Doing Subaltern Linguistics

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Doing Subaltern Linguistics

Prof Nomad

Subaltern linguistics is work that empowers local ways of being, doing, and saying by encouraging and supporting local economies, practices, projects, and resources. This work can be done by anyone and in any language/dialect. That’s because subaltern linguistics is practice; not theory.

Doing subaltern linguistics is a CREDIBLE approach to research. CREDIBLE (which is an acronym, see Figure below) research enables and supports practices that bring harmony and prosperity to a community. Subaltern and CREDIBLE research differentiates between physical/material, biological, and socio-semiotic systems.

Figure: One approach to Doing Subaltern Linguistics: CREDIBLE research

I have written about material, biological and socio-semiotic systems in previous essays, here I will attempt to exemplify how socio-semiotics (meanings that we make and communicate in social contexts) influences economies, practices, projects, and resources. In other words, I will focus on Doing Subaltern Linguistics. However, first, I would like to talk a bit about how we make meanings.

Material senses and socio-semiotic senses

There are two broad types of worlds that we live in simultaneously: the material/biological world; and, the socio-semiotic world. We learn about the material and biological worlds through our senses: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. And, we interpret and respond to these by using our socio-semiotics. Socio-semiotics can impact material and biological systems: like one community’s belief that another is an enemy can lead to violence and war. And, material/biological systems can influence socio-semiotic ones: like the availability of raw material and weather impacts our beliefs about what to eat or not, and how.

Material senses (called first order semiotic senses)

There is a natural hierarchy in material (first order senses): sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. I will exemplify this hierarchy by giving three sets of examples: 1) our survival; and 2) our relationship with other humans; and 3) marketing. However, before I share these examples, I need to stress that many of us do not have or use the five senses listed here. This is in no way a limitation; all it means is that we use other senses. And, by using (combinations of) different senses, we create different worlds. One premise of subaltern linguistics is to respect diversity and plurality.

Imagine this: you hear an animal that you believe is dangerous, but you can’t see it. I’d be scared in such a situation! I would want to be able to see the threat. If we can see the dangerous animal, we know what’s it up to and we act accordingly. If we see something dangerous, we will try to avoid it; if we see someone who is aggressive, we will try to avoid them.

One reason why we get worried when we can hear something but can’t see it is: because sight helps us in defending ourselves. Animals and plants use colour to create particular meanings. For example, some mushrooms warn other creatures not to eat them by using bright colours. Vision also allows us to track movement, notice expressions, and navigate our way through space, amongst many other things.

If we see a threat in distance, we can keep an eye on it and watch it. If it changes or gets closer, and if we can hear it, we may want to take steps to protect ourselves. If we can smell a threat, it is too close. If we can feel it, then we are way too close. And, if we can taste a threat, we are in real danger.

In a different way, the hierarchy of these senses also help us understand human relationships. While we can see many people out in the street, we don’t know them. We get to know a person better, when we interact with them. Our relationship will probably be stronger if we can both see and communicate (talk/sign/Braille) to a person. Our sense of smell tells us whether we like them or not; we tend to keep a distance from people who are “smelly”. We restrict touch to people we are relatively close to and/or feel comfortable with. And, we restrict taste to most intimate relationships.

This hierarchy can help us understand the strength of a mother-child relationship. A mother and child, in the early days of their lives are connected by all material senses. This is why breast feeding is good for the child. Not only does it provide nutrition and protection from diseases, the touch, smell, and taste of mother enables communication and bonding between them. This is one reason why a mother-child relationship is amongst the strongest in the world.

Love between adults can sometimes be as close to or even supersede the bonding between a mother and child. This happens when, in addition to having a physically intimate relationship, there is also a strong bonding between the socio-semiotics of the partners. In adult relationships, the importance of socio-semiotics may become stronger than physical. Socio-semiotic senses operate very differently from material ones.

In marketing, we are shown things using people, colours, images, and movement, including images and movements that create a sense of smell, touch, or taste; and, these are accompanied by sounds, including music, language, beeps, bells, whistles, ocean, animals, birds and so on. In marketing something (including ideas), marketers try to connect with projections of different material senses – ones that can evoke particular senses in the viewer to embed a potential desire of purchasing the marketed item. A successful marketing campaign, say, for a soft drink, is one that not only shows the image of the drink or it’s price etc., but it creates a feeling of desire in the viewer by invoking all material senses. In addition, they form, use and promote particular socio-semiotic practices and believes. For example, Coca Cola’s 30 year campaign showing Santa Clause as red has resulted in many people believing that Santa is red, not green. Marketing, by using physical and socio-semiotics systems, is able to influence peoples’ actions and behaviours.

Our material senses are our aids in interacting and navigating through the physical world. As such, we can consider them to be first order semiotic systems: they connect us directly to the material and biological world.

Socio-semiotics are the second order semiotic systems. They are second order because they work independently of the physical world.

Socio-semiotic senses (called second order semiotic senses)

Second order senses include our beliefs, ideas, attitudes, thoughts, etc. Second order semiotic systems influence our engagement with the material and biological systems. For example, our beliefs about economic systems and what is “valuable” impact what natural resources are exploited for what purpose by the humans. At the same time, the material and biological world can influence our belief systems. For example, while sharks remain sharks, people/communities vary in their fear of them and have different second order belief systems about sharks.

Our second order semiotic systems vary greatly based on which community we are a part of, what our age is, what our interests are, which part of the world we are in, etc. This is why the same material and biological systems are interpreted differently by different groups of people around the world. For example, some people might believe that everything in world can be classified and categorised and will therefore work towards that goal; while other people may believe that everything is interconnected and believe in more holistic approaches to life and work. These believes change across time and space and cannot be predicted in the same ways as studies of astronomy can predict lunar and solar eclipses.

Both the first order and the second order semiotic systems interact upon and respond to each other – and may influence and effect material and biological systems. That is why ideas can turn into actions; or changes in material things can be (re-)interpreted metaphorically. The belief that something is a threat can lead us to take actions. Similarly, the physical characteristics of something can influence what we think of it (something that designers and artists keep in mind in their work).

As opposed to the physical world, which exists in time and space, socio-semiotics are ideas, beliefs, patterns, and practices – these are not bound by the constraints of time-space imposed on the material and biological world. That is why physical objects and biological species do not change as quickly as ideas change.

Ideas do, it needs to be remembered, impact behaviour and the physical world. For example, if I think that keeping streets clean is the responsibility of the government, then I might throw garbage out on the streets. However, if we are aware of the negative impact that garbage makes on our health and life, and we can see, hear, smell, touch, and taste the destruction that is borne through a lack of proper garbage disposal, then we might not throw garbage on the streets.

Doing subaltern linguistics draws on these understandings of first and second order semiotic systems to create projects and take action.

Doing subaltern linguistics

To learn to do subaltern linguistics, we need to observe and learn from case studies. Appropriate case studies for a subaltern linguistics project use first (material/biological) and second (socio-semiotic) order semiotic systems to influence action and change in a community. If there is evidence for change and influence, then we have a case study for a positive discourse analysis (PDA). For example, the Australian anti-tobacco campaign has been successful because the rates of smoking in Australia have reduced and teenage uptake of smoking is lower. Thus, we can study the Australian anti-tobacco campaign as a case study and apply our learning from this and other case studies to design material for issues that are relevant to our context – using material/biological and socio-semiotic resources that are relevant and appropriate for our contexts.

Positive discourse analysis (PDA) can be both broad and narrow. Here, I will focus on broad PDA. [A narrow PDA will require different tools of analysis.] A broad PDA has two goals: 1) to review examples and case studies of projects that make an impact and take notes on how the project relates to first and second order socio-semiotics; and 2) to design and, if feasible, implement a project that draws on understandings of local material, biological, and socio-semiotic resources to benefit one’s own community and environment.

In achieving the second goal, broad PDA helps analyse multiple case studies and then plan and execute a project that respond to a local issue by respecting the local material, biological, and socio-semiotic resources. In searching for projects to use as case studies, it is useful to collect examples from diverse sources and regions, as each place and people have different ways of being, thinking, and doing. We can learn from and invest in diversity.

PDA is a complementary approach to the popular Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). In contrast to CDA, which often explores how power impacts communities by looking for patterns of oppression in discourse, PDA is focussed on looking at good practices and using understandings of good practices to improve ourselves and our communities. PDA is not focussed on examining discourses for the sake of examining discourses; PDA is about doing. PDA is not about identifying power structures that disable us; rather, it is about creating alternatives and possibilities for people to improve themselves on their own terms and by doing things that they want to do. To do PDA, we can look at successful projects from around the world – not just the west – and consider questions such as: how each of these is designed? what material senses are drawn upon? what socio-semiotics is assumed and/or projected?

Example 1: Australian anti-tobacco campaign

The Australian anti-tobacco campaign is an example of a successful project because it has resulted in lowering of tobacco use and uptake. This project was multi-thronged and used advertisements, taxes, laws, and education to influence a change in the community. The advertisement material that it developed related to all five material senses and made one see, hear, smell, touch and taste the negative impacts of tobacco.

The campaign impacted vision by enforcing laws and policies that prohibit smoking in public places, parks, school zones, restaurants, public transport, etc. This prohibition implies that smoking and smokers cannot be seen, heard, or smelt in most public places. An absence, or at least a reduction, of smoking and smokers in public spaces implies that children grow up with minimal exposure to smoking. This reduces the likelihood that children will grow up smoking.

The campaign included television, radio, and internet advertisements which included sounds of people coughing or gasping for air. These sounds and associated visuals create a negative association of smoking with health and well-being. The material also implied that smoke smells bad and effects our ability to smell other things; that it leads to diseases with skin deformities and inflation – connecting to our sense of touch; and, that one can’t taste food and other things well if one continues to smoke.

In addition, the campaign provided alternative discourses that projected positive images of how one’s life can improve if one gives up smoking. It provided educational resources and materials. It projected the savings one can make along with other benefits of quitting smoking. And, in doing all this, new jobs and sub-specialisations were created. For example, people were trained and employed to provide support to individuals who want to quit smoking.

A broad PDA of the Australian tobacco campaign demonstrates how an effective campaign relates to all our material senses, using multiple modes, along with advocating for and reaffirming particular socio-semiotics. It needs to be noted that there are examples of successful campaigns and projects all over the world. The reason I chose the Australian example here is not because it is the only one; it is because I live in Australia and am more familiar with it; and, because, I am working with Aurlie Mallet and Yaegan Doran, on developing and carrying out a PDA (both broad and narrow) analysis of the Australian tobacco campaign. We plan to use this PDA to design and lobby for a Sugar Campaign, which will be aimed at reducing the use of sugar in our diets.

Projects that can work as good examples exist everywhere. If a community is peaceful and prosperous, we can look at how it manages to achieve that harmony. And, by reflecting on multiple case studies across a range of contexts, we can start experimenting with and designing projects for our own communities.

Example 2: “Free Throw Plastic Bottles”

One example of an isolated subaltern project is the design and installation of a disposal for plastic bottles in Pasacao, Camarines Sur, in the Philippines. Using an understanding of how Filipinos love basketball, John Robrigado, a local youth councillor, designed and installed a “Free Throw Plastic Bottles” area to encourage people to discard plastic bottles in a safe manner. This project uses language + understanding of people + some engineering to design a garbage collector for plastic bottles. As such, it is an example of #subalternlinguistics: the application of socio-semiotics for the betterment of people – in this case, the protection of our environment.

In teaching language/linguistics, we should share such examples and encourage others to develop projects for and with the community. Language/linguistics is not really about grammar rules and pronunciation; it is about the use of language to benefit our communities.

Figure: “Free Throw Plastic Bottles”, Pasacao, Camarines Sur, Philippines

While the “Free Throw Plast Bottles” is a good example of how socio-semiotics are used to create a resource, the design can be enhanced in many ways. For example, there can an additional hole in a lower part of the “court”, so that people who are not good at throwing can still discard their plastic waste in an appropriate manner. In addition, there could be signage that educates people about the harms of plastic and pollution. This signage can be in images with supporting text in local languages and can be designed by local communities. Making, placing and maintaining such projects can create jobs for people in local communities; jobs that give economic incentives to people to maintain their languages and to use their languages to empower themselves. In addition to enabling an economy in the local languages, it will also create a greater involvement of the community in developing its own resources and material.

This project can also be expanded and other measures brought into place. The purpose of these measures could be to educate the communities in ways that help them. The current school curriculum in many parts of the world has little to teach children about the places where they live and grow up; and more to do with faraway places and abstract ideas that are not relevant to one’s own context. One reason for this is an over-emphasis on books and reading, and less on doing. And, many of the corporate-published textbooks today, which are considered the “best” in the developing world, are written to train children to work for corporations and endorse the values of the corporate world.

Instead, educational curricula can be conceived as ways of educating our students about doing things. By learning how to engage with communities, they can learn ways to create and do things that respect and are in sync with local ways of being. Such a curriculum would need to be designed with a vision of how the community sees itself to be.

Education is successful when our students develop projects that aid in community empowerment. Such projects raise students’ self-esteem and self-respect, two key goals of education. In current schooling in many parts of the world today, tests, assessments, and exams frustrate many and students leave school (if they graduate) with broken self-esteem and low self-respect; they graduate with a belief that the west has the answers and that living in the west is a desired goal. Their low self-esteem of themselves and their communities leads them to imagine a “better life” elsewhere. If we want to keep our people home, we have to develop economies in and through our own languages and boost the self-esteem and self-respect of our peoples.

Example 3: Wawa Dam clean-up

Mona Mamac and her team of young scholars and students is working with the Municipality of Rodriguez, Philippines, to design and initiate a clean-up campaign around Wawa Dam. This project will be multi-thronged and, extending on the PDA analysis of other campaigns, will develop a range of material and resources by relating to all five material senses, and with some understanding of people who visit the area. The team visited the site several times to take pictures of existing signage, as well as documenting garbage and identifying areas with higher concentration of garbage.

Picture 1: Current signage. Notice the signage compromises of a hand-written text: “Do not throw garbage” on the back of a banner advertisement for Globe, a telecom provider. Yes, there are marketing banners sponsored by corporations across many parts of the world; but there is no signage to educate the public and no places to throw away trash.

Picture 2: Evidence of garbage thrown in the caves near some of the main tourist sites around Wawa Dam

After spending time in the region, reading about the native environment, researching what other communities were doing about similar issues, talking to the local government and others, the team has developed a set of new design ideas, as well as of other measures and practices that can influence people not to thrown garbage in public spaces. Picture 3 is an example of one of the new designs.

Picture 3: One of the new design by Mona Mamac’s team

This is how Mona’s team designed the material to relate to all five senses:

Sight: IMAGE: trash bag with red slash that means that throwing of garbage is not allowed. The dirty water that can be interpreted as river or flood and washed away the house (there have been lots of incidences of flood in Rodriguez). These images can also be interpreted by those who cannot read (e.g. little children).

Sound: the movement of water and the destruction of houses

Smell: the dirty garbage bag and water

Touch: the line “itapon ang inyong basura sa…” throw your garbage into the designated areas. The team is also designing sets of segregated trash bins (biodegradable, non-biodegradable, recyclable)

Taste: First line of the “Alam mo ba?” – garbage chemicals contaminate the fish we eat (appealing to health)

Other senses that are appealing to emotions:

  • Opening statement – water is like you and your crush’s relationship, it gets blurry (catchy. Filipinos like romantic punch lines)
  • The multa at parusa (fine and punishment) is from Republic Act 9275 that gives an idea of what will happen to them when they transgress the ordinance.

The goals of the project are to to catch the attention of the trekkers, educate them about the environment and trash by stating facts, offer alternatives to dumping, and inform them of potential consequences of their actions.

Quick recap

Doing Subaltern Linguistics is about learning about strategies that can be used to influence positive change: change identified, designed, and led by local communities in a peaceful and respectful manner. If we learn how to do this using our own material, biological, and social-semiotic resources, and for purposes agreed upon in our communities, then we can gradually begin to harmonise our communities and enable people to prosper and be well where ever they are; instead of having to leave home for jobs and a “better future”.

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