Tag Archives: terminology

“MEI,” “MIEL,” or “MINEL” languages?

As the proposal for an International Decade of Indigenous Languages moves toward consideration by the UN General Assembly,1 I’d like to return to an old discussion about ways of referring to a broader set of languages – including but not limited to those called indigenous – that in some ways face similar challenges. I’ve long felt this could be useful in discussing equitable approaches to language policies and multilingual planning.

Overlapping categories

I first looked at this issue in the early 2000s, seeking a way to refer to the many languages that are not dominant in terms of numbers of speakers, or advantages in policy or technology development. One encounters several different terms used to describe one or another grouping of these languages depending on the context, but none of them really applied so broadly. So an idea I had was to blend some of the main ones into an acronym.

An early try was “MINEL,” originally for “MINority & Endangered Languages.” It was immediately apparent that MINEL could be expanded in more than one way, such as Minority, Indigenous, National, Endangered, and Local.2 I actually created a Yahoogroup by that name in 2005,3 where for a brief while I reposted news about languages in this super-category.

There are other possible formulations, such as MIEL and MEI, which I’ll get to below. but first here are the elements of MINEL, elaborated:

M – minoritized

Regional Library of Bizkaia, Bilbao. Photo: Mary Linn, Smithsonian (Sustaining Minoritized Languages in Europe)

“Minoritized” is not a term I used originally, but it absolutely fits in this space. With specific reference to languages, while minority properly refers to a numerical relationship (fewer speakers than a majority), minoritized refers more to a power relationship (disadvantaged status, often as a result of prejudices and/or intentional policy). Many, but not all minoritized languages are minority languages, and vice-versa, but the terms are not equivalent.

I – indigenous

Indigenous languages” may be understood more narrowly as languages of indigenous peoples (a category that has a more or less precise definition), or more broadly as a language native to a particular region (that is still used there and has not been imposed elsewhere). I discussed these takes in relation to African languages on my other blog. Regardless of which definition is used, “indigenous” also fits in this space.

N – national

National languages” is another term that can be understood in more than one way. I meant it more in the sense of a language of a nation that is not also an official language – a usage common in Africa (some posts on my other blog include background). National languages in this sense, even when defined in statute, do not necessarily enjoy key benefits (official use in government and education, resources, etc.), and may actually be somewhat minoritized (“somewhat” in the sense that they may be promoted in a small number of programs such as adult literacy, so not entirely ignored). So understood this way, “national” seems to fit.

E – endangered

Endangered languages,” which are languages perceived to be in the process of declining in use to where they are not being transmitted to the new generation and may not survive, definitely belong in this space. It is estimated per various sources that there are as many as 3000 endangered languages.

Based on the numbers involved, plus the fact that potential extinctions are at issue, endangered languages have been the subject of various initiatives.4

L – local (etc.)

Local languages” is an expression commonly used, which in many contexts implies a limited range of use and maybe even a lesser status. I personally see a problem with how it is sometimes used, but include it as a useful way to underscore the intent of the acronym (not widespread).

“L” might also be considered to stand for languages that are “local” in the sense of being less used, spoken, taught, and resourced, per a series of acronyms discussed in the previous post on this blog: LUL, LWUL, LWSL, LCTL, LWULT, LWSLWT, and LRL.

Other fomulations: MIEL & MEI

When I first considered MINEL as an acronym, another option on the table was “MIEL,” leaving out the N for national. The latter is a bit problematic in this context as most people think of “national language” in the other of its main definitions, a single language used nationwide (perhaps quasi-officially). Although this is a sweet acronym, I opted to include the N in respect for how many African countries use the term national to describe many of their indigenously spoken languages.

A sparer but still beautiful acronym, “MEI,” would leave out L for local languages (an amorphous designation), as well as the N. Minoritized, endangered, and indigenous languages can be considered the categories needing most attention.

The purpose of all of this is to suggest a more broadly inclusive designation for policy and action to address challenges common to a great many of the world’s non-dominant languages, however they may be more narrowly categorized.


Notes:
1. UN General Assembly, 74th session, Third Committee, Agenda item 67 (a) Rights of indigenous peoples: rights of indigenous peoples (A/C.3/74/L.19/Rev.1), 6 Nov. 2019, #24.
2. Several other ideas occurred at that time, such as M for “maternal language” (per International Mother Language Day) and E for “ethnic language” (which I encountered in another context). Neither of these really work in this context.
3. The MINEL Yahoo Group will disappear on 14 Dec. 2019 per Yahoo’s decision to eliminate of group content. The messages will be saved.
4. Of the various initiatives and funds for endangered languages, I’ll just mention the Foundation for Endangered Languages, which is holding its 23rd conference in Sydney next month (13-16 Dec. 2019).

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LUL’d awake

Researching some details for a forthcoming post, I ran across a number of acronyms, several of which are used mainly in Europe, describing languages disadvantaged in terms of numbers of speakers (often referred to as minority languages), profile in education, status (official and social), and resources to take advantage of technology.

EBLUL logoThe best known of the acronyms for description of the size and status of languages probably is “LUL” for “lesser-used language.” It is, for example, part of the name of the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages, a once prominent NGO in language policy and planning.

A variant of LUL is “LWUL” – less widely-used language” – and an acronym similar to the latter is “LWSL” – “less widely spoken language.” Without having seen an explanation as such, one imagines the “less widely” formulation is in recognition that a language might actually be “more used” among a small population, meaning LUL would not be completely accurate.1

None of these – LUL, LWUL, or LWSL – appear to be commonly used, even though they all are near to the opposite of “LWC” – language of wider communication – which is a term used in discussions of language documentation and planning.

In fact, the lack of a globally accepted way to refer to languages that aren’t LWCs was part of how I got interested in this topic. I actually used LWSL in an early (2008) posting on this blog and also proposed my own coinage,  about which I will write in a following post.

In any event, there are at least three other acronyms, two of which are based on the above, which bring in the notion of how commonly taught the languages are. Aside from the first one listed below, the others do not appear to be … widely used:2

  • LCTLless commonly taught language. This term and its acronym are accepted in academia, although primarily in the US, but have an explicit reference to the context of second language instruction. That context will shift depending on who is employing the term/acronym, even well outside what might be considered an LUL (Mandarin Chinese, a language with over a billion speakers, is among the LCTLs in the US).
  • LWULT – less widely used, less taught,3 or least widely used, least taught.4 Some sources indicate that this applies specifically to EU “Community languages,” i.e. official languages of EU member states.5 But at least one source widens the scope to include regional minority and migrant languages.6
  • LWSLWT – less widely spoken, less widely taught. Not clear how current this is. I found only one instance of this acronym,7 but also an example of the expanded term.8 Not clear if this is a cognate of LWULT, or if there is a different nuance in meaning.

As should be readily apparent, the latter two combine LCTL with some aspect of LUL/LWUL/LWSL.

Since all of these acronyms spell out terms beginning with “less,” I should add another to the list: “LRL” – “less-resourced language.”9 This term, and more rarely the acronym,10 is used at the intersection of languages and information and communication technology to refer to a small level of published and digital materials that could be used to develop language technologies for them. (Like LCTL, its use is not primarily in Europe.)

LRLs don’t correspond neatly with LULs. Factors like history, income level, status, and effects of language policies mean some relatively widely spoken languages are LRLs, and some relatively “small” languages are well resourced.

So there you have it – a set of seven  acronyms beginning with “L” for terms describing at least three largely overlapping groupings of languages: relatively small in numbers of speakers, not frequently taught in schools, and not having much in print or digital format. Issues of status – lack of prestige and/or official role – may be (but are not always) crosscutting factors in these.


Notes:

1. However, the French translation of EBLUL – Bureau Européen des langues moins répandues (and not moins utilisées)- already puts the emphasis on how “less widespread” these languages are.
2. The following presentation slides were helpful in identifying acronyms featured in this post: Luciana Oliveiri, “Language policies at European universities for less widely spoken and less widely taught languages,” 6 June 2012 (via Issuu.com)
3. Three sources, for example, all expand it this way: Oliveiri (op cit); a Wikipedia article (accessed 24 Nov. 2019) mentioning the EU Lingua program that used LWULT; and the AcronymFinder.com page on the acronym.
4. European Community Law, Kluwer Law International B.V., 1995, page 285.
5. Wikipedia (op cit) and European Community Law (op cit)
6. European Commission, Comenius School Partnerships, handbook for schools, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 2008, page 8.
7. Oliveiri (op cit)
8. Erich Prunč, “Priests, princes, and pariahs: Constructing the professional field of translation,” in M. Wolf & A. Fukari, eds., Constructing a Sociology of Translation, John Benjamins, 2007,  page 45.
9. Another formulation is “under-resourced languages.” There was at one point criticism of these terms analogous to those that moved us away from referring to “less developed” and especially “under-developed” countries, but I’m not sure where that is now – LRL still seems to be current in the field of language technology.
10. See for example at: Zygmunt Vetulani, ed., Human Language Technology. Challenges for Computer Science and Linguistics, Springer, 2011,  page vi; and a 2017 CFP, “Language Technology for Less Resourced Languages (LT-LRL) 2017 Under 8th Language & Technology Conference.”

 

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Updated Renewables & Burnables Venn diagram

In a post last year entitled “Reframing ‘renewable energy’ & ‘bioenergy’” I introduced several diagrams, including a simple Venn depiction of how various forms of bioenergy are found in the overlap of “renewables” and what is burned or combusted to release energy. I’ve made a few minor changes to that diagram (detailed at the end of this post), and present the updated version below.

Why this Venn?

As I contended in my post last year, “renewable energy” is a problematic concept in that it is kind of a catch-all for several forms of non-fossil fuels, and definitions of it vary. A particular problem is the common opposition of “renewable” and “fossil,” which obscures the “double life” of bioenergy sources (both “renewable” in most definitions, and burned or combusted like fossil fuels but unlike other renewables, dubbed here “clean energy”).

The two operant categories at this level of analysis would then be “renewable” and “burnable/combustible” (the latter recognizing that some bioenergy forms like wood are burned with minimal processing, while others such as biofuels are processed for combustion). These are simply and appropriately representable in a Venn diagram.

Ideally this diagram, or a more professional image conveying the same information, can help encourage more clarity in reports on or discussions of energy sources. In particular, it is important to move beyond the simple opposition between “renewable” and “fossil,” and to be more specific at all times about the kind(s) of renewable energy being referred to.

Deeper analysis

In my post last year I explored other ways of categorizing energy sources, including without use of the “renewable” or “combustible/burnable” categories. One of several aspects I hope to return to is the inclusion of another relatively minor subcategory of forms of bioenergy that are not burned.

An academic article published by Atte Harjanne and Janne M. Korhonen in Energy Policy this past April – “Abandoning the concept of renewable energy” – looks at how “renewable” is used and potentially misused, and suggests that an alternative framework for categorizing forms of energy could inform better policy. I hope to return to this as well.

This space is complex, contested, and vitally important for understanding and dealing with the energy and environmental challenges ahead. 

Changes

The original Venn diagram had “Pure renewables” as the heading above geothermal, solar, etc., which I changed to “Clean energy” pursuant to a discussion on Twitter with some nuclear energy proponents.

I added the header “Bioenergy” to the brown overlap, to make clear that this represents a group separate from “Clean energy.”

Also in the interests of clarity, I underlined the titles of the two circles, “Renewable” and “Combustible / Burnable” in colors corresponding to the circles they represent.

Finally, I added “peat” to the list of fossil fuels, but in parentheses. From what I read, categorization of peat in this regard is not clear.

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Reimagining “language barrier”

When you read or hear “language barrier,” or use the term yourself, what image comes to mind? Judging by the frequency of expressions like “breaking” or “overcoming” or even “dissolving” a language barrier, it’s probably something like a wall. But wouldn’t it be more accurate to think of that barrier as a gap, or perhaps a divide?

Paulo Zerbato via quotesgram.comIf language, or more precisely the lack of a language in common, may be a barrier, so too language may be a bridge. And only by thinking of that barrier as a divide across which understanding is hindered – despite common resort to gestures, pantomime, and even shouting – can the role of language as a bridge be appreciated. That bridge may be learning one another’s or a third language, or resort to an interpreter or other mechanism for translation.

I have in the past suggested actually replacing the term “language barrier” with “language gap” or “language divide” (like “digital divide”), as I also was thinking of barrier in the more narrow sense mentioned above. However, given how ensconced the term seems to be in English, it may be more productive to change the implicit image of barrier in the context of communication in multilingual settings.

Defining “language barrier”

But what of the concept of “language barrier”? Even leaving aside the types of metaphor used, there are problems with its definition. Several dictionaries frame it in terms of “speaking different languages,” which I think misses the essential issue (emphasis added in examples below):

  • “absence of communication between people who speak different languages“- Collins
  • “a difficulty for people communicating because they speak different languages” – Merriam-Webster
  • “barrier to communication resulting from speaking different languages” – The Free Dictionary
  • “a conceptual barrier to effective communication, that occurs when people who speak different languages attempt to communicate with each other” – Wordnik

Contrast these with what I consider to be a better definition (emphasis added):

trust building image from winningware.comThe key issue is the lack of some language in common (a language bridge) to facilitate communication, not what (sets of) languages people may speak. So Oxford has the right nail, if you will, but then hits it on the side of the head by framing the problem as “people who are unable to speak….”

Better to say that they do not share any common language or linguistic variety in which they both have sufficient skills to communicate.

All “language barriers” are not the same

Another reason to think of “language barrier” as a gap rather than some sort of wall, is that a gap may be wider or narrower. Some groups of languages, while considered different, are in fact close enough that with a greater or lesser degree of effort – and indeed each speaker’s skill in their respective language repertoire – communication is possible on some level. Remember the old saw, “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand-grenades”? Well close can also count in languages and communication, where the “bridging” of the barrier is consequently not as much of a challenge.

So “language barrier,” if we must continue to use that term, is neither something that can be “broken” nor a condition that is either all there or not there at all. It really is like a gap or divide. And by linking this revised “barrier” metaphor with the complementary metaphor of language as a “bridge,” we expand the ways we can discuss communication across gaps of understanding related to language.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail