How languages get their mojo

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


Assessments of ‘language vitality’ have made considerable progress in recent decades, yet no one would claim that improving our means of measuring decline is the way to stop or even slow it. What is more, language vitality measures have tended to focus exclusively on materialist concepts. The UNESCO Language Vitality Assessment states that “Many indigenous peoples, associating their disadvantaged social position with their culture, have come to believe that their languages are not worth retaining. They abandon their languages and cultures in hopes of overcoming discrimination, to secure a livelihood, and enhance social mobility, or to assimilate to the global marketplace”. This is broadly true, yet it is far from being the whole story. With every language and every culture there is a crucial element that extends beyond the limits of the material and even of the rational as we normally conceive it. With that in view, this paper stretches and twists the concept of ‘vitality’ of a language in order to think about it as a language’s ‘mojo’, a term that comes from Louisiana, and presumably has a Creole or West African source, though no one has traced it definitively. A mojo hand is a little bag of charms. The charms give mojo to their owner, but even if the mojo works on most people, it may not work on you. A language’s mojo hand includes at least the following: an identity mojo, a supra-material mojo, a heritage mojo, a getting-on mojo, a modernity mojo and a resistance mojo. Each of these is discussed in terms of how it has come about in particular languages, how it gets lost or retained, and whether, once lost, it can be got back. Examples from a range of language families and historical periods are considered.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLanguage Rich Africa Policy Dialogue
Subtitle of host publicationThe Cape Town Language and Development Conference: Looking beyond 2015
EditorsHamish McIlwraith
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherBritish Council
Pages124- 132
ISBN (Print)9780863557569
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2014


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