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.

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.