3 Sociolinguistics: Towards a Complex
Departament of General Linguistics,
Complexity, Communication, and Sociolinguistics Group,
CUSC – University Center of Sociolinguistics and Communication
Universitat de Barcelona
Abstract. As the sociologist Norbert Elias pointed out, there is a need of new
procedural models to get to grasp the complex functioning of human-beings-in-
society. An ecological complexity approach could be useful to advance our
knowledge. How can we think of a sociolinguistic “ecosystem”? What elements do
we need to put in such an ecosystem and what analogies could be applied? The
(bio)ecological inspiration is a metaphorical exercise to proceed toward a more
holistic approach in dynamic sociolinguistics. However, a language is not a species
and, therefore, we need to make our complex ecology socio-cognitive and
multidimensional. We need to create theories and represent to ourselves how
language behaviour is woven together with its contexts in order to maintain
language diversity and, at the same time, foster general human intercommunication
on a planetary scale.
It is worth beginning with a mention of the German-Jewish sociologist Norbert
Elias, now already died. Elias, a man ahead of his time, is a person in need of
rediscovery. When he gave his sociology classes, he began by showing his
students a section of a human brain. I find it extraordinary that a person “doing
sociology” should start in this way, introducing the class to the element central to
any attempt at understanding reality: the human brain. Certainly, the approach was
revolutionary in his period, within the field of sociology. Elias had studied
philosophy and medicine. Finding himself between these two poles is what led
him to devote himself to sociology, which he believed would be the best path
toward understanding the human phenomenon as a whole. Certainly he has left us
a sociology that is original and enormously useful and up-to-date.
* Based on the translation of the talk entitled “Sòcio/lingüística: per una mirada complexa”,
given at CosmoCaixa Science Museum, Barcelona. This final text was supported by a
research project grant on Globalization, intercommunication and group languages in
medium-sized language communities (FFI2009-10424) directed by A. Bastardas Boada,
funded by the Ministerio de Economia y Competitividad of Spain.
16 A. Bastardas-Boada
A quotation from one of his books – translated into Spanish – that might serve
to frame today’s talk goes: “The fact that the human-social plane of the universe is
made up of people, of us, leads us easily to forget that its development, its
structures and its modes of operation, as well as its explanation, are for us, for
human beings, something that is, in principle, no less unknown than the
development, structures, modes of operation and explanations of the physical-
chemical and biological planes and they must be, to no small extent, something
that is discovered slowly. Our everyday experience of ourselves easily conceals
the fact that, at present, we ourselves are still, and to a much greater extent, a
relatively unexplored region, a white spot on the map of human knowledge less
well-known than the poles of the Earth or the surfaces of the moon1.” We must be
mindful of how difficult it is for us as human beings to see ourselves, to represent
ourselves and gain distance on our everyday actions. So far, we have been able to
gain such distance with respect to the physical and chemical world. However, with
the respect to the human plane, this remains an unrealised conquest.
Therefore, we, like Elias, face the same challenge in trying to move forward, to
understand the world better, in this “third culture”, this intersection between the
“arts and humanities” and the “sciences”, drawing on the best of each of these two
broad areas. This is the perspective that I will be applying to that part of reality to
which I have devoted my work in recent years, namely sociolinguistic phenomena.
Today, my aim is to consider both elements of the term “socio/linguistics”, i.e.,
the social and the linguistics aspects. And because we want to see the idea in its
entirety as well, I will apply the perspective in an integrated fashion at both levels.
2 The Perspective of Complexity
How did I personally come to be able to speak from the perspective of
“complexity”? If we wish to gain an understanding of sociolinguistic phenomena,
that is, an understanding of language as a subset interrelated with the rest of
society, then we clearly face a challenge. How can we build an interdisciplinary
paradigm if none exists? Those of us who work in sciences that are at the edge of
university departments always fall between the cracks. We find ourselves in no
man’s land. Therefore, it was highly satisfying to us to encounter theories of
physics, ecology and anthropology that signalled the way forward (Bastardas i
Boada 1996). They confirmed that we were headed in the right direction, that it
was of no consequence whether we were at the periphery, that this was the path
we needed to go down to build an understanding of the world that better fit reality,
which certainly is complex. It is one thing that academic disciplines cut up reality
for operational convenience, but it is another to think that the world itself is also
cut up into pieces. This is the great problem before us. And the great danger.
Thinking that the world is fragmentary, disconnected, with no interrelationships
between its elements.
The way we in the universities have divided up the work into separate and
distinct bundles, for example, leads many linguists to speak rarely with people in
psychology, sociology or anthropology. And they do not speak with us either.
1 Elias, Norbert, 1982, p. 36.
3 Sociolinguistics: Towards a Complex Ecological View 17
Where are the bridges? Where is the unity of the human being, which is plain to
see? As Edgar Morin (1991, 1992, 1994, 2001) puts it, we need to make an
important change in our thinking. We have to reunite what we have wrongfully
divided. Of course, we need to distinguish, but not to separate and smash. We
need to make operational distinctions, but not by fragmenting that which is
obviously an indivisible, united and complex reality. Blending disciplines,
blending views, working metaphorically—this is the path. We won’t see many
numbers or calculations. But we will see the world of metaphor applied to distinct
disciplines and we will see the productivity of analogy. At least, that is the
proposal before us.
I propose to you that you think of those images that have more than one
interpretation. Probably all of you have seen them. Recall that if you looked a little
carefully, you could see one thing at times and a second thing at other times. The
same image can be interpreted in two ways. That is an example of the fact that the
physical outlines of perception constitute one aspect of reality, while what we
interpret from what we see constitutes another. We see what we think we see. We
always interpret the outlines of perception. Reality is not given directly to us.
Between, there is always the interpretation of reality. We might go decades
without seeing certain aspects of the reality we are looking at, because we have
not evolved our interpretation, we have not adapted our ability to interpret our
perceptions in this way. First, it must be said clearly that we ourselves create
images of reality, we ourselves create the ideas of things, conceptual landscapes.
Perceptions come to us from reality, but we assemble the perceptions according to
the interpretation that we think we see. We cognitively construct reality, we
“make” it, and it is precisely for this reason, building on this awareness, that we
take on the challenge to see whether we can construct better, more complex, more
fitting images in light of the intricate and interwoven dynamism of reality. This is
our commitment by adopting a “complex view”: knowing that we ourselves are
the “creators” of reality, we try to see whether the images by which we have so far
sustained our representation of the world are the most suitable ones.
But how can a view be complex? A complex view is a gaze that builds in the
fact that reality is self-constructed and that these elements exist within one
another. For example, in this moment, in this room you are in some sense both
outside me and within me at the same time. And I am too: I am outside and within
you. But, despite being highly scientific, we have viewed the world in recent
centuries through a fragmented, partitioned gaze that can uncover the
interpenetrations and interweavings of reality only with difficulty. We were
unable to think our way toward creating new images of self-co-construction and
interdependence of reality. But this, after all, is exactly where we need to be
headed, if we are to understand human linguistic and cognitive phenomena, which
have properties that are not the same as the properties of matter. For example, a
stone is plainly here, the spot it occupies cannot be occupied by something else.
Yet socio-cognitive phenomena do not possess exactly these properties. A
collective human identity is not a stone whose effect is to prevent another identity
from occupying the same spot. It does not have these properties. The same thing
occurs with languages: knowing a language does not signify that you cannot learn
other languages. A language does not occupy a spot that necessarily precludes the
entrance of another into your brain/mind.
18 A. Bastardas-Boada
Therefore, when we think of socio-human, socio-cognitive facts, we must in all
likelihood abandon many of the typical scientific properties that we tend to
employ in our everyday thinking. In fact, we are simply doing what our friends the
physicists did in their revolutions of the twentieth century when they shifted
paradigms, found that particles were waves and waves were particles – so what
were they, in fact? – and found that the observer influenced reality. These
elements clearly aid us in gaining a much greater understanding of the socio-
human level. Then, briefly, based on my experience in the field of sociolinguistics,
what characteristics could we now say typify a complex view? What are its basic
3 The Main Aspects of an Ecological Complexity: A Proposal
a): The centrality of the mind. There is no science without an observer. While this
statement may seem obvious now, it was very unclear for many years. We have
spoken of the world and its elements from a supposedly objective and neutral
viewpoint. We have reified concepts. They had their own existence. It was as if
we ourselves had not created the concepts. But we create representations and
concepts. As the physicist David Bohm put it, “science is not about reality, but
rather about our knowledge of reality” (1987). Bearing this fact in mind is very
important to being able to change our way of thinking. We have no direct access
to the world. There are always conceptual lenses that enable (or hinder) our access
b): Not only the centrality of the mind is a central principle, but also a broad
conception of the mind. A conception of the mind that seeks to recoup the entirety
of cognitive and emotional reality. We are fundamentally cognitive and emotional
beings. The emotions have been banished from scientific discourse until recent
decades and this is a terrible mistake. How can we understand human behaviour
without the emotions, the feelings? Comprehension would be impossible. Clearly,
we must rethink the so-called classical foundations from the ground up.
c): I believe that a complex view must see the world in terms of “and/both”, not
“either/or”. In other words, it must unite seeming opposites. Why is “nature”
different from “culture”? We can distinguish, but not separate. Nature and culture:
this is how we will gain a much better understanding of the world. How many
hours have been lost on debates teasing out the issue of Chomskian nativism, for
example? But it is impossible to unpick this union. A well-formed brain lacking
exposure to a social context in which language is used will never develop into a
mind capable of communicating through language. And a malformed brain, even
with exposure to a social context, will struggle to develop into what we consider a
fully human mind. Therefore, elements and contexts, objects-processes and and in
their environments. That is what languages are.
How do we need to understand “languages”? As isolated elements, as objects?
A language is in society, in people, who are in the language. Isn’t this how the
world is? This type of circular thinking à la Morin is wonderful. I recall first
3 Sociolinguistics: Towards a Complex Ecological View 19
encountering this great French thinker and reading these extraordinary phrases.
How can we spend so many years squabbling over whether it is one thing or the
other? That is absurd. Therefore, objects in their context, a language in its context.
The context in the language. The world is in language, which is in the world.
d): This leads us to a systemic vision. We have spent many years in which
linguistic elements have been described not outwardly, but rather inwardly and in
isolation. How many years have we prioritised the phonetic-morphological-
syntactic element without connecting it to the rest of the living environments that
ultimately give rise to the existence and changes of languages. What we need now,
therefore, is to develop open systems, not closed ones. We need to bring matters
up to date by appropriating systems theory and adopting a comprehensive, multi-
layered perspective. We need to see how, for example, the phonetic subsystem of
a language is related to the social subsystem.
Take, for example, the case of Catalonia, or any other society with a great
number of immigrants. Such massive immigration will probably cause changes to
existing linguistic systems, as for example the introduction of aspirated sounds in
Catalan, a strange fact in this language. This is clearly produced as a result of a
phenomenon of contact, because there are people who come from other phonic
systems –from southern Spanish, for instance- and project their own constitutive
rules as they begin to speak Catalan. Therefore, as you can see, a phonetic element
must be explained by a social element. A linguistics closed within itself, an inward
system, cannot take account of such elements.
e): Reality is dynamic and fluid. Events and processes. That is, a clear awareness
of the temporality of phenomena. Time is inescapable, and everything occurs in a
temporal dimension. Norbert Elias (1991) addresses this matter, asking, How can
we understand specific elements that can only be explained historically and
dynamically if we think of the world statically? How can we understand the
phenomena of language in society if we cannot situate them in the flow of
multidimensional historical dynamics? If you are familiar with linguistics, recall
that some universities still teach Saussure’s ‘synchronics’ and ‘diachronics’, parts
of an undoubtedly very important theory. However, Saussure still spoke of
“closed” systems – a great step forward, certainly – but today we can see that what
is required is a conception of “open” systems. Saussure drew a distinction between
synchronics and diachronics, with synchronics to analyse language from the
current, contemporary viewpoint and diachronics from a temporal viewpoint. But
the problem in our thinking about humans is thinking that distinct terms are
opposites. They are not opposites. That is, synchronics is in diachronics, which is
in synchronics. Languages live temporally, synchronically and in time. Therefore,
linguistic change is change in the contemporary system, which is evolving, in flux,
in a process. It is much better not to think in terms of dichotomies. It is much more
fruitful to think in terms of continuities, not opposed polarities.
f): This reasoning argues in favour of circular, retroactive and recursive causation,
that is, of non-linear causation, as they say in other sciences. We will also adopt
20 A. Bastardas-Boada
the non-linear dynamic, because our facts are non-linear. How can we understand
a conversation if not from the viewpoint of circular, retroactive causation? If you
listen to someone speaking on the telephone, you can hear only one part of the
conversation and it may sound incomprehensible. You may try to determine what
it is about. But you cannot get a very good sense of what is happening, because the
conversation is a dance between two people.
If you have attended courses in ballroom dancing, you know what happens.
You wind up stepping on your partner’s toes, if you plant your foot where your
partner still has his or her foot. These phenomena, these figurations – as Norbert
Elias called them – are circular, retroactive causations and we cannot really see
them in any other way. This is recursive in the sense that what is produced also
produces. We as individuals produce the society that produces us. This is the idea
of recursion. We are producer and product at the same time. This notion is
important not only in the field of linguistics but also in other disciplines.
g): Lastly, implicated order. The physicist David Bohm (1987) is the creator of the
concept of “implicated order” versus “explicated order”. This idea is based on the
hologram, which contains information about the whole at every point. Implicated
order builds on the idea that the whole is contained within the part. For us social
scientists, this idea is extraordinary. The individual contains within himself the
whole of society. To a great extent, I am a product of my society and I contain it.
If I speak now in a certain way, it is because I have lived among certain human
beings. Everyone here in the audience is taking part in a ceremony that we call a
“talk” or a “class”. You are quietly listening, I am speaking, each of us is in his
place, we follow norms, a representation of the situation, because we have been
educated in this type of culture. In other cultures, by contrast, this would be
unthinkable. In other words, we have the society that has us. We possess the ideas
that possess us, as Morin said. In an implicated order, a hologram-like order, the
parts contain information about the whole and the whole is in the part that is in the
whole. Therefore, we need to reject the fragmentation and separation of elements.
For us, everything is contained within everything else.
In my view, these are elements that can help each of us in our fields to gain an
idea of how to look upon sociocultural phenomena with a complex perspective. I
do not know exactly which image of complexity we should find. But, no matter
what, we need to think from the perspective of a world that is not simple or linear,
but rather that challenges us to construct a complex way of thinking to understand
phenomena that are otherwise incomprehensible. Particularly in the social and
human sciences we have no other way forward. Perhaps in the physical-chemical
and biological worlds, to a certain degree, it is possible to think from simpler
perspectives, but we cannot do so.
4 Sociolinguistic Complexity
The principles that I have introduced here could be taken as general principles, but
what we need is to understand social complexity, a set of phenomena that we must
probably learn to retheorise and rethink. We really need to take care with the most
3 Sociolinguistics: Towards a Complex Ecological View 21
apparently clear-cut terms. “Society”, for example. What is “society”? Now we
can distrust terms that appear so clear. Everything that seems clear may be said to
obscure an important complexity. Certainly, the most commonly used labels need
to be reviewed and given their due complexity – in a word, complexified. This is
probably because they do not bring us sufficiently close to the reality that is there.
Therefore, the challenge is to understand the phenomena that emerge from the
multitude of existing human beings. A clear example is our current economic
crisis. The problem is not only understanding it, but also in some sense controlling
what we have collectively built, which is slipping out of our grasp and out of the
grasp of social agents. This example concerns economics, which many want to
distil into mathematics, but which remains a science of people and environments.
Many economists today still work with mathematical formulations that seem to
explain reality to them, but we now see how difficult forecasting is. The problem
is not about the economy; the problem is of human beings and what we have built
Therefore, we return to the brain/mind to attempt to see how we could explain
and articulate a better understanding of linguistic and sociolinguistic phenomena
in general by taking a complex approach. In my 1996 book, entitled Ecologia de
les llengües, I based my thinking not only on the work of ecologists (Margalef
1991), but also on the work of physicists and anthropologists adopting a complex
gaze, such as Edgar Morin, in order to see how we could articulate an ecology of
languages that was socio-cognitive in nature. What are the elements of a
sociocultural ecosystem that could account for socio-cognitive or
linguistic/cognitive phenomena? I believe that fundamentally we need to start by
bearing in mind that the brain/mind has linguistic, cultural and cognitive
competences to represent reality and that this is fundamental to any theory.
Chomsky deserves kudos for being the one who dared to build an extraordinary
critique at behaviourism, a psychology that ignored the mind, and therefore to
connect linguistics with psychology. Now we have gone farther. Chomsky spoke
of an ideal speaker-listener. But obviously no ideal speaker-listener exists. In any
case, if there is one, then there are many ideal speaker-listeners, in plural.
Nobody has developed a language on his own, nor could anybody have been
socialised on his own. There must be human connection. We need to construct a
theoretical perspective that can enable us to understand the self-organising,
autopoietic co-construction of minds. What makes possible the learning of human
cognitive content, which is always developed in a plurality of individuals? This is
where Norbert Elias put a great deal of emphasis. He always criticised the act of
thinking of human beings individually. He believed that it was an extraordinary
mistake. Humans always exist in numbers, in groups. Therefore, how do we live
together? How is it possible to reach a mutual understanding in conversational
interactions? What happens in our heads for people to make sense of the noise that
“Communication” is an old critical label. “Communication” needs to be
complexified. What lies behind communication? At present, the term is abused. It
is excessive. It is polysemic. We do not know what it is, what is there. To
understand communication, first we must understand cognition and the possibility
22 A. Bastardas-Boada
of mutual interpretation. That is something that is clearly seen in linguistics in the
metaphor of the container. For many years, many people have believed that words
are what have meaning. Words do not have meaning, we give them meaning. That
noise we make means nothing on its own. We bestow our perceptions with
meaning. Therefore, communication is an action, it is an inter-action between two
minds that have the elements needed to interpret the signifying intention of each
other adequately. However, if the necessary elements are not present, we can
make all the sounds we want and they will produce no cognitive activity in
another individual. If we speak to one another in a language that we do not know,
we will certainly try to guess what each other is saying. But there is no guarantee
that our guesses will be good enough. I think, therefore, that we need to build a
linguistics that simultaneously takes account of phonetic spectrograms and the
human beings who produce them. It needs to connect the sounds with the society,
the sounds with cognitions and with constructions of reality. This is where, in my
view, the perspective of complexity can be of great help to us.
Our challenge is to understand the social level. As I said, Norbert Elias has
proposed the term figurations to understand the constructions that we make jointly
as humans. His complaint was that what we have not studied yet are exactly those
properties that emerge from human interaction and relation. What kinds of
constrictions occur when two people relate to one another? We cannot think of the
matter as though it involved the force of Newtonian gravity. We need to think
differently. We do not yet have a clear way of saying it, but we must build
adequate concepts. We humans make figurations that are interpersonal, in groups;
we establish States that control us and which we, in part, control in turn. The State
is in us and we are in the State. It is not only the State in us – particularly in the
democracies. We also have an influence on the States. We must see the
interdependencies. But what type of figuration generates this relation? We are also
in the economic world that is in us. What kinds of properties are created here?
What types of constrictions and mutual dependencies are there? This is what we
still must work out. Society is not an object. It is an idea that we possess in order
to think about collective reality. But, in the end, there is no object that is society.
We should also think about language transversally, multidimensionally. The
transversality of different simultaneous levels of existence is where the linguistic
phenomenon happens. It does not happen in a single dimension of these levels, but
in all dimensions and at the same time. We need to make use of systems theory,
look at individuals and groups, look at how the phenomena interpenetrate one
another. We need to try to see how things are contained with one another. I
postulate the development of a complex linguistics that aims to embrace all
elements; that tries to think in terms of networks and from the viewpoint of an
orchestral polyphonic metaphor. (One of the problems we face is coming up with
adequate images and formal notations to enable us to think about human
complexity.) What systems are available to us to represent this complex
linguistics? An orchestral notation is interesting as one way to express complexity.
That is, the orchestral score has the advantage of being synchronic and diachronic
at the same time; it is sequential and temporal. Melody is sequential, yet
polyphony comprises different voices and instruments. If, for example, you have
3 Sociolinguistics: Towards a Complex Ecological View 23
had the experience of singing in a chorus or playing in an orchestra, you can grasp
the “complexity” – to put it that way – of the part you are performing. Apart from
the dominant melody, all the accompaniment – whether voices or instruments – is
constructed in function of the harmonic totality, of the perceptual whole. The
instruments’ notes that make up the whole are determined by their role in the
group, in close and indissoluble interrelationship with the other voices or
instruments. Each element, therefore, becomes comprehensible in function of the
whole. If it is not framed within the whole, there is no possibility of understanding
what justifies the sounds it conveys.
The image of the musical score shows us the importance of temporality: if the
sounds of each and every instrument are not executed continually, the piece of
music does not exist as such a phenomenon. If each sound is conveyed with a
great temporal separation, the intended musical work cannot be produced. Time is
inescapable and forms an intrinsic part of existence. The image of the orchestra
also enables us to take account of temporal changes and/or continuities, as well as
of the evolutions of the diverse levels of sociocultural phenomena. In this way, we
can represent this dynamism and make a procedural perspective possible. The
“harmonic” idea also enables us to represent “disharmonies” that in the social
and/or linguistic plane can be produced by divergences that evolve between the
different levels of reality. Specifically, if changes occur in any dimension, it is
highly likely that such changes will force successive instabilities and adaptive
changes in other dimensions, potentially leading existing social or linguistic
structures to unexpected de-re-organisations and evolutions that are frequently
hard to foresee.
Using the musical image, we can also see whether it is possible to broaden the
number of staves in the ordinary score of traditional linguistics and add others to
correspond better to an “external” perspective of the code. By doing so, we could
take account, as illustrated earlier, of linguistic phenomena that clearly cannot be
explained by the interior, but only by the exterior of the structure of a language,
using classical terminology. Our interrelational, group, sociodemographic,
ideological and socio-significant staves could be added to complement the planes
distinguished and considered canonical in linguistics to date.
5 The (Bio)ecological Perspective as a Metaphor
If we now focus our attention more on what we typically think of as
sociolinguistic aspects, we shall apply a complex perspective. To some extent, this
involves taking the perspective I called “socioecological” in 1996 and applying it
to the existence of linguistic forms in contact situations. A (bio)ecological
perspective can be used as a metaphor to illuminate our thinking and push forward
our creative understanding of sociolinguistic phenomena (Bastardas-Boada 2002,
2002b). How can we think of a sociolinguistic “ecosystem”? What elements do we
need to put in such an ecosystem and what metaphors and analogies should be
24 A. Bastardas-Boada
To begin, I need to act with a certain degree of calm when we resort to analogy
and also warn against stretching it farther than warranted, because some schools of
thought have already reached positions along these lines that seem to me
excessively radical in given applications of metaphor. First, a language is not a
species. We can make the analogy, but that does not make a language a species.
Therefore, the conservation, the life, the changes of languages can be studied
analogically, but we must take care. For example, if we come to postulate that the
maintenance of languages must oblige us to create “reserves” of speakers, then I
think that may be an exaggeration. One reason, for example, is that buffaloes
cannot express an opinion on whether they wish to be protected, while humans
can. This sort of problem leads us to debates in anthropology, because
anthropologists in favour of maintaining a language can sometimes come into
conflict with a language’s own speakers, who may have no interest in maintaining
the language – something which can happen. This is why I issue my warning that
the (bio)ecological inspiration is a metaphorical exercise for seeing how we can
use advances made in another discipline to proceed toward an environmental
linguistics, but that we need to take care not to confuse planes or lose the
distinctions between their elements.
Comparing the fields may inspire us, for example, to want to know how
linguistic diversity came about by studying the production of biological diversity.
How have species arisen? This is clearly an important line of research. How has
the extraordinary diversification of human languages come about? People who
study the genetics of populations have compared their data to language families
and found that there are clearly important relationships. This is a field of research
that has received little attention and needs greater understanding. How does
language speciation occur? How does this process continue? There is death, but
also creation – not only in languages that innovate internally, but also, for
example, through blending that gives rise to new languages. Pidgin and Creole
languages are examples of such blending. Creativity does not stop. How is such a
degree of diversification possible? Clearly, diversification is related to the
diaspora of our species over the planet.
Now that we are in a new glocal era in which we may perceive ourselves as a
planetary unit, we may also wonder whether processes of language reunification
are at work (Bastardas i Boada 2007). For the first time, we humans have global
languages that enable us to be understood by people from many different places.
Without the need for anyone to dictate this explicitly, we begin to have shared
instruments of communication. English, for example, takes on this role. But
nobody has assigned this role to it. Humanity as such has not debated the matter,
not even in Europe, because the subject is taboo, in some sense. Which language
would we choose as a code for intercommunication? Will the language that is
selected come to be seen as superior to the others? Will this cause the mass
extinction of languages? These problems lead to a certain degree of fear among
our political leadership. Europe’s problem is very clear. Governments do not wish
to say how they want Europe organised linguistically from the point of view of
intercommunication. But looking inwardly, what are these governments doing?
Everyone is opting for English and teaching English as a first “foreign” language
3 Sociolinguistics: Towards a Complex Ecological View 25
in their educational systems. They do not say as much, but everyone is doing it
domestically in order not to stir up problems that we may call “identitary” in
nature. Many people believe that English is an “imperialistic” language. In
practice, however, it is not the American empire that is telling countries to teach
English. Each country is making this decision because it seems the best way to
promote technological and economic development. At present, English cannot be
called a “killer language” outside of the territories where it was resident before
globalisation (Mufwene 2001). It may overlay existing languages as a
“hypercentral” language, but it is not currently replacing them in the big majority
functions of human language groups. The case, however, is that humanity cannot
wait for a decision from shared world organisations on what should be the
language of general intercommunication. The need exists and English is clearly
the language best placed to serve this function. We do not know whether that is
how the situation will remain or whether other languages will come – such as
Chinese or some other language – that can also take on this function of general
human intercommunication. At present, it is impossible to foresee.
Be that as it may, language diversification has occurred. Speciation has
occurred. But perhaps at this time we can see that we are on the path – a very long
path – of language reunification for the species or, in any case, toward the
facilitation of intercomprehension. Therefore speciation is a line of research that
we need to pursue.
Another subject of study for ecologists is the continuity of ecosystems: how do
ecological niches – constructions in which a species takes part in order to
safeguard its survival – actually come about? Can such a species contribute to
make an adequate niche, a favourable ecosystem, a suitable climate, the nutrients,
etc? How must this be done to safeguard the continuity of human language
diversity? What ecological niches do we need, if we are to prevent humanity from
abandoning the languages we have been creating? This is an enormous question of
social, political and linguistic dimensions.
States – their policies, their ideologies and their flags – have a big role to play.
States have been the first to pursue policies that denigrate language diversity.
Many States, as we know from experience, have been hostile in the face of their
own internal language diversity. If our aim is positively to conserve language
diversity, then such hostile policies are clearly not the way. We do not need to be
fearful of humans becoming polyglot. We can hold several languages in our
brains. We are created for polyglotism. The only safeguard we need to give human
groups is that we reserve important, pre-eminent functions for their own
languages. Therefore, we must never confuse social multilingualism with personal
or individual multilingualism (Mackey 1994). How can adequate ecological niches
be created for the world’s languages?
In my view, if we asked the peoples of the world whether they would be
happier all speaking a shared language and abandoning their own language or
would rather know both languages, they would choose the second option. In this
way, it would be possible to communicate with everyone and yet also maintain our
uniqueness in groups. This, I think, is the path we need to take. The mass
polyglotism currently underway, however, clearly represents a shift in the
26 A. Bastardas-Boada
orchestral score image of the language ecosystem. Then, how can this ecosystem
be appropriately organised to allow its survival and, at the same time, permit
intercommunication? These are vital questions for us. Is such a new organisation
even possible? Clear cases of sustainable multilingualism exist. Luxembourg
offers one example. This tiny country is clearly an example of how a population
can be polyglot and yet experience no abandonment of its own language codes.
Countries in Northern Europe traditionally pursue bilingualism in English starting
early in school, but they do not abandon their own national languages. Nobody
thinks that one thing must lead to the other. We can live peacefully in the
complexity of “and/both”. We need to see how we can make the ecological niche
for a sustainable language continuity (Bastardas-Boada 2007b).
Another object of study for many ecologists is contact and change. What
happens when there is contact between species? Here, environmental biology has
developed the notion of predator species, species that consume other species. In
the field of human language ecology, we can also see predator species that extend
beyond their natural territory and consume other species. The reduction of
diversity is tied to the growth of many colonial empires, which produce mass
extinction of languages. The denigration of the native language and negativising
discourses are only two examples of approaches that frequently lead distinct
colonised groups to abandon their own languages (Mühlhäusler 1996).
Dawkins illustrates this case well when he says: “The fox runs for his dinner, the
hare runs for his life”. Major languages run because they wish to get bigger, while
minor languages run in order to stay alive. Certainly, we live in a world in conflict.
We may find harmony or we may find conflict and it depends on how we manage
matters. In this sense, too, we can glean ideas from environmental biology.
Extinction: How is the extinction of biological species possible; and how is it
possible for linguistic species to go extinct? How does species extinction arise?
There are people who, when you talk to them about language extinction and they
are speakers of a normal language, find it impossible to imagine that a day may
come when they could abandon their code. However, as many cases show, it is
perfectly possible. It does not happen overnight. It is an intergenerational
phenomenon that requires a bilingual population that has a mastery of two
languages and that, at a given point in time, abandons the original language of the
group to adopt what was initially the foreign language. The pattern unfolds over
three generations. Circumstances arise in which populations, according to the
contexts in which they live, come to generate a representation of their own group
that is negative and stigmatised. When a language becomes extinct, the process is
not simply of a fish eating another fish. It happens in situations of subordination
that are typically political and economic and it is characterised by a negativising
discourse that leads people to take the dominant language group as their point of
reference. This is how they see themselves and in order not to shame their
children, they try not to pass onto them the stigma of the language, which they
now view negatively, influenced by the pressures of the situation and the
dominant groups with which they have contact. This explains how humanity, in a
situation of ecolinguistic peril, can come to abandon its own codes. From one
generation to the next, little by little, a language is let fall into disuse.
3 Sociolinguistics: Towards a Complex Ecological View 27
To try to provide a solution to this issue, ecologists have created ecological
restoration. How can we maintain biodiversity? What is lacking for species to
have continuity? The question, therefore, is this: what did the context contribute
before and now does not? What did the context contribute to stabilise a species in
its ecosystem and now is missing? What did the context do to enable the species to
survive? If some disturbance or disorganisation has occurred, how can we step in
to help this human or biological entity to persist? What essential elements do we
need to contribute to enable the species – or the language – to survive? If nutrients
are lacking, for example, we can add nutrients. If a protected habitat needs to be
created in a reserve, we can create it. We can do whatever is necessary. Therefore,
if that is what takes place on the biological plane, we can also speak of a
restoration ecology of languages in the linguistic plane. What should we do to stop
humanity’s language groups now abandoning their codes from ceasing to use
them? What should we do to enable them to live happily and fully in their
The first action must address the context and the mind simultaneously, from a
complex and holistic point of view, addressing the socioeconomic and political
context, but also and especially the discourses. How do they see the world? How
do they see themselves in relation to others? (We are always among others.) Why
do they believe that they need to abandon their code? Why is their code unworthy?
This work concerns awareness and assertiveness. The Native Peoples of Canada,
for example, largely switched to French or English, but are now greatly interested
in maintaining their languages. They take the view that their abandonment was a
mistake, and wish to regain pride in their language. Complementary to this
change, Canadians of European origin – as is also the case with Australians – are
ashamed of past policies clearly pursued against the interests of maintaining
diversity. There is a need for restoration ecologies to help European Canadians
redress their sense of guilt and help other peoples try to reclaim the social uses of
their codes. However, despite achieving dignity for a language, once you have
adopted the major language and abandoned the minor one, it is much more
difficult to create an everyday context in which to reclaim the language in retreat.
Nearer home, for instance, we have the case of Irish Gaelic. Political
independence came, but the language had reached a point at which the percentage
of speakers in the population was already low across the demolinguistic whole.
Despite government support for Irish Gaelic, the population had largely adopted
English and abandoned Gaelic in daily life and it became difficult to gain speakers
in everyday functions that are, indeed, the ones that maintain languages. Schools
and the public administration are important, but the most important aspect is the
individuals, the people, who, must keep the language in movement.
Prigogine, a Nobel prizewinning physicist, has said: “ ... [W]hat is needed [he
is referring to Physics] is to find exactly which precise conditions of
disequilibrium can be stable” (1996). In other words, disequilibrium will be the
case, because everything will be in disequilibrium in a world of contact and
interpenetration. So we need to see which conditions can allow a certain
continuity of equilibrium that is clearly in dynamic disequilibrium (Bastardas
28 A. Bastardas-Boada
6 Towards a Socio-emo-cognitive Language Ecology
Lastly, I want to talk about the limits of the (bio)ecology metaphor. If we turn
from the ecology metaphor to human reality, all of these concepts give us fields,
lines of research, parallelisms; however, a language is not a species and, therefore,
we need to make our ecology socio-emo-cognitive. Human ecology is complex
and multidimensional. Complexus is that which is woven together. Therefore, we
need to discover and create theories and represent to ourselves how language
behaviour is woven together in order to maintain language diversity and, at the
same time, foster general human intercommunication on a planetary scale. One of
our problems is that we want to substantivise something which is dynamic. We
objectify, say “language” and see an object. But there is no object. Or rather there
is a complex emerging and dynamic object. But it does not exist as an object
among us. More than “language”, what there is is “languaging” – ceaseless human
communicative activity. In this vein, Morin says that it would be good to view
languages as living in three simultaneous dimensions, which should be borne in
mind when analysing such phenomena. Language is in the psychosphere of
individuals. It is also in the sociosphere among individuals (within and between).
And it is in the noosphere, an environment of complex cognitive systems in the
sense of an analysable system. Ideas, for example, live within us, among us, and
can be studied as specific objects that are cognitive in nature. Language is in the
interrelationship, in the intersection between these three spheres. The locus of
language – whether language was in the individual or in society – has caused
rivers of ink to spill in the history of thought about language. But that time is past.
Let us not waste one more minute on it. Language is within and between
individuals. It is “and/both”.
Now I would like you to picture a shape like the upside-down pyramid at the
Louvre Museum in Paris as a way to illustrate the multidimensional, transversal
ecology that we have been talking about. The image of an upside-down pyramid
with several layers enables us to put human brains-minds at the basis. At each
level, new things emerge. A mind, when it relates to another mind, gives rise to
new phenomena, phenomena that were not present before. When I interact with
another, there are I, the other, and the organisation of the interaction. If we enter
into a group, more new elements emerge. As individuals forming groups, we
constitute new phenomena. We are not simply John or Maria. We are set X, set Y. I
am X, the other is Y. We identify ourselves in terms of suprapersonal categories
that oblige us to behave as members of these social categories. If I am such and
such, I need to behave in such-and-such a manner, because that is what is expected
of me by the group. This always occurs in the context of a transversal relationship,
in terms of interconnected levels. If we join organisations – economic ones, for
example – further new elements emerge. And if we are also members of States, the
same process is once again at work. Therefore, if your aim is to study the language
behaviour of an individual, you need to imagine the upside-down pyramid. This is
the most pared-down image we can have from a complex point of view. In a
conversation, for example, we need to imagine ourselves as two individuals with an
inverted pyramid above each of us, because that is where important things happen.
3 Sociolinguistics: Towards a Complex Ecological View 29
To understand the phenomenon of language, we must understand it by using an
image that is dynamic and also able to capture the interrelationship of the different
dimensions. Language exists in multidimensionality, transversally, dynamically.
That brings us back round to the metaphor of music, of the orchestral score or
polyphony, which make it possible for us to explain all these interrelationships. In
our first stave we will have the brain/mind level. In terms of understanding
linguistic behaviour, there are two main interrelated functions of the brain/mind
complex that would appear to be of particular relevance: language development
and representation of reality, and control over behaviour. It is in the brain/mind
complex where we construct and sustain ideas and emotions about the reality that
we experience, and from where we activate our motor organs to carry out specific
actions – determined in accordance with the representations and interpretations of
the reality that we make. And this we can do either from the conscience or the
“sub-conscience”. We can hold certain definitions of reality without being
conscious of so doing, and similarly we can undertake certain actions without
having been conscious before, or at the time, of having done so.
At the heart, however, of this conception of the human being as a cognitive-
interpretative being is, as maintained by the perspective of symbolic
interactionism, that the meaning does not emanate from the intrinsic structure of
the thing that it possesses but rather from and through the defining activities of
individuals as they interact (Blumer 1982:4). Contrary, therefore, to long held
beliefs, things do not have meaning on their own; rather, it is human beings that
attribute meaning to things, be they physical objects, words, language varieties, or
actions, through the cognitive processing of apprehended information and
internalised interpretative procedures. Indeed, we might say, to modify slightly a
well-known saying of Gregory Bateson, that we cannot avoid interpreting.
The fact, therefore, of the 'meaning' of reality is central to human existence. No
explanation of the experience of individuals or societies can ignore it. The way the
individual represents his world, his place in that world, the values and aims of his
existence and that of other beings, his personal and social experiences, etc. will
have a profound influence on the individual’s motivations, sentiments and
emotions and, therefore, on his behaviour.
The second function – control over behaviour – has, it should be stressed, a
very close link with the first function. Thus, human action always occurs in the
framework of a universe of senses which determines it and makes it intelligible.
And the action that I think I am carrying out is the fruit of the indications that I
have given myself in accordance with the interpretative schema that I have
internalised in my depository of knowledge and which are the fruit of my prior
experiences (Blumer 1982). In order to understand the action – as Max Weber
reminded us some time ago – it is necessary to understand the interpretation that
the subject gives of his own actions. Many of the daily, repetitive actions are
directed from the human sub-conscience drawing on an individual’s experience
accumulated in his cognitive depository: if things work in such a way, he will act
in such and such a way. If the internalised routines of behaviour are successful
they become habitual 'recipes’ of behaviour.
30 A. Bastardas-Boada
The social interaction of brain/minds is the second line of our orchestral score.
As in systems theory, we propose that new properties emerge from the social
interaction of minds that cannot be derived directly from the first level of the
subsystem under analysis. While this new level retains all the significant elements
originating in the mind, the emphasis shifts to how human interaction is organised.
It takes into account that interaction occurs within a much broader social context
in which relationships of power and social inequality play an enormous role.
Speech, therefore, is not an isolated, independent behaviour without a setting.
To the contrary, it is a fully integrated subset of social life that registers the same
socio-cultural influences, meanings and constraints as, for example, rules for what
to wear or how to eat. The use and selection of a language form or variety are
strongly affected at an interactional level. Just as other elements of social
interaction are organised and structured, speech is also organised and structured.
The selection of language forms used by human beings depends on how these
forms are related to the elements in the interactional setting. Just as it is not the
same to speak to a person with an informal or formal tu/vostè in Catalan or tu/vous
in French, the use of one language or another cannot be neutral. Language
variation, too, is regulated.
The forms, scripts and rituals used and followed by individuals in their
interactions are obviously not universal, but differ according to the culture
diversity of the human species, organized as a ‘groups’ or communities. This is
our third level of the score. A gesture of greeting in one culture may be seen as a
sign of aggression in another; a normal volume of voice in one country may be
considered inappropriate or raucous in another; words and other linguistic
elements may have negative or taboo connotations in a given society, while they
are quite normal and have no connotations in another. Culture is convention. It is
an arbitrary agreement that is socially established in diverse human communities.
We make it signify what we want it to signify.
The reality of groups is undeniable. From the smallest collectives of two, three,
four or more people to vast socio-economic organisations or ethnic-linguistic
groupings, human beings have typically organised into defined socio-cultural
groups or networks. To a greater or less extent depending on the circumstances,
these groups or networks give rise to a sense of belonging and emotional
identification with specific cultural traits. An essential characterisation of such
groups, particularly in the smallest ones, is the high degree of internal interaction
that sustains them and the norms that emerge over time and become established as
the collective’s own norms and, therefore, as expectations that must be followed
by members of the collective or that, if established customs and ideas are not
adhered to, may trigger sanctioning mechanisms.
Social groups or networks fulfil the intrinsic needs of individuals for emotional
connection and solidarity, and this gives them a degree of influence that should
not be underestimated. Within themselves and through their socio-cognitive
exchanges, individuals elaborate their interpretation of reality and forms of
conduct which, in turn, tend to attract greater support and confirmation and even
to foster a quality of emotional attachment as they gain greater support and
confirmation within the group. However, the strong emotional attachment of
3 Sociolinguistics: Towards a Complex Ecological View 31
individuals to their groups may equally become a mechanism for change. A group
may be influenced by its most listened-to leaders or respond to a significant
subgroup’s change of opinion and then decide to adopt a new interpretation of
reality or a new pattern of behaviour. When changing the forms assumed by the
collective, the individual must also consider his own decision and assess the
consequences that may arise from not changing. In this way, many initially
reticent individuals eventually change with the group, ensuring their peers’
continued support and their own socio-affective stability. Language behaviour is
clearly affected by the influence of social groups and networks.
The macrosocial order shows us the common reality of inequality and
asymmetry among human groups. The causes may be economic, cultural or
demographic – or political-military, as we will shortly see. The disparity between
the resources and opportunities of each human group ineluctably gives rise to
socially dominant and socially subordinate groups. While the category of “social
class” is more strictly socio-economic in origin and less directly refers to the
psychosocial properties of the concept of “group”, the existence of collectives
usually called “minority groups” seems to be an undeniable, conceptualisable
Asymmetry usually accompanies socio-cultural change. Individuals want to get
closer to the forms and values of more powerful groups or change their unequal
situation. If the perception of the situation held by the minority group is that the
system of inequality is stable, i.e., no cognitive alternatives exist, or that it is
legitimate, or both stable and legitimate at once, its actions will tend toward
conformity and at least some adaptation to the dominant collective. If, however,
objections to this reality emerge from within the group, the situation can develop
The political power could be the forth level. “A State -says Weber- is a human
community that successfully assumes a monopoly on the legitimate use of
physical force within a given territory” and “the right to exercise physical force is
specifically assigned to other institutions or individuals only to the extent that the
State permits it” (1985:10). As a social institution, the State appears to wield an
extraordinary ability to influence the lives of human beings. Its regulations must
be fulfilled and disobedience calls into play a system of punishments that can, as
we know, extend even as far as loss of life for some lawbreakers.
Since the nineteenth century, many States have tended in particular to adopt
ideologies of “national” unification, i.e. linguistic and symbolic unification. Using
all the means at their disposal, they have promoted language uniformity amid
actual diversity and fostered “state patriotism” against traditional group loyalties.
This patriotism is associated with given symbolic forms – the flag, anthem,
institutions – as well as the State’s instrument of communication, the official
language variety, which is, in most cases, singular and exclusive of other varieties
within the same State. The category “State” – often masked under banners like
“patria” or “nation” – is the basis for a new and in many cases effective group
categorisation and identification. Regardless of their wishes, human beings are
assigned to the state institutions that have spread over the planet. Side by side with
the widespread dissemination of the official definition of the categorisation of
32 A. Bastardas-Boada
reality, elements such as wars, sporting competitions and territorial conflicts foster
identification with the State in the area of sovereignty in which they live their
lives, and these elements can generate hatred or sympathy toward other people
according to the unfolding relations between respective State institutions.
This extraordinary increase in the direct and indirect influence of political
power on language can, at least to a large extent, explain many of the ethnic-
linguistic conflicts that have emerged across the planet in the last century. Given
that the vast majority of today’s States have populations with significant language
differences, the equation “one State = one language” has become a potential
source of serious civil conflict that may be difficult to resolve in some cases.
These situations of conflict can be particularly violent when the ethnic-linguistic
composition features a group that is demographically much larger than the others.
Even with democratic forms, the majority group can patrimonialise the State and
use it consciously or unconsciously to expand its domain, provoking a sensation of
subordination from which there is no way out for smaller demolinguistic groups.
7 Time and Co-evolution in Sociolinguistics
Inevitably, all of these phenomena of interrelation, equilibrium and/or evolution
take place within the context of a variable that is inherent in human existence:
time. Just as music is unthinkable without the succession of different notes
receiving their “significance” in relation to the syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes,
in Saussurian terms, so reality does not exist without movement and sequence and
in the dynamic mutual influence of all its elements. Seen as an ecosystem, reality
– and particularly language – is at once dynamic, in equilibrium and changing.
Permanence and change occur simultaneously. They are entwined and indivisible.
Although it may seem a paradox, one can only be understood with the other and
Just as a work of music does not exist without its instruments, the socio-cultural
reality does not exist without the entirety of its components. The mind does not
exist independently of the social context in which individuals live. Nor is this
social context possible without minds. The different levels of the score shape one
another and exist in interrelation. That is, in a general sense, existing language
behaviours are the result of these mutual influences. Their maintenance and their
continuity depend on the persistence of the structure of contexts that produce their
existence. Excessively radical changes in this structure may well cause the
destruction or modification of behaviour, leading to another configuration by
means of stages characterised by unstable equilibria.
The mind, as the foremost control centre for behaviour, appears to register the
influence of two beats that are harmonised to differing extents depending on the
case. On the one hand, it initially receives direct stimuli from the levels of
interactions and groups and, particularly in contemporary developed societies,
only shortly later, also the levels located beneath the direct or indirect control of
political power. For example, while an individual is socialised in a specific way of
speaking within the family and within the group, he or she can encounter another
way of speaking in nursery school, the rest of the official educational system, the
3 Sociolinguistics: Towards a Complex Ecological View 33
media or advertising. Moreover, these may also appear in written form. At the
core of the issue is how reality is given meaningful categorisation, and
particularly, the sociosignificances given to the concurrent language forms or
varieties in the contact situation .
The phenomena of socio-cultural permanence and change are closely tied to the
properties of human beings. The duration and penetration of early socio-mental
imprinting at the level of representations of reality, norms of behaviour and
competences are highly likely to contribute to cultural continuity, unless
significant events throw into question their appropriateness to the context. On the
level of language behaviour, for example, enormous groups of human beings have
maintained general norms and forms for centuries. Yet, despite their gradual
evolution, these norms and forms can be identified as a single fundamental
system. Generation after generation, individuals socialised within the same socio-
cultural framework have basically reproduced the traits of a culture perfectly
adapted to the essential environment of their existence.
Despite the pronounced correspondence between mind and context, however,
humanity has collectively made changes in many basic aspects. The stability of
existing socio-mental structures have been shaken by military, political, economic,
technological, demographic, environmental, ideological and cultural events.
Against the strong conservative tendency of human groups, these events have led
to new configurations never before envisioned or imagined.
Within the context of their socio-cultural ecosystem, the permanence or change
of the norms followed by individuals in their language behaviour will determine
whether a specific sociolinguistic situation is durable and stable or, by contrast, it
undergoes significant change. The phenomenon of language contact, precisely
because it is a new element in a dynamically functional reality, will frequently
activate the attention of individuals and define them amid the reality facing them.
However small or great, language contact is a factor in the changes that occur in
communication forms and/or behaviours. In whichever group or code, the
resulting situation will not be same as it was before. As a result, the structures that
support the persistence of behaviours can start to fracture and the behaviours can
begin to evolve toward initially unforeseen states.
Imagine, for example, a stable, “harmonised” population that is nonetheless
integrated politically within a State where another group dominates. In all
likelihood, this situation will “disharmonise” the historical equilibrium and lead to
sociolinguistic readaptations. Now imagine that new populations also arrive and
they are linguistically different. Add new staves to the score, staves that relate
differently to the already existing ones. This leads to new phases of disequilibrium
as the various staves (re)adjust to new realities.
The usefulness of the orchestral score is as notation: it enables us to picture a
complex, multidimensional and dynamic reality. Down this road is the way we
need to go, generating new images and new tools for complex thought because, as
Elias said, “One of the essential duties of human beings is to find out how things
are interlinked, if they want to organise their life better than it is today” (1991:63).
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