Endangered Languages, Sociolinguistics

Sami language on Swedish state television

Swedes are often quick to judge Americans and Australians for the way the indigenous cultures and languages are disappearing – but we often forget how we have treated the Sami. “Sami” is an official Swedish minority language nowadays – though “Sami” is a common term for several smaller, quite independent language varieties. The Sami language(s) is a Finno-Ugric language – this means that it is very different from almost all other languages spoken in Europe. But then again, the Finno-Ugric languages have lived in close contact with Indo-European languages for a long time, and there has been lots of language contacts.

Both the Swedish and English wikipedia entries about Sami are quite good!

Swedish state television has a short segment about the fact that several courses in Sami is being presently taught in Sweden:

Here’s a good English speaking short segment (5 minutes) about the history of the Sami language:

Sociolinguistics

Making swearing illegal…

Most Swedes have clued in on the fact that sometimes, but not always, swearing in American tv-programs is replaced with a beep. The difference has to do with if the tv-program is on cable or not, and when it is shown. The reason is moralistic – swearing is seen as immoral and degenerative, so the Federal Communications Commission decided that a certain number of words were off limits.

There are actually positive effects of swearing – among other things it can relieve pain. But it is not a property of the swear words themselves, which is why the FCC ban seems so silly. Rather, the effect of swear words lies in their controversial and schocking nature, and this is an effect that deteriorates. In the image below you can see several British swear words from 2006 (BBC study: Delete Expletives?) and how Brits ranked them for severity. But by now, six years later, it is likely that the list has changed.

http://books.elliottback.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/07/swear-word-frequency.png

American linguistics professor John McWhorter (who is most known for his work on creoles) writes an article for CNN about a recent town hall decision in Massachusetts to ban swearing there. He concludes that: “alternate word we would quite possibly use for “stuff”? And a lot? What our great-grandparents considered profanity is, for us, merely colorful. We teach our kids not to use it — but are hardly surprised that they start doing so later.”

So what is a swear word can change quickly – but the law is explicitly designed not to move quickly. You cannot control swearing by banning specific words. You would have to ban something like “general displays of excessive anger” – but I think we can all see how such a law can be misused.

Professor McWhorter also relates a friends story about the “N-word”, which, for those Swedes who haven’t deciphered it yet, is “Nigger”. “Nigger” is seen as incredibly offensive in the US, and must not be used by non-black people, since it is seen as a symbol of extreme oppression*. Yet it is often heard spoken or sung by black people in popular culture, and can then be interpreted as meaning “fellow” or “guy”. At some point in time, this taboo will probably go away, but for now people are sometimes a little unsure how to act. McWhorter says: “a friend of mine, white, recently told me that her boys are attending a mostly black public school and making a lot of friends — but also picking up their way of using the N-word as a marker of fellowship. So, let’s fine them $20 for embracing diversity?”

 

This situation is not unique for the US at all – many language communities have similar rules about words that can only be uttered by specific people.