What is subaltern linguistics?

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What is subaltern linguistics?

Ahmar Mahboob, Ph.D, University of Sydney


Subaltern linguistics is a linguistics carried out by and for a community’s self-empowerment, well-being, and prosperity. Subaltern linguistics can be carried out by anyone. And, it can be done in any language – it does not need to use or rely on English or on technical jargon. The goal of subaltern linguistics is to create economies, practices, projects, and resources that can be made and used by community members and leaders to develop and promote community beneficial socio-semiotic processes in their own language (or a language of their choice). Socio-semiotics can be broadly understood as ways in which various meaning-making resources (including, but not limited to, images, texts, colours, symbols, gestures, movement, sounds, smells, tastes, touch) relate to the lives of people.

Subaltern linguistics can be – and is often – carried out by people who do not have a training in modern linguistics. To read my critique of modern linguistics, please visit: https://wemountains.com/01/10/1057.

There is no one way of doing subaltern linguistics.

Work in subaltern linguistics can be characterised by 1) its goals: community empowerment, well-being, and prosperity; 2) its use of five material senses: visual, oral, smell, touch, and taste [note: these five senses are presented in a particular hierarchy; I will discuss this hierarchy and its significance in a later essay]; and, 3) its recognition of the relationship between socio-semiotic and material systems.

Our worlds can be broadly classified into two systems: material systems and socio-semiotic systems.

Material systems include physical and biological systems. Physical systems are the primary building blocks of our existence. A study of these (e.g. through physics or chemistry), and the use of these studies (e.g. through engineering) helps us to manipulate the physical world to suit our needs. Biological systems give us life. A study of these (e.g. through plant and animal sciences), and the use of these studies (e.g. through medicine) helps us to fight off diseases and live a longer and healthier life.

Physical and biological systems are not independent of each other. All biological organisms are made of physical matter; however, not all physical matter is biological (e.g. stones and rocks and water and air). Biological organisms can impact physical objects; and physical environment can impact the evolution of biological organisms. We can also use studies of the physical world and apply them to biological creatures, e.g., by using x-rays and nuclear medicine. And, we can use a study of biological creatures in working with physical objects, e.g., designing helicopters based on studying dragonflies.

However, there can be little development or application of the physical or biological sciences without our ability to form socio-semiotic systems. Socio-semiotic systems include sociological systems and semiotic systems. Sociological systems are ways in which a group organises itself. All sociological systems are biological, but not all biological systems (e.g., trees) are sociological. Semiotic systems are meaning-making systems; and all sociological systems have some form of meaning-making processes (this includes but is not limited to language). It is the socio-semiotic systems that give us our understandings of the world, including our belief systems, economic systems, ways of thinking, ways of being, and ways of doing. Socio-semiotic systems can help explain and predict the relationship that an individual or a community has with other social systems, biological organisms, and the physical world. Language plays a small, but crucial, role in creating and enabling our socio-semiotic systems.

Language is created, changed, and used by people. People use language as one way of understanding and sharing the world around us: both material world and socio-semiotic world. Language responds to and changes as people change or the things that they do with language change. Language, like the people who create language, changes all the time. To understand language, we need to understand people: what people do with language. Thus, people are at the centre of our understanding of subaltern linguistics. Not language. Language is one meaning-making resource amongst many; and people use this resource for their benefit – or, for their harm.

Indigenous communities throughout the world developed respectful relationships with the material world and lived in harmony with it. This was reflected in their socio-semiotic processes. For example, Indigenous people of Australia believed that earth (and rivers and mountains) are living things and deserve respect. Their languages gave human-like characteristics to animals and birds. This reflects an understanding that other living thing also have meaning-making systems and navigate their lives and the world through them. Their social, cultural and linguistic practices reflected these beliefs. And, these beliefs led them to develop a respectful relationship with their environment – and all objects and beings that were part of that environment. Readers familiar with Indigenous languages from other parts of the world will be able to quickly add to these examples: of how Indigenous languages embedded a respect for material, biological, and other socio-semiotic systems. However, these practices and ways of being were disrupted by colonisation – and have led to many of the problems that we experience in the world today.

Colonizing communities (a.k.a. exploiting communities) speak and promote language, culture and social practices that do not share this respect of the physical or biological systems. Colonizing powers belief in the superiority of humans over other creatures; and of the superiority of some human belief systems and practices over others. They believe that their own ways of doing things are “developed” because they control other parts of the world; and that others need to follow their lead to become “developed”. As a consequence of this, they create policies and practices (including education and academic disciplines) whereby other people and communities give up their own ways of being and doing to become “developed”. This leads to a devastation of Indigenous communities and local ways of being and doing.

Once on decline, “experts” from exploiting communities (and those trained in the approaches developed by the exploiting communities) go into the exploited communities to “document” the ways of these societies. This include “experts” from across social sciences, education, and humanities, including linguists.  And, while the linguists (and others) document languages (and other practices), the communities that speak these languages (and practice different beliefs) continue to suffer and gradually disappear. (To follow up on the link between colonisation and linguistics, visit: https://wemountains.com/12/24/984/.)

Subaltern linguistics recognises these inherent discriminatory and subjugating practices carried out and encouraged by academics and experts from (or trained in) exploitative linguistics and other social sciences (including education).

The goal of subaltern linguistics is not to document languages or write grammars. It sees these practices as subjugating practices – practices that further weaken and marginalise communities and languages.

A deemphasis on language documentation and writing grammars in subaltern linguistics is based both on theoretical and practical concerns. In terms of theory, subaltern linguistics recognises the impossibility of writing a comprehensive grammar of any language. This is because language is a dynamic system that changes and varies all the time; one cannot capture all the language changes and variations in a single grammar of language. The most that one can hope for is to document language use in one context, by one person (or group of people), at one time. The writing and use of grammars contribute to discriminatory practices: since one set of language features is considered “standard” and others are seen as deviancies (and deficiencies).

There are at least three inter-related practical reasons for subaltern linguistics not to focus on writing linguistic descriptions or grammars. First, if the goals of subaltern linguistics and “modern linguistics” are at odds, then how can it follow the methods used by “modern linguists”? Second, if subaltern linguistics focuses on people and communities, and considers language to be a minor, albeit crucial, resource for meaning-making, then how can it focus on just language? And, third, if subaltern linguistics can be carried out by anyone in any language, then how can it be tied down with heavy theoretical and terminological knowledge that is only accessible to people who are trained in “modern linguistics”?

Having said this, subaltern linguists can do some documentation. However, this is limited in scope and is only done in order to achieve the goals of a specific project (which are about empowerment of people and communities). Subaltern linguistics documents and analyses the use of language (along with other meaning-making systems) in as far as it helps them to create economies, practices, projects, and resources that benefit their communities.

I will now give three examples of subaltern linguistics. Notice that these come from very different contexts and “modern linguistics” has little contribution to any of these.

Example 1: Sequoyah was a Cherokee (an Indigenous tribe in north America) who realised that the colonizers used writing to communicate. Cherokee, at that point was an oral language. Sequoyah set out – with no training in linguistics – to develop a writing system for his language. He first experimented with a phonemic system, but realised that it did not suit his language – and would be too difficult to teach and learn. He therefore invented a set of characters that were syllabic, not phonetic. Once he had completed his script and published it, the Cherokee script spread quickly through his community and people who had no literacy developed literacy in their language very quickly. Sequoyah’s script, which is a socio-semiotic resource, is still used today and is one reason why the Cherokee people and language have survived the onslaughts of colonization and genocide.

Cherokee_syllabary–photo Wikimeida Commons

Sequoyah can be considered a champion of subaltern linguistics. He saw a need in his community and addressed it by creating a new writing system – a writing system that is arguable much better than the phonemic scripts used and promoted by “modern linguistics”.

Example 2: National Road and Motorists’ Association (NRMA) is an organisation that offers roadside assistance to motorists in Australia. Recently, NRMA started a “drive nice” campaign and placed large advertisements on highways that read “Drive nice…” and then a message in a child’s writing along with drawings. An example of one such advertisement is given below:

National Road and Motorists’ Association (NRMA) advertisement –photo provided by the author

This text uses not just language, but Tom’s handwriting and drawing to create an impact. Tom, as the advertisement states, was 6-year-old when he composed this text. This – and other advertisements in this campaign – are powerful because they draws on socio-semiotics and our understanding of how using a child’s handwriting and drawing can influence adults. This is an example of subaltern linguistics as it draws on an understanding of socio-semiotics to influence practices that can save peoples’ lives.

A subaltern linguistic, if they so choose, can review this (and other successful campaigns from around the world) and create their own resources – with an understanding of their own people and communities – to influence unsafe driving (or other) practices that are harmful to the community. A subaltern linguist will analyse these texts only to understand how they work; their goal is not to document or describe language use, but to create their own resources (for their own goals, in their own languages, and in ways that work for their communities). The resources created, which are socio-semiotic in nature, will impact the material systems: e.g., these resources may decrease the number of accidents in the area and thus improve the physical and biological environment in which people live.

Example 3: Elders and children from the Kristang community in Melaka, Malaysia, in collaboration with FLC Group, organised a Language Travels in late 2018. The goal of this Language Travels was to enhance the prestige of Kristang by creating economic opportunities that use and strengthen the community language (see http://www.flcgroup.net/upcoming-conference-2018/language-travels/). Language Travels in Melaka was coordinated by the community elders, who supervised their youth to take on the role of language teachers. This project provided an income to the community, including to the children, and gave them pride in their own language.

In this subaltern linguistics project, the community developed and ran a successful project that brought an income to the community through the use of their language. The community elders and youth worked together to study their own language and developed material and methods to teach their language to Language Travelers. As a result of this first Language Travels, the Kristang community is now setting up additional programs and running them independent of FLC. This example shows how communities can create economic opportunities for themselves by using and empowering their own languages. They use socio-semiotic resources to bring material and other benefits to the people of their community.

To summarise, subaltern linguistics is a linguistics of the people, by the people, and for the people. It is inclusive and does not discriminate between people based on their language, training, education, age, gender, sexual orientation, social class, or other demographic features. Anyone who uses language (or a study of language) to empower their communities is a subaltern linguist. This can be a child, or a grandmother, or the two together. The goal of subaltern linguistics is community enhancement – done by and in terms of the members of the community. We can all participate in subaltern linguistics – to create more prosperous and harmonized societies.

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