The New Speakers Blog

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Language policing in minority communities

Language policing in minority communities

I have recently published a book about new speakers of three minority languages: Breton, Yiddish and Lemko. One of my main aims was to demonstrate that certain aspects of “newspeakerness” seem to be common across a number of different situations of language minoritization.

Common features included:

  • non-intergenerational acquisition of the language, even though many of the people interviewed for the book had family members who spoke the language in question fluently;
  • a struggle over their status as “legitimate speakers”, that is, wider recognition of their speakerhood; and
  • a need to establish a sense of ownership of the language they were new speakers of, in order for it to become (one of) “their” language(s).

A reaction I was not expecting to the publication of the book was contestation over its title.

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Working on Irish Turf

Working on Irish Turf

With the generous support of the COST New Speakers Network, I was recently able to undertake a short-term scientific mission at the National University of Ireland, Galway with Management Committee Member John Walsh.

This mission took place at a crucial point in the development of my PhD research, which focuses on attempts to promote the Irish language as an economically valuable commodity within urban business communities in the Republic of Ireland.

I have been working on this research for almost two years as a PhD student at Heriot-Watt University under the supervision of Action Chair Bernie O’Rourke and Mike Danson, and this autumn I will focus on writing up my thesis.

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What’s in a name?

What’s in a name?

On July 31st 2015, Cambridge University played host to its 5th Conference on Language Endangerment. Now a regular conference series, this year’s theme focused on new speakers of endangered minority languages.

Among the numerous interesting parallels that emerged between the papers during the conference was the issue of what new speakers label their language practices. For example, Nunes (Macau University) spoke about new speakers of Makista – a severely endangered language of Macao – where speakers native and new refer to it simply as [məˈkiʃtə], or, more commonly, [paˈtwa]. 

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New Speakers, Old Racism

New Speakers, Old Racism

While in Madrid I was unfortunate enough to have my bag stolen (I was in Madrid to conduct fieldwork on New Speakers of Spanish and their struggles for legitimacy). I thus reported the incident to the local police who filed a corresponding report. 

While at the police station, I engaged in what I thought was a form of small talk. As part of this, I mentioned to the officer that the unlucky incident was probably the result of the current economic crisis.

In an affiliative oriented reaction signalled by utterance latching, smiling and prosodic contour, the officer offered a second pair part in which he offered a strong disagreement: ‘Son los latinos’ (‘It’s the Latin Americans’).

Following this, he asked me about my place of birth in order to attend to the task in hand. I immediately replied ‘Montevideo, Uruguay’.

Thereafter, a marked silence ensued indicating my misalignment with respect to the officer’s ideology and the form filling process continued with talk merely oriented to the task in hand.

After my visit to the police station I conducted an interview at a Latin American owned coffee shop where I mentioned to its Colombian born owner my exchange at the police station.

She reacted with an extreme case formulation indicating her negative assessment, among others, ‘Hijos de puta’ (‘Sons of a b*tch’) and added: ‘No, son los rumanos’ (‘No, it’s the Rumanians’).

Interestingly, while at the Metro in Madrid I chatted to a fellow passenger who happened to come from Rumania. I thus mentioned that my bag had been stolen and he replied: ‘Y son lo gitanos’ (‘It’s the Gypsies’).

I have thus returned home bag less but this unfortunate event has provided me with food for thought as far as the ways in which racist ideologies are hierarchally re-inscribed by new speakers in a diaspora.

Has anything changed?

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Native speaker intolerance

Native speaker intolerance

‘On n’aime pas quelqu’un qui parle notre patois mal’: Native speaker intolerance towards new speaker speech

In a study on new speakers of Athabascan, Gary Holton gives a touching account of how native speakers of these obsolescent varieties ‘laugh mercilessly at their grandchildren’s efforts to learn’ and practice with their reference group. As a result of this linguistic intolerance, new speakers of Athabascan have sought refuge by taking their efforts instead to online discussion groups, pushing a language of largely oral only tradition into new domains of usage.

I've come across a similar case in the context of Francoprovençal: a much understudied grouping of Romance varieties spoken traditionally in parts of France, Switzerland, and Italy by less than 1% of the total regional population (~ 150,000). Emerging new speakers of Francoprovençal form part of the focus of my PhD on variation and change in these varieties.

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