Keeping the specs clean, Janet Holmes

Every researcher has a responsibility to the wider community, although the best way of meeting that responsibility will vary. It may mean illuminating our teaching with information from our research, it may involve sharing the intellectual excitement of the research process with students and fostering in them a love of knowledge for its own sake. Or it may involve a more direct responsibility to the wider community.

Linguists who describe the linguistic features of a language or its social distinction have a responsibility to those whose language they are describing. In New Zealand linguists of this kind have a responsibility to the indigenous language Maori and to the indigenous dialect New Zealand English, with all its variants, as well as to languages such as Samoan, Tokelauan, Gujarati, Greek and many more used by immigrant communities. The linguist’s social responsibilities in these case involve using the information they gather for the benefit of the relevant communities. Exactly what that means, however, is not always easy to determine.

It is obvious that it will involve using information about the language to counter ignorant or misinformed claims. This may mean dealing repeatedly with prescriptive and linguistically naive newspaper columnists, writing letters to the newspaper or taking part in media discussions. It may mean making submissions to official inquiries, commissions, government departments or ministries or participating in relevant working parties. It may involve providing information to assist a community group to argue a particular case. It may mean contributing to community education programmes when the community wishes to draw on linguistic expertise. Where the linguist is not a member of the community it may involve sharing knowledge, not only about the language but also about linguistic methodology, empowering the community members to collect and analyse the information they need to answer the questions which they judge need addressing.

… A linguist’s views about the relationship between language and society will affect the kinds of explanations which are considered and the implications which are drawn from the research. It is very important to be aware of this in discussing linguistic issues in public forums. We need to be honest about our theoretical spectacles and their effect on our view of the, relationship between language and society.

Recent feminist research has emphasised the fact that gender is a social and. cultural construct. At birth we are assigned to the category female or male on biological criteria, but thereafter socialisation is what determines how we learn to behave. … Every action we take reflects, maintains and reinforces that categorisation. … [W]hatever we may intend or whatever we may wish to think about the way our actions are perceived by others, they will always be seen in the context of the way our society defines gender.

It has been suggested that this is particularly true in New Zealand. … Gender, it has been suggested, is the motif and preoccupation of New Zealand society, as class is in Britain. …

But … we are not just male and female; we are also children and possibly parents, we are students and teachers, we are New Zealanders, Wellingtonians and some of us are linguists. … [W]e act [these identities] out in interaction, thus maintaining and reinforcing or changing society’s views of the appropriate way for such roles to be expressed. So university researchers will be perceived in terms of the way they express this identity in the wider community…

It is naive to argue that we simply offer information. We always offer information in a particular social and political context. We reinforce a particular set of norms; we maintain the status quo or we challenge it… If I use pseudo-generic “he” or talk about “chairmen”, I reinforce a particular set of values concerning women’s place in society. Whenever we allow our sons or our male students to dominate a discussion or interrupt their sisters without challenge we contribute to and reinforce the view of men as more active and dominant participants in interaction. Whenever women demonstrate that positive and supportive interactive behaviour can be a more effective means to an agreed end they contribute to changing the status quo.

As linguists, every time we express an opinion or describe a linguistic situation to our students or to the wider community we reinforce or contest a particular position. Those who supported the use of Maori in court or in the media in the 1960s and 1970s were contesting the status quo. Those who established kohanga reo with limited support in the early 1980s were fighting for change. We should always be aware of where a critical voice may be valuable. If New Zealand English is presented as an appropriate object of study in the English curriculum whose New Zealand English is it? Does it reflect the reality of the way New Zealand English is used in different contexts, by different social and ethnic groups and by New Zealand women and men? If women’s ways of talking differ from men’s, whose norms should prevail in different contexts?

The responsibility of the linguist entails, then, an awareness that every action ‑ or inaction ‑ conveys a message. We make choices about what to study and about how to use the information we gain from our research… And, since we can’t avoid using our theoretical spectacles, the least we should do is acknowledge that we use specs and do our best to keep them clean.

Excerpt from “Hosing, hedging and hornets’ nests: linguistics and social responsibility” (Victoria University Press, 1995, $8.95, ISBN 0 86473 282 1) ‑ professorial inaugural address. Janet Holmes is professor of linguistics at Victoria University.

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