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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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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New speakers and 'authentic' Yiddish

New speakers and 'authentic' Yiddish

As a member of Work Group 1 of the COST New Speaker network, I am particularly interested in the maintenance of (and expansion in) the use of minority languages in connection with those current and potential speakers who have acquired, or who are in the process of acquiring, a lesser-used language by means other than through intergenerational transmission.

Having already carried out some investigations among new speakers of Breton in the past, I was able to expand my range of examples with reference to another minority language, Yiddish, thanks to a short term scientific mission (STSM) and engage with what might be termed a community of practice (CofP) of new speakers of Yiddish in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Working closely with Bernie O’Rourke at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, who is also the chair of this COST New Speaker network, I was able to compare the linguistic attitudes and practices of new speakers of Yiddish in the Scottish capital with my own previous work, and also engage in discussion with Bernie on the particularities of the Galician situation.

One point of similarity we quickly discovered was the contestation around those linguistic varieties deemed 'minority' which are closely related to a more widely spoken, more prestigious variety, e.g. Galician and Castilian, Yiddish and 'High German'.

Such contestation can be manifested in certain linguistic practices where speakers attempt to avoid identical lexical items in both varieties and distance themselves from the prestigious variety (the Ausbau or ‘building away from’ model of language planning) or, the converse, where some speakers are “accused” of mixed language practices, in that their speech demonstrates increasing influence from the majority language (for example, accent or syntax), to the point where new speakers of Galician, for example, can be accused of speaking “bad” or “corrupt” Spanish.

The same holds true for some younger speakers of Lemko (an eastern Slavic language in Poland I have also worked on), whose linguistic output can sound like “bad” Polish.

This is an issue Bernie and I wish to take forward in some comparative work in the future.

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The 'new speaker' label

The 'new speaker' label

The ‘new speaker’ label focuses on the experience of multilingual individuals who adopt and use a language of which they are not native speakers. It is a relatively recent construct.

The term originated in minority language sociolinguistics but has now come to be used in critical sociolinguistics more generally to engage with debates around ‘nativeness’.

In the context of minority languages and revitalization projects such as BasqueBretonCatalan, CorsicanGalician,Irish, ManxOccitan, etc., this discussion has been more recent. In the past, the focus was to a large extent concerned with native speaker communities.

The new speaker category emerged in the context of minority language research and discussions amongst a small group of European-based researchers concerned with overlapping issues of legitimacy, linguistic authority and language ownership in post-revitalization situations, specifically in the context of Catalan and comparative work on Galician and Irish.

The specific use of the term ‘new speaker’ in fact drew inspiration from the Galician category of neofalante (literally neo or new speaker).

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