“Speaking with Names”: Language and Landscape among the Western Apache

Essay Excerpt

Because of their inseparable connection to specific localities, placenames may be used to summon forth an enormous range of mental and emotional associations-associations of time and space, of history and events, of persons and social activities, of oneself and stages in one's life. And in their capacity to evoke, in their compact power to muster and consolidate so much of what a landscape may be taken to represent in both personal and cultural terms, placenames acquire a functional value that easily matches their utility as instruments of reference. Most notably, as T. S. Eliot (1932) and Seamus Heany (1980) have remarked, placenames provide materials for resonating ellipsis, for speaking and writing in potent shorthand, for communicating much while saying very little. Poets and song writers have long understood that economy of expression may enhance the quality and force of aesthetic discourse, and that placenames stand ready to be exploited for this purpose. Linguists and anthropologists would do well to understand that in many communities similar considerations may influence common forms of spoken interaction, and that, in this arena too, placenames may occupy a privileged position. For these and other reasons, an ethnographic approach to the activity of placenaming seems well worth pursuing. The present essay, which now takes a sharp ethnographic turn, is offered as an illustration of where such an approach may lead, and why, beyond the illumination of specific cases, it may also shed light on matters of general interest. (Basso, 103)

About the Author

Keith H. Basso is a cultural and linguistic anthropologist noted for his study of the Western Apaches (specifically those from the community ofCibecue, Arizona) since 1959. He currently teaches anthropology at the University of New Mexico. He is the son of novelist Hamilton Basso.Basso was awarded the Victor Turner Prize for Ethnographic Writing in 1997 for his ethnography, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. The work was also the 1996 Western States Book Award Winner in Creative Nonfiction.

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