(Re)defining linguistic diversity: what is being protected by language policy?

Dave Sayers

University of Essex, United Kingdom


Modern language policy embodies a growing reflexivity about the effects of modernity and globalisation on linguistic diversity. The predominant aim is to standardise minority languages, forcefully elevating them into the discourse of modernity, so that they might survive. This, it is explicitly and repeatedly claimed, will ‘protect linguistic diversity’.

In this paper I explore what linguistic diversity actually is, whether such legislation can protect it, and thus what are the limits of linguistic pluralism. I take as an example the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, and its implementation in the UK. This document excludes immigrant or non-native languages, and requires standardisation of any languages it does recognise. I report on my own ethnographic fieldwork in 2005 with Cornish language activists, at a time when the revival was stalled pending agreement over standardisation; and how that debate has since been resolved by agreeing on a standard form. I compare this to the supposedly ‘successful’ Welsh language revival, which has increased its number of speakers but at the expense of much of its dialectal diversity.

I compare these official macro language planning efforts to a more recent, grass-roots, micro language planning project in England, ‘Friends of Norfolk Dialect’. This group, according to their website, aims to “campaign for the recognition and teaching of “Norfolk” as an authentic English regional dialect and to assist film and TV Producers to achieve the correct accent in drama productions set in Norfolk”, and “to introduce an understanding and appreciation of Norfolk Dialect as a subject for study in the county's schools”. Three overarching themes pervade these micro and macro areas of language planning: firstly, the explicit selection of which minority language/dialect to protect, necessarily excluding others; secondly, establishing a ‘correct’ way to produce it; and thirdly, its normative propagation across the language community, primarily through education. As such, ‘linguistic diversity’ is posited as a set of static outcomes that can be ‘reached’, rather than as a generative set of dynamic processes that must be encouraged, and that escapes control.

As a theoretical contribution to the language policy debate, I am distinguishing ‘protecting minority languages/dialects’ from ‘protecting linguistic diversity’. The former is essentially a human rights mission to allow specific groups to express themselves in a chosen way. The latter is something far more abstract, transcending boundaries between language varieties, and may in fact be damaged by rationalised programmes of standardisation and reinforcement. This opens up a logical paradox, suggesting that ‘linguistic diversity’ may ultimately belong outside the rhetoric of language policy.

Session: Paper session
Planning/Policy 2
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 18