I wasn’t expecting my p. 99 – right in the middle of my methodology – to be particularly revealing. But as luck (or indeed Ford Madox Ford) would have it, on p. 99 we land midway through a description of my participants that speaks to the crux of my thesis:
Most of the students came from the same sub-caste, one that represents the vast majority of the population of the area around the branch. I have chosen not to disclose the name of the caste, as they are heavily concentrated in one particular area of Delhi – where my branch was located – and revealing this would make the branch potentially identifiable to those familiar with Delhi. I understand that this has scholarly implications, as my writing on this caste cannot be cross-referenced if it is kept anonymous, but this is a sacrifice that I am willing to make in the interest of protecting my participants’ anonymity. With regard to the positioning of the caste, there is great disagreement over which varna (the four main caste subdivisions) they belong to, with some claims that they descend from the Kshatriyas (second ‘highest’ caste) and other arguments that they are from the Vaishyas (the ‘third’). While their ancestral descent may be disputed, in Delhi this caste group have been labelled as OBC (Other Backward Classes) by the government as the caste is deemed socially, economically and educationally ‘backward’. Interestingly, this classification is not ubiquitous across India. In some states, this caste has been allocated ‘Scheduled Caste’ (SC) status by the government, a status reserved for the most oppressed peoples, usually those from the Dalit communities. Parallel to this, in 2008, there was civil unrest in another state of Northern India as this caste group rallied to be re-classified from OBC to SC, which would grant them further quotas for government jobs. While they may not be the most socially oppressed caste, there are widespread negative stereotypes in circulation of them as thuggish, uneducated and uncouth. There was a rumour circulating in the branch while I was there that Dominos no longer delivered pizza to that area as the delivery boys were too afraid. Although a facilitator informed me that this was not the case (Dominos were allegedly refusing to deliver as the road names were not marked clearly and they struggled to find addresses and deliver in the 30-minute timeframe that was promised by the pizza chain), the rumour was a clear indication of the types of assumptions made about this caste group (both by members and non-members). A Google search of the caste brings up links to a question posted in a forum asking why this caste is so feared in Delhi. Most of the responses chastised the caste members for being ‘unintelligent’ and only capable of responding to issues with violence, but one member of this caste took this as an opportunity to attempt to quell such stereotypes…
The aforementioned branch was one of several hundred branches of a non-profit English and employability training programme in North India and was the primary site for my ethnographic exploration of social mobility and English. Specifically, I was interested in the material, discursive and affective consequences of English speakerhood as a deeply embodied phenomenon enmeshed with wider historical processes and structures of inequality. As p. 99 suggests, caste – and its intersection with class, gender, race, colonialism – became the bedrock of my analysis.
Listening to the experiences of the students such as those described on p. 99 unearthed ambivalent feelings about their investments in English. On the one hand, they were deeply committed to pursuing a language that they had come to understand as their key to not only jobs but prestige, pride, (upward) marriage, and modernity (see also Highet 2022); on the other, there were recurrent moments of despair as they wondered whether this language framed as a resource could really live up to its promises; whether their transformation into an English speaker – a figure built upon colonial, class and caste stratification – could really help them counter their marginalisation and stigmatisation.
This is evident in the Domino’s rumour that I chose to illustrate the constant, dynamic presence of caste in these students’ lives, and which shows how the discursive ‘castelessness’, in Deshpande’s (2013) terms, of the middle classes obscures what is in practice a deeply consequential element of social organisation. In later chapters, I return to this to argue that this ideological ‘castelessness’ is a key part of what propels the discourse of social-mobility-through-English, as it reframes social mobility as an individualised pursuit, open to anyone, if only they try hard enough.
The problem, I argue later, is that these remain politically very difficult conversations to have, particularly in the current climate of rising suspicion of anything ostensibly ‘anti-national’; it is partly for this reason that I took the steps mentioned on p. 99 to protect my participants’ identities. This raises difficult questions – questions that I continue to grapple with – about the ethical and political challenges at stake in critical research and in our engagement with projects of social transformation.
Satish Deshpande. 2013. “Caste and Castelessness: Towards a Biography of the ‘General Category.'” Economic and Political Weekly. 48: 32–39.
“It’s about sarees or some shit.” This sentence—probably my favorite in the dissertation—comes from a group interview with Chand Chandramohan, Diva, and Seelan Palay, the organizers of Singapore’s first all-South Asian contermporary art series, From Your Eyes to Ours. The quote shows up on page 99 for the second time in the chapter, just before the chapter’s conclusion starts. In this quote, multidisciplinary artist Chand Chandramohan summed up a series of assumptions that were routinely articulated by racially hegemonic Singaporean perceivers upon encountering the art event: that to be an Indian-Singaporean artist is to do “Indian art”—that is, to (re)produce traditional South Asian forms for Indian audiences—thus denying the possibility of their participating in contemporary art aesthetics.
Like most places existing in the wake of racialized/racializing modernity, in Singapore, to “belong” to a race is also to “possess” a language—at least ideally. Later on page 99, I note that the three co-organizers gave the title “Yes, I Speak Indian” to a visual art exhibition that occurred as part of From Your Eyes to Ours. This title acted as a form of shorthand satire, critiquing a recurrent assumption that “Indian” is a monolith, a single community that possesses and uses a single language.
Yet more than this, the organizers of From Your Eyes to Ours voiced and critiqued a deeper presupposition: that to invoke “Indian” in Singapore is to invoke not only a race, but also to legitimate Race. Referenced via the shorthand CMIO (an acronym standing for Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Other Singaporeans), Race-capital-R stands as the sum total of all the “races of Singapore,” a self-evident, totalizing structure that shapes raciolinguistic hierarchies in the present without actually being total.
Beyond its contents, page 99 exemplifies my dissertation’s broader political stakes. Page 99 presents large stretches of the interview with Chand, Diva, and Seelan as theory-work, rather than relegating it to the status of mere evidence provided by an “informant.” Like the dissertation, page 99 also doesn’t shy away from the political: from deep, close engagement with the critiques of raciolinguistic hegemony, oppression, and marginalization that were generously articulated to me by my co-theorists in Singapore. Similarly, like page 99, the dissertation confronts my own status as a raciolinguistically hegemonic perceiver, as a token of a privileged type capable of accessing prestige registers of English, elite education, and white-passing privilege—among others.
Joshua Babcock. 2022. Image and the Total Utopia: Scaling Raciolinguistic Belonging in Singapore. University of Chicago, PhD.
Andy Zhenzhou Tan: The topic of your book – the (potential) loss of a language variety under language standardization – is of wide relevance since the rise of modern nation-states and their monoglot ideologies. What is the distinctiveness of the case of Shanghai and Shanghaihua (the Shanghai dialect) in contrast to, say, those of other regions in China and their dialects? How does this distinctiveness play out historically and in terms of the charged dynamic between the multiple social powers and groups involved?
Fang Xu: Earlier on during the Republic of China (1912-1949), the creation of a national language and language standardization were justified by their alleged contributions to unifying and modernizing the country and its citizenry. At that time, semi-colonial Shanghai was already cosmopolitan and modern. The lingua franca of the “Paris of the East” was the Shanghai dialect, and thus the classical justification for the creation and imposition of a national language to facilitate industrialization, urbanization, and meeting the demand for a (linguistic) uniform labor force did not necessarily hold in the case of Shanghai. A reference point is Kathyrn Woolard’s work in Barcelona, where the suppressed Catalan during the Franco era (1939-1975) has been a prestigious language throughout the history, and the locals in general fare better economically than the Castilian-speaking migrants. The Shanghai dialect came into shape in a cosmopolitan city in the late 19th and early 20th century, though it is based on Songjiang county’s variation of Wu Chinese. The origin story sets it apart from other regional dialects, for example, Cantonese. Cantonese can claim a historical, more rooted Chinese-ness that the hybrid and relatively young Shanghai dialect cannot.
It is the power struggles between not only the state and the people, but also waves of migrants in Shanghai. Shanghai’s unique identity as a migrant city sets it apart from many Chinese cities which can easily claim a history of hundreds of years. In the early 20th century, more than 85% of the urban population was internal migrants, not to mention the segregated and separated urban jurisdiction shared (unequally) between the UK, US, France, China, and later Japan. So at the grander scale, it was the struggle between states in defining the city. In terms of who counts as a Shanghairen, it has been even more contested, based on birthplace, hukou (household registration status), urban residency, or vernacular capacity. As we know, identity claim is never solely about identification, but also about aspiration and desire for something else. Since the early 20th century, due to wars, natural disasters, and economic opportunities, there have been four waves of internal migrants who settled in Shanghai. Their political and socioeconomic conditions vary greatly, e.g., from the Baghdadi Jewish Sassoon family, known as “Rothschilds of the East,” the Soong family, Mao Zedong, and refugees from northern Jiangsu Province fleeing draught and famine in the early 20th century, to talents from across the country meeting the “two high and one low” (high in education and skill level, low in age) standard to obtain a Shanghai hukou in the early 21th century. Hence their rights to identify themselves and power to alter and influence the urban scenes politically, economically, socially, culturally, and linguistically also differ greatly.
Andy Zhenzhou Tan: The concept “linguistic right to the city” is central to your arguments but not itself thematized. The allocation of linguistic rights and placement of blame for language injustice are complex processes. In these processes, what are your positions towards multiple parties involved? In terms of justice, how would you compare the previous diglossia system in Shanghai and the recent state-initiated collapse of it? Could you reflect on your own positionality in this matter?
Fang Xu: During my dissertation proposal defense, a Shanghainese rap song I quote in my proposal prompted a committee member to warn me that native Shanghai people’s xenophobia motivated by their heartfelt linguistic loss might come across as KKK-like. The song was widely circulated among online communities of native Shanghai people in the early 2010s. It cried out to preserve the Shanghai dialect and Shanghai’s urban culture. This so-called “Shanghai Anthem” appropriates the melody of the Chinese national anthem “March of the Volunteers” (original lyrics in “[ ]”) and modifies the lyrics to express a growing hostility towards recent migrants to Shanghai.
[Arise! All those who don’t want to be slaves!]
Arise! All those friends who speak Shanghai dialect!
[Let our flesh and blood forge our new Great Wall!]
Let our language become the roar of Huangpu River!
[As the Chinese people have arrived at their most dangerous time.]
As the Shanghai dialect has arrived at its most dangerous time.
[Every person is forced to expel his very last cry.]
Every Shanghairen is forced to expel his very last cry.
[Arise! Arise! Arise!]
F-ck! F-ck! F-ck!
[Our million hearts beating as one,]
Our million hearts beating as one,
[Brave the enemy’s fire, March on!]
Get rid of all the out-siders, rid of!
[Brave the enemy’s fire, March on!]
Get rid of all the out-siders, rid of!
[March on! March on! On!]
Rid of! Rid of! Rid of!
Being a Shanghai native, it is hard for me not to lament the potential loss of the dialect. But being a Chinese national living in North America for 15+ years has made me keenly aware of the sense of exclusion manifested in urban linguistic space in Shanghai. That’s why I found it important to give voice to the migrants in Shanghai in the last empirical chapter (Ch. 5) of my book. When we think about injustice, we need to look at the positionality of the accuser and the accused, and analyze their lived experiences and their aspirations. The power dynamics experienced during my field research could be telling. I couldn’t help but notice how the dialect preservation activists acted not only in a sexist but also racist way, e.g. suppressing female activists’ voices and participations, or how some activists with somewhat self-claimed linguistic training attributed Mandarin Chinese to a contamination from the barbarian Manchurian – which is a Tungusic language belongs to Altaic family – from the Qing Dynasty. Their xenophobia in guarding the (exclusive) Shanghainese identity was apparent as they jeered and laughed at the migrants’ efforts to acquire the Shanghai dialect, suggesting the latter are climbing the social ladder by faking something they would never be able to achieve – a true insider membership. And people holding such negative opinions are oftentimes those who didn’t fare well in the last 20 years socioeconomically and can no longer afford lots of the consumption spaces or upscale residency in the inner city. So by (re)claiming their linguistic right to the city, they are wielding weapons of the weak, quoting James Scott. That said, linguistic rights to the city are tightly connected with social and economic rights to the city, and certainly beyond housing.
Andy Zhenzhou Tan: What distinguishes the story you tell from other studies on linguistic change is the important parts accorded to urban developments, geographical and spatial conditions of social interaction, and place attachment. This is captured by the two senses – architectural and linguistic – of the word “vernacular” in your book. Can you give us a glimpse at the intricate relations between urban changes and linguistic loss in Shanghai, especially in the recent decades?
Fang Xu: There was a common saying in Shanghai quoted in my book that connects languages and the space – public and private – where they are spoken or can be heard: “English is spoken in the Inner Ring, Mandarin is spoken in the Middle Ring, and Shanghai dialect Outer Ring”. The order also corresponds to the outwardly decrease of housing prices. Within one saying, the intricate relations are revealed between social-economic status, urban redevelopment in terms of relocating more than one million households to the periphery and throwing them into the harsh reality of urban political economy of the commercial housing market, and language. Essentially, many native Shanghainese were relocated to the periphery of urban Shanghai, or previously rural counties. The pride and esteem in living in the urban center was gone, as well as the proximity to urban amenities and the urban built environment which set Shanghai apart from the rest of the country and exemplifies (Western) modernity since the early 20th century. They lost the material base and geographical location(marker) to self-aggrandize as Shanghairen (Shanghai people). However the deprivation of privilege should be recognized as a relative one. The displacees’ Shanghai hukou still granted them access to top quality healthcare, education, pension, and a plethora of other benefits. Even these relative privileges have been lost, as internal migrants who have obtained either a Shanghai hukou or a Shanghai Resident Permit have been granted those benefits by the municipal government since the 2000s. The loss felt by native Shanghairen is the exclusive access and claim. In this context, I am trying to tell a story of long-term residents holding onto their (symbolic) ownership of the urban built environment and linguistic space as the only remaining bulwarks of their Shanghainese identity.
Andy Zhenzhou Tan: As far as I know, your PhD training was in urban sociology. Yet you have written a monograph on a more typically linguistic anthropological/sociolinguistic topic. Despite the rare co-existence of these two disciplines in the work of Pierre Bourdieu, from whom you draw a lot in your book, we may say they have gone in quite different directions thematically and methodologically. What has been your experience of bridging urban sociology and linguistic anthropology/sociolinguistics?
Fang Xu: It has not been easy to convince urban sociologists that the sonic or auditory dimension of urban life matters. There is a branch of urban sociology bridging visual sociology, but language? To the most, some human or cultural geographers. When we think about a diverse or cosmopolitan place, we imagine people from all over the world, presumably speaking different mother tongues, but forced to adopt the mainstream language of the city or society, albeit with various accents. I have been trying to argue that when urban sociologists study (im)migrants or ethnic enclaves, attention should be paid to the languages they speak; or when they talk about residential segregation based on class, race and ethnicity, as well as consumer habits and taste, language spoken/usage should have a place in the investigation. So far, the subjects in those studies predominantly speak perfect Standard American English, or whatever national or official or dominant languages in the societies in question. That is not a true depiction of those people’s everyday lived experience. Generally speaking, the urban soundscape is socially organized and organizing (Atkinson 2007). One of the defining characteristics of cities is its heterogeneity – the other two being size and density (Louis Wirth 1938). Lewis Mumford (1937-1996) also advises urbanists to pay attention to the “theatre of social action.” However, what we have read so far are in subjects’ words, but not in their own voices. My monograph Silencing Shanghai and a recent piece about the urban sonic landscape I am working on with a few cultural geographers in Europe are both attempts to put these critical insights into practice.
I do feel this inbetween-ness in my scholarly life, as well as in my personal life, being an immigrant in the U.S., and when I go back to Shanghai and do not hear my mother tongue spoken on the streets of my hometown. However, I see the rarity of such interdisciplinarity as the strength of my work, and the direction of my future pursuit. There is also an echo between my work and my fieldsite in terms of their hybridity. Shanghai is indeed an urban laboratory in many ways different from other cities in China, but not dissimilar to other global cities. Like NYC, it is one of a kind, and deserves much more scholarly attention.
Irit Dekel: Your recent book Defiant Discourse helps readers understand the relations between speech and action, revisiting important questions concerning the performativity of language. It does so in its critique of speech act theory by analyzing the vernacular content of activism in the case of soldierly dissent in Israel-Palestine and in reconsidering what counts as verbal action in a culture in which there is skepticism about language.
How do you problematize the notion of activism in the book?
Tamar Katriel: I problematize activism by viewing it as a historically-situated discursive formation associated with grassroots struggles for political and social change. The term activist designates individuals or groups whose non-violent interventions in the public sphere draw on a globally recognized and ever-expanding activist repertoire. The soldierly dissent I discuss in the book is a form of discourse-centered activism that involves speaking out about morally objectionable military policies.
Irit Dekel: What are the unarticulated tensions within discourse-centered activism, which become a feature of activists’ engagement?
Tamar Katriel: A major tension I address is between a trust in language and skepticism towards language as a social tool that is related to two contending language ideologies – a speech-as-action ideology is grounded in a performative view of speech as powerful and efficacious; and a speech vs action dualism (encapsulated in the suffragist slogan “deeds, not words”) that is language-skeptic.
Another tension has to do with competing conceptions of the notion of action that ground activist projects – between the pragmatic search for effective action in terms of tangible results, and a view of action that underscores its creative potential in challenging well-entrenched power arrangements and opening new possibilities for collective engagements.
Participants in grassroots activism also navigate between the incremental nature of activist action and the sense that it is part of a long and sometimes globally dispersed chain of struggles, and the sense of urgency that attends their local activist engagements and the desire to see tangible results.
Finally, I also discuss the enormous tension attached to the position of the critic-from-within, which involves taking a critical stance towards hegemonic positions in the society of one’s belonging. Such activist struggles are fueled by a socially self-distancing sense of moral outrage coupled with a deep sense of commitment and caring for public life. This tension gives rise to the extremely difficult persuasive task of swaying audiences by giving voice to challenging positions they are reluctant to address.
Irit Dekel: How does the understanding of dissent, parrhesia and witnessing – developed from your works on dugri speech and Breaking the Silence – reflect the centrality of speech and action as two mutually implicated cultural categories?
Tamar Katriel: My early work on dugri speech, Israeli straight talk, was dominated by an attempt to characterize its distinctive quality as an historically-situated cultural style. I described it as grounded in a language ideology that warrants the use of directness, even bluntness, which is taken to be the mark of courage and sincerity. This kind of directness has indeed become a major feature of Israeli identity (or mythology, as some would have it). Truth-telling in its dugri version is grounded in mutual trust. Truth-telling in dugri speech, as in the ancient Greek discursive idiom of parrhesia, as explored by Michel Foucault (2001), relates both to the dimension of factuality and to the cultural imperative to be true to oneself.
In terms of the speech-action nexus, dugri speech can be seen as maximizing language’s action-potential through a gesture of defiance. In my 1986 book, I used the lens of dugri speech to analyze Colonel Eli Geva’s public refusal to lead his troops into Beirut during the 1982 Lebanon War. In accounting for his dissent, he said that he could see children playing in the city streets when looking through his binoculars, thus linking his act of soldierly defiance to his position as a direct witness as well as to his inner sense of morality. Eli Geva’s defiant discourse threw a momentary light on the human reality of modern battlefields and made a powerful point about commanders’ personal responsibility. The act of witnessing in his case, as in the case of the contemporary Breaking the Silence veterans’ organization, involves insisting on the reality before one eyes and its moral implications, even when others cannot – or will not – see it. While Eli Geva’s was a spontaneous, individual act of defiance, Breaking the Silence is a full-fledged witnessing organization, whose founders have identified the social denial surrounding the reality of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories as a central impediment to the their morally-driven politics of change. Collecting and disseminating soldiers’ personal narratives as a source of counter-knowledge, they speak truth to power by giving voice to authentic, personal witnessing accounts of their military experiences as occupiers.
Irit Dekel: By focusing on defiant discourse as solidarity-oriented dissent, the book makes an important contribution to understanding political and social implications. Michael Rothberg’s The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators (2019) sheds light on implication-based activism and intervention in art. Your analysis deepens our understanding of implication and complicity on (at least) two important aspects: you discuss perpetrators’ witnessing, and the moral implications of being a bystander. Second, you show how knowledge, addressivity-structure, and multiple audiences inform our understanding of the mediated space of appearance and the roles of different subjects in it. How do you perceive the category of implication? Where would you recommend further elaboration and research?
Tamar Katriel: I find the ‘etic’ category of implication useful for thinking about issues of moral responsibility in contexts of violence. The term implication seems to me broader and less judgmental than the that of ‘complicity’ and invites a consideration of degrees and types of involvement (in both spatial and temporal terms). As Rothberg points out, the notion of implication opens up new avenues for thinking about political responsibility by allowing us to go beyond the victim/perpetrator binary and the rather vague category of bystander and consider additional categories of social actors such as beneficiaries and perpetuators of violent action. What I think we now need are more ethnography-based thick descriptions of various ’emic’ constructions that can fall into the overarching category of implication as they play themselves out in various empirical cases (particularly as they relate to non-artistic practices, so as to complement Rothberg’s focus on artistic expression). More studies of the various ways in which people see, refuse to see or fail to see themselves linked to the perpetuation of violent practices or injurious institutional arrangements can further flesh out the notion of implication, and my book is one step in this direction. The case of Breaking the Silence witnesses is clearly one of complex implication, in Rothberg’s terms. They see themselves as victimized-victimizers, as both perpetrators of human right abuses and, simultaneously, as victims of the military system in which they operate (and the society that sustains it). In fact, implication is a central theme of their witnessing project – they acknowledge their own implication as perpetrators and point to that of their target audiences as past or potential perpetrators, as direct or indirect beneficiaries of the occupation regime, and as its immediate or long-distance perpetuators. Rather than discarding the category of bystander, as Rothberg would have us do by suggesting the more specific categories of beneficiary or perpetuator, as a linguistic anthropologist, I would ask how the term bystander is used in both vernacular and academic discourses, not how it is to be defined. Indeed, a good deal of vernacular political talk touches in one way or another on the issue of implication both directly through the use of the notion of standing by, and indirectly through the assignment (or dodging) of responsibility for violent actions. Such talk would be a good place to start asking questions about the shifting forms of implications and their discursive articulations.
Irit Dekel: I’d like to ask about the comparative promise for future research that we can draw from you writing on Communication Culture on the one hand and dugri discourse on the other hand, for studying Defiant Discourse and protest culture more generally.
Tamar Katriel: Before studying Israeli dugri speech, I co-authored a study on the term communication as used in American speech (with Gerry Philipsen), which was titled “What We Need is Communication.” In this study, we identified a prominent American way of speaking, popularly known as “communicating” (contrasted with “just talking”). We found that the term “communication” was invoked as a solution to personal and interpersonal problems, and that people often evaluated themselves and others in terms of the quality of their communication skills. Over the years, the prevalence of this Anglo-American cultural idiom, for which Deborah Cameron (2000) proposed the term “communication culture”, has been extensively explored by scholars in Communication, Cultural Sociology and Sociolinguistics. ‘Communication culture’, which is at least partly rooted in the Western therapeutic ethos, has filtered into middle-class Israeli society in the 1980s and is currently discussed in Israeli social science research in a variety of settings, most prominently in conjunction with personal and national experience of trauma. I believe it has by now come to challenge the primacy of dugri speech as an Israeli vernacular idiom in which the speech-action nexus is foregrounded. Notably, both dugri speech and communication culture are underwritten by a language ideology in which speech is viewed as powerful action. But speaking takes very different shape and matters in very different ways in each of them. I began to address the Israeli version of ‘communication culture’ in the early 2000s by studying night-time call-in therapeutic radio programs (Katriel 2004). In that book, I juxtaposed therapeutic talk radio and dugri speech as two distinctive and alternative cultural idioms. In Defiant Discourse I updated my study of the dugri ethos as articulated in the context of discourse-centered activism. I now see dugri speech and ‘communication culture’ as two distinctive cultural codes that are central to Israeli speech culture (and perhaps beyond). As Tamar Kaneh-Shalit (2017) has argued in her study of the therapeutic setting of Israeli life-coaching, they may intertwine to create a hybrid style that combines elements of both the dugri and the communication codes. In future work, I plan to further explore how these codes may rub against each other so as to get a better handle on both local and global questions of cultural change and the role of language in it.
Cameron, D. (2000). Good to talk? Living and working in a communication culture. London: Sage Publications.
Foucault, M. (2001). Fearless Speech. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).
Kaneh-Shalit, T. (2017). The goal is not to cheer you up: Empathetic care in Israeli life
coaching. Ethos 45(1), 98–115.
Katriel, T. (2004). Dialogic moments: From soul talks to talk radio in Israeli culture.
Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Katriel, T. & G. Philipsen (1981) ‘What we need is communication’: ‘Communication’ as a cultural category in some American speech. Communication Monographs 48, 301-317.
Maria Rosa Garrido Sardà: “Language Policy in Business: Discourse, Ideology and Practice” is one of the first critical sociolinguistic studies on minority language policy in private companies. Why did you decide to explore corporate policies as a site for language policy definition, appropriation and implementation? And why is corporate policy an important arena for debates about, and struggles over, language revitalisation movements in present-day Europe?
Elisabeth Barakos: So, I have always been interested in the everyday politics of minority languages. It all started out with an internship at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, where I worked for the European Charter for Minority Languages – my first touching point with language policy, so to speak. Bilingual Wales in the UK has historically been characterised by language decline and marginalisation vis-à-vis the dominant majority language English. Whilst ample scholarship documents the use of Welsh in education, little do we (still) know about the world of work and the field of the economy more widely. The private sector has been one that struck a chord with me since this has been a space where the use of Welsh is (largely) voluntary, unlike the public sector that is legally obliged to provide a bilingual service. In that sense, I was interested to look at, and explain, what was happening in the field of business in terms of bilingualism. That’s when I also learnt that what I was observing connected to politics and the economy more broadly, and wider structural processes of linguistic inequality and historical domination.
Returning to your question over why corporate language policy is important: I guess the answer lies in the fact that the economic sphere touches on largely every social aspect of life. Private sector businesses in Wales thus serve as a unique and highly relevant terrain in which to investigate opportunities for bilingual practices. Likewise, bilingualism in business raises inherent questions over language rights as well as equality of opportunity, perception and treatment of Welsh vis-à-vis English. And crucially, it also ties to issues of identity, nationalism, culture and belonging.
Maria Rosa Garrido Sardà: This monograph clearly demonstrates that language policy has a life beyond the written official document as it is debated, negotiated and implemented by a wide array of social actors in specific socio-political, economic and historical contexts. In order to study language policy as a process, you have proposed a discursive and critical-sociolinguistic approach to the practices, ideologies, and discourses in the promotion of bilingualism in businesses. Could you describe your approach to language policy in context for the blog readers?
Elisabeth Barakos: Yes, so my point of departure has been to move away from text-centred approaches to language policy towards an understanding of language policy as a discursive process that engages people’s discourses, ideologies and practices. A focus on policy-as-text has been quite central in the field of language policy studies and discourse studies more widely at the time. Via my readings of critical sociolinguistic, linguistic anthropological and ethnographic work, I learnt that every text has a context, a history and a dialogic relationship with the social. So looking at policy documents alone didn’t quite do the job for me. Combing texts with data on language policy agents (e.g. business representatives), their views, practices and experiences on the ground and attending to questions of how language ideology surfaces in text, discourse and practice, made much more sense to better grasp what’s at stake in bilingual Wales, for whom, and with which tangible consequences. In that sense, a discursive approach to language policy offers a multi-method and multi-perspective way into analysing minority language communities.
What I am trying to say is that language policy has a life beyond the text. It has a past, present and future we need to consider analytically. How, then, can we do that? By engaging with the people who create, distribute and consume policy, and by situating language policy within its social structure and historical context.
Maria Rosa Garrido Sardà: Sociolinguists actively participate in an on-going conversation about language issues involving many different people and organisations with different socio-political and economic interests. I would like to know in what ways you have established relations with Welsh universities and governmental bodies and how your research has been received so far. In terms of researcher positionality, I am curious to hear more about you negotiated your positioning as a researcher who does not speak Welsh with informants during your fieldwork. What did these collaborations and negotiations reveal about bilingualism in Wales?
Elisabeth Barakos: Yes, so at the heart of Language Policy in Business is the premise that language is a focal point for articulating and living out power relationships and that language policy processes are never apolitical. Different voices articulate different claims over language. As to your question how my research has been received so far? I can’t speak for everyone but I hope that policy makers, businesses and scholars working on (minority) language policy have found value in the type of research that I do. To give you an example, the North Wales Economic Ambition Board has integrated my work on Welsh in the workplace into their Regional Skills & Employment Plan. My ongoing connections with the Welsh Language Commissioner’s office have also opened further doors to continuing research, which I really appreciate.
Further to your question about my own researcher positionality: well, yes, I have written this book and carried out this research, knowingly that I am not Welsh and Welsh-speaking; nor am I British. I am a multilingual with a vested interest in how minority communities negotiate discourses, ideologies and practices surrounding language. So, if you want, I took some kind of outsider perspective on what’s going on “inside the Welsh bubble” (as one of my research participants used to call it). At heart, I always made sure I revealed my background and motivations for doing this research, despite being a non-Welsh speaker, and my participants trusted me with their insights, concerns and worries and shared their experiences and practices.
With the book, I tried to tell a story about Welsh-speaking people’s experiences of their use of the language in the world of work. For what it’s worth, I can only offer one slice of this experience and reality, and my story is certainly not without its limitations.
Maria Rosa Garrido Sardà: I really appreciated the multi-layered analysis of the promotion of bilingualism in post-devolution Wales. Based on your corpus of national and corporate policies, how has the concept of bilingualism evolved over time? Which different discourses construct “a truly bilingual Wales” and with what social consequences?
Elisabeth Barakos: Thanks for this question. So, the idea has been since the Welsh devolution in 1999, and probably much earlier, to plan for a truly bilingual Wales, premised on the notion of treating Welsh and English on the basis of equality and on offering a language choice. There is nothing wrong with this ambition. What I could observe though was that many policy discourses and people’s practices turned this principle of choice into a parallel monolingualism, or what Monica Heller has labelled double monolingualism, a homogeneous co-existence of two linguistic systems. Also, what I found was that ‘bilingual services’ and ‘choice’ were often mere policy rhetoric or used as part of corporate branding and PR, whilst the reality showed a consistent lack of active offer for Welsh services and lack of opportunities for its usage. So, say, if you go into a bank in Wales, you may have to actively demand a Welsh language service, that is, ask for a Welsh or bilingual form, rather than being offered it naturally, as you would in English. We can see this classic reproduction of the policy-practice gap here, with English still functioning as the default language.
Maria Rosa Garrido Sardà: You close the book with a recent social media campaign to share the benefits of using Welsh in businesses within the broader Cymraeg 2050 strategy to reach 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050. What do you think the future holds for language policy in post-Brexit Wales? Which issues and questions remain open for future research about language policy in minority language contexts from a critical perspective?
Elisabeth Barakos: What I observe is that the notion of linguistic equality and parity of status between Welsh and English remains central. The government’s new strategy Cymraeg2050 is ambitious, if not ideologically vested with fixing speaker numbers, and again, commodifying language. Much work still needs to be done to carve out more spaces for the Welsh language to be recognized, valued and treated with the same respect as English on a daily basis. I am privileged to continue this strand of research as part of a new international project “L’égalité linguistique en temps de transformations politique / Linguistic equality in times of political transformation”, together with colleagues in Canada and Catalonia, Spain. We live in unsettling and troubling times. Brexit and the endemic Corona pandemic have brought new issues to light for Welsh language policy matters and re-shifted priorities for planning for a bilingual Wales. With Brexit, will the Welsh language further decline due to the loss of vital funding programs that used to create sustainable employment for Welsh speakers (such as in agriculture or tourism)? With the pandemic, how do Covid-19 related restrictions affect Welsh-speaking communities? In that sense, critical language scholars need to grapple with what these political, social and health crises will do to languages and their speakers, and what language policy processes can do to alleviate crisis moments and preserve the future of the Welsh language in a multilingual, post-pandemic and post-Brexit Wales.
On page 99 of my dissertation, Révolution Dārija? Imagining Vernacular Futures in Morocco, the reader finds themself in a Casablanca dubbing studio alongside a sound engineer and a voice actress who are in the process of dubbing a Mexican telenovela (Una Maid en Manhattan) into colloquial Moroccan Arabic (dārija):
One afternoon, I was sitting in the recording studio occupied by Adil, a cocky male sound engineer who was constantly trying to find other recording gigs on the side much to the frustration of Plug In’s administration. That day, he was scheduled to record several episodes of Maid with Asmae, the actress playing Tanya. Asmae was fun to record with, unlike some of the older actors, but even so Adil had no shame in pointing out to me how little he enjoyed his job. “What we do is boring (Ce qu’on fait est ennuyeux),” he said to me between takes, “And I can’t stand this language (mā kānḥimilsh had al-lugha)… Even the music is horrible (wa l-mūsīqā mā mūsīqā lā wālū)!”
In the middle of their hour-long recording session, Adil suddenly stopped the recording. Still looking at the screen but speaking to Asmae over the microphone, he corrected her pronunciation of the verb for ‘to marry.’ “Zuwwaj, not juwwaj!” he yelled into the mic. Putting her hands on her hips, in an expression of sass that fit with her character Tanya in Maid, Asmae countered: “But in our dārija (fī dārija diyālnā), I say ‘juwwaj’!”
“A wīlī!” (oh my goodness) Adil responded, sounding genuinely scandalized. They went back and forth a bit, but Asmae stubbornly insisted that she said juwwaj and that even though zuwwaj was closer to the word in fuṣḥa [classical Arabic], they were speaking dārija [colloquial Moroccan Arabic] and in dārija it was fine for her to say it like that.
On the one hand, Adil’s shock at Asmae’s pronunciation of the verb ‘to marry’ can be likened to the kind of shock (and humor!) Americans experience when realizing that English speakers in other countries pronounce things in surprisingly different ways (I still find it hilarious when British people pronounce the word “sloth”). This kind of surprise is not only typical of encounters between Moroccans from different regions, but also of encounters between individuals from different parts of the Arabic-speaking world (such encounters have even become a YouTube genre!).
On the other hand, Adil’s shock touches on a particularly Moroccan experience of language, which is at the heart of my dissertation. What Adil and Asmae are doing in this scene is debating the parameters of an emerging standard form of colloquial Moroccan Arabic (dārija). Together, they’re trying to imagine the contours of a cosmopolitan, un-Moroccan form of Moroccan Arabic that can plausibly be voiced by anyone, including a Puerto Rican maid in a Mexican telenovela set in New York. What they’re trying to do, in other words, is imagine a form of dārija that can be heard by other Moroccans (and by themselves) as a voice from nowhere (nowhere in particular in Morocco, and nowhere in particular in the world). No small task for a regional variety of Arabic that has the distinction of being the most stigmatized and least widely understood dialect in the Middle East and North Africa.
As I show in the larger dissertation, while self proclaimed language activists were the force behind certain top-down standardization initiatives in Morocco (see for example Centre de Promotion de la Darija), the weight and the work and the contradictions of standard language ideology often ended up being negotiated by average Moroccans in their day to day lives. This scene with Adil and Asmae is just one illustration of how ordinary Moroccans become entangled in the linguistic sensibilities of postcolonial modernity as they struggle to imagine alternative linguistic and national futures.
Kristin Gee Hickman. 2019. Révolution Dārija? Imagining Vernacular Futures in Morocco. University of Chicago Phd.
On page 99 of my dissertation, the reader finds themself in the middle of an ethnographic description of a heated political debate held during the 101st Universal Congress of Esperanto, in Nitra (Slovakia) in 2016. In this debate, members of the World Non-National Esperanto Association were reflecting on the aims of their activism: should this association use Esperanto to create inclusive, internationalist conversation spaces where people from different national and linguistic backgrounds could gather and meet halfway by speaking a non-national, non-ethnic language? Or should they adopt a more combative stance and use Esperanto as an anti-nationalist tool to fight the exclusionary and xenophobic aspects of nationalism?
Entrance of the congress venue, the Slovak University of Agriculture, where the 101st Universal Congress of Esperanto took place. The Esperanto flag between the Slovakian and EU flags helps to convey the internationalist atmosphere at stake in the Esperanto gathering [Photo: Guilherme Fians].
While page 99 brings us to a brief diversion to Slovakia, my doctoral fieldwork – which placed my dissertation as the first extensive ethnographic study of Esperanto speakers and activists – was carried out mostly in France.
Constructed in the late nineteenth century as an attempt to promote mutual understanding between peoples through language comprehension, Esperanto has been historically associated with internationalism, gathering a community of speakers and activists that strategically connect this language with diverse global political platforms. If, in France, Esperanto used to be particularly prominent among anarchists, communists and pacifists, what is this language’s current political relevance? What impacts have new communication technologies such as social media had on the organization of this community and language movement? Through participant observation – in French and Esperanto – and archival research concentrated in Paris, I mapped out how Esperanto activists use this language in online and face-to-face debates to question the post-political consensus about the use of national languages (such as English and French) for international communication.
Approaching a moment of significant changes in the way people communicate and mobilize politically, I found that Esperanto frequently works as a gateway for people to engage with other political causes, such as movements for open-source software and against neoliberal globalization (like the Gilets jaunes in France). Within these frameworks, Esperanto activists depart from the fight against linguistic discrimination and a preference for participatory over mass communication to re-politicize acts of communication and contribute to radical politics.
Reaching back to Nitra, where both this blog post and my fieldwork began, the outcome of that debate was that any form of internationalist or anti-nationalist stance can prove productive, as long as it fosters more egalitarian and inclusive communicative exchanges through the international circulation and co-production of information, ideas and knowledge.
Fians, Guilherme. 2019. Of revolutionaries and geeks: Mediation, space and time among Esperanto speakers. University of Manchester, PhD dissertation.
Background The Stonewall “Riots” occurred from June 28th-July 3rd, 1969 in New York City, Greenwich Village. These events began as a result of police oppression and harassment of LGBTQ+ in the Stonewall Inn, a popular bar and meeting place. The events reportedly evidenced spontaneous cooperation between people of all colors; gender conforming and non-conforming; cis-gender lesbian and gay men; different generations; and people from various socio-economic classes. The Stonewall moment is said to mark the rise of the modern LGBTQ liberation movements. Pride Month occurs in June each year to commemorate the events at Stonewall and their significance. Leap’s book questions whether “it all began at Stonewall” accurately describes U.S. LGBTQ language history. Leap offers multiple examples showing that language before Stonewall was not buried in the closeted but in broad circulation, inflected variously across gender, race, class and other forms of difference, and associated with multiple moments of disidentification, rebellion and refusal before late June,1969.
Brian Adams-Thies: Pride month is based on what you term the ‘anchor ideology of Stonewall’. This powerful ideology has both linguistic and material repercussions. What inspired you to interrogate the ideology? How did you come to write this book?
William Leap:. The stories about the events at Stonewall in late June 1969 that are presented at Pride events, in the public media, and in many gay history books explain the event by telling the Stonewall story according to an appropriate, anchoring formula: experiences of “the closet” preceded Stonewall, and pathways to gay liberation swiftly followed, culminating in marriage equality, access to military service and federal promises of security within the workplace. We hear this story and we agree (with Althusser): “that’s good, that’s right, that’s true”.
But as is often the case for ideologies, this version of the Stonewall story privileges a certain storyline while excluding nonconforming subjects and narratives. Recent discussions of Stonewall have done much to decenter whiteness and gay/lesbian dominance. For myself, I have long been suspicious about the Stonewall-related stories suggesting that language before Stonewall was a secret “code,” shared but deeply concealed within the in-group, unfamiliar if not entirely unrecognizable to outsiders. Through such mean, same-sex desiring, gender-transgressive and similar subjects could safely signal concealed identities to each other in public places — dropping words and phrases like “[hair]pins”. The events at Stonewall and their aftermath brought this secret code out of the closet and into the streets, making this linguistic usage public, visible, explicit, and open for anyone to hear.
This linear historical trajectory meshes with Stonewall’s anchor ideology: the concealed becomes visible, the disguised become revealed. But , this linear trajectory is not supported by the abundance of evidence documenting the widespread circulations of language before Stonewall within mainstream as well as “marginal” locations. Contrary to the anchor ideology, language before Stonewall was already “ … in the streets.” What Stonewall did was strengthen a more privileged discourse of sexual sameness tied to racial and economic hierarchy and privilege which was already in place before and would soon become a language of homonormativity.
Having worked with language and sexuality studies for some time, I wanted to tell this story, and bring forward parts of the argument that I left unaddressed in Word’s Out (Leap 1996). Language before Stonewall is the result.
Brian Adams-Thies: What do you mean by queer historical linguistics? And why is Halberstam’s “scavenger methodology” (1998: 13) a helpful orientation for work in this mode of queer inquiry?
Claudia Matachana:Through the book, you made a distinction between revivalist and revitalization language movements and point that, in most of the literature, the difference between these two terms is not always made. What were the reasons to make this clear division? Or, to put it another way, what was the main motivation to write this book?
Kara Fleming and Umberto Ansaldo: We find it necessary to make a division between the two in order to make it clear that while the process of supporting truly endangered languages is basically positive (revitalization), the process of advancing a major language to the discredit of others is fundamentally negative (revival). We are aware that where these have been used interchangeably, our distinction may cause problems. In North America for example, revival is often used for revitalization. Overall the main motivation for writing the book was to clarify that while we understand and are sympathetic to revitalization movements which attempt to prevent languages from disappearing, we do want to critically examine why and how the concept of revival can be used to support movements or policies whose goals ultimately create rather than challenge inequality.
Claudia Matachana:Your book shows how the discourse of language revivals and nationalism is many times disguised as the discourse of linguistic rights for minorities. You point at the difference between the language revitalization that attempts to help a language to not disappear, and the social movements that seek to use a language for gaining power. What do you think are the implications of your study for language revitalization? Is there a message that you want to convey from your book for the people working on language revitalization?
Kara Fleming and Umberto Ansaldo: Yes indeed – that while supporting endangered languages, researchers should be careful not to create the underlying conditions for language discrimination. As we say in the book, we are not arguing against language revitalization per se. Rather we want to caution that involvement in and discourses about revitalization/revival should be careful about the exclusionary, purist ideologies that often accompany such movements, and that claims that a particular policy, practice, or ideology supports revival should not be taken as a carte blanche to implement policies with exclusionary or hierarchical effects.
Claudia Matachana:In the chapter dedicated to the language situation in Kazakhstan, one of the interviewed participants (K9) said that he bears a responsibility to his history and language and he cannot just become part of other nation or ethnic group because that would be a betrayal. That idea of linguistic loyalty and betrayal may appear to be related with nationalism. Where do you think that this relationship between language, ethnicity and nation –which, as you show, is not only present in this case– began?
Kara Fleming and Umberto Ansaldo: Well, as other scholars have pointed out, the classic formulation of nationalism as “one people, one territory, one language” has its roots in European romanticism, but in each of the contexts we consider, ideas about nation, language, and ethnicity have their own local resonances and histories. In the specific context of Kazakhstan, for instance, conceptualizations of ethnicity/nation have roots in the Soviet “nationalities” system according to which every citizen had to belong to (only one) designated, officially recognized “nationality,” which has somewhat conflated the concepts of nationality/ethnicity in many post-Soviet contexts.
Claudia Matachana:One of the things I found more interesting about your book is that it presents a wide variety of examples that covers different political and geographical situations – Sri Lanka, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Hong Kong and Catalonia – with a diversity of research methods –interviews, discourse analysis or documented political history. What was the reason for you to choose these diverse geographical locations for your study? How do the different research methods relate to each other and how did you link these specific methods to draw a general conclusion?
Kara Fleming and Umberto Ansaldo: We thought it would be most helpful to cover a range of case studies that illustrated our arguments in different ways, and with different dynamics. Some of the languages we examine are the languages of independent states; others, of regions or semi-autonomous regions within other states. Sri Lanka and Kazakhstan are both nations which had to form new policies and interethnic relations post-independence; in one case leading to civil war (Sri Lanka) and in Kazakhstan, to a complex set of hierarchies and interacting social structures. Mongolian is not exactly “reviving,” yet we can still see certain similarities in the kinds of discourses and nationalist ideologies that have been used to underpin the Mongolian context and the other cases. Hong Kong and Catalonia are both semi-autonomous regions where many people want to maintain or increase that autonomy, possibly by achieving statehood.
We also were keen to include both contexts that had been well-studied as well as less commonly discussed cases. For those contexts which have received little sociolinguistic attention – particularly Kazakhstan and Mongolia – we felt it was especially important to gather new data in the form of interviews, because there is very little published research relating to language ideology, use, and policy in those places. For Catalonia, for instance, there is such a significant body of work that we felt that a limited selection of interviews would have less to contribute to the existing literature. We don’t consider this book the final word on any of these contexts, necessarily – it is a limited account of one aspect of local dynamics in each place. Yet when taken together we believe these cases provide a robust illustration of how revival may play out and what kinds of tools / discourses may be used to advance revivalist (and covertly nationalist) projects, despite the different histories and realities in each place.
Claudia Matachana:Finally, your book shows how language is related to and used for political purposes, specifically its use in nationalist movements and as a tool of discrimination. What do you think is the political importance of these findings? How do you see your book speaking to the current political situation that is lived worldwide?
Kara Fleming and Umberto Ansaldo: We hope to be able to unmask what a powerful tool language is and how easy it is to manipulate. We believe that because of its ubiquity, necessity, and close ties to identity construction and expression, language is particularly vulnerable to being misused as a tool for political and social manipulation. In many contexts, language is heavily politicized as a key symbol of national and personal identity, yet many aspects of the sociolinguistic status quo are simultaneously naturalized – it is often considered simply self-evident and unquestionable that these languages must be revived / protected by any means necessary. What we hope to accomplish is disrupt this taking for granted by introducing questions about who benefits and who is disadvantaged by such processes, and how they might potentially be deconstructed and re-imagined to create more inclusive and equitable societies.
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!