Communication in the multilingual city: abstracts


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Jan Blommaert

From actions to groups and back 

The paradigmatic dimension of sociolinguistic superdiversity includes a questioning of established forms of social categorization, driven by an awareness that most influential works theorizing social categories draw on a relatively simple and static, offline sociological imagination based on dyadic face-to-face interactions. This older sociological imagination needs to be complemented and amended by another one, in which an ethnographic imperative pushes us to re-investigate 'groupness' in all its contemporary online and offline forms. In this lecture, I shall argue that the interactionalist-sociolinguistic tradition, from Mead to Goodwin, offers a uniquely accurate set of tools for this enterprise. Starting from a very simple four-point methodology emphasizing the connection between communicative action and groupness, I shall engage with some complex data set, showing how attention to the micro-shifts in action types reveal a more substantive range of shifts, for which established terms such as speaker position or social role are no longer adequate. 

Ana Deumert 

Southern Exposure – The Remix

In 2016, at a conference in South Africa, I reflected on the work we do as (socio-)linguists, on ideas of expertness that permeate our discourses, and on the role of privilege in shaping our research practices. Considering not just ‘data’, but also theories from the global South, opens up new critical debates in sociolinguistics and allied disciplines in the social sciences. In this talk, I want to remix the discussion: bring in new ideas, twist old ideas and create connections between them. The focus of my talk is on the notions of sociality and encounter: recent research in the social sciences has forgrounded the convivial aspects of, especially, urban interactions, and has positioned encounters as opportunities for lived, and indeed utopian, sociality. Yet, at the same time brutal inequalities – rooted in the coloniality of the present – persist and overtly articulated racism, especially, is on the rise (while structural racism is as strong as ever). In this paper I want to consider encounters that are oppressive, confrontational, disruptive and often violent. In particular, I will argue that the idea of diversity – in all its permutations – has, by and large, not been able to theorize violence, and its dialectical counterpart, privilege (Žižek, 2008, Violence). There exists, as noted by Paul Gilroy (2004, After Empire) a ‘negative dialects of convivial culture’. The context from which I speak is South Africa, and especially Cape Town: a place where urban segregation and socioeconomic inequality remains pronounced, where racism is alive and kicking twenty years post-apartheid, and where sexism and other isms, in their various forms, complicate easy binaries.  Instead of looking at convivial encounters, I focus on violent and confrontational encounters, and argue that while calls for complexity are important, the contours of socio-political oppression are often suprisingly simple.

Annelies Kusters 

Multilingual multimodal interactions in metropolitan Mumbai: Gesture-based deaf-hearing customer interactions

An important element in the study of urban multilingual practices, in particular the study of customer interactions, is the use of gestures in these practices. The study of gesture and multimodality and the study of urban multilingualism have largely developed separately even though in practice, they are inseparable especially when studying customer interactions in the city. In these contexts, people do make use of pointing, gestures, object handling, change their body posture, and they often use different spoken languages.

The presentation focuses on fluent deaf and deafblind signers and hearing non-signers in Mumbai who use gestures to communicate with each other. The data were gathered through linguistic ethnography in markets, shops, food joints and public transport in Mumbai. In these interactions, gestures were often combined with mouthing, speaking and/or writing in different languages and people frequently switched between these. One of the participants was deafblind and made use of visible and tactile gesturing including pointing at and tapping on objects (to indicate them), using emblematic gestures, and tracing the shape of objects on the hand. Lack of understanding or misguesses are usually solved by remodalisation (such as switching from gesture to writing) or by repeating or rephrasing the gestures. The material contexts (such as street stalls versus shops with counters) shape these practices and exert pressure on practices because of the affordances and constraints they pose for interlocutors.

The presentation thus sheds light on how interlocutors orient towards the ongoing interaction and negotiate the affordances and constraints imposed by different semiotic resources, different material environments and differences in sensorial access to these.  

Tong-King Lee 

Translanguaging: Transient Creativities, Fleeting Epiphanies

In this presentation I advance the idea of translanguaging as a time-bound, experiential phenomenon; that is: a cognitive-psychological moment that arises where creativity is (inter)subjectively felt, and subsides where the sense of the creative is absorbed by linguistic normativity. I begin with an anecdotal account of my interlingual encounter with a bridge in Japan, the name of which was initially misread by me through my imposing a Chinese-language sensibility on a Japanese noun phrase, written in Sino-Japanese characters. Through my incorrect segmentation of the phrase, what emerged was a serendipitous moment of translanguaging: an ephiphanic, almost poetic, instant of double-read caught between misreading and re-cognition. I then proceed to discuss a sociolinguistic phenomenon in Singapore that we might call kopitiam (‘coffee-shop’) lingo, where traces of various southern Chinese dialects, Malay, and English are mixed into a repertoire of subaltern, beverage-related vocabulary. In this case we start with the absence of translanguaging, where kopitiam lingo represents a fossilised body of pre-lexicalised creativity, and speculate on the trajectories of its multilingual and intersemiotic expressions prior to their becoming lexicalised. But fossilised creativity can also be revived into being, as I attempt to show using the poetry of an award-winning Singaporean poet, whose heterolingual works demonstrate the dynamic of translanguaging as recalcitrant and resistant semiotic movements ‘from below’, but which nonetheless can evolve into mini-institutions in their own right.

Betsy Rymes 

Citizen Sociolinguistics: Why Trivial and Funny Insights about Language are Important 

Why do trivial insights matter?  In this talk I will foreground the importance of everyday insights people routinely share about language—in conversation, on the Internet, via social media, and otherwise.  I call these ordinary language insights, “Citizen Sociolinguistics.”  Often, citizen sociolinguistic noticings are trivial—and sometimes even hilariously funny.    But these trivialities offer more to humanity than a quick laugh.  Most obviously, as sociolinguists and computer scientists have shown, trivial distinctions in language use may have systematic properties that are related to human injustice—as when differences in terms of address expose hidden racial bias and can be tracked to police brutality, or when students are routinely denied rewards of the “meritocracy” because of distinctions in their language use.  Still, some people may find it unproductive to look at even clearly systematic linguistic detail when we can usually spot gross injustices like institutional racism and police brutality without it.  And certainly, non-systematic trivial observations about language seem even less worthwhile. However, by taking us through several examples, I will make the case that exploring the non-systematic, “trivial” small-scale noticing of citizen sociolinguists improves our ability to detect nuance and appreciate subtler forms of diversity. Much citizen sociolinguistic insight never goes beyond a goofy meme or a sarcastic entry in, but I will illustrate that this type of language play potentially builds knowledge that neither linguistics nor big data computer science alone can provide. If we take notice, the expertise of citizen sociolinguists can expose complicated social relations surrounding language use, propelling discussions that go beyond polarizing presuppositions about language and society.