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[1852]: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.

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.

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:

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

even exacerbated.

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.

I refer to

Edwards, Anthony WF. “Human genetic diversity: Lewontin’s fallacy.” BioEssays 25.8 (2003): 798-801.’s-fallacy.pdf

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.

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…

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.

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.

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.’-judgments-of-nonnative-English-speaking-teaching-assistants..pdf

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

every other.

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.

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

Gal 2000:55).

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.

Googling “fule people intelligent” yields 13.1e6 results.

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