Racism and linguistics

I’ve only once cited the first-rate Humans Who Read GrammarsYes, only once.

But it’s not my fault!

I would love to cite them more, but the authors post too rarely. What’s the matter with you guys? Do you have a life or something? Something to interfere with writing your usual fascinating, incisive posts? Well, stop that! We need more of your thoughts.

Fortunately we have an unexpected treat this week from the impressive young Swedish linguist Hedvig Skirgård, best known for co-hosting the podcast Because Languagewhich you really should listen to. It’s aimed at you, the interested layperson; there’s almost never anything in the podcast that’s too technical for the general listener, though we linguists love it too.

In this case, however, we’re talking about Hedvig’s other medium, a blog post rather than a podcast. A Racist Map of the World’s Languages teaches you about much more than a single map. (Sorry to first-name her here, but that’s what happens when you “meet” someone through a podcast. I’ll write a post about the issue of first-naming some time soon—stay tuned.) Discussing racism is not exactly new in linguistics, but in the past it was largely minimized, or at best ignored. Now it comes up a lot, at least in Because Language (especially in the context of indigenous Australians) but also in Lingthusiasm and occasionally in Lexicon Valley, to name three of my favorite linguistics podcasts.

There has been a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle racism in linguistics, just like everywhere else. When I was growing up I learned about “primitive” languages and “civilized” languages. And that’s not the only way that people look down on languages and dialects spoken by black and brown people. Remember Ebonics? Even today many Black students tell me that they have learned to “speak white” (except when they’re with their friends). Many white adults look down on languages that “have no grammar,” which of course is nonsense since every language has a grammar. What they mean is that the grammar of certain languages relies on processes other than word endings, which is what “civilized” languages use (civilized meaning Latin and Greek and their descendants).

Hedvig’s post begins with a discussion of an annotated Swedish map from 1924, showing the world’s languages and the world’s “races,” grouped according to accepted theories of the era. We know of course that racism is alive and all too well today, but it’s instructive to learn about it from the perspective of a century ago and a very different but still Western country. Here in the U.S. we usually think of racism in the context of black and brown people—African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, South Asians, East Asians, Middle Easterners—“people of color” to use the description that some people like and others hate. In Sweden there are the Sami, who were called Lapps when I was growing up. Be sure to watch the short clip from the movie Sami Bloodembedded in Hedvig’s post. The image at the top of this post is of the director of this movie, Amanda Kernell (not Hedvig), chosen partly because of the background of the photo; the interview with her is well worth watching.

And don’t forget to read the comments from Hilário de Sousa at the end of Hedvig’s post!


Categories: Linguistics