WP23 Situating language rights: English and Swahili in Tanzania revisited

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This paper argues for an ethnographic-sociolinguistic approach to the issue of linguistic rights. In much of the literature on linguistic rights a fundamentally flawed set of assumptions about language and society is being used, leading to assessments of language situations that are empirically not sustainable. An alternative set of assumptions is offered, grounded in ethnography and focused on language use as oriented towards centering institutions that attribute indexicalities ? function and value ? to linguistic resources. Such centers are invariably multiple but stratified, and the state occupies a crucial place in these systems, between the world system and local forces. This model is applied to the Tanzanian sociolinguistic situation, where a strong state appeared to be caught between pressures that were both transnational and local. This gave rise to a pattern of distribution of linguistic resources, including English and Swahili, that offered semiotic opportunities to speakers to construct deeply ?local? meanings. The languages were not in themselves agents of inequality, but the way in which they were distributed nationally and in relation to transnational hierarchies is the key to understanding inequality. Discussions of linguistic rights should start from assessments of the real potential and constraints of linguistic resources, not from idealized and statified conceptions of language and society and predefined scenarios of their interaction.