Language, Identity and Culture

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By Cody Liska

This interview is an abbreviated version of Chatter Marks EP 022 How language influences identity and culture with Kirk Gallardo. Listen to the podcast here.

Kirk Gallardo is the Education Interpretation Manager at the Anchorage Museum. His job has many aspects, including outreach, research and curriculum creation. His education is in linguistics, and that also comes into play. He says that understanding language is an ongoing endeavor that involves considering how it influences identity and culture. Being able to speak and communicate with one another and convey our thoughts and desires is so embedded within our understanding of the human experience that it can sometimes be forgotten how much it affects. It shapes our entire world view. It’s a cyclical concept Kirk describes as one that influences our culture by the word choices we have and then our culture influences the language that we use to describe it.


Cody Liska: Something that you said earlier when we were talking was that you consider language to be dormant if it's been recorded. Can you explain that?


Kirk Gallardo: Sure. So, a good example would be in the late 1800s there was a massive volcano called Krakatoa, and it essentially displaced a lot of people. And because there were only a few hundred words recorded, we have no idea how to bring the language back in any capacity other than a hundred to two-hundred vocabulary words. So then we can truly consider a language functionally extinct. But if a language such as Eyak, for example, has had its grammar thoroughly recorded, at least the basis for it can be set up so that people can attempt to revitalize it. So, what I mean by that—when it's dormant—is that all of the working pieces are there so that if someone were to pick up the grammar and vocabulary list that's comprehensive then the workings of bringing the language back could work. Another example would be Hebrew, where it had functionally not been used as a spoken language outside of religious use for well over 1,000 years by the 1800s and now it is a functional language.


CL: How do we keep the language alive?


KG:  That's a really tough question. I think we also take it for granted, but every day here in an English speaking world we can see examples of our language everywhere— whether it's in books, signage, radio, things like podcasts—that language is available to us. And I think when looking at examples of communities that have kept their languages alive, there is a sense of not urgency, but there's a sense of importance placed on the language. And I think that if that sense of importance is lost or taken away, it leads to the decline of the language. I think one really good example I can think of is in Catalan, where in Catalonia you'll see signs that are bilingual, both Spanish and Catalonia. And I think that level of support is very important. I think it really just boils down to, “How important do we believe this language is and how are we willing to place it in our day-to-day?”


CL: What happens to people in their culture when their language disappears?


KG: I think that a lot of issues can come up. I think that people take for granted how deep language goes into the culture. There’s always this thought that goes around of untranslatable words and I think what they really mean is that you can't translate words one-to-one for certain concepts. So when you see how deep the relationship between a language and a people goes, you realize what their worldview is. And when it comes to certain concepts, such as the land or concepts of time, we learn to appreciate how people view these things through a different lens of language. And so once these concepts are removed, through say language suppression, then we really start to see pieces of people's culture get removed with it. So, let's say, just hypothetically, if the English speaking world were to not speak English overnight, and that the words—any word that Shakespeare had coined—is suddenly banned, I think that that would really affect how the English speaking world would exist day-to-day, or even certain concepts like “comfort food,” or really just any of the things that we take for granted that seem to be distinctly English speaking. If you really just think about those and think about why it takes an English word to express that and then turn it on its head for a different language, then I think that will begin to let a person understand why it's essential for a person to have their sense of language as well.


CL:  I mean, we can even look at the word “Internet,” and how it’s ubiquitously used around the world as “Internet.” There's no one-to-one with that word.


KG: Yeah. So, when it comes to words like the “Internet,” or “email,” or many of these modern words—”automobile”— it's kind of interesting. If you look at how other languages have taken some of these words and localized them, especially words that came from the early 1900s as opposed to those that came in the later 20th century, you'll see that there was an attempt for some languages to use their language without borrowing the word. The ideas that I can think of are kuruma and jitensha for the word car and bicycle in Japanese. When you look at the characters, you can see that the character for car looks like the old word for cart. And so there's a different view of how words are borrowed as opposed to just taking the word piecemeal, as it is today. 


CL: Earlier you mentioned language suppression. What is that?


KG: Language suppression is a pretty broad term, but it basically breaks down to one community forces another community or discourages another community from speaking its own language. I think the most famous examples here in North America would be the boarding schools, in which children were punished, to put it lightly, for speaking their own languages. And at the same time, I think people are not as aware of the same exact thing happening in Europe. So in Wales, in Brittany, France, where the Breton language is spoken. And in Ireland, people were highly discouraged from speaking their language and it cost them employment opportunities. It costed them punishments in school, just as in North America, and the same type of discrimination was allowed. So this prevented people from moving anywhere economically, or it gave people free rein to abuse a certain language community if the common language wasn't used, I suppose. In the case of North America, we can see that many indigenous peoples were denied better education unless they were willing to use English, and even then there were other hurdles.


CL: Do you know how we view that now when we look back on language suppression— how do we categorize it?


KG: How do we categorize linguistics oppression today, you mean?


CL: Yeah, I mean, it's got to be something that we're pretty shameful of.


KG:  Sure. And I think people don't realize that we still do this. What I mean by that is, when we consider the Internet—I think that if you go to any forum that's written in English we take for granted that we have an international community of people that speak English. And I'm sure that if you scroll down enough YouTube comments or find a random thread somewhere you can see language discrimination happening, where people tell others to speak English. Or myself, as somebody of Filipino descent, there have been times where I've witnessed people tell other people to speak English, in a setting where, you know, they're on the phone with somebody else. So I think that if we're going to categorize it, we've gone from a version of language suppression that was very much systemic to one that is less obvious. In this day and age, we're more aware of it; We're more aware of the systemic ways in which we did it. But in terms of our personal interactions, I think a lot of it has been internalized that we're not aware of.


CL:  Do you know how often oral Indigenous languages are recorded? Or if that's too broad of a question, maybe how many languages do we estimate are extinct?


KG: Those are all very difficult questions because languages die. That's sort of a fact. If they're not recorded, we won't know. And if we never knew that the language existed as a global community, then we can't really add or subtract it from account now, can we? And so, when it comes to languages being recorded, I think the best answer I can really give is we're not recording enough.


CL: Do you know what that process of recording a language looks like?


KG: It can vary. I think prior to any recording audio, a lot of it just had to do with word lists and grammars. As far as technological advances, we've had recorders that have, you know, become increasingly smaller and more portable. As well as transcription work that goes with it to make sure that we have a stable orthography to go along with it. Which is a whole set of issues on its own. And, yeah, the process really can go a few ways. It can be, say, a missionary group that wanted to translate the Bible, or linguists who want to record the language. I think that there's many different ways for which a community ends up having its language recorded or self-records.


CL: I think language is such a multifaceted thing for anybody to consider but, as a linguist when you think of language, what do you consider?


KG:  Lots. Some of the things that I really think of are, “Why do people consider it a language outside of the community?” So, a good example would be Deg Xit'an / Deg Xinag. It was a language that received its own specific classification in the 1960s, 1970s by Dr. Krauss. But prior to that it had been considered as a separate dialect. 

Another example would be Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian. There's a packet of cigarettes that has a trilingual label, and they say the exact same thing when pronounced with the exception of one or two endings. And so it tells me that there are political things involved—recognition from neighbors that are involved, as to what constitutes a language. This is one of those really tough questions that linguists have always had to grapple with is, “What's the difference between a dialect and a language?” So that's the first thing that I think of. The other parts that I think of is, “Is it endangered? Is there an alphabet? Is there a script?” And it doesn't need to be an alphabet. It could be a syllabary, it could be a logographic writing system. And, “How healthy is it?”


CL:  What do you mean by “how healthy is it”?


KG: Are people passing it onto the next generation?


CL: That's an interesting thought, that there may have been, or there probably were so many false starts in past languages. And it was because they weren't healthy. So, if there exists something, as you've just said, as a healthy language, then it stands to reason that there also exists an unhealthy language that just ceased to exist.


KG: Yeah, and I guess my view is, “So long as the language has been documented well enough that someone can understand grammatical components and its phonetic components.” If a language is documented to that point, I think there will always be a jumping point from which the language can be brought back. It may not look the same, and it may change due to how speakers take it on, but so long as it's been recorded—and recorded well, I have to add—I think that it's in a better place than if it were not recorded at all and I think it's in a decent place for bringing it back.


CL:  How does language shape a culture and its identity?


KG: I mean, this really goes back down to our worldview. Let's take a very simple word in English, “conquer.” I think with many Western ideals of freedom and the sense of valor and honor, that [word] is somehow attached to warfare. This idea of conquering something, and that the individual comes out on top, is this very interesting mindset. Because once you start translating it into non-Western cultures, you start to see the negative connotations that come with the word “conquer.” And we can see that, even by word choice with how we describe our neighbors, it really shapes our values. So if our values already have this very individualistic setting and we want to talk about the self made person, or self-sufficiency, as if it was done by one person on their own, that might be very different with someone who comes from a different language upbringing, where the idea of self-sufficiency is taking in the teachings from the generations that preceded you and using it so that you don't have to rely on people as heavily. And that comes from the same word, but it has two different perspectives. 

I think we take for granted that English might be this very multicultural language. But with different cultures comes different perspectives and different ways that we see these words. And so to say that the way we use language can affect culture, it kind of goes back to the cyclical nature of it. So, our languages influence our culture by the word choices that we have and our culture influences the language that we use to describe it. Think of it like a wheel, both in that it's cyclical and that it drives motion. 


CL: And so they all need each other.


KG: Yeah, I think that without culture, language would be kind of plain. It would be restricted to very pragmatic aspects of our life. And that if we weren't to have any type of language for our culture, it would be very difficult to express ourselves. At least, in communicating with one another.


CL: What does the world look like without communication?


KG: We would all be dead [laughs].


CL: [Laughs] In what way? 


KG: Well, how can you communicate your need for hunger? We would have to guess it, you know? How would we communicate that one is sick? We might have visual cues, but if we as an entire society somehow decided to start acting upon these visual cues as opposed to telling one another then it becomes difficult. Let's say you diagnose something like, “Oh, this person needs surgery.” But you don't know how to do surgery. How are you going to tell somebody that person B needs surgery without communication?


CL:  You know, something that I've been picking up on throughout this entire conversation is that language is so embedded, and it's so a part of who we are, that it seems almost nebulous, like, it's so ingrained in us that it's almost hard to define how much it influences.


KG: I would definitely agree with that. I mean, if language were a neat and tidy subject, so to speak, then we wouldn't have so many subfields of linguistics trying to analyze it. It's a massive topic. If we're not just talking about the classical, four understudies of linguistics—which would be semantics, syntax, morphology and phonology—then there's still a whole world out there to explore, right? 


CL: What do you feel are the most pressing concerns in language revitalization today in Alaska, as well as on a global scale? 


KG: Well, I guess on a global scale is the digital representation of languages. So, we can think of a language like Greek, which has about four or five million speakers, and it has full internet representation, and you can type in Greek, you can look at Greek websites. But you look at languages like Fula and Hausa, which are languages in Nigeria that have over five million speakers, and yet it is very difficult to find material on the Internet for them. I think that there's a bias towards a nation operating in the quote unquote official languages of the nation, and not giving representation for the other languages. 

I guess another issue that we have is that a general sense of apathy has been built into language suppression so that the generations after don't see the importance of the language. This can be done through economic incentives such as English-only initiatives where, “Oh, this office operates only in English. So if you don't speak English, we can't hire you.” And so when you say that to a community that's trying to bring back its language, the lack of language inclusion can be problematic.


CL:  Do you feel like there are any misconceptions or misunderstandings surrounding the idea and practice surrounding revitalization?


KG: Sure, there are many misconceptions. I think the biggest one is that the language is going to come back exactly how it used to be. I think it's very rare that a language has been spoken exactly the way that it was after a hiatus. And I think a lot of that has to do with the influence of the larger languages influencing its development. An example I can think of is with Breton in France, where the “R,” which used to be trilled by the last first language speakers back in the early 1900s, late 1800s, is now pronounced with a French “R.” And that's a change that's probably not going to be enforced or changed anytime soon, they're not going to revert it to the trilled “R.” And I think as a whole the speech communities are okay with that. 

Another misconception that I can think of would be that everybody's going to support it. There are many people who are wary of revitalization efforts, as sometimes it can be seen as just another form of language control. Another form of language suppression, if you will, in that, “Oh, this community took this language away from us, now they want us to learn it, but on whose terms?” So, there's those political aspects that fall into it, as well as the power dynamic issues.


CL: So what can people or organizations do to support preservation or revitalization of languages?


KG: I think small steps would be to not be afraid to pronounce words, be aware that you're going to be corrected by somebody from that culture. Other small steps could be to use “Hello” and “Thank you” in different languages. At least having that and having conversations with people from other cultures and getting to know about their language, if the language is an endangered one. 

On a larger scale, I think that it would benefit everybody if funding was proportionate to not only recognizing official statuses as we did in 2014, but also creating speakers who are able to function in areas like the courts, where translation works or interpreting works would be needed.


CL: So overall, what role do you hope language can play in education in Alaska's formal and informal learning communities?


KG: That's a tough question. I'm not sure if I'm ready to answer that, actually. 


CL: I wonder if a helpful way to go about this would be to picture a perfect world scenario. In that situation, what would that look like?


KG: I think a perfect situation scenario, you know, like 2021 onward, would be creating an environment so that people would be multilingual. So that we would restore relationships between communities in which people were bilingual, such as Ahtna Dena'ina, where people were bilingual in both languages and eventually trilingual or, in some rare cases, quadrilingual with Russian and English into that mix. But I think having a multilingual world in which it's not the same seven or eight major, or large languages, would be the ideal in that people would be open to communicating and learning more about one another.



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