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Language Grief: Its nature and function at community level


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Bostock, WW 1997 , 'Language Grief: Its nature and function at community level' , International Journal: Language, Society and Culture, vol. 02 .

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As part of its culture a community will have an identity or "property of being one and the same" (Brennan 1988:7). Identity implies survival and because survival in an unchanged form is not possible it is normal to accept a degree of continuity as a sufficient defining characteristic of a community. A community can for example change its language and still see itself as the same community as many immigrant communities have done. The extinction of a language therefore does not necessarily involve the extinction of a culture or a community (Edwards 1985). Communities can survive a change of language or even several (Brenzinger 1992) but they can also succumb (Day 1985). Continued functioning requires a concept of future if a community is not to fall into disunity and ultimately extinction (Borkenau 1981). The chances of the physical, political, economic and social survival and future development of a community may be considered to be increased by a change of language, which will have major consequences for that community and will be indicated in the state of health of that community.

At community level there is a state of physical health as possessed by the preponderant number of individuals and manifested in life expectancy, infant mortality, suicide, depression, substance addiction and other epidemiological indicators. The presence of significant mental problems has been described as psychopathology or the inability to behave in ways that foster the wellbeing of the individual and ultimately of society (Coon 1986:483). Some of the forms that psychopathological conditions may take concern self-attitude, self-actualisation of potential, the unity of the personality, perceptions of reality, control of the environment and problem solving (Jahoda 1960:32-33). When a large proportion of the members of a community are experiencing these kinds of problems, collective anxiety neuroses can spread by contagion (Kiev, 1973: 418). Though it is possible to speak of a dichotomy of a "well" or a "sick" society, it is more usual to conceptualise a spectrum of health and disease or, as Antonovsky proposes in relation to the question "how come this group has such a relatively low proportion of people who have broken down?" (1980: 56), a continuum of health ease/disease. When a community engages in aggression, cruelty, destructiveness (including self-destruction), genocide and autogenocide and offensive (as distinct from defensive) war, it is possible to see these aggressive behaviours as collectively pathological.

Depression is a condition of disease which may prevail in a community. In depression there is a sense of inadequacy, despondency, pessimism, sadness and a decrease in activity and reactivity (Reber 1995: 197), which if severe enough can put survival in question. Does language play a role here? The ensemble of factors including language which appear to be essential for community survival have been collectively called "ethno-linguistic vitality" (Giles, Bourhis and Taylor 1977). Although it is fundamental in Oriental medicine (as Chi or Qi) (Lewith, 1982), energy is not a concept in widespread use in Western medicine. Both approaches do however, recognise a fundamental link between physical and mental health and disease. A theory of health maintenance and enhancement or salutogenesis asserts that the key casual factor is a sense of coherence or ". . global orientation that expresses the extent to which one has a pervasive, enduring though dynamic feeling of confidence that one's internal and external environments are predictable and that there is a high probability that things will work out as well as can be reasonably expected" (Antonovsky 1980:123). The sense of coherence concept is, moreover, valid at the group level, be it family, class, neighbourhood, region or country (Antonovsky 1987: 171), with the proviso that there must first be a sense of group consciousness or subjectively identifiable collectivity (Antonovsky, 1987: 175). An individual or group with a highly developed sense of coherence will have a high level of generalised resistance resources which are identified as rationality, flexibility and farsightedness (Antonovsky, 1979:112-113), and it is possible to see language as fundamental to the maintenance of that sense.

Item Type: Article
Authors/Creators:Bostock, WW
Keywords: Language, grief, survival
Journal or Publication Title: International Journal: Language, Society and Culture
ISSN: 1327-774X
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