Taking Up the Problematization of “Language” – Thinking With, Through, and Beyond

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    Constantine Nakassa’s article in the 2016 American Anthropologist (vol. 118, no. 2, pages 330-345) has articulated the bind that many scholars in Linguistic Anthropology and related fields have been addressing for a long time. Although he was attending to issues of the identity of the subfield of Linguistic Anthropology, I found the article to raise many questions and conundrums that I struggle with.

    For example, occasionally when I give a talk about an ethnographic or discourse analytic study I have been doing and use the term “language” I get questions that assume a definition of “language” either as only words or as a decontextualized, autonomous phenomenon. I often struggle with whether to spend a spend a substantial amount of time and space in my presentations and publications defining what I mean by “language” or whether I should just hope that there is enough of an understanding that I can focus on the core substantive findings of my presentation.This may be more of a problem for those of us, like myself, who work outside of Linguistic Anthropology (e.g., in Education) as our colleagues rarely consider questions about how to define “language” or have knowledge of the intellectual history around defining it.

    When I have expressed this frustration to colleagues, some have suggested that I give up the word “language” altogether and just use “semiotics.” (Nakassi, at least as I read the article, is not asking that the word “language” be abandoned). While my thinking and research have certainly been influenced by various semiotic perspectives, I view my intellectual roots as grounded in the philosophical and theoretical works of people who have used the term language and fought to redefine language as a social, cultural, political, and historical process defenestrating the binary of lange and parole. Abandoning the word “language” makes me feel as if I am abandoning those roots and those people. More so, abandoning the word ”language” seems to me to be abandoning the struggle over the essential question, “What does it mean to be human?”

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