The diversity of diverse, by Friederike Lüpke

The May 11 issue of the Smithsonian Magazine reports the recent discovery that the Natives of central Massachusetts spoke five language rather than only Loup, as had been assumed till now. Smithsonian curator emeritus and senior linguist Ives Goddard is quoted with the comment: “It’s like some European families where you can have three different languages at the dinner table.” It is odd that Europe is the continent invoked as exemplar for multilingualism, when it is one of the continents where diversity has been radically diminished over the past centuries, and where attitudes to multilingualism are far from being generally positive. Other parts of the world have maintained a indigenous multilingualism to a much higher degree.  Among them are large parts of the Lower Casamance at the Upper Guinea Coast of West Africa and the Grassfields in Northwestern Cameroon. These areas are among the most multilingual regions in the world, with patterns of multilingualism that predate the colonization and spread of European languages and emergence of Pidgin and Creole languages in them. So maybe one day the knowledge of these settings will be so commonplace that  the mention of multilingualism would evoke different images and spur remarks such as”it’s like some Casamance villages where you can’t utter ten sentences without using at least four languages” or  “she’s as multilingual as an inhabitant of the Lower Fungom area – by the age of six, she spoke six languages”.

For now, this is just a dream. Detailed (socio)linguistic research on these and  many other multilingual settings that can be described by terms such as “rural”, “traditional”, “egalitarian”, “non-polyglossic”, “balanced” or “indigenous” is only just beginning, and the knowledge of these settings confined to a circle of specialists and far from being in the public imagination. Engaging in exchanges with other scholars currently involved in research on these situations therefore is a great chance for us to develop new perspectives, to learn new methods and adapt existing methods to our settings, to chart commonalities and differences between in the ways in which language is used and conceptualised in other corners of the world, and to raise awareness of its distinct features. First comparisons have already revealed that diversity comes in many different shapes!

Last week, we were happy to have a chat with Dineke Schokkin, a member of the ARC Laureate project ‘Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity’, led by Nick Evans, and we’re delighted that Wellsprings PostDoc Ruth Singer, whose research investigates small-scale multilingualism in Northern Arnhem land, Australia, will visit SOAS and the Crossroads project from September to December 2016. In June 2016, we will have another great opportunity for collaboration: members of our sister project KPAAM-CAM on rural multilingualism in Northwestern Cameroon, led by Jeff Good, will visit us for a joint workshop at SOAS. We have decided to make three mornings of our two-project summit open. If you can, please come and attend the talks given by members of and advisors of both projects. The detailed programme for the open parts on June 7 to 9 2016 can be found here.  You might find that your metaphors of multilingualism will become more diverse as a result…