[lg policy] BBC Today Programme: Stephen Leonard on the Inuit people of Greenland

Joseph Lo Bianco j.lobianco at UNIMELB.EDU.AU
Sun Sep 11 23:53:04 UTC 2011

Not sure if this is an 'unintended consequence'.  In fact there has long been a discussion about the Europe of the regions in which precisely the resolution or the easing of cross-border tensions was either imagined or intended from the process of European integration.  In my humble and 'far away' view the relentless negativity that one gets from the UK about the process of European integration makes it so hard for many people there to see its benefits.  Everywhere 'on the continent' the national flag flies next to the EU flag, which is also the Council of Europe flag, and this is, so far as I can tell, unproblematic, but I have never seen this in the UK.  This is one, albeit small, indicator of what we know from the media in general, and from public discussion, the rather widespread reluctance in the UK to embrace the project of European integration, which, for all its turmoil, is much better appreciated in the rest of the EU.   After all the suppression of minority languages was a quintessentially 'national' project, the idea and the ideal in Europe of the exclusive national state, with its unique national language, and so on.  A trans-national structure doesn't 'solve' this problem but it makes it more malleable, less 'sharp-edged'.


Joseph Lo Bianco
Professor of Language and Literacy Education
Melbourne Graduate School of Education
The University of Melbourne, Parkville, 3010 VIC Australia
Tel: +613 8344 8346 Fax:+613 8344 8612  MOB: 0407 798 978
EMAIL: j.lobianco at unimelb.edu.au<mailto:j.lobianco at unimelb.edu.au>
WEBSITE: http://jlobianco.com.au/

President, Australian Academy of the Humanities


From: lgpolicy-list-bounces at groups.sas.upenn.edu [mailto:lgpolicy-list-bounces at groups.sas.upenn.edu] On Behalf Of Ann Anderson Evans
Sent: Wednesday, 7 September 2011 9:58 PM
To: Language Policy List
Subject: Re: [lg policy] BBC Today Programme: Stephen Leonard on the Inuit people of Greenland

In my research on language and the Macedonian community in Greece, I found a surprising turnabout. The Greeks pressured the ethnic Macedonians, sometimes violently, to cease speaking Macedonian. Then they joined the European Union, which encourages the development of minority languages, and have not been quite so free with their supression.  As the EU becomes more stable (?) and centralized I wonder if the sometimes arbitrary lines which delineate nations might shift a bit to encompass ethnic or linguistic communities instead of nations. This might affect other groups also, such as the Basque. I believe this might be an unintended consequence of the formation of the European Union.

Ann Evans
On Tue, Sep 6, 2011 at 11:57 AM, Dave Sayers <dave.sayers at cantab.net<mailto:dave.sayers at cantab.net>> wrote:
This morning, BBC Radio 4's Today programme had an interview with Stephen Leonard (Cambridge) about his fieldwork with the Inuit people of Greenland:


I might be sticking my head above the parapet here, but his argument against the decline of Inuit language and culture seemed a little overly romantic, paternalistic, and ethno-linguistically essentialistic. He seems to make four broad points:

1. Global culture is bad -- down with global culture (reminiscent of George Ritzer).
2. 'Pure' historical traditional cultures are inherently good, and should be celebrated and defended for their own sakes -- not necessarily because of their contribution to the material wellbeing of their speakers, but because they are intrinsically valuable (this is more of an argument in favour of documentation than revitalisation).
3. The fact that young Inuit people are "not really interested" in Inuit culture/language is problematic in and of itself.
4. A decline in Inuit language/culture may signal a decline in the Inuits' ability to maintain their traditional way of life on the sea ice (which could be dangerous if the sea ice re-encroaches in the coming decades, as he claims to be forecast).

What he doesn't get into, really, is what if anything linguistic/cultural change might be doing to the Inuits' quality of life, their basic human freedoms, their capabilities. (As for the sea ice argument, if the young people are genuinely "not really interested", then the need to know how to live on the sea ice would be negated.) My point is not by any means that the Inuits are not suffering as a result of contemporaneous social changes. Perhaps they are, perhaps they're not. My point is that Leonard seems somewhat indifferent to that question, and more interested in the inherent value of language/culture.

Any remaining plan to encourage language revitalisation would have to start by persuading these young people of the value of their culture/language, which seems a bit paternalistic and meddlesome. Put another way, the situation sounds like an intergenerational conflict, with opposing interests requiring (if anything) facilitation, not overt favouring of one side. Tellingly, when at the end of the interview the presenter suggests provocatively that the Inuits "don't mind" their language declining, Leonard doesn't directly counter that. Instead he delivers something of a rhetorical flourish about the inherent values of languages/cultures, while questions of human wellbeing fade from view entirely.

Admittedly one can be hamstrung in a short radio interview, but he does seem to be given opportunities to express a concern about quality of life. Perhaps his actual research covers both quality of life and cultural decline in equal measure, but in this morning's interview he seemed preoccupied with the latter.

By comparison, somebody whose research does explore both those questions in equal measure is Colin Samson, in his (ongoing) work with the Innu in northern Canada. Indeed, Samson does find a correlation of declining cultural/linguistic vitality and human wellbeing. To repeat, my point is not that these things don't go hand in hand, but that Leonard seemed troublingly indifferent to the question of human capabilities, and the apparent wishes of the people concerned.

Right, that's my head well and truly above the parapet then. Please don't chop it off; I have hats to wear.


Dr. Dave Sayers
Honorary Research Fellow
College of Arts & Humanities
and Language Research Centre
Swansea University
dave.sayers at cantab.net<mailto:dave.sayers at cantab.net>

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*Ann Anderson Evans*
*Writer and Adjunct Professor, Montclair State University*
*(201) 792-6892 or (973) 495-0338
The Abortion Wars:  Survivors! Learn, Speak Up, and Organize
on Kindle ebooks.

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