Saying No: A Quick Linguistic Take

In observing the last several months of public discourse about sexual violence in the wake of the allegations against several powerful Hollywood men, I am both heartened and incredibly frustrated by the way this conversation is happening. It is, for me, positive to see the spaces being created for people to articulate the big and small ramifications of male dominance, rape culture, and gendered economic inequality. The structure of sexual violence is not one in which every attack is equally vicious or harmful, it is one in which there are thousands of constant paper cuts coexisting with just-say-nolife-threatening stab wounds. It is a world where the ability to say ‘no’ to powerful men is undermined not just through their use of physical force or economic coercion, but also through repeated, minor dismissals of our wishes, our pleasure, our consent.

Fast forward to this week, when a woman using the pseudonym Grace came forward with a story about a “bad date” with comedian Aziz Ansari. This story has quickly become the most hotly debated sexual encounter of 2018, as countless people are writing think-pieces about the nature of consent, digging in to the details of the interaction as Grace describes it, considering Ansari’s apology, and offering their conclusions about whether this was criminal, whether it was simply terrible, or whether Grace is just completely over-reacting. Here are a handful of the more well-done pieces on the topic:

But then there is a piece in the New York (won’t link it, sorrynotsorry) entitled “Aziz Ansari is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind-Reader”, and plenty of people are on board with that basic notion.

Here’s the thing – sexual encounters are communicative encounters, and the giving of consent is a socially rooted linguistic/communicative act. The debate about this encounter is fundamentally one about how language, meaning, and understanding work. An important ideological position is being staked out in the NYT article, and it’s one that articulates concepts ‘consent’ and ‘intent’ as properties within the various parties’ minds. Since that is their locus, we cannot possibly access through observation of their actions. How was Ansari supposed to recognize her lack of consent, the reasoning goes, if her communication was only nonverbal, if she was merely hesitating rather than outright shouting, if she didn’t get around to saying ‘no’ until after several rounds of deflection?

However, as all of the sociolinguists and linguistic anthropologists I follow on social media have been observing, this interaction reflects very common patterns used in communicating refusals. Conversation analysts Celia Kitzinger and Hannah Frith published an excellent article on this way back in 1999. Kitzinger and Frith illustrate the way that politeness expectations dictate our expression of refusal, and note that we are very strongly socialized against giving a hard no – and further, that men and women alike are, in general, perfectly capable of recognizing refusals that are communicated through deflection, hesitation, subject changes, and mitigation. We generally don’t even imagine that people wouldn’t be able to see this…except when the interaction in question is one of the most intimate possible.

Think of the last time someone invited you to do something you really didn’t want to do. Did you say “NO!” and run in the opposite direction? Or did you say “I’m busy that night”? Or maybe you gave an explanation, like “I actually really hate mountain climbing, but thanks for the invite!” What if someone offers you a taste of food that they clearly love, but you think looks like warmed up snotballs? Do you say “OH HELL NO”? Or do you hesitate, move your face away, give a bit of a grimace, and shake your head?It’s true, maybe your answer to these questions is that you jump straight to the no. And it’s worth thinking about what makes you able to do that – if you’re in a power position, it’s somewhat easier to say “no” directly, than if you’re not. If you ask your boss for a raise, they have more ability (and actual training, in many cases) to say “absolutely not” in a direct way than you have if said boss comes to you and asks you if you can take on an additional work task. So you can also think about the last time you invited someone over for a party – if their answer was ‘maybe’, you were probably considering any number of other aspects of how they said it (intonation, eye gaze, posture, other added comments) in figuring out whether they meant “I really want to but I have to check my work schedule” or “Don’t actually count on it”.

My point here is, there is empirical linguistic evidence about how refusals work in a number of different contexts, and there is additional empirical anthropological work examining how meta-discourses about our ability to interpret different forms of communication can either reproduce or reconfigure relations of social power. My frustration, then, is twofold: first, that these powerful and dangerous ideologies about consent and its elusive, gray nature are still circulating in high-profile contexts as well as in general discourse, and second, that I have seen almost no engagement with work on the linguistics of refusal and consent in any of the discussions. This is an area where our expertise is highly relevant and easily accessible (in the sense that the information presented is generally not hidden behind jargon and complex social theory), so it’s frustrating to see journalistic commentary fail to use the evidence provided to support the arguments they are making. I know linguists and linguistic anthropologists are making these points on their blogs and social media feeds, but they don’t seem (to me) to be cracking the mainstream discourse.

There’s more to unpack here about, again, the recognition of expertise and validation of different forms of empirical research, which I’ll just file away as a side point. For now, I’ll sum up – refusals are always complex linguistic acts, and we use a ton of contextual cues to identify them, because they’re a highly socially regulated territory. This doesn’t mean consent falls into so-called ‘gray areas’ or that we require mind-reading abilities to identify anything other than a direct ‘no’. It means we have a ton of skills around this, the evidence from linguistic research demonstrates our ability to navigate these acts, and we need to think about claims not to recognize refusals in sexual encounters as deliberate acts that go against all social training, rather than as accidents and natural misinterpretations.


Do Better CBC! Thoughts on “Ice Bridge”


Dammit CBC! You are better than this ffs.

Ok so I’m not the first anthropologist/archaeologist/geneticist/scientist to write about this extremely problematic episode of The Nature of Things but I do want to use this platform to reinforce some key critiques, elevate some important voices, and to SHAME CBC (and all media outlets producing pseudoscience especially pseudoarchaeology) into doing better.

A disclaimer: I didn’t watch it. I probably won’t. I can forgive shows that are meant to be entertaining (though this previous post demonstrates that my leniency towards misrepresentation of science is limited) but I cannot forgive shows that intentionally disregard critiques and concerns of the scientists they are engaging as experts and distort evidence to fit failed, problematic, racist, colonial ideas, and theories.

Here is a brief summary of some excellent critiques and discussions:

  • This excellent article captures not just the problem of poor representation of Indigenous perspectives, which are diverse and not singular, but also how this model and narrative of the past is used to “de-legitimize Native Americans’ connections to their own history”.

  • This twitter thread by one of the experts CBC used for this documentary, Dr. Jennifer Raff, and this blog post outline the evidence (archaeological, genetic) that overwhelmingly disproves the main arguments used to support the model.

  • Other archaeologists tweeted about issues relating to problems with giving outdated, pseudoscientific theories authority, and highlighted the colonial history and contemporary racist uses of this model:

During my first year at MacEwan I did have a student who did an independent research project on the Solutrean Hypothesis. They were very interested in why this hypothesis was usually only briefly mentioned as a disproved hypothesis and glossed over, so they approached me about looking more in-depth at the theory and the data used in support and against it. I said sure and they produced a solid poster about it with columns showing the evidence and arguments used in support and against it, and in which they rightfully concluded that it is not a well supported theory. But in retrospect I failed this student. I didn’t engage them in the broader historic and contemporary context of this theory; I didn’t challenge them to consider how it is used to reinforce colonial, racist narratives of the past. So assisting them in seeking out and critically examine evidence and arguments, and to come to a conclusion on their own is not a failure but I could have done better too.

So if I can see the need, the importance, the requirement to do better, surely the CBC can too.

Literal Nonsense

In recent years, several groups in Eastern Canada, and especially Quebec, have been pushing for recognition as “Métis”, or otherwise Indigenous. Their claims rest on a number of ideas that are, at best, dubious, and that ultimately function to undermine, erode, and erase Indigenous rights and identities. Excellent work outlining both the ideology of “métissage” that they invoke and the anti-Indigenous ways in which they function has been published by scholars like Chris Andersen, Adam Gaudry, and Daryl Leroux (academic book by the former here, excellent and easily accessible article by the latter two here). As these authors illustrate, these “self-Indigenization” strategies ultimately support the agenda of a settler colonial state in which “Indigeneity” is a meaningless concept.

I have little to add to the work that these scholars have done on the historical and political complexities of these claims and their implications for Indigenous (and particularly Métis) people, but I do want to say a bit about the ways in which words and meaning are invoked in this discussion.

It was through Leroux’s Twitter feed that this (especially heinous) example came to my attention. In this case, the leader of a white supremacist organization claims the label of “autochtone” (translated as “Aboriginal”) for himself because all it takes, in the “literal sense of the word”, is for you, personally, to have been born in the territory you wish to claim. This is, as Leroux and others make clear, a way of directly undermining the rights of Indigenous nations by rendering “autochtony” or Aboriginality something that essentially anyone can have access to. This also occurs through efforts to “prove” a shallow time depth for Indigenous presence in the Americas, a topic that Dr. Biittner dives into from the archaeological perspective in this post, and through discourses that situate Indigenous people as “just earlier settlers” in order to invalidate their positions.

In addition to dubious grasp of politics and history that these claims represent, they also draw on a view of language and meaning that is both flimsy and incredibly common in mainstream North American contexts – the idea that meaning is best determined by examining origins, etymology, and the breakdown of components of a word. Jane Hill refers to this as a “baptismal ideology” and shows, in her fantastic book The Everyday Language of White Racism, how it shapes a variety of positions in relation to the use of slurs (I unpack this a bit here). It emerges in slightly different ways here. The attempts to gain power of a particular form depend on enregistering a very specific definition of the words that are involved . “Métis” must be “directly” translated as ‘mixed’, so that Métis identity is not a political category, but rather one determined within white Euro-American biological categories. “Aboriginal” must be broken into its component parts to say that it is based on a personal – again, in contrast to a legal and political – ability to place oneself as an individual within the history of the land. Other borrowed words are allowed to undergo changes of meaning –  the story that the name “Canada” derives from a word meaning “village” does not cause anyone to object that it can’t be a real label for an entire nation, for example, so why are the Métis asked to be so beholden to etymology?

In making this claim, then, people are articulating a position on the politics of Indigeneity, and about the nature of language and the source of its meanings. And this latter element is remarkably prevalent, despite the fact that many who disagree with these political claims see it as transparently ridiculous when applied in these cases. In this example, it is further intriguing that the journalists translate the word for which the writer offers a “literal” definition (“autochtone) into English (as “Aboriginal”) and, in doing so, imply that his claim about literality and meaning transcends the linguistic boundaries. I would suggest that in translating and then uncritically repeating his claim, the authors of the newspaper article are doing even more work to assign authority to his view of how meaning works, and further revealing assumptions about some kind of permanent core to semantic connections that hold no matter what transformations happen in space and time. [Ed: What now? SS: Sorry. That’s probably more complex than I can manage for a blog post].

Mainstream dictionaries ultimately help to support this position, whether they want to or not, in the degree to which they refer to etymologies, origins, and first uses, which are then taken as markers of authoritative meaning. So, too, do linguists providing glosses of unfamiliar languages, where we love to show how we can work out a morphological puzzle and reveal how the word for ‘computer’ in some language is built out of words for, say, ‘brain+machine’. This is fun to see, but, especially as these linguistic stories are popularized for mainstream audiences, can lead to the perception that speakers of these languages perceive these objects in terms of those components, when in fact this is simply a widespread pattern of word formation.

You-keep-using-that-word“What a word really means” is a powerful rhetorical tool. The “literal” definition, often invoked by referring to “the” dictionary (a topic I looked at, along with Lavanya Murali Proctor and Michael Oman-Reagan, from another angle in this Sapiens article), by pointing to the “original” meaning, or by deconstructing the morphemes in a word, is something that North American English speakers believe in very strongly…when it suits them and upholds specific types of political beliefs. The word “literally” is a good example of this in and of itself, as many people insist that the movement to using it as, essentially, a qualifier, is the current crisis in the English language (but hint: think about the breakdown of the word “really” and ask yourself whether you always use it to describe that which is straightforwardly real).

The meaning of words (and expressions, and any number of other symbols) comes from a number of different places, and it’s difficult to pin down the notion of a single ‘true’ or authoritative meaning. What we can see well in these discussions isn’t necessarily the ‘true’ meaning of the words themselves, but in fact the beliefs that people hold about where that meaning comes from, and what they do both to the meaning of the words and their political implications by making those claims about meaning. It isn’t an accident that there is a relationship between these political positions and the perception that semantics must work in a particular way, that there is a ‘rational’ (read: rooted in white masculinist literate thought traditions) way of understanding ‘meaning’. Indigenous people and those who seek to support Indigenous rights are forced to argue not only about the political enactment of their rights, but about the very conceptual foundation of their existence, represented in the availability of terms that can describe the legal relationship that they have to the land on which they live.

I was pithy about it in my response to this tweet on Twitter, where I said “that’s not how words work”, but the point holds – this isn’t how meaning works. The so-called ‘literal’ meaning of a word is a construct, just as a legal, political, or yes, dictionary descriptive, definition of a word is a construct. The relationships of specific meaning, and the nature of meaning in general, is a highly political project, and it is one that right wing organizations like La Meute clearly understand as having power. Disrupting that power is necessary, and a lot more significant than simply “arguing semantics”.

Language & Power Student Projects

In my teaching, I’ve been experimenting more and more with inviting my students to use a variety of formats for communicating their research projects, and not necessarily to produce a standard academic essay. My reasoning, heavily influenced by pedagogical blogs like The Tattooed Professor, is that the central skill I am helping them to develop is not “write an academic essay”, but “develop, organize, and transmit your thoughts about a topic”. Depending on their post-undergraduate goals, they may benefit from learning how to do this in, for example, a podcast form, or as an informative website, or as a video. They may benefit most from developing their essay writing skills, in which case, they are encouraged to write an essay, but it’s entirely up to them whether that’s the approach they want to take.

In my advanced seminar on Language & Power this term, I included an “unessay” option for presenting their research project results. Reader, the outcome was wonderful. As a

The “suppotter” (supportive otter) became the class mascot to mark the emotionally and intellectually sustaining environment the group created for themselves. (Suppotter artwork by Amanada Cole

colleague said on Twitter – it’s amazing what students will do if you let them. Since a few of their projects were web-based, or easily shareable on the web, I’ve asked for and received permission to link some of the great work that they did here. Another principle I’ve been working on encouraging, inspired by a talk given by Rajiv Jhangiani (@thatpsychprof) at MacEwan’s Faculty Development Day this past August, is sharing their work with people other than me, as their professor. It truly is tragic how much pedagogical effort goes in to an exchange of information between two people – the individual student, and the professor grading their work. The students whose work is linked here are fully on board with this idea, have been developing their ideas in collaboration with one another all term, and have expressed to me that these two premises have helped them to learn more from this class than from any they’ve previously taken – which I consider to be the highest possible student praise, and I’m immensely glad to be able to share their work through this medium.


  1. Hear My Words. This is an ethnographic film produce by Daliso Mwanza (@prophetdali) and Megan H. about “how artists of colour experience double consciousness…in a society that speaks in a dominant white voice”. It’s an extremely ambitious project to have undertaken in a one-semester course, and well worth watching.
  2. Deconstructing Constructs. A tumblr by Delainey Neddow (@apatheticpotate)  about the language of sexual violence, inspired by and drawing heavily on the news stories from the last few months and the #MeToo hashtag campaign (read backwards, of course).
  3. Broification. A tumblr by Shannon Jubinville (@shannjub) about the linguistic construction of  “bro” culture and identities. She investigates how this playful piece of language is an important part of the establishment and maintenance of hegemonic (hetero)masculinity.
  4. Language Standardization zine. This Twitter thread includes the digital form of a zine produced by Ruth Werbiski that examines the various ways in which language standardization and standard languages constitute tools for upholding unequal power dynamics. As I have told Ruth, I find this project to be particularly strong as a possible teaching tool to use in my introductory linguistic anthropology classes, because it captures so many themes in concise and accessible ways.

This is just a sample of some of the topics and approaches that students used – I also received podcasts, presentations, an invented Twitter account with analysis, and many more. The success of this semester makes me suspect this type of post will become a semi-regular thing, so stay tuned for more in April.

Student Guest Post: Archaeogaming In An Academic Sandbox

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Brieal M-T, a student in an Independent Study Course with Dr. Biittner. They are also in Dr. Shulist’s seminar class on Language and Power so they are tapped into the whole “Anthropology As” ethos. This post has been submitted as part of their course requirements; it is a reflexive piece representing the journey traveled so far. Need an archaeogaming primer? Check out #Archaeogaming101! Wanna check out these Tweets as they were discussed “in-class”? Check out #ANTH498!

The first time I ever held a controller I was probably about 3, and my parents were (trying) to teach me how to play Super Mario Bros.

My hand-eye coordination doesn’t work well with platformers (at least I learned young), but it’s perfect for puzzle games so I quickly moved on to games like Tetris/Dr. Mario and Goof Troop. By the time my younger brother caught up with my skills he had frankly already surpassed me, and between about age 5-14 we either played games cooperatively or separately. As someone who requires there to be an element of risk in order to find a game interesting always knowing who’s going to win in a competition isn’t very fun, and whenever my brother and I would play competitively we pretty well knew I’d win at a puzzle game and he’d win at [basically every other game].

Cooperation worked for us, though!

Because I was learning to read when Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time found its way into our N64 I’d work to read the text and make maps/generally keep notes while my little bro adventured his way through Hyrule. This schema of me keeping notes while he played continued well into my own exploration into Games I Could Play Alone (ex. when Dead Space was released he handle the silence, and would have me narrate him through the area while he stared at his controller).

Besides being an opportunity for me to reminisce about one of my favourite parts of my relationship with my brother this story has a point, I promise.

Dr. Biittner and I started this independent study with the intent of following a punk archaeology ethos. I will wholeheartedly admit that when we agreed to use that descriptor I had no real idea of what that would entail, despite having read Punk Archaeology a couple semesters ago. Looking back, though, I’m very comfortable describing the past 3 months (and change) as encompassing a bit of everything: “bits” of stuff (101).

That said: so many of these “bits” have been grinding slowly away at me.

One thing I did expect to encounter at the beginning of the course was archaeological theory, concepts of archaeological ethics, and the practice of specific archaeological tools. As an anthropology major with some previous experience in ethnographic practice, however, I totally turned learning of these Things into a pseudo-autoethnographic analysis.

As an undergraduate proto-/non-academic with little archaeological training I’m definitively classed as “other” in interactions with many (most?) archaeogaming folx on Twitter (the primary site or field by which I have gained introduction and access into archaeogaming).

This is totally understandable, and a position which I’m somewhat appreciative of as it allows me to learn skills which are arguably necessary to archaeogaming with a low-risk factor, and I am incredibly appreciative of the labour so many in the archaeogaming ~community have expended for my education.

The thing that grinds away at me is the disconnect between what archaeogaming (presently) is and what it is presented as.

In my introduction to archaeogaming I initially assumed that it was something which both archaeologists and non-archaeologists could and would take part in.

While I still believe this to be true, the “punk” open-access ethos of archaeogaming seems to have shifted over time into becoming something which is primarily for academic archaeologists who are interested in studying games as part of their practice.

Now at this point I cannot stress enough: I don’t believe this is an intentional shift. Rather, I believe it is an aspect of the practice which is being influenced by the subject positions of the archaeogaming ~inner circle, which just so happens to presently consist of people who are either already academics, or are otherwise proto-/non-academic with previous professional archaeological experience.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this type of “‘secret writing and assumed norms”, the fact that archaeogaming can be (and rightfully is) presented as something which can be practiced by non-academics and non-archaeologists does grind away at me, by virtue of the gatekeeping which is thus inherent.

I won’t even pretend to say I have a ~solution or something for what I’m perceiving to be a problem of intent vs. actuality here. What I will say, however, is that I’m very (very) interested in mapping out what I’m perceiving to be a part of the problem. In that spirit my final project planned for ANTH 498 is a mapping of specific terms and concepts as they are described within different communities. My aspirations for my own degree include further archaeogaming studies, and I don’t think that will be possible or useful if I’m only speaking with academics. Thus I see this map I’m planning as personally necessary to translating thoughts and concepts between my communities (gaming and anthropology/archaeology).

If my linguistic anthropology (and, honestly, psychoanalytic theory) schooling has given me nothing else I have been given the ability to respect naming and titles as important to communities. Recognition is important to inter-community respect and cooperation (see? It came up again after all), and without it I don’t see archaeogaming becoming the cooperative field I think everyone (?) wants it to be.

Archaeological Field Methods (Anth396): Weeks 6 & 7 in Review

Okay so I think we can agree that I have fallen epically behind on posting about the field school, but I’m going to insist that it is valuable for me, and for you dear reader, to wrap things up. Good news is I have only this last post for you. The bad news is here are my notes for what I should cover (Good work, Past Katie btw! Also I really wish there was a dedicated sarcasm font.):

On looting…fuckers…

On the mad rush at the end to back fill, re-seed, etc…

On the last push of lab work and final research papers…

On the importance of a feast…

So yeah, the site was looted. After spending weeks carefully revealing the bones and contents of the midden/garbage pit, our students excavating in Unit 3 arrived one morning to find it had been disturbed. It was immediately clear that several bones (mostly cow skulls) had been stolen from the unit (this was confirmed through consulting the maps precisely drawn at each level and through reviewing notes and photographs), Haeden reported the looting to the Archaeological Survey, while several students, and myself, took to social media to express our anger and our outrage. Honestly I tweeted without thinking – something I usually am better about when it comes to ethical and legal issues like this – and while I didn’t say anything horrible I wasn’t thinking about appropriate procedure nor ethical or legal implications and consequences. Luckily it wasn’t illegal to publicly discuss the looting, instead I will argue that the media coverage and public attention we received about the site and our work goes a long way towards informing the public regarding the importance of protecting, preserving, and not-looting archaeological and other heritage sites. So several media sources, who had covered and were continuing to follow the project, saw our tweets, instaposts, and Reddit forum comments, and contacted us for follow up interviews. I was particularly proud of the thoughtful comments made by my students on Reddit who had been patient science communicators and represented our work, our course, the site, and our discipline articulately throughout the field season. I think these personal accounts by the students – how they were angry and hurt that someone could so thoughtlessly destroy the careful work they’d done over weeks, that questions would go unanswered because of the loss of critical information we could have obtained from those bones – really resonated with the public. Further we had several community members stop by the site or contact us to let us know how upset they were by the looting as well. See that’s the lovely thing about projects that welcome community members, they too become interested and invested. While we never recovered those bones (and likely never will), the students also learned one of the harsh realities of archaeology – looting is a common part of the experience of field work.

Here you can see holes in the unit wall (look for the “fresh” or darker coloured sediment that was exposed) and the dirt on the floor from the looting of Unit 3. 

Following the looting, work at the site was simply a blur. We had more rain to deal with (meaning we were yet again bailing out units) followed by some really hot days. There is so much that needs to be done to wrap up work at a site. First we needed to finish excavating all of the units we started. Units 4 and 5 were already close to completion leading into the week so we weren’t too worried about them and we did finish them by the Thursday. However, Units 3 and 6 were our biggest concerns. The profiles for Unit 3 were taking quite a bit of time simply because there was so much left in the walls; we typically leave objects in the wall unless they are at risk of damaging the wall (i.e., are too loose and may fall out). We continued expanding and excavating Unit 6 until the Friday (technically our last day on site). We’d encountered some more cement and a few pipes and needed to determine their relationship to the cement feature in Unit 1. While we finished excavating it, Haeden and JP decided they would come back over the next few days to finish up the profiles and requested that we all return to the site on the following Tuesday to backfill the units.

Revealing a pipe feature in Units 1 and 6, and preparing wall profiles for Units 3 and 4. 

Why Tuesday? Because on the Monday we went on a field trip. I really wanted to make sure the students visited another archaeological site at some point over the term. It’s valuable to see how other research questions are approached, what other strategies are used in different contexts, and to examine different kinds of material culture. I’d originally hoped to visit another field school, and possibly do an exchange of sorts, but the other ones occurring in the province were Spring Term courses so it didn’t work out with our Summer Term schedule. I decided then we’d drive out to the Bodo Archaeological Site and Center, where one of our former students was working and where I’d previously excavated, then swing by the Viking Ribstones. I love the Viking Ribstones; they are situated in the most beautiful spot and I always feel so calm and peaceful after visiting and making an offering there.  All the driving and the multiple stops made for a long day but we all agreed it was well worth the trip.


Field trip to the Bodo Archaeological Site and Center. Note I’m talking in the photo because of course I am.

So the following Tuesday we returned to the site to backfill. Backfilling involves replacing all of the sediment excavated from the units back into place and we also had other site reclamation we were required to perform (in this case we had to re-seed the surface of the units where sod had been removed). We also had a bunch of housekeeping to do: all of the gear must be cleaned and repaired (as needed) then returned to storage (or to those individuals we begged and borrowed from).

For the rest of that last week (technically week 7), the students were also busy wrapping up their final “research projects” and trying to complete any remaining lab work. They really accomplished a lot in the lab; we had very little left to clean and catalog once the course was finished, which Haeden and JP completed in just over a week. The students’ final “research reports” varied in content and form. Most wrote a paper either looking into the history of the site/ravine or a particular category of raw material in more detail. One student wrote a wonderful reflection on how prepared (or not!) our current Introduction to Archaeology (Anth206) course made them for field school. Another prepared an “unessay” of sorts; they designed a poster and exhibit proposal for a space in our Centre for Advancement of Faculty Excellence (CAFE); paired with my personal photos, this student’s work is currently on display in CAFE as a curated art exhibit called “One Site, Two Histories”.

Finally we had a feast…of sorts. It’s tradition to have a wrap-up party so I hosted all of the students, their guests, and our volunteers at my home. We did a simple BBQ, where we ate, chatted, and decompressed. During the party I presented them each with a Certificate of Excellence “for digging real good”; a silly tradition started when friends of mine presented me with one after a particularly intense field season. They also received from one of our volunteers a special camp stool to mark their transition from field school student to archaeologist; we had two of these stools on site and they were much coveted by the students. It’s hard to capture the meaning of gifts like these; they truly represent the bizarre and lovely microcosm that can develop on a field site between team members during a project. No outsider will ever understand why eating a whole cucumber with rice cakes for lunch is hilarious. No outsider will ever understand why we’ll forever cringe and roll our eyes upon hearing a dog named “Precious*” being called. *The name of the dog has been changed to protect the innocent dog. All dogs are good dogs. This dog just had a really obnoxious owner who was not a good dog owner.*


And then it was done.


I want to finish by acknowledging my fantastic students (Lace, Jesse, Kat, Kathryn, Emily, Keyna, Tara, and Josalyne), volunteers (Erika, Lisa, Andrea, Thomas, and Kendra), Haeden and JP. It was a honour to have worked with you this summer. I’m proud of what you accomplished and the work we did. It was archaeology at its best.


Last day photo of Team MCHAP 2017. 


For the last few months, we’ve experienced a growing onslaught of stories about powerful men (in Hollywood, politics, and academia) being accused of sexual violence of various forms. I will state up front that this is not a conversation in which I am willing to debate the merits of the accusations – telling these stories publicly requires great courage on the part of victims, who have little to gain and much to lose, and I believe them.

The responses from the accused have been varied, and subject to much discussion that I want to weigh in on here, however briefly, as I poke my head out from under a mountain of grading. Two in particular stand out: those of Louis CK and Kevin Spacey. Both of these have been described as “apologies”, but simultaneously criticized as non-apologies. Within the last few days, Al Franken’s statement has been added to this list of questionable apologies, even though his includes just about all the formal elements one could possibly expect to see in such a statement. One question worth asking, as Jacob Sugarman does here, is whether a ‘public apology’ will ever be judged as ‘good’.

From a linguistic anthropological perspective, there are several elements at work here that are worthy of discussion.

  1. Apologies as speech acts, and the conditions that are needed to make them felicitous.
  2. The participants and participant roles that are involved in a public apology.
  3. The social and structural motivations leading to the performance of different types of apologies.

First off, while I have talked previously about the ways we can consider multiple types of

xkcd gets it with apologies as a pragmatic, not a formal thing

speech as actions, apologies live in that category of speech for which the concept of ‘speech act theory’ was prototypically developed by philosophers like Searle and Austin. Speech acts are forms of language where the speaking constitutes the doing – making promises, for example – and whose meaning should be judged not in terms of propositional truth, but in terms of ‘felicity’. A speech act is judged felicitous if it works to do what it says. For promises, this is contingent on the sincerity of the speaker, both in the moment and in future, and on the  perceived or actual ability of that speaker to successfully carry out the actions associated with the promise in question (I could promise that I will get something done on time, for example, but you may have many reasons to doubt that I will successfully do so, one of which might be that you know I’m writing this blog post right now instead of doing that thing). Anthropologists have critiqued the original formulations of this theory as failing to account for widely varying cultural perceptions about the relationship between a speaking ‘self’ and the types of statements encoded under speech acts, but it remains a useful concept to examine in its culturally specific manifestations.

Apologies are, in most English speaking environments, clearly speech acts, and the set of conditions needed to make them ‘work’ has been widely discussed. These properties, for the most part, emerge as functional criteria rather than formal ones. In other words, we cannot assess the merits of an apology based on the specific words or structures it does or does not include; rather, we attune to what happens in the social relationship within which the apology is situated. Janet Holmes* describes them as ways of “restoring the equilibrium” between the parties involved by addressing the “face-needs” of the victim of the action being apologized for.

The context here is a somewhat unusual one – these are public apologies for more or less private offenses. They differ from ‘political’ apologies (a topic about which my Language & Power class had a fantastic discussion emerging from Bonnie McElhinny’s** recent article on Canadian political apologies) in that they are issued by a public figure as a result of their actions as an individual, not in their role as a representative of a political organization. In part, what this means is that there is some discussion about who is receiving the apology, and who the participants are in this speech act. There are the specific, sometimes named, victims, which would make the apologies of the ‘normal’ interpersonal type. But at the same time, there is a public that is clearly invoked as receiving the apology. There are audiences, constituencies, co-workers, and fans who are situated as having been harmed and, if the explosion of responses and assessments of these apologies is any indication, who view themselves as appropriately able to accept or reject the proffered apologies. As that linked Alternet/Salon article indicates, this is a tough crowd to please, and it’s possible that there is no way to deliver an apology of this type that will be received without contestation and pushback. One element that became clear in our class discussions about political apologies is that in North American society, we retain a heavy emphasis on “actions speaking louder than words”, especially when it comes to apologies. The best anyone of these men can hope for is that we will wait and see what kind of change may come with respect to behaviour.

Before looking specifically at the three exemplars referenced here, I want to give an overview of my third point – there is a reason this is all happening now. One element I really like about McElhinny’s article is that she examines why, in the last 10-15 years, we’ve seen such an explosion of apologies offered by states for wrongs of the past. Specifically, she highlights how it serves the needs of neoliberal multicultural politics by legitimating certain claims to redress and implicitly delegitimizing others by not offering apologies for them. It’s clear to anyone observing right now that the apologies being offered by these men cannot be detached from current political concerns and debates – not only are they occurring as a result of the dam that was opened with the Weinstein accusations, they are also a response to outrage at the election of a president who admitted on tape to sexual assaulting women simply because his power let him do it. These circumstances obviously lead us to question the sincerity of the apologies in light of the public relations necessity they have become, but they also offer useful lenses into what else the accused men invoke in their statements.

With all that in mind, let’s look at what is happening in the language of these apologies. First, how do they fit in to different apology ‘types’?  While an explicit apology (a statement that directly says “I am sorry”) is most obvious, it is possible to have a successful apology without these words – there are no formal universals, after all, and someone saying “I will never do that again” may be just as or more meaningful that “I’m sorry” in defining a victim’s response. Expressions of regret are also key components, and the way in which an ‘explanation’ is invoked in apology statements becomes subject to heavy scrutiny.

Of the three apologies in question, a formal consideration of what they do and don’t include reveals that Franken’s is the most direct and explicit in its apology. He says “The first and most important thing [to say]….is I’m sorry”. He prefaces this with a list of people to whom he is offering the apology, then expands into an explanation and reflection on the social context in which he situates both his past actions and his present apology. Various listeners will have different responses to his sincerity here, and to how this apology relates to his previous denial that the events happened as they were remembered by his accuser. His, in particular, however, clearly exists in a framework in which all of these other apologies, responses, and statements have taken place, and in which he wants to take a stance directly about violence against women and gendered power.

Spacey’s statement, by contrast, does have the words “I owe him the sincerest apology” and “I am sorry”, but they are heavily mitigated with the surrounding language, which notably avoids direct admission that the accusations are true and sets the harm in the victim’s feelings rather than in the accused’s actions. This construction is famously lambasted as a part of insincere apologies, and again manifests the ideological belief that a focus on action is paramount, because actions are the primarily source of impact. What is most heinous about Spacey’s apology, of course, is the qualifying information he offers. Although he doesn’t directly say that his sexuality is the explanation for his behaviour, the position it takes within his short apology statement clearly suggests it is intended to play that role. He aims to place his response in a political context that celebrates coming out, that recognizes the struggles that gay men and queer people specifically continue to face, and that challenges heterosexist dominance. In putting this coming out in the explanation position, however, he ultimately suggests that sexual assault is caused by gayness, as well as re-centering his apparent apology on his own closeted suffering. The felicity conditions in this one are…pretty clearly not there.

Louis CK I have saved to the last because it has been, from what I can tell, the most contentious of the three, in that there is wide variation in whether or not people believe it meets the conditions of a true apology. The statement has been labeled an apology even though, as many have been quick to point out, CK never says “I apologize” or “I am sorry”. He does, however, do many of the other things associated with an apology, which Spacey clearly does not. He admits the truth of the stories, he discusses his regret, he assesses the various types of harm that he has done, and he outlines a specific plan of action that he will take (in this case, simply listening). The key feature that is making many dismiss CK’s statement as an infelicitous apology is his explanation section, in which he seems to reproduce exactly the problem that women are calling attention to in the current climate – the ways in which powerful men justify their actions precisely through reference to their social, economic, and political power. He did not understand these actions to be wrong, he says, because he was convinced of the weight of these women’s admiration. That, coupled with the degree to which CK talks about the pain of others primarily through reference to his own experience of struggle with that pain, is a sign that his entry into this sadly-still-repeating drama of public apologies will be judged on the ‘failed’ side. He sees the politics in which the apology takes place, but he misses the mark on how they work.

What’s the takeaway message from all of this? I’m not entirely sure I have one, to be honest. I am watching with skepticism the claims emerging that we have seen a watershed moment that shifts the view of sexual violence by powerful public figures, as I’m not confident we have yet reached a point that will really change things. The debates and assessments and ideologically rooted analyses of these various apologies are examples of why I feel pessimistic. There are a great number of people who, especially with respect to CK and Franken, feel that these statements mean that discussion of their actions should be over, and to me, this shows exactly what many are highlighting that all of this is about – the basic needs of women, as humans in the workplace and as victims in a public apology, are to be put aside for the comfort, economic advancement, and egos of powerful men. And if I can fight that with linguistics, well, I’ll do my best.

*Holmes, Janet 1989. Sex Differences and Apologies: One Aspect of Communicative Competence. Applied Lingusitics 10(2): 194-221

**McElhinny, Bonnie 2016. Reparations and Racism, Discourse and Diversity: Neoliberal Multiculturalism and the Canadian Age of Apologies. Language & Communication 51: 50-68