities – would be to strengthen the data science component of linguistics. As humanists, linguists deal with highly variable data generated by humans, and that is exactly where statistics and data science come in. To name just one example, in corpus linguistics we have complex interplays of large numbers of covariates, highly unbalanced sample sizes, crossed and nested sources of clustering in data, etc. And you know what other field faces similar problems? Online marketing is one, apparently.

    So I think the field should be putting a greater focus on quantitative and data-science perspectives in undergrad teaching, requiring courses in basic maths and stats (perhaps up to linear algebra and regression, with a special course on mixed/hierarchical modelling) as well as R and Python programming, incorporating more quantitative data analysis in courses etc. (A true data-science perspective also values domain knowledge, so I don't think qualitative expertise in linguistic description would be valued less in such a climate, if done right.) And if linguists can get more undergrads from underprivileged backgrounds to major in linguistics this way, that could pave the way for more enrollment in grad schools too.

    @rosie: I think John Cowan is saying that the word has gone through semantic shift, and now means something other than what it used to mean. I agree that it is a terrible usage, but it's also (unfortunately) one's that widely used right now, and I think most people have enough of an intuitive understanding of what constitutes 'indigenous' in common (linguistic) parlance that few would call German indigenous, or think of German when hearing the phrase 'indigenous languages'.

  24. Bathrobe said,

    February 12, 2019 @ 8:35 am

    The use of 'indigenous' almost always has "European colonial/imperial expansion" in the background.

    That is, it applies to those parts of the world where the languages of the colonial powers drove those of the original inhabitants into marginal status, and it makes reference to the people, cultures, and languages that were so marginalised. This is a fact of history and complaining that "German is indigenous, too" misses the point.

    Of course, if you go far back enough in history you'll find that the current inhabitants of any place almost always came from somewhere else. Detractors of the term 'indigenous' are fond of pointing this out. But the colonial era was perhaps uniquely destructive of local cultures and languages in its scope and speed, and it was also very recent. The colonial languages all came from a relatively small part of the globe and are fairly uniform. Their spread was highly detrimental to diversity, as well as to the status of the colonised and the languages they speak.

    Of course you might brush this aside with a simple "C'est la vie" (or "Get over it"), or you can fight the marginalisation of people by finishing the job, i.e., completely eliminating the marginalised languages, but however you choose to deal with the aftermath, cavilling at the word 'indigenous' is not a constructive or benign way of dealing with the issues involved. Until someone comes up with a better alternative, it looks like we are stuck with "indigenous".

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 12, 2019 @ 9:43 am

    The "year of indigenous languages" here is a product of UNESCO, which is almost certainly motivated by political concerns rather than a deep scientific understanding of current linguistics scholarship. Whether the LSA should jump on the bandwagon on the grounds that any non-specialist attention to language-related issues is a good PR opportunity or instead keep its distance on the ground that indigenous v. non-indigenous is not necessarily a particularly helpful or coherent way of categorizing languages, is a separate question. (There is obviously likely to be some statistical correlation between languages thought "indigenous" and languages that are endangered, but it's an imperfect proxy and if one wants to focus on improving the situation of endangered languages why not just use that label directly?)

    I took a look at the official website ( and could not immediately find the definition of "indigenous language" they are working with. The website does claim that there are 370 million "indigenous people" worldwide, perhaps not all of whom are currently fluent in an "indigenous" language even if their ancestors were. Obviously the number of currently-alive human beings whose ancestors were in recent centuries oppressed colonial subjects of one or another imperialistic Western power is well into the billions, so they must be using a significantly stricter definition than that, under which approximately 95% of the world's current population is non-indigenous. It might be illuminating if one had the list of which languages currently spoken within the borders of e.g. India or mainland China are and aren't "indigenous" for their purposes. For example, I know Bathrobe is interested in the current state of Mongolian in the Chinese-ruled region of Inner Mongolia. Is UNESCO?

  26. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 12, 2019 @ 10:19 am

    On further reflection, it seems like UNESCO's definition of "indigenous" as applied to languages plausibly ought to track that of the UN's Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which I have just skimmed without, however, finding anywhere in it anything that looks like an actual definition of "indigenous" or even enough indirect clues to help resolve particular controversies about whether particular groups were or were not "indigenous."

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