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  • Lessons for Losing
  • Mary Louise Pratt (bio)

language and power, language shift, indigenous languages, Tomson Highway

The terms language and vulnerability come together in many ways. There is the vulnerability of infants, who quickly perceive they are nonverbal beings in a verbal world and for whom acquiring language becomes the central focus of effort. There is the vulnerability of the dislocated—travelers, migrants, immigrants, refugees, deportees. As a geographic fact, the multiplicity of languages on the planet challenges those who move and those who receive them. As a social fact, that multiplicity endlessly generates dynamics of empowerment and disempowerment: state-based disenfranchisements of minority languages; gatekeeping that limits access to languages of power; war scenarios in which invader and invaded cannot communicate or must rely on the strategic, suspect power of bilinguals. Imperial states often seek to homogenize themselves linguistically, creating their own linguistic vulnerabilities, as when English-only passions in the United States turned into language panic after 9/11. There is the riskiness of speech itself, the dangers of saying the [End Page 245] wrong thing at the wrong time or using the wrong language at the wrong time, the harms of lies, the wounding powers of insult and epithet, the deadly verbal scripts of interrogation and torture. Vulnerability itself generates vulnerability when it becomes an alibi for interventions or imposes silence.

I spoke of these topics at the Modern Language Association roundtable “The Politics of Language in Vulnerable Times.” But not long after, I had an experience that brought me back around to the form of linguistic vulnerability that springs most readily to people’s minds: the steady disappearance of human languages at a pace unprecedented in the history of the planet. The subject comes up often, and when it does (including in my own work), it gets immediately swathed in numbing statistics—there are 6,000 languages, and half will be gone by the end of the century; a language dies every two weeks. This discourse, derived mainly from United Nations pronouncements (United Nations 2016), produces what Jennifer Wenzel brilliantly calls a “quarantine of the imagination” on the subject of language loss (Wenzel 2015; see also Wenzel 2009). Stock phrases exhaust the subject in a sentence or two and elide the radically uneven nature of the process, the way it is lived by those who are living it, the question of what actually is lost and to whom. Languages disappear only through being displaced by more powerful languages, which by one means or another (mainly by schooling) succeed in interrupting the steady passing down of languages from older to younger speakers. Instead of speaking of language death, loss, or murder, linguists often avoid the elegiac and speak of language shift—but this is another imaginative quarantine. For, of course, the shift always involves loss, both to the last, long generations who live it and—as they know—to the world that loses the lessons that the language had to teach. Declaring the world’s languages to be the patrimony of all humanity, as the United Nations has done, likewise veils the unevennesses of the process and the stakes, even as it calls for attention. For all languages belong to their speakers in a way they do not belong to everyone else. Here I briefly attempt to break through the imaginative quarantine on language loss, or rather to describe the work of an artist who is devoting his creative powers to doing so, in the knowledge that lessons in losing will be sorely needed by the generations of human beings who are going to live out the unpredictable unfolding of ecological breakdown. [End Page 246]

It was the opening day of New York University’s Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics biennial Encuentro in June 2014, held at Concordia University. I almost didn’t make Tomson Highway’s keynote. The map of Montreal crinkled in my lap as I barked street names at my driving companion and begged pedestrians for directions to a parking garage. I’d been reaching out for Highway’s work for three decades. This would be my first, maybe only chance to hear him live. We were lucky—the session started...


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pp. 245-251
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