Feminist research in endangered minority languages

Julia Sallabank js72 at SOAS.AC.UK
Fri Aug 29 16:33:11 UTC 2014

Thanks Carl for this.

I'm not sure it's as simple as cultural imperialism vs. acquiescence in
potentially repressive practices (or perhaps worse: domestic violence?
FGM?). Even if we on't intend to impose our views, the very act of doing
fieldwork involves cultural contact, and the presence of a linguist or
anthropologist can affect both language and social attitudes - what I call
the 'researcher's paradox', to echo the 'observer's paradox'. Simply being
an independent female doing fieldwork raises the possibility of not
following traditional gender roles. Reactions can range from being seen as
'in some middle ground between women and men' (to quote one of our PhD
students), to being propositioned.

Perhaps not really in response, another quote, from Matras 2005:2007: 'It
is noteworthy that part of the imagery surrounding endangered language
communities is their exotic depiction as groups that are not only
disenfranchised and disempowered, but also archaic and remote from urban
civilisation, both physically and in the stage of their technological and
institutional development.'

Matras describes a community where the traditional role of Mukhtar or
community leader is in part hereditary, in part elected (his right to
succeed his father was confirmed by an assembly of the community elders),
and in part appointed ( officially recognised by the authorities. The
Mukhtar’s political challenger in the community is a young woman who is not
a speaker of the endangered language but is fluent in English, and has
founded an association, established links with non-governmental
organisations and has established a web page which has become one of the
principal sources of information on the community for the outside world.

Matras asks 'Who, then, represents the community toward the linguist? Is it
the Mukhtar, the
‘officially acknowledged’ leader who, however, does not seem to have any
active role in
the community, and certainly does not engage in any community-wide
activity? Is it the
young activist, who is not a speaker, but who seeks to control all contacts
members of the community and outsiders, and whose considerations in respect
of academic
co-operation are essentially political, based on a need to secure a
financial basis for her
own activities?'

I should acknowledge that the point I'm making is not quite the same as the
one Matras stresses, but I find the illustration helpful.

Best wishes



Matras, Yaron (2005). Language contact, language endangerment, and the role
of the ‘salvation linguist’. In Peter K. Austin (ed.) Language
Documentation and Description, vol 3. London: SOAS. pp. 225-251. Available
online at http://www.elpublishing.org/PID/043 (accessed 28 August 2014)

On 27 August 2014 14:43, Carl Edlund Anderson <
carl.anderson at unisabana.edu.co> wrote:

>  On 27 Aug 2014, at 08:16 , Julia Sallabank <js72 at SOAS.AC.UK> wrote:
>  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
> these.
>  This is, I think, an important and overlooked issue. And there are often
> not only a variety of conflicting voices within "communities", but often
> considerable dissent over what any given "community" may be, and who is in
> it.
>  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'.
>  This highlights another complicated issue: that many aspects of (for
> example) contemporary Western feminist thought are ... well, contemporary
> and Western! This issue is extendable to other silenced/dissenting voices
> within given "non-Western" communities, and there is a conflict between
> contemporary Western views on (for example) the empowerment of women as a
> positive thing and the right to self-determination within a community. If,
> for example, Western researchers/activists are faced with a society in
> which women are treated repressively, they are confronted with the problem
> that the women cannot be "empowered" (in Western senses) without practicing
> "cultural imperialism" (against the society's men, at least, though
> arguably also against the very women that are being "empowered").
>  As a "Westerner", I think of empowering women (for example) as a Good
> Thing, and I would have a very hard time indeed seeing the "cultural
> imperialism" that led to their empowerment as a Bad Thing.  But the fact
> remains that I am still saying, "You're doing and thinking about it wrong,
> and should do it and think about it like me instead."  This situation seems
> inevitable in a world where people have such widely varying views about
> what's Good or Bad, but in any event I am not sure that contemporary
> Western academia has come up with a very graceful way of approaching (let
> alone resolving, if such a thing is even possible) the issue.
>  Well, those are some thoughts. I'm not sure they are necessarily very
> helpful :) but, anyway .... :)
>  Cheers,
> Carl
>            --
>  Carl Edlund Anderson
>  http://unisabana.academia.edu/CarlAnderson
>  http://laclil.unisabana.edu.co/
> http://www.clilsymposium.co/
>  Department of Languages & Cultures
>     Universidad de La Sabana
> Chía, Colombia
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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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