An Open Discussion about Endangered Languages at AABS 2022: Interview with Solvita Burr

Mar 30, 2022

The AABS 2022 Conference will look toward the future to explore how the Baltic States will move forward into the next century, as a crossroads between Europe and Asia, Nordic and Eastern Europe. Similarly, the field of Baltic Studies is at a crossroads between new and old diaspora communities negotiating the implications of what it means to advance the study and research of the Baltic States into the next century. The conference will promote intersections of academic disciplines, scholarship, and community by focusing on the implications for the Baltic States in the future at the crossroads of different regions, cultures, religions, and historical perspectives. Please find more information here, and registration here.

Solvita Burr (PhD, University of Latvia) is Visiting Lecturer of Latvian, University of Washington, and Vice Director, Latvian Language Institute.

Dr. Burr is co-chair of the Literature and Linguistics division at AABS 2022. AABS met with her to discuss the division and what she’s looking forward to at the conference. The transcript of our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

AABS: To start, can you give us a brief overview of your division and what it will cover? What’s new in your division for this conference, compared with previous years?

SB: I’ve participated in the Conference on Baltic Studies in Europe, and I really believe that this AABS conference will provide a useful overview of different fields within Baltic Studies, including the latest trends and novel topics, and what people are working on right now.

Speaking to Guntis [Šmidchens, UW Professor and member of the AABS conference team], I know this year there’s a focus on endangered languages, potentially bridging the divide between local languages and tribes in the United States to Baltic peoples, with an interdisciplinary approach combining literature studies, political science, linguistics, history, and so on. This may be nothing new, because Baltic Studies is broad and interdisciplinary. But this is the biggest bonus of this conference: you don’t need to be a linguist to participate in this discussion at this conference, you just need to be interested, and I believe you will find a lot of interesting topics overlapping different fields.

In the last few years, we know COVID made big changes to how we communicate, and many conferences moved online. That allowed people to come together, but I really hope that this conference will remain in person and bring people together that way. I believe the most important and fruitful conversations and discussions happen after official panels, at dinner or drinking coffee. This networking and being in one place, it’s so important.

AABS: Drawing from your comments about potential connections between indigenous peoples in the US and Baltic states, could you talk a little bit about how you think the global academic conversation will be advanced, or how the panels in your division will contribute to that specifically?

SB: Given that I’m responsible for Literature and Linguistics, I can say that maybe less attention is paid to indigenous peoples in general discourse, but I see that many talks at this conference are focused on lesser-used or less commonly taught languages, regional languages and minority languages, those which don’t have a formal special status. Even though they don’t have this status doesn’t mean they’re less important to discuss.

In general, across the dozens of submissions in this division, and as a linguist, I’m particularly interested to see sociolinguistic topics like code switching and multilingualism. I’m very happy to see that researchers have touched on such important topics as homophobic discourse on the internet, for example, or hate speech and free speech. Also, multilingualism and multilingual structures in social domains like universities and schools, on TV, on radio, on the internet, also in cities’ public spaces. I also see a topic not covered as frequently in Baltic sociolinguistics: multilingual management and practices within families, especially mixed families. From the Baltic sociolinguistic perspective, this is a new topic which we haven’t paid too much attention to in the past, so this is really interesting. There are also more traditional topics on grammar, and a prescriptive view on language.

It will be really interesting to bring the European sociolinguistic tradition to UW. I’m a member of the sociolinguistic lab here, and I see a larger emphasis on sociophonetics here, as opposed to an emphasis on dialectology and variation that’s more the focus in Europe at the moment.

Lots of leading Baltic linguists and literature scholars are coming to this conference, and I’m going to encourage them (the Sociolinguistics Lab’s members) to come to these talks, because even if they’re not interested in this area specifically, their utilized theoretical frameworks can also be useful in other contexts.