In a new publication I plan to examine how the racial slur “Tamoul” (i.e. Tamil in French) has been deployed on news media, comedy shows, and other publics in Québec and more broadly across la francophonie in both humorous and discriminatory ways from 2001 to the present. Originally connoting the terrorist, thug-like, and criminal traits associated with Tamil immigrants suspected of supporting the banned paramilitary organization Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the aftermath of 9/11, more recently this epithet has taken on generic and non-ethnic-specific valences associated with racial alterity and radical cultural and linguistic foreignness. I look forward to presenting this research at the “Culture, Power, Boundaries” seminar at Columbia University in April 2018.
A forthcoming article in Comparative Studies in Society and History, which grew out of my interest in bilingual Tamil-French books, examines and compares the archives of French India and French Guiana, two colonies on the demise by the mid-nineteenth century, to trace what I argue are the “failed legacies of colonial linguistics” in relation to the European objectification of Indian vernaculars. Torn between religious, commercial, and imperialist agendas, the French in India both sought to promote Catholicism and advance the scientific study of Tamil, the majority language spoken in the colonial headquarters of Pondicherry. There, a little known press operated by the Paris Foreign Missions shipped seventy-one dictionaries, grammars, and theological works printed in Tamil and French to Catholic schools in French Guiana that were undergoing secularization and where the children of Tamil indentured laborers likely attended. Analyzing the lexical, orthographic, and typographical forms, metalinguistic commentaries, publicity tactics, citational practices, and circulation histories of these books by drawing on seldom-discussed materials from the Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer in Aix-en-Provence, France, this article proposes a theoretical framework for investigating how technology intersects with the historical relationship between language and colonialism. It identifies a semiotic ideology about the interchangeable nature of “erroneous” signs found across a diverse array of phenomena, such as languages, texts, policies, and religious doctrine, which has had enormous sway on colonial and post-colonial writing, pedagogy, law, and policy. I anticipate exploring these ideas further in a 2000-word entry for the International Encyclopedia of Linguistic Anthropology on the related topic of“Correctness/Incorrectness/Correction” to be submitted in October 2017.
Maritime Lingua Franca
My second book project explores how infrastructural projects of port building, ship designing, and sea dredging and land-based nationalist conflicts and rivalries influence the politics and practices of institutionalizing a maritime lingua franca and the promotion of rights of linguistic minorities working for the global commercial shipping industry. This book project draws on multi-sited research at four different-sized ports in the western and eastern hemispheres. In 2005-2006 and 2015-2016 I conducted ethnographic research at the North American ports of Montréal and Newark respectively, and I plan next to examine sociopolitical relations and maritime exchanges between two major ports in South Asia – Thoothukudi, India and Colombo, Sri Lanka. This research principally explores the language ideologies and everyday communicative practices such as storytelling, digital communication, and face-to-face interaction that inform the expressive means through which seafarers build communities and imagine their lives and livelihoods at sea in culturally specific ways. It also investigates how non-English-speaking seafarers negotiate maritime language politics and policies to forge conditions of sociability despite inhospitable conditions. I will discuss this research at the NYU Scholars Lecture Series in February 2018.
Hate Speech/Free Speech
My upcoming research looks to explore contemporary debates and practices informing legal and pragmatic conceptualizations of “hate speech” and “free speech” in U.S. democratic institutions. Notoriously difficult to define legally as a civil or criminal offense, prosecuted claims of hate speech generally fall under categories of defamation, incitement, child pornography, and obscenity and depend on the reasonable interpretation of verbally incited harm. Concerning police-suspect interactions, in January 2017 the state of Louisiana passed a law making it a hate crime to resist arrest. In some states, linguistic minorities (that is, speakers of non-standard English such as AAVE and Chicano English and also foreign languages) are still disproportionately charged with breach of peace, public disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest, even if it is not a hate crime.
Starting in September 2017, I begin an analysis of the language of police arrests in Richland County, South Carolina, drawing on an archive of the past two years of written documentation, audio recordings, and video recordings provided by the Public Defender’s office of Attorney Douglas Strickler. Working in collaboration with my colleague, Dr. Sherina Feliciano-Santos (University of South Carolina, Anthropology), we seek to investigate how racial and ethnic minorities are granted or denied permission to speak freely in their interactions with police officers, lawyers, and members of the court, and how this interactional data bears on the outcomes of DUI cases. As the first systematic linguistic analysis of police-suspect interactions that privileges the role of context rather than reference in accounting for meanings and outcomes, this research aims to examine communicative practices and languages ideologies undergirding the criminal justice system in an American liberal democracy.
Also, in collaboration with anthropology colleagues, Ayala Fader (Fordham University), Elsa Davidson (Montclair University), and Irina Carlota Silber (City College of New York) in the tri-state region, I will co-host a public workshop exploring contemporary issues of “hate speech” and “free speech” on college campuses, including anti-government protest, academic freedom, Islamophobia, anti-hate teaching, and gender surveillance. Invited distinguished speakers will discuss their ethnographic research and activism on college campuses and, through discussion and commentary, provide comparative perspectives and interdisciplinary frameworks to illuminate the contemporary politics of language in higher education. Sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences, Anthropology Division, this workshop will be open to the public and held on April 14, 2018 at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus in Manhattan.