Natalia Knoblock on her book, Language of Conflict

Language of Conflict cover

Interview by Sofiya Asher

Sofiya Asher: What inspired this particular book?

Natalia Knoblock: What inspired this book? The inspiration came from speakers of the Russian and Ukrainian languages as they were destroying each other on social networks. Because of my heritage and my connection to both Russia and Ukraine, I started following the events after the revolution of 2014. I am originally Russian, and while I never lived in Ukraine, I have very close relatives there. I have visited my aunt and my cousins many times, and I have really good memories, so I feel connected not only to Russia, but also to Ukraine, at least partially. So, when the war started, I was terrified here, across the ocean, far away from the action, and really lost, not knowing what to do, trying to understand what was happening and trying to find information that seemed reliable and correct. I could not really find that because whatever I saw on official Russian channels was insane, and whatever I saw on official American channels did not make any sense either. So, I made a mistake! Now, looking back, I think it was really, really (what’s the polite word?) not smart to look for accurate information on social networks. But I thought, well, that’s what the people say, right? I would go and read what people write about the conflict. I was spending an insane amount of time following social networks, trying to figure out what was going on. Then, being a linguist, I started copying and pasting examples of crazy metaphors, neologisms, and creative language use that I saw there. I eventually accumulated a quite large collection and began thinking, wow, look at that! The topic and the content of the messages were awful, but the linguistic creativity was very impressive. Well, if you have this great material, you should do something with it, right? So, I made a few presentations at conferences, found other people who were researching similar things, and that’s how the idea for the book was born.

Sofiya Asher: The volume includes work by fifteen various authors with different academic and linguistic backgrounds, what were the challenges with working with such a diverse group? Based on that experience, what would your recommendation be to an editor working with a similar group of contributors?

Natalia Knoblock: Thank you. I think that’s a really good question. I’ll probably want to break it into two parts. One is recruiting people and the other is working with them during the editorial process. The recruiting stage was slightly challenging because this topic was not something that I had worked on before. I did not have a professional network where you just contact your previous collaborators, or your contacts from conferences, or specialists in the field.  I had to rely on the LinguistList. Thank goodness for that great resource! First, I advertised there and invited people to participate in a conference panel. After a successful panel at the Conference on Discourse Analysis Across Disciplines, I negotiated with a publisher and started looking for more contributors. Because the topic is so complex, I wanted a book to represent a variety of methods, a variety of [language] uses, a variety of topics. I didn’t want to have just a few chapters, so I needed to recruit more people. Then there was a lot of searching for names and programs and emailing strangers, who were really good at helping me. If they were not interested in contributing to the volume themselves, they would recommend other people. Eventually, we ended up with the group that collaborated on the book. It was a good linguistic community effort.

The second challenge was to keep it professional. Because the topic is so painful, it is not easy to write about. People should never take it lightly when they write about a country torn by war. And I feel that it was important to keep politics as far away as possible. We couldn’t leave it out completely, but my goal was to keep the volume professional and language-focused as much as possible. Linguists are people, and they have opinions, obviously. There is nothing wrong with that. We were not able to leave ideological views out completely because it’s impossible, but we tried to keep them under control. That was a big challenge.

Sofiya Asher: In the introduction (p. 7), you mentioned that the volume was created with “a goal of remaining ideologically neutral and focusing exclusively on the linguistic side of the happenings.” On the surface, it seems like an impossible task, separating language and ideology. Do you think the volume succeeded in remaining ideologically neutral while focusing on language?

Natalia Knoblock: (Smiles) I think I failed. It was a challenge to keep different people with different perspectives focused exclusively on the language and to leave ideology out. We’re studying discourse, which is interconnected with social reality, so completely disconnecting it from the war and the antagonism was not possible, even though we tried to do the best we could under the circumstances. There were times when I asked contributors to resist the urge to generalize about the population of one country or the other based on the statements of one individual or a handful of people, and external reviewers expressed the same concern. But the authors insisted on keeping their text as it was. There was a lot of back-and-forth because of that. There was also an unexpected case at the very end, when the chapters had gone through internal and external review, were revised several times, all the information was finalized, and we were in copy-editing already. There was a disagreement about the transliteration system to represent Ukrainian and Russian examples in the English-language text. Two authors objected very strongly to the suggested transliteration systems and wouldn’t agree with each other, with at least one of the objections ideologically motivated. We did find some kind of compromise. I don’t remember what we used, but we made sure that everybody was okay with whatever system we were going with.

Sofiya Asher: You mention in the introduction (p. 8) that “different authors use different terms” and that “contributors to this volume were free to choose the term they felt most fitting.”  Do you think this decision worked well based on the feedback you have received so far from the readers or reviewers?

Natalia Knoblock: Well, we have not generated much interest. I have not received either positive or negative feedback about the book and its terminology. The most loaded terms are, of course, the war, crisis, conflict, whether it’s a civil war or it is an international conflict between the two countries? I’m not sure even anthropologists and political scientists have agreed on that unanimously till this point. I felt that it would be out of my position to tell people which term to use. That is not a linguistic decision but more of an ideological decision. I didn’t feel like I could dictate to people what they should or should not believe about the situation in Ukraine.

Sofiya Asher: Now I’d like to talk about the particular chapter you have contributed to the volume. Why did you find blended names an interesting a subject of study?

Natalia Knoblock: Well, that was one of the things that I noticed during the initial stages of the conflict. I mentioned in the beginning of the interview that the inspiration for the book came from the time spent on reading insulting comments on social networks. That was one of the noticeable tendencies that I had seen there. People would take someone’s name and would blend it with an insulting word. So, I contacted a great specialist on morphological blending, Natalia Beliaeva, and asked her if she would be interested in collaborating on this. Luckily for me, she was, and we had a great time working on the chapter even though we were on different continents.

A lot of the blends are really new in the language. At least I, as a native speaker, had never heard them before. There is a wave, a pretty noticeable wave of publications on the discourse of hatred or hate speech in the Russian and Ukrainian conflict devoted to neologisms. One of the publications that we cite in this chapter is by S.A. Zabotinskaya. She compiled a ‘thesaurus of the Russian Ukrainian conflict’ that lists a whole lot of new words that supposedly have entered the language after the conflict started. However, if we start examining whether either of the populations use any of those words, we might find that they don’t. For example, there was a large-scale computerized analysis of textual data collected over an extended period of time by Radchenko and Arhipova, I believe. Their research question was whether verbal aggression precedes or follows major traumatic events, such as fighting outbreaks, but one of the things that they found was that a lot of the terms that have been listed in linguistic publications on the Ukrainian conflict are barely used by the population. It looks like a political figure may use a word on a website, a bot might write it on a social network, or a journalist may mention it in an article, but the words didn’t really enter the language since the population did not pick them up. So, I am not surprised that you have never read or heard ‘Potroshenko’ and some of the other blends we analyze. ‘Putler’ might be the only one in our chapter that seems to be somewhat popular. The rest could be just creations of a blogger or an activist. The fact that they did not take root in the language kind of gives me hope. If there is no deeply rooted hatred in the people, I think then there is hope for this world. I don’t know. It is still worth studying such neologisms, I believe, since they highlight the morphological resources the language affords its users.

Sofiya Asher: The corpus created for the study was based on Ukrainian and Russian media using WebBootCat by SketchEngine.   Does the tool have any adjustments for potential selection bias, such as content created by bots, frequent posters, or trolls?

Natalia Knoblock:  No, unfortunately, we had no way to distinguish quality sources from junk sources. My coauthor and I relied on this software because we ourselves could not scrape the Internet for our content, and we had to use the tool that was available. We thought that we were quite lucky that we were able to collect the datasets large enough to allow statistical analysis, even though we could not control source quality. The thing is, many users of online content lack digital literacy and critical thinking skills that would allow them to differentiate good sources from bad anyway. So, studying all the content that comes up in searches related to the conflict makes sense. It reflects what non-researchers are exposed to online, the good, the bad, and the ugly. We might have deleted some repetitions, and I think we manually cleaned the Ukrainian corpus from some of the Russian texts. But even that was not completely possible because there was a lot of code-switching. Other than that, we kept everything we found.

Sofiya Asher: Your findings in this chapter indicate that blended names are used colloquially and more negatively in Russian and Ukrainian media. Do you see any similarities in American media with regards to the use of blended names?

Natalia Knoblock:  No, I haven’t. Not because they are not there, but because I never looked. Thank you for a good idea. I might do that now. It’s possible that, you know, you find what you look for. When I was examining Trump’s Facebook comments, I studied the most frequent terms. I went with frequencies, and that may have caused me to overlook some words that were there and could have been interesting. That would be a different study and would require additional digging, but it’s a great idea.

Sofiya Asher: Let’s return to the volume. What would you like the volume’s readers to keep in mind while engaging with this work?

Natalia Knoblock: That’s a difficult question. I would like people to be sensitive to the situation that the authors describe. I would like people to give the authors slack because everybody tried to do their best whether or not it turned out as well as we hoped. I’d like the war to end. I would like people to use their creative powers for something more productive than name calling. You know, there was an old slogan, something about using energy for peaceful purposes. I wish people used their creative linguistic energy for better purposes than insulting each other. We don’t need verbal aggression; there’s too much aggression in this world already. So, let’s concentrate on something better than insults. But, of course, language specialists just record and analyze what is going on, and we should keep that in mind.

Sofiya Asher: What do you hope this volume’s contribution to the scholarship of discursive practices of conflict will be?

Natalia Knoblock: I think this volume shows a little more variety in verbal aggression strategies and techniques. I wouldn’t claim that nobody has done what we’ve done in this book, but I think some of our studies are quite innovative. For example, the attention to the use of personal names is something that scholars can continue exploring. It came up in a different book I’m working on right now. It’s also an edited collection, and it talks about morphosyntactic features of verbal aggression. One of the contributions focuses on diminutive suffixes, and it shows that diminution in reference to a person is often derogatory, unlike references to inanimate objects or animals. That could be something worthy of further research. Another point that the volume emphasizes is the interconnection of linguistic and extralinguistic factors. Language does not exist detached from society. This is not a new idea, but given some of the claims that language is some kind of special unit in your brain and it is not related to social factors – yeah, no! Overall, the main contribution is probably the variety of topics and aspects that were discussed and covered in the volume.

Sofiya Asher: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Natalia Knoblock:  I want to thank the contributors because, as I’ve mentioned, the topic is painful and not easy to work with. The authors felt the need to study the way language was evolving and to share their research. They were also understanding of my role as the editor, as the person who keeps everything together, not pushing people anywhere ideologically but just trying to ensure that the quality is there. I think it was great how the authors went through this pretty long process. Going from the initial announcement to the publication in two years is not very long for an academic publication, but still is a long time. It was two years of our lives. We were in multiple negotiations over ‘do you change this paragraph or do you not change it’ or ‘I like this paragraph, but the reviewer does not’. Well, you know what it is like with academic publications, and people were great to work with, patient and cooperative.

I would also call for caution in reacting to aggressive discourse. We all tend to remember nasty verbal attacks and to overgeneralize “that’s what Russians say”, “that’s what Ukrainians say”. In reality, it is often just one person, and the loudest voices are not always the most representative ones. So, I would encourage people to question whether the speaker talks for him/herself or for a large group, and to keep in mind that online squabbles are dominated by a small number of most radical people. I guess, that’s what I think after engaging with this content for the past several years.

Jenanne Ferguson on her book, Words Like Birds

Words Like Birds

Interview by Laura Siragusa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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