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Review of  Discourses of Endangerment

Reviewer: Zuzana Tomková
Book Title: Discourses of Endangerment
Book Author: Alexandre Duchêne Monica Heller
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Discipline of Linguistics
Issue Number: 19.1429

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EDITORS: Duchêne, Alexandre; Heller, Monica
TITLE: Discourses of Endangerment
SUBTITLE: Ideology and Interest in the Defence of Languages
SERIES: Advances in Sociolinguistics
PUBLISHER: Continuum
YEAR: 2007

Zuzana Tomková, Department of Linguistics, University of Chicago

The book is a collection of thirteen papers exploring the language ideologies
behind the recently widespread discourses concerning language endangerment.
Through a combination of overarching discussions on the origins of the concepts
that have helped shape the public rhetoric and emotions linked to endangered
languages in the past two centuries and a number of case studies analyzing the
settings of endangerment discourses in specific language settings, the authors
seek to better understand the ideological underpinnings of this challenging area
of sociolinguistics.

Heller and Duchêne open the volume with a chapter titled ''Discourses of
endangerment: Sociolinguistics, globalization and social order.'' They are clear
that instead of embracing what has become a widely accepted framework for
discussing language endangerment, they seek to question this framework from a
distance. Their strong suspicion is that the reason why so many anxieties have
arisen about real or imagined threats to different languages (large as much as
small) is that ''Existing nation states, and existing minority and indigenous
movements, have a stake in reproducing their boundaries, as a central means of
controlling access to the production and circulation of resources with which
they seek to maintain privileged relationships'' (5-6). These sorts of concerns
are tightly connected with the concepts of language, culture and nation in ''an
ideological concept in which language figures centrally but is not the only
element. This is about more than essentializing languages, it is about the
reproduction of the central legitimizing ideology of the nation state'' (7). The
authors suggest 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). These questions are a helpful foundation for
approaching the rest of the book's chapters as well.

''Defending diversity: Staking out a common global interest?'' by Shaylih
Muehlmann explores the effects of analogies between threats to biodiversity and
linguistic diversity. Muehlmann argues ''that discourses taken up by language
endangerment campaigns construe the threat to languages and the environment in a
way that essentializes language, nature and indigenous people'' (15). Her chapter
''assumes that the problem with biolinguistic diversity is its impending
extinction and it construes this problem in a manner that radically constrains
the options for solutions'' (16). She explores the use of linguistic diversity as
a rhetorical strategy in campaign materials (websites, pamphlets, campaign
materials and publications) of a number of endangered language movements, NGOs,
and academic programs. She makes an important observation when she points out
that ''in much the same way that the genome project construes genetic material,
the campaign material of endangered language programmes also appears to
prioritize languages over speakers'' (20). The rhetoric found in these materials
could also lead one to wrongly assume ''that speakers of endangered languages
necessarily choose to preserve their native languages. As Mufwene argues (2004),
the vitality of languages cannot be dissociated from the socioeconomic interests
and activities of its [sic] speakers who are often adapting to changing
socioeconomic conditions'' (30).

Muehlmann warns against assuming that there exists a simple relationship between
environmental and linguistic conservation, due to the implications both have on
social justice. ''Ultimately, we need to more carefully examine how linguistic,
environmental and economic processes intersect in order to know how to account
for the varied interests involved in cases of language endangerment'' (32).

Heller and Duchêne's point about language endangerment discourses' concerns with
many more than strictly linguistic issues is echoed in Donna Patrick's chapter
on ''Indigenous language endangerment and the unfinished business of nation
states.'' Using the context of Canada, she considers how language rights and the
related discourses around them function in the struggle of Indigenous groups for
greater autonomy (36). In Canada, territory/land ownership is at the core of
Indigenous concerns, and the efforts to link this interest with the realm of
language endangerment issues create interesting challenges. Distinctively,
Canadian Aboriginal groups highlight ''the 'unfinished business' of land
negotiations and the reconciliation between Aboriginal groups and the Canadian
state'' (38). Patrick builds her chapter on the analysis of the June 2005 _Report
to the Minister of Canadian Heritage_, prepared by the _Task Force on Aboriginal
Languages and Cultures_. Because of the Supreme Court of Canada's understanding
of Aboriginal culture in terms of traditional practices, the Aboriginal language
promotion efforts have been focused on the ''essentializing of a link between
Aboriginal language and Aboriginal land'', which, however, ''risks excluding
certain Aboriginal groups [such as the urbanized Aboriginal communities] from
the language endangerment discourse'' (37-8). Also, the Task Force's linkage of
Aboriginal language, land and spirituality brings up the question, ''If language
is so connected to spirituality, can one be as 'authentically' spiritual without
speaking the traditional language?'' (52). Patrick's thoughts lead her to
conclude that answering similar challenges ''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).

In ''Discourses of endangerment: Contexts and consequences of essentializing
discourses'', Alexandra Jaffe explores essentializing language discourses through
the case of endangerment discourses in Corsica. Her approach ''takes all
discourses about language (including the trope of 'endangerment') as
fundamentally political'' (57). Jaffe uses seven examples of contemporary
endangerment discourses on the internet to point out the common essentializing
elements of the endangerment discourses: the biological metaphor, enumeration,
the 'rights' discourses, as well as the trope of ecology. All of the above have
had echoes in the Corsican language planning, and, as Jaffe notes, the
consequences are varied - and not always intended. She observes the effects of
language planning as reflected in language purism and homogeneism, which
interpret regional diversity as an obstacle and challenge instead of an asset.
Essentialism can also have the implications of incorrectly presenting language
as a unified code (66), and language communities as homogeneous and static (68).
Conscious of her own work's political nature, she openly recognizes that she
endorses ''alternative models of language and identity that are practice rather
than form-oriented, that acknowledge the political and social character of all
identity claims, and that leave room for the multiple forms of language practice
as well as heterogeneous and competing language ideologies among people who
identify with endangered languages'' (70). As such, her approach pays attention
to the importance of context, and views language as a tool, thus allowing for
its greater flexibility. She concludes that ''With respect to discourses of
endangerment, a defence of variability could shift the focus away from the
survival of named linguistic codes towards the preservation of individual and
collective access to the fullest possible repertoire of language practices'' (71).

Raphaël Maître and Marinette Matthey explore the linguistic situation of a
community in Romand Switzerland in their chapter ''Who wants to save 'le patois
d'Évolène'?'' They use data from 80 interviews to shed light on the attitudes
around the community's dilalia (a type of diglossia ''characterized by a dynamic
relationship between an official language, which is becoming more and more
prevalent, and increasingly, the first language of the population, and a local
vernacular which is more and more marginalized'' [76]). According to the authors,
the particularly Swiss ideology of language contact is founded in comprehensive
sociology, methodological individualism, and a multilingual conception of
language(s) (81). Interestingly, although their first analyses of their data led
them to conclude that there was a good chance of ''success of acting in the
direction of implementing a language policy, particularly the introduction in
the school of a course in Patois for interested students'' (83), in the end they
found out that the effort would appear to the eyes of the population as ''a
superfluous luxury'' (93). The case is a useful counterexample to the dominant
academic language endangerment discourse of the past few decades.

''Français, acadien, acadjonne: Competing discourses on language preservation
along the shores of the Baie Sainte-Marie'' by Annette Boudreau and Lise Dubois
describes the language ideologies present in a region of Nova Scotia, Canada.
The authors' data came from ethnographic observations of a variety of community
events as well as interviews. The center of the debate in this community ''is the
issue of which variety of French is best suited to guarantee the community's
survival: the standard variety traditionally used by the educated and moneyed
elite, or the local variety which has just recently been introduced during the
1990s into the public linguistic market through the community radio station''
(103). The feelings on both sides of the conflict are so strong that some
speakers claim not to understand the other variety, although they do in fact
understand it. Also, similar values are used to justify opposing points of view
in the discussion. The authors thus show that in this case, different groups of
social actors ''have multiple stakes and interests in preserving what they
perceive as 'their' variety of French'', and this shows that ''discourses on
language endangerment recreate the power struggles between members of the
community that exist already'' (118).

Joan Pujolar returns the discussion into a European setting in ''The future of
Catalan: Language endangerment and nationalist discourses in Catalonia''. He
analyzes a public debate on the future of the Catalan language based on a
collection of newspaper articles. In his corpus, he unveils ''two consecutive
tensions, first over who counts as a Catalan speaker and second over the
relationship between speaking Catalan and being Catalan'' (125). He shows, for
instance, how even participants with inclusive intentions end up creating ''an
ethno-national discourse that leaves non-native Catalans in a marginal position''
(144). His is an example, like that of Jaffe's, of how language endangerment
debates cannot be disassociated from ''local political struggles over access to
political and economic power'' (126).

The stance that ''the discourse of language endangerment is very rarely simply
about the endangerment of a language'' (166) is reinforced by Tony Crowley in
''Language endangerment, war and peace in Ireland and Northern Ireland''. In this
particular context, Crowley notes that the threat to Irish was already being
used for a variety of social and political ends ''long before the current
anxieties about language death and the reduction in the number of the world's
languages produced by globalization'' (150). For instance, ''Many who were
antagonistic to the British rule but did not support violent resistance saw in
the language rights issue a way of both expressing their identity and making
their political point in a non-violent form'' (160). Likewise, ''Ulster-Scots, a
fully fledged but endangered language, gave the Unionist community precisely
what the Irish language gave the nationalist community: a medium through which
identity claims and demands for civil rights could be articulated'' (166). As
Crowley says, the fact that language-centered discourses are a matter of
politics and history should not be surprising, given the strong importance of
language for our social being (167).

In ''Voices of endangerment: A language ideological debate on the Swedish
language'', Tommaso M. Milani addresses a language debate from the 1990s,
focusing on social actors involved in the debate as well as its texts. He uses a
multidisciplinary theoretical framework, drawing on performativity theory
(including its key concepts of iterability and interpellation), Critical
Discourse Analysis (CDA), and the Bakhtinian notion of voice (171). In addition
to discussing how different social actors addressed the future of Swedish upon
Sweden's entrance into the European Union, Milani explores the policy document
_Mål i mun_. In this discussion, he reveals the conflicting voices which, on the
one hand, support the ideology of multilingualism and multiculturalism, and, on
the other, express the ideology of social cohesion, ''according to which social
cohesion is the foundation of civil society and is achieved by means of one
common language (Swedish), which therefore needs to be preserved'' (187). Milani
sees the metonymic representation of Swedish as the 'bearer' of the Swedish
cultural heritage as the key to why the document ''reproduces a static
relationship between one language indexing and symbolically standing for one, in
reality diverse, blended and always changing culture'' (191).

Heller and Duchêne's observation that language endangerment concerns arise
around the whole spectrum of weak-to-strong languages is confirmed by Ronald
Schmidt, Sr.'s chapter, ''Defending English in an English-dominant world: The
ideology of the 'Official English' movement in the United States''. Schmidt
explains the core concerns of the movement by stating that the worry is not
about the threat of 'foreign' languages to English, but rather about other
languages that might be recognized as 'American' (198). The movement's rationale
uses arguments about unity and justice. However, using Tocqueville, Wolin, and
Honig's works, Schmidt argues that ''both 'justice' and the 'common good' require
a pluralistic, not an assimilative English-only language policy'' (204). The
success of the Official English movement can be explained by the fact that its
''hegemonic language functions to blind most monolingual English-speaking
Americans to the social reality of their own privileged position in an
ethno-linguistically diverse society'' (205). Again, the argument is more related
to power struggles than people usually realize.

Claudine Moïse explores a variety of feelings of threat in ''Protecting French:
The view from France.'' She traces the ideology of unshakeable dogma in the realm
of language, created in France in the 1500s and 1600s, and its impact on changes
in the French history up until the present time. The existence of the identified
and unifying code has led to feelings of threat to its imagined purity and
homogeneity, and the often unspoken association of the standard with the
privileged elites has encouraged fears of the ethnically and linguistically
other, who ''threaten the reproduction of the dominant elite'' (233). Through a
brief analysis of the controversy around the French reaction to the European
Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, Moïse identifies the principle of
the neutralization of the public space as the core of the fact that people's
differences are consistently being pushed into the private sphere. The fear of
the other, thus never confronted in public, feeds the post-9/11 fears of the
Mediterranean and especially Arabic countries, which are well represented in
France. Moïse points out that ''the French Republic has been challenged because
it can no longer fulfill its contract of insuring equal opportunities and
economic and social integration'' (228), because simply ''granting public equality
does not take into account the daily discriminations, the setting of distances,
the marginalization processes'' (227) which are prevalent in the private sphere.
The author thus warns that the more France ''closes its doors to diversity and
change because of its abstract universalism, the more it nourishes the demands
and dissatisfactions from the margins'' (236).

A very different approach to diversity is observed and analyzed in ''Embracing
diversity for the sake of unity: Linguistic hegemony and the pursuit of total
Spanish'' by José del Valle. The chapter looks at the Spanish Royal Academy's
(RAE's) shift in efforts and philosophy as a result of concerns about the
possible fragmentation of Spanish in the Spanish-speaking world. Using Jürgen
Habermas' notion of public sphere, Richard Watts' analysis of discourse
communities, and Antonio Gramsci's elaboration of hegemony, del Valle analyzes
the RAE's tactics in constructing the language ideology of the hispanofonía as a
seemingly democratic grouping of all Spanish-speaking nations, and in striving
to defend its authority over Spain's former colonies by embracing intralingual
diversity. According to the author's observations, the RAE seeks to become
generally credible ''by claiming to produce a norm that directly emerges from the
people'' (254) as well as by communicating through the Internet. Unlike the
French case discussed in the previous chapter, del Valle argues that the RAE's
understanding of the importance of diversity for its goals is easy to follow:
''There is no legitimacy without democracy, no democracy without consensus, and
no consensus without diversity. In sum, in the contemporary construction of a
hegemonic hispanofonía, diversity has become a theoretical imperative as well as
a political necessity'' (263).

The final chapter, ''Language endangerment and verbal hygiene: History, morality
and politics'' by Deborah Cameron, concludes the volume with an analysis of
large-scale language endangerment concerns. Cameron echoes other authors in the
volume in questioning the emotive, moralistic, and generally skewed terms in
which language endangerment issues are presented in the media (269). She notes
that ''Far less attention is given to the overtly political, redistribution and
recognition struggles in which many language preservation and revitalization
movements are actually embedded'' (270). She argues that the types of language
ideologies characteristic of the current language endangerment discourses are
rooted in historical developments such as the nationalist movement of the 19th
century and even the racialized linguistics of the Nazi era (271), questions the
strength of the frequently mentioned indexical relationship between language
variety and group identity (280), and warns against both ''a vernacularist
nationalist organicist strain'', and ''an exoticizing or 'orientalist' strain in
some preservationist rhetoric'' (281). Finally, Cameron points out that the
strong push for preserving diversity across the board as if linguistic diversity
really was analogous to ecological diversity not only ignores the motivations
that drive preservation advocates, but, paradoxically, obscures ''the diversity
and complexity of the concrete situations in which endangered language speakers
find themselves'' (284).

This volume is a useful contribution to the growing scholarship on language
endangerment. As the chapters' authors show, the discourses on language
endangerment have been growing in volume, but lacking in balanced accounts. This
collection begins to attack some of the questionable assumptions which have been
shaping the popular discussions on language endangerment, and encourages more
critical approaches to the varied settings in which one can observe language
varieties under real or imagined threat.

One of the useful observations made repeatedly in the volume is that the
contexts of language endangerment are more varied than is usually recognized,
especially if one pays attention only to mass media. Interestingly, however,
even this volume includes a narrow remark by Muehlmann, where she says that ''It
is the disempowered whose languages 'die' (...)'' (31). This ignores the
existence of a number of cases which do not fit the pattern (e.g. the Welsh case
mentioned by Cameron in the last chapter, or the many endangered dialects of
otherwise 'strong' European languages), while giving a nice example of how
subtly the general assumptions about language endangerment ideologies can slip
into academic discourses.

The book has a number of typos (mostly involving spacing and punctuation, but
also those listed below) and some occasional puzzling claims/assumptions, of
which I will mention three: First, Jaffe, on p. 65, refers to Corsica's
''pre-contact past'' without a further clarification. Given that language is
fundamentally a contact phenomenon (from idiolect level all the way to
larger-scale population contact), the phrase should certainly have not been
assumed to be unproblematic. Second, Crowley says that ''Rather than saving the
language, the actions of the state, the Catholic Church and the language
movement placed it further in jeopardy'' (156) without clarifying how exactly
that happened. Third, Moïse refers to ''the economic changes of the last few
years, such as the entry into globalization'' (226), which sounds more like a
catch-phrase than a meaningful reference. As any basic globalization reference
(e.g. Steger 2003) will reveal, what we label as globalization is a complex set
of processes that have been in motion for many centuries, and it is certainly
unclear how a country such as France could possibly be said to have ''entered
into them'' in the last few years.

Overall, though, the volume is useful for those interested in understanding more
aspects of the development of the language endangerment discourses of the last
few decades. Its key findings include the facts that ''the discourse of language
endangerment is not simply about any obvious criteria of inequality''; that
''language endangerment discourses are not in any straightforward sense about the
actual disappearance of languages''; and that ''it is difficult to maintain
arguments about the inherent coding of knowledge in languages and of humanity's
heritage when we are dealing with languages for which we have ample evidence of
institutionalizing and change'' (9).

Mufwene, Salikoko (2004) Language birth and death. _Annual Review of
Anthropology_, 33, 201-222.

Steger, Manfred B. (2003) _Globalization: A Very Short Introduction_. New York
NY: Oxford University Press.

Zuzana Tomková is a doctoral student at the University of Chicago. Her Master's
thesis focused on the significance of language ideologies in the field of
linguistics. Her other interests include sociolinguistics, discourse analysis,
language endangerment, and descriptive linguistics.

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