Mandy Sinclair, December 9, 2021

Carleton’s Erik Anonby Elected to Royal Society of Canada for Leadership in Community-Based Digital Mapping Research

Erik Anonby has been elected to the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists. The professor in the School of Linguistics and Language Studies and Department of French has been recognized as part of an emerging generation of Canadian intellectual leadership.

An innovator in the research area of digital language mapping, Anonby probes and maps the contributions of linguistic diversity to individual human experiences, collective heritage and survival.

Erik Anonby is a Professor in Carleton University’s School of Linguistics and Language Studies and in the Department of French

Through his understanding of language ecology, including endangerment and revitalization, Anonby aims “to provide a space for people to represent themselves in larger contexts in ways that are true for them, placing them at the centre of their own lived experiences, rather than on the periphery or viewed as a threat.”

Anonby’s research has opened doors to work with language communities in Chad, Cameroon, Iran and Oman.

The Atlas of the Languages of Iran is Anonby’s most significant work to date in the field of language mapping, and is built from the ground up simply by asking people what languages are spoken in each community, the proportions of each language spoken, and the community name as it is known locally.

This map shows the locations where initial language distribution research has been completed for the Atlas of the Languages of Iran project

The findings published by the atlas research team so far include detailed language distribution maps for dozens of languages across eight of Iran’s 31 provinces, including the Kholosi language, which is spoken in only two villages in south Iran. Prior to research by Anonby and his colleagues, the language was undocumented in any literature.

“When this research is done carefully, it always shows much more diversity than people were previously aware of,” says Anonby.

Linguistic field research on Larak Island, Iran

Tools Offer Ability to Capture Different Perspectives
Anonby was the first linguist to use the Nunaliit Atlas Framework, developed at Carleton University by Fraser Taylor, which he says is “valuable to my research because it has been designed around the idea that when people are featured in an atlas, they should part of building it, defining how it works and how they’re represented in it.” 

Too often, he says, linguists inadvertently push a particular view of how specific languages should be identified and classified, and dismiss people’s own knowledge and perspectives on the languages they speak. Nunaliit is built so that different perspectives on language can be represented alongside one another in the same atlas.

“No single perspective, including the assessments that linguists make, provides the whole picture,” says Anonby. “Local knowledge and perspectives are essential.”

Anonby’s mapping work includes place names in the community’s own language, rather than being limited to official names in the national language. This provides community members with the opportunity to see themselves represented on language maps as an important part of the country’s cultural heritage and history.

Professor Erik Anonby working with colleagues from the Mambay language community in Chad and Cameroon

Knowing where languages are spoken helps prepare for field research with community members. Detailed language questionnaires result in linguistic structure maps, which are of particular interest to linguists. “Language maps show the diversity that exists for particular words, pronunciations and grammatical structures,” explains Anonby.

“This helps us understand the origins and evolution of each language, how languages are related to each other, and how particular languages influence one another.”

Fieldwork also includes audio and video recording of folktales, traditional songs and crafts, and accounts of local history and scientific knowledge. These records of linguistic heritage are made accessible to community members and, whenever permission is granted by speakers, are shared online with scholars and the public.

Childhood Experience Shapes Research Goals
When Anonby was growing up, his father didn’t often speak to him in his own native tongue of Norwegian. His English-speaking Canadian mother learned Norwegian so they could speak it in the home, but English was the dominant language there and Anonby feels his heritage language development as a child was weak.

As an adult, he’s had to work hard to gain fluency and reclaim this part of his heritage.

“We come into the world as linguistic beings. We grow into ourselves as linguistic beings and our world is shaped by the language or languages we start speaking, the languages that are spoken to us. Our whole identity is tied up in that,” says Anonby.

Even though he knows that English rather than Norwegian is still his strongest language, Anonby has made a concerted effort to speak consistently to his children in Norwegian so that it will be part of their “wiring.”

“It’s through language that I’ve been able to find out who I am and come to terms with my own identity as a Canadian with other heritages, and to pass that onto my kids.”

Professor Erik Anonby has worked to pass on his heritage language, Norwegian, to his children

It’s a privilege he recognizes not everyone has.

“I want to assist language communities in identifying and valuing who they are in a global context, in finding a way for their voices to be heard internationally,” says Anonby.

Minority Languages Waning from Increased Use of Technology
With the proliferation of public technologies and the irresistible draw of social media, most of the world’s languages—particularly minority languages and cultures—are at risk of disappearing, making language mapping research even more urgent.

“With education and public services limited to official languages in most of the world, the rise of dominant languages such as English on social media channels is pushing parents to speak to their children in languages other than their mother tongue, regardless of how fluent they are.

“They’re trying to provide a better future for their families,” says Anonby. “But this is a future that doesn’t adequately value their past or the richness of our collective human past.”

On the other hand, digital technologies are providing ways to address the large-scale language loss taking place across the world.

“Used responsibly, technologies can help preserve a partial picture of the linguistic richness and diversity that existed at this point in history,” says Anonby. “It can help provide minority communities with tools that will enable them to see their languages survive—and hopefully even thrive in the future.”

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