Danko Šipka on his book, Lexical Layers of Identity

Lexical Layers of Identity

Author Interview by Nikolina Zenovic

Nikolina Zenovic: You have written extensively on lexicography, lexicology, and lexical conflict, particularly in the context of Slavic languages. How does Lexical Layers of Identity build from your previous work? Also, could you please summarize your main argument in Lexical Layers of Identity for readers who are less familiar with Slavic languages and linguistics?

Danko Šipka: This book is a direct product of years of my work on compiling various dictionaries and studying how the lexicons of various Slavic languages interact with their respective cultures. The main claim that I am advancing in this monograph is that the vocabulary of our first language (and then of any other languages that we speak) gives us an identity of its own, independent of a myriad of other identities that we may possess. There are three major ways in which the vocabulary of our languages assigns an identity profile to us. First, there is what I call the deep layer of identity. It concerns, among other things, the way in which our words carve out the conceptual space of our language. For example, Slavic speakers do not have to differentiate between foot and leg, hand and arm, finger and toe, skin and leather, and so on, as they can use one word for each of the aforementioned pairs of words in English. On the other hand, some Slavic languages will have four words for the English verb to go (depending on whether the action is repeated or not and whether you are going on a means of transportation or on foot). These, and many other distinctions, are deeply rooted, and the speakers and language authorities alike do not have any agency in modifying them. The second lexical layer of authority is the incorporation of the vocabulary into various cultural circles. I call it the exchange layer. This layer of identity is a result of the historical development of languages and their cultures. Slavic languages are mostly defined by borrowings from Western European languages (most notably German, French, and relatively recently English). Many of these words come from the common European Greek-Latin heritage. Some Slavic languages are additionally marked by Near Eastern words (most of which came with the mediation of the Turkish language). In this layer of identity, we are marked by the cultural circle to which we belong. Despite the anti-European sentiment in some Slavic cultures, the identity that Slavic vocabularies give us in this aspect is clearly pan-European. Finally, there is the surface lexical layer of identity, which is defined by the prevailing attitudes of the speakers toward linguistic norms. One can see how this identity can be different when comparing the English-speaking cultures, where linguistic authorities are unknown with Slavic cultures, where linguists are rock stars. While the norms of the standard varieties of English have been maintained by an army of copy editors, teachers, lexicographers, and so on, without any generals, the presence of linguistic authorities in Slavic cultures is very prominent. This prevailing attitude toward the sources of linguistic authority (whether it is the acceptance or contestation of their proposals) contributes to the linguistic profile of the speakers of Slavic languages and thus to their linguistic identity.

Nikolina Zenovic: What motivated you to pursue this project and focus specifically on lexical layers as opposed to other linguistic layers of identity?

Danko Šipka: There is a distinction in historical linguistics between internal linguistic history (those changes in a language that cannot be tied to processes in the society, for example, the fact that a language loses diphthongs, such as sounds like ou in the English word about) and external linguistic history (those changes that result from processes in the society, for example, lexical borrowing which is typically a consequence of conquest, patterns of economic dominance, and so on). The fact is that the lexicon is inextricably embedded into the fiber of the societies that use the language or languages in question. Other linguistic structures may contribute to the linguistic identity of a person (for example, the sounds of Slavic languages may sound to the speakers of non-Slavic languages like rustling leaves). However, given that the lexicon is the main interface between the language and society, it is that segment of our language that is the primary source of our linguistic identity. In my latest book titled The Geography of Words I have shown (in an accessible way and using material from various languages across the globe) that it is impossible to separate the lexicon from the non-linguistic entities to which its words refer.

Nikolina Zenovic: Lexical Layers of Identity concentrates on multiple Slavic languages. Why did you decide to focus broadly on Slavic languages rather than discuss a particular Slavic language? What advantages did this comparative approach bring to your findings?

Danko Šipka: Slavic languages are interesting, especially given that they relate to Slavdom, a type of identity that is different from ethnic identities of any given Slavic language. The word Slav is not exactly a household name in English-speaking cultures. A much higher name recognition is enjoyed by the subordinated concept of Russians and superordinated concept of Eastern Europeans. In the perception of an average English-speaking person, Russian culture eclipses all other Slavic cultures by the size of the country, the number of its speakers, and the prominence of Russia’s historical figures, from Ivan the Terrible to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, and cultural icons, from Pyotr Ilyich Tschaikovsky to Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. At the same time, Russians and other Slavs are typically construed as Eastern Europeans. In addition to the Slavs, the category of Eastern Europeans encompasses a diverse assembly of non-Slavic languages, such as Lithuanian, Latvian, Romanian, Albanian, Hungarian, and Estonian. This perception might have been amplified by the fact that all major Slavic nations were a part of the so-called Eastern Bloc during the 1945-1989 Cold War period. It is certainly so that each particular Slavic language gives its speakers an identity of its own. However, there are also elements of identity that Slavic languages share across the board. Focusing on Slavic languages gives us thus an opportunity to study what they have in common and what differentiates them. More importantly, it enables us to concentrate on linguistic identity by detaching it from ethnic identity of various Slavic nations. How linguistic identity is separate from the ethnic ones, can be seen in the case of Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants to the United States. There are places of high concentration of these speakers (such as Brighton Beach, New York, also known as Little Odessa, and Sunny Isles Beach, Florida, nicknamed Little Moscow), where they maintain their Russian language as a clear maker of their identity, although they are not ethnically Russians. They do have Russian and Slavic linguistic identities without Russian or Slavic ethnic identities.

Nikolina Zenovic: In your elaboration of the deep layer, you provide rich data sets detailing lexeme- and lexicon-based approaches to studies of this layer of lexical identity. The chapter “Stability and Change” notes that such deep layer analyses can be used to study dialects as well as standard languages. According to your findings, how might methodological approaches differ when studying dialects compared to other dialects or the standard language? Can analyses of the exchange or surface layers also contribute to studies of dialects?

Danko Šipka: In my book, I focused mostly on standard languages, given that the vast majority of speakers of Slavic languages command the standard language variety. This is a consequence of high-achieving educational systems in all Slavic countries. Some of the speakers of standard languages are also speakers of dialects, but many of them will be just the users of the standard language variety. In the deep layer, dialects can certainly make distinctions in the vocabulary, have different associations tied to the words, use different idioms, etc. A wealth of dialectal dictionaries and atlases in Slavic languages attest to that. For example, you can see it in this wonderful recent Macedonian atlas. For dialects, the data from this layer comes from previous language documentation and from interviewing the speakers. If the dialect in question is well-documented in previous work, the methodology of studying this layer is not substantially different than in the standard language form. If, however, there is no previous documentation, then surveys of speakers take a much more prominent role than when studying the standard language. The exchange layer is also important for dialects as they also borrow words. For example, the Kajkavian, northern Croatian dialects, contain a substantial portion of German and Hungarian loanwords. On the other hand, the Čakavian, southern Croatian dialects, have numerous Venetian borrowings. This makes these two dialects spoken next to each other mostly incomprehensible. The surface layer is about the dynamics between linguistic authorities and the general body of speakers. As such, it is less relevant for dialects, where there are no professional linguists, university professors, various bodies such as academies of sciences, and so on. Linguistic authority in dialects is much more difficult, if not impossible, to trace.

Nikolina Zenovic: Your discussion of attitudes in Chapter 12 highlights speakers’ perceptions of lexical macro maneuvers. Can you elaborate on the agency of speakers in responding to shifts in value judgments proposed by elites in this layer? What advice or methodological approaches would you further recommend to students interested in understanding speakers’ attitudes?

Danko Šipka: There is a late medieval Latin proverb, Caesar Non Supra Grammaticos – the emperor is not above grammarians. It goes back to the situation in the early 15th century when the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund unsuccessfully tried to intercede into a linguistic dispute. In Slavic languages, some grammarians would like to be emperors, but one should expand this proverb and say that the grammarians are not above the speakers. One can try to enforce certain political solutions on languages, but if the speakers find them unacceptable, they are destined to fail. This disconnect between normative enforcement and real-life has led to a rather curious situation in Croatia, involving Serbian and Croatian, the two standard language varieties that are less different than British and American English. There was a 1989 movie titled Rane (Wounds), a rather gritty drama about the underworld of the Serbian capital Belgrade. The Croatian distributor decided to subtitle the Serbian movie, as it is customary to do with other foreign languages. The result of this decision was that the viewers all around Croatia were bursting with laughter while watching a very serious movie. Most of the time, the “translation” looked like close captioning for the hearing impaired. The viewers found those funny, just like those instances where there were some differences between the two varieties – even in these cases, the words from the Serbian variety were perfectly comprehensible. Imagine having a British movie subtitled in “the American language.” Needless to say, this Croatian movie-theater subtitling was done once and never again.

For years, Slavic languages were used in authoritarian societies, first royalist and right-wing dictatorial, then communist. Accordingly, there was a top-down transmission of linguistic authority. Things have started to change some thirty years ago. It seems that speakers of Slavic languages and Slavic linguistic authorities alike are becoming increasingly aware that a top-down, authority-based model of maintaining the standard language variety needs to be replaced with a partnership, feedback-based model.

I would see this shifting landscape of how linguistic authority is transmitted as promising ground for further research. Those who are interested in the attitudes toward linguistic authority have a variety of datasets available. There are numerous newspaper columns, visual media shows, social media groups, and so on, where these attitudes are exhibited. The speakers of Slavic languages maintain a keen interest in the issues around the standard language variety. So, there are rich datasets waiting for their miners. Needless to say, surveys of the speakers and linguistic authorities alike are also a rich source of data. In that regard, there is a silver lining to this Covid 19 pandemic. We are so used to doing everything online that it is increasingly easy to survey the participants from all around the world from one’s own home using Survey Monkey, Google Forms, Microsoft Forms, and so on.

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