Reflections on Kit Woolard’s Singular and Plural

Kit Woolard received the 2017 Edward Sapir Book Prize for Singular and Plural: Ideologies of Linguistic Authority in 21st Century CataloniaThis prize is awarded to a book that makes the most significant contribution to our understanding of language in society, or the ways in which language mediates historical or contemporary sociocultural processes.

Reading Singular and Plural is a singular opportunity to follow a historical trajectory of the politics of a minority language over three decades of research that couples the study of public language, policy, and practice (to include the media) with compelling accounts of the lived experience of language in the lives of speakers over time. At the same time, this is a book that hews rigorously to an account of process that makes its specific findings relevant to many other contexts. I am absolutely sure that it will become a foundational text for future research in many currents of scholarship focused on bilingual practices and politics in situations of contact and conflict.

Singular and Plural is also distinguished by the delicacy and subtlety of the analysis. Kit Woolard deftly describes competing language ideological frameworks while always paying attention to the way that these conceptually opposing frameworks get entangled in everyday discourse and practice, lending some fuzz to their boundaries or showing how individuals can in fact entertain multiple frames.

This sensitivity to the complexity in the processes of ideological shifts pervades the book and offers insights on the conditions that enable movements—however tentative or partial—away from longstanding, essentialist, nationalistic ideologies that pit authenticity against anonymity and towards project-based authenticities and more plural and flexible conceptions of the relationship between language and legitimate identity. These new frameworks are founded on new forms of “ownership” that mitigate the tensions and linguistic insecurities associated in many contexts, including Corsica where I study. Learning a minority language as an insider can be culturally de-authenticating and outsiders learning the language may be discouraged by the impossibility of achieving authenticity.

Kit Woolard also makes a compelling argument for how this shift runs in parallel with ideological frames linked to globalism and late capitalism. This leads to a shift from competition over criteria of authenticity that abound in the literature towards competition over types and degrees of cosmopolitanism and anonymity as well newly emerging discourses that legitimize Catalan through claims to “rational” advantages and market logics where the “singularity” of Catalan avoids the overtones of exclusionary exclusivity that haunt the notion of the “llengua propia.”

In the book, these shifts are illustrated by masterful analyses of debates over the choice and representation of Catalan literature and culture at the Frankfurt book fair, media parodies of the non-native Catalan of Montilla (the president of the Generalitat), and conflict generated by the selection of a Castilian writer to give the ceremonial opening address at the public festival la Mercé. We also encounter ideological shifts (as well as some lingering continuities) in the linguistic autobiographies of several key research participants Kit worked with since 1987, the majority of whom adopt a psychological chronotope of language identity and practice that aligns with neoliberal discourses of self-actualization and moves away from the dominant sociological/political framings of the past. We also see dramatic shifts in the discourses and responses to matched guise prompts of students Kit worked with in 2007, who, unlike their 1987 counterparts, frame their linguistic practices as a elements of personal and social styles rather than as indices of ethnolinguistic identity. They accept the notion that one can lay claim to a Catalan identity through learning the language, rather than some primordial claim to linguistic blood or soil.

Needless to say for those who know Kit’s work, this complex, nuanced, and analytically sophisticated account of continuity and change in the political landscape of Catalan is rendered in clear and elegant style; it is simply a pleasure to read on every level.

Alexandra Jaffe is a linguistic anthropologist at California State University, Longbeach whose primary fieldsite is the French island of Corsica, where she has studied language shift and revitalization since 1988.

Please send your comments, contributions, news and announcements to SLA Contributing Editors Summerson Carr ([email protected]), Ilana Gershon ([email protected]), and Amelia Tseng ([email protected]).

Cite as: Jaffe, Alexandra. 2018. “Reflections on Kit Woolard’s Singular and Plural.” Anthropology News website, March 7, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.787

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