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!

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