Linguistic Anthropology

The study of language has been part of anthropology since the discipline started in the 1ate 1870s. This site is a place for linguistic anthropologists to post their work and discuss important events and trends in the field.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Who speaks Shoshone, and when?

A comment on last Sunday's Weekend Edition radio program inspired me to think about two questions. A participant in the Shoshone/Goshute Youth Language Apprenticeship Program (SYLAP) commented:

Someone will step in. You can even bring in a white man to [run a business]. But there isn't going to be a white man who can speak your language.

I wrote about the first of my two questions on Sunday. (What is a "white man"?) Today I'd like to think more about questions of identity and language, particularly in terms of language preservation and revitalization.

Let me preface this by saying that I applaud SYLAP and programs like it. Native American languages are disappearing at an alarming rate. Even those that are not already disappearing because they are not being acquired by young children are shrinking year after year. I in no way mean to downplay the value of the work being done by apprenticeship programs or other projects that help get more young people interested in learning and using Native American languages.

Furthermore, I applaud the young woman who made the comment I quoted above. I am happy and excited to see intelligent young people seeking out ways to serve their communities and the world around them. And every smart and dedicated person coming into a linguistics program is a cause for celebration in my book.

Still, I would like to unpack the notion that "there isn't going to be a white man who can speak your language." I'm going to suggest that such ideas might do as much harm as good to the cause of language preservation. And a good portion of the blame for such thinking may be due to linguistic anthropology, though other fields and practices share in the culpability.

From its earliest days, linguistic anthropology explored the links between the cultural practices of various groups of people and the forms of language that they use. Let me note the differences between early twentieth century views of language and culture in anthropology and those of nineteenth century philosophers such as Herder and von Humboldt. Where the philosophers saw language and culture as essentially and indissolubly linked, the anthropologists suggested merely that, "In the main they [language and culture] have grown up together, constantly influencing each other" (Whorf 1941). In terms of their effect on contemporary thought, this may be a distinction without a difference. The idea that each language reflects a unique worldview, which in turn effects culture, is probably associated more with the linguists Sapir and Whorf than with any other individuals.

A problem for languages like Shoshone, Mohawk, or Lakota - not to mention Corsican, Ainu, Paiwan or literally thousand of others around the world - is that they are not associated with a nation-state. Shoshone is a nationality, but most Shoshone people are citizens of the United States. The idea that it is "natural" for all Americans to speak English (often only English), as well as efforts by the US government during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to suppress indigenous languages, have pushed the language to endangered status. It is estimated that perhaps no more than 3,000 people in the entire world speak Shoshone today.

In this marginalized state, many endangered languages continue to exist in specialized "culture" realms. I know very little about contemporary Shoshone cultural practices (Don't let my confident writing style fool you), but in ethnic and linguistic minority communities I do know, people often talk about "our culture" as something distinct from everyday life. In these cases "our language" is too often thought of as something separate from our lives.

Language is an important part of the culture of any community. It is not mistaken or wrong to think of the language practices shared within the group as a special, or in some sense even a sacred part of culture and community life. But by treating language as distinct from other aspects of daily life, don't we promote the idea that it is a specialized activity to be pursued by those with the leisure and the inclination to do so?

I don't have a solution. I don't know how we can come to think of communication in many languages, vitally including Native American languages, as an everyday part of life. But I can't help but think that if somehow we could get all Americans to think of multilingualism as an ordinary part of life, and of Shoshone as an everyday language in Shoshone communities, then preserving the language might be a little easier. And we might even find it unremarkable if a white man who moved in, say to run a business, would learn Shoshone, too.

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