Chapter 1: Human Language and Language Science

1.4 Doing harm with language science

Content Note: This section includes discussion of residential schools.


As exciting as it is to think about language scientifically, it’s important to remember that science is not inherently virtuous as a field. Humans can use the tools of science to do harm, and that includes the tools of linguistics. Much of the foundational work in the field of Linguistics was carried out by Christian missionaries whose goal was less to discover the systematic nature of mental grammar and more to convert people to their religion. Their work has several consequences for Indigenous languages.

The missionaries who first came to the land that is currently called Canada were European Christians. They started to document the Indigenous languages they encountered so that they could use them to teach Christian doctrine, and so that they could conduct trade and obtain resources. As they wrote down the words and structures they learned, they used the Roman alphabet and based their assumptions about how language worked on what they knew from studying Latin and other European languages. What this means is that the earliest written documents for these Indigenous languages described the languages through that point of view. The Roman alphabet (the same alphabet that English uses today) developed to represent European languages, so it’s not very accurate at representing the phonetics of other languages.

Once they had enough language written down, the missionaries started translating the Christian Bible into the local languages. Since written documents are permanent in a different way from speech and sign, writing a text has the effect of “freezing” that form of the language. So when the Europeans started teaching literacy using their written texts, the result was that some of the variation across languages fell out of use as the written forms took priority. And these effects weren’t accidental or benign. From the missionaries’ own writings we can see that they considered Indigenous languages to be inferior to European languages. They complained, incorrectly, that the languages didn’t have words for soul and belief and angel, and they thought that the complex grammars, which we’ll learn more about in later chapters, were barbaric. In the History of the Language Sciences, Edward Gray writes:

“Jesuits generally derided the languages, characterizing the polysynthetic character of American languages as a symptom of social decay. In keeping with their heathen character, missionaries widely assumed, [Indigenous people] had failed to impose grammatical discipline on their languages.” (Gray 2000, p. 934)

On the one hand, we might point to the work of these European Christian missionaries in documenting Indigenous languages as foundational to the field of linguistics. And in some cases, those written documents have served as source material for work to reawaken sleeping languages like Huron-Wendat. But at the same time, we have to acknowledge that the missionary work did real harm: the documentation itself was inaccurate and led to the loss of many features of the languages. As the Christian church gained power on this continent, they stopped trying to teach in the local languages and instead imposed English or French, often violently. In fact, eliminating Indigenous languages and cultures was the stated goal of the Canadian government. Well into the 20th century, police, church and government officials forcibly seized Indigenous children, removed them from their families, and sent them to residential schools. In these schools, children were separated from their siblings and cousins and forbidden to speak their families’ languages. They were starved, physically and sexually abused, and some of them murdered. Under these conditions, it’s not surprising that they stopped using their family languages: using English or French was a matter of sheer survival. In spite of the colonial government’s attempts to assimilate Indigenous people into “the habits and modes of thought of white men” (MacDonald, quoted in TRC (2015)), some Indigenous languages still have living speakers, while others are asleep. You can learn more about the work that Indigenous people are doing to reclaim their languages in Chapter 9.

When we’re doing language science, it might be tempting to try to dissociate ourselves from the harm those missionaries did, to say, “they were doing religion, not linguistics.” But modern scientific practices of linguistics have also done harm to Indigenous and other minoritized languages. Linguists rely on language users to provide language data, but those who spend their time and energy answering our questions don’t always get much in return. Sometimes linguists gather data to test a particular scientific hypothesis, and the data ends up existing only in obscure scholarly publications when it could also have been made available to the community of language users themselves, for preserving and teaching their language. Sometimes what is merely data to a linguist is a sacred story or includes sensitive personal information, and publishing it might violate someone’s beliefs or privacy. Even if a linguist is careful to work descriptively, there’s a real risk of linguistic and cultural appropriation if they become the so-called authority on the language without being a member of the language community. And sometimes linguists’ attempts at descriptive statements can turn into prescriptive norms: if a linguist writes “In Language X, A is grammatical and B is ungrammatical” based on what they’ve learned from one set of speakers, that observation can become entrenched as the standard variety of Language X, even if there’s another group of speakers out there for whom B is perfectly grammatical.

It’s not only in settler states like Canada that languages are harmed by colonialism. Capitalism offers a strong incentive for people all around the world to speak English so they can participate in the labour market. And the more they use English, the less they use their local languages. In Chapter 12 we’ll consider some of the ways that the field of Applied Linguistics and the teaching of English as a Foreign Language (EFL[1]) can reinforce racist norms.

As a field, linguistics is also responsible for harms to disabled people and their language practices. In Chapter 11 we’ll see how deaf kids are often deprived of language input because of oralism, the view that vocal language is more important than signed language. Oralism is prevalent in the field of linguistics, which often fails, like the first edition of this book did, to study or teach the linguistic structures of sign languages. The practice of observing patterns of language across many users, even from a descriptive point of view, has the tendency to identify norms of language use which then makes it all too easy to describe anything that differs from the norm as disordered. For example, Salt (2019) showed that when linguists used standard interview techniques to research autistic people’s conversation, they found “deficits” in their pragmatic abilities. But when the autistic participants were observed in conversation with each other, no such deficits were apparent. Salt concluded that it was the research method itself, namely, the interview, that gave rise to the so-called pragmatic disorders of autism. Similarly, MacKay (2003) reported his experience of aphasia resulting from a stroke. His account eloquently illustrates how the standard diagnostic and treatment techniques ignored his communicative adaptations and treated him as incompetent.

What’s the lesson for us, then, as 21st-century linguists? I’m going to aim for some humility in my scientific thinking. I love using the tools of science to observe language. But I try to remember that science is one way of knowing, which brings its own cognitive biases. In other words, doing linguistics is not a neutral exercise. One of the fundamental lessons of this book is to move from thinking about grammar as a set of prescriptive rules in a book to seeing grammar as a living thing in our minds. But let’s not get stuck in that way of thinking either. In addition to thinking about language as something that lives in the individual minds of individual humans, let’s also remember that language is something that lives in communities and is shared among users, in the conversations we have and the stories we tell. We’ll continue to explore these ways of thinking about language throughout the rest of this book.


Gray, E. G. (2000). Missionary linguistics and the description of ‘exotic’ languages. In S. Auroux, E. F. K. Koerner, H.-J. Niederehe, & K. Versteegh (Eds.), History of the Language Sciences (Vol. 1). Walter de Gruyter.

Mackay, R. (2003). ‘Tell them who I was’: The social construction of aphasia. Disability & Society, 18(6), 811–826.

Salt, M. (2019). Deficits or Differences? A New Methodology for Studying Pragmatic Language in Autism Spectrum Disorder [Thesis].

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

  1. Also known as English as a Second Language (ESL) or English as an Alternate Language (EAL).


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Essentials of Linguistics, 2nd edition by Catherine Anderson; Bronwyn Bjorkman; Derek Denis; Julianne Doner; Margaret Grant; Nathan Sanders; and Ai Taniguchi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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