Yale MacMillan Report interview on "Linguistics in a Colonial World"


J. Joseph Errington
(Ph.D., University of Chicago 1981)

I study language change as a source of insight into the ways languages constitute intimate parts of our everyday lives, and at the same time are foundational for large scale institutions, social groups, and social dynamics. When studying formal linguistics for my B.A. and M.A. degrees this was not yet my main interest; it became increasingly important after I made linguistic anthropology my field of specialization and began to do field research.

I have worked mostly in Indonesia, studying Javanese (90 million speakers), Indonesian (250 million speakers) and a range of Malay dialects. Between 1977 and 1980 I learned the first two languages in order to study sociolinguistic change during a period of rapid transition from a Javanese monarchy to Indonesian democracy, between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries. This research is reported in two books: one on language and social class in a Central Javanese town (1985), and another on the structure of the complex system of Javanese linguistic etiquette (1988). I returned to Central Java in 1985 and 1986 for a briefer period of work centered on Javanese-Indonesian bilingualism, which is spreading as Indonesian enters lives and communities of Javanese villagers. This complex process was the topic of a book published in 1998.

Since then my research and writing, together with larger developments in linguistic anthropology, have drawn my attention to questions of language ideology and practice: how conceptions of language can shape and reflect social interests, naturalize images of social groups, and shape everyday ways of talking. During the time I could not pursue these issues in Indonesia I turned instead to the descriptive work of linguists who contributed not just to the development of an empirical science, but a range of colonial projects between the 16th and 19th century. The resulting sketch was published as a book in 2008.

I am now working with colleagues in Indonesia and the Netherlands on a project called "In Search of Middle Indonesia (http://www.kitlv.nl/home/Projects?id=14). Our broadest goal is to better understand how Indonesia's new middle class is developing, especially in its many provincial cities. With a research team working in three of these towns, I am working towards a language-centered perspective on relations of ethnicity, class and language, and hope to begin publishing results over the next year or so.


Last modified: March 2012