Creating and Recreating Language Communities: Verbal Practices Transform Social Structure and Reconstruct Identities on a Kenya Hillside and in the Alaska Interior

Perry Gilmore

University of Arizona, USA, University of Alaska Fairbanks, USA

WS162: Language Policies in Social Practice: Constructing Identity, (Re)Claiming Language Rights

This paper presents a contrastive analysis of two vastly different examples of language practices which (re)create language communities and simultaneously resist and transform inequities of power, race and class in their social contexts. (1) The first example draws on a unique corpus of data documenting the case of a spontaneous Swahili pidgin language invented and used exclusively by two boys, six and five years old (Gilmore 1979, 1983). For fifteen months on an isolated hillside in Kenya, the two children met and became friends. One child was the son of Samburu cattle herders. The other was an American whose parents were conducting research on a troop of feral baboons. The language the children invented was a mixture of Swahili and English, yet distinct from both, making it unintelligible to all but its two speakers. Through a linguistic and ethnographic analysis of their verbal practices the paper details the ways in which their lexical and syntactic innovations (e.g., neologisms, metaphoric calquing, tense and aspect markers, pronouns) created a separate speech community which transformed the social structure of the larger compartmentalized multilingual community in which they lived. They crossed linguistic, racial and economic borders. The language bonded them as much as it reflected their bonds. What they called “Our Language” became a means for resisting the rigid and oppressive post-colonial biases of language and culture, creating a free space for their friendship. Their use of the language also became a means for reshaping the social structure and interaction patterns of the entire hillside community. (2)The second example documents the case of an Alaska Native language revitalization program. The Morgan Project was funded by the U.S. Department of Education with a particular focus on two Athabascan languages, Gwich’in and Koyukon. Though linguists have labeled many of these languages as “moribund” and “dying”, the paper will describe the ways in which the program functioned not only as a language education site but as a site of resistance and identity reconstruction creating a sense of community agency, activism, hope and power. The funding facilitated significant policy and program changes at the state, university and school levels. These visible and marked structural changes provided symbolic space for a public display of pride and possibility. Several of the fluent Native elders who taught Gwich’in and Koyukon in the schools for the Morgan Project had themselves been severely punished and humiliated for speaking these languages when they were children in school (see Dementi-Leonard and Gilmore 1999). This reversal of verbal power arrangements was performed, enacted and embodied in public acts in the schools. The paper describes the ways in which structural changes in positioning, policies and practices facilitated the complex and multilayered agentive role of participants in interactions which countered dominant practices, discourses and master narratives. Parallels in the two examples, one creating and one recreating language communities, will be explored.

Session: Themed Panel (part 2)
Language Policies in Social Practice: Constructing Identity, (Re)Claiming Language Rights
Friday, April 4, 2008, 15:45-17:15
room: 06