Sustainable practice in linguistics

By Celeste Rodríguez Louro

What practices in linguistics / language studies are sustainable? What are not?  

Linguistic research rests on the availability of language data. A sizeable number of linguistic projects focus on understanding minoritized languages, which generally lack existing datasets on which to base analyses. For projects where no previous corpora of materials exist, or where the materials are scarce, it is necessary to collect new datasets. Collecting linguistic data requires travel to the field. For some projects, this travel is minimal, generating near-negligible carbon footprint. However, most fieldwork takes place in geographically distant areas and researchers are required to travel to the communities several times to build relationships of trust and ensure the research is successful.

How to improve your field leading towards a more sustainable linguistics? 

One way to reduce the number of times a researcher must be in the field is to spend as many weeks on site as possible at a time. Fieldworkers should also work closely with the community, building the capacity of select community members who may assist with data collection. Additionally, part of the fieldwork may be conducted online.

Linguistic fieldwork is essential. Because of the climate crisis, however, it is important to consider the researcher’s carbon footprint. Research ethics should expand to safeguard people’s confidentiality but also, and importantly, to protect our planet from further harm.

Please consult the following Working Paper for additional information: 

Sprog og bæredygtighed i Roskilde

af Carsten Levisen

Sustainable Linguistics er et nyt nordisk netværk af sprogforskere, hvis mål er at bidrage til udviklingen af en interdisciplinær bæredygtighedsvidenskab og til en fornyelse globale sprogstudiers visioner og praksisser. Kernegruppen består af Eeva Sippola (Helsinki), Haley de Korne (Oslo), Constanze Ackermann-Boström (Umeå/Uppsala) og Carsten Levisen (Roskilde). Sidst i maj holdt netværket en første workshop i Roskilde i Byens Hus. Den lokale komite bestod forskere og studerende fra dansk og kulturmødestudier på Roskilde Universitet.

Når sprogforskere møder hinanden, kender de ofte hinanden på forhånd. De deler måske grundantagelser – eller ved hvilke skoler og traditioner andre forskere kommer fra. Men til denne workshop blev posen rystet på en helt ny og anderledes måde. De udfordringer som verden står over for, er det vi kalder ”wicked problems” – og de kalder på alternative måder at samarbejde på.

Og til denne workshop mødtes tyve nytænkende forskere fra mange forskellige traditioner hinanden for første gang. Erfarne etablerede professorer såvel som studerende med nye idéer lyttede sig ind på hinanden, talte sammen i et fortroligt rum og udviklede nye visioner for fremtidig forskning.

Tre keynotes, Felix Ameka (Leiden), professor i etnolingvistisk vitalitet, Reetta Toivanen (Helsinki), professor i bæredygtighedsvidenskab (”indigenous sustainability”), og lektor i lingvistik, Celeste R. Louro (Western Australia) bidrog med stærke og udfordrende oplæg. Og tre hovedstrømninger – (i) kulturlingvistikken og den sociokulturelle lingvistik, (ii) den økologiske lingvistisk og sprogøkologien, og (iii) postkoloniale sprogstudier i både lingvistisk og litterær aftapning, blev under workshoppen forenet i en ny strøm, der skal tilføre nyt sprogligt liv til den store flod vi kalder interdisciplinær bæredygtighedsvidenskab.


by Adam Głaz

I came to the Roskilde workshop struggling with how to link sustainability (sustainable linguistics?) with what I normally work on, which is linguaculture/languaculture. As I listened through the papers and talked to people, one thing continued to be clear to me, though: language is the axis around which we build our lives, or the symbolic space that harbours them. This takes us to language preservation and maintenance, ethnolinguistic vitality, etc. We need to take care of languages for them to take care of us. But we also need to take care of language, not because it is doing badly but because we need to see what it is doing.

Where does language fit into this triad that, as Celeste said in her talk, is the essence of sustainability: people, nature, and life? It seems it does so through building the symbolic, cultural space for us, which is also the most natural and real space (note the title of a recent book: Meaning, Life and Culture, ed. Helen Bromhead and Zhengdao Ye, Anu Press, 2020). There is no nature-culture dichotomy, it’s natureculture. When we respond to what we call in English the call of nature, we do it in a “cultured” way but that does not stop it from being natural.

Or take the Anglo-Australian This land is mine vs. the Aboriginal Australian This land is me, a distinction that Farzad Sharifian often referred to. It also gave rise to a song by Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly and a 2013 exhibition at QAGOMA. What is language doing here? Is it responding to the worldview that people have of the land, their environs, of the universe and themselves, or is it actually building that worldview space for us, other creatures, and the land? It has the power to build it in different ways: the song has both sides saying They won’t take it away from me: this can come from someone who owns or someone who actually is the land. But it’d be far too simplistic to say that the Anglo-Australian view is “unnatural”, while the Aboriginal view is “natural” – both are languacultures, or ways of making sense of the world, of nature, of “that which is”. Apparent contradiction but basically diversity – that is Felix’s talk: diversity is part and parcel of who we are and of the language(s) that we speak. (Two by-the-ways: first, I wonder how this relates to Celeste’s research on Aboriginal English; second, it certainly makes one think of the unsellable graon is Bislama that Carsten talked about.)

The Australian context is better known to some of you than to me but take one that is closer to where I am. With the war in Ukraine, farming there has become difficult, dangerous, or nearly impossible. Food crisis is looming. And yet, farmers will go out, plough the land and sow the seeds, often under shelling and in bulletproof vests. Is it to make money or to maintain a sense of routine? Yes, there is a gruesome routine to that: “We go out, pass the checkpoints, get to work, drink tea and coffee, put on our vests and go. We fill up (the gas tank) and then go to fields. If there is shelling, we pack up and go to the office“. My understanding is that they do it because of who they are, because mother earth needs attention, because they’re called to do it. It is Сира-Земля Мати (Moist Mother Earth), which you don’t leave in moments of crisis. Again, that’s natureculture, sustained through language that builds a space, a context for us to live in and eventually, in a feedback loop, to sustain us back. Would this be ethnolinguistic vitality in an extended sense? Not only vitality of languages but languages actually breathing life (vita) into ethnoses, peoples, and people? Does it make sense, Eeva, Felix, anyone?

Therefore, I like the sustainability-is-a-mindset view (Celeste’s talk) but to me it’s also a way of life, in and through language that builds our worldview space. From here, back to languages of course – after all, it is thanks to them that this space is so diverse.

What is this site about?

This series of workshops will center on defining theories and methodologies for sustainable linguistics, and for linguistics in support of sustainability. We aim to strengthen Nordic research on the interconnections between sustainability studies and linguistic research.