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The Encyclopedia of Migrants

Gudrun Ledegen & Thomas Vetier

University Professor in sociolinguistics and language sciences & PhD student in sociolinguistics and language sciences, PREFics, Université Rennes 2, Rennes

How can you tackle an encyclopaedic project such as this one without addressing question(s) around “borders”? Because “borders” are never more efficiently (re)produced than when they are expressed in words, named and appreciated as a verbal entity, we have to understand how effectively borders are (re)produced in discourse in order to comprehend what is at stake in the world around us and in this project which, to some extent, is participating for better or for worse in the discussion. But which border are we referring to here? In common usage, “border” means the limits of a territory and of a state’s reach, but as urban socio-linguists, we will use it with reference to discourse (its presence in verbal communication) and space (its presence within space, limits, borders), especially within the urban environment.

This article aims to progressively interrogate its subject from three angles: the creation of “borders” and their expression in words; the creation of otherness, minorities and urban exclusion; and finally, developments in our understanding of “linguistic borders” in language sciences.

“From its earliest usage up to the present day, the word border has had a military signification, whether we mean it to or not,” (FOUCHER, 1986). As a relatively recent concept within history dating back to the 14th century, “borders” replaced territories’ limits, which had previously been seen as porous edges. This semantic change is now evident in the construction of nation states (in Europe, at least) and their varying international relations in which the border can be a source of rapprochement or a line of strict separation. Of course, the social history of borders’ construction is far more complex than that, and always developing, despite the widespread belief that they are quite stable. It is within their framework that people have to move.

The Encyclopedia of migrants project is taking place in Europe, and to be more precise in the European Union, given the countries involved. Here, the question of borders is plural and complex (looking, again, from a specifically contemporary point of view) as we find both an “intra-union” line within which the union is drawn up and shares, and an “extra-union” line separating the union off. How mobile people are more or less depends on whether they are one of the intras or extras, and to this we must add complex international agreements, questions over freedom of movement within the Schengen zone and so on. This border which facilitates or annihilates migration therefore plays a role in the (il)legitimisation of how people move. The border therefore goes beyond being an observable phenomenon (as a natural or constructed barrier) to a verbal entity which contributes to borders’ own influence and standing.

Before we look at how languages come into contact with one another, let’s consider how a project like this articulates with reflections round the processes of urbanisation perceived in urban socio-linguistics. These occur particularly through a so-called “extra-modern” urban culture in which tensions between social groups belonging to a single territory are expressed. By aggregating personal stories from eight European cities, this project aims to witness the social, political, historic realities of urban life as they are expressed in discourse (and therefore hold up a mirror to realities on a wider scale).

If we consider the city as a place where distinct and distinctive discourses around identity form, in which people mark themselves and others out, urban socio-linguistics allow us to look at the conditions in which everyday category-based analyses are produced which, as their name suggests, attest to an apprehension of others which centres around the most immediately obvious categories for analysis such as skin colour or accent. When they correlate with the spatial layout of the city, these categorisations create urbanised identity norms, which are experienced and/or perceived as legitimate (or not) within the spaces of segregated towns. The city is a particular space when it comes to movement and otherness, and therefore it includes limits (differentiation) and borders (identification) which make for unequal (but mobile) social relationships. “The more space is urbanised, the more the various levels of identity are ruptured: relationships with the other and the relationship with the other’s way of speaking erase intra-urban limits and borders. Similarly, discourse about the other, or others’ language or linguistic practice, itself becomes other by default, or the discourse about space becomes the territory,” (BULOT, 2009:68). In this context, asylum seekers, for example, find themselves physically, legally and discursively thrown out to the outer limits, the borders, of the city. They are made an invisible part of public space, deprived of contact in the “host” territory.

From our point of view, questions around socio-linguistic practices and representations can be representative of what is referred in French urban socio-linguistics as “migrance”, or hegemonic discourse about imposed or chosen movement. Not being in total command of the norms in force can be a source of exclusion or stigmatisation by the majority class as part of a dynamic which dominates and hierarchizes languages. This stigmatisation arises from the perceived difference between the usages of a person or group of people and that which is considered the norm shared by the reference community. Here, language is a vector for attitudes and representations which centres on the person who is using it, and often on those who use it “badly”. Consciously or unconsciously, this categorisation of language includes a social categorisation of the individual. This leads to socio-linguistic practice which does not belong to the reference social group being undervalued and pushed back to the margins, or borders. From the most mundane, even anodyne, of discourse to the most excluding, the undervaluation seen here is an exclusionary process which rejects and which aims to make a person or group of people inferior.

Let’s return to the specific issue of the linguistic border in language sciences, which is a question of how to define the border between two languages.

Given that contact between languages has always created new languages, we have to wonder at what point speakers consider that the evolution has finished. Let’s use as a distant example French, which came about through a mix of Gallo-Roman dialects and the vulgar Latin used by Celt-speaking Gauls, with a further Germanic contribution. Another example is English, which comes from a mix of Low German and Scandinavian dialects, with French lexical influences and borrowings from scientific Latin (WALTER, 1988). At what moment was the new language created identified as such?

In the 20th century, dialect studies considered borders between dialects as linguistic realities, which could be viewed on maps which highlighted lines of separation (isoglosses) between different ways of speaking (which is just what the French Atlas Linguistiques did). They positioned languages and dialects as complete, “watertight” entities, without recognising linguistic variation and contact between languages.

Linguistic studies around language contact made these borders more permeable and blurred. To give one example, in code switching situations (where several languages are used within a single interaction), “floating” transcriptions reveal the plural interpretations we can make of a phrase:

{il faut voir c’est quoi [“we’ll have to see what it is”, written in standard French]
{i fo vwar sé kwa [the same phrase, in non-standard French]

The [i] of the second interpretation could belong to French as a pronunciation of il as [i] like one might hear in ordinary French, or in the creole of Réunion Island, where it becomes part of the verb. This double interpretation emerges as much in the vocabulary as it does in grammar and pronunciation (LEDEGEN & RICHARD, 2007). This example might appear to be specific to French creoles at first sight, as these can be very linguistically similar to standard French (especially in terms of vocabulary), but cases of the same phenomenon are much more common than previously thought and do not only occur between closely related languages. A collection of text messages written by deaf Reunionnais transcribers show the same type of analyses, which become multiple because so many interpretations are possible:

mwa vai bien. et toi fai koi ? (text message, translates as “I’m OK. What are you up to?”)
moi vais bien. {et toi fais quoi ? (spoken French)
{et toi fai koi ? (Reunionnais creole)
{toi quoi faire ? (French sign language)
{et toi fais quoi ? (French used as a second language)

This floating transcription shows that “et toi fai koi ?” can be read as an example of ordinary spoken French as well as abridged text speak (“(tu) fais quoi”); it could also be said to be Reunionnais creole; or it could be interpreted as French sign language because of the transposition of French pronoun toi (you) into FSL, followed by the interrogative sign ‘quoi’ (what) and the sign for ‘faire’ (do); and a final hypothesis could be based on the way non-native speakers often tend to use the French language.

This multiple interpretation shows the way different socio-linguistic practices overlap, and how the interlocutor can choose to link them up or set them apart. She can soften or toughen the limits of mutual understanding with her interlocutor — think of the example of the Serbo-Croat language, or how, in French, speakers who say “comme ceci” or “comme cela” (both mean “like this”) can be seen as different or not depending on whether their interlocutor judges there to be a language barrier or whether the space between them is suppler and closer.

Socio-linguistics studies the experiences and choices made by communicators, establishing (or not) the borders between different social language practices through effective an verbalisation in epilinguistic discourses (discourses about language), or through a particular attitude which represents these practices. Users of language “are ‘objectively’ faced with the existence of borders at the same moment as they accentuate them, erase them, displace them, redefine them, appropriate them and deny them — in other words, they modify and re-categorise them continually, thereby contributing to their form and meaning in relation to explicit or implicit intentions which guide how they behave in the moment.” (NICOLAÏ & PLOOG, 2013: 283).