Jan Blommaert, in memoriam, sociolinguistics,

Semiotic futures: celebrating Jan Blommaert’s radical scholarship

8 minutes to read
Ana Deumert

Jan Blommaert’s untimely passing on 7 January 2021 is a loss that many of us are still processing. His impact on our lives and thinking has been immense, and his contribution to scholarship immeasurable.

Remembering Jan brings up memories of the times we spent together at conferences and seminars, but also – importantly – over many meals where our debates continued, with laughter and accompanied by stories and, always, good food. I met Jan in the early 2000s in Cape Town. His intellectual and personal generosity showed me – then a young academic at the beginning of her professional career – what academia and scholarship could be, the futures that were possible and our own responsibility in making them happen. 

In this column I want to honour and celebrate Jan’s oeuvre by focusing on texts: the texts that we write as  linguists. I start with the very fact that I am writing for Diggit, something that would not have been possible without Jan. 

Jan Blommaert's invitation to write

In January 2017 I received an email from Jan, inviting me to become a columnist for a new magazine, Diggit. I remember feeling excited about this invitation, eager to explore a new genre of writing. I also remember feeling anxious. Having admired Jan’s work and scholarship for years, I asked myself: ‘will I be able to live up to this?’

Three years later, I am glad that I responded to Jan’s invitation by saying ‘yes!’. Column writing has given me a lot of joy and intellectual stimulation. I will always be grateful to Jan for encouraging me and trusting in me. Writing columns has allowed me to find a different kind of voice as a scholar, more playful, more experimental and more political.  

Yet, my gratitude runs deeper. Jan’s scholarship – engaged and clearly positioned, carefully argued and never neutral – has influenced my own scholarship for many years and has encouraged me, in debate and discussion, to ‘dare to know’, even if my views ruffled feathers or were contested. 

All texts have a story

All texts have a story. This also applies – as Jan has shown in his work – to the texts produced by linguists. Just last week Jan and I were talking on email about Jan’s work on the topic. Jan described his interest in the textual genres of linguistics as ‘a pet project of mine’, something he would like to have expanded, to have seen continued and published as a full-length book. 

His illness cut this short, but we – as his colleagues and friends – can honour his legacy by engaging with his texts, his ideas and indeed his oeuvre. 

In this column I focus on the text From Fieldnotes to Grammar (2013), a text that is rich in detail and nuance. I outline Jan’s central position, link it to my own experiences as a linguist, and discuss – inspired and guided by Jan – the possibility of formulating ‘a new science of language’ (Blommaert 2013: 51). 

De Saussure, Bloomfield, Chomsky 

Jan locates our current practices in history and argues that linguistics as an academic discipline remains haunted by the ghosts of Ferdinand de Saussure, Leonard Bloomfield, and Noam Chomsky. As students – and later as young academics – we were repeatedly reminded that de Saussure’s Cours de Linguistique Générale (1916) constituted ‘the beginning’ of ‘modern linguistics’ (Blommaert 2013: 3). This historical-ideological account is still present in textbooks and reference works. 

Ultimately, Saussure’s project was one of limiting our intellectual curiosity as language-workers. Creative meaning-making is not what we should be interested in, nor speech in all its communicative – and semiotic – messiness. Instead, our focus should be on la langue, the structure of language: stable patterns and statistical averages that, in turn, generate the utterances that are produced by speakers and writers. 

A hegemony of exclusion

De Saussure’s la langue is a project of exclusion and reduction. He positions language as ‘an idealized, universal, decontextualized, unambiguous Platonic system’ (Nicolas Faraclas, Identity Politics 2021). Parole– later dubbed ‘performance’ by Chomsky – was only of interest in so far as it could be reduced to this ideal system. 

Jan reminds us that de Saussure did more than just make a theoretical contribution, which one could engage with, contest and debate. Rather, his work invented a discipline and constituted a group of practitioners who engaged in particular textual practices as part of their professional work. 

This established a hegemony of what counts as ‘linguistics’ and, indeed, created a ‘particular reality of “language”’, reflecting an ‘artefactual ideology’ (Blommaert 2013: 7, also Blommaert 2008). In other words, it is but a small step from the theoretical commitment to language-as-structure (what Jan calls grammar-1) to the creation of texts – material artefacts – that represent and inscribe these structures; that make them visible (grammar-2). 

On the importance of historical analysis

Throughout his work Jan has emphasized the importance of historical analysis. In order to understand what linguists do today, we need to historize it, look back in time and understand where it comes from. Jan writes: 

‘Historicizing epistemologies and methodologies is a pre-requisite for critique. If we wish to improve particular kinds of analysis, it is essential that we remember where the tools for such an analysis come from, in what kind of épistème they are grounded, and what kind of ideological load they carry’  (2013: 6).

In historizing linguistic practice and developing an historical ontology of language-as-grammar, Jan adopts a Foucaultian approach, an archaeological analytic that draws, implicitly, on the idea of a dispositif.  

Foucault used the term dispositif in 1977 in the ‘Confessions of the Flesh’ interview where he explained it as follows:

"What I'm trying to pick out with this term is, firstly, a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions – in short, the said as much as the unsaid.”

The dispositif is thus larger than discourse (another central term in Foucault’s thinking), and includes the material world and practices. 

Jan takes up the thought-provoking work of Sinfree Makoni and Alastair Pennycook (Disinventing and Reconstituting Languages, 2007) and asks: If it is true that languages, and their historical-structuralist ontologies, were invented – by states and colonial regimes –  how did this invention take place? Where were the ‘microscopic disciplinary practices as inscribed by and into the history of the regime of truth’ (2013: 7)?

Dispositifs of modernity/coloniality

Jan writes: ‘Modern linguistics was decidedly modernist’ (2013: 3). The modernist impetus of linguistics is visible in its preoccupation with lists and tables, classifications and categorizations, a ‘finite set of rules and formulas’ (2013: 12). It is also visible in a wide range of textual practices that transform speech – situated and ephemeral – into material artefacts; that is, grammars and dictionaries that can be carried around, archived in libraries and sold for a price. 

And by being modernist, linguistics is also implicitly colonial: modernity constituted the epistemological frame that made colonialism possible (Anibal Quijano, Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality, 2007; Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity, 2011). 

Thus, facing linguistics’ modernist heritage also means facing its colonial heritage. In colonial contexts the textual artefacts created by linguists (and colonial officials) interpellated language into being as a particular kind of object: not only structured and researchable, but also teachable (within Western ideologies of foreign language education) and standardizable; that is, language, as represented in these texts, can be regimented and controlled.

Whatever this future science of language will be or look like, Jan’s voice will be central in the debates to come, and be part of the theories we develop of our semiotic futures.

Integral to the modernist-colonial project of classification and categorization was the creation of ‘the other’: those who stood outside of modernity; whose lives were not co-eval (to use Johannes Fabian’s term); those who resided in a different time; whose identities were directly opposed to ‘rational man’ (Blommaert 2013: 6). 

In essence, language – the object and raison d'être of linguistic study – was modelled on the image of the European liberal subject: free and unencumbered, self-sufficient and sovereign, rational and existing independent to its social and historical context. Ways of speaking and expression that did not conform to this model of language were considered ‘non-language’ and denied disciplinary legitimacy. 

Persistent epistemological effects 

An important aspect of the dispositif is that the texts produce disciplinary effects, even when these effects are not intended by the author. 

Jan, for example, writes about his own fieldwork in Tanzania and how the very act of writing fieldnotes is shaped by a range of conventions that are grounded in these historical practices (2013: 33ff.). This includes elicitation-through-dictation and the use of particular orthographic notations to represent words; the discursive erasure of the speaker(s) when presenting linguistic data; as well as the representation of information in a form that speaks directly to audiences of experts. It is through these micro-practices – the way we represent language in textual genres – that disciplinary power is reproduced, that language is reduced and produced as an object. 

Thus, Jan observes: ‘science is one particular form of intertextuality and whenever we engage in scientific work, we insert ourselves in a discursive history’ (2013: 6). That is, current practices speak back, inevitably, to the earlier practices. 

Science’s intertextuality

About two decades ago, when I embarked on fieldwork to study a German-based contact variety in Namibia, I attempted to write a grammar. Yet,  like Jan, I found myself unable to reduce the complex and multi-faceted ‘variation in language usage to a handful of pages on language structure’ (2013: 46). 

In the end, I produced a text which tried to be an esquisse grammaticale, including traditional sections such as ‘noun phrase’ and ‘verb phrase’, interlinear glosses and translations (Ana Deumert, Namibian Kiche Duits, 2009). In its published form the sketch was surrounded by explicit meta-worries: a discussion of how this ‘linguistic system’ was not actually a system and a deep epistemological unease about creating what Jan called ‘a birth certificate of language’ (2013: 45-46). 

Yet, my hesitations and hedges, unease and protestations notwithstanding, the episteme persisted: once a grammatical sketch is produced and published – even if it is fragmented and incomplete – a language is born. Kiche Duits – the name used by a local chief to describe his form of German – might not yet be listed on the Ethnologue, but is present on Wikipedia and searchable on Google. 

It seems that a disciplinary unconscious kicks in: not only do we know how to produce such texts, we also know how to read them once they are available and we can see their ideological-artefactual effects. It is not ontologically possible to have an esquisse grammaticale without a language: if the text exists, then the language’s ontology is affirmed.

Towards a new science of language

If this is our disciplinary legacy, can we move beyond it? Should we move beyond it? Where do we go from here? 

Jan’s work has, over the years, shown us a different way of seeing language: ethnographic and contextualized, cognizant of affect and experience, approaching language as fragmented and mobile, incomplete yet endlessly expressive (see for example, Meaning as a Nonlinear Effect, 2015). He has consistently resisted the project of erasure that lies at the heart of the discipline of linguistics, reflecting its modernist and colonial groundings. 

At the end of From Fieldnotes to Grammar, Jan suggests – radically and sensibly – that we should consider removing the word ‘language’ from our vocabulary as linguists (Blommaert 2013: 50). The word itself, common-sense as it might be, is burdened with too many problematic assumptions about ‘having a structure’, ‘being stable’, ‘being reducible to grammatical description’ and so forth. 

What word could we use instead? Maybe – and here I return to the beginning – we could talk more about ‘voice’, a concept that has been central in Jan’s work. Voice emphasizes the expressive – playful and creative – aspects of language; how language is social but also experienced as intensely personal; how language is so much more than verbal communication, but involves complex systems of semiosis that have communicative effects, and that exist in ‘sociolinguistically stratified economies of signs and meaning’ (2013: 50). 

Jan reminds us wisely that to reject the paradigm of modern linguistics does not mean that we have to know an alternative: ‘we do have quite a distance to cover before we find ourselves in the comfort zone of a new and fully developed alternative paradigm’. It will take time ‘to get from critique … to reconstruction, to a new science of language which, in all likelihood, will no longer bear the name’ (2013: 51). 

Whatever this future science of language will be or look like, Jan’s voice will be central in the debates to come, and be part of the theories we develop of our semiotic futures. Thank you Jan, for everything! Aluta continua!