Language, Communities, and Heritage

Course Description: 

The present course aims to explore the somewhat problematic relationship between language(s) and the intangible cultural heritage (IHC) as defined in official UNESCO documents such as the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (Paris, 2003) and the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (Paris, 2001).

As part of a historical survey of evolution of 'cultural heritage,' as a theoretical concept, we will discuss first the reasons and processes that ultimately led to the exclusion of language per se from the domains defined and protected as part of ICH as well as and the scope and limitations of UNESCO's policy on language, linguistic rights, and especially on endangered languages.

Then we will explore the restricted possibilities for protecting languages, endangered or not, as part of ICH provided by the inclusion of language qua vehicle for ICH among the domains that make the object of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. In connection to this we will focus on the ways in which various communities, ranging from local to transnational, have used and sometimes abused the possibilities offered by the Convention to safeguard and promote their own linguistic varieties by formulating specific cultural policies and submitting applications for the inclusion of various elements of ICH to one of the lists maintained under the Convention. By means of a critical discussion of selected examples of successful applications and of several items of ICH included on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, we will try to understand how various agents have used the framework of the convention and instrumentalized language, especially its endangered varieties, in order to promote specific interests ranging from nationalist agendas to various types of identity politics.

The course will also address more specific issues, such as language policy within the legal and institutional framework created by the UNESCO documents and linguistic rights as human rights and as an expression of cultural diversity.

In order to achieve these objectives, the course is structured three parts. The first will deal with the legal and institutional framework created by UNESCO, which provide the conceptual basis (terminology, definitions of domains, selection criteria and guidelines) relevant to a discussion of both endangered languages and the ICH. The second part will address the current practices connected to the
identification, recording, and safeguarding endangered language(s) in various contexts (such as oral traditions and expressions, performing crafts, social practices, rituals and festive components, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe). In this section of the course the interplay between IHC safeguarding policies and various states' language policies will be addressed by looking at the practical consequences (in legal and sociolinguistic terms) generated by the identification of language as a constitutive, yet not autonomous part of IHC. Here several issues will be addressed such as the influence of national(ist) ideologies which underpin state cultural and heritage protection policies on the identification and preservation of linguistic components of IHC, the rapport between official and unofficial/minority/regional/less used languages in the process of preservation, the topic of language preservation and language revival. The third part of the course will offer concrete discussions of individual cases of items of IHC included on the official UNESCO lists in light of the practical linguistic problems they raise. These will include but will not be limited to, the interplay between language and dialect, conferring protected status to languages no longer spoken by any community, shaping of ethnic or regional identities through language.

Learning Outcomes: 

-The ability to exercise critical thinking, i.e., to develop a critical approach to language and IHC-related
issues. Assessed regularly through interactive discussion in class and short critical presentations of
recommended literature.
-The ability to select, synthesize, and disseminate academic knowledge relevant to a wider audience
through elaborating a proposal for inclusion of one IHC item on the UNESCO lists, of which language
should be an important element. Assessed through the end-of-term written assessment.
-Multicultural understanding as manifested in the awareness of and respect for points of view deriving
from other national, social, or cultural backgrounds. Assessed regularly through discussions in class of
passages from the readings that offer relevant topics.
-Acquiring a global intellectual ethos by learning to refer local/regional issues to larger structures with
a full awareness of the similarities and differences as well as the limitations involved in this process.


In order to complete your final assignment for this course, you are expected to provide a draft proposal for the inclusion of an element to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity or, alternatively, to the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. In both cases, the element in question should include some endangered linguistic variety as its vehicle (i.e., should include at least an aspect that involves verbal communication in a linguistic variety that is classified as “endangered” according to the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger). More detailed information about the type of information that you may provide as well as the material limitations (i.e., number of words) is included in the template form that you will find in the relevant section of the e-learning website.