Educational materials © for/by Peter L. Patrick. May contain copyright material used for educational purposes. Please respect copyright.
Linguistic Human Rights:
A Sociolinguistic Introduction
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. Sociolinguists attend 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 clear 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 site I
won’t attempt to go beyond my knowledge as a sociolinguist, referring you
instead to the
Language rights may be considered as a subset of cultural rights. The notion of culture, especially ‘traditional’ culture, is sometimes considered as an obstacle to the spread or realisation of (universal) human rights, since ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ can be invoked by one group in order to uphold practices that infringe on another’s rights: e.g., head-hunting, female genital mutilation, etc. However, a focus on language makes clear that such a view is too monolithic. Traditional ways of speaking are certainly part of culture - but the same people who object to the practices above (e.g. human rights professionals, members of the international media audience) are likely to view the preservation of ancestral languages, or traditional oral arts, more sympathetically – especially if sociolinguists or linguistic anthropologists can describe, translate or contextualise them. In this way we might help to make the argument for the positive value of cultural rights as a crucial element in human rights.
Sociolinguists are typically members of elite institutions and holders of respected degrees and posts, by virtue of which we are (sometimes!) granted access to and credibility in the mass media, the courts, and other realms of society in which power is granted, withheld or exercised. Even sociolinguists in resource-poor societies often find themselves among the powerful. It seems to me (and to many others in the profession – this is not an original thought!) that we therefore have an obligation to think about, and act on, the opportunities open to us. This is all typical of many university academics.
However, it is also a reflexive aspect of our profession that we are able to use our knowledge to study forms of public discourse about these matters, and thereby participate more effectively in them. We may address, and even be taken seriously by, educators, law and administrative judges, policymakers in government and non-governmental organisations, journalists, employers, university administrators, funding agencies, and so on – locally and internationally - using our expertise to advance respect for language rights and users of language. Being able to put our expertise, practice and principles into a larger (even universal?) context, in a field such as human rights - which is commonly understood, unlike popular stereotypes about academia, as operating in the real world of flesh and blood, and dealing with important matters – can be both a powerful help in acting on what we believe to be true, and a spur to responsible professional behavior.
Not least important is our responsibility to make our field’s knowledge more influential in everyday thinking about the importance of language and dialect, and to promote the use of proper methods of analysis and correct reasoning. It is a common complaint among linguists, and a routine element in introductory courses, that most people have many incorrect and contradictory notions about language. Unfortunately, such notions become encoded in legislation, policy, discriminatory practice, and hegemonic discourse, which in turn work to restrict or deny linguistic (and other) rights.
Engagement with the field of linguistic human rights offers us an opportunity to capitalize on our knowledge of language and social science in a way that can benefit members of our own and other societies. We ought to do this - primarily for altruistic motives - but also to secure our profession, and make it more evidently worthy of the resources and benefits conferred upon us as (mostly) researchers and university educators.
Last revised 2 November 2005