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Illustration: Julia de Bres
Illustration: Julia de Bres

OPINIONSocietyJune 15, 2023

What linguistics does for Aotearoa

Illustration: Julia de Bres
Illustration: Julia de Bres

If Victoria University decides to close its linguistics programme, the entire field will suffer – and the country will be the poorer for it, writes Julia de Bres.

I begin one of my linguistics courses with an example about Donald Trump. Back in 2016, Business Insider asked linguists to explain a feature of his language in the following quotes:

“People don’t know how well we’re doing with the Hispanics, the Latinos.”

“I have a great relationship with the blacks. I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks.”

“I love the Muslims. I think they’re great people.”

“Ask the gays what they think and what they do.”

And my favourite:

“I will be phenomenal to the women.”

You probably noticed the relevant linguistic feature – the use of the determiner “the” followed by a noun referring to a social group.

The use of “the” emphasises the otherness of these groups. There’s a reason Trump refers to “the blacks” and “the women” rather than “the whites” and “the men”. He’s not part of these groups and referring to them this way makes that clear.

It also puts whole swathes of people into one group, treating them as homogenous entities not individuals.  Trump talks about “the Muslims” as if they are all the same rather than as diverse as any other religious and cultural community.

So Trump is enacting two linguistic strategies, othering and generalising, all through the use of one simple word – “the”.

Trump, talking, in 2016. (Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

I use this example to introduce my students to linguistics, the scientific study of language, because it shows that even the smallest feature of language can signal something very important.

This kind of linguistic phenomenon makes linguists’ eyes light up, as we fix on the latest target of our laser eye for language.

For me, it’s anything to do with the relationship between language and social inequality. For one colleague, it is documenting her ancestral language, Cook Islands Māori. For another, it’s analysing multilingualism in the home. For still another, it’s discussing the social functions of corporate jargon.

When I say colleagues, I’m not just talking about those I work with directly at Massey University, but my linguistic colleagues throughout the country.

We have different research interests and institutional affiliations, but we all have that same glint in our eye when we encounter a shiny new piece of language data.

Sure, the institutional competition between universities can frustrate and drag us down, as we jostle for students and research funding.

But when I sit with my fellow linguists at a conference or in a campus café, getting excited about the thesis topic of one of our postgrads or the next big idea in sociolinguistics, we’re not thinking about what distinguishes us but what we have in common.

And that’s why I feel for my colleagues at Te Herenga Waka/Victoria University whose linguistics programme is currently under consideration for staff cuts or programme closure.

Vic has one of the best linguistics programmes in the country and, although institutional norms dictate I should be competing with it, I don’t think that way.

I’m up there on the hill once a week, attending Discourse Analysis Group with staff, students and retired academics, the room buzzing with the kind of energy that can only be generated by linguists collectively inspecting a pragmatic particle or an affective disclaimer.

I have coffee with the Vic linguists, work on journal articles with them, write opinion pieces with them about the latest thing to linguistically frustrate us, and plan guest lectures in their courses and mine.

Victoria University of Wellington (Photo: supplied)

If Victoria’s linguistic programme goes under the knife, it’s not just staff and students there who will be adversely affected but all of us working in linguistics across Aotearoa.

Even more alarming, it feels like a matter of time for the rest of us, with rumblings of academic staff and programme cuts at Otago and Massey too, so that the entire discipline of linguistics seems at risk of national collapse.

From the outside, we might look like self-involved academics anxious about losing our jobs, but that’s not what makes me saddest here.

Because we need the humanities – and we need linguistics.

Some of our students are born linguists. They come into the world with that magpie eye for language and they fervently sign up for their linguistic majors.

But lots major in other disciplines.

Many fields contribute to our understanding of social interaction, but only linguistics focuses specifically on the role of language.

In our courses, journalism students learn about the power of the media to shape public opinion for good or ill via the subtlest of linguistic choices.

Political science students learn how politicians adapt their language to convince voters to support their policies.

Marketing students learn how to use language to appeal to social groups who buy their products.

When our students go out into the world, they are equipped to apply their skills in data analysis, critical thinking, research, precision and attention to detail to any number of careers. You will find people with linguistics qualifications in business, government, IT, health and education.

Those who become professional linguists – such as language planners, language activists, language teachers, and computational linguists – contribute significantly to language-related issues in Aotearoa, bringing their expertise to writing language policies, leading language revitalisation initiatives, designing language teaching materials, and grappling with AI.

Language is everywhere, and linguistic challenges require linguistic solutions.

All our universities are struggling with reduced student enrolments and the post-Covid economy.

This is not a reason to slash essential teaching and research programmes. We need a long-term vision that recognises the inherent value of our disciplines and supports us to weather the storm.

If a humble word like “the” can hold so much meaning, just think what we would lose by not paying attention – really nerd-level attention – to all the other words in the world.

Julia de Bres is senior lecturer in linguistics at Massey University and president of the Linguistics Society of New Zealand.

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