Tag: syntax

Language contact, agency and power in the linguistic landscape of two regional capitals in Ethiopia

Do you ever wish that your linguistics interests were more Instagram-friendly? Fear not, m’lady. There’s a subfield for you! Linguistic landscape is a burgeoning area of study that analyzes how language is used visually in public spaces (mostly signs) in multilingual societies. Very ‘grammable.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_landscape

Linguistic landscape speaks to the political, economic, and cultural power of the given languages in multilingual places. Which languages appear on which kind of signs? Which language is more prominent? Which one has an uglier font (cough…Comic Sans… cough)? Some linguistic landscapes are a byproduct of language policy, like in Quebec, where signs must have French text “markedly predominant” over text in other languages. Other times linguistic landscape develops more organically, like the examples we will be looking at in just a minute.

In their paper (2014) Hirut Woldemariam and Elizabeth Lanza explore the linguistic landscape of two regions in Ethiopia to reveal the effects of language policy and how the regionals languages have affected each other. This paper has everything: #linguisticlandscape, #languagecontact, #literacy, #languagepolicy, #languagerights.

Language Policy and Literacy in Ethiopia

Let’s get you up to speed on Ethiopia. Ethiopia is in the Horn of Africa and they have been doing their thing for a while. Lucy, our earliest human ancestor, was found there! When Europe was carving up Africa, Ethiopia successfully fought off the Italians making it the only uncolonized African country, the real Wakanda.

It is an ethnic federation with more than 100 million people using 80 different languages. The three we are going to talk about today are Amharic, Oromo, and Tigrinya.  

  1. Amharic is the federal language and the language of the Amhara people (27% of the population), one of the most powerful ethnic groups in Ethiopia. Amharic serves as the lingua franca for the country.
  2. Oromo is a Cushitic language spoken by the Oromo people (35% of the population). It is the official working language in the region of Oromia, and is spoken by some people across the border in Kenya.
  3. Tigrinya is the language of the Tigray region and people (6% of the population), and is also a major language of neighboring frenemy, Eritrea.

Here is a quick look at the trajectory of language policy in Ethiopia:

Long story short, the history of Amharic as the primary language of literacy, instruction, and government administration has unfairly positioned speakers of other languages in their own country even when, as in the Oromo people, they outnumber the Amhara ruling class. Reliable, up-to-date literacy statistics are not available, but Woldemariam and Lanza cite some numbers published in 2009 that indicate literacy rates in Oromo-speaking regions and Tigrinya-speaking regions were between 1% and 15%.

The Paper

Almost thirty years after the dramatic language policy shift to uphold language rights and increase literacy in regional and local languages, the role of Amharic in Oromia and Tigray provides an interesting test case on the lingering chokehold it has had on written texts.

The researchers melded together fieldwork from a few different projects, so they could zero in on Amharic language contact with Oromo and Tigrinya. Language contact is when languages interact and influence each other- vocabulary, intonation, grammar rubbing off, languages replacing or ‘killing’ each other, or new languages developing through creolization.

Woldemariam and Lanza use linguistic landscape data collected came from the capital cities Adama, Oromia and Mekele, Tigray to demonstrate language contact. In Adama the dataset was 100 photos of monolingual, bilingual, and trilingual signs. In Mekele they chose the main shopping district and took photos of 376 written texts on signs, building names, and advertisements. Because names of shops are often noun phrases this is fertile ground to investigate language contact as born out in the linguistic landscape.

Tigrinya and Oromo both differ from Amharic in the word order of noun phrases. Amharic is right-headed and Tigrinya and Oromo are both left-headed. Unfortch, that refers to sentence diagramming gobbledygook and not a two-headed dragon with a dominant head.

 

Here is an example to help a bish out:

In addition to a lot of Amharic language in the linguistic landscape in general, Woldemariam and Lanza found evidence of Amharic word order in Tigrinya and Oromo language shop signs including some interesting hybrids with embedded noun phrases. Check it:

In the above image (p.94) from Adama, Oromia we can see Oromo, Amharic and English. The Oromo literally translates to Shop Cultural Objects Maatii. (Maatii is a name.) ‘Cultural Objects’ is a right-headed noun phrase embedded in the left-headed noun phrase ‘Shop Maatii.’  ‘Cultural Objects’ is following the word order conventions of Amharic even though the lexical items are Oromo. This is just one example of Oromo and Amharic hybrid syntax observed in the linguistic landscape. The same phenomenon was identified with embedded noun phrases in Tigrinya on shop signs in Meleke, Tigray.

The heavy presence of Amharic language and Amharic word order in Oromo and Tigrinya in the linguistic landscape speaks to its history and as the language of literacy in Ethiopia.  This bish couldn’t help but wonder: what is the linguistic landscape around her and what does it say about language policy and power? Who is invited into the fold and who are the gatekeepers locking out?

This paper is recommended for linguistic landscape bishes, language policy nerds, language contact kweens, and Ethiopiaphiles.


Woldemariam, H., & Lanza, E. (2014). Language contact, agency and power in the linguistic landscape of two regional capitals in Ethiopia. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 228, 79–103.

Read More

Police interviews with vulnerable people alleging sexual assault: Probing inconsistency and questioning conduct

This paper examines actual police interviews with people with intellectual disabilities reporting sexual assault. Focusing on probing inconsistencies in the victim’s account with pragmatically difficult questions, Antaki, C., Richardson, E., Stokoe, E., & Willott, S. attempt to determine how well officers follow recommended interview guidelines.

It is known that cops have taken insensitive lines of questioning with victims of sexual assault and rape. Stories of victims being asked what they were wearing or if they’d be drinking or other irrelevant questions about the context of their attack are as common as they are infuriating.

Implying fault and questioning the victim’s conduct is not only demoralizing to a person who is already feeling guilt, shame, and fear. Worse, it discredits the victim’s statement for judicial processing. And that’s just for intellectually typical victims who may have the language processing skills to be able to clarify details and defend themselves.

People with intellectual disabilities have even more obstacles to overcome. They are more likely to be victims of abuse and violence, less likely to succeed in prosecuting their assaulters, and suffer greater emotional and psychological distress after the event to boot. This paper doesn’t specify what is meant by “intellectual disability,” except to say that those with intellectual disabilities, learning, or psychiatric problems, can struggle to communicate, function socially, and to read pragmatic linguistic clues (head to the ever current and informative Conscious Style Guide for a brush-up on terms).

Antaki et. al. generously point out that police are in a tough place because they need to be able to present a statement for the victim’s defense in court. This means they need to obtain a clear account of events from a recently traumatized person who may have a hard time discussing their assault or remembering it clearly. If that person also struggles with communication and social functioning, it can be even more difficult to compile a coherent series of events. Toss in a little difficulty reading pragmatic linguistic clues like non-literal expressions and hypothetical and indirect questions (you know, things that exist in typical conversations and interviews) and then think about how well those interviews go.

You might be thinking that given the frequency and severity of sexual assault, cops are probably trained to interview victims. Well, ya… kinda. The police in this study are advised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists to have training for interviewing those with intellectual disabilities and they provide a general guide to help with that. The guide points out that inconsistencies and omissions are usually caused by the interviewer jumping to conclusions. They indicate that cops should never voice suspicion, call the witness a liar, or challenge them directly. The guide is not specific to those with intellectual disabilities, however, and there doesn’t seem to be any mechanism for tracking how well the guide is followed let alone how well it works for those with intellectual disabilities.

The focus of this study is to determine how well actual police interviews adhere to this guide when interviewing people with intellectual disabilities, especially in probing the inconsistencies with pragmatically difficult questions. Evidence was gathered from 19 interviews with people with what the English police force called “learning disabilities” reporting sexual assault or rape. Of the 19 only 3 of them went to court, and only 2 succeeded in getting a guilty verdict.

 

RESULTS

Spoiler alert, there were departures from the guidelines. Mainly in areas the guide explicitly advised against. They were a) implying the story made no sense or was very unlikely or b) implying the witness’ behavior was to blame. These implications involve complex pragmatics that may be difficult for those with intellectual disabilities to process.

Basically, these questions present a logical problem that requires extra processing that people with intellectual disabilities might not be able to handle. Hypothetical phrasings like “If it was raining, why didn’t you bring an umbrella?” cast doubt and indicate failure to do something appropriate, but the interviewee may not pick up on that. Hypothetical questions also require the interviewee to process something that did not happen and is not a part of their memory. On top of that, they need to see that their conduct was unexpected or wrong and detect the implication of blame in order to defend themselves and their credibility. Complicated.

These types of questions challenge the victim’s conduct and truthfulness. This is exactly what the interviewers are asked not to do. The extra stress added by these questions can even impede memory which is why answers to these challenging questions frequently are “I don’t know.” This is a problematic answer since a person is expected to know why they do what they do. Being unable to explain one’s actions is a credibility nightmare.

 

Discussion

As the guide says, asking why causes more problems than it fixes. It promotes the feeling of blame when victims often already blame themselves.

And while it is tough for interviewers because they have to record a first-hand statement as evidence for court and check for inconsistencies and vagueness, in order to serve the victim well, the guidelines need to be taken seriously and adherence to them needs to be monitored.

Without very rigorous training and a high level of language competence, it is unlikely that a police officer, or anyone, would have the skills to identify the pragmatic aspects of their own speech or to consider the pragmatic capacity of those with intellectual disabilities.

Even though this study is based on a small sample size, Antaki et al. recommend avoiding probing especially with the hypothetical “Why didn’t you X?”. That seems reasonably obvious, but beyond that there needs to be a robust system for identifying the needs of a victim. Descriptions made by the police of the victim’s disability were cursory. Labels like “learning disability” or “deaf” aren’t helpful or informed assessments.

Finally, interviewing is a skill and those doing it need to be highly trained to serve the victim and their specific needs. That could mean teaching some basic pragmatics to officers so they can avoid complex logical problems, bringing experienced linguists onto the force, or other better ideas I haven’t thought of. The actual application of applied linguistics to interviews could be the difference between putting a sex-offender behind bars or back on the street.

This article is great for pragmatics and sociolinguistics bishes or bishes interested in discourse analysis. There’s even a fun smidgen of Wh-movement and NPI licensing for my syntax bishes.


Antaki, C., Richardson, E., Stokoe, E., & Willott, S. (2015). Police interviews with vulnerable people alleging sexual assault: Probing inconsistency and questioning conduct. Journal of Sociolinguistics,19(3), 328-350. doi:10.1111/josl.12124

Read More