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Verbs and the History of Bantu Languages Near the Serengeti

November 10, 2016
By 19668

It is said that there are more than 6,000 languages spoken today in the world. The majority of them are so-called minority languages and are endangered. Timothy Roth, a 2014 Sylff fellow of the University of Helsinki, conducted fieldwork in Tanzania to examine four Mara Bantu languages—so-called minority languages—using an SRA award. His article, explaining the findings from his fieldwork, highlights the importance of “minority” languages.


Mara Region, Tanzania

Mara Region, Tanzania

The Mara Region of Tanzania is home to over 20 different language varieties in an area the size of the US state of Delaware.Mara is situated between Lake Victoria to the west and Serengeti National Park to the east, with the nation of Kenya just to the north. As one might assume, the sheer density of languages and dialects in the region is quite remarkable. Although there are several Nilotic languages in the region, most of the varieties belong to the Bantu language family.

The area around Lake Victoria is extremely important for reconstructing the history of the Bantu peoples, specifically concerning the general routes taken across sub-Saharan Africa during what is called the “Bantu migration.” There is consensus among scholars that the Bantu migration took place several thousand years ago from what is now Cameroon.ii What is in dispute among historians (and researchers from other disciplines) is the direction(s) in which the early Bantu communities moved. One major hypothesis places early Bantu communities to the west of Lake Victoria as the result of a primary migration from Cameroon. Some of these early Bantu communities would have soon spread to the east side of the lake. This hypothesis happens to correspond well with the paleoecological and archaeological evidence.iii

Acacia savanna inside Serengeti National Park, about 90 km from Musoma.

Acacia savanna inside Serengeti National Park, about 90 km from Musoma.

Many of the languages in Mara are endangered to varying degrees and are linguistically underdescribed. There are many language endangerment issues here in terms of the need for language documentation, legitimacy, and the dynamic effects that language development and mother-tongue education can have on the communities themselves. There is an innate value to minority languages whereby language and cultural preservation result in a “mental” or “intellectual” wealth that belongs to humanity.iv

Hale says, “At this point in the history of linguistics, at least, each language offering testimony for linguistic theory brings something important, and heretofore not known or not yet integrated into the theory. In many cases, data from a ‘new’ language forces changes in the developing theory, and in some cases, linguistic diversity sets an entirely new agenda.”v

Thus, any additional linguistic understanding of the Mara languages could have ramifications not only for Bantu migration hypotheses but also for the advancement of current linguistic theory.

My research concerns four of these Mara Bantu languages: Ikoma, Nata, Isenye, and Ngoreme. These languages are closely related and form a subgroup called Western Serengeti. I am working on multiple languages rather than just one because the density of Bantu languages in the Mara region provides a unique opportunity to compare closely related languages. My research is focused on verbs, specifically the grammatical markers that encode tense, aspect, modality, and evidentiality (TAME). In Bantu languages—and many other languages around the world—differences in pitch can change the meaning of words and can also apply to these grammatical TAME markers; this concept is called “grammatical tone” and is a crucial part of any analysis of the verbal system. I am comparing the function and meaning of the TAME markers in Western Serengeti in order to understand how they developed and what that reveals about the history of these languages. As far as methodology is concerned, a focus on function and meaning (and not just forms) makes it necessary to combine any elicitation with the collection of natural texts.

View of Lake Victoria from Makoko, just outside of Musoma.

View of Lake Victoria from Makoko, just outside of Musoma.

For the first phase of my research, I went to Musoma, Tanzania, in October 2014 as a Sylff fellow and collected initial data from each of the languages. This initial data mostly consisted of elicitation from lists of words and sentences but also included audio recordings of stories and conversations. Because the TAME systems were underdescribed, I needed to cast a wide net to see what I would find. (Bantu languages are known for having intricate TAME systems.vi) The first phase was certainly a success, as I was able to figure out the general pattern of how the present-day TAME systems are organized. Surprisingly, I found that the systems are organized primarily around aspect (perfective versus imperfective) and not tense. This type of organization is more like some of the non-Bantu Niger-Congo languages of West Africa.vii

These surprising facets of the initial research made the second phase that much more important, as I had many remaining questions as a result. For example:

• If the systems are organized around aspect, how do speakers choose a particular aspect to communicate past, present, or future? Is it merely whether the event is viewed as complete or incomplete?

• Do the semantics of the verbs themselves (lexical aspect) influence the selection of certain grammatical aspects? Are there any restrictions on which verbs can take which grammatical aspects?

• Quite a bit of overlap exists in some of the aspects that cover (what would be) the immediate past and present. Does modality play any role in distinguishing between these?

Ikoma language informants working on text transcription.

Ikoma language informants working on text transcription.

With the SRA grant, I traveled again to Tanzania in June 2016 for the second phase of fieldwork. I worked on my research for two weeks at the SIL International Uganda-Tanzania Branch regional headquarters in Musoma. I brought in two mother-tongue speakers per language group as language informants for two to four days each and used Swahili to talk with them about their language(s) and conduct the research. Part of the research included transcription of previous audio data as well as word-for-word translation into Swahili. Additional research elements included further elicitation and recording (for lexical aspect and grammatical tone).

With the research that the SRA grant allowed me to undertake, not only did I gain some answers regarding the first two questions above, but the major finding came in relation to the third question: in three of the languages—Ikoma, Nata, and Isenye—the morpheme -Vká- combines inceptive aspect with what is called witness/non-witness evidentiality. Although not modality per se as initially expected, evidentiality is the “grammatical marking of information source.”viii In Ikoma, Nata, and Isenye the inceptive is used if the report comes from a witness to the event, while the perfective is used if the report comes from a non-witness to the event. Evidentiality has not been described for many African languages and is definitely an emerging area for research.

In addition, evidentiality has a clear relationship with episodic memory, or “the memory of past events that have been personally experienced and is thus based on sensory information.”ix

Tense and aspect also have clear relationships with storytelling and, more generally, how events are conceptualized by speakers. Using the cognitive linguistic concept of construal, for instance, tense and aspect can be explored in terms of how speakers perceive themselves and time in relation to events. The construals “ᴛɪᴍᴇ is a ᴘᴀᴛʜ” and “ᴛɪᴍᴇ is a sᴛʀᴇᴀᴍ” form the backbone for these relationships. In a ᴘᴀᴛʜ construal, the speaker views himself as moving while time remains unmoving. In a sᴛʀᴇᴀᴍ construal, however, time is moving and either the speaker or the event are seen as moving along with it.x
Remember that the systems in the Western Serengeti varieties are organized primarily around aspect without nearly as many tense distinctions as other Bantu languages. Aspect “denotes a particular temporal phase of the narrated event as the focal frame for viewing the event.”xi Think of different aspects in this sense as different video cameras set up around an event with one capturing the beginning, one the end, one the whole thing, and so forth. In Ngoreme, for example, there are at least four ways of communicating the “present tense” as shown immediately below. The underlined portions of the italicized Ngoreme verbs are the parts of the words that make their meanings different.

Ngoreme (Roth fieldnotes 2014, 2016)
a. Progressive
    nkohíka bhaaní
b. Perfective
    mbahíkire c. Imperfective
d. Inceptive
“They [the tourists] (arrive, are arriving) [at the top of the mountain].”

If we begin to think about aspect in relation to the many verb forms involved in constructing a narrative, we can see how there are a multitude of choices available for the speakers of these languages to frame the story, and the events within that story. In analyzing narrative discourse, there is some scaffolding available to the speaker with some aspects used for foreground material (sequence of events) and others for background (e.g., flashbacks).xii But in Western Serengeti these choices can also be affected by formal versus informal register considerations (e.g., Biblical text versus a folktale or story told over lunch).xiii In Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind, Herman says that there is an “inextricable interconnection between narrating and perspective taking” and, further, that “storytelling acts are grounded in the perceptual-conceptual abilities of embodied human minds.”xiv Why then do speakers make the choices they do, and what does that tell us about the human mind and cognition? I hope that my research may help to widen our understanding of what is possible in terms of cognition and memory, storytelling, and the conceptualization of events.

Not only does my research play a role in these types of questions, but it also has implications across several academic disciplines in addition to linguistics (e.g., history, sociology, and archaeology). Specifically, I hope my investigation will, in coming from a linguistic perspective, build on the research of Jan Bender Shetler who has written two integral sociohistorical works on the ethnic groups in Mara, Telling Our Own Stories and Imagining Serengeti. The former is mostly a collection and analysis of oral histories from several ethnic groups in Mara, including origin stories. The latter focuses on spaces and landscape memory and draws on multidisciplinary evidence (including archaeology) to support the argument that the Western Serengeti peoples have deep historical roots in the Serengeti land itself. Comparative tense/aspect research here should shed further light on where these groups originally came from, how they are related to one another and to other Bantu languages in Tanzania, historical movements, and possible contact with Nilotic and Cushitic peoples. Like fingerprints, the somewhat unique set of similarities and differences in the tense/aspect paradigms may in this way allow for an advancement in our understanding of the sociohistory of these ethnic groups.

Finally, as I mentioned briefly above, my research also has a part to play regarding the innate value of minority languages. Even though minority languages in Tanzania are often treated as lesser, by doing linguistic research in these languages we are able to treat what is inherently valuable as worthy of study and with proper respect. My research and subsequent dissertation allow for additional features of these languages to not only be documented but also be shared with the academic community worldwide. This material includes recorded stories and conversations, transcriptions of those recordings, and their Swahili and English translations. This fits right in with the ethos of the Helsinki Area and Language Studies (HALS) initiative at the University of Helsinki, not to mention the language development work that SIL is doing in the area: developing orthographies, providing literacy programs, translation, and increasing language vitality in the process.

iHill, Dustin, Anna-Lena Lindfors, Louise Nagler, Mark Woodward, and Richard Yalonde. 2007. A sociolinguistic survey of the Bantu languages in Mara Region, Tanzania. Unpublished ms. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: SIL.
iiPakendorf, B., K. Bostoen, and C. de Filippo. 2011. Molecular perspectives on the Bantu expansion: A synthesis. Language Dynamics and Change 1: pp. 50–88.
iiiNurse, Derek. 1999. Towards a Historical Classification of East African Bantu Languages.”In Hombert, Jean-Marie and Larry M. Hyman (eds.), Bantu Historical Linguistics: Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives, pp. 1–41. Stanford: CSLI. p. 9.
iv Hale, Ken. 1998. “On endangered languages and the importance of linguistic diversity.” In Grenoble, Lenore A. and Lindsay J. Whaley (eds.), Endangered languages: Current issues and future prospects, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 193.
vIbid. p. 194.
vi Botne, Robert and Tiffany L. Kershner. 2008. Tense and aspect in cognitive space: On the organization of tense/aspect systems in Bantu languages and beyond. Cognitive Linguistics 19 (2): pp. 145–218. p. 146. The E is left out here because African languages are not known for having evidentiality (see Aikhenvald 2004: p. 291).
vii Nurse, Derek. 2008. Tense and aspect in Bantu. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 281.
viii Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. 2004. Evidentiality. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 392.
ixDahl, Ӧsten. 2011. The structure of human memory and tense-aspect-mood-evidentiality (TAME). Abstract. Website: http://www.mpi.nl/events/mpi-colloquium-series/mpi-colloquium-series-2011/osten-dahl-february-15
xBotne and Kershner 2008: pp. 147–50.
xiIbid. p. 171.
xiiNicolle, Steve. 2015. Comparative Study of Eastern Bantu Narrative Texts. SIL Electronic Working Papers 2015_003.  Website: http://www.sil.org/resources/publications/entry/61479. pp. 36ff.
xiiiIbid. p. 45.
xiv Herman, David. 2013. Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind. Cambridge: The MIT Press. p. 169.

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The Sociolinguistics of Greek Teenage Language Practices on Facebook

February 2, 2016
By 19604

Christopher Lees, a Sylff fellow at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, spent time at the University of Hamburg, Germany carrying out analysis and refining his research on youth language on social networking sites. In this article, he describes his findings on digital literacy practices among Greek teenagers using Facebook, and describes how they use linguistic creativity to achieve their communicative goals.

* * *


The way teenagers speak and interact has long been a matter of interest in sociolinguistics, while often being a matter of concern and even controversy in academic circles and among the general public. There can be no doubt that teenagers seem to have their own codes of communication, which are markedly different from those of their elders. This has given rise to many questions both within and outside academia. What is it, for instance, that makes teenagers use different varieties of language? How do we classify these varieties and can we claim, as many do, that these “alternative” uses of language pose a threat to the future of the languages we speak? A new element to this debate in recent years is the question of how teenagers communicate on social networking sites such as Facebook. This has brought a whole new set of questions related to an oral-like style of writing, inconsistent grammar and punctuation, and frequent mixtures of various different, particularly in countries whose languages are regarded as “less widely spoken.”

My field of sociolinguistics aims to provide answers to these questions. For example, it is widely accepted that one of the reasons why teenagers exhibit such unique linguistic practices is because they mix in narrower circles than was the case in previous generations, largely due to the fast-paced development of technology (Kakridi-Ferrari 2005: 195). Since the Second World War, technology has replaced many previous professions, rendering many skills obsolete. This has created a need for young people to be educated for longer than was previously the norm in order for them to keep pace with the new demands created by new technology. This has forged a closer bond between teenagers and other young people who spend more time with each other and have developed a new type of “youth culture” as a result of this new social dynamic. This culture has brought with it new ways of communicating that differ from the varieties of language used by these people’s parents and previous generations and reflect the shifting social reality of which young people are a part.

Social networking sites and Facebook in particular have provided young people with an entirely new “meeting place” where they can chat with their friends, exchange ideas, play games, and share and comment on videos and images. Such a platform is in itself an entirely new social reality for teenagers that has facilitated the development of new language practices. The study of the language practices seen on social networking sites is one of the latest areas of interest to linguists involved what is known as Computer Mediated Communication. This is the area that my research focuses on.

The Research

Following the traditions of sociolinguistics and computer-mediated communication, my PhD research focuses on the language practices of Greek teenagers on Facebook. A total of 15 secondary school pupils are participating in my PhD research, 10 of them enrolled at the Model Experimental School of the University of Thessaloniki and the remaining five at the Model Experimental Secondary School of the University of Macedonia in the area of Neapoli. The two schools are located in different areas of the Greek city of Thessaloniki. The latter is located in a socially underprivileged area of the city, whereas the former is in the center and enjoys a reputation as a school of academic excellence, not least due to its affiliation with the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. The rationale behind this selection was the hope that the linguistic data derived from the pupils might reveal differences that could be attributed to the different social backgrounds of the pupils. Consent was obtained from parents and guardians, as well as from the pupils themselves. In addition, pseudonyms have been used whenever reference is made to the data, so as to protect the identity of the participants, in line with research ethics (D’Arcy & Young 2012: 540-541).

Sunset over the Alster, Hamburg.

Sunset over the Alster, Hamburg.

After receiving my SRA scholarship, I travelled to the University of Hamburg in Germany to refine and discuss the categories to be included in my analysis. In total, I spent two and a half weeks at the Department of German Philology, where I was able to discuss my research with experts in my field and use their resources to develop a concrete qualitative and quantitative approach to analyzing the data collected from the pupils. I was also able to see at first hand how research has been conducted for similar projects in German using the model of online ethnography (Androutsopoulos 2008). Online ethnography refers to observing the linguistic practices of specific communities of Internet users, together with real contact with the users themselves by means of interviews, discussions, etc. The advantage of this approach is that the researcher is able to cross-check and verify his or her interpretations against the explanations and opinions of the producers of the language practices under study. This blended approach can therefore help produce a more reliable data analysis.

In comparison with German, Greek is one of the less widely spoken languages of the EU. One of the consequences of this is that its speakers are exposed to a much greater variety of languages—particularly English through the mainstream media—than speakers of more widely spoken languages like English and French. Three main tendencies observed in Greek teenagers’ linguistic practices on Facebook form the core of my research. These are as follows:

1. Features of digital orality in teenagers’ “written” linguistic practices on Facebook
2. Use of alternate script choices
3. Use of English

In general terms, the term digital orality refers to “oral-like” features employed by users of digital media while communicating in writing (Soffer 2010: 388). The features of digital orality studied in my PhD research are diminutives and augmentatives, as well as oral discourse markers. Such features, in particular, are highly common in the language practices of Greek teenagers on Facebook and fulfill specific pragmatic functions for the users and their fellow participants, as can be seen in Examples 1 and 2 below:

1. Σε ευχαριστώ Άννα, θεάρα μου [se efcharisto Anna mu, theara mu]
Thank you Anna, my [big] goddess
2. εε κι εμείς φοβόμασταν να πάμε στο δωμάτιο και να φανταστείς ήταν πρωί [ee ki emis fovomastan na pame so domatio ke na fantastis itan proi]
errr we were afraid to go to the room, too and that was in the morning, if you can believe it

In Example 1, the use of the augmentative –ara attached to the word theara, characterising the user’s friend as exhibiting “goddess” functions as a way of showing admiration and enthusiasm for the referent (see Daltas 1985). Conversely, in Example 2, the use of the oral discourse marker ee, which resembles but does not have the exact same functions as English er, acts as a way of framing the message that follows, while signifying a relevant part of the conversation, which could be an answer to a previous comment made by another Facebook user. The use of diminutives, augmentatives and oral discourse markers belongs almost entirely to the linguistic repertoire of female pupils. This is believed by the pupils to be due to the fact that, particularly in the case of diminutives and augmentatives, these elements are used to express affection and tenderness.

As far as Greek is concerned, script choice in Computer Mediated Communication has been a subject of debate ever since people started using computers to communicate with each other. Greek users would use Latin transliteration to represent Greek characters, initially due to the fact that Greek characters were not available. However, after this problem was resolved with the invention of the so-called UNICODE system, computer users, and most notably young computer users, continued using the Latin script. In my research I investigate the current situation in the language used by Greek teenagers in my data. In addition, I noted an interesting new trend for English and other languages that use the Latin script to be written in the Greek alphabet (Spilioti 2013), such as in Example 3 below:

3. oφκορσ ι λοβ γιου μαι ντιαρ [ofkors i lov yiou my diar]
Of course I love you, my dear

From my data, this use of Latin script to write Greek is practiced by boys significantly more than by girls. This is recognised by pupils as indicative of boys’ more relaxed attitude to language use and a way for them to avoid the hassle involved in changing keyboard settings between one alphabet and the other.

Finally, my research looks into how English is used by Greek teenagers in their communication with friends on Facebook. Rather than simply communicating in the English they learn at school, Greek teenagers use various features of English, including vernacular ones, often mixed in with Greek, producing an entertaining multilingual puzzle. Such practices are referred to in the literature as polylingual languaging (Jørgensen 2008). According to this model of analysis, what is important in this type of communication is not linguistic accuracy and proficiency but the way in which users exploit features of various languages to accomplish their own communicative needs. For example, the phrase, “are you working me?” in Example 4 below is not a phrase used in Standard English but a direct translation of the Greek phrase, με δουλεύεις [me dulevis], which means ”Are you kidding me?”

4. Δεν σου αρέσει ο Spiderman τώρα? Are you working me? [Den su aresi o Spiderman tora? Are you working me?]
You don’t like Spiderman now? Are you kidding me?

The Facebook user who produced the comment in Example 4 knows that the phrase in question is not an idiom in Standard English, but has used it for the benefit of his Greek-speaking friends, who, because of their knowledge of Greek, are able to understand the humor behind the “Englishification” of a well-used Greek phrase. No significant difference was noted related to gender use of this kind of English; it seems that both sexes use the English language in much the same way and for the same communicative purposes.

Conclusions and Hoped-for Influence on Wider Society

A transliterated, as opposed to translated, sign reading “no entrance.”

A transliterated, as opposed to translated, sign reading “no entrance.”

I hope that this short article has provided a useful overview of my PhD research and given some insight into the ways that Greek teenagers communicate through Facebook. As the examples show, Greek teenagers make use of all the cultural and linguistic resources at their disposal to produce highly creative language practices, which do not reflect any difference in social background between the pupils at the two schools. It seems that Greek secondary school teenagers in Thessaloniki use much the same types of language practices, although some differences can be discerned depending on gender. For example, as we have seen, the use of diminutives, augmentatives and oral discourse markers appears to make up a more significant part of the language repertoire of girls, whereas boys use the Latin script to write Greek significantly more than girls do.

My hope is that this research will help to construct an argument that will enable society to appreciate the creative and intricate ways in which Greek teenagers use language to play, joke, and achieve their communicative goals in the specific context of Facebook. People often view teenage linguistic practices as a degenerative and “cheap” variety of Greek, but far from posing a threat to the integrity of the Greek language, these highly imaginative and creative practices in fact make a positive contribution to enriching linguistic creativity.

In other words, it should not be assumed that teenagers’ use of language is in any way inferior to that of previous generations, or that they do not know how to use language “appropriately,” simply because they combine English with their Greek, use the Latin script, and use features of orality in their written language practices On the contrary, my ethnographic data shows that Greek teenagers are well aware that their use of language on Facebook is for Facebook only and not suitable for academic writing or formal correspondence. I hope that my research will help to dispel the myths and foreground teenagers’ language practices on Facebook as examples of linguistic ingenuity and creativity, and contribute to a better perception of the roles played by language in society.


Androutsopoulos, J. (2008) Discourse-centred online ethnography. In Androutsopoulos, Jannis & Michael Beißwenger (eds.) Data and Methods in Computer-Mediated Discourse Analysis. Special Issue, Language@Internet 5 (2008). http://www.languageatinternet.de

Daltas, P. (1985) Some patterns of variability in the use of diminutive and augmentative suffixes in Spoken Modern Greek Kini (MGK). Γλωσσολογία/Glossologia 4, 63-88

D’Arcy, Α. & Young, Τ.Μ. (2012). “Ethics and social media: Implications for sociolinguistics in the networked public. Journal of Sociolinguistics 16/4, 2012. 532-546

Jørgensen N. (2008). “Polylingual languaging around and among children and adolescents. International Journal of Multilingualism 5:3. 161-176

Kakridi-Ferrari, Maria. 2005. Glossa kai koinoniko perivallon: Zitimata koinonioglossologias (A Meros) [Language and Social Environment: Issues in Sociolinguistics: Part 1]. Contribution 64: Parousia Journal. Athens

Soffer, O (2010) “‘Silent Orality’: Toward a Conceptulization of the Digital Oral Features in CMC and SMS Texts” In Communication Theory 20. 387-404. International Communication Association

Spilioti, T. (2013) “Greek-Alphabet English: vernacular transliterations of English in social media.” In Proceedings of the 46th Annual Meeting of the British Association for Applied Linguistics, 5-7 September 2013, pp. 435-447. Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh

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The Arts in Crisis and their Survival in the Twenty First Century:
A View from Sociolinguistics

March 27, 2014
By 19604

Can the liberal arts maintain its value in society despite losing both popularity and funding to such practical disciplines as the sciences, engineering, and business administration? Christopher Lees, a Sylff fellow while at National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, offers steps that can be taken by arts scholars to maintain the relevance of their discipline in society, using examples from Greece and sociolinguistics.

* * *


The author deilvering a speech at Sylff ceremony at the University of Athens

The author deilvering a speech at Sylff ceremony at the University of Athens

At last year’s anniversary marking Sylff’s 20-year presence at the University of Athens in Greece, I was given the opportunity to speak about the crisis the liberal arts face today in the context of the economic crisis. Ever increasingly, the arts are brushed to the sidelines, considered of secondary importance compared to the sciences, technology, and business studies. This is apparent the world over with numerous departments being merged, reduced, or even threatened with closure. In Greece too, the infamous and narrowly averted Athina Plan proposed by the Ministry of Education saw it fit to heap foreign language departments together so as to create one giant “Department of Foreign Languages,” apparently with no regard for the academic integrity and significance of each department’s work and research as a separate entity.

In part, this stance towards the arts and their subjects is borne out of today’s predominant philosophy that only visibly practical things are worth people’s time, money and investment. As far as degree courses are concerned, this is often translated to mean that students tend to select a course that they see to be directly linked to the job market. This perhaps explains the popularity of business management and finance-related courses, which, according to David Williams (n.d.), are the most popular among Greek students (but not only Greek students) pursuing postgraduate education.

While students themselves cannot be blamed for choosing a degree course that they envisage will provide them with good employment prospects, this devaluation of arts subjects runs the risk of creating a sense that they are simply not worth studying. I myself, as a former undergraduate student in the UK, was frequently met with bewildered expressions on the faces of those who learned of my intention to study foreign languages at university.

Furthermore, this ever increasing lack of appreciation for the arts also poses the threat of subjects not being given the funding they deserve to carry out important research projects, and this is something which is being increasingly felt on an international level, where students find it difficult to get scholarships, and academic staff face increasing hurdles in publishing their work.

Arts subjects cannot, however, be entirely absolved from blame in relation to the regard in which they are held in society. While a doctor may not need to convince society about the importance of medicine and medical research, and an economist may not need to validate his work by highlighting the significance of sound finance, the arts scholar needs to and should take it upon him- or herself to inform society of the relevance of his/her subject. Quite often, knowledge generated by the arts subjects is confined and recycled within the academic circles of universities, which in turn are often treated as monasteries of knowledge and, indeed, even referred to as not being “the real world.”

Arts subjects and their scholars should, therefore, make the extra effort to share the knowledge they generate with the wider circles of society so that they too may benefit from what these subjects have to teach and offer us. This, I believe, is a general principle by which universities should operate: not to exclude nonmembers of what sometimes resembles the academic elite but to involve them in the work being carried out and to show them how this work is relevant to our lives. In this article, I intend to show how the arts are relevant to society and how scholars may make their work more accessible. I shall do this from the perspective of my own field, sociolinguistics, and then show how the arts can be made more accessible to ordinary members of society.

Sociolinguistics and Society

The relationship between language and society is well documented in linguistics. Just as language reflects social structures, ideologies, and stances, so too does language have the ability to influence and shape society, its structures, and its perceptions (Dittmar 1976, Lucy 1992, Wardhaugh 1992). That is to say that, while the speakers of a language coin or adopt phrases to express themselves linguistically, these same linguistic expressions, through repeated contextualized instances of usage, subsequently contribute to the way speakers think and view the world around them, evidenced by the fact that many linguistic expressions, proverbs, and idioms are unique to specific languages and reflect and form the mentalities of their speakers. Consequently, it is possible for us to refer to the relationship between language and society as being a two-way one: society depends on language to express itself, and language depends on society in order to develop and lexically reflect social structures and values.

According to Kakridi-Ferrari (2005: 53), many sociolinguists feel the need to use their specialized knowledge in order to offer something of practical use to society. As such, one of the main aims of sociolinguistic scholarship is to highlight what language can show us about society, its issues and problems, and how this can then be applied for practical purposes in various areas, from solving issues of inequality and prejudice to better understanding social norms and improving education.

Linguistic sexism, for instance, is an example of how social inequality is mirrored and redistributed linguistically. Sociolinguistic researchers, especially during the US feminist movement of the 1970s, have attempted to highlight some of the features of language that undermine or even exclude the role of women in society. In inflected languages such as Greek, where gender is morphologically marked, this is a particularly problematic issue, especially apparent in nouns denoting professions, for which many still only use a masculine noun ending.

In addition to this, generic references to groups comprising more than one person also, by and large, use exclusively masculine noun endings, thus linguistically excluding women from many sectors of society and creating a sense of a need to adopt male values and practices imposed on them by society and reflected and redistributed linguistically (see Pavlidou 2002). Sociolinguistics is therefore in a position to use its findings to highlight aspects of how language demonstrates sexism in society and to attempt to suggest, at least from a linguistic point of view, how this may be resolved. Once this has been done, both findings and suggestions can be forwarded to the relevant government departments, who may in turn make changes to the existing legislation.

Another area of social inequality visible through language is that of racism. Van Dijk’s (1993) seminal study of how elite discourse, notably that of the press, constructs and disseminates racial prejudice, shows us both how language mirrors a society’s mindset and also how this is then negotiated and propagated though a process of social cognition, that is to say, repeated exposure to expressions of racial sentiment, which then becomes etched in the minds of speakers.

I myself have researched the ways in which Greek newspapers make use of intricate linguistic strategies so as, on the one hand, to represent what they view as mainstream Greek public opinion and, on the other, to fuel feelings of racial tension (Lees 2012). This latter instance serves as a very good example of how the two-way relationship between language and society can be viewed in action against the background of political change in Greece, where older perceptions are being constantly challenged, thus creating a dynamic mix of opinion represented in the language of the press.

As was the case for linguistic sexism, sociolinguistics can again here uncover the linguistic practices of journalists and raise awareness of how these may not always be as objective as one might be inclined to think but are directly related to political and social ideology. Again, by highlighting this, pressure can be brought to bear on the government of the day to make changes to policies concerning racism.

Another important area to which sociolinguistics can contribute is that of education. The foundations of how the social aspects of language interact with education were laid by Basil Bernstein (1971) and his theory of restricted and elaborated codes. Despite the criticism he received, Bernstein was the first to draw attention to the fact that a child’s success at school is directly linked to the linguistic interaction he or she engages in at home. The logical consequence of this is that those children who engage in linguistic interaction at home that closely resembles that of the language taught in schools will be in a better position to do well in education.

It is worth noting that there is often a marked difference between the language taught in schools and the varieties spoken in even a small local community. The emphasis in education should, therefore, be placed on assisting speakers of regional and social varieties to adapt to the standardized language used in schools for the purpose of education, while acknowledging and respecting language rights. This was clearly shown by Labov (1972) in his influential work on the language of the African American community, known then as BEV (Black English Vernacular) and now called African American Vernacular English (AAVE). He concluded that schools should not treat AAVE as substandard, as was often the case, thus placing its speakers at a distinct disadvantage in comparison to those who at home speak the standard form of English taught in schools, but as a distinct social variety of English with its own grammatical rules.

Due to the fact that sociolinguistics, by nature of its subject, is in a position to research and highlight social aspects of language and because language is a social phenomenon, its role in education is particularly crucial. Just as is the case with social prejudice reflected and propagated through language, so is there linguistic prejudice against language varieties. Sociolinguists can work with education policymakers to assure that—while a standard language form is necessary for education and indeed for communication purposes—regional and social varieties of a language are respected and even taught, especially when used by pupils.

A case in point is the research I am currently involved in regarding the language used by Greek teenagers on Facebook (Lees et al. 2014). Since computer mediated language practices have become an inseparable part of teenagers’ lives, and since these computer mediated language practices have their own unique features, we feel that they needed to be treated as a variety of Greek and incorporated into the school curriculum. This is not to say that computer mediated language practices should be taught as standard, merely that it can be used to increase pupils’ critical awareness of the social aspects of language and how, why, and in which contexts these differ from the language taught as standard in schools.

A group of Greek teenagers the author works with.

A group of Greek teenagers the author works with.

In sum, the role that sociolinguistics does and can play in society is apparent and the benefits clear. As previously noted, these benefits need not (and should not) be confined to within the walls of universities and research centers but practically applied to all areas of society where language has an impact. This will ensure that the values and significance of sociolinguistics are known on a much wider scale. The same logic can and, in my opinion, must be applied to all arts subjects so that they may regain some of the prestige and deference lost in the wake of the economic crisis and so that the notion that the arts are not practical subjects and, therefore, not worth investing in can be dismissed. In the next section, some ways in which this can be done are briefly outlined and discussed.

Bringing the Arts Home

There are several ways in which the significance of the arts can be shared with the wider community. For example, scholars may choose to write their research findings in popular newspapers and magazines. Quite different from an academic journal, such mediums allow the scholar to target a much wider audience with various interests. Of course, the style of writing and content must be simplified and even, perhaps, popularized. However, publishing through the popular media allows the scholar to present, discuss, and share their research with a variety of people, many of whom may not even know that fields like sociolinguistics exist, let alone what they do.

Aside from showcasing research, the arts scholar may also use the media of newspapers and magazines to highlight, even on a regular basis by means of a column, the relevance of their topic. For the sociolinguist, this could involve the social aspects of language, including anything from language minority issues to language policy and even street art and graffiti, much of which, especially in Greece, is of a highly political nature. Writing in newspapers and magazines also serves the purpose of dispelling many of the myths concerning language that are often written by nonlinguists who lack the appropriate background to offer academically informed opinions.

Another area in which the arts can be promoted is through the organization of talks in local communities. This can be done either through local community centers or local education authorities. Informal in nature, such talks provide a good opportunity for local community members to come together and learn of the work and research being carried out in any given field. As with the use of the media, talks also allow disadvantaged members of the community to participate in learning in ways that may have previously been inaccessible to them.

Depending on the research interests of the scholar, it may even be possible for local members of the community to actively participate in a research project. In terms of sociolinguistics, a valuable aspect of having community members participate in such projects is that it will enable them to better understand the value of their cultural and linguistic attributes, which in many cases are highly stigmatized.

Finally, another way in which the arts and their subjects can be shared with the local community is through reading groups and free seminars. More formal in nature compared with local talks, such groups generally target people with an academic interest in the field. They may be offered on a volunteer basis and could be integrated into a wider context of volunteer work to provide free education for disadvantaged members of the public or anyone with an interest in the areas discussed. Such groups have been recently introduced in Greece and have so far proved to be a great success.

In conclusion, the fate of the arts and the prestige and respect they deserve largely depends on what we, as scholars, make of them ourselves. It would seem apparent that knowledge and research carried out at universities around the world should be made more transparent and accessible to all members of society, rather than belonging to a select few, especially since such members are the ones who, more often than not, fund such research.

In this article, I have outlined several ways in which this can happen. As opposed to merely complaining about the diminishing regard for arts subjects, those of us in these disciplines should first ask ourselves why this is the case and what we can do both individually and collectively to reverse this trend.


Bernstein, Βasil. 1971. Class, Codes and Control (Vol. 1). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Dittmar, Norbert. 1976. Sociolinguistics. A Critical Survey of Theory and Application. London: E. Arnold.

Kakridi-Ferrari, Maria. 2005. Glossa kai koinoniko perivallon: Zitimata koinonioglossologias (A Meros) [Language and Social Environment: Issues in Sociolinguistics: Part 1]. Contribution 64: Parousia Journal. Athens.

Labov, William. 1972. Language in the Inner City. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Lees, Christopher. 2012. Glossikos ratsismos: mia kritiki analisi arthron apo ellinikes efimerides. [Linguistic Racism: A Critical Analysis of Articles in Greek Newspapers]. Master’s thesis. University of Athens.

Lees, Christopher (In press: 2014) “Psifiakes glossikes praktikes kai topoi koinonikis diktiosis: mia proti parousiasi” [Digital Language Practices and Social Networking Sites: An Initial Presentation] Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on Greek Linguistics. Rhodes: University of the Aegean.

Lucy, John. 1992. Language Diversity and Thought: A Reformation of the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pavlidou, Theodossia-Soula. 2002. “Glossa-Genos-Fylo: Provlimata, Anazitiseis kai Elliniki Glossa” [Language-Gender-Sex: Problems, Questions and Greek Language] in Pavlidou, T.S. (2002) (ed.) Glossa-Genos-Fylo [Language-Gender-Sex].15–64. Thessaloniki: Institute of Modern Greek Studies: Manolis Triantafillidis.

Van Dijk, Teun. 1993. Elite Discourse and Racism. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Wardhaugh, Ronald. 1992. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Williams, David. n.d. “Study Choice: A Look at the Most Popular Subjects for Greek Graduate Students.” Web article available at: http://www.look4studies.com/default.asp?pid=19&langID=1&nwid=249 (accessed on February 20, 2014).

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Is There a Link between Music and Language? How Loss of Language Affected the Compositions of Vissarion Shebalin

December 31, 2013
By 19641

How does stroke affect the activities of a musician? Meta Weiss, a cellist and Sylff fellow at The Juilliard School, used an SRA award to conduct research in Moscow about the life and music of Soviet composer Vissarion Shebalin, who lost his linguistic abilities after the second of two severe strokes. By studying Shebalin’s journals and sketchbooks, Weiss gained new insights into the changes in Shebalin’s compositional style after each stroke, which could have broad implications for our understanding of the functioning of the human brain.

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The author performing at the Shebalin Music School

The author performing at the Shebalin Music School

Vissarion Yakevlevich Shebalin was born in 1904 in Omsk, Siberia. He lived in the Soviet Union until his death in 1963 and spent his entire professional life in Moscow. He began his musical studies in Omsk with Mikhail I. Nevitov before transferring to the Peter I. Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow under the tutelage of Nikolai Myaskovsky. Those who knew him always admired his work ethic, modesty, organization, and innate ability as a composer. After completing his studies at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, he taught there as a professor and eventually became its director, a position which he held from 1942 to 1948.

The year 1948 was a stressful time for all Soviet composers, and Shebalin was no exception. He was accused of formalism and stripped of his position in the Composer’s Union as well as at the Conservatory. Many of his family members believe that the first stroke that he suffered in 1953 was as a result of the many political stresses of the time. He was able to make an almost complete recovery following the stroke in 1953, with the exception of the lingering paralysis of his right arm and leg. He relearned how to write with his left hand, and continued to compose as well as teach. As a teacher, he remained extremely devoted to his students, even during his prolonged illness.

With a former student of Shebalin, Mr. Roman Ledenov

With a former student of Shebalin, Mr. Roman Ledenov

In 1959, he suffered a second stroke that resulted in aphasia. This was especially tragic because of his strong literary background and upbringing; before the strokes he was fluent not only in Russian, but also German, French, Latin and a bit of English. He worked with a team of linguists, neuropsychologists, and doctors to regain the Russian language, and although he was limited in his physical activities by his doctors, he set aside time every day to compose and keep a journal of his activities (with the help of his devoted wife, Alisa Maximovna Shebalina).

By virtue of the fact that Shebalin was a Soviet composer—and he deliberately did not do any self-promotion despite his reputation within the Soviet Union as a leading composer and composition teacher—his music and name essentially died with him in 1963. There is almost no literature on him that is published in English, and when his name does come up in music history articles, it is only in conjunction with the political events of 1948. Shebalin, however, has intrigued the neuroscience community for many years since his case was reported by Drs. Luria, Futer, and Svetkova in the 1960s.

My dissertation will be the first paper in any language to discuss Shebalin’s music through the lens of his medical condition. My aim is to analyze Shebalin’s music, focusing on his string quartets, both pre- and post-aphasia, in order to discover a link, if any, between Shebalin’s loss of verbal language and a change in compositional language. I am collaborating with Dr. Aniruddh Patel at Tufts University, a neuroscientist whose research focuses on music and language. While there have been other (better known) composers who suffered brain injuries, Shebalin is unique in that his condition was characterized by an almost complete loss of verbal language, and we can, based on his sketchbooks, create a fairly accurate timeline of his compositions as well as view the changes in his compositional process. This is inferred by studying the different motivic units Shebalin was constantly writing in his sketchbooks, as well as the more obvious indicators, such as handwriting (left vs. right) and pen color. The string quartets were chosen because they span the creative output of the composer from all periods of his life, and Shebalin himself said that they were the compositions he was most proud of and represented him the best.

After receiving my SRA grant, I traveled to Moscow for the month of October on a student visa and enrolled in the post-graduate program of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory. After exhaustive research working with a Russian-English translator, I was able to track down the location of all of the archival materials on Shebalin, and I was fortunate enough to obtain access to everything that was relevant to my research. This included the RGALI State Archive, the Glinka Museum Archive, and the Tchaikovsky Conservatory Archive and Reading Room.

With Shebalin's family members and directors of the Shebalin Music School

With Shebalin's family members and directors of the Shebalin Music School

Additionally, I was also able, using the Russian “vKontakte” social networking site, to locate the Shebalin family. They granted me permission to visit Shebalin’s summer estate, interview his surviving family members, family friends, former students, and doctors. Two of the three therapists/neuropsychologists who helped Shebalin with his linguistic rehabilitation following his second stroke had already passed away. Again using vKontakte, I reached out to Dr. L.S. Svetkova, the only living team member who treated Shebalin during his rehabilitation, and she agreed to send me her detailed notes and records that she kept while he was her patient.

The highlight of my research was the sketchbooks that are housed in the RGALI State Archive. Shebalin worked quickly and methodically, and was constantly scrutinizing his work. His sketchbooks proved to be much more revealing than any of the manuscripts or other scores. Unlike the detailed journals kept by both Shebalin and his wife, the sketchbooks are unbiased. They show his compositional process neatly and efficiently. Also, because his right side was paralyzed following the first stroke, one can clearly see the change from writing with his right hand to writing with his left hand. They also reveal that after both strokes, he did not simply go back to older works and revise them but he also created completely new and different works.

Shebalin’s music changed in several ways post-stroke. There are distinct differences in the structure of the themes, the imagery of the music, and the scale of his compositions. After his second stroke, he also experimented with a pseudo-twelve-tone style, though still within the tonal idiom, writing themes that featured all twelve tones melodically but relied on the functional harmony of tonality. Perhaps counterintuitively, his music was full of optimism following the onset of his aphasia, and, like his music before the strokes, the music was very clean and straightforward, but with new richness and depth despite the economy of means.

With Shebalin's great-granddaughter and great-great-granddaughter, outside the Shebalin Music School in Moscow

With Shebalin's great-granddaughter and great-great-granddaughter, outside the Shebalin Music School in Moscow

Upon further analysis, it is anticipated that although it will be relatively easy to differentiate the pre- and post-aphasia musical traits, it will be difficult to attribute an exact cause-effect relationship between the change in compositional language and loss of verbal language for two reasons.

First, despite the fact that both Shebalin and his close family and friends—many of whom were interviewed in the course of this research—deny that he ever buckled to political pressure, it will be difficult to definitively separate changes in his music due to political pressure and those due to his medical condition or changing musical taste. The second reason is that because of Shebalin’s fragile physical state following the strokes, he was easily fatigued and thus limited to composing only a few hours a day by his medical doctors. Preliminary analysis reveals that his musical style is markedly more succinct following the strokes, though this may be a result of the doctor’s restrictions.

Through the research conducted with the SRA grant, I was able to construct a complete picture of Shebalin and his compositional output. The future implications of this research are twofold. First, and perhaps most importantly, it would provide hope for stroke victims that in spite of the odds, Shebalin was able to continue to create music and express himself through his most beloved medium—composition. Second, by analyzing his music both pre- and post-aphasia, it may reveal certain processes or elements that are shared by both music and language that remain intact despite the loss of language (such as syntax and grammar).

In this way, my research may help future stroke victims to recover certain aspects of language and aid in our understanding of the brain and mind, a subject with implications far beyond just music or Shebalin.