Tag Archives: Language

How to Learn a Language (Learning an Endangered Language Part 6)

[This is the 5th installment in an ongoing series.]

I am not this guy:

Or this guy:

Then he dived into Russian, Italian, Persian, Swahili, Indonesian, Hindi, Ojibwe, Pashto, Turkish, Hausa, Kurdish, Yiddish, Dutch, Croatian and German, teaching himself mostly from grammar books and flash card applications on his iPhone. This in addition to a more formal study of French, Latin and Mandarin at the Dalton School, where he is a sophomore.

I suspect some people are wired differently, like this RadioLab episode about a ragtime musician who can play four concerts in his head at the same time and keep track of what any instrument in each of the four orchestras is playing at any given time.

This is a post about language learning for the rest of us. But first, a little throat clearing. While I have read a few books summarizing contemporary research on language learning, I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject. That means I make some scientific claims without backing them up. Caveat emptor. Continue reading

Statement of Teaching Philosophy

I recently applied for “academic promotion” from Assistant to Associate Professor. I’m still awaiting the results, but I wanted to share part of that process with you: the ubiquitous “statement of teaching philosophy.” As this is something many people also struggle with in job applications, I thought I’d talk a little about the genre and share my own statement in full. Sharing my statement takes a little guts, as I really struggled to write an honest statement as opposed to the kind of jargon and cliché ridden statements I’ve seen when sitting on the other side of a job search committee, or when looking for sample documents on the web. (Rex sent me this page on writing such documents and the “Rubric for Statements of Teaching Philosophy” included there is one of the few genuinely helpful documents I found.)

Why is this statement so hard to write? Well, for one thing, I think it makes us painfully aware of the gap between our teaching ideals and our actual classroom practices. We can talk all we want about various teaching philosophies, but much of what most teachers do in the classroom is essentially the same. Even Mike Wesch, who wrote here about his theory of anti-teaching, has more recently written about “why good classes fail“:

In fact, the few truly fantastic classes I have stumbled into were just as likely to be “sage on the stage” lectures as they were to be based on more participatory methods. And the disheartening reality has been that a really bad lecture doesn’t fail as badly as a really poorly executed participatory class. Many of these professors seem to do everything “right.” They ask their students questions, pause and let them discuss with their neighbors, show YouTube videos that relate to their own experience, and invite discussion. But disinterest and disengagement still reign. Why?

I appreciate Wesch’s thoughts on this, and I strongly recommend reading the whole piece. (And look forward to his forthcoming book on teaching.) There is also an article about his re-think in the Chronicle. I mention it because it gives me comfort in the more modest approach I’ve taken in my own statement of teaching philosophy. I talk, for instance, about making my goals explicit. This may not seem like much, but in practice I’ve found that it is very difficult to do well and also very helpful to students when done properly. It isn’t the kind of thing that gets one written up in the Chronicle, but it is something I’ve thought long and hard about. It isn’t just about writing a good syllabus, but about spending time in class teaching one’s expectations and the reasons behind them. (In my case we actually created a whole new course to accomplish this goal.)

I hope my document is useful for others working on articulating their own teaching philosophy. I also think it highlights some of the unique challenges I face teaching here in Taiwan and might be interesting even for those not planning on writing such a statement anytime soon.

Continue reading

Learning an Endangered Language (Part 5: Recap)

If I’ve been quiet lately it is because most of my free time has been devoted to trying to learn Amis (also known as Pangcah) one of the Austronesian languages still spoken in Taiwan. I’ve been reluctant to write about it because I’m at that initial stage where I am completely tongue tied and unable to speak a word if anyone actually tries to engage me in a conversation. I’m a little embarrassed to be writing about this again, because I started writing about it in 2009 and haven’t made much progress since then.

Anyway, I’m hard at work on this again, so here’s a roundup of the previous posts on the topic: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, as well as a more general post on my decision to teach in Taiwan.

Looking back at my previous posts, I realize there is much I never wrote about. So in a series of future posts I hope to write more about (1) my thoughts about language learning in general, (2) specific thoughts on strategies for learning an endangered language, (3) iOS tools for language study and (4) some of the themes of my research relating to the role that language preservation efforts play in the construction of indigenous identity in Taiwan. I hope that this time I get a little further than I did in 2009. In the meantime, leave a comment if you have any thoughts of your own, or specific questions you’d like me to address in future posts.

Buffalaxing in Reverse in Taiwan

According to the Urban Dictonary “buffalaxing” is a term which comes from a YouTube user named Buffalax who is famous for writing fake English lyrics to foreign songs which (to an English speaker who doesn’t understand the original language) sound like they could be the actual lyrics to the song. You can find this kind of thing by searching YouTube for “buffalax” or for “misheard lyrics.” Some of these are funnier than others, and many are simply offensive. The reason I bring it up is that buffalaxing is very popular in Taiwan, and I wanted to share a new music video which has some fun with this meme. But first some context…

Let’s start with two of the more famous songs which have been given misheard Chinese lyrics. The first is “Golimar” from the Telugu movie “Donga“:

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The Anthropology of Freedom, Part 2

She is Freedom
She is Freedom

For philosophers, sociologists and historians, freedom is a concept exquisitely defined and heroically distinguished. There are the familiar distinctions like positive and negative liberty (Isaiah Berlin), there is the long tradition of thinking freedom togther with sovereignty, government and arbitrary power (sp. the newly reinvigorated “civic republican” tradition from Machiavelli to Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit); there is the question of free will and determinism (a core Kantian Antimony that generates both moral philosophy and philosophy of science debates seemingly without end); there is the question of freedom and the mind (the problem of the “contented slave” or the problem Boas raised in arguing that freedom is only subjective); the question of coersion, of autonomy, of equality and of the relationship to liberalism and economic organization. Within each of these domains one can find more and less refined discussions (amongst philosophers and political theorists primarily) oriented towards the refinement of both descriptive and normative presentations of freedom as a concept and as a political ideal. And then there is Sartre.

As I mentioned in the first post, anthropologists have been nearly silent on the problem, while philosophers, political theorists and historians have not. There are shelves and shelves of books in my library with titles like A Theory of Freedom, Dimensions of Freedom, Freedom and Rights, Liberalism and Freedom, Political Freedom, etc. There are readers and edited volumes and special issues of journals to beat the band. In history there is Orlando Patterson and Eric Foner, and a 15 volume series called The Making of Modern Freedom that includes books on Freedom from the medieval era to the present, and includes books on China, Asia, Africa, slavery, migration and fiscal crises (!).

If anthropologists find the concept of freedom distasteful, how then do they organize their concern with things and issues related to what political philosophers or historians approach via freedom? What concepts stand in, challenge or reframe that of freedom? Here is a long list (which could no doubt be longer):

agency, authority, bare life, biopower, biopolitics, citizenship, civil society, colonialism, consent, contract, development, domination, empire, exclusion, governance, governmentality, human rights, humanitarianism, interests, interest theory, in/justice, kingship, neoliberalism, obligation, oppression, precarity, resistance, secularism/secularity, security, social control, sovereignty, suffering, territoriality and violence.

Note that this list concerns terms also familiar to North Atlantic political philosophy, which is to say, this is not a list of “indigenous” or ethnographically derived concepts of/related to freedom. That would constitute yet another distinct question (and a separate post, to follow).

Most of the concepts in that list are closer to the empirical than the theoretical, and I suspect this is why they are preferred to manifestly abstract ideal like freedom. Humanitarianism for instance, has seen a wealth of great work over the last couple of decades for the concrete reason that it is a practice, a domain of law, a set of international economic imperatives as a well as an ideal. Precarity nicely captures a particular economic condition and the effects that has on well-being, etc.

Perhaps most central to the anthropologist’s suspicion around freedom is its inherently individualist bent. Continue reading


Could social scientists and humanities scholars be replaced by bots?

From the December 17, 2010, issue of the journal Science comes a News of the Week piece “Google Opens Books to New Cultural Studies.” It sketches the ongoing research of a mathematician, Erez Lieberman Aiden, who is studying word frequencies using all of Google Books as his data source. Here’s the abstract of the technical publication.

By analyzing the growth, change, and decline of published words over the centuries, the mathematician argued, it should be possible to rigorously study the evolution of culture on a grand scale.

The researchers have revealed 500,000 English words missed by all dictionaries, tracked the rise and fall of ideologies and famous people, and, perhaps most provocatively, identified possible cases of political suppression unknown to historians. “The ambition is enormous,” says Nicholas Dames, a literary scholar at Columbia University.”

Just what the humanities needs! More studies of domination and resistance.

Continue reading

It’s really a problem of journalism itself

I woke up this morning to discover that the NY Times public editor, Arthur Brisbane, had responded to the objections I had raised in my post about how Guy Deutscher’s article looked a lot like Lera Boroditsky’s.

The problem here, I conclude, is not one of intellectual theft. It’s really a problem of journalism itself.

The rules of attribution and credit in the domain of scholarship are established, strict and well-understood. Journalism, by contrast, lacks a formal code for citing scholarly work. When scholarly subject matter traverses the border into popular journalism, it simply isn’t clear how much attribution is enough.

That was pretty much the stance I took in my initial blog post as well. But Guy Deutscher takes a more aggressive stance, accusing Arthur Brisbane of misrepresenting Michael Silverstein’s stated position:
The way he paraphrased Mr. Silverstein’s response can easily be construed as giving at least partial credence to Ms. Boroditsky’s claims to important contributions that I should have cited instead of or alongside the seminal ones I named. I asked Mr. Silverstein what he had actually said, and it turns out to have been the opposite. He had described Ms. Boroditsky’s examples as “in essence reproducing others’ results long in the literature.” Mr. Brisbane chose not to mention that.The way he paraphrased Mr. Silverstein’s response can easily be construed as giving at least partial credence to Ms. Boroditsky’s claims to important contributions that I should have cited instead of or alongside the seminal ones I named. I asked Mr. Silverstein what he had actually said, and it turns out to have been the opposite. He had described Ms. Boroditsky’s examples as “in essence reproducing others’ results long in the literature.” Mr. Brisbane chose not to mention that.
No hard feelings though, since he also says that “Ms. Boroditsky is one of the many who are specifically credited and praised in the book, and two of her experiments are described there in detail.”
There are also some letters posted on the NY Times website, and some discussion over at Language Log.
I should also mention that Guy Deutscher responded to Kathryn Woolard’s initial post on the Society for Linguistic Anthropology blog:
In the book I make even stronger criticisms of Whorf’s argumentation and his representation of linguistic facts. But as opposed to the article, these criticisms are made in context, and are discussed with relation to particular examples that Whorf used and quotation from Whorf’s work, e.g. his claims about the alleged timelessness of the Hopi language and its alleged influence on the Hopi’s inability to understand the concept of time as we know it. I don’t think I caricaturized his position – I’m afraid he doesn’t need much caricaturizing there.
It seems that if we just read Guy Deutscher’s book, as opposed to his journalism, all doubts will be erased. Is there any hope for public intellectuals in the news media?

Your own private griot

[Reposted from the SLA Blog.]

In her now classic 1989 paper on language and political economy, Judith Irvine talked about situations where language doesn’t merely index political and economic relations in the way that accent is linked to class in Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” but where speech acts are themselves a form of political and economic economic activity. Her example is that of the Wolof griot “whose traditional profession involves special rhetorical and conversational duties such as persuasive speechmaking on a patron’s behalf, making entertaining conversation, transmitting messagesto the public, and performing the various genres of praise-singing.” She discusses how while not anyone can be a griot — you have to be born into the right caste — it is the “most talented and skillful griots” who “earn high rewards and are sought after by would-be patrons.” Irvine then goes on to discuss not just the verbal skill of the griot, but “cases where a verbal statement is the object of exchange.” It is worth quoting this discussion in full:

Recently there appeared a cartoon in the New Yorker magazine, entitled “Flattery getting someone somewhere” (M. Stevens, 28 July 1986). “You’re looking great, Frank!” says a man in business suit and necktie to another, perhaps older, man with glasses and bow tie. “Thanks, Chuck! Here’s five dollars!” Bow Tie replies, handing over the cash. The joke depends, of course, on the notion that the exchange of compliments for cash should not be done so directly and overtly. We all know that Chuck may indeed flatter Frank with a view to getting a raise, or some other eventual reward; but it is quite improper in American society to recognize the exchange formally, with an immediate payment. A compliment should be acknowledged only with a return compliment, or a minimization, or some other verbal “goods.” If it is to be taken as “sincere,” it is specifically excluded from the realm of material payments.

Some cultural systems do not segregate the economy of compliments from the economy of material transactions and profits, however. It is doubtful, for example, that the cartoon would seem funny to many Senegalese. With a few suitable adjustments for local scene, the transfer it depicts is quite ordinary. There is, in fact, a category of persons-the griots-specializing in flattery of certain kinds, among other verbal arts. The income they gain from these activities is immediate and considerable, often amounting to full-time employment for those whose skills include the fancier genres of eulogy.

I remembered this article because something I read made me wonder about the claim that it is “quite improper in American society to recognize the exchange formally, with an immediate payment.” It was a piece in the Washington Post by sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh entitled “Five myths about prostitution.” The second of these five myths is that “men visit prostitutes for sex.”

Often, they pay them to talk. I’ve been studying high-end sex workers (by which I mean those who earn more than $250 per “session”) in New York, Chicago and Paris for more than a decade, and one of my most startling findings is that many men pay women to not have sex. Well, they pay for sex, but end up chatting or having dinner and never get around to physical contact. Approximately 40 percent of high-end sex worker transactions end up being sex-free. Even at the lower end of the market, about 20 percent of transactions don’t ultimately involve sex.

Figuring out why men pay for sex they don’t have could sustain New York’s therapists for a long time. But the observations of one Big Apple-based sex worker are typical: “Men like it when you listen. . . . I learned this a long time ago. They pay you to listen — and to tell them how great they are.” Indeed, the high-end sex workers I have studied routinely see themselves as acting the part of a counselor or a marriage therapist. They say their job is to feed a man’s need for judgment-free friendship and, at times, to help him repair his broken partnership. Little wonder, then, that so many describe themselves to me as members of the “wellness” industry.

So here we seem to have a situation where Americans do pay to be told how great they are. The difference, of course, is that this activity is illegal, and it is private. While a woman at a Japanese hostess bar may be paid to listen and make complements in a public setting, in the US this activity seems to have been relegated to the private sphere – between the man and his griot.


One of the things that got a lot of linguistic anthropologists upset about the Deutscher piece on language and thought in the NY Times was his misrepresentation of Benjamin Lee Whorf’s ideas. This is not a new problem. I wrote the following back in 2004:

Whorf never said that language determines thought… It would be interesting to examine why people feel the need to recast Whorf’s argument in such essentialist terms.

I went on to try to set the record straight as to what Whorf asctually said. And Mark Liberman chimed in that people are always forgetting about Edward Sapir.

Now with the Deutscher piece SLA President Kathryn Woolard has taken up the torch with an excellent piece on the SLA blog, loaded with a very useful bibliography:

Whorf’s own statements of his theory look little like the caricature that opens the NYT article and much more like the position that Deutscher himself offers as reasonable and compelling. Far from holding that “the inventory of ready-made words” in a language “forbids” speakers to think specific thoughts, Whorf argued that patterns of grammatical structures, often the most covert ones at that, give rise not to a language prison but to a “provisional analysis of reality” and habits of mind, very much as Deutscher concludes. This is a view that many in linguistic anthropology continue to find compelling, in varying ways…Below are just a few references to the extensive linguistic anthropological background to the NYT article.

And Greg Downey made some very similar points over at the always interesting Neuroanthropology blog (congrats on their 1000th post!):

The one thing that turns me off to Duetscher’s writings is his pretty harsh bashing of Benjamin Whorf, who, in my opinion, is one of the most interesting anthropological linguists.

And while I’m at it, I should also include this interview with Arika Okrent on her new book “In the Land of Invented Languages” which Leila recommends as “including a good description of the Whorf Hypothesis.”

Previously: My problem with journalism.

My problem with journalism

I’m a big advocate of anthropologists finding ways to connect with a larger audience, beyond those who read academic journals. (Sometimes I’m not even sure anthropologists read what other anthropologists write.) But then I see something like Guy Deutscher’s NY Times Magazine article “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” and I find myself wondering if the standards of journalism are just too different from those of academics? There is nothing wrong with Deutscher’s article, which seems to be an excerpt from a longer book he is writing, it is just that it was all too familiar. That’s because I’d read it all before in Lera Boroditsky’s Edge.org article “How does Language Shape the Way We Think?” as well as her more recent WSJ piece, “Lost in Translation.”

I’m not saying Guy Deutscher plagiarized Lera Boroditsky’s work. What I’m saying is that if this was an academic publication he would have been expected to cite her, but because it is journalism there is no such expectation, and that bugs the hell out of me. Even blog posts are expected to link to sources. Perhaps he does cite her in his book, but again, my point is about the standards of the NY Times. Now it is possible that these are simply common stories told by people in the field, but I find it strange that Boroditsky’s isn’t even mentioned in this article. After all, Newsweek’s article on the topic focused on her research.

Perhaps I’m wrong about this, and even journalists would feel something is amiss here, but I suspect not. It seems quite normal when one newspaper writes a story for other newspapers to go out and find their own reporters to give them the same story, sometimes even interviewing the same sources. In fact, I’ve even been a victim of this. An Indian TV news station went out and remade a short documentary film of ours, but since it was all new footage and interviews, there wasn’t much we could do about it. Nor am I certain that I would expect anything else from journalists if I weren’t an academic. Still, it drives me crazy whenever I see this kind of thing, and so I thought I’d vent. Am I way off base here? Or does this kind of thing bother you as well?

Foreign Languages in Film

I wanted to share a link to this great video slide show over at Slate about how Hollywood represents foreign languages in film.

How to represent foreign speech? Many filmmakers are content to shoot against a painted backdrop, toss in a few bonjours, and call it France, while others go to great lengths to have characters look and speak as authentically as possible. There are no hard and fast rules, but it’s a tricky business—directors must balance the expectations of realism with ease of viewing. They want dialogue to be convincing, but they don’t want to alienate their audiences with accents or subtitles that aren’t essential to the story.

And if you enjoyed that you will probably also enjoy the discussion about “fake translations” which took place on the linguistic anthropology listserv. Over at the SLA blog (scroll down) Alexandre Enkerli took the time to embed all the videos from that discussion in a single post.

The Semiotics of Islamophobia

Via the PostSecret website, it is unclear whether the poster intentionally picked a photo of Sikhs or if this was unintentional irony. Not that the sentiment would have been any less offensive if the person wearing a turban was actually a Muslim. It certainly didn’t matter to the families of victims of post 9-11 hate crimes whether the victim was Muslim or not. I bring this up because William Dalrymple has an op-ed in the NY Times about the proposed Islamic center planned for lower Manhattan (for those living under a rock, see William Saletan’s piece in Slate for a good roundup of the issues surrounding the center):

The problem with such claims goes far beyond the fate of a mosque in downtown Manhattan. They show a dangerously inadequate understanding of the many divisions, complexities and nuances within the Islamic world — a failure that hugely hampers Western efforts to fight violent Islamic extremism and to reconcile Americans with peaceful adherents of the world’s second-largest religion. Most of us are perfectly capable of making distinctions within the Christian world. The fact that someone is a Boston Roman Catholic doesn’t mean he’s in league with Irish Republican Army bomb makers, just as not all Orthodox Christians have ties to Serbian war criminals or Southern Baptists to the murderers of abortion doctors. Yet many of our leaders have a tendency to see the Islamic world as a single, terrifying monolith.

Dalrymple’s main point is that the Sufis behind the Cordoba Initiative are themselves “infidel-loving, grave-worshiping apostate[s]” in the eyes of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. We’ve been here before:

In 2006, the investigative reporter Jeff Stein concluded a series of interviews with senior US counterterrorism officials by asking the same simple question: “Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shia?” He was startled by the responses. “One’s in one location, another’s in another location,” said Congressman Terry Everett, a member of the House intelligence committee, before conceding: “No, to be honest with you, I don’t know.” When Stein asked Congressman Silvestre Reyes, chair of the House intelligence committee, whether al-Qaeda was Sunni or Shia, he answered: “Predominantly – probably Shia.”

Clearly the United States would be better off if our leaders, journalists, and citizens knew a little more about Islam. But there are also some lessons here about the semiotics of racism which I would like to think offer some insights beyond the 24 hour news cycle.

A Liverpool working-class accent will strike a Chicagoan primarily as being British, a Glaswegian as being English, an English southerner as being northern, an English northerner as being Liverpudlian, and a Liverpudlian as being working class. The closer we get to home, the more refined are our perceptions.

The above quote is taken from a discussion in Asif Agha’s masterful book Language and Social Relations. Agha’s focus here is on the limits of of performativity. By pointing out that the hearer’s own prior socialization provides an important context for the successful performance of identity, Agha sets the stage for one of the book’s central themes: that identity is not only mediated by discourse, but also requires a process of negotiation between speaker and hearer—and that this process of negotiation can be transformative, changing the possible range of identity positions available to both parties as well as society at large.

I quite like Agha’s argument, and in chapter after chapter he makes a convincing case for it. Particularly interesting is his discussion of kinship terms, in which he shows how a mother might refer to her in-laws using terms which, taken literally, would place her in the role of her own child vis-a-vis her relatives, but are nonetheless lexically differentiated from the terms a child might use. In doing so she claims her rights as the mother of the child without reducing herself to the status of a child.

While the discussion of a Liverpool working-class accent shows that Agha is aware of the limits to such performativity, I would have liked to see more discussion about situations where one party refuses to negotiate. Agha’s approach to limits implies that performativity might fail because of one party’s lack of socialization, but what about if one party has a will to ignorance? I think such willful ignorance is behind much American confusion with regard to Muslims, and so I’m not sure how much use historical, ethnographic, or journalistic accounts of the various divisions within Islam can help.

It seems to me that part of the problem derives from the very idea of a “just war.” As Judith Butler argues, such a concept requires the “division of the globe into grievable and ungrievable lives from the perspective of those who wage war.” For some section of humanity to remain “ungrievable” requires a willful ignorance which refuses to engage in the kind of dialog which would allow for negotiated meanings to emerge. Thus, Islamophobia is in some ways a prerequisite for waging a global war on Terror, even as our leaders insist otherwise.

Raw and Cooked Facts in Wikileaks’ “Afghan War Diaries, 2004-2010”

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (where you probably don’t get WiFi and won’t be reading this), you’ve heard something about the release on Sunday of 92,000 primary documents culled from classified US military field reports from Afghanistan compiled by Wikileaks.org and given in advance to the New York Times , Der Spiegel, and The Guardian.

There is much think and say about this event and these documents. Apropos recent conversations at SM, I’d like to point out that there are probably better places to say some of these things.

One thing that strikes me as relevant for comment here is the way that ‘facticity’ and authority based in being there are at the heart of some discussions.

Take for example this interview from NPR’s All Things Considered between co-host Robert Segal and Wikileaks mastermind Julian Assange.

Here are the most relevant bits:

Julian Assange: The full story is only going to emerge over the coming weeks as that material is correlated to the witnesses who are on the ground, both the US soldiers and Afghanis

Robert Segal: [Challenging Assange’s comparison of The Afghan War Diaries to the Pentagon Papers] These are raw reports that are not confirmed and edited

JA: This material has its strength in that it is not an analysis, not written at the higher levels so it can be publicly massaged, it is in fact the raw facts of the war

RS: Some people would dispute your use of the word ‘facts,’ or indeed there might be something oxymoronic in ‘raw facts’

JA: The majority of reports are immediate reporting from the field from US military operations

What I see emerging here is an interesting conversation about textual authority, and one that resonates with our own disciplinary claims to authority based on ethnographic experience (see Clifford, Marcus, Gupta and Ferguson, etc. for some classic wailing on that old chestnut).

Assange begins by saying that these raw facts will only be fully cooked into a truthy pie once they are compared to the testimony of “witnesses who are on the ground.” And yet, when Segal notes the criticism that these raw facts are, in fact, too raw to be facts—that they need a little correlation before they can be safely consumed—Assange suggests that it is their very rawness that makes them good: Instead of truthy pie, he changes his order to sashimi.

The thing is, be they raw or cooked, pie or sashimi, these documents are not unadulterated. They are not like snapshots of the war, with all the claims to verisimilitude that visual medium implies (it’s worth mentioning that this connection between verisimilitude and the visual is also one way that witnessing stakes its authoritative claims). So, they are not like photographs. They are documents written within the generic constraints of military field reporting for a particular intended audience of surveilling authorities as official archival records.

Drop weapons are a concrete example of the things that are written out of these kinds of documents. Drop weapons are enemy weapons (like AK 47s) that US forces carry with them so that if they accidentally kill a civilian, they can ‘drop’ them by the body and have documentable proof that the civilian was actually an insurgent.

Drop weapons are useful because they alibi omissions (of the killing of civilians) from the After Action Report (AAR) which is part of the official record. But they are also useful because they enable the inscription of other things (the killing of insurgents) in the official record.

For a different and very interesting example directly from the Wikileaks docs, check out this corrective by Noah Shachtman, one of those on the ground witnesses.

The point is, however we choose to digest these documents, we need to consider them within the institutional and social context of their production, and whatever they are, they are not a diary.

Dell Hymes (1927-2009)

I woke up this morning to receive the following notice in my inbox:

Last Friday our distinguished colleague Dell Hymes passed away peacefully in his sleep.

It hasn’t yet been reported in the newspapers, but Jason Baird Jackson has a post speaking to Hymes’ contribution in the fields of anthropology and folklore:

Dell Hymes was a amazingly influential folklorist, anthropologist, and linguist who revolutionized the study of language in (/and) culture in general, and of Native American narrative traditions in particular. He made important contributions to the history of anthropology, to descriptive and theoretical linguistics, to sociolinguistics, to folkloristics, and to Native American studies. He essentially created the areas on inquiry known as (1) the ethnography of speaking and (2) ethnopoetics and he played a key role reshaping linguistic anthropology from the 1960s onward.

For those at the AAA in Philadelphia, there will be a memorial Saturday December 5, 2009 from 7:30-9:30 in Grand Ballroom III at the courtyard Marriott.