On becoming an object of study: Legitimization in the discipline of linguistics

Catherine Easton, Tonya Stebbins

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It is widely understood that the socio-historical contexts of languages have a direct bearing on their structures and on the types of stance that communities take in relation to them. Within the discipline of linguistics these socio-historical contexts and their impacts on communities’ use and understanding of language are generally referred to as socio-linguistic factors. Meanwhile within descriptive linguistics the structure of language remains core. This is evidenced in the shape of university course design, structures of textbooks, and in how linguistic knowledge is recorded. In this paper we seek to map the relationship of the socio-historical context of linguistics to the languages that we study and in doing so, shift the focus so that the socio-historical context becomes central. Through this process the shape of the languages themselves is altered. We present a case study that compares linguistic and community perspectives on language boundaries in Milne Bay Provence, Papua New Guinea,and explore the processes through which the languages are created as objects and then become emblematic of culture and identity. We discuss the strong links that communities make between language, place and spirituality and consider the opportunities that these perspectives hold for language descriptions. Finally we consider how we, as linguists, can hold multiple perspectives on language and create culturally safe partnerships with communities that result in materials consistent with speakers’ goals for their language.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLanguage structure and environment
Subtitle of host publicationSocial, cultural, and natural factors
EditorsRik De Busser, Randy J LaPolla
Place of PublicationAmsterdam, Netherlands
PublisherJohn Benjamins Publishing Company
Number of pages34
ISBN (Electronic)9789027268730
ISBN (Print)9789027204097
Publication statusPublished - 2015


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