Glossing the Land


For those interested in my Cambridge seminar, part of the Twentieth Century and Contemporary Literature research seminar series at the English Faculty, I’ve uploaded all of the sound clips I used here for a second listening. Above is the massive, Tardis-like tree at Emmanuel College, which I lunched under just beforehand!

I’m currently working at edits on my thesis / monograph, but thought I’d quickly update on post-doctoral activities, including three of the conferences (images above). The Postcolonial Arctic conference based here at Leeds and run by the Arctic Encounters project included Michael Bravo’s brilliant keynote discussing ‘braided histories’ and the launch of the Pan-Inuit Atlas, now available online here. The conference has been tweeted about under the hashtag #postarctic. My own presentation, ‘A Lexicographical Winter Wonderland’ – powerpoint slides here – discussed a vital factor in what Bravo referred to as the “new cryopolitics”, and which can itself perhaps even be referred to by the word “cryolinguistics”: the social histories of language in sub-zero landscapes, from the levels of indigenous symbolism and local ice features (often seasonal), to terms dependent on international politics and global theories of movement and glacial drift. In Hanssen and Norberg’s 2009 issue of Northern Studies, Cold Matters: Cultural Perceptions of Snow, Ice, and Cold (2014), they introduce the renewed interest in the cultural meanings of cold in the fourth International Polar Year, saying “cold matters”. In Banerjee’s Arctic Voices (2012), the first sentence tells us that how we talk about the Arctic “matters”. Due to the Arctic’s role as the “proverbial canary in the coalmine of planetary health” (Scott Borgerson), its discourses and forms of narration – i.e. the problematic function of language itself in our constructions of the Arctic – is felt to be an issue in need of urgent debate: it has been a space of accused hoaxes, from climate hoaxes to vocabulary hoaxes (by which I mean the Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax).



Any study of the semiotic environment of ice and snow is working with the colonial framework of geologists, glaciologists, and early models of linguistic anthropology, notably Franz Boas’ 1894 lexicon The Eskimo Dialect of Cumberland Sound, from his work conversing, recording, and documenting vocabulary and grammar. The conference already included a number of papers touching on the “discursive cacophony” and definitional ambiguity of the Arctic. What does it mean for this space to be called a “Lexicographical winter wonderland”, in Geoffrey Pullum’s words from the famous Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax essay? Between local articulations – notably, Julie Cruikshank’s work on glaciers and climate change in oral history, Do Glaciers Listen – and the wider reception of climate change narratives, as in Michael Bravo’s ‘Voices from the Sea Ice’ – there is a climactic need to decipher the ongoing changes in the “Arctic ice puzzle”. Why do we need to pay attention to how ice is mediatized, with the Arctic sea-ice having reached record lows, as well as to how it has taken a role in wider Western symbolisms? And how does global governance discourse – which calls for more international convergence in actions and therefore has to find a way to make that linguistically feasible – deal with the quixotic nature of those language projects in particular environments, particularly those which have a cultural history of being seen as the site of language problems due to their cultural complexities, as well as the vagaries of their geography, as with the shifting landscapes of ice land-marks (or sea-marks) and their changing conditions of weather? John Moss in his book Enduring Dreams describes the Arctic as a “landscape ineffable”, so how does this counter with the desire to make effable and usable languages through the device of naming by proper and individual nouns?

Before discussing the literary texts – which included, for instance, Corbel Stone Press’s Across the Inland Ice (2013), a sequence of found poems assembled from the 1917 notes of ethnologist Knud Rasmussen, Paul Celan’s neologisms and portmanteau terms in Schneepart (Snow Part), and the poet Tom Lowenstein’s texts and research on the terms of Inuit sea-ice subsistence hunting – I wanted to present some of the language projects by Igor Krupnik and others. In October 2012, the Arctic Studies Center (ASC) released its new heritage publication, Kingikmi Sigum Qanuq Ilitaavut – Wales Inupiaq Sea Ice Dictionary, an illustrated bilingual catalogue of traditional Inupiat knowledge about sea ice and change in the North Alaska-Bering Strait region. The 112-page ‘dictionary’ is a product of a four-year partnership of a small team of indigenous Elders, language experts, and scientists. Currently renewed political and economical scrambles for the Arctic have reinforced research energies around projects including ISIUOP – the Inuit Sea Ice and Occupancy Project – and SIKU – Sea Ice Knowledge and Use, published here as Knowing Our Ice. Altogether, a database of 35 indigenous ice nomenclatures from the Bering Sea to East Greenland has been created, displaying the richness of over 1,500 terms for sea ice in all Inuit/Eskimo languages and most regional dialects, as well as in other indigenous northern languages. But in climate change and generational cultural change, this language environment is doubly threatened with ice loss and with language loss. Some of the contextual materials I considered (see slides) therefore had an interesting overlap with the conference’s exhibition of Nancy Campbell’s small press work on Arctic languages and alphabets and their linguistic denouement, associated with the disappearance of the ice:

Coincidentally, my trip of the same month to present at the EASLCE / NIES (European Association for the Study of Literature, Culture and the Environment / Nordic Network for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies) joint conference Framing Nature: Signs, Stories, and Ecologies of Meaning in Tartu, Estonia included a field trip to the Ice Age Museum on Lake Saadjärv. Here, one installation shows the morpheme stock of ice-related words nationality by nationality, again playing with the famed trope of the semantic fracturing of ice and snow (like a fractured ice cube, below). The speakers in the picture were playing recordings of people saying the terms in different languages, dialects, and accents; this really does seem to confirm the trope of the Arctic tundra as a space of “Babelization”, in Umberto Eco’s terms.

The divided representations of the cryosphere as a space of linguistic paralysis or of linguistic excess is something which Frederick Bogger treats in his article on the cliché of the silent Arctic, balancing Eurocentric monologic narratives (of the linguistic accession of silent land) with texts that, through polyphonic and heteroglossic citation practices, draw attention to the inconsonance of words in a way which directly conflicts with a global standard language’s vision of “interoperability”. In the European imagination, the Arctic tundra has thus been troped as a pristine environment which seems to have the opposite of a pristine language. In fact, as below, ice and snow have been also troped as agents of semantic otherness – i.e. as themselves symbols of translation.

Rosetta Stone 1_0

This is an advert for language learning software which I saw on the tube trains around last Christmas. That’s the song “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow” with “snow” translated into German, Dutch, and Swedish. This both shows the use of snow as an image of translation – a sort of semantic blizzard – but, also, the attempt to shoehorn one language’s words into another language’s constructions, through its peculiar use of the imperatives and jussives: i.e., it is incorrect – here, they’ve taken the noun form of snow in all three languages, rather than the verb, making no sense.

The history of international glossaries of snow and ice which my paper tracked can be followed through into modern online databases such as the navy’s Arctic Forecaster’s Handbook and the National Snow and Ice Data Center’s Sea Ice Glossary, which also offers an odd visual image of the mercurial semantic qualities of snow and ice. In this case, it is offered by a banner showing fridge magnets in a jumble of different sea ice related lexemes:


Against the trope of snow and ice as the abstract and illegible “field of whiteness”, to co-opt Kathryn Yusoff’s phrase – indeed, as an image of the abstract par excellence – are these opposed images of conflicting, excessively particularised types of snow and ice, as drawn on by Stephen Pyne and Barry Lopez in their use of (sometimes italicised) terminologies in their writing (see slides fifteen and sixteen).

My paper tackled some of these imaginary histories, alongside the environmental histories associated with “glossing” the ice and snow, including the polyglot text of the Illustrated Glossary of Snow and Ice (Scott Polar Research Institute, 1966). This eight language “linguistic smorgasboard”, bringing together eight languages of international governance in the Arctic, is one part of the modern move to pasigraphies and international auxiliary languages (as accounted for by Eco); I tracked the history of this rather idiosyncratic publication into contemporary standardisation theory. Robin Boast et. al writing on the standardisation movement do actually take their examples from indigenous Arctic peoples, analysing the capacity of new digital platforms for indigenous interactivity, including with these terminologies; this all comes back round again to the launch of the Pan-Inuit Atlas and the digital access to ‘braided histories’ with which the conference began.

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The Framing Nature conference was another one with a small press exhibition – the above collection of Estonian Nature Writing, collected at the University of Tartu. Below are the EASLCE delegates on a boat on the trip across Lake Saadjärv by the Ice Age Museum.



The other conference exhibition was The Power of the Sea at the Royal West of England Academy, images below – attached to the conference British Waters and Beyond at which I presented, which had a fantastic key note by John Mack (author of The Sea: A Cultural History). This was a collaboration between Leeds Metropolitan University, Oxford Brookes University, and Nautilus International, the union for maritime professionals. Bristol is also the base for the Perspective from the Sea research group, who shortly after this ran their round table Crossing the Line: Ritual and Superstition at Sea on board the SS Great Britain.


Aside from the above, a few events have been happening at Leeds – the Environmental Humanities workshop; the Cultural Values? workshop, at which I talked about W. H. Auden’s line “A culture is no greater than its woods”; and the forthcoming Impact Workshop and AHRC conference The Art of Risk supported by the Cultural and Creative Industries Exchange. I am currently in the early stages of planning a conference along a similar model (hopefully also with some overlap with the CCIE), to be called Hearts of Oak: Competing Cultures of British Woodland – watch this space for CFP and calls out.

A couple of new projects which may be of interest: the Museum of Water is currently in residence at Somerset House, and the attached research events at Kings College included some exciting curating in the geography and literature departments. Dominick Tyler has just launched The Land Reader, a British glossary. And I’m currently reading the two new publications below – one, Jody Gladding’s “translations”  from bark beetle fragments (‘the two verb tenses are the cyclical & the radiant’), and two, this small press posted collection of cards & essays on Old Norse aesc, runic ‘ash-play’, oak galls and John Cage’s Child of Tree. Even the envelope was beautiful: that’s the classification for willow oak.

Finally, on other writing: I’ve recently published a couple of texts from ongoing work on textual memory, with three available online at Infinite Editions here, one online at Intercapillary Space here, and a longer poem forthcoming in the next issue of the OUP journal English. I also recently read a new work in progress, an erasure of Gallic film subtitles, alongside Joe Luna, Ollie Evans and Press Free Press in the Literary Kitchen festival in south London, organised by Polyply and the Poetics Research Centre; for those interested, this piece is slated for publication in the next Cordite Poetry Review.



~ by amycutler on June 24, 2014.

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