Monday, May 05, 2008

Never do fieldwork. (No, really.)

I've been participating in a fieldwork methods course this semester, which is like fieldwork in that you get to work on a previously undescribed language, but unlike fieldwork in that you don't have to sleep in a mud hut, politely accept raw pigs' testicles for dinner, or forgo showers for the duration.

We were all told to buy a hardback notebook to keep our records in. I followed instructions, but then found myself incapable of sullying its pristine pages with my messy and incomplete analysis. Instead I have been using it to keep notes on why I should never ever indulge in research that requires fieldwork.

Some highlights:

Day One:
We meet our speaker. She explains that her language is a tone language and it has five tones. She can only give us examples of three. We spend several hours trying to hear and produce the right tones. She laughs at us a lot, because instead of saying, "My stomach is sore", we generally produce "My vagina is itchy".

Eventually we start to be able to hear the tone differences with more than chance frequency and decide that they can be characterised as "high-falling", "non-high", and "long". We can definitely hear a length distinction, anyway.

Day Two:
We spend hours hunched over spectrograms that definitively prove there is no length distinction in our examples.

Day Three:
We find a new way to categorize the tones that seems to work! We are certain we can now hear the difference between "vagina" and "stomach".

Our speaker walks in on us playing back the recordings. It turns out she can't tell which one she was saying either.

Day Four:
We give up on tones and move on to verb paradigms. We have one verb paradigm for this language already, entrusted to us by an ancient linguist who took some notes once when stuck in the wilds of Papua New Guinea due to visa problems.* The verb is "to swim". We decide to elicit this from our speaker for comparison purposes.

Our speaker insists her language has no word for swimming.

Day Five:
The hours of intense elicitation sessions pay off. I discover a phoneme! I am so excited I can speak of nothing else for hours.

Day Six:
Our speaker, unprompted, teaches us to say, "I am eating the white man. I am chewing on his skin." We all shift uncomfortably in our seats and make a note of the nearest exit.

More exciting field work notes to follow, no doubt...


According to our speaker, the informant this other linguist used for his data was our speaker's niece. The niece was working for immigration and refused to let the linguist leave the country unless he did some work on her language as well as the one he was actually there to study. We wonder if the non-existent verb paradigm was some sort of revenge. Who by, we aren't quite certain.


Marie said...

I hear ya. Whenever I'm at a conference and hear fieldworkers talking about the languages they study, I always think, "How can you be so certain?" Because I was usually in a state of confusion while doing fieldwork...

Kelly said...

Wow - and I thought lab work was bad.

I'm quite curious about where you are. :)

StyleyGeek said...

Oh, I didn't go anywhere, Kelly. That's the point of fieldwork courses. You get the speaker to come to YOU. Unless you mean you are curious about where I live generally. On that front, feel free to email and ask :)

Bardiac said...

Oh, this sounds like some of the weirdness of trying to learn languages anywhere.

I can't say "dragon" in Japanese. I try, really. I ask native speakers to prounounce it, and they say "dew." So I say "dew" and they laugh and say, no, no, I have it all wrong. And then I try again and again and again, and I can't hear the difference. On the other hand, I have the beginnings of a great comic career, since I elicit much laughter.

Weekend_Viking said...

Obviously, you've chosen the wrong science for good fieldwork experiences :-) Now rocks, rocks don't have wierd tones or funny verb conjugations. I love fieldwork! I live for the fieldwork. As soon as any given job I have tries to promote me out of doing fieldwork into management, I tend to quit. Right now, I'm semi seriously considering blowing all my recently earned dosh to go Here and do fieldwork, for whoever needs it. (Yes, the area where I did my PhD fieldwork is blowing itself sky high right now. Although Chaiten is a bit to the north of where I worked, but I stayed there a bit)

Fieldwork. Mmmmmm, lovely fieldwork. I get to ride horses sometimes too, and do insane things with drilling rigs and 4wd vehicles.

Tom said...

Sadly, health economists don't get to do fieldwork (or lab work). It sounds like more fun than waiting for someone to send you piles of data.

I've never had a work related reason to ride a horse.