[lg policy] when is a minority not a minority?

Anthea Fraser Gupta A.F.Gupta at LEEDS.AC.UK
Thu May 13 01:07:54 UTC 2010

Have you looked at the people who were doing formulae in the 1960s, like Ferguson & Stewart (rather scruffy refs follow straight from my data base)?

I incline to think that all situatuons are contingent and the best we can do is a shorthand to indicate some groupings.

Ferguson, Charles A. 1971. National sociolinguistic profile formulas. In C A Ferguson, Language Structure and Language Use. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 157-170.

Kuo, Eddie C Y. 1976. A Sociolinguistic Profile. In Riaz Hassan (ed), SINGAPORE: A SOCIETY IN TRANSITION. Kuala Lumpur: OUP, 135-148.

Stewart, William A. 1968. A sociolinguistic typology for describing national multilingualism. In Joshua A Fishman (ed) Readings in the Sociology of Language. The Hague: Mouton, 531-545.

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Anthea Fraser Gupta (Dr)
School of English, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT
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From: lgpolicy-list-bounces at groups.sas.upenn.edu [lgpolicy-list-bounces at groups.sas.upenn.edu] On Behalf Of Dave Sayers [dave.sayers at cantab.net]
Sent: 12 May 2010 20:44
To: Language Policy List; LING-ETHNOG at JISCMAIL.AC.UK; lpren at googlegroups.com
Subject: [lg policy] when is a minority not a minority?

(Apologies for cross-posting)

Esteemed colleagues...

I have a terminological query.

In many cases, a so-called 'minority language' is actually spoken by the numerical majority, in a given polity. The following 2002 paper by Rajeshwari Pandharipande is useful on this point:


This discussion is picked up subsequently in 2008 by Rakesh Bhatt and Ahmar Mahboob:

Pandharipande reviews different permutations of speaker numbers on the one hand, and domains of use on the other. A matrix table by Srivastava is presented showing four possible categories, for which Pandharipande gives examples from India:

"(a) ['majority'] powerful as well as majority (e.g. Marathi in Maharashtra State); (b) ['Janta'] powerless but majority (e.g. Kashmiri in Jammu and Kashmir); (c) ['elite'] minority but powerful (English in all states); (d) ['minority'] minority and powerless (tribal languages in all states)."

Pandharipande goes on to talk about "functional load" of a language - in relation to domains of use - but in the end seems to return to "minority language" as a catch-all term for both (b) and (d). For me this seems incomplete, especially coming after a (useful) critique of the term "minority language". Meanwhile Srivastava's four terms I find difficult because they maintain the words "minority" and "majority". Given that these two words already have a common meaning in terms of numerical ratios, it seems all too easy for them to overshadow domains of use, which Srivastava intends to include.

I think it would be useful to have descriptively coherent catch-all terms for (a) and (c) on the one hand, and (b) and (d) on the other, in order to foreground the distinction of relative 'usefulness' irrespective of speaker numbers. This is not least because there are a lot of terms already out there which aim for this distinction, but are just a bit too specific to a certain subset of cases. "Minority language" is one. "Endangered language" also springs to mind. These make sense in some cases, but are over-applied in the literature and lose their usefulness the thinner they are spread. Other terms I've come across over the years include "H(igh) and L(ow)", "dominant", "native", "national", "traditional", "vernacular", "standard", and so on. All of these are politically and linguistically specific to a certain subset of examples (or interpretations thereof).

So, I'm looking for a pair of terms to capture a central distinction:
1. Languages or varieties that are used/useful in more domains than other languages in the same polity, regardless of speaker numbers or official status;
2. Languages or varieties that are used/useful in fewer domains than other languages in the same polity, regardless of speaker numbers or official status.

I exclude number of speakers and official status because these don't necessarily correlate with the utility of languages (and I mean this in quite bluntly utilitarian terms).

The best I can come up with so far is "major" and "minor" languages. This helps to nudge the focus away from numbers as such, by noticeably snapping off the "-ity" from the end of both. One problem is that this could be seen as pejorative. I always think that a term is only pejorative if it's intended that way, but that's a separate debate entirely!

Does anyone have any thoughts? Has this problem already been solved and I missed it?

I apologise for what has turned out to be a very long email. In my defense, it started off longer and I made it shorter. By way of a reward to anyone who is still reading, here's a relaxing song:


Dr. Dave Sayers
Honorary Research Fellow
School of the Environment and Society
Swansea University
d.sayers at swansea.ac.uk<mailto:d.sayers at swansea.ac.uk>

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