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The Ambiguous Ethnicity


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Th e I ssu e of La bel s


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Endangered Languages Oliver Mayeux


Articles about endangered languages attempt to contextualise the phenomenon through numbers, not words. The number of languages in the world, how many we risk losing. By now, such statistics may be painfully familiar those who feel beauty in diversity. Rather than emphasise this aspect of this crisis, I would like here to offer a window into its more human side from the perspective of a linguist working in the field. There is an inspiring response to language endangerment from dedicated communities and individuals who are fighting to have their voices heard after decades of those voices—and the languages they speak—being silenced. This silence has two dimensions: the first quite obvious, the second less so. First, it is a loss for words in the most literal sense: as a language fades, so do particular (even, unique) pairings between sound and meaning and the grammatical blueprint by which they come together. For linguists, this aspect of language endangerment is exciting

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because it is exploratory. The diversity of grammars found in thousands of undocumented languages is to linguists what the Marianas Trench is to oceanographers. These languages may contain hitherto unattested phonological, syntactic or semantic phenomena without knowledge of which our theories of human language remain incomplete at best, and inadequate at worst. This is without mentioning the wealth of culturespecific knowledge that often (though not always) fades alongside the language in which it has traditionally been encoded. Second, it is a loss for words which implies the loss of a voice. It is not just the language itself that falls silent, but the community that speaks it. Though linguists’ metaphors might sometimes suggest the opposite, a language is not a living, breathing organism which dies of old age. Nor is a language lost accidentally, and only very rarely by choice. Rather, a community shifts to a from their own minority language to a majority language that is socially and politically dominant, often


reflective of a process by which the community itself is disempowered by a dominant group. This kind of linguistic assimilation (for some, linguistic genocide) can be forced on a community with overt violence, or through a more insidious, covert means. Residential schools in the USA, Canada and Australia—where children from indigenous communities were taken from their homes, sent to boarding schools and forced to abandon their ancestral language and culture—constitute one example from recent history whose effects are still keenly felt today by thousands of families. Meanwhile, all over the world, social, economic and political pressures lead millions of people to perceive their language as lacking in some kind of worth. In this sense, working on endangered languages is worthwhile because it necessitates a very human involvement with the research. Work is done with and for communities, with understanding that linguists act as consultants and activists, rather than experts. Many linguists would feel uncomfortable with the subjective agency this implies, and would rather imagine

themselves as uninvolved, objective, expert observers. But, there is no neutral or apolitical position on language endangerment: ignoring linguistic oppression is a choice against assisting with its dismantlement. Linguists may be well-placed to help with technical tasks (developing writing systems, dictionaries, writing grammars), and contributing our sometime obscure skillset to such efforts offers us the chance to make a real impact. The last word here must be given to the endangeredlanguage communities fighting for the survival of their way of speaking, and so their way of life. It would do no justice to these efforts for me to pick and choose a few to paraphrase clumsily in this short article. Instead, please take this as an invitation to investigate for yourself the creative and inspirational ways in which languages are being revitalised all over the world: from reggaetón in Cocama to ‘Star Wars’ in Navajo, to the Māori kōhanga reo (‘language nests’) model now being used in Siberia. The results of such efforts can be moving. In the case of the critically endangered Louisiana Creole (also my own research topic and heritage language),


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“A breath leaves the sentences and does not come back yet the old still remember something that they could say but they know now that such things are no longer believed and the young have fewer words many of the things the words were about no longer exist the noun for standing in mist by a haunted tree the verb for I” Extract from Losing a Language, W. S. Merwin

most language revitalization happens on social media, but with a very tangible real-world impact. There are now a number of children who have learned the language as a result, and there is even demand for children’s books and toys in the language. To achieve such results, linguists, community members and others all need to help each other; as we say in Creole: shyin pa manjé shyin (‘Dog does not eat dog’). ■

Oliver Mayeux is a PhD student in the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics and one of the graduate convenors of the Cambridge Endangered Languages and Cultures Group (CELC), which runs a regular seminar series. This term, the programme kicks off with Professor Ghil‘ad Zuckermann (Adelaide) who will be speaking about language reclamation and social wellbeing. 15

Beyond Words in Social Work




Written in the Face




Language Death





Worded Silence





Spotlight On... CRASSH Conspiracy in the Kremlin On the 15th of November, Dr Iain Lauchlan from Edinburgh University presented a lecture to the CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities) research group ‘Conspiracy and Democracy’. The subject of the lecture was Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of the secret police – or Cheka – in the early years of the Soviet Union. ‘Iron Felix’ led a life of contradiction, starting a great number of orphanages, as well as the Russian film industry and Dynamo Moscow Football Club, all whilst leading the brutal state security apparatus. Dr Lauchlan began with an exposition of the conspiracy theories themselves, presenting three reasons for suspicion; closed location, dramatic timing, and a deserving victim. According to official reports, Dzerzhinsky died of a heart attack in the Kremlin – though, as The Times reported, there were ‘whisper rumours of a violent death’. The Kremlin had a long history of palace coups and secretive assassinations within the elite, and many suspected

that Dzerzhinsky had suffered the same fate. This is considered particularly plausible because of the descent into party infighting which followed, and because of how many enemies Dzerzhinsky himself had within the party. However, Lauchlan suspects that much of the suspicion surrounding his death is history written backwards, with people looking at what followed (Stalin’s paranoia and political terror) and working back. Yet, Lauchlan argues, at this point Stalin the paranoid danger that he was in the 30s, and if anybody else had orchestrated the plot, he would have used the rumours to smear enemies during the purges. What’s more, Dzerzhinsky, though having many rivalries, was a man of unity in


the politburo – “without unity, Thermidor is inevitable; Leninists will devour each other like spiders”. Video evidence also disproves the suggestion of theorists that Dzerzhinsky was smuggled out of the Kremlin and cremated before autopsy. Before he was laid in state, doctors opened up his chest and concluded that Dzerzhinsky – who would often work 18 or 19 hour days and eat almost nothing – had knowingly worked himself to death. As interesting to Dr Lauchlan as the conspiracy itself was the cult of personality surrounding Dzerzhinsky, whose bust was said to be on Putin’s desk when he was in the KGB and whose posters for a while outsold the current president’s. Knowing that the way to get known in the world of the 1920s was to make oneself a character, Dzerzhisnky – a lover of Faust – chose to make himself a ‘demonic’ cartoon villain. Lauchlan painted a picture of a man with a manic death wish; a man who “wanted to tackle the inevitability of death and make something meaningful of his life”. He traces this back to Dzerzhinsky’s struggle with tuberculosis. One quote, from a letter to his sister, stands out: “I am the carrier of an enemy within, an enemy who is constantly on the go, who may relinquish his at-

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tacks for a moment only to renew the struggle later on”. Lauchlan drew the evening to a close by noting, with more than a hint of irony, that as the clock struck midnight in the autopsy room, the doctors – including the world’s foremost expert on TB – pulled out the lungs, and found no evidence of the disease. No enemy within.

Conspiracy and Democracy is a Leverhulme funded project which running for five years. It regularly holds public lectures as well as symposiums on a range of topics. The event on the 15th was followed by a wine reception in the Allison Richards Building.


Dancing with Gender Roles

A Review of ‘Dance and the Body Politic in Northern Greece’ by Jane K. Cowan Christos Nikolaou

Folk dancing is not something we may usually look at with great interest. It may seem outdated by today’s standards and little more than a simple cultural expression. But Jane K. Cowan, in her ethnography ‘Dance and the body politic in Northern Greece’ is an intriguing reminder of why dance customs are worth our attention. Cowan’s belief is that the ‘particularities of place’ as she calls them, can be seen through dance, and she goes to great length to prove that dance events can tell us about ethnic, political and gender divisions in a society. It provides a holistic view of a society through folk dancing. The book focuses on the village of Sohos, a small town in Macedonia, in Northern Greece. Cowan’s study is the dance events that happen in the village and how they reflect (and at times, unconsciously enforce) the divisions and roles in a traditional Greek society. The ethnography puts a great emphasis on the gender roles and how they play a part in dancing, something that Cowan does a great job at analysing that. She looks, for example, at how men express their magkia (μαγκιά, a word that entails masculinity and virility)


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when dancing zeimbekiko, a famous Greek dance. She also juxtaposes this with feminine dances, which require composure. She also includes one case where a female social worker who lived in Salonica before coming to the small town, Aphrodite. Aphrodite was a victim of gossip about her behaviour during a dance, which was seen as ‘lascivious’. These juxtapositions are seen throughout the book, and are a great insight on how dance is a reflection of gender roles in society. The book doesn’t just look at gender however. Here lies what I think is the greatest aspect of the book. Despite its emphasis on gender, the book uses the same methodology to shed light on every other aspect of the society of Sohos. The political divisions can be seen through dance events as different political parties attempt to make their own formal dances. It is fascinating to read how left wing Sohoians might look at a right wing formal dance event with contempt, even going so far as to call its participants as ‘capitalists’. Cowan is great at catching the little details that give critical information for the entire Sohoian society. We can see how people treat external

influences in how they behave in formal balls, seen in Sohos as ‘European’ and ‘high culture’. This is an excellent example of intercultural interaction, and we can see it being relevant today. We see how people treat each other and how important sociability for this society. Even the way people treat the ethnographer, how they categorise her as an individual within the Sohoian social context is seen in this fascinating ethnography. All these aspects of life are seen through the social context of dance events, without changing its focus. This is the mark of a good ethnography. To show an entire society, its habits, its ideals and how they are enforced by looking at the details of life. It’s amazing how much we can learn about a culture through observing festive events. Despite existing as special moments and not part of routine, they can give us valuable information. This book pulls this off spectacularly. This is a great example of ethnography done right. It may focus on one event, but it doesn’t stick to it exclusively. It allows for great insight in every aspect of a culture in a small town in Greece. It is a most extensive piece of work. And it deserves attention.



Silverstreet 2016 Presents the first issue of the year: Wordless. Wordless delves into the study of language, ethnicity and labels, to raise...


Silverstreet 2016 Presents the first issue of the year: Wordless. Wordless delves into the study of language, ethnicity and labels, to raise...