Jenanne Ferguson on her book, Words Like Birds

Words Like Birds

Interview by Laura Siragusa

Laura Siragusa: In your rich ethnography about language practices in the Sakha Republic, Russia, you introduce the concept of  ‘ontologies of language.’ Could you expand on its significance and what does this add to current linguistic anthropological debates?

Jenanne Ferguson: Language in many speech communities is entwined with what we might call ‘spirituality’ but perhaps is more accurately ‘ontology’, in terms of how language is conceptualized as part of broader reality. Ideologies are very often rooted in deep-seated beliefs about human differences that go beyond language and extend—as other scholars have noted—to assessments and judgments about the speaker as a person, or speakers as groups of people sharing certain characteristics that their language usage is purported to index. Understanding ontologies of language means apprehending the ways that we have ‘ways of being’ in language. Ontologies of language include how ideas and beliefs regarding different aspects of human experience are linked together. It is a similar concept to what Kroskrity (2018) has recently called “language ideological assemblages”—the idea that we cannot look simply at one language ideology (like purism, or variationism) in isolation. Instead of only looking at how different language-related beliefs are interconnected, I want to try to use the “ontologies of language” to remind people that language beliefs are rhizomatic and inseparable from beliefs about other aspects of life and the nature of reality.

Laura Siragusa: In your work, you often mention the need to incorporate more the notion of ‘belief’ when discussing ‘language ideologies’. This was fascinating, as you seem to focus on a concept, which had long been put into shade. Given the complexities of the present global socio-political and economic situation, I wondered to what extent talking about ‘belief’ facilitates communication, mutual understanding, and an acceptance of difference. Could you expand on that?

Jenanne Ferguson: The study of language ideologies is absolutely essential to better understanding communication more broadly—they are, I feel, often more than ‘opinions, ideas and attitudes,’ and acknowledging the element of ‘belief’ allows us to go a little deeper in understanding why so many people unconsciously take them as fact. As mentioned above, often beliefs about language connect in constellations to so many other beliefs about the world and how it works, and who lives in that world; they are not easily separated. Remembering “belief” gives us a place to start when we want to highlight how a language ideology may be harmful, but also how much work it might take to change or shift that belief. In the U.S. right now, work is being done on raciolinguistics by scholars like Jonathan Rosa, Samy Alim, and Nelson Flores, among others, that reveals the ways that beliefs about language are inseparable from constructions of race and also how deeply-held, hierarchical beliefs about race influence the reception and judgment of language. In the Sakha context, I see how ontologies of language make strong connections between Sakha ancestry, the ije tyl (mother language)/törööbüt tyl (birth language), and speaking Sakha, which do good in that they validate the Sakha language and encourage people to learn Sakha or maintain it. However, these beliefs can also be detrimental to people who are ethnically Sakha but are Russian-dominant or Russian-only speakers. These beliefs that link language, ethnolinguistic identity and personhood go deeper than attitudes or preference, but speak to ‘being in the world,’ and often alienate Sakha who don’t speak the language—I have heard individuals state that there is ‘no such thing as a russkoiazychnyi (Russian-speaking) Sakha,’ invalidating and erasing the identities of the many who do, indeed, speak only/predominantly Russian but identify ethnically as Sakha. Understanding how these beliefs about language connect and influence aspects of people’s social and public lives is essential—as well as the fact that they are beliefs—is essential, as they can often lead to significant inequality and speaker marginalization, and also harm the broader projects of language maintenance and revitalization. Identifying these beliefs and acknowledging their entanglements as well as their reach and power is the first step in alleviating the marginalization of groups of speakers.

Laura Siragusa: I was intrigued by noticing that in your work you talk about ‘the power of language’, which is not uncommon in other contexts. In the Finnish and Karelian folkloric traditions, for example, väki is seen as a ‘power charge’ that belongs to all beings, categories of entities, and phenomena (Stark-Arola 1998). Could you tell us more about what language can do, according to Sakha speakers, and if speakers use specific strategies to avoid negative consequences?

Jenanne Ferguson: As in many speech communities, some ‘kinds’ or genres of language are more highly charged, such as the blessing poems, algys, or kes tyl ‘magic words.’ However, no word should be used lightly (tyl tyalga byraghyllybat – ‘do not throw words to the wind’), because words are seen as direct vehicles for the intent of the speaker. There’s also the general communicative norm of not wasting words—not ‘throwing them to the wind’ unless you really must say them. “Sakha do not boltat’” (chatter, in Russian), I am often told, as an explanation for communicative differences between Sakha-Russian bilinguals and solely Russian speakers. Brevity in communication is positively valued—it’s safer. By voicing something, you have let your intent out into the world—you have already made something happen, and there is now the possibility that the meaning of your words will be realized. Because many Sakha ontologies of language hold that words possess a spirit (tyl ichchite) unto themselves as well as possessing something of the speaker’s spirit, letting them out into the world is seen as something to be especially cautious about, especially when discussing negative hypotheticals. I want to stress that this is not something people treat as ‘just’ a superstition; even if people do not also profess their sincere belief in tyl ichchite, this ontology of language has been normalized in the daily lives of many urban Sakha speakers, shaping their reactions to others’ words. Once I was discussing issues of environmental damage with a friend in light of a proposed chemical plant on the Lena River. Being from a Canadian region where pollution from the oil industry was affecting fish, I was telling her about the lesions on their gills and faces. “Big growths, like this, as if their jaws extended outward an extra length,” gesturing to my own neck and face, making the shape of a large lump. My friend stopped me suddenly, eyes wide. “Don’t say that, don’t do that! Kihi tyl – okh. Ymnuom suogha!” A person’s word is an arrow—don’t forget. Don’t make those gestures, directing the words to your body like tiny arrows. Interestingly, though, if you say something negative and you do not want it to come to pass, you can use the Russian-language expression of ‘t’fu-t’fu-t’fu’ to ‘cancel’ the words, or if you have positive hopes you do not want to jinx.

Laura Siragusa To what extent are ‘language trajectories’ among Sakha speakers driven by the broader ecology or the individual’s own agency and intentionality?

Jenanne Ferguson: I think they are too deeply intertwined to really separate them out; however, I want to focus on that broader ecology for a moment. If we take agency simply as the socially mediated capacity to act (Ahearn 1999) we can only exert so much influence within a socially structured language ecology. As I discuss, many times those trajectories are shaped by the specific language ecology that a speaker finds themselves in—specific friendship groups and the dominant norms surrounding code choice within them led to certain new patterns of language acquisition or use in a speaker. Of course, their own agency to either adhere or not to those language ecological patterns makes a difference, but the specific milieu and the practices of those other speakers in those micro-ecologies also played a central role in shaping the decisions. And of course, much broader ecologies are also present—as I discuss in the book, the massive shift in the linguistic ecology of Yakutsk in the years following the end of the Soviet Union set in place new structures that shaped the urban revitalization of the language, which continue to have an effect today. Moving to Yakutsk from a Sakha-speaking village may mean you will speak Russian more often than you did within rural linguistic ecologies, but you will now have more spaces, more domains, and more people with whom to continue speaking Sakha. And you may be more likely to choose to do so now than thirty years ago, due to the way the urban linguistic ecology has developed. However, I feel it’s essential to remember that ecologies also develop the way they do as a result of speakers shaping them through ideological (or ontological) and discursive practices. Therefore, both elements—ecology and speaker agency—are deeply entwined, making it difficult to even separate which influences the other more.

Laura Siragusa: Given the strong connections between language and land that you mention, I wonder how the recent fires in the Sakha Republic are narrated by online Sakha users and if there is any specific reference to the language as endangered.

Jenanne Ferguson: I haven’t noticed a specific patterns in news coverage or social media discourse yet, though now I will analyze more closely going forward! To my knowledge, there are no linked discourses that expressly see the fate of land as affecting language; conversely, where I now live and work in Northern Nevada, there is a direct connection expressed between the fate of Numu, the Northern Paiute language, and the cui-ui (Chasmistes cujus) fish endemic to Pyramid Lake. In the late 1990s a Numu elder reflected on the diminishing fish populations and number of speakers of the language and stated that when the cui-ui disappeared so would the language (both are now seeing a resurgence)! With Sakha the ‘endangerment’ connection is not that direct. I have heard, though, that losing connection to land definitely affect specific language domains, and vice versa. This was expressed to me by several herbal healers in the Amga region, who mentioned that when young people aren’t out on the land, they don’t learn the (Sakha) names for plants. At the same time, not speaking Sakha may make it more difficult, in their opinion, to engage with the land; Sakha plant names, they said, are often much more specific than those in Russian, or Latin, as they are highly descriptive (so that a plant’s appearance becomes more distinctive and thus easy to locate). For instance, a name like kyhyl sobo tyla (‘red carp’s tongue’) for Pyrola incarnata (grushanka in Russian) is said to make the plant easier to find and remember, as it so vividly evokes the deep pink of the flower’s style sticking out like a tongue below the petals!

Liz Gunner on her book, Radio Soundings

Interview by Louisa Meintjes

Louisa Meintjes:  In analyses about popular culture produced during apartheid, Zulu radio dramas have been summarily dismissed. You place them at the core of Radio Soundings. Could you tell us about this choice and its relation to the argument of the book?

Liz Gunner: It’s not that they’ve been summarily dismissed, more they were never even considered as cultural artefacts. Rather they were simply seen as puppet-mouthings by compliant hangers-on of the apartheid design for radio. Why did I choose the dramas? And put them at the centre of the book? Well I began to realise the more I listened to them and the more I asked people about them, that they kept coming up whenever I asked about radio and radio listening habits. They seemed to be set deep in people’s memories and were a way they could tap into certain emotions about the fascination and strain and pleasure of events that circled usually around the family. They seemed to provide sites of recognition, self-knowledge, self-exploration, ways of accessing the self, often the deep self. They were also important as narratives, journeys. So I thought – Well, they’re important if you’re going to understand how people had vibrant and creative lives in spite of the pains of apartheid. This is a point Jacob Dlamini makes very well in his book Native Nostalgia.

Louisa Meintjes: Fascinating, idiosyncratic radio personalities people the book’s chapters. Exiles Lewis Nkosi and Bloke Modisane are the most internationally renowned of them. Yet listeners are crucial to your take on the radio voice as well. Could you tell us about the thought process that led you to the balance you chose for the book among backstage personalities, broadcast voices, and avid listeners?

Liz Gunner: I felt that unless you got in to the text a sense of the listeners and how they lived their lives through the dramas you would simply be doing half the job. Certainly this was true for the dramas from within South Africa – such as the Radio Bantu, Radio Zulu, and the Ukhozi FM dramas which are in the latter part of the book. I felt that what was being produced was a sort of public, self-generated intimacy which was very sustaining. People modeled themselves on the radio personalities who had parts in the dramas, wrote the dramas and in some cases had their own programmes; they became culture icons. The broadcast voices maybe together produced a kind of meta counter-voice to the crushing views of the dominant group. I wanted to try and get a kind of balance so that what would come out was an understanding of the making of sonic worlds that were culturally dynamic and deeply sustaining. And the fact that all this was in Zulu – in the case of the people within South Africa this is very significant. So K E Masinga, Thokozani Nene, Alexius Buthelezi, all very different personalities, to name a few, could all have a place on the sonic stage of this radio world. And one must not forget amazing white sound technicians like ‘Unogwaja’. He is mentioned by Eric Ngcobo as pioneering in his playing with the psychic-sonic sound effects in the 1980s drama ‘Yiz’ Uvalo’ (In Spite of Fear.)

The exiles Nkosi and Modisane had different paths to travel – Modisane worked with the very best in BBC Radio at a time when radio drama was a queen of genres but he could never build up a faithful following in the way that the radio voices from within could – say Eric Ngcobo, or Winnie Mahlangu. This was because his plays were not serialised and also were part of a different landscape of sound. They mediated, with the powerful intimacy of radio, the tensions and excitement of a country and a situation which impinged on the British consciousness of outsider and insider, home and colony; and then increasingly, race and power and Britain’s role in the anti-apartheid struggle. His plays were more part of high culture perhaps, than the plays from within which were more within the space of popular culture. Nkosi was different again – his voice became for a while well known on the African stations which bought tapes from the transcription Centre. He became a kind of key mediator of a stream of black voices of the world, when ‘Africa was on the Rise’ as James Baldwin saw it in the 1960s. So Nkosi and Modisane were complex and important mediators but the intimacy worked very differently.

Louisa Meintjes: Through a fine series of analyses of radio dramas and their producers/authors, variously situated through the decades (1960s through the 1990s) and at different sites (from London to Durban), you write about mediated intimacy. Radio reached into domestic space and it generated global affiliations and diasporic networks, all while it served the interests of the apartheid state. You ascribe to intimacy an important role in cultivating oppositional politics by means of radio dramas. As a researcher, how did you get at intimacy? Could you share an example here of mediated intimacy? And am I being reductive in asserting that it was the possibility of oppositional politics that this mediated intimacy enabled?

Liz Gunner: I think I’ve partly answered this question, above, but let’s see. You’re absolutely right to say radio reached into domestic space and generated global affiliations and diasporic networks – you see that with the Nkosi programmes, but his had a kind of fragility; Modisane’s were firmer because he had a place within the BBC because his work as a radio dramatist was so respected, and at the time the genre was flourishing. Your question about mediated intimacy is difficult.  I think for the dramas from within, voice carried and mediated intimacies through complicated personal encounters lodged in narratives of the domestic which drew in many other things. For Nkosi, let’s say the kind of intimacy he mediated was through throwing up moments of insight into the huge dramas of race and rights being played out in America and on the African continent. The most powerful example for me is when he played through interview the voice of the African American sociologist recalling how he’d spoken in Congress as part of the civil rights struggle. Maybe you’re partly right in your last point. But there is also the question of mediated intimacy as a counter presence – this is more than oppositional politics I think.

Louisa Meintjes: You have written about song, praise poetry, theater, and literature. This book draws on your work in all those performance arenas. Were there new challenges for you in writing about performance in the medium of radio?

Liz Gunner:  Yes absolutely. There was the question of what radio ‘did’ to these other genres and kinds of cultural production. Praise poetry for instance. Did it distance them or diminish them/ ? Did it confine them? Or could you see it as an extraordinarily powerful extension of the kinds of linguistic skills and affect that these forms could draw on? How did radio make use of song and praise poetry? Especially a radio station that was not free of apartheid control. I think in the 1970s, say, there was a huge drive to record ‘live’ performances of royal praises, chiefly installations and so on. But often the effect was to present a kind of double voice – the dignity of the form surpassed its ideologically controlled usage. Performance in the medium of radio struck me as very different to theatre. New terrain – theatre of the mind – perhaps you could compare it to Grotowski’s poor theatre in some ways. But it drew on new kinds of listening resources and auditory strengths – new domains of the auditory rather than the ocular and visual. So, something very different and the whole world of listeners, producers, actors and so on had a part in this different configuring of reality.

Louisa Meintjes: Radio Studies seems to be flourishing in our current epoch of social media and AV streaming. (Thank you for your lively contribution to it!) What’s your take on the reasons for this flourish, and on its promise?

Liz Gunner: I think the physicality of sound and its ability to express the temporal and spatial in new ways is giving radio huge impetus. And it may be the way it mediates intimacy, its physicality that is giving it such pull in an era saturated with the visual. And it can do things with communities and publics in ways as yet still not properly understood.

Omri Grinberg takes the p. 99 test

Sarah Mitchell’s admirable avoidance of “gaming” the pg. 99 test (link) ironically inspired me to not avoid the temptation of doing so, mainly because despite “cheating”, the test’s results are two particularly unspectacular fragments of non-ethnographic, all-too-academic writing. The way I’m “rigging” the test is by presenting together a “fake” and a “real” pg. 99: the fake is pg. 99 of the PDF document, which is actually pg. 88 of the dissertation, and the real one is pg. 99 according to the page count of the dissertation text.

Both pages are part of the first chapter, which is essentially the second part of the Introduction. The chapter combines a historical survey of Israel’s occupation and its violence, the emergence of human rights NGOs and their characteristics, and literature reviews about human rights, NGO-state dynamics, and colonial intermediation. It culminates in the two sub-sections in which the two pages play a significant role: an attempt to think about agency and ethics in bureaucratic structures, while signaling the uniqueness of witnessing and testimony contexts. As I show, this uniqueness persists even as these core aspects of human rights are shaped and disciplined—as an experience (of witnessing) and text document (as testimony)–by the synthesized influence of different types of violence Israel uses (brute-direct, structural, symbolic) and the genres of human rights narration and documentation. These are what I define in the fake pg. 99 (below) as “contexts and considerations”.

The fake pg. 99 bridges between a review of anthropologies of agency and ethics in the Middle East, and the following sub-section, in which I focus on the role of testimony in Israeli NGOs and use the insights from the review to challenge some dominant anthropological perspectives about witnessing and testimony. The real pg. 99 is the final page of this sub-section, and of the whole introductory phase.

If apart and as stand-alone fragments, the two pg. 99s do not say much. Together, I think, they convey some of the main points of the dissertation. Other than place them in sequence and some clarifications [in square brackets], I made no significant changes in the two text fragments.

[FAKE PG. 99]

These contexts and considerations [see above] are fundamental to my effort of avoiding re-producing two common tendencies in studies of human rights (or humanitarianism) and NGOs: (i) overlooking (and hence denial) of the critical valences of the vernacular of human rights practices themselves by deterministically assuming the totalizing appropriation of human rights by colonial actors (cf. Perugini and Gordon 2015; Zigon 2013); (ii) The equally problematic assumption that the political subjectivities of those participating in these practices hinge on the benevolent option of practicing them, which is offered by visiting-experts from the Global North as agents constituting a new “global” ground of political morality (cf. Fassin 2008).

These foundations do not negate the relevance of insights from neither the harshly critical take, nor from the latter approach, that formulates a political philosophy of contemporary ethics based on anthropological studies of humanitarianism. What is at stake here is the important avoidance of assigning conscripting meaning to “testimony” while simultaneously maintaining clarity about what testimony is and does (Dean 2017). The careful framing of agency and ethics in relation to witnessing thus promotes studying and theorizing testimony as a multi-dimensional process and from different perspectives of scale.


[REAL PG. 99]

As I will show, Palestinian witnesses often demand the NGOs document their cases but refuse to let them use it for the NGOs’ own appeals to various state branches. Thus, the witnesses re-shape what the NGOs do and challenge organizations’ positioning vis-à-vis the state, even if the production of the text itself does not change.

For NGOs, testimony does indeed signify political change and an ethical obligation, but it is also—and perhaps, mainly—a system of archiving through disciplinary writing: codes of qualities and quantities, formalized categories and means of documentation, classification, determination, comparison, accounted for and transcribed in certain ways that constitute simultaneously both the power and authority of the documenting actor—NGOs—through the legal-bureaucratic apparatus of writing human rights testimony (cf. Cody 2009; Foucault 1995, 189–90; Messick 1993). These modes of documentation take part in affirming certain models and modes of political subjectivity while marginalizing others (Fassin 2012; Marshall 2014). NGO practices then have apparent and immediate repercussions on contemporary political realities, and in parallel, impose a historiographic authority – frames of in/validation[*] that perform what Michel de Certeau termed as “…a selection between what can be understood and what must be forgotten in order to obtain the representation of a present intelligibility” (1988, 4).



* “Frames of in/validation” is a term I use to theorize NGOs’ procedures of incessant verification and adaptation of Palestinian experiences of violence into simplified narrative structures, that conform to legal-moral discourses and definitions of human rights. As I claim in the dissertation, NGOs rely on frames of in/validation to sustain the paradox of human rights, at least in its Israel/Palestine vernacular: a genre of anti-colonial historiography that is itself based on colonial reason, mainly genealogies of surveying and bureaucratic writing. Thanks to the pg. 99 test, I now realize what I have probably always known on some level: that I do the same, only displaced into the disciplinary confines of academic writing.

Cliched academic self-deprecation aside, this exercise re-highlighted for me one of the main tensions I had to constantly work-through in my research, yet did not truly acknowledge in writing and only rarely discussed otherwise. Namely, between my focus on the bureaucracy of Palestinians’ testimonies in Israeli NGOs, and taking Palestinian witnesses and their testimonies into analytical consideration. That is, making this a study (and an ethnography) of colonial violence, and not (just) an anthropological analysis of representations of violence (whether those representations are themselves colonialist or not).

Omri Grinberg. 2018. Writing Rights, Writing Violence:  The Bureaucracy of Palestinian Testimonies in Israeli Human Rights NGOs – Ph.D. dissertation. Department of Anthropology and Centre for Jewish Studies, University of Toronto.

Works Cited

Cody, Francis. 2009. “Inscribing Subjects to Citizenship: Petitions, Literacy Activism, and the Performativity of Signature in Rural Tamil India.” Cultural Anthropology 24 (3): 347–80.

Certeau, Michel de. 1988. The Writing of History. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Dean, Carolyn J. 2017. “The Politics of Suffering: From the Survivor-Witness to Humanitarian Witnessing.” Continuum 31 (5): 628-36.

Fassin, Didier. 2008. “The Humanitarian Politics of Trauma: Subjectification Through Trauma in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” Cultural Anthropology 23 (3): 531–58.

———. 2012. Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present Times. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Marshall, David Jones. 2014. “Save (Us from) the Children: Trauma, Palestinian Childhood, and the Production of Governable Subjects.” Children’s Geographies 12 (3): 281–96.

Messick, Brinkley. 1993. The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.  

Perugini, Nicola, and Neve Gordon. 2015. The Human Right to Dominate. [S.I.]: Oxford University Press.

Zigon, Jarrett. 2013. “Human Rights as Moral Progress? A Critique.” Cultural Anthropology 28 (4): 716–36.