Language Footprints

Lauredhel at Hoyden About Town has a post up about Endangered Languages week and the concept of a Language Footprint. It means pretty much exactly what you’d expect – a linguistic version of the “Ecological Footprint”, an examination of the impact your personal language-based actions have on the world’s linguistic picture. The suggestions are pretty far-reaching, and I doubt I would meet any native English speaker who scores well at all, which is unsurprising given the significant role language plays in people’s lives and the near complete subconsciousness with which they deal with it (people, especially liberals or anti-oppression activists, may consider which words they use, but they rarely get to the point of questioning which language they are using). As Lauredhel says:

This concept is an alternative to the ideas that linguistic dominance is benign, that there is nothing individuals can do about it, and that endangered languages are doomed to die no matter what.

I hide it well around here, but I actually have this conversation a lot in my real interactions. A few years ago, I finished a Master’s in Linguistics that included some field work on a reserve in Alberta and was peripherally connected to a language revitalization project my Supervisor was involved with there. In September, I’m starting a Master’s in Globalization Studies focusing on the question of language death and strategies for language revitalization, specifically in the Canadian context. If people ask what I’m going to be doing, I generally have to first explain how it is that I can be talking about “globalization” in Canada, and if we get past that, then about what “endangered” means in linguistic terms. Since there is a very limited amount of knowledge about minority languages and language death among the general public, I spend a great deal of time explaining just how many languages we’re talking about and what I mean.

“Yes, there really are about 50-60 indigenous languages spoken in Canada today, though the vast majority are dying”

“No, they’re not all dialects of one language, actually. Some are in the same family, yes, but so are English and French.”

“No, there really isn’t any such thing as a ‘primitive’ language”

“Well, yes, many immigrant communities all over Canada are struggling to retain some use of European languages here, but that’s not really the same situation as what’s happening with indigenous languages that aren’t spoken anywhere else”

(I say European in that context because in the conversations I get into, the commentary will tend toward the desire to protect those, and if there’s any mention of, say, Asian languages like Mandarin and Arabic, the commentary will be…different.)

I could write separate posts on the issues surrounding each of those questions (and you know, maybe I will, though I tend to promise a lot of posts that never materialize), but my main point is that this is the conversation before I ever get around to talking about why it matters or about why the politics of language is important far beyond signage laws in Quebec or about how linguistic homogenization is far from a natural, neutral concept or about the layers of racism that are wrapped up in the conversation.

And my language footprint still sucks, in all honesty. (On a personal note, I am, however, really looking forward to starting this MA in September and feel frighteningly hopeful about it).

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One thought on “Language Footprints

  1. Lauredhel says:

    Just wanted to clarify that I didn’t invent the idea of the “language footprint” (links are in my post).

    And I love your category “Words Matter”!

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