Last Speakers

This project is a study of the social construction of so-called “last speakers” in contexts of language endangerment and revitalization; that is, it is a study of situations where, by consensus, only one speaker is considered as having knowledge of a language. Focusing on six indigenous languages in Latin America, the project seeks to study the processes of sociolinguistic investment through which certain persons become imbued with “last speakerhood”, the role that such individuals play in indigenous communitarian projects of cultural and linguistic revitalization, as well as in mourning linguistic and cultural loss. The project seeks to understand the constitution of “last speakers” across multiple scales (Carr and Lempert 2016) tracing not only the emergence of linguistic isolation though processes of language shift in local face-to-face communities, but also interrogating the role of media and (non)governmental organizations in the constitution of “last speakers”.

This project grows out of my long-term work with Dora Manchado, the ‘last speaker’ of Tehuelche (TEH), a Chonan language of Patagonia. It was in my work on language documentation and revitalization with her (Domingo and Manchado 2018) that I was struck by the paradoxes and contradictions that emerge with the figure of the ‘last speaker’. Moving away from empirical research into language documentation and applied work on revitalization, this project seeks to understand the social construction of ‘last speakers’ in comparative perspective.

Though language shift has occurred throughout human history (Nichols 1992), it is now occurring at a very high rate (Evans 2010; Nettle and Romaine 2000). Documentation of endangered languages is of high importance for minority communities, but also for linguists who attempt to grapple with the full range of language diversity in formulating a general theory of language. The endangered language issue (beginning with Hale et al. 1992)has brought about substantial shifts in the configuration of the discipline, offering the possibility of “rehumanizing linguistics” (Dobrin and Berson 2011)as linguists become increasingly entangled in the lives of local languages and their speakers. Nevertheless, discourses and practices surrounding language endangerment form complex actor-networks (Latour 2009) involving indigenous and minority activists, international organizations, funding institutions, national, political and institutional orders, the media and the greater public, each of whom may have a different agenda (Dobrin, Nathan, and Bond 2007). Financial, symbolic, and political strategies often conspire to “hypervalue” local indigenous languages (Hill 2002), metaphorize language as biological through discourses of linguistic “vitality” and “death” (Farfán and Ramallo 2010) and figure linguistic precarity in catastrophist terms (Muehlmann 2012; Moore 2006). 

Paradoxically, increased ‘endangeredness’ may become a selling point; the fewer speakers a language has the more urgent the need for documentation and revitalization efforts (Grenoble 2013; Himmelmann 2008) (cf. the paradigm of “salvage linguistics” [Craig 1998]). Work on endangered languages is often carried out with “semispeakers” who do not use the language on a daily basis (Dorian 2014 [1977]; Bert and Grinevald 2010). But it is perhaps “last speakers” (Evans 2001, Suslak 2011) who are most emblematic of the social drama of language death,figuring an imaginary of linguistic and social isolation of a ‘heritage’-imbued indigenous subject for a ‘modern’spectatorship that reaches far beyond local ethnolinguistic communities. Indeed, “last speakers” are routinelytransformed into icons of their language and culture: Ishi (Tomkins 1979), seen as “the last speaker of Yahi”, or T. Udaina (Vuletić 2013), “the last speaker of Dalmatian”, or the figure of T. Esenç (Özsoy 2016), on “the last speaker of Oubykh”.

Three lines of question inform my research:

(1) The paradox of the last speaker consists in the tension between a conceptualization of language as an inherently dialogic medium and an understanding of language or linguistic competence as an inalienable property of individuals. How do “last speakers” become mobilized as actual speakers under sociolinguistic conditions defined precisely by their linguistic isolation? What are the range of contexts in which the language is employed? Which speech acts ‘count’ as events of using the indigenous language and which are ideologically ‘erased’ from view (Irvine and Gal 2000)? This line of questioning empirically orients us toward the ritualization of events of speaking, and the role of linguists and other language experts in negotiating performances of language competence.

(2) Last speakers are defined not only by an embodied linguistic competence but also, structurally, by its absence in the rest of the members of the communities of which they are a part. How do asymmetries of linguistic competence figure a division of ethnolinguistic labor within indigenous communities? Here we are interested in how the linguistic competence of a particular individual is discursively and symbolically mobilized within a community (e.g., pedagogical practices in which intergenerational language transmission is performed, circulations of visual and audio recordings of the “last speaker”). We will similarly be concerned with how the social construction of “last speakers” is constitutive of a symbolic economy of linguistic competence within local indigenous language communities.

(3) Finally, the project looks comparatively at how the recognition of certain individuals as authorized “last speakers” becomes reified across multiple scales and is refracted through multiple institutionally-anchored representational practices. How do linguists, government bureaucrats, media organizations, etc. quantify and, ultimately, locate linguistic competence in specific individuals and across local communities? How does the construction of “last speakers” as objects of knowledge production and of popular media discourse articulate with a Western mythos of modernity and indigeneity?