REEEC Noontime Scholars Lecture: Lydia Catedral, “‘I just say Russian’: Speaking Russian and claiming Russianness among Uzbeks in the United States”

Lydia Catedral giving her REEEC Noontime Scholars Lecture

On April 25, 2017, Lydia Catedral (PhD Candidate in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Illinois) gave a REEEC Noontime Scholars Lecture entitled “‘I just say Russian’: Speaking Russian and claiming Russianness among Uzbeks in the United States.”

Catedral began by defining some relevant terms from sociolinguistics. After distinguishing between referential and non-referential meaning, the latter denoting meaning conveyed through aspects of language other than the semantic content of words (e.g. intonation’s capacity to provide information on the speaker’s attitude toward what they are saying), Catedral invoked Michael Silverstein’s work on non-referential indexicality (itself indebted to Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotic theory) to discuss what the use of the Russian language “points to” in the social world of Uzbeks living in the United States. Using Penelope Eckert’s notion of the “indexical field”—a “field of potential meanings… or constellation of ideologically related meanings” in which “variation constitutes an indexical system that embeds ideology in language”—Catedral asked, “How do global and transnational movements of Uzbeks to the United States reorder or shift the indexical field of Russian language and identity?”

Catedral also gave an overview of the “indexicalities” of Russian in Uzbekistan and Central Asia. She noted a “strong association of Russian language with Soviet rule,” the connection between Uzbek nationalism and de-russification efforts (e.g. changing from a Cyrillic to a Latin alphabet), the “dichotomy between Russian ethnic identity and Uzbek ethnic identities,” and the Russian language’s status as the language of technology and the internet and a “language of status” (it is considered an international language and “prized in education”) in Central Asia.

Catedral citied an open letter from the president of an Uzbek community organization in the Midwest which distinguishes between three types of Uzbeks living in America: those who “make an effort to preserve Uzbekness (language, religion, and culture),” those who have converted to Christianity (“They say they are especially in California”), and “atheists” who teach their children Russian “like the Uzbeks in the former communist era,” (“For them… the mother tongue is not very necessary”). Catedral observed that the writer aligns himself with the first type and distances himself from the other two, both spatio-temporally (California, the communist era) and linguistically (“they”/”them”). In this context, the Uzbek language is connected to religious and cultural identity, and Russian is indexical of the failure to maintain Uzbekness.

In a conversation with two sisters about their wish for one of their daughters to maintain Uzbekness and Uzbek morality (e.g. “no short skirts or drinking”), Catedral found that they still relied on the dichotomy between Russianness and Uzbekness, but that it had “migrated into the American context as a way of not letting your kids assimilate into the American culture… ‘Russian’ acts as a stand-in for everything else you might not want to be.” However, Catedral noted that Russianness can also serve as a “momentary substitute” for Uzbekness, a product of misrecognition on the part of Americans. Such stories indicate that the issue is “a lack of knowledge on the part of non-Uzbeks, or people in the U.S. [It’s] not a problem with our own ethnic identification, but with how Americans don’t understand.” Another relevant concern for Uzbeks in the U.S. is the desire to present themselves as the “good kind of immigrant”: “Nobody wants to be from Pakistan,” which has to do with “concerns about Islamophobia” and “issues of race”—not wanting to be identified as Pakistanis, a lot of Uzbeks just say “Russian.”

Catedral also noted the sense that Russian was “insufficiently global,” contrary to the perception of Russian as an international language in Central Asia. One of her interviewees spoke of visiting Uzbekistan and noticing that her friends spoke in Russian to show how “international” they were (“They try to speak in Russian and they feel themselves to be just like on a Europeanized level”)—for her, speaking Russian to indicate internationalism was instead an index of provincialism.

Catedral concluded by asserting that these indexicalities of Russian and Russianness among Uzbeks in the U.S.—“Not maintaining Uzbekness,” “Uzbek immigrant identity as represented to Americans,” and “A local (and dispreferred) way of attempting to be global”—are fluid, and “the most salient ones depend on the interactional context.” Furthermore, she argued that the fact of transnational mobility results in a broader number of possible meanings in the indexical field of Russian and Russianness. In highlighting the interaction between Uzbek and Russian language and identity in the United States, Catedral’s research “has implications for understanding post-Soviet people as global subjects, and for uncovering the shifting meanings of Russian across varying transnational contexts.”

Matthew McWilliams is a REEES M.A. student and a FLAS Fellow for the 2016-2017 academic year for the study of Russian.