As we speak: language change and social change, from grammar to emoticons

Fall 2010 Program

Our language is changing, and so is our understanding of language. Most of us grew up learning a standard structure, grammar, and pronunciation. Today that emphasis is giving way to a view of language in constant transition. We see the change as new words are introduced, old words gain new meanings, communications grow global, pop culture morphs, texting creates a vocabulary of contractions, and –tragically – traditional languages die.

Language is a large part of our identity. When language changes, what happens to our view of a world that is also in rapid change? This series will examine how politics, power, and identity are affected by language, and how the study of language can tell us more about ourselves.

October 28 Lecture - Language, power, politics, and identity

Professor Christina Kramer, University of Toronto

Christina KramerChristina Kramer is chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, University of Toronto, and an award-winning author.

Often our identity is defined by language and assumptions about language: Germans speak Germans, French French, or we are categorized by accent. We can even be defined by word choice - zed or zee? Why does "double double' makes us feel like insiders? While language may unite us, at times group membership is defined by nuances of word selection, accent, and grammar. This talk will focus on the relation between language, identity and power in the context of Balkan history, with implications for language and identity issues in North America.

October 29 Seminar - Language and education

November 4 Lecture - Language and post-nationalism in francophone Canada

Professor Monica Heller, OISE

Monica hellerMonica Heller is a professor in the Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. She is a frequent commentator on bilingualism and francophone Canada on CBC, Radio-Canada, and Télévision franco-ontarienne.

What does it mean to be a francophone in Canada today? Language, culture, and nationhood are at a crossroads as the global economy affects national bilingualism policy. New needs, new interests, and pop culture – for example, intercontinental call centres, heritage tourism, and rap – lead to the “skilling” of language beyond locally normal use. The result could be called post-nationalism. This change is widespread and by no means confined to Canada.

November 5 Seminar - Bonjour, hello? Bilingualism in (inter)action

November 11 Lecture - Does the language you speak shape your understanding of the world?

Professor Jack Sidnell, University of Toronto

Jack SidnellJack Sidnell is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto with a cross-appointment to the Department of Linguistics.

Are our thoughts and experience shaped by the language we happen to speak? Does language shape our appreciation, perception, and understanding of the world around us? Philosophers, psychologists, other scholars, and writers, including Toni Morrison and George Orwell, have debated these questions for years. This lecture promises a new approach, based on language as the medium of social interaction.

November 12 Seminar - Linguistic diversity

November 18 Lecture - Whither Canada’s Aboriginal languages?

Professor Keren Rice, University of Toronto

Keren RiceKeren Rice is a professor of linguistics and founding director of the Aboriginal Studies Program and of the Centre for Aboriginal Initiatives in the University of Toronto.

Before European settlement, Aboriginals across Canada spoke a wide variety of languages. Many were bilingual. A high number of these languages continued in use until the 1950s, but since then they have been in decline; they are not being passed from one generation to the next. This lecture will examine the nature of language loss, recent responses in Aboriginal communities across the country, and the role that language is playing in movements for social justice.

November 19 Seminar - The Aboriginal languages of Canada: sounds, words, and beyond

November 25 Lecture - What language jokes can tell us about language

Professor Paul Cohen, University of Toronto

Paul CohenPaul Cohen is associate professor of French history in the Department of History, and director of the Centre for the Study of France and the Francophone World in the University of Toronto.

People have been telling language jokes since the days of antiquity. It’s a sensitive subject to laugh about because language, dialects, and accents are markers of social and gender identity. Given its persistence, this form of humour has much to teach us about the complex societies that imagine it.

November 26 Seminar - The idea of national languages

December 2 Lecture - The evolution of language

Professor Merlin Donald, Queen’s University

Merlin DonalMerlin Donald is professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology and the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University His many publications bridge several disciplines in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

Language is an astonishing human phenomenon. There is nothing like it in animals, including our close relatives the Great Apes. Its uniqueness has puzzled scholars and scientists for generations. The question has gained new life recently from research in many disciplines. The dramatic new evidence they are providing forces us to face squarely our human nature and the incredibly rapid rise of humanity to the dominant position on this planet.

December 3 Seminar - The impact of technology on thought and language