Anthropology and Environment Society
Oral Presentation Session
The Chinese state has long targeted nomadic pastoralism as a primitive mode of subsistence that needs to be eradicated. The present paper investigates how Kazak herders in the Chinese Altai use linguistic resources to keep nomadic pastoralism sustainable. This is most apparent in the emergence of “Mock Chinese” as a joking register among herding partners. The redistribution of pastures to individual families in the mid-1980s resulted in the fragmentation of grasslands, which drastically increased grazing pressures and exacerbated grassland degradation. The absence of an overarching structure (such as the clan or the commune) to organize herding families into larger groups led Kazak herders to resort to affinal joking relations (especially between a woman’s younger brother and her husband), as well as fictive joking relations, to forge new herding partnerships across exogamous patrilineal clans, ultimately reorganizing their access to pastureland along more efficacious lines. One of the linguistic innovations conducive to this process is the introduction of Mock Chinese, in which Kazak speakers deploy words and grammatical patterns from Mandarin Chinese – a language they regard as especially suitable for establishing joking relations due to its perceived resemblance to Kazak baby talk (as opposed to proper honorific speech). Providing a semiotic account of the emergence of a joking register stereotypically associated with disrespect and childishness, this paper demonstrates the transformative role of speech in improving the ways in which people exploit their land.