Language Without Rights (Lionel Wee, 2011) Part 1

weelwrNo mention of Scots at all, but Lionel Wee’s book on linguistic discrimination in South East Asia provides a fascinating  framework and rich vocabulary for considering language and power in Scotland.

Wee recognises “language can play a critical role in reflecting, reproducing, and even reconstituting relations of power and dominance” (p3). The author is concerned about linguistic discrimination against minority language groups in the presence of a highly dominant language like English. His often draws on the example of Singlish, an emergent post-colonial variety, but much of what he says could equally be applied to the established pre-colonial variety Scots.

Inequity arises when individuals or groups are denied – or get restricted – access to social and economic goods (education, employment, media and political voice etc), “or even a sense of dignity and pride in their own identities” simply by virtue of the language variety they happen to speak – “speakers of a stigmatised variety are penalised compared to their counterparts who speak a more prestigious variety” (p7). Such discrimination does not have to be overt but may be  “subtle and nebulous” (p9) denigration of words, pronunciation, expressions and constructions, implying assumptions about the speakers’ education and class background. As Wee remarks “discriminatory language practices are less often about the properties of language itself than about speakers are perceived” (p9)

The aim of the book is to explore whether the concept of language rights is a useful countermeasure. Do speakers have a right to use their minority language, for example to maintain their cultural integrity or autonomy or to resist encroachment of the dominant language into all domains of social life. His answer is no, by the way, other than as a temporary measure to draw attention to the problem.

His main argument is that the discourse of rights implies a form of essentialism, treating languages as abstract but fixed and bounded entities. Grammars, dictionaries and language courses generally imply some level of standardisation around a unified and ‘correct’ form. However for linguistic researchers and language theorists, “ it has become increasingly common in recent years to speak of language as a form of social practice” (p12). From this perspective a language is “not a fully circumscribed object” (p12) with externally set rules and standards but “a social activity whose regularity is the outcome of temporarily conventionalised patterns of usage” (p12), an ever-changing context-dependent “inventory of constructions”, only able to be understood as part of the “lived experience of speakers” (p5). Grammar is “emergent” and “simply the name for certain categories of observed repetitions of discourse”. More…

For “rights” to be claimed by individuals or groups, Wee argues there must be prior “reification of social practices that are inherently mutable and variable” into a “definable linguistic identity” (p8).  Reification here means selection, standardisation and documentation, the identification or creation of “an identifiably stable variety”.

Wee sees four main problems.

1. You don’t need to speak a defined language to experience discrimination. “The experience of linguistic discrimination need not always involve identifiable or established varieties, since the very act of speaking differently – as an ‘other’ – may be sufficient for discrimination”. (p9). He makes the interesting point that the experience of discrimination and the recognition of stigmatised constructions may not only precede but actually “set the stage for the social reification of their language”.  Discrimination thus may eventually lead to definition.

2. Speakers may not be unified in their attitudes.  Such varieties may be so stigmatised that there may be “a fair amount of disagreement among speakers about the desirability and legitimacy of these language varieties” (p7). As Wee remarks that” some Singaporeans vehemently oppose the use of this variety even as other Singaporeans enthusiastically support it”, the former groups see their own varieties as “not even proper languages but are instead nothing more than markers of poor proficiency or lack of educationit is access to the standard prestige variety that is desired” (p7).

3. Speakers may mix languages and varieties. Singlish (like Scots, I suggest) is characterised by regular style shifting and code-switching to construct all sorts of localised and context-specific meanings. Thus “the inventory of constructions that makes up a speaker’s repertoire may well be hybridised in in the sense that it crosscuts the boundaries of what are popularly thought of as named varieties”. This undermines the idea of ‘rights’ as the repertoire and practice may be very individualised and provisional.

4. The unavoidability of language. Language is unlike other social practices (dress, diet, religious observance etc.) in that you have to use some variety to interact with individuals, communities and institutions. It is hard for state institutions especially to be neutral, they have to adopt a specific language standard to operate and so “those individuals who are unable to speak this chosen language are automatically disadvantaged compared to those who can” (p15). Compelling people to learn and use the dominant language for official transactions could also be considered discriminatory language practice. Clearly there is scope for bilingual or multilingual services but for cost and practical reasons there is likely always to be a dominant “public-sphere language” so “there is no realistic opportunity of neutrality ever being achieved” (p16).

Scots provides an interesting perspective on this. If “linguistic discrimination” is happening and being largely ignored, this is surely a serious issue for any social democratic country. If it is considered that no such discrimination is occurring, it would make Scots, as a historically stigmatised language, a stand-out unusual case. The current status of Scots is immaterial, nor is the lack of consensus on it; discrimination is still discrimination. This issue of language mixing is interesting, indeed and something I touch on in style shifting and code-switching and will return to again. The unavoidability of language , especially English, is something especially worth considering in the Scottish context, essentially what would we expect a multilingual Scotland to look like? There is no simple answer, as the author rightly says we need to ”engage in greater dialogue about possible ways of responding to linguistic discrimination” (p5).  I will return to Wee’s ideas in a later post.

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