Paths to Post-Nationalism: A Critical Ethnography of Language and Identity

By Monica Heller | Go to book overview

1
Sociolinguistics as Social Practice

1.1 A STORY FOR OUR TIMES

A number of years ago, I got a phone call from a friend and colleague in France. She wanted some advice on how to handle what appeared to her (and to me) to be a rather unusual request. The day before, someone from the police station in a nearby city had called her, asking her to act as a consultant on a case. They had a tape from a wiretap on a suspected drug dealer, but they were having a hard time understanding what was said. The reason, they said, was that the suspect, a man originally from Senegal now living in France, was speaking Canadian French to his contacts, who, at the time of the recorded conversation, were apparently somewhere in northern Ontario. The police decided they needed a linguist with knowledge of Canadian French, contacted the nearest university, and somehow found my friend.

A number of things about this story are important for any reflection about sociolinguistics and sociolinguists today. The first has to do with the apparent facts of the case. Our discipline has been based on ideas about language and society that take as a baseline a stable connection between speakers, places, times, and social position, and then tries to get a handle on how variability is built around that. Here we have a number of things that are out of place and out of time. How do police in France end up having to figure out what a person from Senegal speaking Canadian French is saying?

The answer seems to rest with the ways the gray- and black-economy dimensions of the globalized economy work (Castells 2000). The illegal drug market requires managing a worldwide flow of resources distributed through complex and widely distributed networks; as resources move around, so do the people involved (Appadurai 1996). But managing that flow, and dealing with the many problems of state surveillance that come with the territory (so to speak) of working in cross-border illicit activity requires an ability to mobilize communicative resources and to turn in communicative performances that allow the flow to go on uninterrupted. So an African meets up with Canadians in Central America (or so the police claimed) and, for reasons and in ways we will never be able to fully describe or explain, is able to appropriate their linguistic resources and

-3-

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