What is ‘Ultralingualism’?

This month we published The Performance of Multilingual and ‘Ultralingual’ Devotional Practices by Young British Muslims by Andrey Rosowsky. In this post the author explains the concept of ‘ultralingualism’, which is central to his book.

One of the words in the title of my book may be unfamiliar – ultralingual. And I could be accused perhaps of introducing a new term unnecessarily. And, moreover, without a significant degree of academic consensus. Yet, as a word, and as a concept, it is born out of nearly a quarter century of research which has focused, primarily, on what I would now call ‘ultralingual’ practices. My research into language practices in, primarily, minority religious communities, which I originally called ‘liturgical literacies’ (Rosowsky, 2008), regularly came up against the issue of how to account for reading and other language practices (artful recitation, memorisation, singing, for example) which appeared, on the surface, to be divorced from meaning, or from referential meaning to be more precise.

Fishman (1989) famously coined the term ‘religious classical’ to denote language varieties which were exclusively used for liturgical purposes such as Lutheran German, Geez and Ecclesiastical Greek. Such varieties are invariably linguistically distant from the spoken languages of their congregations and so understanding of what is being read or recited is often absent or incomplete. It is this which I am calling ‘ultralingualism’ and is an attempt to capture the experience of, usually, very accurate decoding accompanied by a, sometimes heightened, experience which could be considered spiritual or emotional and which is achieved beyond the words performed – thus ultralingual. However, in more recent and very detailed and useful categorisations of linguistic competences (Blommaert & Backus, 2012), there is still no obvious place for the near universal practice of ultralingualism. If it isn’t ‘full’ competence, then is it ‘partial’ or ‘minimal’?  Both the latter terms seem inadequate.

And although much of my research has featured ultralingualism in a religious context, there are many other contexts where it appears. Singers in all shapes and sizes often end up being very comfortable singing in an ultralingual way. How many choir members understand the Vulgar Latin of Carmina Burana? I recall a former colleague of mine, Professor Greg Brooks, working in east Africa in the 1960s, relating to me how he would often be asked to read out letters in Kikuyu (written in Roman script) to his Kikuyu speaking caretaker whilst not understanding the language himself. This could be called another form of ultralingualism, albeit a more prosaic one.

This book offers a fresh look at language practices of young British Muslims and provides ample support for ultralingualism as a useful term to account for such practices.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Language Maintenance, Revival and Shift in the Sociology of Religion edited by Rajeshwari Vijay Pandharipande, Maya Khemlani David and Miriam Eisenstein Ebsworth.