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Members of the laboratory take part in organizing a conference on “Typology of small-scale multilingualism”

The conference on “Typology of small-scale multilingualism” will take place from 15 to 17 April in Lyon (France). Nina Dobrushina, head of the Linguistic Convergence Laboratory, answers some questions about the conference.

What is small-scale multilingualism?

Small-scale multilingualism is a recent term used to define multilingualism in areas where multiple small ethnic groups (up to a few thousand people), each with their own language, live in the same neighbourhood. They inevitably interact with each other to trade, arrange marriages, go for a visit or to take part in common rituals. In order to interact, they need to acquire each other’s languages. This situation differs, for example, from the current situation in Europe. First, linguistic communities in Europe are much larger, they count hundreds of thousands of people or more. Second, even in border areas, people often do not speak the language of their neighbours, simply because they have no need to communicate.Third, in many parts of Europe, people prefer to learn a language that is not a vernacular for them or their neighbours: English. In sociolinguistics, such a language is called a lingua franca.

Meanwhile, there are reasons to suppose that in the past,  contact situations with small language groups were more common. There are still territories where languages number 200, 300, or 1000 speakers and there have never been more of them. On the islands Torres and Banks (Vanuatu), for example, 17 different languages are spoken by a population of around 9400 people, according to the French linguist Alexandre François. None of the languages involved were ever spoken by everyone or even a large amount of people in the area. Instead, each inhabitant speaks the local languages they need within their own mobility. By studying such communities, we look into the past and come closer to answering a question that bothers many researchers today: how world language diversity arose.

Today, there are approximately 7000 spoken languages in the world. If we count the number of languages per square kilometer, there are areas with low linguistic density and those that are very densely inhabited by different languages (Johanna Nichols suggested to call such areas residual zones). In some of these residual zones, for example in Daghestan, there are a lot of languages, but most of them belong to the same language family. In other areas, like Amazonia, there are not simply numerous languages, but they are also genetically unrelated. How did these situations come about? How does language diversity in general arise and what influences this process?

In order to answer this question, the interaction of multiple disciplines is needed: archeology, which studies and compares past cultures; genetics, which can trace the spread of human genotypes; anthropology and comparative linguistics. Our conference will contribute to that. The thing is, that language spread is connected to people's attitudes towards their own language, and to other languages they come into contact with. A language community can strive to preserve its language, or not. Between communities there can be oppression of other languages, for example when a weaker community has to abandon its native language and switch to a dominant language. It is also possible that people speak several languages besides their native language for thousands of years and have absolutely no need to “forget” their mother tongue. In other words, native language sustainability as well as tolerance towards other languages can vary. We want to find out which cultural attitudes and social mechanisms help to sustain language diversity, and which work against it.

Why does the Linguistic convergence laboratory actively participate in the conference?

We are the initiators of this conference. A considerable part of our research is connected to Daghestan, where over 40 languages are spoken in a relatively small area (approximately 50 000 square meters). We have been studying the structure of multilingualism in Daghestan for many years. Besides lingua francas  flike Azerbaijani in southern Daghestan, or Avar in some areas of central Daghestan, there are many territories where there was no lingua franca and people simply spoke the languages of their neighbours. What is interesting about Daghestan, is the tradition of endogamy: people found marriage partners within their own village. Marrying a woman from outside was discouraged and women were not married off to outsiders. In rare cases of mixed marriages, the woman was forced to switch to the language of her husband and his village. It seems like this linguistic endogamy is not widespread. More often, researchers of exotic places talk about practices of “wife exchange” with neighbouring groups. For example, in the well-studied Vaupés river bassin (South America), according to the anthropologist Jean Jackson and many others, there was a strict rule of linguistic exogamy: "My brothers are those who share a language with me" and "We don't marry our sisters".

At the moment, not many regions are described in terms of the mechanisms of multilingualism. A task of the conference is to expand the number of these regions, and to encourage linguists and anthropologists who work in India, China, Indonesia and other multilingual areas of the world to do research in the field of small-scale multilingualism.

Who are the partners of the laboratory in this conference?

We are collaborating with a number of scientific organizations in Lyon. We count on the financial support from the Collegium de Lyon, where Nina Dobrushina worked in 2016-2017. Our colleague from CNRS, Brigitte Pakendorf, works on the languages of Siberia (Even, Negidal, Yakut). She studies language contact in these regions and is very interested in the topic of the conference. Another member of the organization is Olesya Khanina, who currently works at the University of Helsinki  and at the Institute of Linguistics in Moscow. Olesya also manages a grant of the Russian Science Foundation on language contact on the Taymyr peninsula. We are all united by our love for fieldwork and our interest in small, traditional language communities.

The scientific committee of the conference includes specialists on South America, Africa, Oceania and Russia from all over the world. We hope to compile an interesting program and to publish a thematic issue following the conference.

On the conference page it says that students are welcome to participate.

Yes, we would like to have a lot of students among the participants. We will provide financial support for students who's abstracts are accepted. Moreover, we intentionally announced a poster session to make it easier for students to participate. Olesya Khanina and I also wrote a small review on research on this topic with links to the key studies, to help students and those with less experience in working on small-scale multilingualism to orient themselves.