Recognizing Authority and Respecting Expertise in Language Work

by Mark Turin

Dec 13, 2021

How do we recognize the people who teach us their languages and contribute to our linguistic understandings? What do changing naming practices reveal about subtle ethical shifts in scholarship towards more inclusive and collaborative practice? In the first wave of anthropological interest in Indigenous languages and their speakers, the identity of all but the most charismatic local research participants—then variously referred to as informants (Turin 2011), consultants (Everett 2001), subjects (Long 1983, 131), and even objects (see Coulmas 1981, 1)—were usually elided and overwritten, positioning the outside researcher as the singular analytical authority and ultimate knowledge holder on all questions relating to the language. This form of extractive language work—on languages rather than with speakers—reaffirmed the power of the scholar-linguist, advanced his (sometimes, although rarely, her) career, and resulted in various forms of intellectual alienation and practical de-naming for communities looking to reclaim their languages.

The name of the scholar-linguist still commonly adorns the cover of grammars and dictionaries. From this, future generations of community members and students receive coded pointers about where the authority lies in the resolution of linguistics disputes and in shaping further language development. While community members are increasingly being appreciated as linguistic researchers and language experts in their own right (Czaykowska-Higgins 2009), this recognition is too little and too late for some. In the Pacific Northwest, I have heard many community language workers resent having to cite outside scholars who worked with their relatives rather than the relatives themselves who taught the linguist their language. As linguist Keren Rice writes, “those who participate in such a work often do so with pride in their command of their language and may wish to be known for their contributions. Not to disclose their names would do them a disservice” (2006, 135). The field as a whole is moving to a place where linguistic analysis and insights are increasingly co-produced, co-authored, and co-created with research participants (Gerdts 2017).

In this essay, I explore how anthropologists who work with language talk about, refer to, and acknowledge the people with whom they work and from whom they have learned the languages they are documenting and analyzing. While many linguistic anthropologists do make use of pseudonyms, this has the potential to be antithetical to the clearly articulated needs of historically marginalized and Indigenous communities who wish for recognition and visibility as named individuals with agency, domain-specific knowledge, and unique expertise (Turin 2012). Masking the identity of research participants is often tied to questions of authorship, recognition, visibility, and respect. Human development researcher Michelle Brear makes this point forcefully:

“The expectation that pseudonyms will be used and the assumption that using them will always protect participants, is increasingly problematized. In post-colonial contexts where this history of exploitation continues to influence people’s lived experiences, participants may be more concerned about receiving recognition for the knowledge they contribute to research, than having their privacy protected …Using pseudonyms may undermine the human right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to impart information and ideas … This right is denied when a named author/s ‘writes up’ and attributes another’s ideas to a pseudonym because it shifts ownership of and recognition for the ideas to the author” (2018, 723).

In the fast growing subfield of anthropology focused on language reclamation, language revitalization, and Indigenous sovereignty, Indigenous speech communities are moving from positions of structural invisibility to sites of co-authorship and co-creation, and in this renaming process, often bypassing altogether a stage in which they are referred to with pseudonyms. This reorientation is certainly not teleological, linear, or in any way inevitable, and many committed anthropologists of language continue to use pseudonyms deliberately and intentionally to preserve the confidence of their research partners and not expose them to potential risks or harms (see Debenport 2010, 235). Both how anthropologists collect the information that becomes their “data” and what they do with it once they have it vary widely across the discipline.

Cultural anthropologists gather quite different forms of data to those collected by linguistic anthropologists, with distinct expectations around data reuse and portability. Socio-cultural anthropologists publish their analyses, but usually keep their fieldnotes under lock and key until they retire or die. Such an approach can defer responsibility, subcontracting the anxiety of puzzling out what—if anything—can and should be done with their original observations to their descendants, their former students, archivists, or to members of the communities with whom they worked (Leopold 2008). By contrast, linguistic anthropologists increasingly disseminate at least some elements of their primary data alongside their interpretations of this data, although they often do so in formats that are difficult for non-experts to navigate (Bowern 2015). The data sets that ethnographers of language use to generate their analyses include corpora, archives, lexical collections, and audio elicitations (Thieberger and Berez 2011). Since the early 2000s, language scholars increasingly anticipate that at least some of their original fieldwork data will be partially “open” and freely accessible to others to review, manipulate, and reuse (Sharoff 2006), an expectation that is increasingly baked into funding mandates and granting agencies.

Remember Your Teachings and Remember Your Teacher’s Name

Names are powerful things. They should not be overwritten or rendered invisible without careful thought and considerable consultation. In some cases, de-naming through the application of pseudonyms—irrespective of the ethical intent behind it—is simply not the right thing to do. As my colleague hagwil hayetsk (Charles R. Menzies) writes, underscoring the powerful connection between naming and sovereignty and the lasting legacy of colonial structures, the “names of individuals and peoples, places, and regions are decisive political interventions. …. Names root people and places in history and determine who can govern” (2016, 151). And, as Ruth E. S. Allen and Janine L. Wiles note, the common practice of allocating pseudonyms has affective as well as functional impacts: conferring anonymity “is not merely a technical procedure but has psychological meaning to both the participants and the content and process of the research” (2016, 149).

It is notable that in much language research involving larger datasets, the specific names and identities of individuals involved in the research still remain entirely absent. Research participants in developmental, theoretical, experimental, and computational linguistics, for example, are usually referred to with numbers or codes, reflecting the norms of the field, the challenges involved in processing large data sets and very difficult expectations around relationships, knowledge generation, and responsibility (De Costa et al. 2021).

The cover of the 2019 Ngarinyman to English Dictionary identifies four “compilers” and twenty-three “contributors,” twelve of whom were already deceased at the time of publication.

In dictionaries, for example, speakers are intentionally effaced. Users of majority language dictionaries are offered rich historical and even comparative details about specific words and first use. However, lexicographers generally do not consider the identity of the speaker or writer salient information for the end user, even if they maintain this information in a digital record in the editorial database. On the other hand, language researchers working with smaller and deeper datasets may identify individual participants by their full names, with nicknames, or with their initials, but most often not through the use of pseudonyms.

Scholars from different linguistic subdisciplines approach these entanglements from very distinct subject positions. One key difference is with whom the decision lies about whether or not to use pseudonyms, and if so, how these should be allocated. Addressing the ethical dilemmas he faced regarding naming research participants, sociolinguist Stephen L. Mann explains how “all of the focus group participants and nearly half of the interview participants told me that I did not need to use a pseudonym; instead, they preferred that I use their real names, because they were so personally invested in the stories they were telling” (2017, 54). Nevertheless, Mann continues to use pseudonyms in his research and writing, placing anonymity of his participants above their own wishes for visibility. By contrast, Yakama scholar Michelle M. Jacob honored the decision of her research participants: “during the informed consent process, each participant was offered anonymity and the use of a pseudonym, but all participants chose to have their real names used in this study” (2013, 15). Keely Ten Fingers describes how in a study of human-nature relations, land-making, and wellness among Indigenous youth in a Canadian urban context, Hatala et al. (2019), make creative use of “Cree pseudonyms (names for animals and birds and thunderbird) … to refer to participants” (2020, 77), a way of both Indigenizing a rather sterile process and at once masking the identities of the research participants.

Protection can be a serious issue, including in times when pseudonyms are not possible or do not make sense. I have grappled with the question of how to credit community members in my own work. In 2004, I was asked by research partners in Nepal to assume authorship, and thereby, responsibility, for a short, trilingual dictionary of the Thangmi (also known as Thami) language. As the first ever lexical compilation of this under-documented Tibeto-Burman language, the publication was expected to be politically inflammatory and polarizing. Thangmi community researchers, with whom I had been collaboratively working since 1996, were at once eager to see the lexical collection in print and yet concerned about the potential of negative fallout and socio-political repercussions.

The cover of the 2004 trilingual Nepali-Thami-English Dictionary reflects an emerging understanding of authorship as responsibility rather than simply authority, made tangible through terms such as “by” and “with.”

Community members anticipated—quite rightly, it turned out—that in response to the publication, there would be much public discussion (at times quite heated) about which (head)words had been included, which orthography had been used, and which of the various regional variations and dialects had received most attention. The emerging language authority proposed a compromise: I, the outside linguist, would assume primary authorship while Bir Bahadur Thami—a highly respected Indigenous intellectual in his own right and my longtime research partner and language teacher—would be listed on the cover under the intentionally vague byline “with.” This subdominant billing would both acknowledge Bir Bahadur’s central involvement and investment in the project but also insulate him somewhat from the expected fallout. In cases like these, authorship and visibility are less about authority and more about responsibility (Sear and Turin 2021). The protection that members of the Thangmi community desired was not intended to obscure their contributions and expertise, but rather to establish chains of accountability and liability in the event of negative consequences.


Indigenous language research increasingly engages with ethical principles—such as those powerfully articulated in OCAP (ownership, control, access, and possession)—in which the explicit naming, recognizing, and uplifting of Elders and community knowledge holders are fundamental protocols of research (Lyall et al. 2019). As I have outlined in this essay, pseudonyms can serve to further conceal voices that are already marginalized, perpetuating colonial or neocolonial models of expertise (Merolla et al. 2021). This is no new realization. Writing more than 30 years ago, Kay B. Warren found herself “caught in the dilemma of using pseudonyms, and thus not being able to recognize fully the Maya contribution to my work” (1998, xxi).

When working in partnership with Indigenous communities, describing salient information as “I heard that” or “I was told that” is woefully insufficient. As outside researchers, we are privileged witnesses of language transmission and profound cultural teachings, and we must continue working to reorient our approach to giving credit in academic publications. With that, it becomes our intellectual and ethical responsibility to remember the names and lineages of those individuals from whom we have had the privilege to learn. One result of this realignment is that the full names or abbreviated initials of community language partners now regularly appear next to lexical entries in recent dictionaries of Indigenous languages (see Montler 2018). The same names can be found in the metadata attached to audio files in newer digital language archives and on the front covers of books and journal articles where Indigenous language researchers are appropriately—and finally—credited as co-creators (see Yanyuwa Families and Bradley 2017; Jones et al. 2019; Headman and O’Neill 2019).

Anthropologists of language are in period of intense self-reflection, and we need to develop new modalities and representational tools to more accurately reflect labor, knowledge, and skill. While it is “a fundamental principle of research to acknowledge the sources of information and those who have contributed to the research” (Boruah 2018, 62), simple acknowledgement is not enough, and our scholarly community needs to find better ways to recognize expertise beyond the academy. Given the extensive work, commitment, and knowledge that goes into language work—both by community members who worked directly with linguistic anthropologists and from the knowledge holders from whom they learned—de-naming through the use of pseudonyms is often no longer an option.

Acknowledgements: While brief, this essay has been much improved by generative feedback which I have been fortunate to receive from a number of colleagues. I am particularly grateful to Carole McGranahan and Erica Weiss—the editors of this collection—for offering a unique combination of high-level structural recommendations alongside very specific suggestions for ways to strengthen my argument. In addition, and as always, my thanks to Sara Shneiderman for her generous and constructive comments on an early draft. All remaining errors and misrepresentations are my responsibility.


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Cite as: Turin, Mark. 2021. “Recognizing Authority and Respecting Expertise in Language Work.” In “Rethinking Pseudonyms in Ethnography,” edited by Carole McGranahan and Erica Weiss, American Ethnologist website, 13 December 2021,

Mark Turin is an Associate Professor cross-appointed in the Department of Anthropology and the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. He writes and teaches on language reclamation, revitalization, documentation and conservation; language mapping, policies, politics and language rights; orality, archives, digital tools and technology.