Estíbaliz Amorrortu on Friday, 10/7/16: “Becoming an Active Speaker: The Case of Young New Speakers of Basque”

WHEN: Friday, October 7, 6:30 p.m.

WHERE: GC Room 9207

COST: Free and open to the public

ABOUT: “Becoming an Active Speaker: The Case of Young New Speakers of Basque”

The numbers of new speakers (NS) of Basque has increased considerably due in part to the introduction of this language in the educational system. In this talk we examine the factors that play a role in the process of becoming, or not, an active speaker and the relationship between this process and the linguistic identity adopted by different types of speakers. We focus on youngsters who learnt Basque in school in immersion models.

SPEAKER: Professor Estíbaliz Amorrortu, Universidad de Deusto

Amorrortu works in the field of Basque sociolinguistics. She obtained her PhD from the University of Southern California with a dissertation on attitudes towards different varieties of Basque. She is co-author of the following books: Actitudes y prejuicios de los castellanohablantes hacia el euskera (2009) and Nuevos hablantes de euskera: experiencias, actitudes e identidades (in press). 


The ausbau-abstand paradox in new Arabic orthographies

Mark Sebba’s chapters 2 and 5 discuss orthography as an ideologically charged social practice. Through many examples, he shows that conventions as well as their violations convey social meaning.

The ausbau-abstand paradox: In order for a language to gain legitimacy as a “high” form, it has to increase its abstand (distance) from other languages, but at the same time, nearly all ausbau (development) languages have been modeled on an existing standard which already has a status of a literary form. For example, writing notin or not’n for nothing to express Jamaican Creol’s difference from English still makes use of the variation potential of English orthography. An attempt such as nuttn will fail to convey the meaning.

Standard Arabic orthography is both phonetic and deep. If a letter is written it has one pronunciation, and no two letters constitute one sound (with one exception). However, short vowels are not written, so they have to be guessed based on the grammatical context. In addition, geminates are written as one letter with a symbol that is usually omitted. That is, every word without a context has several possible readings that change the category (noun/verb/adjective) and the meaning of the word. Luckily, CMC allows Arabic speakers to model their language either on Fusħa (Standard Arabic), or on Latin alphabet.

In the early days of chat rooms, writing in Arabic was not possible for technical reasons. Arabic speakers were forced to use the Latin alphabet which does not have enough consonants to account for Arabic sounds. As a solution, they started substituting the missing Arabic letters with numbers that resemble their shape ح=7 ع=3 ط=6 ء=2 etc. and this practice quickly became the norm. However, the real potential of Latin alphabet to represent the missing vowels and geminates in writing was not fulfilled. I found the following examples in the same facebook comment: tmsk for [timsek], both t3llm and t3lam for [tʕallam], nzlha for [nazzilha] and bt3rraf for [btiʕraf]. As you can see, the presence or absence of vowels and geminates does not follow any rule. Using Latin alphabet did not eliminate the influence of Fusħa conventions, it only mixed them with English and French conventions too, creating a highly inconsistent orthography.

Writing in Arabic alphabet became very easy with the spread of smartphones. The problem here is that dialects differ from Fusħa on the morphological and phonemic levels (among other things). However, Arabic speakers can still take advantage of Fusha’s phonetic potential to write their dialects. For example, as you can see in the table, the final vowel [u] in northern Palestinian dialects is used with 5 morphemes that are different from their Fusħa counterparts. Since the vowels are not represented, I indicated what letter(s) is used (<letter>) and how it is pronounced when the vowels are recovered ([sound]). Notice that the last case, they, is the one exception I mentioned earlier where the sound [u] is represented by two letters <ua>.

him        his your pl.      you pl.acc.  they
Fusħa <h> [hu/hi] <h> [hu/hi] <km> [kum] <km> [kum] <ua> [u]
Palestinian   ? [u]   ? [u]     ? [ku]     ? [ku]    ? [u]

The question is which letter do Palestinian speakers use to represent the vowel [u] in each of these cases? The options are (1) adhering to the convention of Fusħa although they don’t represent the sound (2) representing all morphemes phonetically by using the letter <u>, although the semantic contrast will be lost (3) chaos.

I have been collecting examples of this variation for a while, and my impression is that the more proficient a speaker is in Fusħa the more she adheres to its conventions. The writing of speakers who are not proficient in Fusħa (who are the majority) is chaotic. I have not seen a speaker who uses option (2) consistently, although it is the “easiest” from a linguist’s point of view. Ambiguity and garden path effects are expected in this situation, but some of the forms that result from this “pick and mix” practice are completely counter-intuitive. The closest analogy I can offer for using the highly marked <ua> where it is not licensed is writing ogh for of. I thought of Sebba’s claim that the ‘informal ideology’ is implicit and below the level of awareness for most writers, but I don’t think it applies here. A more plausible explanation is that although <ua> is marked by virtue of being the only non-phonetic sequence, a final <u> could be just as marked because it is infrequent in Fusħa (this is an intuition, not a fact). With this in mind, low exposure to the literary language accounts for both getting used to reading this sequence as [u] and not knowing exactly where it appears (only in verbs).

In general, assigning social meanings such as “symbolic distance” or “ideological informality” to the practice of writing in Arabic dialects feels imposed and inaccurate. Most Arabic speakers I have asked object to the idea of making their dialect an accepted written language, if they recognize it as a language at all. One of my friends went as far as to accuse me of “romanticizing the poor”. Interestingly, the few people who do see the value of legitimizing dialectal writing adhere to Fusħa conventions, and thus demonstrate the abstand-ausbau paradox. I was not sure whether I can make this last generalization based on my small sample until I read Sebba’s chapter. He explains that in standardizing orthographies, what users are lead to want and expect is a set of rules, and this need is likely to be more, not less, strongly felt by users of language varieties which lack status and a prestigious literary tradition. In Alexandra Jaffe’s words “it is not only important to ‘have’ an orthography, but it is crucial for that orthography to have prescriptive power – to be standardized and authoritative like the orthographies of dominant languages”.

“Multilingualism and Language Empowerment: A Response to Inequality”: Free Conference at the GC on Friday, Sept. 23

Multilingualism and Language Empowerment: A Response to Inequality
A Graduate Center Symposium

Friday, September 23, 2016

Segal Theatre at The Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York (CUNY Graduate Center): 365 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY, 10016.

Language and language choices play a significant yet often unacknowledged role in fostering inequality. This is most evident in the spheres of education, the workplace and public health, where insufficient services in “minority” languages result in disparities and lack of opportunities for speakers of those languages.

This symposium highlights the value and relevance of language and literacy projects conducted at the Graduate Center to New York’s multilingual population. Presentations throughout the day will focus on the education of immigrant students and speakers of minority languages, and will present the value and relevance of multilingualism and multilingual approaches as an effective way to combat inequality of access.

We hope you’ll join us to hear the latest research on the relationship between the maintenance or acquisition of languages and increasing equality of opportunity for speakers of minority and underrepresented languages.



“Capitalizing on Catalan Singularity”: Kathryn Woolard (U.C. San Diego), Friday, Sept. 16, 6:30 P.M.

The Graduate Center Ph.D. Program in Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Literatures and Languages


WHERE: 365 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10016, Room: 4116 (Phone: 212-817-8410)

WHEN: Friday, September 16, , 201, 6:30 p.m.

ADMISSION: Free and open to the public


“Capitalizing on Catalan Singularity”: 

The theme of “singularity” appears in varying discourses surrounding the Catalan language, from the Catalan language policy law of 1998 to the Spanish Socialist Party’s response to the Catalan sovereignty movement in 2016. This presentation focuses on one notable use of the theme, in the promotion of Catalan culture at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2007. I consider the placement and pragmatics of the concept of singularity in relation to discourses of Catalan’s “own language” (la llengua pròpia) and nation on the one hand, and to late modern market discourses of branding on the other.

Professor Kathryn Woolard, University of California, San Diego:

Kathryn Woolard is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, San Diego and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is author of Double Talk: Bilingualism and the Politics of Ethnicity in Catalonia (Stanford 1989/2014) and Singular and Plural: Ideologies of Linguistic Authority in 21st Century Catalonia (Oxford University Press, June 2016), and co-editor of Language Ideologies: Practice and Theory (Oxford, 1998). Woolard has been named recipient of the Ramon Llull International Prize for 2016.



Nora Goldman: Sept. 6th 6:30-8:00


“This is not their space”: variation, power, and feminism on Twitter

Since Robin Lakoff (1973) theorized the existence of “women’s language”, several linguistic features have been presupposed to correlate with speaker gender. Among the features thought to characterize women’s language are politeness markers (Brown 1980; Herring 2000), absence of profanity (Jay 1999), more frequent hedging (Carli 1990), and a variety more closely approximating a prestige standard variety than men’s language (Gordon 1997). More recent research suggests that these features are not reflective of gender but of power distribution, which often favors men, arguing that what was presumed “women’s language” is rather the language of the disempowered and is not derived from the speaker’s static identity but is used to create and maintain a dynamic identity (Gal 2012; O’Barr & Atkins 1980). This study examines the relationship between linguistic features associated with powerlessness and participation in online feminist discourse. An intra-speaker variation study shows that women who actively participate in the feminist Twitter thread marked #yesallwomen use significantly fewer powerless linguistic features when contributing to the discourse on female empowerment as compared to their language outside of explicitly feminist topics. However, they use a style more closely resembling a prescriptivist standard, resulting in an uncensored confrontational stance that is legitimized by adherence to academic norms.

Day: September 6 Time: 6:30 pm – 8:00 pm Room: 7102

Methodologies for analyzing CMC data from a sociolinguistic perspective

This week’s reading made me reflect about how I begun to collect data and to limit the corpus of a former work. That project seek to identify two phonological features of the repertoire of a young Mexican Youtube videoblogger, called Eder, and to understand their social values. Here it is one of his most popular videos:

Following Herring’s CMDA scheme (2004), I studied a micro-level linguistic trait, the structural one. I was not directly interested in the interaction between Eder and his audience, but in his participation (the ‘fifth domain’ of language for Herring) in the Youtube platform. Since I needed to ‘code and count’ participation in terms of popularity, I decided to take note of the statistics of all the 165 videos of his account. I registered the number of views, likes/dislikes and comments of all videos, from 2008 to 2014. I delimited the corpus to the 35 most watched videos. As a second step, I identified the cases where the linguistic variant appeared. In other words, I employed two data sampling techniques: by time and by phenomenon (11). The first criterion allowed me to identify patterns of language use across the time: When this feature did appear by first time? When did it reach popularity? How was its use along the time? Did it increase or diminish?

On the other hand, my interest in phonological production is located in one of the extremes of Herring’s continuum of operationalizability. A (traditional) linguistic variable is one of the more feasible concepts, because they have an ‘external, directly observable behavior’ and are ‘concrete, bounded and measurable’ (14). I felt very confortable working with ‘black and white’ data, but I did not want to work in a variationist paradigm. Instead my approach was to explore macro-level phenomena such as sexual identities (2). In order to understand the social meanings of these phenomena, I had to observe the communicative events where they took place, which was relatively easy because I had the data at hand (downloaded and coded). That would be the end of my research… but I had the sensation that something pivotal was lacking in my work: the opinion of the speaker.

At that moment, I had neither experience nor knowledge about CMC research and -even worse- I had not carried out any ethnographic research. However, I informally asked Eder for an interview. He kindly accepted and we have a conversation of an hour. Retrospectively, I guess that I was part of a ‘guerrilla ethnography’: I was ‘seizing the opportunity to use whatever methods are possible under the circumstances of each particular context’ (Yang 2003 in Androutsopoulos 2008: 7). This interview gave me an off-line glance of Eder’s sociolinguistic awareness (or ‘lay Sociolinguistics’, 12). After this encounter, I needed to reformulate my preliminary conclusions. That is why I do believe, as Androutsopoulos, that ‘[c]onstant moving back and forth among observation notes, interview data, and web (textual) data offers insights that could not be gained by a purely based (or a purely observational) procedure’ (10).

Eder & Ernesto

Eder & Ernesto