Spiderman and the superpowers of languaging

On creative languagers and the confining system of languages

5 minutes to read
Column
Janus Spindler Møller
19/10/2017

In the last couple of decades, the field of sociolinguistics has experienced a change consisting of a move away from treating languages as coherent packages and towards viewing them as sociocultural constructions. In plainer words, sociolinguistic scholars increasingly address how languages such as Dutch, Danish, English, and so on, tend to be treated as naturally given things in the world in spite of the fact that organizations of language into languages are relatively new inventions (new as in a couple of centuries). The widespread habit of treating languages as naturally given has reached a point where it is also common and habitual to define people through the lens of languages (mother tongue speakers, native speakers, bilinguals, and so on). Furthermore, languages have become a very important scale for measuring communicative competences.

But when we only view language use from the perspective of countable languages, we put ourselves in danger of missing important parts of what goes on language-wise. Therefore a bunch of scholars from Copenhagen came up with the idea that we talk about languagers involved in the activity of languaging rather than talking about native speakers/bilinguals/etc. who speak “a language”, “two languages”, and so on. Let me present two short examples that illustrate why.

'Spiderman stikker til muren'

The first example is from a conversation taking place in the living room of one of my colleagues. I am talking to her four-year-old son (let’s call him Bowie). Bowie’s father is from England and the family routinely speaks Danish as well as English in their home. Bowie and I are discussing the powers of superheroes and he states that: “Spiderman stikker til muren”. This is not easily translated which is part of the point. “Spiderman” not surprisingly translates into Spiderman. “Til muren” also unproblematically translates into “the wall”. “Stikker” is what poses the challenge. In mundane Danish “stikker” means ‘sticks’ as in ‘stick a needle into one's finger’. However, this interpretation is not particularly likely seen in the light of the context. If we take the superpowers of Spiderman into consideration, a more plausible explanation is that “stikker” corresponds to the understanding of ‘stick’ in English where for example a stamp may stick to one's fingers. This is also how I understood “stikker” in the situation and Bowie and I continued our discussion of superheroes.

We should not unreflectively let the notion of languages guide how we understand communication and categorize humans

This little piece of linguistic production was easy to understand for me because I am familiar with Bowie’s linguistic repertoire and background (and with the world of superheroes). In fact, the communication was running quite smoothly without any need for meta-communicative clarifications. The difficulties start when we attempt to understand what goes on in the conversation by looking at the exchange through the lens of delineable languages. First of all, this inevitably leads to viewing this production as incomprehensible or even “wrong” in terms of producing “correct Danish”.  If we do this, we exclude the obvious fact that Bowie is able to draw on larger parts of his linguistic repertoire in this conversation than what traditionally counts as Danish. What Bowie does cannot adequately be described as “speaking Danish”. It is much more precise to say that Bowie is using the linguistic features at his disposal to achieve his communicative aims as best as he can – an activity which unfolds beyond delineations of language into languages. Or in other words: He is languaging.

Give me the glue

The next example has been used in several papers by the late professor Jens Normann Jørgensen who was the main person behind the version of languaging I present here. The example comes from a conversation among a cohort of school children. They are in the 8th grade and at this point, many of them have German as an elective. The participants are being recorded while they carry out an assignment that involves the making of a poster by gluing pictures to it. In connection to this, one of the participants asks the others for the glue. One of the other participants reacts by saying "eine limesteife". Just as in the Spiderman example “limesteife” (pronounced limestajfe) displays the limitations of the notion of languages as a tool for categorization and for understanding what goes on in the interaction. The word “eine” can quite straightforwardly be associated with German. The following word “limesteife” cannot be categorized straightforwardly. The element “lim” equals the Danish-associated word for glue. "Steife" can neither be categorized as Danish nor as German. To many Danish ears, this would sound as German, but not to a German ear. In this way, the word limesteife can be said to index “German” to a Danish person, while it is highly unlikely to be counted as a member of a cluster of language resources constructed by Germans as the German language.

Again, the participants do not pay any particular attention to the production. It is most likely that they recognize the meaning of “limesteife” as glue stick because of the local context and the linguistic similarity with the common Danish-associated word for glue-stick which is “limstift”. In short, the use of the “limesteife” form is not particularly significant in the light of the ongoing interaction. The reason why it is important is that it teaches us a lesson about language and languages. A cluster of language resources becomes a language because somebody recognizes and labels it as a distinct way of speaking, and what one group may consider as a member of a language may differ from another group’s opinion. Or in other words: languages are not things in the world but, as stated above, sociocultural constructions.

Just as with the Spiderman example, the “limesteife” example illustrates how we end up not understanding what is going on during interactions if we only look at the exchanges through the lens of languages. If we ask ‘is limesteife a German word?’ then the following questions automatically become “according to who, and why is it relevant?”

Should we all stop treating languages as entities, then? First of all, this is hardly a realistic scenario and secondly, this is not necessarily practical. What is important and the central point here is that we should not unreflectively let the notion of languages guide how we understand communication and categorize humans.  Let us instead remember that what first and foremost connects humans and provides the potential to form communities is that we are all languagers with the unique human potential for languaging.

References

Møller, Janus Spindler (2016): Learning to live with “Languages”. Applied Linguistics Review, 7(3), 279-303

Jørgensen, Jens Normann (2010): Languaging. Nine years of poly-lingual development of young Turkish-Danish grade school students. Copenhagen Studies of Bilingualism K15. University of Copenhagen