The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Linguistics and Social Justice Seminar 11/2 - Carol Rose Little (OU) and William Scott (Oxford)

You are invited to participate in our discussion this week, Tuesday, November 2nd, 2-5pm ET, on “Linguistics and Social Justice: Language, Education & Human Rights”  (MIT Linguistics, Graduate Seminar, 24.S96).  Please contact Michel <degraff@mit.edu> for information about Zoom link and readings.  NB: We are committed to creating an inclusive and accessible environment in our seminar. If you need assistance for accommodations or accessibility in order to fully participate, please email degraff@MIT.EDU so that we can work out adequate arrangements.

This Tuesday, November 2nd, we’re welcoming two guests: Carol Rose Little on “doing linguistic work with and in Ch’ol” and William Scott on “standardization of minoritized languages”.

From definiteness to poetry: doing linguistic work with and in Ch’ol

Carol Rose Little, University of Oklahoma

This talk discusses applications of theoretical linguistics to the creation of pedagogical materials, capacity building and poetry translation with the Ch’ol language. Ch’ol is a Mayan language spoken by a quarter of a million people in southern Mexico and diasporic communities across North America. Although the language is still being passed on to children, most who speak it are never taught to read or write in the language, contributing to its minoritized status. Recently, there has been a growing interest in learning to read and write in Ch’ol—a desire further amplified by the fact that a Ch’ol poet, Juana Peñate Montejo, won the 2020 Premio de Literaturas Indígenas de América, an award that has been called the Nobel prize for literature in indigenous languages. In the first part of this talk, I discuss how the use of two corpora in Ch’ol led to theoretically informed descriptions of definiteness and how these descriptions are informing pedagogical materials (see also Little et al., Forthcoming). I also discuss how project members have given talks on this research entirely in Ch’ol to audiences in Mexico and the United States. In the second part of the talk, I discuss how my linguistic training has helped and informed translations of Peñate Montejo’s poetry from Ch’ol to English, recently published in Latin American Literature Today. I provide examples of the decisions I and my co-translator made in terms of translating certain structures (focus, topic), a special class of affect predicates, and even cases where we left in a Ch’ol word with a footnote in English.

Standardizing minoritized languages and the reproduction thesis: Does language activism necessarily create sociolinguistic hierarchies like those it seeks to disrupt?

William Scott, University of Oxford

In order to end linguistic exclusion, advocates of minoritized language communities often seek social institutions to be more accommodating of these languages. For example, they may seek a greater place for the language in schools, court systems, and the formal economy. To facilitate their effort in the face of resistance, it is natural for them to select one variant to perform these official functions, as opposed to trying to simultaneously promote several spelling systems or disjoint sets of technical vocabulary, etc. 

Through this selection, they have created a new “standard,” and thus in some respects made all other variants (“dialects,” “regionalisms,” etc.) nonstandard. As a result, some scholars claim that “in advocating for their linguistic rights, minority language movements tend to reproduce the values of dominant language ideology and, inadvertently, the inequalities and hierarchies these values entail.” (Jacquelina Urla et al, 2017 p 43). This ‘reproduction thesis’ (ibid) potentially poses a serious problem to such movements, which seek to break down sociolinguistic hierarchies, not create new ones. 

We will elaborate on the ‘reproduction thesis,’ its potential causes and implications, then explore several critiques that demonstrate how language advocacy movements can and do resist reproducing the sort of social inequalities that they are working to end.