What is language in the human imagination? How do different intellectual traditions make sense of and compare between linguistic forms? In this panel, we are interested in empirically exploring the ontological variation of language, multiplying the possibilities of what language(s) could be.
What is language in the human imagination? In the Western intellectual tradition, language emerged as autonomous, representational system of denotational code, a foundational pillar of the modern constitution. It mediated the ontological separation of nature and society/culture (Latour 1991; Descola 2005), and became a tool for describing linguistic variation, while at the same time serving as yardstick for its evaluation (Bauman & Briggs 2003). Ethnographies from across the world have provided evidence of alternative ontologies (Viveiros de Castro 1998), as well as documented language practices that defy the privileging of symbolic, denotational, or referential aspects of language (e.g., Feld 1982; Kohn 2013). They challenge its separation from the realms of practice, the body, the nonhuman, and the material, as well as the universality of an all-encompassing "nature of language" underlying variation. If the latter is an artifact of the Western imaginary, then how do other intellectual traditions make sense of language and compare or translate between linguistic forms? To address this conference theme's call for "new comparative approaches for the study of radical variation," we invite contributions to mobilize local imaginings of language from anywhere in the world, whether explicitly articulated or embedded in practices. Papers may discuss daily conversations, speech, play, verbal art, mythology, music, and non-verbal or material forms of communication. Instead of looking at cultural representations of a unified, pre-conceived notion of language we are interested in empirically exploring the ontological variation of language, multiplying the possibilities of what language(s) could be.