Feminist research in endangered minority languages

Julia Sallabank js72 at SOAS.AC.UK
Wed Aug 27 13:16:57 UTC 2014

Hi Dave

How nice to have some leisure time over the summer to think about issues
beyond keeping our heads above the water!

I have been thinking about these and related issues over the last few years
so it's good to see you raise the topic.

Gender factors in language shift are well documented, gong back to Susan
Gal (1978). So I've always found it odd that gender issues seem to be
ignored in language planning and revitalisation, even if one takes a
traditional view of gender roles. Surely women's language attitudes and
practices must be of prime importance if, as Fishman stresses, the family
is seen as the core site of language maintenance, when women are the main
caregivers. Given that family language transmission plays such a key role
in measures of language endangerment and vitality, it is surprising that
there are few studies into family language policies. For example, a
book on *Motivation
in Language Planning and Language Policy* discusses gender only with regard
to challenging sexism as reflected in language, not as a factor in language
maintenance (Ager 2001: 89–93).

Here are a few studies I've found which at least mention women's roles:

Traditional views of appropriate gendered behaviour may reflect the classic
'status vs solidarity' dichotomy in language attitude studies. Lindgren
(1984) posits that women, either consciously or unconsciously, associate a
more ‘backward’ language with their own lower status in traditional society
and associate a 'modern' majority language with modernity and thus more
liberal attitudes towards women’s status. Men may favour a minority
language for its ‘macho’ connotations and traditional, even anti-social,
activities undertaken in it, e.g. reindeer theft. However, Aikio (1992)
found that the relative status of women in a society can correlate with
their attitudes to the traditinal language. She claimed that in contrast to
many traditional societies, the status of women in Reindeer Sámi society
was high, which led Sámi women to reject the majority language (p. 58).

McKinnon (1984) found that in Harris the least loyal to Gaelic of all age
and sex categories were women of child-bearing age (p. 496). However, he
found that women who had moved away to cities to undergo ‘education for
export’ expressed the greatest commitment to the language – but they were
also the least likely to marry men from their own background and transmit
the language to their children.

Wertheim (2012) found that female Tatar linguistic activists tend to follow
gendered patterning of behavior that is in keeping with normative gender
roles. As Lindgren found, counter-hegemonic activities such as adherence to
a stigmatized minority language in public domains have a masculine public
Wertheim's paper is part of a special issue of *Gender and Language* on
Intersections of gender and endangered languages' (vol. 6, issue 2). Jilian
Cavanaugh, the editor, 'identifies the following 4 themes as emerging from
these pieces: the construction of diverse types of gendered selves; gender
as implicated in divides between public and private spheres of interaction;
the production of authenticity as central to language revitalization and
heritage movements more broadly; and how such projects involve a balance
between individual selves and goals and those of the community, arising
from the many points of hybridity, overlap and conflict that arise between
these and the dominant communities in which they are embedded.

There is also a paper in a forthcoming book (copies due in Sept!) edited by
Peter Austin and myself by Olimpia Rasom (2014) on women's role in Ladin
language revitalisation in Italy. Rasom moves on from the traditionally
accepted view of women in language maintenance (as mothers or grandmothers
whose main role is to transmit the language and reproduce speakers), by
examining the beliefs of women who are proactive in a revitalisation
movement. This gives a voice to key players with agency in language
maintenance and revitalization who are often treated simply as

There are also a couple of papers on language endangerment/revitalisation
in Bucholz 1999.

It seems to me that documentary linguistics obscures gender roles, and
other voices too (such as the young, also vital for language
revitalisation), by 'totalising' the concept of 'community'. There is a
tendency to talk about‘the community’ as a single unit with agreed ideas,
as in ‘the language attitude of the community itself’ (UNESCO 2003: 13). In
my own research it has become clear that there are profound disagreements
within such communities about language, its status, domains, functions,
policy – and about who has the authority or legitimacy to decide any of

As Cavanaugh notes, in language revitalisation movements (or rhetoric)
there is often a hyper-valorisation of 'authentic' language and culture,
and by implication traditional societies, which also works to silence
dissenting voices. In most traditional communities it is quite likely that
women will not have authority to decide on language policy at either family
or societal level. In this issue of *Gender and Language* Leonard (2012)
claims that ‘reclamation’ programmes evoke an essentialist notion of
culture whereby participants feel pressure to act, think or speak in
certain ways, particularly those that are deemed to be ‘traditional’.

There has been some discussion of the non-democratic nature of traditional
societies in the field of development studies, especially since the
publication of Cooke and Kothari's *Participation: The New Tyranny?* in
2001. Uma Kothari notes that ‘the more “participatory” the enquiry, the
more its outcome will mask the power structure of the community’ (Kothari,
2001: 146). Glyn Williams (2004) notes that 'homogenising differences
within communities, and uncritically privileging ‘the local’ as the site
for action, ...  draw[s] a veil over repressive structures (of gender,
class, caste and ethnicity) that operate at the micro-scale but are
reproduced beyond it'.

But as for 'more centrally feminist-motivated language revitalisation
activities', I'm afraid I don't have the answer either.


Aikio, Marjut. 1992. Are women innovators in the shift to a second
language? A case study of Reindeer Sámi women and men. *International
Journal of the Sociology of Language* 94:43-61.

Bucholz, Mary, A. C. Liang and Laurel A. Sutton, eds 1999. *Reinventing
Identities: The Gendered Self in Discourse*. New York: Oxford University

Cooke, Bill, and Kothari, Uma eds. 2001. Participation: The New Tyranny?
London: Zed Books.

Gal, S. 1978. Peasant Men Can't Get Wives: Language Change and Sex Roles in
a Bilingual Community. *Language in Society* 7:1-16.
Leonard, W. Y. 2012.‘Reframing language reclamation programmes for
everybody’s empowerment’, *Gender and Language* 6(2): 339–67.

Lindgren, Anna-Riitta. 1984. What can we do when a language is dying? *Journal
of Multilingual and Multicultural Development* 5:293-300.

McKinnon, Kenneth. 1984. Power at the periphery: the language dimension -
and the case of Gaelic in Scotland. *Journal of Multilingual and
Multicultural Development* 5/6:491-510

Rasom, O. 2014. Reflections on the Promotion of an Endangered Language: The
Case of Ladin Women in the Dolomites (Italy). in Austin, P.K. and
Sallabank, J (eds) *Endangered Languages: Beliefs and Ideologies*.
Proceedings of the British Academy /Oxford University Press. pp. 75-96.

Wertheim, Suzanne. 2012. Gender, nationalism, and the attempted
reconfiguration of sociolinguistic norms. *Gender and Language* 6:261-289.

Williams, Glyn 2004. Evaluating participatory development: tyranny, power
and (re)politicisation. *Third World Quarterly*, Vol 25, No 3, pp 557–578.

On 27 August 2014 10:32, Dave Sayers <dave.sayers at cantab.net> wrote:

> Hello one and all,
> There's a laudable tradition in documentary/revival research to empower
> communities to live their own way. This has come under some criticism from
> the likes of Brian Barry for ignoring inequalities within communities,
> especially the different interests between generations. But I haven't seen
> this important critique taken up from a feminist perspective (hopefully
> because I've just missed it, not because it isn't out there). Could anyone
> point me to documentary/revival research in minority language communities
> that begins from a feminist perspective, i.e. how could
> documentation/revival activities empower women and counter traditional
> gender-based discriminatory practices?
> The closest I can think of is revival activities which happen to be run
> mostly by women (language nurseries etc.) but this doesn't seem inherently
> feminist in its motives; one might even argue that this reinforces
> exploitation of cheap/free female labour, depending on how such programmes
> are funded. In any case, such programmes don't *begin* with feminist
> motives. They begin with an aim to revitalise a language, and women happen
> to become involved. Perhaps those women gain status and respect as a
> result, but that's more of a fortunate by-product than a planned outcome
> (and in any case this could reinforce inequality among the women of that
> community, perhaps correlating with literacy). My point is that language
> revitalisation programmes which appear to be empowering women in some sense
> may be ignoring or even perpetuating wider structural inequalities, and
> that this may come about because such programmes didn't begin from a
> feminist perspective.
> So, on these terms, does anyone know of more centrally feminist-motivated
> language revitalisation activities out there?
> And just to be clear ('inb4'), when I mention "traditional gender-based
> discriminatory practices", I'm not assuming that all minority cultures are
> sexist - nor am I looking to pursue some sort of patronising
> Western-imposing agenda; there are much more sensitive, bottom-up ways to
> empower women.
> Thanks in advance for any tips.
> Dave
> --
> Dr. Dave Sayers
> Senior Lecturer, Dept Humanities, Sheffield Hallam University, UK
> Honorary Research Fellow, Arts & Humanities, Swansea University, UK
> dave.sayers at cantab.net | http://swansea.academia.edu/DaveSayers

Dr. Julia Sallabank
Senior Lecturer in Language Support and Revitalisation, Endangered
Languages Academic Programme;
Convenor, MA Linguistics and MA Language Documentation and Description,
Department of Linguistics,
SOAS, University of London,
Thornhaugh Street
London WC1H 0XG

Tel. +44 (0)20 7898 4326
E-mail  js72 at soas.ac.uk

*Click here to listen to my interview on 'New Books in Language*':
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