Plenary speakers

Prof. David G. Anderson (University of Aberdeen)

Title, When words fail.  Language Ecologies in the Circumpolar North

Indigenous languages are enjoying an unprecedented revival in stark contrast to the colonial atmosphere of the early 20th century when they were seen to be obstacles to the modernization of Northern peripheries.  The revival in interest however comes at a certain cost.  Reflecting perhaps an interest in easily commodified, technocratic knowledge, heritage languages are more often seen as repositories of rich knowledge, untranslatable ideas, and as glossaries for “hundreds of types of snow”.  On the one hand the renewed respect for language-as-lexica distracts us from the meaning and the messages that may be communicated through phrases, creole sentences, or clever metaphors.  On the other hand, it creates a high bar for linguistic competency which while ratifying a cadre of experts disenfranchises a lot of others who may live northern livelihoods but may not be able to speak of them.  Although not a linguist, although as a person who has tried to describe northern landscapes, I wish to address the clumsy way that northern lifeworlds are expressed in dominant languages, in linguistic creoles, and also through unspoken signs. The paper will address some of the work I undertook at the invitation of a Dene community in the Canadian Arctic for the “Loucheux Language Centre” as an undergraduate student, and how that led me into a career as a circumpolar anthropologist.  The paper will also speak to some of the lessons learned from trying to describe human-animal relationships in the North and the misunderstandings this has generated.

Anderson DG









Ass. Prof. Jenanne K. Ferguson (University of Nevada, Reno)

Title, Words make worlds: engaging with humans and non-humans

This paper will give a brief overview of some of the work on language and materiality as it relates to engagement with both humans and non-humans, focusing on some of the insights from the seminar talks. I will discuss in particular the ontologies of language held by Sakha speakers with whom I work as they pertain to the power of language in creating and influencing shared worlds. Using a case study of the Sakha algys, a genre of ritual poetry that has been revived in the public sphere as part of a broader project of traditional spiritual revitalization in the region (see Peers 2015; Zola 2012; Balzer 2012), I will present various spaces and situations in which words and materiality intertwine.

While the spoken word may be immaterial and ephemeral, many Sakha speakers believe they are ‘spirited’ or animate (‘ichchileekh’) or a force (see also Course 2012) unto themselves they work on the material world and can affect change. Algys blessings are spoken to honor and receive favour from deities for human and non-human animals, to acknowledge ichchi (spirits) of elements and places, and to engage in respectful relationships with plant and animal beings of the natural world. I will discuss their use in communal ritual (during Yhyakh, the Sakha summer solstice celebrations as well as other public events), as well as during private rituals with algyschyttar (blessing makers), and also with emchyttar, or traditional healers who primarily engage with the plant world.

Words thus work on other beings and forces, and can produce a kind of ‘cosmological communitas’ (Uzendoski and Calapucha-Tapuy 2012), but they also work on the speaking self; they are both interpersonal and intrapersonal. Using Foucault’s (1988; see also Hirschkind 2006) discussion of ‘technologies of the self’ I will discuss how the creation, circulation and experience of algys as a daily practice illuminates the ways humans use words to shape personal understanding and psychological/emotional development, connect to other beings, and also exert a modicum of control over forces in the world when there is so much beyond their immediate control (especially in times of political and economic tension).

Finally, I will discuss the consequences of algys tyllar (words) becoming material through literacy in written inscriptions online and offline, and what that means for their power as well as the ‘expansion’ of words (and worlds).