Tradition and Change in Language and Discourse: Three Case Studies

By Sherzer, Joel | Southwest Journal of Linguistics, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Tradition and Change in Language and Discourse: Three Case Studies


Sherzer, Joel, Southwest Journal of Linguistics


Abstract. The linguistic gumbo presented in this work is three separate sociolinguistic situations--Francoproven[??]al in Europe, Patron Saints' festivals in Central Mexico, and Kuna in Panama. Although each is distinct, all share certain sociolinguistic and discourse changes which raise interesting questions for the communities themselves, as well as for scholars such as ourselves.

Introduction. It is an honor and a pleasure to have been invited to make this presentation at LASSO, and thus to be among friends and colleagues, present and former students. I remember with pleasure the various LASSO meetings I have attended. One way back involved a panel on the Mayan Kekchi language that was organized by Sandra Pinkerton and emerged from a field-methods class at UT Austin. I was a plenary speaker in El Paso where I talked about paying serious attention to documentation of language use, which means recording, transcribing, translating, and most recently electronic and web based archiving. Then I helped organize our annual meeting in Austin. In Puebla, Mexico, at that wonderful meeting, I had opportunity to present some of my work leading to my current activities.

Today I have chosen to talk about three sociolinguistic situations which I have been researching lately--Francoproven[??]al in the Alpine regions of France, Italy, and Switzerland; Patron saint fiestas in Central Mexico; and discourse among the Kuna Indians of Panama, the work I am probably best known for. While quite different from one another, they all share certain sociolinguistic and discourse changes which raise interesting questions for the communities themselves, as well as for scholars such as ourselves.

I have chosen this topic, with the juxtaposition of places, because of the very appropriate name given to this meeting in New Orleans: linguistic gumbo. The origin of the word GUMBO and its referent, a soup, is African. In the Americas gumbo is found in Creole contexts like New Orleans. Gumbo is a mix of ingredients which do not quite mix completely and thoroughly, and therein lies its pleasure. My linguistic gumbo is a mix of ingredients in several senses. First, each of these places in my work presented here is a sociolinguistic mix of ingredients. Second, my juxtaposing them here is another ingredient in the mix. And third, my own involvement in each place, especially among the Kuna recently, provides still another ingredient to the overall mix.

Francoproven[??]al. Francoproven[??]al, an offshoot of the Gallo Romance branch of Romance languages, is a cluster of dialects and maybe languages, spoken in an Alpine region surrounding Mont Blanc in three countries--France, Switzerland, and Italy. It is called by various names including Patois, Savoyard, Dauphinois (in France); Fribourgeois, Valaisan (in Switzerland); and Patou[??], Vald[??]tain (in Italy). It is a minority language in each of the three countries. It is most moribund in France and Switzerland and most robust in Italy, especially in the various mountain valleys of the Val d'Aosta where it is still spoken fluently by people of all ages. Very few Francoproven[??]al speakers, if any, are monolingual. It is one of many European Romance languages, such as Proven[??]al, Catalan, Sicilian, and Neapolitan, that are still spoken in Europe but are not the official languages of the nation states in which they are spoken. Francoproven[??]al is the only Romance language spoken in three different European countries.

The sociolinguistic situation of Francoproven[??]al typical of minority and endangered languages in Europe manifests unique features according to the country in which it is spoken. In France, which has been actively trying to eliminate minority languages since before the revolution, the national government has exerted tremendous pressure through compulsory education and the media for a monolingual, French speaking nation. It is remarkable that in spite of this pressure, linguistic diversity still exists.

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