Scholars to Unravel SA’s History in Language

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People bear their country's flags as part of the East Houston Street parade. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report

A crowd waves flags from various countries during a parade on Houston Street.

For three centuries, San Antonio has been a crossroads of people, culture, and language. From the establishment of the Spanish Colonial missions in the territory of Coahuiltecan bands to subsequent settlement by Germans, Mexicans, and others, San Antonio has been the place of practice for a variety of languages.

The examination of those languages as a product of historical and social forces is the focust of the 23rd International Conference on Historical Linguistics hosted by the University of Texas at San Antonio on Monday, July 31, through Friday, Aug. 4, downtown at Hotel Contessa.

The ICHL is the largest and most prestigious gathering of scholars of historical linguistics in the world and is expected to bring to the city over 300 linguists from 40 countries. The week-long conference will include workshops and a four-part discussion series, “Las lenguas de San Antonio a 300 años: Reconstructing the Linguistic Roots of a Multi-Cultural City,” celebrating San Antonio’s role as a “frontier of language” over the course of its dynamic history. These talks are free and open to the public, and a schedule of the panels can be found here.

Bridget Drinka, professor of linguistics at UTSA and president of the International Society for Historical Linguistics, called the event “a birthday gift from UTSA to the City to start its [tricentennial] celebration.”

“We wanted to bring scholars from all over the world to tell us something about the history of San Antonio,” said Drinka. “And we’re trying to invite the whole city to learn about different aspects of our own history through the lens of our different languages.”

She noted that institutions such as the University of Naples Federico II, the University of Oslo, the University of Copenhagen, and UCLA have hosted the conference in the past and that Oxford University will host it in four years.

“It’s lovely that we’re being classed among those universities,” she said. “… And many of these scholars have not been to the States, so it’s a chance for San Antonio to shine.”

Drinka said the four panel discussions should be of particular interest and relevance to non-linguists in the San Antonio community since each explores a different area of language integral to San Antonio as we know and experience it today.

“I want it to not just be scholars coming together, but also something UTSA can share with the City and with our community,” said Drinka. “These scholars have a lot of answers for why we do certain things and what affect it has on us. We all have a vote when it comes to innovations [in language]. We live and breathe it.”

Monday’s panel, titled “Spanish Socio-historical Linguistics: Isolation and Contact,” will analyze connections and changes between Old World and New World Spanish. Experts from Spain and Latin America will talk about Spanish dialects from different areas as reflections of those areas’ social conditions, including how laws codify a society’s values at a given point in time.

Tuesday will feature two panels. In the morning, “African American Vernacular English and the Ecology of Language Evolution” will trace the history of vernacular pronunciations, such as the stereotypically Southern use of soft r’s which originated in members of the British-educated Colonial American upper classes.

On Tuesday evening, “The History of Texas German” will look at the once-thriving Texas German language and culture and its decline due to political sentiment during the World Wars. This talk begins at 6 p.m. to make it more accessible to those who want to come after work, Drinka said.

Thursday’s panel, “Endangered Languages and Historical Linguistics,” will look at what happens when languages become endangered. Talks will focus on Native American languages and will feature a connection to Tuesday evening’s discussion on the topic of Germans who came to Texas to study Native American languages.

“We hope to get the community excited about linguistics,” Drinka said. “I think they’ll get some real insights that they’ve never had before. They’ll come away knowing something about their roots [and] their personal, family, and community history, because language holds it all. It is the entity which we can go to to find out where a community has been, what are the hard issues that have come to this community, what contacts has it had with others.

“It’s like a piece of amber; it preserves the history of a people.”

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