What’s a Language?

Picture 7The Edge’s Twitter account was the lucky recipient of this picture earlier this morning (though it wasn’t morning where it originated, was it; thanks @the_cotter-man) — making implicit reference to the recent workshop on “code switching” that four members of the Edge participated in at Lehigh University.

The part that caught my eye appears in the middle of that paragraph:

For members of Britain’s monolingual majority, bilingualism remains an unusual and mysterious skill, of which they have little or not first-hand experience.

It reminds me of a story that my friend, the late Gary Lease, told long ago, of being perturbed with the very narrow understanding of what counted as “a language,” an understanding that was being used to argue against (i.e., police) the nomination of a certain member to the invite-only American Society for the Study of Religion. As Gary told the story, he mounted the argument that the scholar, even though not doing traditional ethnographically- or foreign/ancient text-based scholarship (the thing that apparently counted for many other members as being real scholarship, the sort that’s eligible for membership in this longstanding private club), was nonetheless fluent in the language of theory — as autonomous, coherent, and thus legitimate as any other — and that should suffice to satisfy those who balked at the idea of someone who did their work by studying scholars themselves.

That person became a member, though I have no idea what role Gary’s argument played in the successful nomination. But that story is what came to mind as I read that quote from Roger Ballard’s 1994 book, Desh Pardesh: The South Asian Presence in Britain (read the Introduction here [PDF], from which the post’s photo originated): what counts as a language?

For, judging from a marginal position, the position that defines itself (and, of course, is defined by others as being) over and against some opposed dominant position, the majority is, of course, monolingual. “They speak English, not Arabic, like me” one might imagine a recent immigrant to Britain, hailing from somewhere else in the world, saying (in Arabic, that is, or, better yet, in a version of English easily recognized by the locals as sounding, well, foreign). But surely there are more subject positions in this imagined scenario from which to view this situation — the trouble, of course, is that scholars often just adopt their view of the marginal subject position, reproducing that supposed experience of marginality and dominance. That is, while English is no doubt seen as one coherent dominant language in many places on the globe, when instead viewed from the so-called dominant position there is surely a wealth of what counts as English — i.e., it is hardly homogenous and uniform and many of its speakers feel no less marginalized from yet other centers of linguistic power. (I’ve already written here about this topic.) For there are always yet more locals who will marginalize newly minted Others.

So my point, closely related to what I imagine Gary was up to with his traditional peers — is to poke readers into considering what gets to count as bilingualism — where are the limits of that code we call “a language” or, better put, whose limits do we adopt and thereby normalize in our work? For the argument outlined by Ballard, above, sounds an awful lot like marginal positions get to characterize dominant groups as “all looking the same to me” or at least all sounding alike. We’d of course not stand for this sort of statement being implied by one who occupies what we’d call a dominant position, when speaking of a marginal Other, so I’d suggest that we not stand for it either when it is offered as a factual description of any social situation (as Ballard seems to be doing). Instead, we, as scholars, ought always to hear such claims as data in need of analysis, as identification techniques used by social actors — regardless their place on the continually shifting marginality/centrality continuum — to create a sense of discrete self in opposition to some presumably uniform Other. After all, adopting such a static and traditional definition of “a language” is itself one of the techniques of Othering, no?

For, in my travels, I’ve met plenty of native English speakers who I don’t understand at all — is there no place for that nuance and ambiguity when we study social formation and code switching? For I’d argue that we’ve all had plenty of experience with bilingualism — if, that is, we’re not wedded to a suspiciously narrow understanding of language, of what counts as cosmopolitan, polemical understandings that fortify and defend a specific sort of subject position rather than studying how any sort of identification works to begin with.

So what’s at stake in scholars who more than entertain that, post-Derrida, “text” is a word that we’ve blown wide open, making possible all sorts of new questions and fields of study, but who still retain such a traditional understanding of “a language”?

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