After “Forging Linguistic Identities: Language in the Nation, the Region and the World”

The conference, Forging Linguistic Identities, is now over (it was March 16-18), and two of our bloggers who presented at the conference, Stanley Porter and Hughson Ong, have returned home—having been part of an absolutely great sociolinguistics conference.

This conference was one of the most enjoyable conferences I have ever had the pleasure of attending and at which I have presented a paper. There was none of the petty sniping or defending of unnecessary territory or theological condescension or unjustified arrogance or plain old rudeness and trivialness that is often found at biblical studies conferences. One of the reasons for this, I think, is the narrowness of the field of biblical studies. We have so many people over so many centuries studying the same relatively small corpus who are unwilling to try innovative ways to discover new insights. Most biblical scholars are content to be pedestrian in their approaches and matter of fact in their findings. (I hesitate to say this, but I think that there are other fields where this is also the case.)

This is not the case in sociolinguistics, or at least at this sociolinguistics conference. The field is much broader—and potentially broader still, as Hughson, Jonathan Watt, and I, along with one presenter on St. Patrick from the fifth century, were the only ones who ventured into the ancient world. There are numerous methodological approaches to be tried and new and interesting questions to be asked. I thoroughly enjoyed engaging with the papers in each of the sections. To be honest, this is about the only conference I can remember where I had no trouble staying attentive in every single paper over the entire two days!

The organizers of the conference did a great job of assembling a range of interesting speakers on a wide range of topics. The participants ranged from PhD students to experienced senior professors, with the established scholars having been educated at many of the finest linguistics and related departments in North America (e.g. Ohio State, Cornell, Yale, Indiana, SUNY Buffalo, New Mexico, Georgetown, among others), with the students also studying at a wide range of institutions.

The session in which Jonathan, Hughson, and I presented on The Languages of First-Century Palestine went very well. Hughson introduced methodological questions regarding the multilingualism of first-century Palestine. He discussed the history of research into this topic, how the topic has been treated—either historically or, more recently, sociolinguistically, and the two major sociolinguistic approaches: language and social factors. He dealt first with social factors—the notion of “speech community” and its linguistic repertoire. He then discussed languages in relation to social domain and diglossia, expanding the definition from Charles Ferguson’s to one that crosses varieties and introducing a domain concept that differentiates between “fixed” and “variable” language domains. Then he treated the people involved and the types of bilinguals, so as to assess whether the residents of the speech community would have had the ability to speak the various languages.

Jonathan treated Semitic language resources in first-century Palestine, especially important in light of the renewed interest in discussing the active use of Hebrew. Jonathan began by talking about the function of Aramaic/Hebrew (he contends that one cannot distinguish which is being used in much of the evidence) and the history of the relationship between the two languages. He then discussed how these two linguistic codes had contact with each other within the stable multilingual (active trilingual) environment of the area, examining domains of use. He concluded with a discussion of how Semitic languages influenced Jewish identity, especially how Hebrew had ideological value.

I tried to do for Greek what Jonathan had done for the Semitic languages, using diachronic and synchronic approaches. After noting the history of recent discussion of the multilingualism of first-century Palestine (witnessing its waves and shifting patterns), I discussed the diachronic development of Greek in the eastern Mediterranean from the pre-Greek period (which was in the second millennium BC) through the Greek, Alexandrian, Roman, Herodian, and then Roman periods. My point was that there was a long history of Greek being maintained as an active language in Palestine. The synchronic evidence dealt with four bodies of evidence: Greek within the Roman empire in light of ancient Jewish linguistic adaptability; literary evidence including the Greek Bible in both testaments; documentary evidence including P.Yadin 52, a Greek letter by one involved in the second Jewish revolt (the revolt mandated use of Hebrew) explaining why they used Greek and could not use Hebrew; and the epigraphic evidence, recognizing the importance of multilingual inscriptions, but concentrating upon three unilingual ones. We received some excellent questions, including some by a classicist in attendance.

There were other fine papers (besides ours, of course). I particularly enjoyed Cathy Bodin’s on the Latin of St. Patrick of Ireland (seasonally appropriate as his day had just been celebrated), in which she noted many of the phonological and grammatical deviations of his Latin from classical norms. I also enjoyed hearing the comments of the keynote speaker, Jennifer Leeman, who has been involved in the US census and talked about some of its limitations regarding gathering non-English language information. Anyone who has failed to note the political side of language and linguistics needed to hear this interesting paper. Heidi Brown’s paper on Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt and his battle with identity and language because of World War II offered a sobering account of the complexity of human language. Now that I am writing about the various papers, it is hard to quit. There were papers on dance as semiotic system, French, Spanish, Latin, Italian, Arabic, Icelandic, Chinese, UNESCO language retention programs, code-switching, diglossia, multilingualism, language facilitation, language policy, language ideology, discourse analysis, and others.

The organizers of the conference did a phenomenal job, including the great dinner after the keynote address. This conference provides a model for how conferences should be organized and run.

— Stanley E. Porter

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