Report on January LIPIL meeting by Aparna Garimella

Linguistics in the Pub in London (LIPIL) is a monthly informal gathering of linguists and others to discuss topical areas in our field. In this post, recent SOAS MA graduate Aparna Garimella recaps the 17 January LIPIL meeting.

For the first LIPIL meeting of the year, we gathered at The Marlborough Arms on a chilly January Tuesday to discuss the relationship between ‘language documentation’ and ‘cultural documentation’. The dozen participants, brought with them a range of cultural identities and backgrounds, and there was an animated discussion into the many ways language and culture interact with each other, and how each intersects with identity, and the implications of this on our work as linguists.

Lauren Gawne started us off asking about the different ways language and culture might intersect. For instance, cultural behavior, beliefs, and practices may cut across languages (such as in ‘culture areas’ like the Xingu region in Brasil where several groups speaking entirely different languages share common cultural traits). The question is especially relevant for linguists in relation to very tangible, practical issues, like applying for grants and funding for projects on endangered languages. Language documentation work is often justified by the idea “lose a language, lose a culture”: but this can devalue the work of community groups who have maintained cultural practices in the face of social pressure, even if they have not also maintained language use.

A question was raised about ‘untranslatable words’. Individual words (like Hanukkah) don’t necessarily constitute ‘language’ or even an ‘untranslatable concept’ so much as they do a proper name for an event. However, sometimes there may be cultural concepts that are more integral to language, and not so easily isolated. For instance, some languages have formality distinctions where certain people, categorized by gender, social status or age, are required to be spoken to or spoken about differently (eg. the use of second person pronouns like tu and vous in French). If one language in one culture allows and even requires this differentiation to be explicitly maintained (or disavowed), but English has no such distinctions, then, as the first language is replaced by English, do the culturally mandated hierarchies disappear? Or does the community shape the new language to reflect these cultural practices?

The counterpoint to this was that it’s surely unlikely that someone would treat their, say, grandmother, with disrespect, just because there isn’t a polite pronoun form in the replacing language, eg. English, or demand an up-ending of social mores and roles. But there might be more subtle considerations at the edges: more levels of hierarchies or other dimensions of hierarchies, that might start eroding when all the people within a culture switch to a different language for a longer time (i.e. over a generation or more).

That led to the second big discussion area of the evening, about cultures in time and over generations. For second-generation (and subsequent) immigrants, the attrition of heritage language is often much faster than the attrition of culture. For instance, Indian-South Africans may call themselves “Indians” even after they’ve been in South Africa for generations, and they may be identified as such by other South Africans. They may even have names that are, say, Gujarati in origin, and celebrate major Hindu and/or Indian festivals. But they don’t necessarily speak Gujarati, except for a few words. Similarly, there are Basque communities in Argentina who share a ‘Basque identity’, including participating in community groups and activities and celebrations, but they rarely speak Basque.

That led to the question, “who is a true ‘X’?” How is cultural identity defined by people for themselves, for each other, and for others? For many communities, linguistic performance is inextricable from cultural identity. With Arbëreshë Albanian minorities in Italy, for example, people who do not speak Arbëreshë cannot call themselves a part of that community. People who cannot speak the language say they “were” Albanian, i.e. there is a recognition of the ancestral identity and that it is no longer available to be adopted by later generations.

Understanding the relationship between self-identification and linguistic competence, and respecting all members of the community whether they are full-speakers of a language or not is important to keep in mind during language documentation or related work.

The third area of discussion was around (non-)performance of culture, i.e. what do people and communities usually accept as essential or central to culture in itself? Many different examples were shared during the discussion, and the theme that became most clear was that each community, and individuals within those communities, has its own perspective on the relationship between their language(s) and culture.

A case in point is that of Jeju island, a province of South Korea, with its own distinct language and culture. Local people transmit stories and culture in their own language, and it is important for them to be recognized as distinct and not simply a part of the majority Korean culture. Activism and political energy among the Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) people in British Columbia, Canada, is focused on the language, because of the belief that the only way to ‘decolonize’ is to use their heritage language.

This was a segue to our final dialogue about the implications for language revitalization and documentation work. People — linguists, but also funding agencies, participants, communities — like to start with symbolic culture.

In terms of implications on funding, it is perhaps relatively easier to work in isolated and distinct language communities, as compared to studying diasporic languages. This is perhaps because even if the diasporic language may have unique and linguistically interesting local variations on a ‘bigger’ language that is based elsewhere in a ‘motherland’, their culture is seen as identical to or even derivative of the ‘motherland’ culture.

In essence, we understand that languages change and evolve with time, but so does culture. Cultures themselves are not immutable or the same: not over time, and certainly not for everyone participating in that culture. Sometimes it is presumed that one can only preserve a culture by preserving a language, thereby placing a responsibility on people to continue to speak it. In situations of limited resources, we might have to make difficult choices about what to focus on, and it may not always be a ‘lose one, lose everything’ decision, where the culture dies if the language dies, and vice-versa. This does need deeper investigation on a case-by-case basis.