Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


When Minoritized Languages Change Linguistic Theory

Andrew Nevins

Q: Let’s start with the title of your book. Why use the term minoritized languages?

A: It’s a question of emphasis: there is nothing intrinsically “minor” about the languages (or even the factual question of being a numerical “minority” for many cases, such as Zulu in South Africa), but the fact that the languages in question exist in a particular social context which ascribes them less importance than other languages. Many of the languages featured as case studies in the book, such as Zazaki Kurdish, Uyghur, Basque, or signed languages have often been explicitly prohibited in educational contexts in the past (even though they may not be considered endangered languages at present), which reflects specific language ideologies and actions intended to downplay and diminish their use, and their prestige.  This often leads to asymmetric bilingualism, where on a daily basis one has to speak a more dominant (or minoritizing) language alongside ones’ first language. Although the distinctions achieved by the term minoritized haven’t been broadly recognized yet within linguistics, I hope that for the reasons above, it will be increasingly adopted.

Q: There’s a very specific focus on “when these languages change linguistic theory”. Why?

A: The case studies in the book are chosen based on cases that are ready to become part of the canon and the textbooks, as these are instances in which confronting and embracing patterns from less familiar languages (even less familiar as they are often not spoken in university classrooms or corridors, where academics are doing their work) have already led to irrevocable and transformative changes in key ingredients in linguistic theory.

For example, once Bantu languages such as Chichewa and their patterns of benefactive constructions with applicative verbal morphology required a change in the way syntactic theory handles the notion of ‘object of the verb’, there is no going back, for the entire syntactic community – all of generative syntax now must include applicative configurations as its baseline for relating benefactives, malefactives, or instrumental noun phrases in multiple object constructions.   What we have learned on the basis of Bantu languages has opened up ways of looking at symmetric vs asymmetric multiple object constructions in languages as far from Bantu as Spanish, Japanese, and Warlpiri. Similarly, once the existence of gender agreement patterns in languages such as Slovenian or Xhosa establish that, at least with respect to noun phrase coordination, certain syntactic dependencies may be based on linear order in addition to hierarchical structure, the entire architecture of grammar we assume must be adapted, such that sensitivity to linear order for agreement can be stated.

As a consequence of discoveries such as the ones mentioned above, the entire field of theoretical linguistics has shifted, such that it is no longer possible to begin a theoretical model on the basis of English (or dominant European languages) and assume it will broadly generalize to all other languages. In fact, the trend within psychology to question our methodological starting point with contemporary “WEIRD” languages, cultures, or societies as not being representative all slices of humanity (or human languages) past, present, or future is one that linguistics must take on as well – especially since, in some cases, many of the minoritized languages under discussion may not always be around later to ‘eventually’ study some day.

Q: What are the potential impacts of this book for speakers of minoritized languages and perhaps the academic community more broadly?

A: First, perhaps one of the clearest messages for speakers of a minoritized language is to show what an important impact their language has had for the field of linguistics. As a speaker of a language with a long history of being externally treated as inferior to a hegemonic or more dominant language nearby (e.g. Mayan Ch’ol or Black ASL) it is very positive to discover more about how your language has had a transformative impact on science, and a central role in our understanding of phenomena such as ergativity or the phonology of coordinating two hands as articulators.  It also underscores a more general message in which the scientific value of a particular language as a key to understanding the varieties, limits, and principles of all grammatical systems is entirely unrelated to its status in terms of social discrimination or suppression. In the last chapter, particular emphasis is placed upon potential directions for the field of language sciences to ensure continued mutually beneficial dialogue with communities of minoritized languages.  This includes raising conversations about inclusion and diversity within cohorts of linguistics in postgraduate and faculty populations, as well as academics and universities taking the responsibility to rethink priorities when it comes to recognition of work outputs that meet community-defined needs, alongside research-based publications.

Finally, I would like to emphasize that the case studies adopted within the book reflect a set of choices based on demonstrating the contributions of minoritized languages to linguistic theory across all continents and across all areas of grammatical inquiry.  However, it’s in a sense only a representative sample, as there are many possible continuations and future ‘chapters’ to be written, and it is my intention that an empowering message may emerge for this larger project of recognition, to which I hope many scholars will continue to work towards.

When Minoritized Languages Change Linguistic Theory by Andrew Nevins

About The Author

Andrew Nevins

Andrew Nevins is Professor of Language Sciences at University College London. He is the author of Locality in Vowel Harmony (2010, MIT Press) and co-author of Morphotactics: The St...

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