Presenters: Professor John Edwards
Chair: Dr Huw Lewis
Location: Aberystwyth University, Main Hall, International Politics Building

This seminar will consider why do some languages become powerful, and others not? They say that ‘knowledge is power’ – is it the case, then, that access to ‘big’ languages is empowering? And what of ‘small’ or threatened languages: can their speakers be ‘empowered’, particularly in a global context where the scope and penetration of English is ever-growing?

Since society has never distributed its blessings fairly or equitably, it is no surprise that manifestations of linguistic access and recognition have historically favoured some groups more than others. ‘Only before God and the linguist,’ said Bill Mackey, the Canadian specialist in bilingualism, ‘are all languages equal.’ He elaborated his pithy observation by noting that ‘everyone knows that you can go further with some languages than you can with others.’ This rather Orwellian qualification of equality has been widely accepted for a very long time, even within liberal cloisters: John Stuart Mill’s approval of ethnolinguistic and nationalist aspiration did not prevent him from observing that the ‘absorption’ of the Basques and Bretons by France, or the enfolding of the Welsh and the Scots within the ‘British nation’ would be highly desirable consummations. But the views of Mackey and Mill are not identical. Ideas have altered, and earlier conceptions (shared, perhaps, by Mill) that some languages are, quite simply, the vehicles of ‘backward’ cultures whose demise is a necessary element of human progress have given way to contemporary ones that make no comparative judgements about intrinsic linguistic worth – that maintain, indeed, that any such assessments are scientifically baseless. In terms of power, then, we might say that linguistic clout (or the lack of it) is now seen to rest upon social bases: it is not really a matter of language at all.

But all this constitutes only two acts in a continuing drama. In the most recent scenes, there is increased interest in altering those social influences that elevate some languages (and cultures) and suppress others. This interest is fuelled, above all, by a perception that these inequalities are unfair, and the intervention which it suggests involves the realignment or redistribution of sociocultural and sociolinguistic resources. From general considerations of power, we move towards matters of empowerment.

From 14:00 – 15:00: Nibbles and Drinks will be provided if you want to network.

All are welcome!!!