Interview by Ilana Gershon
The title of your book, “Singular and Plural,” invokes familiar grammatical categories, but the subtitle “Ideologies of Linguistic Authority….” suggests they have another meaning here. Why did you choose that title, and what do those terms have to do with linguistic ideologies?
Those two terms cropped up so centrally in public discourse about the Catalan language during my fieldwork that it was hard to resist a linguistic pun (and I’ve always had a weakness for those in my titles, anyway). Among historically minoritized languages, Catalan has made an unusually successful bid to become a public language since Catalonia regained political in 1979. That change has involved not only political institutions, but also a shift in the ideological foundations of linguistic authority, and that shift has been from stressing linguistic singularity to plurality.
Traditionally, Catalan has been defended as Catalonia’s “own” language and billed as the defining criterion of the distinctive essence or “singularity” of Catalans as a people. But for more than half a century now, the majority of the population has been of immigrant, non-Catalan speaking descent, creating an uncomfortable ideological tension. Since the turn of the millennium, there has been a trend to talk about Catalan society as pluralistic and plurilingual (in pointed contrast not just to monolingualism, but to “bilingualism” with Spanish). Catalonia is now defended – and marketed – as at one and the same time linguistically singular (with the Catalan language as a distinctive brand), and socially and linguistically plural: more open, multifaceted, and fluid than Castilian Spain. It’s important to grasp this in order to understand the surprising strength and complexity of the Catalan sovereignty movement, which is coming to a head right now, with a referendum on independence set for October 1 that has been declared illegal by the Spanish government in an unresolved standoff. Most outside political commentators try to impose on this either a traditional Romantic nationalist vision of a clash between two primordially distinct ethnolinguistic groups, or else a purely economic motivation, but neither captures the actual, more complicated dynamics, especially their sociolinguistic dimension.
In this age of Brexit, Trumpism, the National Front, etc. outsiders are always surprised and skeptical that there is no xenophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric in the Catalan independence movement, but there really isn’t (which is not to say that there’s no xenophobia in Catalonia, that’s another story.) This is not a nativist social movement, and that’s consistent with the developments in linguistic ideology that I found in the period just before the current sovereignty movement broke into the public eye.
To understand the basic argument of your book, readers have to understand language ideologies that locate their authority in authenticity versus ones that locate their authority in anonymity, and how these two forms are co-constituted. Could you explain these and their significance as though to a curious and enthusiastic undergraduate (who isn’t even tempted to text and is nodding vigorously)?
That would be a pleasure…language ideologies allow one language rather than another to look and sound authoritative, giving institutions and speakers legitimacy and persuasive power in people’s eyes and ears. That power is why such ideologies are important (so I hope you won’t be tempted to text yet). What I call anonymity and authenticity are just two of the possible ideological bases, but these are the ones that have dominated in modernity. Languages that draw on the authority of “anonymity” are represented as neutral, belonging to everyone rather than any place or group in particular, able to express any perspective, and available for all to take up. Not surprisingly, they are the dominant languages. We use the term anonymity to capture the way they can come to be perceived, quite literally heard, as a deracinated “voice from nowhere.”
In contrast, the value of ideological “authenticity” is reserved for languages heard as the voice of someone and somewhere very particular. Linguistic authenticity belongs only to speakers who can claim to be rooted in that particular experience. And in turn the language is taken to be suitable for expressing only that particular perspective. So, authenticity ends up limiting the range of a language and its speakers in the name of valuing it, and creates a sense of illicit appropriation on the one hand or betrayal of one’s true self on the other for those who break the mold. This means that these language ideologies are not just important public matters, they can also be intimately intertwined with individuals’ sense of identity, and bring them personal pain as well as joy, as my informants poignantly recounted to me. (Are you still nodding in vigorous agreement?)
Ideologies are historical creations that take work to sustain, and they can change over time. I found such changes across the lives of my individual informants as well as in public controversies, and even in linguistic humor, one of my favorite sources of evidence for language ideology. The struggle between Catalan and Castilian for social terrain and persuasive power used to be waged mostly in terms of authenticity – that “singularity” and territorial rootedness of Catalan – but now there are competing claims to anonymity and cosmopolitanism made for each language. Catalan activists work to debunk Castilian assumptions of the privileges of linguistic anonymity – ‘it’s just a more useful language for everyone; let’s be rational’ – at the same time as linguistic policy and use of Catalan in schools has disrupted the constraints of authenticity that prevented immigrant-descent “New Speakers” from taking it up. I was especially struck by an emerging conception of what I think of as a post-natural sense of personal authenticity as a project, in place of the traditional Romantic vision of the essential, primordial self wedded to a first language. This newer DIY self, no doubt linked to the neoliberal vision of which we are often critical, values willful choice and multilingualism in place of a primordial and seemingly natural relation to language. I saw this new stance as much in my interviewees’ accounts of how they grew from their earlier monolingual selves as children of working-class immigrants to comfortable bilinguals or multilinguals as I did in public rhetoric. This is one of the ways in which the conception of Catalonia as “plural” appears.
Part of what makes this book such a valuable and insightful take on language ideologies is that you build on decades of research in which you can explore how people’s attitudes and practices have changed over time. In addressing changes to how authenticity and anonymity are co-constituted, you evocatively claim in your conclusion that “Around the world, people are no longer so certain just what a normal language is.” (304) How has this uncertainty affected people’s relationships to theirs and others’ linguistic identities?
Catalan speakers and activists have long wished that Catalan could just be a “normal” language, and they even call the goal of extending the use of Catalan “normalization.” By “normal” they mean a language that is used routinely, without fanfare, in any domain of social activity by anyone. In “normal” societies, the thinking went, people “normally” use just one language for all their communicative purposes. We linguistic anthropologists take it for granted that such anonymous monolingual normalcy rarely actually occurs, and where it does it takes work to maintain. But dominant state nationalism became so banal, as Michael Billig has put it, that the work of constructing this “normalcy” remains as invisible to many social scientists and political commentators critical of minority linguistic movements as it does to everyday speakers.
Our era of globalization is unsettling such assumptions. The “normal” languages of the European nation-states, even the larger languages like French, German, and even Spanish that were the model for this normalcy that Catalanists longed for, have surrendered economic, educational, and media functions to global English. It’s now “normal” for university programs throughout Europe and the rest of the world, and not just post-colonial societies, to function in English; for scholars and professionals to have to publish and work in English or perish; for people around the world not just to consume but to produce even transgressive cultural forms in English. The idea of a standard variety as somehow naturally the best form of a “normal” language has also been challenged by the so-called superdiversity resulting from large-scale transnational immigration as well as the digitally mediated celebration of nonstandard forms, whether in Sheng, AAVE, Estuary English, Rinkeby Swedish…. So, in many parts of Europe and beyond, some formerly taken-for-granted, valued forms and functions of “normal” language are in doubt. This shakes foundations of privilege and of institutions and also creates new forms of inequality and exploitation. But it also opens up ideological space for individuals to form new relationships with a broader set of linguistic forms, and to take pleasure in doing so. I’ve never been known as an optimist about anything, but this is a positive aspect of what I’ve seen developing in late modern Catalonia, in the decades since I first started my research there.
Quite a bit of research on bilingualism privileges high school students’ language ideologies and linguistic choices, yet your longstanding fieldwork in Barcelona shows that this might overlook how language ideologies change over a lifetime. What does your decades-long research reveal about how language ideologies transform, and why focusing on high school might be too limiting for certain questions?
In hindsight, I guess it’s obvious that people change and we’re not all who we were in high school (fortunately, usually). By the same token, people’s stances toward languages can change, and their uses can follow as they move into the workplace, higher education, romance, parenting. But our sociolinguistic research has put such weight on that adolescent period as both fraught and decisive – for good practical as well as theoretical reasons, and yielding great insights – that I for one lost sight of the obvious. Maybe I should be embarrassed to admit how surprised I was when, twenty years after I had last seen my teenaged informants as pretty determined monolinguals, sometimes ashamed and resentful about the challenge of entering a Catalan-speaking social world, a number of them told me how they had left those fears and constraints behind: “Me, I’ve changed a lot!” Children of immigrants who had felt shut out from Catalan as teenagers, whether by others or by their own fear of failure, spoke as adults of their pride in exercising new linguistic skills and in leaving behind shame about mistakes and inauthenticity as childish concerns. Of course, change can go in the other direction as well, and ethnolinguistic lines can harden just as they can blur, but most of my interviewees told me of their pride and satisfaction at what they saw as growing up linguistically.
I’d like to take a moment to mention the tremendous gratification that returning to my research site and finding these earlier informants twenty years later brought me. Maybe this is familiar to more traditional anthropologists, but I do urban ethnography in a metropolitan area of some four million people, using a patchwork of methods. I had little expectation of finding the students from a high school classroom study twenty years earlier (and we could talk another time about the social conditions both of my expectation and the outcome). It was the most moving experience of my research career to get their phone calls or emails (some from Australia and England) answering the letter I had sent to their old addresses out of the blue, and to talk with them and learn what thoughtful, complex adults had grown from the perennial teenagers of the ethnographic present engraved in my mind. One of them still had the notebook I had given each one at the end of my research when they were fourteen, and he showed me that he still used it to jot down brief ideas for his music projects. In fact, he just emailed me this week to say again how much it meant to him as a teenager and still means to him now – thirty years later! – that someone came from such a distance not only to ask about a teenager’s opinions and experiences but to write them down for other people to learn about. I hope he finds that I did justice to them in this book.