Indigenous language revitalization: A new meeting ground for language scholars long-divided? (by Dr. Stephen Peters)

This week’s blog post comes from Dr. Steve Peters,  a Faculty Lecturer at McGill University with the Office of First Nations and Inuit Education and one of BILD’s newest members.


This past September, McGill’s Office of First Nations and Inuit Education (or OFNIE) partnered with the Department of Linguistics to host a special guest talk on language revitalization. The speaker, Megan Lukaniec, a Huron-Wendat PhD student in Linguistics at UC Santa Barbara, addressed the challenge of reawakening, as she put it, a dormant language – what, in days not so long past, some might have called “reviving” a “dead” language. Her particular language of concern is her own, the Wendat language, whose use was (temporarily, as it turns out) suspended at the turn of the 20th century.

With no living speakers, Lukaniec and other Wendat language “awakeners” must turn to other sources. The focus of Lukaniec’s talk was how archival materials – dictionaries and vocabularies prepared by Christian missionaries, for example, or recordings of traditional songs – might transform into contemporary speech or even, someday, the first language of future Huron-Wendat generations. (You can learn more about the project here: and here:

Lukaniec has a clear view of the scope of that challenge – part social, part cultural, part educational, part linguistic, part political, part historical, part rhetorical. And it is a tribute to her that she so clearly conveyed a sense of that breadth to her audience that afternoon. Professionally, Lukaniec is a contemporary linguist, and, like others of her discipline, she is (at least academically) concerned with language structure (at various depths) decidedly understood in abstraction to the deeply contextualized sociality of actual, situated, ephemeral talk (phew!). For those who wish to someday use a “suspended” language in fleeting conversation to bring to mutual-consciousness their surround in social bond-making (phew!!), we can appreciate the importance of understanding the abstract rules and principles of a language that constitute its structure. If we’re going to someday, hopefully, and with no small amount of work, say infinite things with Wendat’s (like any language’s) finite means, we need to know (and internalize) the rules and principles that allow us to mix, match, combine, order and order again the finite resources a language offers.

Linguists are specifically adept for the job. Given a bank of well-formed sentences, and given a sensitive training in the combinatory logic of their composition, we can pull apart, peel away, crack sentences open until those rules and principles are revealed. To create that bank, ideally we ourselves produce well-formed sentences. Or, we might find someone to do that for us if producing well-formed sentences in a foreign language is not intuitive for us.

But the task becomes much trickier if, as Lukaniec explained, no speakers are available and we must instead turn to the limited archive available – songs, dictionaries, documented speeches and stories. This job is of a different order, and the complexity and so scope of the project widens. The archive of any dormant language is necessarily incomplete. Language documents were produced in a different time, short of the linguistic knowledge we now have. In her talk, Lukaniec explained that there are clear errors and omissions in and discordances between archived records of Wendat. The flaws that we find in the record might be due to what any particular language document was produced for and by who. Historical knowledge can clarify some of the discrepancies we have in the record and help us to make decisions about what to include in a Wendat grammar now. Lukaniec likened enriching the archival record to that of classic hermeneutical scholar contextualizing the biblical record to uncover meaning closer to the original (although she did not put it in quite these terms). Like all bits of language-use, documents themselves are products of their time and place, their social context and political function. It’s not insignificant that Wendat dictionaries were produced by the Jesuits or that songs had to be recorded by urging singers to phonographs.

Lukaniec also pointed to a host of other limitations present in any archive. The record is limited in telling us how to sound the words, with what prosody (in, say, a lament or a tribute or an order or an encouragement) when, where, and with whom to say them, and how to develop pedagogical tools to teach future speakers. Even if we know how to build a well-formed sentence given a clear set of rules and principles, how do we know if we should say that sentence – to our mother or grandmother, to our child or to our lover? Of all the infinitely possible sentences we might form given a correct grammar, which ones do we want to actually say?

This is, then, a different kind of question, a question whose answers require observation of actual language use. Chomsky famously split off these kinds of questions when giving birth to modern, internalist linguistics. However, language “reanimators” or “awakeners” can’t avoid questions about using language – that is of course the goal. And indeed, in her talk, Lukaneic, both intentionally and explicitly, limited her presentation of the structural makeup of Wendat for an exploration of the sociocultural and educational complexities that arise when Wendat people draw from the archive to communicate in the here and now. These difficulties do not only plague language revitalization efforts based on archival documents, but challenge all those who document languages based on traditional field methods.

If linguistic competence (Chomsky) concerns ability with the underlying syntactical rules of putting together well-formed sentences, “communicative competence” (Hymes) concerns ability with the sociocultural/rhetorical rules of using them in situated, purposeful interaction. Communicative competence deals with the linguistics of register, politeness, style, honorifics, deixis, and many other social-interactional issues that arise in actual settings of language use. Ethnographic research into communicative competence dates now five decades, and it dates since antiquity in the field of rhetoric. Of the earliest field linguists, Edward Sapir noted something of its centrality in his own research on American languages: “Language is primarily a cultural or social product and must be understood as such. Behind the apparent lawlessness of social phenomena there is a regularity of configuration and tendency which is just as real as the regularity of physical processes in a mechanical world” (1929, p. 165-166). It is obviously necessary to admit the “regularity of configuration” of actual use of language – communicative competence – as every bit as crucial as linguistic competence in the task of reawakening sleeping (or tiring(?)) languages as well as to the educational initiatives required to do the rousing.

Obviously, ethnographers of communication cannot travel back in time re-access criteria of appropriate use (or “regularity of configuration” or, what Chomsky would come to call, surely influenced by Hymes, “pragmatic competence”). And this is truly an elemental loss. But they still nevertheless have important contributions to make in understanding the social, cultural, and situational conditions that enable or disable Wendat speech now, and what it might mean today for learners to engage in learning their own language. And, again, it is a testament to Lukaniec’s mult-disciplinary sensitivity that she was able to speak at some length and with some insight into the contemporary contexts for speaking Wendat.

It is in this sense that language revitalization research and activism clearly presents itself as a new meeting ground for what has become a fractured, divisive, and often isolating balkanization of language research. Our own organizing committee for Lukaniec’s talk — which includes language educators, language ethnographers, and linguists — is somewhat of a reflection on that. Language revitalization’s practical concerns hold the promise of breathing new life into the sub- (and sub-sub-) fields of language research that are increasingly sealed-off from questions outside of their own narrow parameters of concern. Language revitalization includes questions of linguistic form, of performative competence, of rhetorical construction, of sound and prosody, and of “own” language teaching. As we move forward and assess what universities and academics might contribute to language revitalization, it is surely to the benefit of the individual disciplines that the project requires an “all-hands-on-deck” approach, forcing the (re-) engagement of language scholars of all stripes. In principle, as Chomsky noted, there has never been a conflict between structural linguists and sociocultural language ethnographers, they address separate areas of knowledge, different questions. But in language revitalization efforts, both areas of knowledge are now brought shoulder to shoulder, both have crucial contributions to make, and both will have to comment on the other with acuity and respect if gains are to be made on their shared issue of concern.

On the other hand, it might be that language revitalization will emerge as its own discipline, rising above the fray to constitute a new, distinct research program that is responsible first and foremost, not to the discipline itself, but to the actual lives of people who want and have the right to speak to their mothers and grandmothers, their children and lovers in their own language again.


Sapir, E. (1929/2008). The status of linguistics as a science. In P. Swiggers (Ed.), The collected works of Edward Sapir. Berlin, DE: Mouton de Gruyter.

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