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What do we mean when we call a vocabulary "political"? The Sora speak a South Munda (Austroasiatic) language. The politics of living together as a community uses an indigenous vocabulary of intimate negotiation among horizontal equals, cast in speech formats which are dialogic. By contrast, the politics of command and rule uses almost entirely Odia/Sanskritic or Mughal vocabularies, dating from a pre-literate time when vertical relations with distant rajas passed through predatory local agents with no justice or redress.  Recently, Christianity introduced literacy and created a rush of new administrative and moral terminology by translating Hebrew and Greek concepts back into Sora roots.  I argue that this offers a new model of patronage which makes Jesus resemble a munificent classic Hindu king, with hierarchical speech genres of sermon, prayer and confession.  The Sora have thus moved from a parasitic experience of verticality to a hierarchical one, which is readily transferred to political leaders now that young Sora participate in elections.

About the speaker

Piers Vitebsky studied ancient languages before becoming a social anthropologist specialising in the religions and ecologies of indigenous peoples in India and Arctic Siberia.  He was educated in Cambridge, Oxford, London and Delhi, and recently retired as Head of Anthropology and Russian Northern Studies at the Scott Polar Research Institute in the University of Cambridge.  He is also involved in advocacy for refugees and chairs the humanitarian Sutasoma Trust.  His books include Dialogues with the Dead: the Discussion of Mortality among the Sora of Eastern India (1993); Living without the Dead: Loss and Redemption in a Jungle Cosmos (2017), which was shortlisted for the New India Foundation book prize; and Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia (2005).  In Russia he is Honorary Professor at the North-Eastern Federal University and a member of the Academy of Sciences of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia).  His current projects include writing a dictionary and app for young Sora who are now being schooled in outsider languages.