Words Like Birds


Words Like Birds

Sakha Language Discourses and Practices in the City

Jenanne Ferguson

Borderlands and Transcultural Studies Series

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


February 2019


$65.00 Add to Cart
eBook (EPUB)
Ebook purchases delivered via Leaf e-Reader

February 2019


$65.00 Add to Cart
eBook (PDF)
Ebook purchases delivered via Leaf e-Reader

February 2019


$65.00 Add to Cart

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 was at times 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 a sense 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, the tracing of the situation of bilinguals in Yakutsk.


Author Bio

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


"Informed by an awareness of comparable case studies of Native American and other Indigenous language revitalization projects, Words Like Birds is itself a must-read not just for specialists but for all who regard language as a critical resource for maintaining Indigenous cultures and for those who know that revitalization and reclamation are so much more than merely language documentation."—Paul V. Kroskrity, Native American and Indigenous Studies

“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 Illustrations                                                                                                     

Notes on Transcription and Transliteration                                                               


Introduction: A Short History of Sakha                                                                                 

1. We Have Always Been Adaptable: Frameworks for Sakha Language Vitality                

2. Sakha under the Tsars and Beyond: Language Policies and Communicative Norms       

3. Like Sweet Cream and Lingonberries: Language, Spirits, and Sustenance                      

4. One Drop Traveling along a Great Artery: Moving the Ulus to the City                         

5. Sakhalyy in the City: Language Mixing and Indexing Authenticity                                 

6. Acquiring Russian, Maintaining Sakha: Language Choices and Life Trajectories           

7. Ohuokhaj in Lenin Square, Hip Hop in Virtual Tühulgeter: Adapting New Spaces for Sakha    

Conclusion: Words Like Birds                                                                                              




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