Postcolonial Studies, Digital Humanities, and the Politics of Language

Excerpted from a longer essay in progress.

Adeline Koh and Roopika Risam recently started an open thread on DHPoco based around an observation by Martha Nell Smith about the politics of race and gender in the digital humanities. I find these topics distinctly connected to questions about language and the relationship of various humanities fields. In one comment I made on the thread I tried to raise these issues, which I was not entirely surprised to find provoked no additional discussion, especially as they relate to the general question of a postcolonial digital humanities.

This is a great comment, and at the risk of continuing to talk too much on this board, I think it important to expand a bit on a point I hope to write up more thoroughly, which is that when we expand not just to multilingualism among imperial/majority languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin, Japanese, Russian, Hindi, Tamil, Arabic, Swahili, even Quechua) but to minority, indigenous and endangered languages, the question of what counts as DH and why something should be labeled as DH becomes extremely vexed. To keep to North America but turn to the indigenous (aka First Nations) people of Canada, most of the major First Nations groups now maintain rich community/governmental websites with a great deal of information on history, geography, culture, and language–a lot of what might go into at least the “archive” if not the “tool” version of DH type 1. But none of this work, or little of it, is perceived or labeled as DH, particularly as Type 1 (one of the earliest DH projects I worked on was the Cree language site, and I have had trouble getting this recognized “as” DH, and for a lot of reasons have stopped trying). To my mind, in many ways, these are better than “archives,” because they are the marks of living communities using any form of communications to keep themselves active and alive. It would make DH look a lot less parochial and majority-culture oriented if this stuff “counted” as DH, but it’s hard to see how it would benefit the communities themselves. This is one of the deep cruxes that DH as a label has created for itself–it needs this material in order to de-colonize itself, but taking that material in looks like a colonizing gesture, one that is meant to benefit “us” much more than “them.”

Some links to indexes of North American (especially Canadian) indigenous sites:

In literary studies “proper”—college and university departments like English and Comparative Literature and Area Studies, and the academic journals in which researchers publish—it is fair to say that postcolonial studies manifests itself in two major ways. The first is through theoretical writing, like that of Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Homi K. Bhabha; the second is through the direct reading of primary texts, whether these come from traditional majority cultures or from writers more or less associated with minority and postcolonial cultures (here meaning literally those cultures once subject to colonial rule, and governance of which has been returned to one degree or another to the local culture)–texts, it’s important to say, which come from every time period and place, not just contemporary ones. This work, unless it is situated in Anthropology or Linguistics departments, typically proceeds via examination of work written in majority languages, for a variety of reasons, not all of them necessarily salutary to the postcolonial critical project. This gives rise to some of the profound tensions in the field, perhaps exemplified by the 1960s debate between the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe and the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o over the question of the appropriate language for African literature.

In departments other than Anthropology or Linguistics, subaltern texts are typically read in translation unless they were originally composed in a majority language. The practical reasons for this are obvious, but its effects are not entirely welcome, as it can tend to perpetuate the notion that all languages are not just equal but transparent, that nothing is lost if the original language is lost, that even the Ngũgĩ/Achebe debate is moot because Ngũgĩ’s original Gikuyu must be translated for anyone but approximately 6.6 million native speakers to read it (“Gikuyu”). In recent decades, a publishing explosion has meant that postcolonial literature is widely available in majority languages or in translation; but this should not obscure our understanding of the postcolonial predicament of the non-majority languages and their speakers. One hopes that the opposite can occur, and that interest in postcolonial cultures as no “more than” or “less than” our own culture will encourage a new respect for both these cultures and their rights, much as minority rights have come to be more widely accepted within majority cultures themselves; yet as the tension over these rights (and often enough, the languages spoken by minorities within majority cultures) shows, this work is slow, fraught, poorly-understood, difficult, and by no means guarantees a salutary outcome.

One of the projects that draws me to do part of my work in linguistics, and that drives the work of many linguists today, is usually referred to by the phrase “Endangered Languages.” This is another complex topic that I won’t even pretend to cover in anything like the detail it deserves; I encourage readers unfamiliar with it to explore the scholarship on it (good starting points are Nettle and Romaine 2002; Harrison 2008; Grenoble and Whaley 1998; and the central language resource called Ethnologue: Lewis, Simons and Fennig 2013). The “endangered languages” movement in linguistics is of fairly recent vintage, spurred in no small part by a 1992 essay by Michael Krauss. As the linguists Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine put it,

There are good reasons to believe that the processes leading to the disappearance of languages have greatly accelerated over the past two hundred years. Linguists estimate that there are around 5,000-6,700 languages in the world today. At least half, if not more, will become extinct in the next century (Nettle and Romaine 2002, 7)

In fact estimates have risen since Nettle and Romaine published this assessment in 2002; current estimates indicate that there are more than 7,100 languages in the world today (Lewis, Simons and Fennig 2013).  The Ethnologue currently reports that around 36% of these are threatened or already in immediate danger of dying out.

The “solutions” to these problems are difficult even to imagine, but they do exist. The first reaction within linguistics was an explosion in “documentary linguistics,” also fueled by the rapid spread of digital technologies, in a direct and understandable effort to “save” the languages by recording, archiving, and transcribing them. But even in the best cases we are talking about recording a few hundred hours of speech by a small group of speakers. Imagine if someone gave you the assignment to “document English” in the “community where you live” in several hundred hours of tape. Yes, you’d get a lot—and yes, for a variety of reasons, English exists in more variants and has a larger vocabulary than many indigenous languages—but think of how much you’d miss. You’d miss almost everything, to be very honest.

So in a kind of second wave of work, one now hears the phrase “language revitalization” coupled, more often than not, to the phrase “language documentation.” The goal of such efforts is at least threefold: to document languages as fully as possible; to support communities in ongoing efforts to resist the loss of language; and to use documentary and other materials generated by the linguistic work itself, often involving community members directly in the creation of archival and educational resources—which are usually digital in nature.

The move is one from what a few linguists have smartly called “telic archivism” (Dobrin, Austin, and Nathan 2007; Nathan 2004)—the creation of archives as an appropriate and sufficient end-goal—to a focus on the community itself, where there is any hope of the community holding onto its language(s) as vital practices. This requires, too, what I understand as the work of postcolonial studies: “If people do believe their language is primitive, or are scarred by punishments imposed for speaking the language in their youth, they are unlikely to make informed judgments about their goals for language learning.” (Nathan and Fang 2009, 8).

Most of the world’s languages are spoken and not historically written (exact estimates are hard to come by, but it is largely accepted that about 220 languages account for most of the language use by 95% of the world’s population, and that these also make up the large majority of written languages and, until very recently, languages taught in schools). As such we cannot pin hopes for a postcolonial digital humanities to wait for texts from marginalized peoples to appear in print or even on the web; thus an historic problem with Wikipedia’s goal to establish an “encyclopedia in all languages” is hampered by Wikipedia’s only existing in written form (see Wikimedia Oral Citations for the only general acknowledgement of this predicament).  Efforts to make the web more multilingual or less monolingual face enormous hurdles in the accommodation of spoken practices within what is largely a written medium; what is not available is the insistence that such written practices be reduced to writing in order to accommodate the web—writing in this way fundamentally changes the character of languages in theoretically interesting ways, but the primary goal of the endangered languages movement, and of postcolonial studies, is to document and support the languages as they are, not to change them. (Note that documentation of languages is often done through IPA, the International Phonetic Alphabet, but that this writing system is not typically used other than for linguistic research; the endangered languages movement has taken advantage of a variety of digital technologies to move the concept of documentation from written transcription to audio and audiovisual media.)

The late Dell Hymes is probably the linguist whose work most exposes the prejudicial assumptions on which our notion of literature itself rests. In a series of essays of which the most famous is “Discovering Oral Performance and Measured Verse in American Indian Narrative,” and which are collected in the volumes “In Vain I Tried to Tell You”: Essays in Native American Ethnopoetics and Now I Know Only So Far: Essays in Ethnopoetics, Hymes argued that there are not just conceptual but formal and stylistic reasons to re-evaluate the “texts” that have been “collected” from indigenous people as literary forms. As “Discovering Oral Performance” announces in its opening sentences:

I should like to discuss a discovery which may have widespread relevance. The narratives of the Chinookan peoples of Oregon and Washington can be shown to be organized in terms of lines, verses, stanzas, scenes, and what one may call acts. (309)

Hymes concludes the essay:

The contribution to a truly comparative, general literature, in which the verbal art of mankind as a whole has a place, might be analogous to the effect once had by grammars of Native American languages on general linguistics, expanding and deepening our understanding of what it can mean to be possessed of language. (341)

Roughly, what Hymes discovered is that in every productive sense, all cultures have what we call “literature,” but for the highly parochial definitions attached to the specific literary traditions of majority cultures. This has always struck me as both intuitively and empirically beyond question, as soon as one starts to look at the evidence; and also to pose huge problems for the kinds of global theorizing advanced by literary scholars like Franco Moretti (Atlas of the European Novel; Graphs, Maps, Trees) and Pascale Casanova (World Republic of Letters), which take too much for granted our ability to isolate the “properly” or formally-named “literary” from the varieties of speech genres in which they are embedded. To put Hymes’s observation in terms which I feel confident, based on the time I spent with him, would agree: Every culture has language. Every culture has literature. Every culture has narrative. Every culture has poetry.

Digital technologies can play important roles in the preservation and revitalization of languages and cultures. They are also deeply implicated in the forces that are causing linguistic and cultural endangerment to begin with. Like other technologies of media, memory, and language, they always have the nature of the pharmakon, in the terminology of Jacques Derrida that has recently been adapted to a wide range of communications technologies by Bernard Stiegler (see for example Stiegler 2012), both poison and cure. Sometimes the poison and cure come in the same package: the very seductiveness and utility of technology can be precisely the destructive force. In Michel Foucault’s terms, the “poison” can come in the form of positive power: a power that subverts minority cultures not by directly destroying them, but by advertising the superiority of the majority, in a thousand different ways. This kind of positive power is especially effective on young people, who find so much about metropolitan modernity attractive (not least its economic opportunities), and easily adopt the view that indigenous cultures are “traditional,” old-fashioned, out of step, even “primitive.”

We can also work to make the world of the digital reflect these prejudices much less than they do. Here is where the uncertain position and uncertain commitments of the digital humanities seem to me especially worthy of reflection. As I asked in my comment, what is a digital humanities project outside of the major metropolitan languages and cultures? Who wants that label to be applied, and why? Could we, for example, engage in digital humanities work that promoted the values and lives of postcolonial peoples, even if the work did not have that label? For a long time I worked under the assumption that we can, which I still hope is correct; yet I often wonder if that is a kind of fool’s errand.

One project that deserves special discussion in this regard is the the World Oral Literature Project (WOLP) chiefly run by Cambridge and Yale universities:

Established at the University of Cambridge in 2009 and co-located in Yale, US since 2011, the World Oral Literature Project collaborates with local communities to document their own oral narratives, and aspires to become a permanent centre for the appreciation and preservation of oral literature. The Project provides small grants to fund the collecting of oral literature, with a particular focus on the peoples of Asia and the Pacific, and on areas of cultural disturbance. In addition, the Project hosts training workshops for grant recipients and other engaged scholars. The World Oral Literature Project also publishes oral texts and occasional papers, and makes collections of oral traditions accessible through new media platforms. By stimulating the documentation of oral literature and by building a network for cooperation and collaboration, the World Oral Literature Project supports a community of committed scholars and indigenous researchers.

It is striking how well this project embodies the ideals implicit and explicit in Hymes’s work and the work of the language revitalization movement, without needing to make those commitments all that explicit. Instead, this project takes for granted that these languages and cultures are equal to all others, without implying rhetorically or practically that the people and their languages are “dying” or “traditional” or “backward.” It focuses on oral practice because that practice is fundamental to language and culture in a way writing is not. It is multidisciplinary, global, and postcolonial in the best sense.

Interestingly, though, like most linguistics and indigenous media projects, the WOLP has no explicit connection to digital humanities. Its funding comes directly from the sponsoring universities and from funding bodies associated with endangered languages. I was not entirely surprised, therefore, at the lack of response from within DH to the surprising announcement made on April 4 of this year, that the WOLP will be shutting down due to lack of funding:

After five years supporting the documentation of endangered languages and cultures, the World Oral Literature Project (WOLP) will temporarily halt accepting materials or offering grants as of April 2013 as new funding has become challenging in the current environment.

I tweeted about the project shutting down, and #DHPoco retweeted my tweet. Other than that, I know of no digital humanities venue in which any comment was made about what seems to me a terrible development on many different levels. I do think deep questions about the overall orientation and purpose of DH are raised by this general lack of interest and engagement, even though as a member of the DH community I am committed to doing what I can to draw attention to it.

The project I continue to think the best example of what digital technologies can do for humanities scholarship comes from linguistics, and despite being widely used and admired throughout many different linguistics fields, is advertised very little. To my knowledge, other than in my own work, I’ve never seen it referred to as DH; I don’t think the researchers refer to it this way, its funding (like the WOLP) comes entirely from linguistics sources, and perhaps because of its importance and utility to the linguistics community, I see very little self-promotion or labeling associated with it, very little of the institutional politics I associate with DH.

This project is called the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures (WALS; Dryer and Haspelmath 2011). As the editors explain, WALS is “a large database of structural (phonological, grammatical, lexical) properties of languages gathered from descriptive materials (such as reference grammars) by a team of 55 authors (many of them the leading authorities on the subject).” In no small part through a careful examination of those endangered and minority languages that until very recently had been ruled out for serious scholarly research due to colonial prejudice, WALS demonstrates just how wide is the conceptual space in which human language can vary; WALS currently lists 144 classes of features of this sort, ranging from well-known categories like tone, gender, tense, and definite and indefinite articles to forms of double negation, many varieties of word ordering, kinds of case structure, inclusive/exclusive pronouns, the presence or absence of adjectives, and forms of negation. It is interesting to ponder whether WALS would “count” as “Type 1” digital humanities, and what would be at stake in considering it to be or not to be a DH project.

WALS, the World Oral Literature Project, the Ethnologue, and the sites of indigenous governments all display a commitment both to the capabilities of digital technology and the rights, needs, and desires of postcolonial people and cultures. They already exist; they are already digital. I am not sure what it would mean for these projects to be seen as DH; I would be very glad if DH expanded its self-conception to include projects like these, but I don’t know what it would mean or who would benefit for these projects to be labeled DH, and unlike the digital work in other fields, I continue to think that the DH label remains particularly important for reasons of institutional politics that may not be germane to the specific needs of postcolonial cultures.

Some things, though, clearly could be done and are within the purview of DH as it is currently constituted. In addition to the closer ties with and appreciation for disciplinary linguistics work within text-analytical communities, this would include:

  • Increased attention from digital humanists to the world’s minority languages;
  • An increased focused on language revitalization projects as inherently a part of DH;
  • Increased recognition of the importance of speaking to language itself, and support for projects that take spoken language as the evidentiary base from which to proceed;
  • Support from DH funding bodies for work like the World Oral Literature Project, the Wikimedia Oral Citations project, and even the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures;
  • Careful thought and even elaboration of the postcolonial studies perspective on all media and technology interactions with indigenous peoples;
  • Significant work within the majority digital realm to combat the pernicious stereotypes of indigenous peoples and their languages.

I don’t see how an investment in postcolonial studies can meet an interest in digital technology without entailing a seriously critical perspective. Our world is too thoroughly informed by colonialism and imperialism, racism and sexism, to escape it through technical means; that such a desire is written into our technology at a very deep level is attested to by the Martha Nell Smith essay that sparked off the DHPoco open thread.

On that thread, Brian Lennon enjoined us to see a continuity with critical-theoretical work on the interactions of digital technology with the postcolonial predicament, including

Maria Fernández’s “Postcolonial Media Theory”; Kavita Philip et al.’s “Postcolonial Computing” and other work; Terry Harpold and Kavita Philip’s “Of Bugs and Rats: Cyber-Cleanliness, Cyber-Squalor, and the Fantasy-Spaces of Informational Globalization” and Harpold’s “Dark Continents: A Critique of Internet Metageographies”; more broadly, the work gathered in volumes like Sandra Harding’s Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies Reader.

Taking such work seriously might offer significant opportunities for digital humanities. I can think of any number of ways that the oral literature collected by WOLP might be of real interest to scholars of literature, and that the challenges posed by parsing spoken language represent hard problems to which scholars of literature and culture, as well as scholars of language, have much to add. Some of the questions about literary form asked by Franco Moretti and the Stanford Literary Lab strike me as ones that could be meaningfully expanded to a much wider range of sources and genres than has so far been done, along the lines suggested by the ethnopoetic analyses of Dell Hymes. We might explore some of the reasons that the stalled Wikimedia Oral Citations project has so far not found wider acceptance. As the leaders of that project write, “The problem with the sum of human knowledge, however, is that it is far greater than the sum of printed knowledge.” That is nowhere more clearly true than in the question of the literary, and there could be no more appropriate realization of the “cure” part of the digital pharmakon than for us to broaden our object of study to include what our colonial legacy has (almost) ruled out.

Works Cited

  • Dobrin, Lise M., Peter K. Austin and David Nathan. 2007. “Dying to Be Counted: The Commodification of Endangered Languages in Documentary Linguistics.” In Peter K. Austin, Oliver Bond & David Nathan, eds., Proceedings of Conference on Language Documentation and Linguistic Theory. London: SOAS. 59-68. Full text available here.
  • Dryer, Matthew S. and Haspelmath, Martin, eds. 2011. The World Atlas of Language Structures Online (Munich: Max Planck Digital Library). Available online at Accessed May 30, 2013.
  • “Gikuyu.” Ethnologue entry. Accessed May 28, 2013.
  • Grenoble, Lenore A. and Lindsay J. Whaley, eds. 1998. Endangered Languages: Language Loss and Community Response (New York: Cambridge University Press)
  • Harrison, K. David. 2008. When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge (New York: Oxford University Press)
  • Hymes, Dell. 1981. “In Vain I Tried to Tell You”: Essays in Native American Ethnopoetics (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press)
  • Hymes, Dell. 2004. Now I Know Only So Far: Essays in Ethnopoetics (Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press)
  • Krauss, Michael E. 1992. “The World’s Languages in Crisis.” Language 68:1. 4-10.
  • Lewis, M. Paul, Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig, eds. 2013. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Seventeenth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version:
  • Nathan, David. 2004. “Documentary Linguistics: Alarm Bells and Whistles?” Paper presented at SOAS Conference (November). Abstract available here.
  • Nathan, David. 2012. “Archive Fever: Making Languages Contagious, or Textually Transmitted Disease?” Paper presented at Charting Vanishing Voices: A Collaborative Workshop to Map Endangered Oral Cultures. University of Cambridge (June 30).
  • Nathan, David and Meili Fang. 2009. “Language Documentation and Pedagogy for Endangered Languages: A Mutual Revitalization.” In Peter Austin, ed., Language Documentation and Description. Vol 6. London: SOAS. 132-160. Full text available here.
  • Nettle, Daniel and Suzanne Romaine. 2002. Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages (New York: Oxford University Press)
  • Stiegler, Bernard. 2012. “Relational Ecology and the Digital Pharmakon.” Culture Machine 13. Full text available here.
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  1. DHPoco
    Posted May 31, 2013 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Postcolonial Digital Humanities | Postcolonial Studies, Digital Humanities, and the Politics of Language says:

    […] This post has been cross-posted from David Golumbia’s blog. […]

  2. Tim Elfenbein
    Posted June 1, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Since the ethics of recognition is such a central aspect of your post, you might want to look at Elizabeth Povinelli’s work, especially her Vectors project and a recent article on the postcolonial archive. She is wrestling with the possibilities and dangers of both the ethical imperative of recognition and of digital archives designed to further its realization.

    “Digital Futures.” Vectors,

    “The Woman on the Other Side of the Wall:
    Archiving the Otherwise in Postcolonial Digital Archives.” 2011. differences,

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