Michael Silverstein

The 'value I of obj ectual language

FAA 1984

'Writng about TIthe mystery of the fetishistic character' of comnodities"

(1867), Marx observed t~at "Value does not wear an explanatory label ... value

changes all labour products into social hieroglyphs. . .. the specification of

a useful obj ect as a value is just as much a social product as language is. 11

Seeing tactile objects, products of one sort of labour, as language-like,

and hence subj ect to analysis in te..YIDS of the codes of exchange, takes the set of obj ects and makes it language-like, by an interesting metaphor.

In an opposite vein, Ferdinand de Saussure--or his editors, of course--

uses the economic metaphor of currency to explain what he means by linguistic


valeur, the 'value t or, system-internally, the 'valence' of linguistic signs.

Linguistic signs, he argues, are like the five-franc piece: exchangeable

against a determined quanti 'ty of something, e. g., bread, and comparable to another value in the same or a different system of currency <!l916] 51960 :159-60).

For Saussure, however, linguistically constituted value is completely dis-

tinct from its, as he puts it, "natural" basis, and is completely determined

by the structure of relationships within the system of language. In economics,

he asserts--fetishizing the commodities exactly as Marx claimed we do--the

value of an estate of land, for example, is proportional to its size, all

other things being equal ([1916] 1960:116), though not exclusively, for the

system of sign-values intrudes here as well, to a certain extent.

What I wish to call to attaTJ.tion here is the fact that linguistic signs,

conceived of as cultural symbols, must be seen as values constituted by a

culturally-local system of validated ovm.ership, alienability, and usafruct

according to a social under-s'tarxring of what holds instances of use of lan-

guage together. The most exquisite example of this I know is the case of

proper names, so-called, in Northwest Coast societies, such as the Chinookans

of the Columbia River'. Personal names are so explicitly like what we call

economic S~TJ.se of value obtrudes much more than the normally lli~derstood

antiques, in the way such societies deal in them, that the more literal


analytic understanding we ha.ve of proper names as labels for individuals.

For proper names , in each instance of use, are really displayed, brought out

like an obj ect of value from the trunk where it has been stored, and index

the ordinal position of the bearer in te.."'l11S of an economy of total worth.

Similarly, though less obviously, sung-and-danced corroboree pieces among

'the northwest Australian Aborigines, such as the Worora and their neighbours,

become items of verbal and musical art--perfo~ance art, if you will--that

are part of a large system of essentially exchange of goods and services.

This culTural perspective on the constitution of linguistic value con-

trasts, I believe, with the usual functionalist assumptions that form a

backdrop for our cross-cultural understanding of language, even in the most

well-meaning ethnography of conmmication or anthropology of language.

Function-as-purpose or function-as-indexical-value, tacked on to the Euro-

centric view of language as a means of referring and predicating, makes

assumptions about the constitution of linguistic value in use that rest

firmly on a kind of representationalism. language stands-for something

in suchrviews , whether the intentions of a speaker to corrnnunicate, or the

implicit institutional contexts of communication, just as language stands-

for the objects of refereTlce and the situations of predication in the narrower Western tradition. The linguistic sign is the underlying conven-

tion of staTlding-for, instanced on each of the infinite number of occasions

on which it is used, and it is just our task to find the conventions by

examirring instances of use, letting the forms be our guides. That the

conventions are conventions of representation, however, 1.S the key func-

tionalist assumption in investigation, a universal grid of possibilities

extent to which what leaks Like

- Ji'" e-v-e,. .... R.~e - language/in the local culture,

~'_"e~'- h e;z./- u.. A4_. ~. ~,aL_~j.. episte.1!l.ologically problematic \is ~~7;.C'"

of laTlguage LTl any g1.ven society.


language-in-use to us is, however, not simply representational the extent to which/function itself is

Consider the case of the linguistic heirlooms of the Northwest Coast,


in pa__"Yi:icular those I have investigated among Upper Chinookans. Even in

these groups border-ing on tJ.'1e Plateau, with attenuated expression of classic

Northwest Coast i.l1stitutions, personal names have the characteristics of

First, a person was invested with a name first at the age of about

groups further to the west 2.IlQ north. To be sure, each person is theoretically

attached to his or her label on each occasion of use, or pronunciation of

the form of the name he or she bears at any gi veri time; we can find the

principle of Ll1dividuation in reference, just as Russell or Searle would

have it. But traditionally, names were not used in face-to-face or other

kinds of reference; definite descriptions, such as kinship terms, were used. of relative or ordinal economic value Rather, the essence of proper names is like that ofheirloom antiques/as

.investmerrt proper-ty: everyone wanted as many as possible, and in two senses.

the second year of life, anywhere from about 8 months to 2 years, Sapir &

Spier tell us in their "Wishram Ethnography (1930: 258-60). At many occas-

ions of life-cycle tral1srormation, the person got new names, in the best

case of greater and greater int!'i.l1sic worth, of higher and higher ordinal

value. And while the person lived, any of this property was alienable, in

the sense that anyone of the names could be given to someone else, generally

a relative of lower generation, by consanguineal or affinal connection.

I1Given" in the sense of invested in that other person, or rather the other

person was invested with the name. Frequently, a person would vacate a

name, as it were, taking a new one, and alienating the erstwhile one to

the new owner. But, without such alienation, all the cumulation of names

were the bearer's, and they formed a ranked or ordered set, generally In

........................ _ ... _ .. "".

the order of acquisition.

There is a second sense in which people "ooned" names, that of control.

People lay claims to names of deceased ancestors, generally in desca~t lines

arnong the Upper Chinookans, like the "house" or "crest;" corporations in the

Cl2SS:'C Ncr-::::-_\,-es~ Coas t :=C'cis"tiss. The se::icr members of kindred groups


compete for control over the investiture of this store of names upon new

bearers, and do so when t'1e occasion arises. Included here is the self-

naming with any of the names , i.e., taking the name as one's Ow11 at the

appropriate time, especially as one becomes older, and there is no one

more senior (especially of the grandparental or higher generation) to bestow

the name upon the person. So while the whole store of names are not owned

in the first sense, it is the prerogative of certain individuals to own the.TIl in this second sense, to arrange for others to do so.

Since every name has an intrinsic relative value with respect to every

other, at any g.iven time, having a name conferred upon one is an assertion

of the relative rank or ordinal position of the bearer with respect to

others, who bear different names. This assertion of ranked position is made and

validated in an elaborate naming cer-emony, of the classic "potlatch" var-

iety, in which all people present, i. e., all names present, are called by rank from high to low

upon/to recognize the new bearer of the name as bearing it, and to receive clothes ~ accessories,

ill exchange valuables, nowadays beadworW, blankets, hides , traditional

trade goods like beads, china, flatware, etc, for women, firearms, etc. for

men. Obviously, there is a correlation, or we might say calibration, of

the validated worth of the name--and hence of its bearer--by the amount and kinds of wealth given away at such an occasion, and it is a delicate matter

for the sponsor's of the ceremony, for example the old people who allow the

bestowal of the name, and the errt.ire family of the new bearer, to have

an appropriate amount of wealth in toto and in particular to each recipient.

The wealth thus constitutes a back-prestation in response to the audience's having come and called the new bearer by that name, this act effectively.

the claim to it as being at a certain ranked ordinality with

respect to their names.

The naming ceremony as of particular interest in terms of the formulaics

of name bestowal. The word for name is an inalienably possessed noun, ~- -~liu,


that, as in many Languages , also is the word for comnon noun. The formu-

las for announcing that such-and-such name is now ~~ngst us attached to

so-and-so , and the formulas for recognizing this as fact, both contain in

their basic variants one of the few performatively-used metapragmatic, or

spee~~-act predicates, a basic transitive [J2-[J3-u-/~ in its active or stative-passive inflection, 'I call/name/pronounce you so-and-so' or 'You

are called/named/pronounced so-and-so'. The name, like our f sentence' in

a court of law, is pronounced upon the new bearer by two officiants who

confer it, generally of the grandparent-like gener-at.ion (i.e., those who

control bestowal). Mountains, rivers, creeks , bluffs, forests, fishes, birds,

winds, snow, rain, sun, moon, star'S are invoked and called upon to recognize

that the name has this new bearer.

Interestingly, in this ritual context, those things are called upon

that are precisely the objects of transformation by the trickster/transformer

Coyote (or equivalent) in the mythology. In fact, at the end of the myth,

the section that is entitled the transformation C[J2-[J4-~-/gWa-mi+! t[J2 transforms [J4'),.the transformer uses similar formulas, as Hymes (1966:146-47) pointed out in his discussion of proper names emong the Wishram-Wasco. That is, the transformer establishes the essential quality of various myth-age

actors and places by naming them such-and-such, which the people will call these features of their world. Such essential qualities, named by their common nouns (cf , Adam in the Garden of Eden), bring the myth-age wor-Id into the world of thecurrent era. And it is such things that form the

framework for the human naming ceremony, as it were transforming the essen-

tial quality of the new bearer of the name through bestowal of the name.

Let me turn now to the heirloom quality of the name-as-object. People

accumulate names through life, if they are able, as I po'irrted out. And

indeed people leave their names at death in a particular state of relative ranking. Great wealth and respected deeds by the bearer of some name tend

to rai.se the value of the pre'liously gotten nernes 2S ~,ell, for future


bestowal. Profligate or infamous behavior- is like scratching the finish

of a fine antique piece of art, and destroys the accumulated ordinal ranking

of the name rome by the ill-doer. The name is withdravm from c.irculattion,

a ruined heirloom. I once made the error of pronouncing tl"le name of a deceased

man I a/mother' in front of a roomful of relatives, not realizing trl.2.t she had

been a drunkard and was general.ly considered "loose" by the adopted straight-

laced norms for conduct in that generation. Everyone was mort; f'i.ed by the

The occasion of getting a name, then, is not experienced as getting a

disgrace of, as it were, my display of their ruined antique, and I had to

give many gifts to smoothe over the offense my single pronunciation of the

form entailed. Again, given that people accumulate names of greater and

greater value, it is not difficult to understand that a downriver woman re-

ported to me that when her mother was tipsy, in her later years, the family

would refuse to use her last-acquired name to or for her, calling her in-

stead by her first-bestowed name from early childhood; for she h~d clearly

disgraced the later name whose value she aspired to. Having the ovmership

of a great name ratified by the community, this can be, as it were, with-

dravm when the name becomes debased, as' an occasional or permanent; loss.

label; it is acquiring rights over a particular piece of traditional wealth,

entailing a position in a whole system of both ritual and secular exchange

of wealth and display of wealth. The name as type, as underlying regularity

in a semiotic sense, is its position in the system of names; the name as

token, as instance of use after the initial "baptism, It is the display of wealth, regardless of who does the displaying (u+terdng)'. The "creative

possession" of names accrues to those who control its alie..Dability, either

............................................................................................................................................ - _ .

as bearer or descendent of bearer. The "delegated use" of names goes to

those who have cla~ to do so by virtue of having participated ~1l. the nam-

ing ceremony as ratifiers and receivers of wealth in exchange , or by in-

Let me turn tc a scmewhat; different exarrml.e of the objectalization of

heriting the wealth of a descent line.


(Worora dju'nba)

Language , the corroboree/in northwestern Australia. I had occasion, during

the time I was resident among the Worora, Ng~injin, and Wur>.anba.l people in

the Northern Kimberley region, to follow the course of one such from begin-

.ing to end , and to gather material on the phenomenon in general. The cor-

roboree is best understood as a kind of performance art, consisting of a

sung text set to percussion and accompanied by elaborate scenery before which

is staged costumed dance. Obviously requiring numerous performers; this

art form is created and owned by a poet-composec-chorecgrepher who gives

the performance--that is, gives the work--to his audience, generally in

return for particular ritual services or other esoterica involved in the

regional system of exchange of sacra (objects, Jmowledge, and rights thereto).

A poet "sees" the corroboree in a kind of trance-state, much as the

:r~i in the ancient Hindu tradition "saw" the poems of the Veda. The mythic characters come to him, and sing the content of the piece against a backdrop thai: will inspire the scenery of its performance. The poet turns these phrases into poetry, general.Iy reminiscent of themes in the mythology--which

is not told as narrative L'l. any set way upon any fixed occasion-types--that

have a particular lesson for the poet , It is the general canon of the poem

that there is a mixture of languages, for example, one line in Worora, one

in NgaJ;'injin, one in Wtmarnbal in the area where I was, forming a verse-triplet

in the construction of the piece. The melody is inspired as well, from traditional musical themes and rhythms, and the various verses are sung to distinct melodies and rhythms, like sections of the piece.

It becomes known that the poet is working on a new piece, which en-

gender-s much exci.temerrt in anticipation of its being "brought out," as one

says in Worora, using exactly the formulation one uses for the display

sacra on ritual occasions. The poet supervises a group of men, generally

of the same moiety, in certain kin relationships, in constructing elaborate

scenery for the performance. This involves constructing long criss-crosses

cf v;ccG., all rrcurrted on severe.l, shoulder-yokes so that the whole can be sup-


ported by several men standing behind the dancing characters. On this framework are woven images of dyed kangaroo-wool, with pa.irrted bark and other sub-

stances. Meanwhile, the poet must t95.0.'1 the sung poem to a group of women,

generally classificatory sisters, fatner's sisters/daughters, father's mothers/wives-

i.e., a classificatory group of symbolically close relatives--and these people

practice the singing on theiJ:"> own, teaching it to new singers as well. Dancers must be engaged, explained the nature of the message to be danced, and how the

costuming is to realize the vision of the mythic characters who gave the cor-



robcree in the first place. It is gener'al.Iy an honor that goes to one's intra-clan relations, though exce.LIence as a dancer is paramount o·

This process takes many months, and, in a sense, the corroboree is really

already out among a large number of people, all of whom both know it and have

repeatedit--practiced it, if you will--far some time. But it is not the object of value to all these peopl,e , except in potentia, as a piece of community (originally, one gathers, clan) property to be bestowed upon an audience at

the appropriate time. The poet gives the object over to the community, partici-

pating with the various other leaders (for the poet is always a highly respected

figure of some PJwer in the community) in reaching a decision on when it will

be perfonned/bestowed. The poet thus has control over the teaching of the

their Law," as the Aborigines say, admitting them to knowl.edge of the secret

The corroboree is "brought; out, IT finally, as a counter-prestation for

work to the performers, like a composer in our society, but the performance in its fullest sense is a community decision in which he only participates.

services rendered, on some occasion when another group of people have been

engaged to per-form some ritual such as initiation (circumcision) of a group of youths in the corrnnunity. The visiting group initiates the young men "with

traditions at the same time as transferring certain sacra to the host com-

munity, for later further prestation elsewhere. Classificatory brothers-LD-

law in theory, and at least so considered at the ritual occasion, we can see


of the young men with classificatory wives of that COITm1IDity, and getting

access to rhe greatest of all valuables, the sacra of the regional exchange


In both cases I followed, it was after the culmination of the initiation, at sunrise

the actual circumcisions that takes place/after a long night's vigil, that the

perforrnance/payment-in-ritual-return takes place. At night, in the pitc."i-t dark-

ness, huge bonfires are lit to illuminate the performance stage. Singers

gather center-front behind the bonfires, along with musicians, the poet; at

the head of this group, perhaps with a few close male relatives to provide

strong voices. The dancers are in the darkness , The scenery comes into the

light, to everyone I s delight, and then the dancers, interpreting the song

scene after scene, to the musical accompaniment. One can hardly describe the

effect on the audience of people, both of the host comrrn.mity and of the

visiting community. This is the act of transfer, and the dju.nba or corroboree now has its constituted value realized. As Mauss observed in his Essai

sur le don ([1925J 1967), this is the payment in kind that completes the



ritual transaction for sacred wealth.

What is interesting here is that the performance itself is the object of value. I observed the "same" corroboree used on two different occasions

as payment, but on each occasion, its performance was what constituted it

as the piece of wealth. On one occasion, a group came from Kalumburu Mission,

where Aboriginal custom was suppressed by the Spanish Benedictine father who ran the place at the Australian government's behest. They initiated three Mowanjum Corrnnunity boys with their law, and were treated with my uncle's

(mother's brother's) corroboree. On another occasion, our corrnnuni ty went

t;L;~~~~hl~h~~~-th~~~igin corrununity of an :tn-marryIng man in MowanjUffi-who was initiating his son, where the Leoma communi 'ty were ini tiatill.g him

per~c~~,ce of the sung poe~y consti~tes the object, like a concert.

with theil' law. Again here our comnuni ty, though not from there, were the ritual hosts, and we put on the corroboree for them. So the instance of

How linguistic material is culturally constituted in a set of social


relations, then, really cross-cuts the question of representational value

or function i.Tl any of the usual senses. If we look carefully enough at

language, in any of its forms , it seems to me that we are confronted with

objects, no different in value-constituting relations from any other objects .in tenns of which the process of objectification, or fetishization,

takes place. To under-stand such obj ects through a particular systemdr-iven set of objectifications, rather than to objectify them through our own linguistic theory, then presents itself as a more culturally i.1'1flected

anthropology of them.

Here, we have seen two examples of rather puzzling valuations, from

the usual etic functionalizations of language. In the case of Chinookan

proper names, tokens are instances of display of wealth, types are instances

of ownership/alienability of wealth, their referential value in the normal

functionalization being something only we would see as at the center of

is the shared corrm..mi ty wealth, led by the poet! conductor, and the per-

their linguistic constitution. In the case of Worora corroboree, the token

fonnance of which is the means of payment for services/ sacra rendered,

the textual or script/ score/ choreography underlying type having no in-


henerrt value other than as potential performance, we might say. In what

sense, these are "Language" in the normal' functionalist's modalities

is just uncertain at best, and at worst may constitute a real ethnographic