Excerpt: Words Like Birds

The following excerpt is from the introduction of Words Like Birds: Sakha Language Discourses and Practices in the City (February 2019) by Jeanne Ferguson. This book is in the Borderlands and Transcultural Studies Series.

In a classroom on the Northeastern Federal University campus, Artëm and I sipped üütteekh chei (milky tea) as we took a break from our language tutoring—he was helping me with conversational Sakha practice, and I was assisting him with his retirement project: improving his English so that he might translate some Olonkho (Sakha epic poetry) into the language. A former history teacher, Artëm was a friend of my Sakha language instructor; they were zemliaki (compatriots—in Sakha, biir dojdulaakhtar, people of one land) who had grown up together in nearby villages and then maintained their friendship throughout their adult years spent together in the city. We looked out the frozen window to the streets of Yakutsk, where people were braving the first heavy frost of the year. Suddenly Artëm spoke. “You know, up until the late eighties, early nineties,” he said, “we didn’t feel like we could speak Sakha in public at all. Not in the street, in the shops, on the marshrutka [minibus], in the square. Even here, at the university, I was so shy I’d only speak with classmates in Sakha if we met in the toilets!” I turned to him then, though I was not entirely surprised; I had already heard many older Sakha speakers allude to the restrictive norms they felt had shaped their Sakha speech in public throughout the Soviet period. However I had never heard the oft-unspoken taboo on speaking the language in the public sphere articulated quite so bluntly. “Yes, only there!” he stressed to me, when he saw my eyebrows raised.

“You know I traveled frequently, right?” he continued. Artëm had been a gifted athlete, competing throughout the former Soviet Union, Scandinavia, and Japan until poor health in his late fifties prevented him from attending masters-level competitions. He continued, and I asked him if I might write down what he told me about the first time he was in Moscow. He had walked through the Red Square and met some students from somewhere in Africa who were attending the Peoples’ Friendship University in the city. As they parted Artëm heard them speaking “the languages of their countries, right there in the middle of Moscow . . . it made me think of home, of Yakutsk. How I often felt like I couldn’t speak my own language in public in my own city, and it was the language of my rodina [motherland].” After this spontaneous story, Artëm stopped somewhat abruptly and turned back to our work. “Tak eto bylo. Yes, that is how it was. Now, let’s see, what does this word, ‘impetuous,’ mean? Do I pronounce it correctly?” The conversation had already shifted back to the linguistic task at hand, so that day I never asked Artëm to tell me more about how he had been so hesitant in his youth to speak Sakha in public areas of Yakutsk. Later on, however, in other interviews and chats, Artëm and other urban adults of his generation would share their recollections about how deeply Sakha communicative practices were affected by the sociopolitical milieu of sixties and seventies Soviet Yakutsk. I would learn more about the acceptable domains for Sakha language use during that period, the contexts in which its use was not explicitly forbidden, but often frowned upon. Even for those I met who never ended up elaborating much on the political context, vague references to the repressiia sovetskogo perioda (the repression of the Soviet period) remained on the tips of their tongues.

Narratives like Artëm’s came to exemplify and explain the types of communicative norms that arose due to the top-down promotion of the Russian language that firmly emplaced it as the only acceptable option in the urban public sphere. Many adults I encountered, now in their mid-to late adulthood, possessed vivid memories of growing up during the Soviet era; they shared numerous anecdotes about what both Yakutsk and the villages had been like throughout their lives in terms of normative language practices. These narratives bear witness to the types of communicative norms that arose due to the top-down promotion of the Russian language and how Sakha ways of speaking became emplaced in the village and in the city’s private spheres over the ensuing decades. Artëm’s story and others like it also remind us that “while all languages are potentially equal, they are, for social reasons, not actually so” (Hornberger 2006, 27; Hymes 1992). These sorts of narratives also clearly reflect a central concern of many linguistic anthropologists, voicing the ways in which language practices were deeply affected by policies constructed by the institutions and groups holding the greatest amount of societal and socioeconomic power; they eloquently and poignantly highlight the connection between ideologies and their implementation through policy and planning, and the effect of these plans on the choices, both conscious and unconscious, that people made about how they would speak in their everyday lives.

Sakha, Artëm’s first language, is a North Siberian Turkic language spoken primarily in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) in the northeastern Russian Federation. It is in a unique position among the indigenous and minority languages spoken in the Russian north. With about 450,000 speakers, the situation of the Sakha language does not resemble that of a typical “endangered language” in that it is not currently considered by speakers or researchers to be at immediate risk of having its speakers shift to another language, despite an extremely high level of bilingualism in Russian. Nevertheless the history of Russian colonization in the region—first under the Cossacks and the tsarist empire, then the Soviet regime, and now reflected in the republic’s position within the Russian Federation—has meant a tumultuous history for Sakha speakers in terms of how and when their language has been officially supported and promoted, and when its use has been repressed or discouraged. While the rural villages dotting the central Lena and Vilyuy river basins are still very much considered the törü (source) or heartland of the Sakha language, here my focus lies on the language ideologies and practices of urban bilingual Sakha-Russian speakers; this work seeks to illuminate the changes that took place during the first two post-Soviet decades in the city of Yakutsk, in spaces and places where Russian speech and communicative norms dominated during the Soviet era.

While this book—an analysis of Sakha linguistic attitudes and practices in the urban space of Yakutsk, capital of the Sakha Republic—is based on research conducted in the early twenty-first century, it is important to look back further in time to understand a bit more about the significance of the current situation. Early on in conducting my research, I found myself searching for historical materials in the Pushkin National Library in Yakutsk in order to get a sense of the pre-Soviet linguistic ecology of the city. Was Sakha always considered to be solely a rural language, a language of the taiga and the alaas, one that should not be heard in the city’s spaces? Sometime around 1830, over a century before Artëm’s childhood, a traveler from Moscow by the name of Shchukin documented the linguistic situation in Yakutsk—then an outpost on the left bank of the Lena River, which flowed through the territory then known as the Yakutsk Oblast in the farthest eastern reaches of the Russian empire. It appears from his journal entries that he had certain expectations of how he would communicate when doing business in the city, and was somewhat stymied when he was met with a much more incomprehensible situation: “Old [Russian] people often talk to each other in Sakha. This language dominates among all classes, as French does among us in the capital. There is not one inhabitant who does not know Sakha. And this is not surprising. In the home the nanny is Sakha, the cook is Sakha, the driver, Sakha, workers, all Sakha. The local inhabitant speaks better in Sakha, they have not lived in the fatherland. If we need to find someone’s home, it’s always a long ordeal, because who may we ask? No one knows Russian” (Dobrintsev 2007, 75).

While it might seem obvious or inconsequential—of course the local population would speak the local language—Shchukin’s response provides a counterpoint to the dynamic of subordination between Russian and the numerous local languages spoken in other areas of the Russian empire at the time. In most cases across Siberia, local speakers’ indigenous languages tended to be relegated to rural domains or to the sphere of the home within the city. However, at that time, even urban ethnic Russians were learning Sakha from rural Sakha speakers (kuoratchyttar, city-goers) who were moving to the city for work and trade; there appeared at the time to be a strong association between Sakha and a cosmopolitan, urban life. Historian James Forsyth (1992, 165) quotes in his history of Siberia an anonymous nineteenth-century visitor who, like Shchukin, marveled at the lack of Russian spoken in the city: “The Yakuts present the remarkable phenomenon of a subjugated people which has imposed its customs and language on its conquerors.” Forsyth’s statement is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration; this imposition of Sakha linguistic and cultural practices, and its adoption by Russians and representatives of other ethnic groups, did not last forever.

With the subsequent revolutions and eventual assimilation of the region into the Soviet Union, the presence of spoken Sakha in the city—and all its attendant institutions—slowly began to decline; potent political shifts had a strong impact on language ideologies, thus affecting how, when, and where Sakha and Russian were spoken. Thisbook aims to enrich post-Soviet linguistic anthropological research with an ethnographic focus on languages—and language ideologies—in contact; in particular it explores the dynamics affecting an indigenous minority language in an urban space. Any place and time in which human beings meet is a situation of contact, of course; however, urban areas are particularly intense places of contact (see Backhaus 2007). Cities are a dense meshwork (see Ingold 2009) of the connected paths and threads of people in movement; in this sense they, too, are mobile in that they comprise individuals in flux.

Cities create proximity not only of people and materials but of ideas and discourses, languages and linguistic elements. While I do touch on some of the structural changes to Sakha resulting from language contact between Sakha and Russian, my work is overwhelmingly concerned with the effects of social contact on language forms and language choices, as it occurs both by, and through, language itself. Following this I expand on how language choice—or, more specifically, the choice of particular linguistic features—comes to index place or, rather, associations or interconnections with place, as well as numerous other significant relationships and belongings for speakers. These indices are never static or set in stone; they shift and change with shifting language ideologies over time (Eckert 2008).

In examining the linguistic ideologies circulating among Sakha speakers, I seek to illuminate how they have managed to support the maintenance of the Sakha language and create conditions for its use within new spheres. Broadening the concept of language ideology to one that examines how language is situated in relation to culturally shaped ideas of existence and being—an ontology of language—allows us to better understand how speakers envision the effects of using a particular language in the world. A more holistic presentation of how language ideologies fit into a speaker’s broader, enculturated conception of the world is helpful in understanding how Sakha speakers enact a kind of adaptability that has ensured cultural and linguistic continuity, despite the many less-than- supportive language policies and plans they were subjected to at various points in time.

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