Words Like Birds

Words Like Birds

Sakha Language Discourses and Practices in the City

Jenanne Ferguson

Borderlands and Transcultural Studies Series

354 pages
3 maps, 2 tables, 19 photographs, index


February 2019


$65.00 Pre-order

About the Book

What does it mean to speak Sakha in the city? Words like Birds, a linguistic ethnography of Sakha discourses and practices in urban Far Eastern Russia, examines the factors that have aided speakers in maintaining—and adapting—their minority language over the course of four hundred years of contact with Russian speakers and the federal power apparatus.

Words Like Birds analyzes modern Sakha linguistic sensibilities and practices in the urban space of Yakutsk. Sakha is a North Siberian Turkic language spoken primarily in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) in the northeastern Russian Federation. For Sakha speakers, Russian colonization in the region inaugurated a tumultuous history in which their language has at times been officially supported and promoted and at other times repressed and discouraged.

Jenanne Ferguson explores the communicative norms that arose in response to the top-down promotion of the Russian language in the public sphere and reveals how Sakha ways of speaking became emplaced in villages and the city’s private spheres. Focusing on the language ideologies and practices of urban bilingual Sakha-Russian speakers, Ferguson illuminates the changes that have taken place in the first two post-Soviet decades, in contexts where Russian speech and communicative norms dominated during the Soviet era.

Weaving together three major themes—language ideologies and ontologies, language trajectories, and linguistic syncretism—this study reveals how Sakha speakers transform and adapt their beliefs, evaluations, and practices to revalorize a language, maintain and create senses of belonging, and make their words heard in Sakha again in many domains of city life. Like the moveable spirited words, the focus of Words Like Birds is mobility, change, and flow, tracing the situation of bilinguals in Yakutsk.


Author Bio

Jenanne Ferguson is an assistant professor of linguistic anthropology at the University of Nevada–Reno.


“Ferguson’s vibrant ethnography offers a multifaceted view of contemporary Sakha cultural and linguistic practices, blending analyses of syncretism and language revitalization with explorations of place, movement, and belief to capture speakers’ complex understandings of what it means to be Sakha.”—J. A. Dickinson, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Vermont

Table of Contents

List of Figures
Notes on Transcription and Transliteration
Introduction. A Short History of Sakha.
Chapter One. “We have always been adaptable”: Frameworks for Sakha language vitality
Chapter Two. Sakha Under the Tsars and Beyond: Language Policies and Communicative Norms
Chapter Three. Sweet Cream and Lingonberries: Language, Spirits, And Sustenance
Chapter Four. “One Drop Travelling Along a Great Artery”: Moving the Ulus to The City
Chapter Five. Sakhalyy In the City: Language Mixing and Indexing Authenticity
Chapter Six. Acquiring Russian, Maintaining Sakha: Language Choices and Life Trajectories
Chapter Seven. Ohuokhaj In Lenin Square, Hip Hop in Virtual Tühulgeter: Adapting New Spaces for Sakha
Conclusion. Words Like Birds

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