Society for Linguistic Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
As other scholars have observed, language changes in the aftermath of mass violence (Brinkman 2004; Bhatia 2005; Peteet 2005). For example, although the term “Holocaust” is now commonly understood as a referent for the genocide committed in Nazi Germany, the global comprehensibility of this word used as a proper name did not arise immediately after World War II. Instead, such language choices are circulated and taught, both implicitly and explicitly, prompting this paper to ask: how are ‘appropriate’ ways of representing mass atrocities established and reinforced through language? I address this question through attendance at and participant observation of events commemorating the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi, ethnographic interviews with Rwandans and their descendants living in and around Toronto, and critical discourse analysis of my interlocutors’ commentary alongside that of testimony, speeches, and presentations given at the events themselves. In this paper, I argue that commemoration functions as a form of language socialization in which those not physically present for the genocide, including other Rwandans, are being taught to narrativize events in culturally sensitive ways, using standardized or currently acceptable language. In other words, attendees at commemorative events are being made into “members” of or are being “membered” into a community that can appropriately remember the genocide. Through this ethnographic work, we learn not only about what various narratives regarding the genocide mean to Rwandans themselves, but also about the processes by which narratives are created, used, and/or contested both in local, situated contexts and across time and space.