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.

Christina Dunbar-Hester on her book, Hacking Diversity


Interview by Héctor Beltrán


Héctor Beltrán: In your ethnographic work with voluntaristic open technology communities across hacker and maker spaces, you’re careful not to characterize “hacking” as a single set of practices or cultural ethos. You also make clear that the “diversity work” enacted within these spaces borrows from a range of motivations and strategies.

 How did you arrive at “borders of care” as a way to develop the conceptual work related to analyzing these overlapping, contingent collectives without necessarily essentializing them or reproducing stereotypes about them?

Christina Dunbar-Hester: In a way, this was one of the bigger challenges of the book. I did ask myself whether I was sampling “representative” groups and practices, though I also knew that my story would always be partial and particular. The research process was organically following leads, paying attention to what was happening in cities I happened to be in over the course of several years, traveling to other sites for conferences and meetups, and listening to what folks in sites told me about present-day activities and histories of activism around these issues in their communities. I also of course wound up in a lot of events and settings that don’t appear in the book—sometimes because they were too dissimilar to the phenomena that I center in the book, and other times because you can’t include everything. But this triangulation and iteration is of course informing the analysis. I found Anselm Straus’s “social worlds” analytic useful for thinking about social meaning in distributed, large-scale encounters. It is more important to be conceptually careful about the things I can group together than to try to “sample” everything, which is of course impossible with a distributed phenomenon anyway.

Fundamentally, though, there is a shared impulse here, seeking individual and collective emancipation through engagement with technology. I conceive of the geek impulse to critique and remake their social world as a form of hacking. I write of “borders of care” to illuminate how communities are constituted by their priorities, their care and energies around “diversity” topics. But of course borders suggest limits, and there is a tension here: if the border were drawn elsewhere, these communities would look significantly different (perhaps more like a social movement), and the social world that is the topic of this book might cease to exist or shade into something else entirely.

Héctor Beltrán: By tracing these dynamic communities, you highlight how strategies, politics, and subjectivities move from one domain to another. In particular, open-technology diversity advocates are always close to the profit-oriented pursuit of techno-entrepreneurial development and growth. In this case, market logics and racialized capitalism become the basis for emphasizing diversity.

At the same time, you identify scale as a challenge for voluntaristic spaces. Perhaps a community can develop democratic ideals and corresponding codes of conduct that work in their intimate, carefully cultivated spaces, but scaling these practices to redress overarching structural inequity or promote restorative justice is another story.

Coincidentally, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have established methods for scaling their projects; they combine iterative software methodologies with business acumen to launch their ideas onto the global stage. Are there any practices or strategies that open-technology cultures can appropriate/reconfigure from these techno-entrepreneurs in order to scale their resistant politics, without resorting to product-driven solutions or for-profit ventures?

Christina Dunbar-Hester: Well, I’m not sure how well I can speak to the practices of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, but it occurs to me that one of the main strategies they employ is naming and bounding problems discursively such that their versions of reality are accepted by users and by policymakers. For example, one that has clearly been very successful for them is calling companies like Uber, Facebook, and AirBnB “tech” companies rather than transportation, media, and hospitality companies, respectively. This has massive implications for regulation in particular, as they use these strategies to evade scrutiny and accountability. But these framings also have implications for how we think collectively about our society and the modes of intervention that are possible and desirable. One of the things activists can do is to zoom back out when they are naming problems: rather than centering “tech”, articulate social aims people wish to fulfill. This is important for a few reasons. It considers social good (and harm) in its own right, decoupled from “tech” as the be-all, end-all goal, or yardstick for “progress”.

Also, activists can redefine what engaging with technology is. It can be slow, deliberative, resistant to scaling up, ambivalent about “progress” narratives. It doesn’t have to be something that is happening in sprints, or chasing venture capital or intellectual property claims. If slowed down, we can deliberately foreground sociality and power rather than gadgets. From there, it’s a relatively short distance to define social problems in familiar terms for social intervention: militarism, and racial, gender, and economic inequ(al)ity are some of the social issues that advocates for diversity in tech care about and are wrestling with. Personally (and as a scholarly analyst) I think it would be useful to foreground those concepts and articulate them out loud, to bound care differently than it is when phrased as “diversity in tech”. One effect of this may be to have some forms of social intervention by techies break away from being corporate-workplace-friendly, but I think we are at a point where it may be useful to draw some new lines. (Some feminist techies reacted with dismay to Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” feminism, for example.)

Héctor Beltrán: You describe a meeting organized by feminist hackers who explicitly attempted to connect open technology culture to decolonial social movements. They’re left wondering why it turned out to be a mostly white gathering. In fact, many of the spaces marked as radical, genderqueer, and/or feminist many times turn out to be permeated by unmarked whiteness.  

On the flip side, around the same time when you were conducting research, my colleagues and I organized a series of events as part of our “Latinxs and Tech Initiativeat U.C. Berkeley, where we were also left wondering, where are all of the white activists? This is truly unfortunate, as we were similarly interrogating the “diversity in tech” discourse, such as the limitations of “technology” as an orientating framework and the drawbacks of focusing solely on increased representation. We even came to similar tensions, negotiations, and conclusions (published in our policy brief) that you identified with your research participants. Needless to say, it might be a lot more productive and enriching for all involved if these different initiatives joined forces.

What can we do to avoid activist fatigue and to get communities to cultivate     meaningful relationships across difference?

Christina Dunbar-Hester: I love this question, and I think it cuts to the heart of what is at stake with this kind of activism. I would love your thoughts on it too. I hope it is not an either/or for regroupment in enclaves versus coalition building, but rather a both/and. It is pretty clear that our present moment demands trust and solidarity across difference. And yet I understand that this is a moment where some people feel that additional burdens of trust (and vulnerability) are too much to take on.

Something you touch on in your report and I return to in the book is that markers of social difference are dynamic—shifting both situationally and across time. This might be more readily apparent to people steeped in anthropological traditions than a lot of people running tech meetups. Of course I do not mean to paper over difference—and real material matters are at stake, experienced differentially. But it can be useful to recall that some of the categories of difference that divide us are doing so in service of a system that harms us (if not all equally), so naming, understanding, and pushing back on that can be to collective benefit. I like where you land with “productive tensions” between cultural scripts; many things can be true or partially true, even when they almost contradict each other—it’s very important to strive to not be reductionist or essentialist.

I quote in the book an activist who says that she thinks hacking communities should be unafraid of tension (which, she specifies, is different from fear). Ultimately I have a lot of sympathy for the challenges that  people in elective/affinity groups who operate on volunteered time face in confronting what is ultimately a segregated, stratified society. It is not easy. The word “ally” gets thrown around a lot, but how do people join forces in practice?

Héctor Beltrán: I like that you identified the shock of vibrantly colored hair as a common geek identifier. Several of your research participants commented that this was a strategy for others to comment on their appearance in a respectful way without resorting to “harass-y” comments. The hair also serves as a way for members in this community to self-identify.

 The irony is that any self-identifying community marker can also serve as a way to inadvertently exclude. Perhaps if I don’t have a shock of vibrantly colored I hair I might feel like I am not the right type of “geek” to participate in this space. Can you tell us more about the dynamics of self-othering and being othered that you witnessed across your research spaces?

Christina Dunbar-Hester: Does one have to do the things that are normed within the subculture? Is this (ironically) another form of gatekeeping? It could be. I felt this tension with my interlocutors sometimes. I had one person I was interviewing ask me about which comics I read, which I think was a friendly effort to “place” me. The answer is none. I don’t know that she actually thought less of me, but I think she was somewhat mystified and even perhaps sad for me.

I also witnessed moments where geeks themselves drew attention to how nerd humor, for example, is potentially elitist, so they’re not fully unaware of these phenomena. Even so, it can be hard to see how the norms that are utterly naturalized for an individual or a group are markers of belonging that can feel exclusionary to people who aren’t acculturated in that way. I quote another interviewee who vividly described how she felt that as a self-identified bicultural Latina, she had to modulate both her cultures of origin and the femininity they emphasized to enter hacking spaces that were more “Anglo or German.” She was laughing about some of this when she relayed it to me, calling the other hackers “goth” and even “emo”! And yet these norms do real work, even to the point of presenting potential barriers or forms of subcultural policing.

Héctor Beltrán: Part of extending the genealogy of hacking is giving recognition to voices and groups who have been historically silenced and marginalized. You make the point, however, that more than just failing to be recognized, the creative and expressive technological tinkering of these groups is often criminalized.

Drawing from the work of Rayvon Fouché and Ben Chappell, you point to the horse hay rake and the lowrider car as examples of “hacks” by members of racialized populations that had to be defended in the face of mainstream ingenuity; these inventions were rarely portrayed as hacking in a positive, agentic sense. I like the lowrider example because Chappell also claims that the hydraulic suspension was not only for show but was a pragmatic modification that allowed cars to ride lower than the California legal limit, but then to be lifted in an encounter with a police officer. It shows how recognition, visibility, and “hacking” are closely interconnected.

What might coding be able to offer marginalized communities along the lines of recognition and visibility?

Christina Dunbar-Hester: This is key. A lot of what we hear is a push to “diversify” tech, as if that in itself will promote social transformation, though the “how” (and to some degree even the “why”) is usually inchoate. I don’t think the critiques I am making about the ambiguity of diversity work in general are especially pathbreaking (I’m leaning hard on a lot of excellent work by, for example, Sara Ahmed, Herman Gray, and others). But how this gets hitched to tech is worthy of consideration in its own right. And here I think it is worth really breaking down the dynamics into their discrete parts.

If “tech” is assumed to be the seat of progress, an incredibly ubiquitous and frankly banal cultural script we encounter every day, that is already importing ideas about who the bearers of said progress are (and aren’t). An uninterrogated “progress” laid on top of the priorities of the U.S. can mean new forms of encoding old traditions of racist policing, for example. But also technology being vested with this power is contingent; there was a time when the term itself meant something like “mechanic techniques and artifacts” and wasn’t vested with progressive power. Social progress wasn’t automatically enfolded into it. My belief is that we could once again decouple these concepts, and we would be richer for it.

At the very least, as long as technology occupies a central role in how we imagine power and progress, we need to do the work to understand how power structures have shaped technological development, counting some groups of people as automatic agents of that power and viewing others with suspicion or hostility. There needs to be sustained attention to power structures and not just a hope that “add X and stir” will fundamentally change technoscientific practices and institutions. In addition, a flip side to recognition and visibility is leaving space for, as you note by way of Chappell, strategically blending in or going unnoticed—and retaining the power to choose when pop up as “visible” versus when to stay more submerged or camouflaged. In a way, this perhaps returns us to the preceding question: to what degree is an “outsider” element necessary for hacking, and for whom does that aggregate or multiply advantages?

Rusty Barrett on his new book, From Drag Queens to Leathermen

Cover for  From Drag Queens to Leathermen


Interview by Sandhya Narayanan

Your ethnography and analysis of language use centers on 6 subgroups in gay culture: drag quens, radical faeries, bears, circuit boys, barebackers, and leathermen. How did you decide to focus your ethnography on these six subgroups?

I had already done research on drag queens and circuit boys, so I set out to do research that would allow for comparisons across different subcultures. I tried to choose groups with minimal overlap with straight subcultures that were also positioned in opposition to “homonormative” gay culture. I avoided groups where marginalization within gay culture stems from displaying more (hetero)normative identities (like Gaymers, gay gang members, or gay evangelical Christians). Those groups are certainly interesting, but the questions they raise were different from the research path I had already taken. Continue reading