I am a ‘white linguist’ (by Dr. Cassie Smith-Christmas)

Originally from Virginia in the US, Dr. Cassie Smith-Christmas completed her PhD at the University of Glasgow in 2012 with the thesis titled ‘I’ve lost it here dè a bh’ agam:’  Language Shift, Maintenance, and Code-Switching in a Bilingual Family.  Recently, her research on language revitalisation has taken a Family Language Policy approach, with her monograph Family Language Policy:  Maintaining an Endangered Language in the Home (Palgrave) out earlier this year.

A little more than a month ago, Taté Walker published a piece with the title “3 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Learning an Indigenous Language as a Non-Native.”  As someone who has learned and worked with an indigenous minority language for nine years now, I thought this piece was excellent and eagerly posted it to a few of the social media outlets I help manage.

There were some negative comments from subscribers and then a few days later, I received an e-mail from someone else who helps manage one of the groups, essentially telling me off for posting something so ‘polemical.’  I wrote a quick response back saying that I didn’t think it was polemical and then got another response saying that s/he found the ‘reverse rascism’ in the term ‘white linguist’ ‘offensive.’  I wrote back saying that I didn’t find the term offensive at all.

Because I am a white linguist.

By that I mean I am white, living (and having grown up in) a society that privileges being white.  I am middle-class and was raised in a middle-class home.  I am educated to the level of a PhD.  And I have always lived in ‘highly industrialised’ societies.  In other words, I am very privileged.

(Oh, and I’m a linguist too. Much more of sociolinguist, with a strong emphasis on the socio—anyway, you get the jist).

In fact, for months now, I’ve been bandying around the term ‘white people’ when talking to some friends who also work in indigenous language revitalisation. (The irony of this term in my case is that I am a good few shades darker in terms of skin colour than the indigenous speakers I work with).  So, why bring this up now?  Am I just trying to prove to the internet (and therefore the world) that I was in the right in terms of an e-mail spat with a colleague? Tempting, but no. The reason is this:

Yesterday I was reading more about the atrocities being committed against indigenous peoples in the form of the Dakota pipeline and this quote from LaDonna Bravebull Allard really struck me:

“The U.S. government is wiping out our most important cultural and spiritual areas. And as it erases our footprint from the world, it erases us as a people,” she continued. “These sites must be protected, or our world will end, it is that simple. Our young people have a right to know who they are. They have a right to language, to culture, to tradition. The way they learn these things is through connection to our lands and our history.”

It made me think of how all over the world, indigenous peoples’ voices are unheard. Of course, from my day to day work, I am well aware of this, but the particular phrasing really struck a chord with me. And I know that lots of people like me and other fellow linguists are trying to do something about it; however, as Taté’s article points out, there are some things that should be taken into consideration when going about this and so I’d like to use my experience as a ‘white linguist’ to back up what Taté has said.


My journey began many years ago when I was a starry-eyed undergrad and took a class with Peter Mülhaüsler on endangered languages and decided to pursue a degree in linguistics at undergrad, then an MA.  It was during this second degree that I found ‘my family’ aka the indigenous language-speaking family who have let me research them for the past nine years. This family has shown me more kindness than I have ever deserved— as well as put up with all my many various manglings of their language over the years!.

Fast forward now to four years later. I move to an island that is a ‘heartland’ of this indigenous language.  For the first time, I truly live my day-to-day life in a community where this language is still spoken to some degree, which, for this language, is unfortunately about as good as it’s going to get. My job is to work in language revitalisation here.

And I come up against some frustrations.

And looking back on it, they were because I was a ‘white linguist.’ Keep in mind of course, that the people are actually ‘whiter’ than me and that to most eyes, they and their community are much less ‘indigenous’ than most communities may seem to the casual observer, as in many ways, they are ‘part’ of the dominant culture (I once had an ex-boyfriend, who when I was waxing eloquent about Don Kulick’s Papua New Guinea study, said “Oh, so that’s like what you do—only on normal people.  [The relationship ended for more reasons than that comment btw]).  But I was still not ‘from there.’  And I do not mean that people were being parochial or just didn’t like outsiders—they were lovely to me.  The thing was, though, I was a ‘new speaker’ of the language and it took me a while to understand what that means to people and why it means the way it does.

Some of it probably simply was because it was strange to talk to an outsider in the minority language, as in speaking a minority language in an already-small community, you know most people and will be accustomed to speaking to them either in the minority or the dominant language (or a mixture of both!). However, the conclusion I came to near the end of my time there was that being a new speaker in this context to some extent meant being ‘white,’ in reference to Taté’s discussion of the power asymmetry between indigenous speakers/learners and their white counterparts. In other words, in speaking this particular minority language, I was perceived to be laying claim to a particular sociohistorical trajectory that was far from own personal experiences.  As is the case with probably most, if not all, indigenous languages worldwide, this particular sociohistorical trajectory was one of disenfranchisement, one which is still tangible and which people have experienced viscerally.  I will never forget being rounded on by a local friend from this area for failing to palatalise an ‘l’ in a particular word.  This was strange, as she was (and still is) one of my closest friends. When I thought about it later, we had just been talking about the category ‘incomers’ (non-indigenous people who move to the traditional heartlands, often in search of a better, more peaceful life).  I was saying that I wasn’t a ‘true’ incomer because I spoke the indigenous language fluently and though she didn’t dispute that, I took her criticism to be a way of saying ‘you may speak our language, but you are still different because you haven’t experienced what we’ve experienced.’  And that’s true.  I never, for example, had to ‘board away’ for secondary education because I lived in a place considered too remote to warrant a secondary school, like she had to, for example.  I didn’t grow up at a time when this area was extremely impoverished, like it was when she was young. And I didn’t get judged as poor/uncouth/uneducated/ a country bumpkin for speaking the language, as she had.   And so those realities do make me different.  This does not mean that I was not accepted and encouraged by this friend, or my many other friends in the community, to speak the minority language. I realized, however, that in many ways I had a much more privileged upbringing than them and in terms of speaking ‘their’ language, it is important to remember any language is not just a language in terms of words and sounds and grammar, but part of a history and a place to which, in relative terms, I am a newcomer.


The other thing I came up against was frustrations in terms of language planning efforts.  I would organise things sometimes and would feel that the ‘native’ speakers didn’t take an interest in them and I know that at one point, part of me was screaming inside ‘come on guys, I’m trying to save your language!’  But after a while, I realised I had to look at it from their perspective.  They were already ‘saving’ their language by speaking it to their children and with their friends and relatives.  And those that weren’t probably going to be swayed by a few events (even I had hired a bouncy castle for said event).  And further, having someone from the outside rock up and imply that one needs saving is pretty disempowering, for all the good intentions and potential it has to enact change (akin in many ways to well-meaning volunteers who go build a school in an economically-challenged country, for example).

The point though is that I will never stop speaking this language nor do I for one moment regret my choice to literally make this language my life.  I have felt welcomed and loved in this community of speakers—be they native speakers, new speakers, semi-speakers, lapsed speakers, passive speakers, non-speakers, the whole range—and that is what makes me want to stay forever to do something to arrest this language shift.  And I’ve realised that it’s not about the language, it’s about the people, which was the point that Taté was making and which I feel some people took the wrong way.  It’s about understanding how your experiences have shaped you and the way you are and how other people’s experiences have shaped them and they way they are.  And that language lies at the very heart of this and that when you begin the incredible journey that is learning an indigenous language, you are embarking on something much different from learning a majority language.  For at the end of the day, language revitalisation is not about language (my friend James Costa wrote a great paper on this, by the way), it’s about people.  It’s a larger social project: when people are told that their language is no good, they transfer that feeling onto themselves.  And they are disempowered.  And so revitalising a language is about social empowerment. But as with anything, there is a fine balance between going about this project in a way that empowers people and a way that ultimately disempowers them and it’s important to think about these differences.

In a few months, I will go back to the community in which, looking back on it, I was a ‘white linguist.’  I will still be a ‘white linguist’ of course, but I feel that with this understanding, I can implement more effective language revitalisation strategies and I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to going back there again.

And bringing this back to what lit the fire under me to write this article now—the Dakota pipeline—the time has come for us to raise our voices for indigenous people worldwide, loud and clear. But let us be sure that we raise it in the right way and ensure that people are at the centre of it.


MacCauley, L. (2016). “‘Is That Not Genocide?’ Pipeline Co. Bulldozing Burial Sites Prompts Emergency Motion.”  Published on Common Dreams.  Available at http://www.commondreams.org/news/2016/09/05/not-genocide-pipeline-co-bulldozing-burial-sites-prompts-emergency-motion?utm_campaign=shareaholic&utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=socialnetwork

Costa, J. (2013). ‘Language endangerment and revitalisation as elements of regimes of truth: shifting terminology to shift perspective.’ Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 34(4), 317-331.

Kulick, D. (1992). Language Shift and Cultural Reproduction: Socialization, Self, and Syncretism in a Papua New Guinean Village. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Walker, Taté.  “3 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Learning an Indigenous Language as a Non-Native.”   Published on Everyday Feminism. Available at: http://everydayfeminism.com/2016/07/learn-indigenous-language/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=SocialWarfare



4 thoughts on “I am a ‘white linguist’ (by Dr. Cassie Smith-Christmas)

  1. Fantastic post–as a Western Canadian person starting out with Nehiyawewin Plains Cree, you’ve perfectly distilled some of the hard questions on my mind. I am a ‘visible’ biracial Canadian, but the mainstream privilege that I carry in this context has never been lost on me….

    Liked by 1 person

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