Universiteit Leiden

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Language and belonging in the 21st century

What does it take to truly be ‘one of us’ and what role does language play in this process? In short, what is the difference between ‘a language we understand’ and ‘our language’? This is the question Professor Terkourafi will address in her inaugural lecture on Friday 20 April.

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it

Language does not just carry information about the world around us. Our use of language also conveys information about who we are and how we see our place in the world. It does that through subtle choices about how to say what we want to say. Those choices can be imperceptible and make little difference to what we are saying. But to those with a similar upbringing as ourselves, they can convey – without encoding it – a sense that we are alike, that we are part of the same group (linguistically) and therefore that we can be expected to be like them in other ways as well.

The pragmatics of non-standard varieties

Professor Terkourafi will make this argument on the basis of examples from Cypriot Greek the variety of Greek spoken on the island of Cyprus. Her research on Cypriot Greek over the past two decades has provided the first analyses of that variety within modern theories of linguistic pragmatics – the field of linguistics that deals with how utterances communicate more than the sum of their words and the role of speakers and listeners in this process – and has served to expand the scope of pragmatic theories beyond the standard varieties of languages usually investigated.

This is important because the social meaning of linguistic expressions in non-standard language varieties often depends precisely on the non-standard nature of the variety and emerges in contradistinction to their meaning in the standard variety. As a result, research on the pragmatics of non-standard varieties has a lot to teach us about aspects of meaning that linguistic expressions carry above and beyond what they mean (semantically) and what speakers use them for (pragmatically).

Through a research agenda that has, over the years, expanded to other languages, such as English and Spanish, and more recently Dutch and Japanese, Professor Terkourafi is interested in how speakers’ choices in daily encounters reveal specific socio-cultural understandings which speakers themselves take for granted. Yet, it is the difference in such ‘taken for granted’ understandings between speakers from different (national, ethnic, and so on) backgrounds that also makes the difference between ‘a language we understand’ and ‘our language’. Professor Terkourafi’s research aims to both illustrate these differences and provide a theoretical explanation for them.

Linguistic tolerance

In her speech, she highlights the importance of these questions in the current context of globalization, widespread societal multilingualism and renewed discussions of national belonging. Can a multilingual speaker develop the linguistic reflexes necessary to pass as a native speaker in all of her languages and what is the effect of our ability to handle multiple languages simultaneously on feelings of belonging? If language is a home, is a person with many homes homeless?

These are some of the big questions of the field of sociolinguistics as it enters the second half of its first century. We have come a long way from the urban dialectology studies of the late nineteen fifties and sixties, which served to establish the field. We can help create yet more sophisticated understandings of languages, their histories of contact and change, their complex intertwining with authority and power, as well as with emotions and affect. In our increasingly interconnected world, people can be and are increasingly sensitized to issues of race and religion, and the necessity of racial and religious tolerance. Understanding linguistic tolerance and how to achieve this as a social and individual ideal without giving up on the healthy psychological anchoring of ‘our language’ is our next big challenge.

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