Language Without Rights (Lionel Wee, 2011) Part 2


As we saw in Part 1, Wee is especially concerned about the tendency towards essentialism in language rights discussion. This is the notion that a language has to be fixed around certain recognised traits (grammar, vocabulary etc) to be coherently identified within a legalistic rights framework. As he puts it a language must be “ontologically constituted as having a unity and consistency” (p25).

The problem is that to achieve this apparent precision and “boundary marking”, any variability inside the language is downplayed as secondary or ignored completely (what he calls “erasure”). Wee doesn’t like “imposing sharp and rigid boundaries on cultural practices that are fundamentally at odds with their more fluid and dynamic nature”. However he recognises essentialism may accommodate some superficial variability in traits/practices but there must remain fundamental characteristics to ensure “authenticity” of the language. Such authentication must be socially negotiated – there is no objective measure.

He seems concerned standardisation may also be influenced by what Benedict Anderson called ‘nationalist imaginings’ “whenever a group of people attempts to construct a shared identity and a sense of destiny” (p37).  Nevertheless there may be “good reasons why a rights discourse ought to encourage essentialism, since it aims to protect specific attributes or conditions that are considered especially significant” (p37). For example “any language that is used as a medium of education…will have to undergo some degree of standardisation” despite the risk of “pressure towards the elimination of otherwise informally tolerated linguistic   variation”(p34). In this sense rights may be actually constitutive of cultures and their associated identities rather than just protecting them.

The book refers to James Milroy’s “ideology of the standard” in that once a particular variety has been chosen as a standard, “other varieties, by implication, are non-standard and consequently less prestigious” (p29).  Perception may solidify that a particular speech form is bad or “linguistically deficient” and therefore its speakers are uneducated,  “an evaluative characterisation that depends significantly on the ratification of those in power” (p43).

Essentialism also is problematical with emergent and hybrid varieties such as Singlish (and possibly Scots) where language alternation, codeswitching, codemixing, etc occurs and speakers may juxtapose elements from different varieties, consciously or otherwise. These forms can be especially stigmatised and ‘while not neatly corresponding to a coherent linguistic identity, carry ideological significance that must be accounted for” (p46).

Wee gives a apposite example from education, drawing on the educational researcher Jeff Siegel. “Since a knowledge of other languages can influence the learning of a target language, a common educational response is to ban other languages from classroom contexts, especially if they are already viewed negatively in wider society’ (Siegel 1999). Such a response simply assumes the stigmatized variety, which is often the first language for the students, has no contribution to make toward learning the target language. Even worse, such a response not only dismisses the variety as useless, buy by doing so, also denigrates the speakers and violates the fundamental pedagogical principle that students’ existing knowledge can and should be used as a resource to help them learn more effectively “ (p43)

Even stigmatised varieties may therefore hold considerable cultural capital for the speakers and sometimes “while not neatly corresponding to a coherent linguistic entity, carry ideological significance that must be accounted for” (p46).

He makes a hugely salient point that even if a named variety relates to a fairly fuzzy linguistic practice, maybe even a “convenient fiction”, the label itself (Scots, Singlish or whatever) often “reflects some sociolinguistic reality” (p46) for a group of speakers.  Labels are “inevitably informed by broader ideological understandings of what these labels entail” and “this is a phenomenon that is in turn indicative of those speakers’ (growing, emerging) metalinguistic awareness that are shared commonalities in their linguistic practices. At the very least, it is an indication of the speakers’ expectations that such commonalities do or should exist”(p46).

This notion seems very relevant to discussions of the 2011 Census. The argument against taking the data seriously was it was not benchmarked against some essentialist concept of competence. What Wee is saying here is that the significance of the Census is that the concept that a common concept of “Scots” should exist was validated, indeed it could be argued socially constructed in the process. The actual individual practices and competencies were in fact  largely irrelevant to this important constitutive identity work.


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