Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Society for Linguistic Anthropology
Of interest to: Teachers of Anthropology in Community Colleges, Students
Primary Theme: Resilience
Secondary Theme: Identity and Equity
How do people experience, enact, and narrate resistance, resilience, and adaptation through and with language? In this panel, we articulate an approach to language and life history that incorporates both social structure and language structure, where previous works tended to focus on one or the other. In line with Sapir’s (1934) call to understand culture through both the individual and the structural, we take individual biographies, perspectives, and practices as necessary for a rigorous understanding of language in society.
We share an interest in language-focused life histories which often draw on subjects’ own narratives, forms of consciousness of social structure, and center on experiences of language socialization, acquisition, labor, exclusion, and alienation. We locate accounts of these individual linguistic experiences in a range of regional contexts: native North America, settler North America, Japan, and South Asia.
The long tradition of observing the social individual in anthropology, including the practice of person-centered research (e.g. Langness 1965, LeVine 1982), has led to uniquely powerful analyses of narrative (e.g. Ochs and Capps 2001), and provided a framework of the life history as a lens into social structures (Langness and Frank 1981, Watson and Watson-Franke 1985). More recently, scholars have joined these approaches to show that the narratives of “exceptional individuals” can explain important sociolinguistic change from valorization (Kroskrity 2009) to devaluing a linguistic culture (Kroskrity 2014).
Meanwhile, there is a long-running debate in linguistics (cf. Johnstone 2000) regarding language as primarily individual knowledge, versus as a set of shared norms. In both cases, the object of analysis is language structure; studies of individuals are incidental to the study of phenomena like style and register (Rampton 1999, Schilling-Estes 1998), genre (Alim 2003), and variety (Labov 1979).
Though individual perspectives are never definitive, their analysis (e.g. analysis of internal structure, or cross-checking against external evidence of actual practice) is a productive method for the anthropologist. How might life histories in language help us to examine individual agency in linguistic practice (cf. Kroskrity 2009)? How does the moral freight of life-history narratives, including moments of transformation (Mandelbaum’s (1973) ‘turnings’), reveal social realities that escape conventional ethnography? Moving forward, what can we learn from individual cases of linguistic resistance, resilience, and adaptation?
The panel draws on a range of approaches to “lingual life histories” (Kroskrity 1993:109-142) to turn our attention to biographical detail of individuals that reveal important assemblages of linguistic reproduction, agency, and transformation that are not captured through other methods. By doing so, panelists offer insight into diverse questions of language ideologies, language structure, and social change. The papers show that as a core part of the methodological toolkit of the discipline, linguistic life histories can contribute to numerous contemporary concerns of linguistic anthropology, including the politics of community and identity, circulation and media, inclusion and discrimination, language shift and policy. Finally, the diachronic character linguistic life histories discussed in these papers will result in a panel which powerfully addresses the themes of resistance, resilience, and adaptation.