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This introduction has three aims: (a) to discuss the causes of historic amnesia in the field of multilingualism; (b) to offer a brief survey of historic language management, defined here as explicit efforts to regulate the choice of languages and scripts and to facilitate communication in the public domain; and (c) to reconsider the relationship between past and present multilingualism and identify productive directions for future inquiry. I begin by listing the misconceptions that raised my interest in the history of multilingual societies. Then, I will discuss the paradoxes and contradictions of historic language management in six institutional domains: administration, courts of law, religion, army, education, and public signage. In the last section, I consider the big picture emerging from recent historic work. The opposite of what we have come to believe, this picture undermines the sense of contemporary exceptionalism and opens up space for new narratives and exciting avenues of pursuit.
This chapter examines the many roles played by signs in dissonant languages, that is languages no longer spoken on city streets, in the urban linguistic landscape. These ghost signs are examined in four cities designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as World heritage sites: Toledo, St Petersburg, Palermo, and Lviv. Primary data comes from my fieldwork, which included site visits, participation in tours in relevant languages, interviews with tour guides and visitors, and analyses of UNESCO reports, tourist guides, media, and travelogues. A critical analysis of the data shows that multilingual ghost signs perform multifaceted urban identity work: promoting attractive narratives of harmonious past diversity, they recontextualize the cities as “welcoming” and “cosmopolitan” and deflect attention from present-day suppression of minority languages, be it Uzbek in St Petersburg or Russian in Lviv.
We often hear that our world 'is more multilingual than ever before', but is it true? This book shatters that cliché. It is the first volume to shine light on the millennia-long history of multilingualism as a social, institutional and demographic phenomenon. Its fifteen chapters, written in clear, accessible language by prominent historians, classicists, and sociolinguists, span the period from the third century BC to the present day, and range from ancient Rome and Egypt to medieval London and Jerusalem, from Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires to modern Norway, Ukraine, and Spain. Going against the grain of traditional language histories, these thought-provoking case studies challenge stereotypical beliefs, foreground historic normativity of institutional multilingualism and language mixing, examine the transformation of polyglot societies into monolingual ones, and bring out the cognitive and affective dissonance in present-day orientations to multilingualism, where 'celebrations of linguistic diversity' coexist uneasily with creation of 'language police'.
The study examined granularity of lexical partitioning of the blue area in speakers of English, which encodes the term blue; Russian, which encodes two terms, sinij [dark/navy blue] and goluboj [light/sky blue]; and Ukrainian, which encodes the terms synij [dark/navy blue] and blakytnyj and golubyj [light/sky blue]. Five groups of participants took part in the study: (1) 30 L1 speakers of English, (2) 30 L1 speakers of Russian, (3) 30 Russian–English bilinguals, (4) 30 English–Russian bilinguals, and (5) 25 Ukrainian–Russian–English trilinguals. Quantitative and qualitative analyses revealed that L1 Russian speakers referred to different types of blue significantly more frequently than all other groups, while bilinguals patterned with L1 English speakers. These findings suggest that classroom exposure to L2 Russian does not make the distinction between sinij and goluboj communicatively relevant for L1 English speakers and that everyday use of L2 English may trigger attrition of the contrast in L1 Russian.
The culturally shaped cognitive and linguistic processes that guide the self-telling of life narratives achieve the power to structure perceptual experience, to organize memory, to segment and purpose-build the very “events” of a life. In the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we “tell about” our lives.
Bruner, 1987: 15
Of all narratives in the world, the one most important to us is the narrative of our own life – its loss shatters our sense of self. A glimpse into such an unpopulated universe comes from Lev Zasetsky, a 23-year-old Russian soldier who received a severe head wound during the 1943 battle of Smolensk. In the notes written later, he poignantly states that this was the day he died:
I’m in a kind of fog all the time, like a heavy half-sleep. My memory’s a blank. I can’t think of a single word. All that flashes through my mind are some images, hazy visions that suddenly appear and just as suddenly disappear, giving way to fresh images. But I simply can’t understand or remember what these mean. Whatever I do remember is scattered, broken down into disconnected bits and pieces … How horrible this illness is! I still can’t get a grip on myself, can’t figure out what I was like before, what’s happened to me…
(Luria, 1972: 11–13)
The damage to the left occipito-parietal region left Zasetsky with severe amnesia: while he eventually recovered memories of his childhood, he had trouble remembering the recent past and the functions of everyday objects. Zasetsky also suffered from aphasia, where linguistic forms became disconnected from their referents: looking at objects, plants or animals he could not remember their names, hearing words he could not interpret their meanings, nor could he recall words at will. He also partially lost his vision and spatial orientation skills: he could not see his own right side and everything he perceived appeared as fragments in a constant state of flux. “It was depressing, unbearable to realize how miserable and pathetic my situation was”, states Zasetsky in his diary, “You see, I’d become illiterate, sick, had no memory” (Luria, 1972: 35).
For my purposes … the ultimate validity of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is irrelevant. What is crucial is that many bilinguals relate to their languages in ways that enact some version of this hypothesis. What may not be true for Spanish and English in any objectively demonstrable way may be true for an individual’s apprehension of Spanish and English.
Pérez Firmat, 2003: 13
Spanish–English bilingual writer and scholar Gustavo Pérez Firmat (2003) urges us to cease worrying about the empirical validity of the SWH, because it is immaterial to bilinguals’ lives – what matters is its ecological validity. I agree and in the preceding chapters I have tried to pinpoint the sources of such experiential relativity, from language tagging in autobiographical memory, to the change in the language of inner speech and interpretive frames, to differences in affective processing. But I will also do one better and argue that there is no such thing as ‘the ultimate validity of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’. I apologize to those who expected me to take a stand on the SWH and to occupy a recognizable position: ‘for’, ‘against’, or ‘rationally in the middle’. I refuse to play this game and to accept the narrow and binary terms of engagement articulated by Brown and Lenneberg, for I do not find them either interesting or meaningful. The SWH ‘as we know it’ is a phantom, if not a fraud, that has little to do with the questions and concerns that preoccupied Sapir and Whorf. It is also a pattern of habitual thought, an implicit agreement on certain terms of engagement that is begging to be disrupted because it fails to address the very question it purports to address, namely, the implications of our dependence on languages as semiotic tools. The paradigm change, prompted by bilingual and evolutionary turns in cognitive science, requires a fresh re-reading of Humboldt, Sapir, and Whorf – and possibly also Vygotsky and Bakhtin – and reconsideration of ‘Whorfian effects’ of three kinds.
Let me begin this book by confessing that its title is a misnomer and a misrepresentation. In reality, there is no such thing as the bilingual mind: bilinguals vary greatly in linguistic repertoires, histories, and abilities, and the bilingual mind appears here as an umbrella term to refer to a variety of speakers, including multilinguals. The modifier bilingual is also a problem because languages are not easily identifiable, discrete, and countable entities. A popular source of information on world languages, Ethnologue, states upfront that the boundaries between them are blurry and that languages are best seen as continua of features that change across time and geographic space. These continua are nevertheless psychologically real to their speakers and we would be remiss if we did not try to understand their functioning in contexts where speakers see themselves as learning another ‘language’ or speaking more than one ‘language’. Respectful of this psychological and social reality, throughout this book, I will unapologetically use the terms ‘language’, ‘bilingualism’, and ‘multilingualism’, all the while recognizing their discursively constructed, approximate, and interpretive nature.
Numbers were a mystery to me. I was so far behind. It was only in Nairobi, at age ten, that I figured out anything at all about the way time is calculated: minutes, hours, years. In Saudi Arabia the calendar had been Islamic, based on lunar months; Ethiopia maintained an ancient solar calendar. The year was written 1399 in Saudi Arabia, 1972 in Ethiopia, and 1980 in Kenya and everywhere else. In Ethiopia we even had a different clock: sunrise was called one o’clock and noon was called six. (Even within Kenya, people used two systems for telling time, the British and the Swahili). The months, the days – everything was conceived differently. Only in Juja Road Primary School did I begin to figure out what people meant when they referred to precise dates and times.
Ali, 2007: 63
Born in Somalia, Ayaan Hirsi Ali (2007) grew up with a grandmother who “never learned to tell time at all. All her life, noon was when shadows were short, and your age was measured by rainy seasons. She got by perfectly well with her system” (p. 63). Ali’s (2007) poignant memoir Infidel: My Life traces the transformation of a girl from Mogadishu into a member of the Dutch Parliament, a writer, a political activist, and a spokesperson for the rights of women against militant Islam. Her transition from the world of shadows and rainy seasons to the world we live in, where every second is measured and imbued with significance, is only a small part of the overall account but I find it very touching. It reminds me of my own significantly less dramatic yet still destabilizing transition from the metric system and the Celsius scale to the ever-confusing inches, miles, pounds, gallons, and degrees in Fahrenheit. Today, I know exactly how many pounds I need to lose but I still don’t automatically convert miles into mental distances nor do I use the weather forecast to decide if I should put my coat on to go out. Instead of letting Fahrenheit degrees speak to me, I still look out the window.
Most observers of the Navajo agree that motion pervades the Navajo universe … In the Navajo films themselves and in the way they talked about what they were going to do in their films, we can see many examples of this inordinate need both to portray motion precisely and to use it as a recurrent theme.
Worth & Adair,  1997: 200–201
How can we find out what the world looks like through someone else’s eyes? We can imagine it, as writers commonly do, or we can try to reconstruct it through people’s words, as linguists do, we can even use eye-tracking equipment, as psycholinguists do nowadays. In 1966, communications scholar Sol Worth and cultural anthropologist John Adair, inspired by Whorf’s ideas, decided to examine how people film events and then sequence them through the editing process in the hope that “processes involved in cognition might be better understood if the way in which people produced a structure of visual sequences were compared to the way in which the same people structured their verbal language” (Worth & Adair,  1997: 28).
In order to see the world Through Navajo Eyes (1997), Worth and Adair taught film-making and editing to a group of six Navajos in Pine Springs, Arizona, where Adair had conducted his previous research. Pine Springs at the time was a small traditional community of about six hundred people, with a high preponderance of silversmiths and weavers, and had not yet been invaded by television – many of its inhabitants had seen no or very few films. Navajo continued to serve as the language of the home and the community, while English fluency varied by generation: most of the population under thirty was bilingual, while many of the older people spoke no English whatsoever. The six project participants were members of the younger generation who lived their lives through the means of Navajo and English (in contacts with the outside world), while many of their parents and grandparents were monolingual Navajos.
The true locus of culture is in the interactions of specific individuals and, on the subjective side, in the world of meanings which each one of these individuals may unconsciously abstract for himself from his participation in these interactions. … the degree to which the socialized behavior of any given individual can be identified with or abstracted from the typical or generalized culture of a single group varies enormously from person to person.
Sapir, 1949: 515
In the mid 1990s, I was a graduate student in linguistics at Cornell University, working on my dissertation. Inspired by Bartlett’s ( 1995), Worth and Adair’s ( 1997) and Chafe’s (1980) research, I wanted to make my own films to see whether the process of learning a new language may lead L2 learners to ‘see’ things that monolingual speakers of their L1 do not. What I did not know was what those ‘things’ should be. And then I came across an essay on bilingualism, dialogism, and schizophrenia by a French scholar, Tzvetan Todorov (1985, 1994). The essay described an unusual experience Todorov had in translating a conference paper from his L2 French into the L1 Bulgarian – he suddenly found himself changing the argument into its opposite. The essay both puzzled and intrigued me – if only I could capture something like that! And then I caught a lucky break – Todorov came to Cornell to give a talk and kindly agreed to be interviewed. In what follows, I will use this unpublished interview (Todorov, 1997) and Todorov’s (1985, 1994, 1996, 2008) autobiographical writings to guide further inquiry into linguistic thought and the relationship between bilingualism and cognition.
In science … novelty emerges only with difficulty, manifested by resistance, against a background provided by expectation. Initially, only the anticipated and usual are experienced even under circumstances where anomaly is later to be observed. Further acquaintance, however, does result in awareness of something wrong or does relate the effect to something that has gone wrong before. That awareness of anomaly opens a period in which conceptual categories are adjusted until the initially anomalous has become the anticipated.
Kuhn,  2012: 64
My approach to writing is also informed by my fascination with history, or rather with our ongoing dialog with the past, where we continuously ask new questions about where we have been and receive new answers that have a bearing on where we go next. The preference for the diachronic over the synchronic also informs this introductory chapter, whose aim is to examine why, until recently, bilingualism played no role in discussions of language and thought and to understand what brought about the change. Yet, despite my love of history, I am not a historian of science – readers interested in the history of ideas about language diversity and thought should consult Allan (2007), Joseph (2002), Koerner (2002), Lucy (1992a), and Leavitt (2011). My own goal is to draw on these and other sources to discuss two lesser-known aspects of the history of what we know as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (SWH). To explain what happened to Humboldt’s idea of second-language (L2) learning as a way to transcend the boundaries of the first language (L1), I will depart from the traditional preoccupation of English-language academia with its own history and compare the treatment of Humboldt’s ideas in the US with that in Western Europe, Russia and the USSR. Then I will consider the invention of the SWH tradition in the US and ask how likely is it that Humboldt, Sapir, and Whorf, all of them multilingual and fascinated by language learning and change, believed that language determines thought? And if they did not, who did?