Sustainability in linguistics: a mirror image?

By Lukas Kosner

After attending the second workshop in Umeå in January, I also had the pleasure of coming to the third and final workshop in the series on linguistics and sustainability, this time focusing on theories and methods. What do we do our research on, how, and for whom? How can our research be sustainable, and how can the field of linguistics contribute to sustainability in the broadest understanding of the word?

To be honest, I struggle a bit with sustainability as a term in linguistics. As many of the presenters pointed out, the concept is not clearly defined yet in our field and the usage of the term depends highly on how one situates it. Furthermore, the Western legacy of the term and its connection to harmful discourses and practices might in many cases make it somewhat difficult to use. It is a contested site of definition. However, if abandonment of the term is not an option as Gavin points out, how should we reclaim it?

Sami showed a prime example of how not to conduct sustainable fieldwork using the metaphor of Indiana Jones. This metaphor based on the first of Indiana Jones movies also illustrates that we need to address sustainability in research on different levels – individually, in relationship to our colleagues, local research participants/co-researchers, and in the larger context of academia.

The presentations given in Helsinki made me think a little bit more about the South Sámi concept of guelmiedahke that Liisa-Rávná Finbog talked about at the previous workshop in Umeå in January. I believe that guelmiedahke, which literally translates as a mirror image, is a useful metaphor that encompasses some of the core issues of sustainability in linguistics. To begin with, on the individual level, we can reflect the image of ourselves in terms of positionality and reflexivity. As Shawn Wilson writes, “an object or thing is not as important as one’s relationships to it”. Looking into this mirror we can ask ourselves: Where am I and what am I in relationship to the issues I’m studying? Why am I interested in the issue? However, a mirror image is not only a static passport photo taken at the beginning of the research process. One of the main properties of a mirror image is its dynamic and ever-changing nature. How often do we check our own image and how do we respond to its potential changes during the research process? Further, in a little more literal sense, a mirror image can also tell us how we take care of ourselves – socially, economically, and with respect to our health. To paraphrase Sami, the high amount of suffering is not a prerequisite of high-quality science.

Liisa explained the meaning of the concept of mirror image as “reciprocity in all your relations” linking research ethics and ethically sustainable relations with research participants/co-researchers. This definition reminds us of the different variations of the Rs (e.g. respect, relevance, reciprocity, and responsibility) in indigenous methodologies also mentioned by Hilde. “As you behave, so it will be,” says a Sámi proverb which according to Maja Dunfjeld points toward the South Sámi concept of guelmiedahke. Based on our own image, what are we mirroring in our fieldwork?

Further, the metaphor can also refer to another important aspect of sustainability in linguistic research, namely our ability to reflect the needs of local communities. Pablo, Gabriela, and others have shown some good examples of how to collaborate with local communities and how the local participants can benefit from the research, not only in terms of results but throughout the process. As Sami pointed out, we need to go beyond ethics to build more sustainable practices in the long run. How can we make possible the continuation of activities that would be beneficial for the stakeholders after the official finalization of our research projects?

The presentation and discussions circling sustainability in linguistics dealt with different dimensions of the concept – ecological, economic, and social.  In my understanding, they had largely in common the call to recognize sustainability in linguistics as dynamic, situational, and responsive people and the context. Are we talking about sustainability in linguistics as the continuous ability to reflect and respond?

When Two Paths Converge: An Ecofeminist’s Journey Through Sustainable Linguistics

By Alejandra Ruiz

I couldn’t contain my excitement as I walked through the doors of the University of Helsinki. The reason? A two-day workshop on Sustainable Linguistics. As an ecofeminist, I was itching to find intersections between these two seemingly unrelated disciplines. How could I marry sustainable linguistics and ecofeminism? Could this be a match made in interdisciplinary heaven? Many people will, perhaps, reject this seemingly strange coupling immediately because the “F-word”—feminism, that is—still raises a few eyebrows. To those people, I say: Fear not! We are not about to embark on a crusade against all things male; that would not be very sustainable after all.

Different Paths, Same Terrain

In any case, and to my pleasant surprise, I was able to identify two recurring themes that share space for discussion within ecofeminism and sustainable linguistic theories and methods. First, the identification and fight against subtle yet omnipresent institutional oppression, and second, the complex landscapes of identity.

Northern Lights and Harsh Realities

As a Costa Rican unfamiliar with minority languages in the Global North, I was taken aback to learn about how the uniqueness of entire languages and speaking communities is neglected in the face of power and privilege in places such as Greenland and Sweden. Stories of systematic discrimination—whether it was Naja Trondhjem’s critique calling out the Danish language teaching methods and educational material being imposed on Kalaallisut, or Pascale Wehbe’s research on the unfair overgeneralization of Swedish monolingual tests and norms for bilingual Arabic-Swedish speaking children in Sweden—were eye-openers. The takeaway? The struggle for ethical language education is universal, transcending the imaginary divisions of ‘Global South’ and ‘Global North.’

Change-makers in Action

But here’s the silver lining—the workshop wasn’t just an exposé of grim realities. It also spotlighted innovators like Minna Maijala and Salla-Riikka Kuusalu, who shared compelling strategies for sustainable language teaching through transformation-oriented ESD. While integrating these techniques into mainstream politics is a challenging task, as they say, “change starts with one good example.” Precisely, the fact that the workshop became an outlet for inspiring success stories that may take us in the direction of a liveable and harmonious diversity was one of its most valuable aspects. Just as in ecofeminism, sustainability deals with issues of agency and autonomy for minority groups. Hats off to Pablo Fuentes, Gabriela Pérez Báez, and Sami Honkasalo, whose work helps pave the way for environmentally responsible linguistic methods that, although not perfect, uplift rather than extract. They showed a way to create space for the invigoration of language in its own natural setting through self-documentation and community integration, favouring processes of self-knowledge and empowerment, particularly if we make sure to leave the knowledge in the community for its preservation and continuation.

Unpacking Identity

The topic of identity was a pervasive, though often unspoken, theme throughout the workshop. It was explicitly brought up by Iryna Ushchapovska and subtly touched upon in various discussions on autonomy, the complex dynamics of hospitable conviviality across species, and debates on individual versus collective identities within the context of ethno and eco linguistics. This focus led me to ponder existential questions: What defines my identity? Am I shaped by my inherent traits or by my environment? What role do I play in creating, documenting, or preserving knowledge? At this juncture, the questions raised by Judith Purkarthofer resonated strongly: “Where am I? Who am I? What interests me, and why? Am I viewed as a stranger? How am I defined by age and gender?” Furthermore, as someone who facilitates language analysis, what responsibilities do I hold towards the knowledge experts and their own identities? Can I remove myself from the institutional hierarchies and power dynamics of global academic ethics to serve the community ethically during fieldwork? Should identities be concealed for safety reasons, or would that erasure itself be a form of violence (as Tatjana Schnellinger and Susanne Mohr questioned)?. Is there a universal answer to all this? These lines of inquiry that resonate with larger discourses within sustainability and ecofeminism alike are not just philosophical musings; they demand our critical engagement as we navigate the complex ethics of theory, fieldwork, and community involvement.

And We Continue Ahead

Despite the unanswered questions, the workshop left me with an invigorating sense of “response-ability,” to borrow a term from Gavin Lamb. There was, undoubtedly, a collective will to engage with these questions and many others that arise in the future, driven by what Carsten Levisen described as “an aspirational sense that things can be better.”

So, whether you’re a linguist, an ecofeminist, both, or someone curious about how sustainability intersects with issues of identity, agency, and oppression or dominance, let’s continue to ask the tough questions, explore, and disrupt. After all, the journey to a better future begins with the steps we are willing to take today.