Unchecked White Savior Complexes in Linguistics

“I just want to learn Swahili and save endangered Bantu languages for the rest of my life while simultaneously analyzing the syntactic structures and verb morphologies of each.”

The above quote is a perfect example of a mindset that is far too common among linguists. In writing this, I don’t mean to shame the person who wrote that specifically, but rather to talk about a more general problem in the field.

This mindset is hugely problematic, and various other incarnations of it can be found by googling “white savior complex” (here, for example). It sets up a white person, who is often additionally privileged in some other way, whether by being rich or by being well-educated, as a hero who comes in to save a group of ignorant, helpless people of color. Linguists are not immune to this, despite all our talk about all languages and dialects being equally valid.

In addition to the ridiculous amount of privilege needed to feel this way about oneself, some problems of this mindset include: the fact that linguists do not have the power to “save” languages; that language communities may not be motivated to continue the transmission of their language and don’t want any outside help; or that they may have their own efforts underway and don’t need any outside assistance.

To think about this more deeply, we first have to talk about what we mean when we say we want to “save” a language. Does this mean to merely document it? If so, that’s nice, but no written grammar can compare to the knowledge possessed by any native speaker of a language. While a grammar might allow interested heritage learners to acquire a language once all its native speakers are dead (as happened with Cornish, Manx, and, in a different way, Wampanoag) this does nothing to preserve the continuity of language transmission from parents to children, which is what a language needs to survive.

Does saving a language mean increasing the number of speakers? Short of raising your own children in that community as speakers, there is nothing linguists can do on this front. All the cheer-leading in the world is not going to convince people to stop speaking an economically useful language in favor of a dying one, unless they already have that desire themselves.

Most of the time, if a language is dying (if it’s not because all its speakers have been killed or forced to move apart) it’s because parents feel that the best hope for their children’s economic futures lies in speaking a different language than the one they themselves were raised with. When rich, educated linguists come into a community speaking English (or some other western language) and maybe a local trade language (e.g. Swahili) for field work, this reinforces the idea that speaking prestige languages is necessary for success in life. When we come into a language community, no matter how much enthusiasm and interest we show for the local language, we are reinforcing linguistic imperialism, and are doing nothing to upset the social and economic structures that cause these languages to die.

It’s true that linguists have certain skills that could be valuable to minority language communities, but it’s important to make sure we’re using these skills to help people in the way they want to be helped. Linguists are getting slightly better at this one, mostly thanks to efforts by Native American nations to make firm rules about the conditions under which they will agree to work with linguists. I suspect the situation is different when linguists work with communities that have even less autonomy and power.

When linguists do fieldwork, we get valuable data which we can analyze and use to further our own careers. None of this is inherently of any use to the language communities we work with. What good does it do them if some linguist who works on their language gets tenure? What help is it to a member of the community, who wants to learn more about their own language, if there is a dense and theoretical paper published on one obscure structure of that language?

When working with Native American communities, linguists often agree to deals which involve writing a grammar or dictionary, or producing language-learning materials for that community in return for permission to use the language data. This is in addition to paying speakers for their time, of course. Naturally, this requires linguists to talk to members of the community about whether they would like help in making an orthography for the language (if it lacks one) or making a dictionary, rather than just coming in and assuming payment alone is enough, or assuming that of course any community would love to have a grammar. An additional problem is that theoretical linguists are lucky to get much training in doing fieldwork, and are unlikely to get any training in pedagogy which might assist in creating effective language learning materials. There is also the constant problem that these arrangements leave the power in the hands of the linguist, rather than in those of the members of the community.

It’s great when linguists work specifically on one language or family of languages — this increases the likelihood of our analyzing them well. But, if we are going to work with language communities, we need to remember that they are helping us with our work, and we are not saving them. If we do our work well, language consultants should feel like they understand what it is linguists do, and not that it’s some complicated science that’s only for westerners. Doing fieldwork should be regarded as a way to attract new linguists to the field, just as undergraduate intro. to linguistics courses are.

A colleague of mine pointed out to me that the reason generative/theoretical linguists aren’t trained about neo-colonialism or to be aware of their privilege is because the field was started by people analyzing the structure of their own native language based on their speaker intuitions. Fieldwork is a recent addition to the set of tools generative linguists use to further our understanding of language and Universal Grammar. Because these are our framework and methods, we should be working even harder to put our tools of language analysis in the hands of native speakers of all languages. Ken Hale, who was famously good at attracting and training native speaker linguists, was aware of this, and has said, “significant advances in the study of American Indian languages can be made, in my judgment, only when a significant portion of the field is in the hands of native speakers of the languages concerned.” We should all strive for this, for Native American languages and all languages we work with.


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