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Linguistic Human Rights:

A Sociolinguistic Introduction


by Peter L Patrick

University of Essex



Linguistic human rights (LHR) is a topic that has gained prominence rapidly among linguists in the last few years, and also with the general public. It’s of particular interest to applied linguists and sociolinguists because we have long been involved with certain areas in which language intersects with human rights (education, healthcare, language planning, and the courtroom in particular), though many linguists of other sorts have also become involved.


It seems fair to say that LHR has not been a prominent focus within the broader field of human rights itself, though in many particular cases language has played a role, and many human rights practitioners and scholars may be deeply familiar with one or a range of language situations.


This page is a first step, a way to begin thinking forward, for people who wish to become involved with linguistic human rights from either of those directions. I am in the first category myself (a linguist), and have only begun to explore the topic in the last couple of years.


Why Sociolinguistics and Human Rights?

Sociolinguistics involves, among other things, the comparative study of the range of existing social situations defined in part by language, and attends to the role of language in constructing social context and institutions, as well as to the myriad ways in which language structures, and patterns of language use, reflect social realities. This broad view encompasses sociolinguistic typologies – i.e. linguistic ecologies in social space – and is grounded in an understanding of the nature of speech communities. Because of this, because we are committed to describing patterns and understanding principles behind the recurring ways in which language and social structure interact, it seems that the discipline should be able to contribute to the theoretical and practical fields of human rights.


It’s equally obvious that there is much linguists as a group – despite a number of very active individuals – don’t know about human rights as an area of study and action, and that many people who are explicitly involved in human rights work lack a general perspective and comparative knowledge about languages. On this page I won’t attempt to go beyond my knowledge as a sociolinguist, referring you instead to the University of Essex Human Rights Centre webpage, and our library’s subject guide to resources on human rights. (The library’s subject guide to linguistics is here.)


(What) Can Linguistics Contribute to Human Rights?

One reason why LHR does not at first blush appear to be the most important area of human rights to think about could be that there are a number of urgent and dramatic areas for which it’s hard to think of any contribution linguistics has made. Such topics as

o       voting rights,

o       legal status of aboriginal peoples’ land claims,

o       freedom of speech

o       equality for women’s work, and

o       refugee & asylum issues

are examples of this – at some point in each issue, language (or a language) is certainly relevant, but it’s not (yet, or not always) clear what linguistics as a discipline has to usefully say.

·        (Though things change fast – the last, refugee/asylum issues, is an area in which there has been a dramatic rise since 2000 in the number of linguists and other, sometimes so-called, language experts who are asked for expert opinions.)


On the other hand, there is a considerable body of work on, say,

o       discourse analysis of political rhetoric,

o       threats to and extinction of indigenous languages,

o       language choice and repression in public activities,

o       how language constructs and reinforces gender ideologies, and

o       the complex relations between language socialization, linguistic competence, and group membership,

which might easily be made relevant to the preceding issues at several levels – if only enough people who know about the latter set to work together with experts in the former.


One possible way – there are, no doubt, many! – to organise some of these interrelations, is to use sociolinguistic typology. In what ways can we characterise societies through their languages, and what sorts of human rights problems characteristically arise in these different categories? I give a brief exploration of such a taxonomy here.


Linguistic Perspectives on some Human Rights Issues

What are some of the problems in LHR that have most exercised linguists? What have we written or done that is relevant to human rights? Here are a few topics from recent years (mostly from the USA, which I am most familiar with):


o       Language analysis and national origin in refugee/asylum cases.

o       Recently a number of national governments have begun to employ language experts to establish the ‘true’ country of origin of refugee claimants on linguistic grounds. There is no general consensus among linguists that methods by which this is presently being done are scientifically reliable or valid – it is a new trend, and there is very little direct literature. Current practices may result in the failure to properly discharge responsibilities under the UN Refugees Convention. An international group of linguists and language specialists, after some 9 months’ internet discussion of principles and criteria, suggested this set of guidelines in June 2004, for guidance of and reflection by both language professionals and concerned government agencies and NGOs. For more on refugee issues see sources below, and the UN High Commission for Refugees site.


o       The “Oakland Ebonics” controversy – whether African American children in the USA have the right to have their community language taken into account by the education system, and how that should be done:

o        Links: John Rickford's Ebonics page, the Center for Applied Linguistics Ebonics information page, and the Linguistic Society of America resolution on Ebonics. See also recordings from John Baugh’s study of housing discrimination-by-accent, Rosina Lippi-Green’s model of the language subordination process (which she applies to African American English), and my own webpage on African American English.


o       The “English Only” movement in the USA – an attempt to legislate an official language for the most populous native-English speaking nation, the motives behind this movement, and the opposition to it:

o        Links: journalist Jim Crawford's homepage tracking legislation related to English-Only and bilingual education; Dennis Baron’s collection of articles and columns on English-Only; a basic-level summary of cases and rules governing use of non-English languages (mostly Spanish) in the workplace, brought under the Civil Rights Act


o       Language death and endangerment – some general and case study material from the Pacific:

o        Links: a standard source for information on (small) languages around the world (Ethnologue); a count of Pacific languages in world perspective, and a list of Factors safeguarding the vitality of languages in Papua New Guinea; the Foundation for Endangered Languages; the International Clearing House for Endangered Languages; Terralingua Internet Resource List on Language Endangerment; Randy LaPolla’s webpage on endangered languages & resources (1998 but still useful); the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project at SOAS.


o       Some general resources relevant to language and human rights:

o        Links: summary of an overall perspective on Linguistic Culture and Language Policy by Hal Schiffman; the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights; statements and position papers from the American Anthropological Association on “Language Rights”, “Human Rights”, etc.; some basic definitions and concepts of sociolinguistics; the M.O.S.T. Clearing House on Linguistic Rights (Unesco)


o       Theorising Linguistic Human Rights: A brief (and sharp!) exchange among sociolinguists actively involved in the debates (including Jan Blommaert, see below):

o        In a recent issue of the Journal of Sociolinguistics (library classmark P 1.J538; pub. 2001, vol. 5 issue 1, dialogues 8 by Blommaert and 9 by Skutnabb-Kangas, Phillipson & Kontra), Blommaert challenges the framework, aims and scholarship of the respondents – probably the best-known authors on the topic – and a lively discussion ensues.



A variety of sources to start with:

o        Phil Benson, Peter Grundy & Tove Skutnabb-Kangas. 1998. Language rights (special issue). Language Sciences 20(1).

o        Jan Blommaert & Jef Verschueren. 1998. Debating diversity: analysing the discourse of tolerance. London: Routledge.

o        Jan Blommaert, ed. 1999. Language ideological debatesy. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1999.

o        Jan Branson & Don Miller. 1998. Nationalism and the linguistic rights of Deaf communities: Linguistic imperialism and the recognition and development of sign languages. Journal of Sociolinguistics 2(1): 3-34.

o        Christina Bratt Paulston. 1994. Linguistic minorities in multilingual settings: Implications for language policies. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

o        James Crawford. 1992. Language Loyalties. University of Chicago Press.

o        James Crawford. 2000. At War with Diversity: U.S. Language Policy in an Age of Anxiety. Multilingual Matters.

o        D Eades, H Fraser, J Siegel, T McNamara, B Baker. 2003. “Linguistic identification in the determination of nationality: A preliminary report.” Douglas Kibbee, ed. 1998 Language legislation and linguistic rights. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

o        Miklos Kontra, T Skutnabb-Kangas, R Phillipson & Tibor Varady, eds. 1999. Language: A right and a resource. Budapest: Central European University Press.

o        W Labov. 1982. "Objectivity and commitment in linguistic science: The case of the Black English trial in Ann Arbor." Language in Society 11: 165-201.

o        Language and National Origin Group. 2004. “Guidelines for the use of Language Analysis in relation to questions of national origin in refugee cases.” Various websites, eg copy here.

o        Linguistic Society of America. 1995. Committee on Social & Political Concerns: Statement on Language Rights.

o        Rosina Lippi-Green. 1994 "Accent, standard language ideology and discriminatory pretext in the courts", Language in Society 23(2): 163-98.

o        Rosina Lippi-Green. 1997. English with an accent. Ch 7, "Language ideology in the workplace and the judicial system".

o        Reynaldo F Macías. 1979. “Language choice and human rights in the United States.” In James E. Alatis & G. Richard Tucker, eds., Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics 1979: Language in Public Life, 86-101. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press.

o        Mari J Matsuda. 1991. "Voice of America: Accent, antidiscrimination law, and a jurisprudence for the last Reconstruction." Yale Law Joumal 100: 1329-1407.

o        Peter L Patrick. 2002. “The speech community.” In JK Chambers, Peter Trudgill and Natalie Schilling-Estes, eds., Handbook on Language Variation and Change. Oxford: Blackwell. (online draft version)

o        C Roberts, E Davies & T Jupp. 1992. Language and discrimination. A Study of communication in multi-ethnic workplaces. Longman.

o        Harold F Schiffman. 1996.  Linguistic Culture and Language Policy. Routledge.

o        Tove Skutnabb-Kangas & Robert Phillipson, eds. 1994  Linguistic Human Rights: Overcoming linguistic discrimination. The Hague: Mouton.

o         Peter Trudgill. 2002. Linguistic and Social Typology. In JK Chambers, Peter Trudgill and Natalie Schilling-Estes, eds., Handbook on Language Variation and Change. Oxford: Blackwell.

Origins of this webpage

o        I developed this page in connection with the visit to the University of Essex of Prof Jan Blommaert, renowned linguist, Africanist and discourse analyst at Gent University, who addressed an interdisciplinary audience on 12 June 2003, on the topic of “Situating Linguistic Rights”. Blommaert’s visit was sponsored by the Centre for Theoretical Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences, with the co-operation of the Human Rights Centre, and the Department of Language and Linguistics through its seminar series. Members of the University community from a range of disciplines (Law, Human Rights, Government, Linguistics, Philosophy, Sociology, English Language Teaching Centre, International Relations, etc.) attended.

o        On 12 Feb 2004, the Second Annual Lecture on Language and Human Rights at Essex was delivered by another distinguished speaker in this area: Prof Peter K Austin, who directs the Endangered Languages Academic Program at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London), spoke on “The life, death and life of languages”. For more information on this topic, see the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project. More information on the Linguistics Dept. Seminar, which sponsors this annual lecture, can be found here.

o        In 2003-04, I became intrigued by, and participated in, conference and email discussion of issues involved in language analysis of national origins for refugee/asylum cases - a new and pressing area in which linguistics is being applied, and sometimes misapplied.


The Human Rights Centre (U. Essex)

The Dept. of Language and Linguistics (U. Essex) (Dept. Seminar)

Centre for Theoretical Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences

World Refugee Day 2004 (UNHCR)

Peter L. Patrick's home page

Last revised 19 June 2004