March was a great month in terms of academic events. Just after a little longer than a week after the TTB conference at Warwick, I was honoured to be one of the three conference assistants helping out with the logistics of the Language, Mobility and Belonging Conference at the University of Oxford. The three-day conference started off beautifully on 23 March in a sun-drenched Somerville College with a warm welcome from the four organisers – Kinga Kozminska, Leonie Schulte, Nancy Hawker and Rosemary Hall – immediately followed by the opening remarks held by Lesley Milroy – yes, that Lesley Milroy – whose name is an institution proper in sociolinguistics, and whose name incidentally features on the book cover I included in my previous post whilst discussing about language and authority.
From my point of view, this conference was very well-timed for a number of reasons – both personal and, most importantly, “global”. Linguistics-based debates have been laying the groundwork of mobility discourses for quite a while now, to such an extent that concepts like ‘movement’, ‘migration’, ‘geographical dislocation of speech communities’ should now be considered as established concepts, ready to be further challenged and problematised. Nevertheless, contemporary public discourses and practices concerning the movement of people and goods continue to fail at grasping basic phenomena that the language sciences have been outlining for a few decades. This “post-mobile age” (as one of the delegates worded it) remains imbued with legends and myths that perpetuate fully conventional, utterly unnatural social practices. For this reason it is compelling to address questions of language and its role and shape in society.
The act of disengagement of language from geopolitical conventions is at the core of any sociolinguistic discourse, it emerges in the introduction of a very large collection of articles and essays on the subject. And notwithstanding all the efforts, we keep finding the need to underline it: there is no such thing as a ‘national language’ – intra– and inter-variations are natural processes. Besides, at the end of the day, people do not really need linguists to figure it out. As I mentioned elsewhere, human beings are exceptionally good at spotting linguistic variation (and thereby at socially categorising individuals) – language variation plays a significant role in our perceptive experience. If that is the case, then, why does our society seem to forget it all whilst tackling immigration? Why do national policies treat language testing as a one-size-fits-all solution? Why do asylum seekers’ screening tests involve a language analysis for the determination of origin that blanks out the fact that people move about, travel, are in contact with different people, speak different languages, are subjected to language contact?
These are among the many pressing questions that LMB2017 sought not necessarily to answer, but at least to make reverberate in public discourse. At present, we seem to be experiencing a subtle backfiring of globalisation: there is a rising of introspective ideologies that claim to hinge on ‘the values of the past’, by pulling out of the hat old myths and beliefs that describe a reality that has never been really there and yet individuals’ actions (e.g. votes in elections) ascribe to them en masse. The papers presented at the conference provided a diversified perspective on how the ‘diversity on the move’ unfolds, showing how unfathomable and multi-faceted sociolinguistic phenomena come about, develop and settle. This display of sociolinguistic cases challenges compartmentalisation in multiple linguistic discourses and rejects this fixity of diversity that often emerges first and foremost in academia, thus undermining the whole discussion around the individual’s actions and the individual’s motives that rightly problematise but also explicate the role of sociolinguistic research. This point in particular was particularly striking to me as it made me reflect upon my previous work on Homi Bhabha’s third space and it made me notice the shortcomings in my undergraduate dissertation, which revolved around the quest after the understanding of this still compartmentalising ‘third space’.
A further point I would like to mention concerns the role that technology plays in all of this mess. Because, when we discuss about diversity of variation, or variation networks, technology plays a great, invisible role. For a large (although far from totally inclusive) part of the world population, technology has become a major channel of linguistic practice. A great deal of language use types are applied in satellite communication, thus annihilating the geographical constraints at the base of traditional understandings of contact. These observations feed into the discussion above in a rather concerning, change-demanding way. If transidiomatic practices (Jacquemet 2005) are to be considered as the most fitting parameters, well, policy-makers should goddamn know about them.
A very special teacher of mine once told me that it is always a good idea to begin a piece of written work with a concise and yet captivating etymological digression. The words’ own histories – she taught me – may enlighten our understanding of how we think and operate as human beings hic et nunc more than any astronomical compendium of universal philosophy.
Quite conveniently, the very first word that stands out in the title of the latest Warwick HRC-funded conference – ‘trespassing’ – perfectly lends itself to this practice. As a matter of fact,
the use of trespass, like a great deal of the Romance-based vocabulary in Modern English, crossed the Channel in its Old French form ‘trespasser’ in the XIV century, originally from the Latin ‘transpassāre’ (to step beyond, to go beyond). Whilst the metropolitan French lexical entry later developed to mean ‘to die’ (thus keeping the original Latin meaning of ‘going beyond’), English speakers preserved the legal connotation of ‘trespass’ as ‘the unlawful incursion into the property, territory or land of another’, the interpretation that still holds today. In biblical language, ‘trespass’ may also index a sin, or a violation of religious norms (cf. ‘And forgive us our trespasses’). In everyday use, however, an alternative form of ‘stepping beyond’ is preferred to convey the concept of ‘violation’: trans-gredīre (gradus also means ‘step’), ‘to transgress’.
Trespass and transgress etymologically converge in the human, basic action of taking a step (passus, gradus) and, most importantly, in the constructed illegality of this very action. ‘To trespass’, in particular, implies a reference point that compartmentalises space between what is socially accessible and socially inaccessible – namely, a border – that same border that the TTB Conference has sought to challenge and re-conceptualize. And, indeed, it does so by re-appropriating the widely theorised postcolonial discourse in an attempt to internally de-colonialise traditional postcolonial approaches that favour hegemonic actors – or in simpler words, in an attempt to shift the academic gaze from the ‘usual’ colonies and colonisers towards postcolonial voices traditionally overlooked by academia. Within the context of this forum, ‘trespassing the borders’ is indeed an act of transgression against established approaches that provide only a partial understanding of how the colonial past feeds into contemporary society.
As a response, the discussion launched at the TTB conference enters, “unlawfully” (in opposition to the norm), unexplored territories by taking roads that have been less traveled by. This approach does not only enhance our understanding of postcolonial discourse, but also provides a more diversified perspective on the malleability of borders. Today, this particular issue is central, as borders (or frontiers) are re-gaining great popularity in political discussions. However, borders take over national debates in a way that does not reflect how differently the concept of ‘borders’ may be perceived – mainly because of their intrinsic unsuitability to be crystallized in universal categories. The TTB Conference seeks to highlight this, and shifts to different viewpoints in order to understand what the border means to all the actors involved. Hence, its agenda to explore peripheral histories beyond the Anglo-French arena, its agenda to trespass peripheral territories and speak peripheral languages.
At the opening of the conference, Gianmarco Mancosu, PhD student in Italian Studies at Warwick and main organizer, points at the TTB poster behind him: on the right side, a cornucopia of crystals in different shades of blue grow larger as their edges fade out and merge into each other: ‘what does it mean to be inside, within, and beyond (several kinds of) borders?’ . The more closely we look at each shape, the more indefinite become their lines. At the top, the conference title stands out in a plurality of scripts and colours – a visual ode to diversity and co-existence of different modalities of ‘being’. Diversity and co-existence imply mobility and mobility implies trespassing – to different and intrinsically unequal levels of coercion, of course.
— TTBConference2017 (@ttb_warwick2017) March 11, 2017
And by keeping this visual manifesto in mind, the TTB conference has tried
What happens, for instance, when postcolonial dynamics emerge between core groups and subgroups of the traditional hegemonic forces? – And here I am thinking of the extremely controversial, very provocative term of ‘White Trash‘, or the ‘neglected white working classes‘ that are dominating current political narratives. What can we learn from ‘distant‘ postcolonial contexts? And ultimately, who decides what is ‘distant’ and what is not? The main praise I have for this inspiring and thought-provoking discussion concerns primarily the collaborative opportunity to turn traditional academia upside down – or at least, to acknowledge the pressing necessity to do so. To a certain extent, this conference is an example of what I want academic research to be like: a sphere of influence bridging academic research and contemporary debates in the negotiation and dissemination of plural perspectives that inevitably shape and influence our individual roles and responsibilities in society. This is perhaps the strongest weapon scholars in the humanities may have.
— Chiara Olivieri (@kolinomalefiko) March 11, 2017
After sitting through the first keynote address, I found myself reflecting on the possible interchangeability of the terms ‘nation-state‘ and ‘national language‘ in the context of the postcolonial discourses that were being addressed there. I found myself pondering on the narratives of linguistic codes with high symbolic capital in relation to the periphery and considered how linguistic peripheries can help us identify and understand power dynamics that are at play in language use.
Language is a very productive means of coercion, and generally a very effective gatekeeper of established relations of power. Your language may determine your education and your employability; it may enhance your social network and the perception of your persona or, contrastively, it may have you kicked off a plane. This structure is not, however, a prerogative of the mobile social groups: language power hierarchies are deeply rooted in national, regional, even urban and suburban contexts: certain dialects, certain ‘accents’ and specific word uses are often highly stigmatised, thus causing a variation in the dynamics of social interactions. Humans have this extraordinary – and highly problematic – ability to perceive and interpret how people speak and thereby identify groups in relation to one’s own memberships. Although this linguistic practice may be considered somewhat universal, the same cannot be said about the politicization of how language is used in society. The process of normalisation of linguistic practices is highly dependent on single, historical dynamics and vary massively across cultures. And this is precisely the framework in which a postcolonial understanding of language use may operate more overtly.
To give some examples, the idea of a linguistically homogeneous, monolingual society is the offspring of XIX-century European nationalism – an ideology that still stands strong in contemporary Western society and that jars with alternative language practices that, for instance, favour a plurality of codes. Even though this dichotomy is largely acknowledged in linguistics, it often remains difficult to disentangle language research from the monolingual paradigm. Therefore, while the spheres of academia that deal with the science of language themselves hesitates between coral and peripheral norms, what are the effects of linguistic colonialism in the periphery? How has colonialism shaped linguistic practices and how have the actors at the other end of the colonial experience responded? How can we learn their viewpoint? The four salient points listed above bind together postcolonial and sociolinguistic work on peripheral responses to language policy. The next question I would like to answer is: where has and does sociolinguistics trespass(ed) the border? You’ll find a preliminary reading suggestion on the right side of the page. Take it from there – the discussion is not over.
Many thanks to Gianmarco, Francesca, Mary Jane and Gioia for the excellent work. And thank you for reading this!