Review: Duchêne & Heller: Discourses of Endangerment – by Nick Thieberger

Alexandre Duchêne & Monica Heller. 2007. Discourses of Endangerment: Ideology and Interest in the Defence of Languages. London: Continuum.
Reviewed by Nick Thieberger, University of Melbourne / University of Hawai’i
This collection of thirteen papers addresses language ideology, in particular the use of ‘language endangerment’ as a rallying cry with broader ‘ideological struggles on the terrain of language’. If I could have done a concordance of the text, I’m sure that tokens including ‘discourse’ and ‘essentialize’ would have come out near the top of the frequency list. The use of the former is apparently necessary at least once a page (and preferably more often) and the second is a ‘Bad Thing’, although I have to say that most authors in this book essentialize linguists and the linguistic project as unproblematic, and not internally fraught in the way that everything else is (although the naivete of this postmodern critique would have one think that only they could consider such a thing to be possible).
Deconstruction is the trope of choice throughout this volume – unfortunately constructive critique is not. A certain amount of critical evaluation of linguists’ engagement with endangered languages is necessary, but I find it in general to be dealt with in a heavy-handed and unhelpful way by many of the contributions to this volume.
In this review I will give a brief sketch of the contents of the book which I approached eagerly, keen to read a critical account of the endangered languages (EL) movement in which I have had some interest over almost three decades now. My interest in ELs has focussed on small languages, typically spoken by marginalised groups in what used to be called the fourth world, pre-industrial people living largely traditional lives and, in general these language were not provided with much in the way of resources or existing documentation. This book, on the whole, deals with languages ranging from Corsican to French as endangered in some way and it takes some changing gear in my mind to sympathise with their plight. One chapter deals with indigenous languages (of Canada) but otherwise the volume has a strong European focus (the other exceptions being a chapter on the ‘Official English’ movement in the USA and another on Acadian French in Nova Scotia).

In their introduction (chapter one) Duchêne and Heller ask how we can know there are 6,000 languages in the world (3), and admit that they “aren’t even sure how you can count languages.” (Note, regular readers of this blog may find a resonance with Peter Austin’s post ‘commodification of languages’ which contains some of the themes presented in this volume). Into this shifting ground they propose a deconstruction of the “moral panic” of “naturalized assumptions about language endangerment.” Pointing out that linguistics has been used in the service of Herderian ‘Volk’ theory, aligning language with the nation, they conclude that, “Rather than assuming we must save languages, perhaps we should be asking instead who benefits and who loses from understanding languages the way we do, what is at stake for whom, and how and why language serves as a terrain for competition.” (11)
Shaylih Muehlmann in chapter two discusses why biology is used as a frame for discussing languages and critiques the adoption of biodiversity as the organizing principle for much EL discussion, especially by international NGOs like Linguapax, FEL, ELF and Terralingua. There is a valid criticism of the focus on languages rather than on speakers, as if the languages had some independent existence that, once captured, could proceed without speakers, just as the Genome project is perceived to be creating a databank from which diversity can be recreated. The publicity material from HRELP is unhelpful in this context, for example, a picture of a flamboyantly decorated Papua New Guinean is headlined: ‘What’s on his mind? You may never know’, and, similarly, ‘Without a language record a civilization is dead. With no hope of resurrection.’ (22) While portraying the beneficial nature of ‘preservation’, Muehlmann asks if all of this masks the essentially extractive nature of linguistic fieldwork.
Donna Patrick in chapter three sees ELs as a mobilizing force uniting indigenous activists in what she terms the ‘unfinished business’ of reconciliation between Aboriginal groups and the Canadian state. However, she also makes the point that the “essentializing of a link between Aboriginal language and Aboriginal land […] risks excluding certain Aboriginal groups from the language endangerment discourse.” (38) She goes on to ask what Aboriginal language is being saved and for whom, and to suggest the need for a more carefully argued and inclusive discourse of language endangerment consistent with the diversity of Aboriginal groups. In 2003 the Canadian government established an Aboriginal Language Task Force whose 2005 report is critically discussed in Patrick’s paper. In particular she notes that the report emphasizes that spiritual and cultural knowledge are transmitted via a language. Hence a strategic use of linguistic essentialism binds language to culture and culture to land, and the worldviews encoded in language can only be protected if the languages are themselves protected. So the theme of this chapter is that Aboriginal people who no longer speak their ancestral language are not part of the ‘discourse’. She concludes that an appropriate approach will “depend on a fluid concept of language and a broadening of our conception of what counts as ‘authentic’ language revitalization in the twenty-first century.” (53) References could have been made to the work of Diana Eades (e.g., 1982) on the continuation of features of Australian Indigenous languages into Aboriginal English, and to the revitalization of Kaurna (Amery 2000) which has been addressing these issues of the creation of authentic language as a community activity.
Chapter four by Alexandra Jaffe focuses on Corsican, observing that both language activists and linguists are situated, interested social actors with the result that all discourse about language, including the trope of ‘endangerment’ are fundamentally political. She exemplifies this discourse with seven documents selected from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the HRELP funding project at SOAS, FEL, UNESCO and the Linguistics Society of America (LSA). The documents she has selected, she admits, are partly public relations and this is a common fault of both the proponents of supporting ELs and the writers of the present volume, how much is the ideology under examination actually a PR spiel and how much is it seriously believed by the proponents? It is clear when these arguments are used in academic writing that they are more than just PR statements, and that is where the critique provided in this volume has its most logical target.
Jaffe also criticizes language documentation efforts for their reduction of the rich variation that is found in any language to a single code. She suggests that it is a necessary outcome of language documentation (LD) to produce ‘grammars, dictionaries and orthographies’ which inevitably result in a representation of the language as a single, unified code. But this is not necessarily the case, and is in fact a point of difference between LD and earlier language description inasmuch as LD aims to record variation in genre, register, age of speaker and so on. The problem of a linguistic artifact (recordings, analysis, texts and so on) becoming an authoritative standard is surely outweighed by the uses to which a community of speakers can put this material? It is unclear what Jaffe and others in this volume who use similar arguments would prefer to a partial documentation of a language. Nothing at all? Is that the logical outcome of a deconstructive discourse?
She points to a purism in linguistic practice that excludes variation, resulting in a perceived deficiency in actual language use with reference to both French and Corsican proficiency. Further there is the problem of defining the community that is the object of study and with which, presumably, one negotiates one’s presence as a researcher, ignoring, she reveals, the complexity of the structures of human societies. Along with this idealization comes the opposition of tradition (=good) and modern (=bad), represented by a statement from the LSA (69). I agree with this perspective to some extent, but know that it is most often heard from speakers of the languages themselves. Perhaps Jaffe would say that this is a kind of false consciousness on their part, or that they have learned this discourse (there’s that word again and again) from the hegemonic linguist. She concludes that a recognition of social and political dimensions of the discourse of endangerment is critical, and that, while the work we do will not ‘restore’ a language, it will “create new linguistic, social and political realities.”
Chapter five addresses patois d’Évolène spoken in Switzerland and in danger of being supplanted by French. Despite a nostalgia for the language in the community, the authors seem to despair that speakers will not actually do anything to ensure its ongoing use in the future (‘nobody wants to save patois’). In chapter six the focus is also on French, this time it is Acadian in Nova Scotia, Canada and the difficulty of asserting its value against standard French. The authors conclude that ‘language and values attributed to language varieties serve as the bases for social stratification and processes of identity’ (118), but is stratification really based on language, or is language an indicator of stratification? I may be old-fashioned, but this reification of language to be a determiner of social relations seems to me to ignore the context of its use and the dialectic of language both as a construct and a medium for construction of identity. In Catalan (chapter seven) it is claimed that the bourgeoisie is leading language preservation efforts which alienate many Catalans so that ‘language is not politically neutral, but a site of struggles for power and resources’ (144), and linguistic debates are therefore political debates.
Tony Crowley (chapter eight) notes that proscription of the Irish language in Northern Ireland dates back to 1366, and language ideologies have always played a part in the political struggles that have accompanied the British occupation of Northern Ireland. Thus the debates about language are usually about much more than ‘just’ language, and ‘given that language lies at the core of our social being, the real surprise would be if the discourses used to defend languages were not in essence a matter of politics and history.’ (167)
The potential endangerment of Swedish (Tommaso M. Milani’s chapter nine) relates to the political engagement of Sweden with the European Union. The potential for Swedish to be marginalised by an international language (English) led to the development of a national language policy which includes the notion that Swedish is ‘society-bearing’, symbolically standing for a culture and for the people who speak that language. (180) ‘To put it simply, language ideological debates are textual/discursive battlegrounds on which social actors struggle with each other in producing, reproducing and/or challenging culturally situated conceptions of the social world enmeshed in representations of language(s) or language practices’ (170) (Well I’m glad he put it simply).
Another ‘not-endangered-but-maybe’ language is English (Schmidt, chapter ten) in the United States, defended by the ‘Official English’ movement, with pressure groups like ‘US English’ and ‘English First’. While English is clearly the hegemonic language of the USA (and the world), these pressure groups pursue an anti-immigration and pro-assimilationist policy which is threatened by any possibility of difference. Ronald Schmidt points out that English has not, in fact, always been the language of many parts of the USA, and certainly not of towns with names like Santa Ana or Los Angeles (205), but it is a pity he doesn’t make more of the original indigenous languages in the same discussion (only mentioned briefly on p.203), as that would allow him to emphasise the immigrant nature of English in the Americas. And then if English can be endangered, then so, of course, can French (Claudine Moïse, chapter eleven) and Spanish (José del Valle, chapter twelve).
Chapter eleven shows that the French consider their language to be endangered, and that this fear is used as part of a broader social movement of exclusion of difference. This chapter was (not very well) translated from French, leaving rather incomprehensible sentences such as the following: ‘In the end it is the whole social functioning that needs to be rethought before the break occurs too violently from the margins. And before France withdraws into an ideological impasse. It cannot rid itself of this national and linguistic conception that hinders it, while making it also an”exception”. The French nation is in an ideological crisis and the more it closes its doors to diversity and change because on its abstract universalism (sic), the more it nourishes the demands and dissatisfactions from the margins.’ (236) Spanish academies, on the other hand, are exploiting diversity to cement relations with Spanish-speaking ex-colonies in South America. Thus unity in the diversity of Spanish varieties is being used to ‘secure a market where the presence of Spanish capital is felt to be both natural and legitimate.’ (243)
Perhaps the most readable chapter is Deborah Cameron’s (chapter thirteen) on verbal hygiene, written in a less jargonised English than most of the rest of the chapters in this volume. She quotes Nancy Rivenburgh showing that ‘between 1996 and 2004, the issue of endangered languages appeared on some international news wire, on average, 1.5 times a month.’ (268) The question she poses is, how has this issue made it into the mainstream? Part of the answer lies in the media technique of shearing complexity from an issue, paralleling the climate change discussion in which the most extreme claims are given most prominence. She suggests that it is the ‘ecologizing’ idea of diversity of languages that is given most prominence, and not so much attention is paid to ‘the overtly political, redistribution and recognition struggles in which many language preservation and revitalization movements are actually embedded.’ (270) Further she despairs at the metaphor of languages as biological species, largely, she claims, on the basis that both are ‘threatened’ with ‘extinction’. This view is based on nineteenth century philosophical notions of language expressing the national spirit, a view which modern linguistics has dismissed as ‘intellectually misguided and, in their racialized forms, politically repellent.’ (273) For more on the links between Nazi ideology and linguistics you need to read this chapter (and Hutton’s (1999) Linguistics and the Third Reich: Mother-tongue Fascism, Race and the Science of Language). Nevertheless, this metaphor is pervasive, in the publicity for the NSF/NEH funding program, and in numerous media discussions. More insidious is the abstraction of languages away from speakers, treating the languages as part of ‘our’ common heritage and the speakers as poor custodians of that heritage.
The volume has quite variable content, with some jargon that I found virtually impenetrable, but also artefacts of translation in some cases that could have been made more readable. There are typos, but not enough to interfere with the impact of the jargon. I found Muehlmann’s and Cameron’s chapters to be most accessible and clearly written, and will use them in class discussions of the nature of the representation of the endangered languages issue.

Amery, Rob. 2000. Warrabarna Kaurna!: Reclaiming an Australian Language. Lisse ; Exton, (PA) : Swets & Zeitlinger Publishers
Eades, Diana. 1982. ‘You gotta know how to talk- Information seeking in South-East Queensland Aboriginal society’, Australian Journal of Linguistics, vol. 2, pp. 61-82.
Hutton, Christopher. 1999. Linguistics and the Third Reich: Mother-tongue Fascism, Race and the Science of Language. London: Routledge

Thanks to Continuum Press for supplying a review copy.
This book has also been reviewed on Linguist List by Zuzana Tomková.

1 thought on “Review: Duchêne & Heller: <i>Discourses of Endangerment</i> – by Nick Thieberger”

  1. Thanks for your full and detailed review of this book, Nick. One minor comment — you say about Chapter 2 that “The publicity material from HRELP is unhelpful in this context, for example, a picture of a flamboyantly decorated Papua New Guinean is headlined: ‘What’s on his mind? You may never know’, and, similarly, ‘Without a language record a civilization is dead. With no hope of resurrection.'”
    The poster of the PNG man and the flyer with the words you quote were part of an advertising campaign we initiated in early 2003 when the Project was first launched at SOAS. It was an attempt to grab attention and make a strong impression for a new academic programme, and it was spectacularly successful in achieving that goal. The poster and the strap line on it attracted great public interest (and consequently student enrolments, which is what we wanted after all) and we still receive enquiries from people wanting a copy.
    At the end of 2004 we stopped producing this poster (and other materials incorporating “colourful natives”), rolled out a totally reworked website (thanks to the efforts of David Nathan who joined HRELP in 2004) that is less about advertising and more about content on endangered languages and language documentation (we receive over a million hits annually on, and the most popular sections of the website are David’s factsheet on microphones and the OREL on-line resources listing). Shaylih Muehlmann’s deconstructive discourse about our naughty essentialization thus refers to materials that have not existed since 2004 and which were consciously produced in a set-up campaign to advertise and garner attention. She even has a footnote in her chapter acknowledging that her critique does not refer to our current web or publicity materials. So it’s was rather than is.

Here at Endangered Languages and Cultures, we fully welcome your opinion, questions and comments on any post, and all posts will have an active comments form. However if you have never commented before, your comment may take some time before it is approved. Subsequent comments from you should appear immediately.

We will not edit any comments unless asked to, or unless there have been html coding errors, broken links, or formatting errors. We still reserve the right to censor any comment that the administrators deem to be unnecessarily derogatory or offensive, libellous or unhelpful, and we have an active spam filter that may reject your comment if it contains too many links or otherwise fits the description of spam. If this happens erroneously, email the author of the post and let them know. And note that given the huge amount of spam that all WordPress blogs receive on a daily basis (hundreds) it is not possible to sift through them all and find the ham.

In addition to the above, we ask that you please observe the Gricean maxims:

*Be relevant: That is, stay reasonably on topic.

*Be truthful: This goes without saying; don’t give us any nonsense.

*Be concise: Say as much as you need to without being unnecessarily long-winded.

*Be perspicuous: This last one needs no explanation.

We permit comments and trackbacks on our articles. Anyone may comment. Comments are subject to moderation, filtering, spell checking, editing, and removal without cause or justification.

All comments are reviewed by comment spamming software and by the site administrators and may be removed without cause at any time. All information provided is volunteered by you. Any website address provided in the URL will be linked to from your name, if you wish to include such information. We do not collect and save information provided when commenting such as email address and will not use this information except where indicated. This site and its representatives will not be held responsible for errors in any comment submissions.

Again, we repeat: We reserve all rights of refusal and deletion of any and all comments and trackbacks.

Leave a Comment