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Linguistic Human Rights:
A Sociolinguistic Introduction
There are many sociolinguistic typologies and taxonomies, presumably all devised for a specific function. I assume here that what is relevant is primarily social (e.g. relative power, status or access to resources of different groups) and secondarily (socio-)linguistic (e.g. closeness or perceived closeness of structure between two language varieties in contact, complexity of structure or learnability of a powerful language for speakers of a powerless one, etc.). The purpose is to provide illuminating contrasts between speech communities or societies in terms of the exercise of, and conceptions of, language rights.
Other sorts of models might prove illuminating as well. Peter Trudgill, in a 2002 article on “Linguistic and social typology” (Chambers, Schilling-Estes & trudgill, eds., Handbook of Language Variation and Change) which has a very different purpose, contrasts
o “High-contact language communities where contact is stable, long-term and involves child bilingualism...”
o “High-contact language communities where contact is short-term and/or involves imperfect language learning by adults...”, and
o “Isolated low-contact language communities” (p.725)
Nancy Hornberger, in a 1994 discussion of “Literacy and language planning” (from Language and Education, vol. 8:1-2) cites a distinction made in a UNESCO document between multilingual nations with
linguistic majority (e.g.
o “a locally developed lingua franca (e.g. Swahiliin the East African countries)”
“a predominant indigenous language
(e.g. Quechua in
languages with literary and religious traditions (e.g.
The division made below is my own, and probably in need of critique and revision – however, it may perhaps serve as a useful stimulus to further investigations.
Standard language dominance of related dialects
o This is a common situation in many areas of the world, esp. the developed world, in which a standard written language is highly-valued, taught in schools as the norm, and holds prestige, status and power (though often spoken by a minority of the population). Such a language may be opposed to historically-related regional or social dialects, which - though often more widely spoken - are frequently devalued, unwritten, not taught or actively discouraged in schools, and denied recognition, status and power. This may result in:
§ Within-country oppression/denial of
· political participation in debates, thru media
· equal access to education/stigma thru education
· equal job opportunity
· urban marginalization of rural groups
· equal access to essential services (medical, police)
· literature and oral culture in dialects, via censorship, standardization in publishing and mass media.
§ Frequently, alignment of the dominant standard with class stratification, race/ethnicity, etc. is achieved through education & mass media, thus reproducing the dominant social structures.
§ Sometimes this opposition may be (explicitly or deniably) enforced through language planning activities: orthography, instrumentalization, standardization, etc.
§ The historical relatedness of the dialects often means that the representative speaker groups are either all on the same footing as indigenes (e.g. Han Chinese dialects in mainland China) or as immigrants (e.g. European- and African-descent speakers of related standard and Creole anguages in the Caribbean), or that at least the suboprdinate speaker group has a long local history (e.g. African Americans in the USA).
Official language dominance of unrelated languages
o This too is a common situation in the developed world. It differs from the first in that, often enough, the subordinate languages in the situation at hand may even be recognised as standard languages somewhere else, where they may be the languages of power.
§ Eg, French dominated by English in Canada, Breton & Norman in France, Spanish in the USA, Basque in Spain, etc.
§ The subordinate languages are also frequently languages of (recent) immigration, hence their distant historical relation, or lack of relation, to the dominant languages.
§ Many of the same points as above may apply here, too, but also often found are:
· Restrictions on workplace conversation
· Restrictions/denial of voting rights/information
· Restricted access to other essential services, esp. court proceedings; social services
· Educational handicap through lack of primary education & literacy instruction in native languages
Globalization, language death & linguistic imperialism
o This is an increasingly common situation nearly everywhere, in which an external international language usurps functions, status and power of a locally-established or indigenous one. This happens both between “linguistic giants” and between “giants and pygmies”, as the examples indicate.
§ Eg, the global dominance of English, formerly French, as well as of…
§ Regional “killer languages” such as Russian, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese…
§ …over both powerful local languages (eg Hindi or Arabic), and smaller languages of all sorts, resulting in:
Development of local dominant languages
in post-colonial countries, either international ones (French in
§ Typically enforced through language planning: orthography, instrumentalization, standardization
§ Many of the same points as above apply, but also often
· Denial of aboriginal land claims,
· Denial of political association rights,
Pressure on group identity (eg, through
enforced language death of Native American languages in the
Last revised 2 November 2005