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UCL Mellon Programme: Identities and Culture in Europe since 1945

Seminar: 1 February 2006

Dr Andrew Shorten What Good Is Language?


Languages are fairly useful things. Ordering breakfast, gossiping or discussing semiotics would all be difficult without them. But languages are also sometimes said to matter in another way, in the sense that because those attached to them invest emotional energies in them, hold an identity stake in them, and so forth, then others (who do not possess that particular attachment, but do, of course, possess another similar one) owe them something, to treat their linguistic attachments fairly or with respect, to recognise their linguistic preferences or to accommodate them within institutional arrangements, to assist in language rejuvenation programmes or to help protect them against the corrosive pressures of linguistic assimilation, and so on. If my linguistic attachments place others under an obligation, then it must be because my language is in some sense valuable - either to me personally or to humanity at large - and in a different way to that in which my language is a useful means to order breakfast, gossip, or discuss semiotics. In other words, if linguistic attachments generate obligations, then they must be non-instrumentally valuable, and this value must carry some significant moral weight. Asking what good language is, then, is to enquire not only into its instrumental usefulness or communicative utility, but also about what good my linguistic attachments are to me. This paper will scrutinise three different explanations about what kind of good linguistic attachments are for those who hold them, in addition to the correlative obligations that each explanation places on both speakers themselves and others. (These three explanations are, respectively, that particular linguistic attachments matter because they are connected to our ability to secure self-respect, that particular linguistic attachments matter because national memberships matter, and that linguistic attachments matter because they are primary goods, in the sense that Will Kymlicka has suggested that cultural memberships are.)

This page last modified 26 September, 2012 by UCL Mellon Admin

Book cover: Muamma

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imag: book cover, Federica  Mazzara

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