Languages in the city

Language is a potent marker of cultural and ethnic belonging. The link that we perceive between language and identity is so strong that we conceptualize it in terms of family (lingua madreMuttersprache and so on) and of possession (‘they don’t speak our language’ is a phrase often used to cast someone out). As almost every separatist political movement has demonstrated, languages play a crucial role in defining differences between communities. The fault lines of nations, at least since the Early Modern age, are defined by language. And yet, the marvelous thing about language is that for all its geographical and ethnic ties, it travels better and more freely than almost anything else.

Language has traveled on paper (by printed and handwritten word), by radio and TV, by Facebook message and Skype call. While we will consider these means of communication in the project, our main interest is in how language travels when people move: the everyday dimension of the modern city, where people from different backgrounds do their best to make themselves understood and understand each other. This is at the center of “My Story – My Words”, and since we will make use of the recently coined term metrolingualism to describe it, I thought of writing a brief note to explain what this word means, and what we will do with it.

Since the 1980s, following unprecedented migration and the rise of the great interpreters of the post-colonial world (Said, Anderson, Bhabha, Hall…), cultural studies have begun to focus on the conflicting and creative space resulting from many cultures coming together in the same setting. Language has more or less always been involved in these reflections, in different ways. In translation studies – a relatively ‘new’ discipline in itself – this meant a renewed interest and celebration of translators as agents of change the contact zones between cultures. In later years, the attention in translation studies has expanded to include the translation that happens in cities, and that is often at the very heart of the existence of the city. Mediators of various kind inhabit the city, negotiating its linguistic habits and norms, building common repertoires, inscribing and decoding its spaces with many languages.

All of this debate happened contemporaneously with developments in linguistics, where bilingualism was increasingly no longer considered as an exception but a fact of the linguistic life and history of societies; and the bilingual person considered not just as the imperfect union of two monolinguals. Bilinguals are individuals who generally make the best out of the linguistic resources available to them, and who exist in a specific society, with specific needs. However, this does not automatically lead to a celebration of linguistic multiplicity per se – too easy a move, and it does not take into account the many difficulties and risks of existing in the multilingual arena. The urban, metropolitan and multicultural space is a fertile one, but also a contested one. It has many dangers and risks – incomprehension, miscommunication, intolerance, invisibility – to which people have to adapt. Adaptation is the key to existence for the migrant, and that very much involves linguistic practices. As I remarked at the beginning, we all may have a tendency to perceive language and ethnicity as strongly linked: like a familial bond, or personal property. But what we do with these supposedly fixed identities when we come together in the same setting is creative, inventive, potentially disruptive:

Metrolingualism describes the ways in which people of different and mixed
backgrounds use, play with and negotiate identities through language; it does not
assume connections between language, culture, ethnicity, nationality or geography,
but rather seeks to explore how such relations are produced, resisted, defied or
rearranged; its focus is not on language systems but on languages as emergent from
contexts of interaction. (Otsuji and Pennycook, 2010)

Whenever we say “metrolingualism” we talk about interactions that go from the most mundane exchanges to fine arts, and that make the flow of languages in an urban space. The identities that we refer to when we say “Irish” “English” “Russian” “Chinese” and so on may be perceived as fixed, conceptualized as fixed, but in practice they are elements of a more complex game, where they are challenged and transformed. In practice, we make ourselves understood with the linguistic resources that we have and that we think most appropriate.

This understanding of language applies to sites of historical and sanctioned bilingualism (and an Irish city is always already a bilingual Irish-English city, with the relative historical issues and potentialities). But its most evident dimension is often the diaspora. Migration creates communities that are still bound to some extent to the idea of a home, but whose everyday communication involves many different languages to speak and to understand. One good definition (among many others) of a migrant is someone who cannot take language for granted:

Since people with a common heritage may still shuttle between diverse localities and communities in their everyday lives, diaspora identity is one among many layered identities they enjoy. As people shuttle between communities, they hold in tension their diaspora identities with other locally relevant identities. How these are strategically negotiated also puts the focus on language. (Canagarajah and Silberstein, 2012)

When we talk about metrolingual practice, we are talking about language that may originate from a fixed national identity, that we think about in terms of belonging, but at the same time exists in correlation with several others in its everyday dimension. Our goals include both the recognition of this reality in the Irish society – and the cultural practices that derive from it. What happens to art, writing, and theatre when it exists in-between languages, when the artist or writer need to come out of that safe zone to express themselves, and incorporate elements of the language he/she confronts daily? the artists, writers and playwright with whom we are in touch are giving us very interesting answers to that question. Stay in touch!








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