Getting Past ‘Indigenous’ vs. ‘Immigrant’.

Back in August 2015, Dave Sayers had a bracing post on a contentious topic:

“Indigenous languages” and “immigrant languages” are much discussed in language policy research, but surprisingly little time is spent actually defining those terms. In general, “indigenous” tends to encompass two features: a long heritage in a place; and some form of contemporary disadvantage, usually associated with prior colonisation/invasion. But those criteria are seldom explicated.

I particularly like these examples:

Take the creole Nouchi, in the Ivory Coast, arising in the 1980s through contact between French and various Ivorian languages. Nouchi is indigenously Ivorian but has no obvious ethnic pedigree. It arose because street traders, itinerant workers, and others in the Ivorian grey economy – who didn’t share a common language – needed to communicate. From a rich mix of diverse people striking deals, talking shop, agreeing, disagreeing, socialising, eating, dancing and falling in love, came about a more distinctive set of words, phrases, and grammatical features. This story of language genesis is as old as human speech itself. And in the worldwide context of overwhelming language death, Nouchi could be celebrated as a new indigenous minority language.

So is it celebrated? Not quite. Although a vibrant feature of Ivorian popular (sub-)culture, Nouchi is typically looked down on by mainstream media and other guardians of all that is right and good in the world, as broken French and/or a subversive subaltern code. That even includes minority language sympathisers. In a book-length discussion of Ivorian minority languages, Ettien Koffi (2012) mentions Nouchi only once (p. 207) and then only as a kind of curiosity. (See my somewhat irritable review of Koffi’s book here.)

The same fate has befallen Tsotsitaal in South Africa, another recently born creole “including elements of Zulu and Afrikaans … from the working class outskirts and townships of Johannesburg … used by (would-be) gangsters and rebellious township youth. … [L]anguages like Tsotstitaal are not legitimated … and their speakers are marginalized” (Stroud & Heugh 2004: 202).

Dynamic urban vernaculars also have a tendency to change and transform much more quickly than older languages. That is of course part of the appeal for their speakers, but another reason for indifference among those who prefer languages to sit still.

Hurray for dynamism, and fie on sitting still!

Comments

  1. “Although a vibrant feature of Ivorian popular (sub-)culture, Nouchi is typically looked down on by mainstream media and other guardians of all that is right and good in the world, as broken French and/or a subversive subaltern code. That even includes minority language sympathisers.”

    I should think that ought to say “especially minority language sympathisers”. Urban lingua francas are the main threat to existing minority languages pretty much everywhere in the world: whether they are standard languages or novel creations is little more than a detail from that perspective. Even if one’s preference is for diversity in general rather than any specific existing languages, the nature of urbanization practically guarantees that fewer languages will be born than lost in the process; new urban vernaculars mitigate the loss of diversity a bit, but not enough to compensate.

    (Immigrant languages are quite a different story – but maintaining those long-term in an urban context is not easy…)

  2. Unfortunately “languages” like Nouchi have a very short life – they are usually just an intermediary step in full transition to colonizer’s language.

    So I am going to predict that in a generation or two Nouchi will be gone and Ivorians will be speaking more or less standard French.

    Let them enjoy it while it lasts

  3. David Marjanović says:

    Well, that’s one possibility, but I refuse to make predictions about the sociolingustic situation of the world two generations into the future.

  4. Same here.

  5. J.W. Brewer says:

    Maybe an important additional point is that in a modern West European or American context the immigrant/indigenous distinction may implicitly assume by default one single dominant language per nation-state. So e.g. in the U.K. you might speak as your L1 English (dominant language), Welsh (indigenous language), or Bengali (immigrant language). But the situation is different in many parts of Africa where migration from the hinterland to the “big city” involves a change in the locally-dominant language and where the “big city” was often itself to some extent an artifact of the prior colonial government, so that e.g. Abidjan is (I’m guessing) not dominated demographically by L1 speakers of whatever the local “indigenous” language had been prior to the colonial period and/or the post-colonial period of rapid urbanization and due to the dynamics of urbanization most of the current residents are not the great-grandkids of the people who were living in the immediate area a century ago. Another way to look at it might be that as a functional matter “immigration” need not involve actually crossing a national border and e.g. Spanish might be “indigenous” in Puerto Rico but “immigrant” in Spanish Harlem (the point would have been clearer as of a few decades ago when the overwhelming majority of L1 Spanish-speakers in Manhattan were of Puerto Rican origin and had been U.S. citizens since birth, which is no longer the case).

    There are of course historical examples of creoles becoming locally dominant rather than serving as halfway-houses to the erstwhile “imperial” language. Afrikaans itself started out in circumstances not unlike Tsotsitaal didn’t it? And it’s still around.

  6. David Marjanović says:

    Isn’t Tok Pisin sort of becoming the dominant and national language of Papua New Guinea at the expense of everything else?

  7. If there is list of core demands on a language community for getting the status of a indigenous and or minority language deserving the support of socially progressive participants in the majority culture and their fund raising skills, isn’t it something like the following?

    1. Accept the role of victims.

  8. “Afrikaans itself started out in circumstances not unlike Tsotsitaal didn’t it?”

    Perhaps the only thing keeping Afrikaans healthy and alive for the foreseeable future is that it has become a proud marker of identity for the Coloured population of South Africa. But it seems like Afrikaans-speaking whites are switching irreversibly to English due to relocation and prestige issues (when I cycled across SA and stayed with a lot of elderly Afrikaners, they complained about how their children who had gone off to the cities had no interest in the old language and had fully shifted to English with their own children). So, it’s easy to imagine that things could have turned out differently and Afrikaans would be losing core speakers overall.

  9. This is really interesting about Afrikaans, but it only says that the language (spoken by whites) is at risk in the cities. What about the young Afrikaners who stay in the countryside?

    Is there a dialectal difference between the Afrikaans of the Coloured and White populations?

  10. Lars: Twitter activists, socially progressive or not, are hardly a reliable funding source. There are a number of funding sources for endangered languages these days whose money ultimately comes from individuals most of whom would probably accept the label “socially progressive”, eg http://www.eldp.net/ or http://www.endangeredlanguagefund.org/ or http://www.uni-koeln.de/gbs/e_index.html. Do you see any indication on their application forms that applicants have to “accept the role of victims”?

  11. J.W. Brewer says:

    Even if Afrikaans is in decline among whites of Afrikaaner ethnicity, it had a pretty good multi-century run. And given the trendline that suggests that in another generation or two approximately 100% of the natives of the Netherlands and Flanders will have something close to native fluency in English, it is at least possible that the pretty good run of Dutch itself is entering its final phase. The interesting thing, I think, it why (I believe no later than the early 20th century) Afrikaaners ceased thinking of standard Dutch as a normative ideal toward which their elites, at least, ought to strive. Because speaking/writing in standard Dutch would have been a plausible social-signal way for elite white Afrikaaners to distinguish themselves from non-elite whites as well as from Coloureds, but for whatever reason it didn’t play out that way.

  12. So I am going to predict that in a generation or two Nouchi will be gone and Ivorians will be speaking more or less standard French.

    Per contra, there is now an apparently stable diglossia throughout Sierra Leone (both city and country) between Krio and English, with 97% of the country Krio-speaking as L1 (about 6%) or L2 (the rest). There is no movement as far as I can tell toward adopting English at all. If anything, Krio is starting to take over parts of the H role: political speeches are given in it, some primary education is done in it, it is used on the radio regularly, it is used for belles lettres.

    the point would have been clearer as of a few decades ago when the overwhelming majority of L1 Spanish-speakers in Manhattan were of Puerto Rican origin and had been U.S. citizens since birth, which is no longer the case

    Of the 1.87 megaspeakers of Spanish in NYC as of the 2010 census, approximately 1 megaspeaker is Puerto Rican, so they are still a majority but not an overwhelming one. Of course, that megaspeaker includes individuals like my daughter, who is Puerto Rican in origin but speaks only English, but I assume the number of such people can still be neglected in the Cosmic All.

    it is at least possible that the pretty good run of Dutch itself is entering its final phase

    Everyone not too young or too old in the Netherlands was speaking English already in the 1980s when I lived there briefly. But that didn’t mean they were not speaking Dutch, or giving it low prestige, or that you could fully integrate into society with English alone. I doubt things have changed in that respect.

    Germans as an indigenous people of Germany.

  13. @Lameen, two of those projects have the word ‘endangered’ in their titles. There might be a logical leap from being endangered (by some circumstance) and being a victim of the same, but I submit that it’s a small one.

  14. Because A describes a language as “endangered,” B must see herself as a victim? That makes no sense.

  15. For documentation projects, endangeredness is an important criterion on ground of practicality. It’s an unambiguous good, for the community of linguists and lovers of languages, if not for humanity itself, to preserve as much information as possible about languages, and with the very limited money and talents we’ve got, we can leave the documentation of non-endangered languages afterwards and concentrate ourselves on salvaging the bits of information that will soon be lost forever.

  16. J.W. Brewer says:

    Not everyone who is endangered is a victim, but if other people are raising money on your behalf because of your endangered status (since the fact that donations are being requested implies skepticism that you will be able to fend off the danger with your own resources left to your own devices) you are probably going to be conceptualized as to some degree a victim by those who donate to the cause.

    Put another way, the endangered language community may not necessarily want to take the initiative to play the victim, but it must to some extent be willing to accept being viewed that way by those who want to help, unless it’s going to take the attitude of being too proud to accept help and be all “tell those goddam do-gooders and social workers to get lost; I don’t need their pity; I can take care of myself.”

  17. Maybe it makes sense to introduce another metric – language fragility alongside endangeredness.

    Nouchi or Krio are not endangered yet, they are actually growing or stabilising as JC reports, but they are inherently fragile on account of being so close to major languages – French and English – it is very, very easy for speakers to abandon them, all it would take is slight increase in primary and secondary school enrollment.

    I would seriously consider some effort to document them now, because there is a non-trivial chance they would be gone as fast as they arose.

  18. “What about the young Afrikaners who stay in the countryside?”

    The thing is, few do. White rural Afrikaans communities have been emptying out since at least the middle of the last century (already by the 1970s ghost towns were a phenomenon), and the emigration since the 1990s has been massive.

  19. Because A describes a language as “endangered,” B must see herself as a victim? That makes no sense.

    Lameen mentioned application forms. For a speaker of language B to apply for resources from a program for endangered languages, what does that say?

    J.W.Brewer expressed my essential point better that I did, but I want to remind you of the case of Elfdalian which is an endangered language — but because the speakers are middle class white people of the purest Swedish extraction possible, they are denied minority language status and state funding for schooling in their own language.

    The concept of minority language is not applied independently of the perception of disadvantaged but noble cultural backgrounds in need of protection from the evils of modern society.

  20. if other people are raising money on your behalf because of your endangered status (since the fact that donations are being requested implies skepticism that you will be able to fend off the danger with your own resources left to your own devices) you are probably going to be conceptualized as to some degree a victim by those who donate to the cause.

    Very possibly, but it is completely illogical to leap from “some people see you as a victim” to “you see yourself as a victim.”

    For a speaker of language B to apply for resources from a program for endangered languages, what does that say?

    It says they need the money. What do you think it says?

  21. It says they are willing to take the role of ‘endangered’ — or victims as I said. Not that they see themselves as such. There’s a difference.

  22. No, it says they need the money. You can infer nothing whatever about whatever roles they may or may not be willing to accept. If we all had to accept the roles offered along with money, many of us would be dead of starvation by now.

  23. @Lars: Casting one’s language as a victim is not quite the same thing as casting oneself as a victim.

    @J. W. Brewer: Donors may well conceive of the transaction in that way, sure. However, both donors and recipients can also see what they’re doing as a mutually beneficial transaction founded on shared interests: the donors want to preserve linguistic diversity (or at least a better record thereof) for various scientific and philosophical reasons, the recipients want to preserve/teach/study their own language for their own, usually rather different set of reasons. In cases where there’s no close personal or historical connection between the parties involved, I would suggest that that’s probably the healthiest way for all concerned to view it. Where the language is endangered as a direct result of actions for which the donors are likely to share some degree of collective responsibility (most obviously, in North America and Australia), the situation may be a bit different. But even then, reparations are not alms.

  24. (Didn’t update in time to see the previous four comments.)

  25. Things move fast around here!

  26. @hat, maybe we mean different things by ‘role’. Try ‘label’ instead.

  27. Doesn’t really help. You’re basically attacking/shaming people who need help for accepting the help they need because the people offering it make certain assumptions or propose certain roles/labels/whatever. My point is that the assumptions made by the people offering money should have nothing to do with how one views the people who take the money. (My perspective on this may be colored by my having needed food stamps at one point in my checkered career; people say a lot of nasty things about people who use food stamps.)

  28. I meant it as an observation solely on the people offering the help — that they are so caught up in the dialectic of majority culture oppressing minority culture that they won’t help people who don’t try to fit into that worldview.

    I see no conflict between that observation and your point. I don’t think it’s shameful to accept the victim label if it’s the only way to get the help. (And I’m not sure how you concluded that I do). I think it’s shameful if donors force recipients to fit in that role to make themselves feel better.

    (Nor is it shameful to accept food stamps if you need them. But you do have to admit to needing them to get them).

    In Danish we have the word klientgørelse which is the tendency of the public sector to reduce people from individuals to clients because they’re easier to deal with that way. And we don’t blame people for getting trapped in the system, we blame the system for trapping them.

  29. I meant it as an observation solely on the people offering the help — that they are so caught up in the dialectic of majority culture oppressing minority culture that they won’t help people who don’t try to fit into that worldview.

    Ah, OK, I totally misunderstood — sorry, and thanks for clarifying!

  30. I have a bad habit of expressing myself a bit elliptically, I have only myself to blame.

  31. gwenllian says:

    Is there a dialectal difference between the Afrikaans of the Coloured and White populations?

    I know that in the Cape there is, but I can’t remember much about the dialectal situation is in the rest of the country.

    Afrikaans actually seems to be doing fine for now. Migration to cities might not bode well for its future, but it’s still hard to predict. I recall reading some years ago about Afrikaans speakers’ big worry actually being the pressure of English on Afrikaans in Cape Town, affecting both Coloured and Afrikaner speakers. There was talk of promoting more of a unified Afrikaans identity to try to counter this, but of course any strong identity transcending race is still a pipe dream in South Africa.

    Relevant Reddit thread. Links to more maps and census results in the comments.

    Recent numbers, from the comments:

    “Afrikaans has been growing since the end of apartheid. As the first language of white South Africans it has increased from 57.7% in 1996 to 59.1% in 2001 to 60.8% in 2011. Likewise although English saw an initial boost in 2001 (from 38.6% to 39.3%) it is currently (2011) at 35.9%. The % speaking a language other than English or Afrikaans increased slightly to 3%.”

    “Well Afrikaans as a first language among all ethnic groups is growing. Afrikaans, English and S. Ndebele were the only languages to increase their share. In the coming years Afrikaans could very well overtake Xhosa as South Africa’s 2nd biggest language”

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