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

By Monica Heller | Go to book overview

use them in ways which, we know minimally, at least confound some agents of state surveillance. Certainly people have been moving around, crossing boundaries, and learning languages for a long time, but sociolinguistics is only now confronting what it means to put this phenomenon at the center of its concerns. So the first thing I explore in this book is what it means to take seriously the possibility that maybe the baseline is not a baseline at all, but rather mobility (Sheller and Urry 2006) and multiplicity.

The second has to do with what my friend was doing in this situation. She learned her Canadian French as a doctoral candidate in linguistics, doing what in many ways is a classic thing for a sociolinguist to do. She got on a plane, and then a bus, and got off in northern Ontario. What is a nice girl from southern France doing in Sudbury? It turns out she was not particularly interested in describing the features of the French spoken there (although many other people have been), but rather in what this language meant to its speakers, a relevant question to ask in a place where people are always talking about language and judging other people on the basis of it. Nonetheless, this was not what the police were interested in, not in the least. They wanted an expert, someone who could be constructed as having irrefutable claims to knowing what the suspect and his interlocutors were saying. The place to find a language expert, of course (of course?), is a university. Hence my friend’s call to me: she knew she was being constructed as a holder of objective truths, while she understands herself as a producer of situated knowledge—an interpreter, not a transmitter.

The final element of the story (no, I have no idea what happened to the suspect, or to the alleged drugs, for that matter) is what she did. She went, listened, and found the sound quality too poor to be able to make out much of anything. My point is simply that she chose to be in the conversation, knowing that whatever she did she would be making a choice about her actions in a situation complicated by issues having to do with globalization, post-colonialism, migration, and state regulation of goods and people; she also knew that she had limited control over how others would construct her, her knowledge and her actions.

While this story struck both me and my friend as intriguing at the time, it stayed with me as a precursor of things that seem to pop up more and more since then, with such regularity that it is hard to know where to store all the examples. Our ideas about how linguistic resources are brought into play in the construction of social difference are challenged on a daily basis, with people regularly doing things with language they are not supposed to do, or failing to do what we expect of them linguistically, or fighting over who should do what.

This even plays out on television. Admittedly, Canada may be one of the few places on the planet to be able to produce a situation comedy about language and identity (although I can think of plenty of places

-4-

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