Israel Studies Seminar: Palestinian multilingualism: A perfectly normal adaptation to colonialism, conflict and late capitalism
Convener: Professor Yaacov Yadgar
Speaker: Dr Nancy Hawker, The Aga Khan University
In the governing institutions of Israel, Arabic is suppressed. This practice crystallised in the early years of the state: there were points in history where it might not have gone in the direction of suppression; some activists in the 1960s had campaigned for some kind of minority Arabic-speaking official state platform to be maintained. In relation to insider/outsider dynamics, Arabic-speakers who also speak Hebrew make linguistic choices that result in the avoidance of Arabic in situations where Jewish Israelis are also present. These two elements form the sociolinguistic habitus of the Palestinians and other Arabs in the area controlled by Israel.
When speaking Arabic, to give their propositions authority, Palestinians and other Arabs mobilise multilingual repertoires, including codeswitching with and borrowing from Hebrew, for rhetoric effect and style. The analysis moves away from scholarship that has been concerned ‘language endangerment’ which has channelled concerns about political problems. The Palestinian multilingual is performing the aspirations of an emergent middle-class elite. On the political stage, this elite challenges the ethnorepublican political structures of Israel, as well as ethnonationalism campaigns, with different inhabitations of citizenship that envisage liberal equality, dignity and autonomy. Under conditions of late capitalism, multilingual language skills are re-packaged as a marketable resource: this creates value, but in a contested way, with ambivalent opportunities.
With evidence from fieldwork on the political campaigning trails, from street surveys, from cultural products, and from archive sources, the research presented at the seminar contributes to work in sociolinguistics linking language with politics via discursive practices that negotiate who is a legitimate speaker. In conclusion, it considers that speakers with sufficient linguistic and material resources – an elite class – form (political, cultural) platforms on which they insist on the legitimacy of their speech. This is not a pattern confined to Palestinians: it is a perfectly normal adaptation of speakers of undervalued languages communicating in contexts of linguistic hegemonies.
Dr Nancy Hawker (DPhil Oxon, MA SOAS) is the 2019 Research Fellow at the Aga Khan University – Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (https://www.aku.edu/govprogramme/Pages/home.aspx). Her current research analyses audience receptivity to women’s testimonies that have been translated between Arabic and English in human rights organisations. Her main research has been on the sociolinguistics of Palestinian Arabic and Modern Israeli Hebrew in zones of contact and conflict. After publishing Palestinian-Israeli Contact and Linguistic Practices (2013), her Leverhulme Fellowship at Oxford University (2014-2019) resulted in The Politics of Palestinian Multilingualism: Speaking for Citizenship (2019). She previously worked at Amnesty International’s Secretariat in London.