On some colonial power structures in the field of linguistics

A central discipline within linguistics is language description, which in many cases is carried out by white, Western researchers doing fieldwork on languages that are not spoken in the West. It is no secret that this tradition has its roots partly in European colonization and partly in Christian missionary work. Many language descriptions have thus been motivated by the wish to describe and map out the cultures and areas that the Europeans colonized, and furthermore, language descriptions have acted as foundations for translations of the Bible in connection with Christian missionary work. Much of modern linguistics is built on the works of this tradition, but despite this, it has not has not confronted its colonial past as a scientific discipline. Nor has the field of linguistics confronted its role in the production of racism like it has been done e.g. within the field of anthropology. This lack of stance taking can have serious repercussions for the reproduction of racism, and for the Western, colonialist position of power.

I have examined 8 different handbooks on linguistic fieldwork (all published after the year 2000 – the complete list can be found below) to investigate how approach these issues. Some of the book do not even contain a section on ethics, and of those that do, only Chelliah & de Reuse (2011) pass my critical postcolonial analysis and take a stance on the colonial history of linguistics and the political position of power that Western researchers are in.

Color blindness

Folkekort kolo
Old Danish world map with the title “People map (Linguistic categorization)“.

What I identify as the main issue in the handbooks is that their sections on ethics focus on 1:1 ethics, i.e. the kind of ethical precautions researchers have to take if their informants can be considered societally equal to themselves. Unfortunately, Europe’s colonial history and the way racism works as a global structure entail that the researcher and the informant are not equal in many fieldwork situations – i.e. when the researcher is white and/or Western and the informant is not. In the handbooks, power inequality in relationships is described as the consequence of the researcher’s higher education, better financial situation etc., whereas race or colonialism are not mentioned as factors. In studies of postcolonialism this is called color blindness: The attempt to write off the category of race and its meaning through a (feigned) blindness to race. The intention is good, but the consequence of not talking about race is that it makes it impossible to talk about racism. When the handbooks leave out how racial and colonial factors contribute to the white and/or Western researcher’s higher position of power, it has two consequences. Firstly, it erases the entire colonial history and hides the power relations that it entails. Racism is presented as a closed chapter, which is problematic because racism is simply not abolished just because Europe has given up some of its colonies. Racism as a global structure is a reality. Secondly, it contributes to characterizing the researcher as friendly and neutral. The power of the researcher is not attributed to global power relations, and these relations are therefore not seen as affecting the researcher’s intentions. This is a problematic representation because research is never neutral, and researchers are always affected by their social and political backgrounds. When we claim that a white, Western position is neutral, we turn a blind eye to the entire colonial past of the West and the political power structures that produce knowledge.

The Western norm

Generally, I would also characterize it as problematic that the handbooks essentially use Western norms as a point of reference. This means that the cultural encounters that the books outline basically always involve meetings with linguistic communities that are below a certain ‘Western standard’ or are described as poor, primitive, inept etc. This has two consequences: Firstly, all cultures and societies outside of the West are one-sidedly presented as one collective mass or monolith. In Under Western Eyes (1986), Chandra Mohanty describes how this Western view of ‘the others’ only strengthens the Western self-image and removes the voice of the non-West. Secondly, a it creates the ideal conditions for the White Savior phenomenon, where the researcher is expected to want and be able to better the living standards of the community members. This is a common misconception that can be traced back to colonial times – that white, Western people grant themselves the right to define that the non-West needs help and what this help should be like.

Let’s talk about it

More generally speaking, we can use postcolonial theory to turn our criticism towards the tradition of fieldwork per se. For example, this could be in regards to the exoticization of ‘foreign’ cultures and languages, a practice Edward Said describes in Orientalism (1978). The Western tendency to turn ourselves into mouthpieces for others, and how this reproduces colonial power relations, is also criticized by Gayatri Spivak in Can the Subaltern Speak (1983). Linguistics and the tradition of fieldwork has many problematic aspects, so there is more than enough to take on if you want to formulate a postcolonial critique of the practices within linguistics. It is important to articulate these problematic conditions – that we are aware of political power of knowledge, colonial history, and global racist structures. We cannot just hide behind a color blind ideal or pretend that the West has a neutral position. White, Western researchers must take a look in the mirror and understand their powerful positions. We must talk about racism and colonialism. This is the only way that we can get one step closer to dismantling it.

Liv Moeslund Ahlgren is an MA-student of linguistics at Aarhus University. She has worked with gender studies and postcolonialism as a part of her minor during her bachelor’s degree.

This post was translated from Danish by Hannah Fedder Williams.

Handbooks examined:

Bowern, Claire. 2008. Linguistic Fieldwork: A Practical Guide. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Chelliah, Shobhana L. & Willem J. de Reuse (eds.). 2011. Handbook of Descriptive Linguistic Fieldwork. New York: Springer.

Crowley, Terry. 2007. Field Linguistics: A Beginners Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Meakins, Felicity, Jennifer Green & Myfany Turpin. 2018. Understanding Linguistic Fieldwork. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: New York: Routledge.

Newman, Paul & Martha Ratliff (eds.). 2001. Linguistic Fieldwork. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.

Sakel, Jeanette & Dan Everett.  2012. Linguistic Fieldwork: A Student Guide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sarvasy, Hannah & Diana Forker. 2018. Word Hunters: Field linguists on fieldwork. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.

Thieberger, Nick (ed.). 2012. Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Fieldwork. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

1 thought on “On some colonial power structures in the field of linguistics”

  1. May I ask why you are putting a picture of me and Doña Francisca Escobar as the lead image in this blog post, and how you got the image and why you thought it would be ok to use?


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