jan blommaert, in memoriam, sociolinguistics

Jan Blommaert, the trail blazer

7 minutes to read
Anna De Fina

I met Jan Blommaert in the early 2000’s during a workshop on Narrative and Identity that Mike Baynham had organized at Leeds University, and to which, besides me, he had invited Jim Collins, Alexandra Georgakopoulou and Stef Slembouck. That workshop was one of the pivotal experiences of my academic career and, to a certain extent of my life, since it was on that occasion that I met some of the people who have been the most influential in my own development as an investigator and that have also become life-long friends and interlocutors. Jan was one of them. I remember that I was terrified of presenting my research, particularly in front of him, since he was at the time already quite well known for his work on language ideologies and I was just starting my career as a sociolinguist. But in fact, things turned out to be very different from what I had imagined and I had a first taste of his easy-going, buoyant personality when all of us got on the train back to London. A climate of intellectual debate but also of humor and camaraderie was immediately established among us, aspects to which Jan contributed substantially with two qualities – intellectual vivacity and an ability to have a good time with colleagues- that I later was to closely associate with him. I remember that at the time he was working with his student Katrjin Maryns, on narrative inequality, a topic of great interest to me. He was studying the kinds of difficulties that asylum seekers to Belgium experience during their interviews with immigration authorities. I remember that I was fascinated by the way he rewrote their narratives trying to reflect their experiences and their voices, and by his clear illustration of how the system was designed to prevent them from being heard. 

Already in those early analyses Jan demonstrated his ability to combine his deep interest for issues related to social justice with a keen capacity for the observation of minute linguistic and interactional phenomena that made him advocate for the development of the tools for what he would later called “nanolinguistics”, the study and reproduction of the finest details of interaction in order to capture people’s own understandings about social and linguistic  issues. It is no surprise that Jan would be one of the few people of his generation to apply ehtnopoetics, the painstakingly detailed transcription method developed by Dell Hymes to rewrite and render the spirit of oral narratives traditionally told among marginalized groups such as Native American communities, to the study of stories told by modern day migrants. Jan managed to produce wonderful ethnopoetic transcriptions of these asylum seekers narratives and became one of the very few linguists to try to advance this method in recent times. 

His work on narrative inequality constituted the first source of inspiration for me, but there would be many others as Jan started producing more and more research and theoretical reflections on other phenomena that also were of great interest to me: he wrote foundational works for sociolinguists on globalization and particularly on superdiversity, mobility, scales and chronotopes. I continued to read his writings throughout the twenty years that followed that first encounter. That happened in part because Jan has always been phenomenal at disseminating his ideas through all possible writing and speaking formats besides the traditional ones: from the Tilburg papers that he created and that have become a repository of amazing work and a source of free expression for those of us who don’t want to wait for the long turn out of journals to disseminate their ideas, to brief written reflections, to later formats facilitated by technology: blog entries, videos and interviews. While these different media and formats allowed him to give diffusion to his ideas, they also constituted a great way of opening up the closed system of academic publishing to professionals and students who live in parts of the worlds where it is harder to find mainstream Western journals or books, or who cannot afford to buy them. Being a vocal supporter of open access publishing, Jan made his writings available to everyone on different platforms and therefore also strongly contributed to the debate about the power of big publishers, which is still ongoing. 

I wrote above that following his work was easy because of this effort of dissemination that Jan made, but it was easy also because he always kept in touch with people with whom he had common interests through a stream of initiatives that were aimed at creating networks of collaboration and debate. Jan always was a team player and a proponent of collective initiatives. Many of his most interesting articles were co-authored, for example his paper on superdiversity, written with Ben Rampton, his introduction to ethnography with Kathy Jie Dong, his piece on “light communitities” with Pia Varis.  I think that he enjoyed collaborating with others, as this allowed him to engage in debate and confrontation on ideas that he deemed important, but also because it was through collective initiatives that such ideas could find an outlet and become more widespread.  Jan organized countless colloquia and seminars and participated in as many, but he also created more stable initiatives aimed at fostering such collaborations. Among the most important, in my opinion, were the founding of the Encounter Series with Multiligual Matters and the Babylon Center, a network of colleagues interested in superdiversity and complexity and a repository of their work. Among the declared objectives of the Babylon Center is that of exploring “the limits of current disciplinary frameworks”  (https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/research/institutes-and-research-group...). I think that this description applies very well to the Encounter Series too, as it has become over the years an outlet for new ideas and new areas of investigation.

Jan continued to challenge us to rethink the boundaries of sociolinguistics as a discipline and to strive to understand communication in our current times

Indeed, this is probably the side of Jan Blommaert’s personality and work that has attracted me, and I think countless others, the most: his interest and eagerness to push the limits of sociolinguistics and to put to the test the many assumptions that researchers in the field have held for years. Jan was never been afraid of questioning our tools and the way we do things. I came to recognize this over the years, as often took me some time to fully grasp the implications of his work. For example, for me the ideas sustaining his theorizations about superdiversity and complexity did not sink in until 2011, when I spent a sabbatical in Sicily studying a 5th grade class of children in an inner-city school in Palermo. The school had a numerous population of young students who were born from migrant parents and I started realizing for the first time how difficult it was to capture this sociolinguistic reality with the traditional tools of our discipline. Notions such as “speech communities,” “mother tongue speakers,” “code-switching,” “immigrant languages” turned out to be completely inadequate to describe what was going on in that classroom and in the city more in general, and it was then, yet again, that Jan’s work revealed all its novelty and all its potential for transforming the way we, as sociolinguists, analyze data. His emphasis on mobility, complexity, his ideas about resources themselves being transportable and giving rise to different indexicalities at varied scales, allowed me to look at my data with fresh eyes and, most of all, with a sense of liberation.  

Later on, I found further inspiration in his constant contributions to our understanding of context as something dynamic, ever evolving and emerging, irreducible to binaries such as micro and macro. In particular I am very much inspired by his work on chronotopes (a topic on which I had the pleasure of writing with him as well), as constructs that allow for an appreciation of how even small changes in space-time configurations can give rise to new and completely different orders of indexicality within wider “situations” that would have been qualified as the same from inside the parameters of a sociolinguistics less attentive to the small details of interaction. 

When we look at Jan Blommaert’s work in these twenty years we see the product of an incredibly acute and lively intellect in continuous motion, invested with a passion and a thirst for knowledge that are almost unique.

In his later work, Jan continued to challenge us to rethink the boundaries of sociolinguistics as a discipline and to strive to understand communication in our current times. He produced very interesting research on the internet and on the ways communities are formed and function within digital environments, showing once again how the observation of what may seem banal everyday phenomena can become a source of in-depth reflections on the way meaning is constructed and circulated. He opened a new frontier for the analysis of political discourse with his recent reflections on communication in the post-digital world. He experimented with different ways of reaching wider audiences and raise awareness on the social and political implications of sociolinguistics and discourse phenomena. Diggit is an example of this as the journal presents linguistically inspired research that focuses on real life events and issues in a way that can be read by non-specialists as well.

In sum, when we look at Jan Blommaert’s work in these twenty years we see the product of an incredibly acute and lively intellect in continuous motion, invested with a passion and a thirst for knowledge that are almost unique. His capacity for work never ceased to surprise me and I can only explain the pace of his production with the fact that thinking and writing always were his favorite thing to do. At the same, time he was not the typical high flying, ivory tower professor as he was always extremely collegial and very generous with his time.

I never received a refusal from him to a request to participate in a panel or conference or to write a comment. In fact, his commentaries came sometimes with lightning speed. He would produce a well thought and comprehensive postscript literally from one day to the other and would invariably send it on time. He mentored many students with the same dedication. 

In the last years, Jan showed yet another facet of his personality: an incredible resilience and strength of character. He was not brought down by personal illness and losses as these did not diminish his passion for sociolinguistics and politics and his capacity at producing always something new. I like to think of him as a trailblazer and that is the way I will always remember him.