Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Home Again

Coming home has been lovely. Normally my return home from overseas adventures is a petulant concession to financial constraints, but this time I have been happy to return to my life of Western middle-class comfort, my family, and my lovely and long-suffering boy.

It has been, on the whole, a pretty good homecoming. I remember a conversation with my supervisor where she said she freaked out the first time she went into a supermarket when she returned from her first field trip. I figured I wouldn't have to worry about that - in Thailand I was able to reacquaint myself with tall buildings, shopping malls, obnoxious Westerners and air-conditioning. Also, although I liked to talk up how tough living in Nepal was, I really didn't have it all too bad there.

I was doing ok, until an adventure to Brunswick street for ice-cream last night. It was, for my jetlagged brain, to great a density of loud, drunk and vulgar 20-and-30-somethings. When we got to the supermarket I almost lost it when I saw there were no fewer than six (six!!) varieties of small tomatoes in plastic wrapping. We really are a stupid society to think that life is good because we can chose from six (six!!) different small tomatoes conveniently wrapped in plastic.

Hopefully as I get over the jetlag I'll become more immune to being back at home. There was a rather ominous present awaiting me - my bright yellow confirmation talk forms...

Friday, December 18, 2009

Tongue Thai-ed

I've been having a lovely time in Thailand, filling my days with green curry, temples, shopping, massages and air-conditioning.

It's taken me a few days to get used to the heat, big freeways and franchise restaurants - but one thing I've really struggled with is not being able to speak the language. I've once again become a tourist who can't even say thanks in the local lingo. I always make a habit of learning 'hello', 'please' and 'thank you' where ever I go, but right now my brain isn't even working to well at that.

I certainly don't want to overstate my proficiency in Nepali, but I always forget how unstressful a situation is when you can speak the language. I also forget how much of a guilt complex I have for being a native speaker of the tourism lingua franca. I don't know if anyone else feels foolish - it's silly. If English were my second language I'd be glad that I could use it all over the world, but as it is I just feel lazy and rude.

But still, there are 42 more hours to learn to be a bit more polite and indulge in a few more curries, temples and massages.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Farewell To Nepal

Tomorrow I'm flying out of Nepal after three months and six days of crazy fun-times rollercoaster adventures. I still have some things that I've been pondering that I'd like to share, but that will come later. Unfortunately there'll be no more stories like yesterday, where I accidentally had to pay three times more for a cab than I thought I was going to because I still can't count to anything past twenty in Nepali (the reasons for this, however, I will hope to blog about soon).

I'm sad about leaving, especially having had a week off - but I'm also looking forward to being able to head back to my own country, regroup and start making sense of the esoteric scribblings that constitute my fieldnotes.

I may drop out for a bit over the next few days, as I've only four days in Thailand to eat as much curry and get as many massages as possible.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Jog Around The Lake

I have a friend from Australia visiting me for the week before I pack up, make use of his excess luggage and spend a few days in Bangkok eating curry and relaxing.

It's been good to have someone from home to hangout with, and a bit strange as the two spheres of my life collapse into one. We've been doing lots of things I've kind of forgotten to do in the last few months - we drank beer, played cards and backgammon, went for a jog and slept in past sun rise.

It made me realise just how crazy my life has ben for the last few months. S. and I have had a lot of fun, and done lots of cool things, but just chilling out and forgetting about work eluded me while in Kathmandu. Hopefully I'll get to do some more chilling out before getting home.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Good Example?

My friend K. has arrived in KTM to hang out for a week and help remind me to do some tourism-ing. Today with S. we went to visit an educational program for at-risk youth in Nepal run by a friend of ours. We were very excited to see all the great work that his organisation does, and meet a bunch of the kids he works with. We weren't so impressed to be called upon to sing our national anthem in front of them all...

He was also excited we were visiting, so he could hold us up as paragons of the virtue of education. "Look, they've finished school, and then the finished university, and now they still study - isn't study great!"

I was very touched to be considered a good example, even if I won't have a real job until I'm almost thirty...

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Final Session

Today I had my final session with A. for this trip - I can't believe three months has gone already!

Although I know I'll have a million questions once I start analysing things at home, today's session wasn't actually that long or arduous. I spent the last week or so before heading to the country tidying up glaring questions, and this session was actually all the questions that came out of those sessions. If we were to go on this path any longer we'd be sucked into a black hole of endless questions.

It's interesting to compare it to the first few sessions, when I look back at how stilted and awkward they were, and how I missed such glaringly obvious things - I'm sure I do that still, but they're not obvious to me yet so I don't know...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

On The Topic Of Toilets

On thing I'm really struggling with at the moment is that the Nepali word for 'urine' is 'pisab' and the verb 'to urinate' is 'pisab garnu' (lit. to make urine).

'Pisab' is sufficiently innocuous to pop up in every day conversation, and when we were on the bus the equivalent to the driver shouting 'toilet break!' is to shout 'pisab garne!' I find it very difficult to use this word, as it's too similar to the much more taboo 'piss,' and I can't keep a straight face when anyone else uses it.

Unfortunately, I don't know if the Nepali word 'pisab' and the English word 'piss' are etymologically related. English and Nepali are both in the massive Indo-European language family, although at opposite ends of it, so the words could possibly be congate (ie from the same origin), but just as likely they could not. There is a big, beautiful Nepali Etymological Dictionary I could check, but I'm not allowed to buy it because I have too many books already.

Friday, December 4, 2009

In The Field

The flying visit to the country, although brief, was sufficiently action filled. I spent two hours going up the side of a mountain in the back of a jeep with 5 other people, 80 kgs of salt and sugar, 30 liters of cooking oil and 2 live chickens, I ate something that disagreed rather violently with me (really, it could have been anything) and I also got vomited on by an old woman on the bus trip home.

But apart from collecting hilarious and/or nauseating anecdotes (which on some fieldworkers' scale all go towards me being a better linguist) I was also there to collect some data, meet some people and check out exactly what was going on regarding K. in the area it's from.

To be honest, things looked pretty grim. Most of the people I spoke to used very little K. with their children, who had only a passive competency in the language. Many families had moved to other parts of Nepal, or overseas of work, or only the husband had. One village that apparently used to have over 50 families now has four. It struck me that maybe the speech community I'm working with isn't thriving, or even slowly dying, but already moribund (ie. it's not being passed on). Language death always makes me sad, although others write more articulately on the complexities and issues surrounding it much better than I ever will. The best introductions are David Crystal's 'Language Death' and Nick Evans' 'Dying Words'.

So there I was, feeling despondent, when a bunch of kids came up behind us and started pointing out the 'white woman'. Normally I try and ignore such prattle, as I'm enculturated to not point at people and make reference to their skin colour, and it generally makes me uncomfortable that I am such a freak here for being luminous under flashlight. Then I realised the kids were actually talking in K. (as I've said before, my passive competency is often better than I know). I've never been so excited to have a conversation about how white I am - 'white hands, white hair' I replied to them (as I said, I'm not very good at speaking). They headed off to their village higher up the hill. That children are choosing this language to interact with their peers, even when they're educated in Nepali, is an excellent sign of language vitality.

I would have loved to follow them, or visit their village the next day, but my stomach decided to put those plans on hold until next year

Saturday, November 28, 2009

To The Country!!

In posts across previous weeks I have made tentative references to my impending trip to the countryside to visit K. speakers living in the area that they come from. It has taken me til now, two weeks before my field trip comes to an end, to finally make my way out there.

This has not been due to any unwillingness, or laziness, on my behalf, but due to political instability in Nepal. The opposition party in the National Parliament were preventing anything from happening, and decided to attempt the population to rise up in the name of 'Civilian Supremacy'. During the weeks of political unrest we never did quite find out what that rhetoric meant.

I haven't bothered writing about it until now for a few reasons. Firstly, I didn't want to to concern anyone unnecessarily, which kind of flows on to point two, which is that it felt so surreal and never really affected our daily lives. This was rather hard for me to deal with, as - on one hand - the whole thing was majorly messing up my plans to get out of Ktm, and - on the other hand - my life kept ticking along like nothing was the problem. The 'bandah' days, where everything shuts down as a sing of solidarity, didn't really touch my little area, and the larger protests happened on the southern end of the city.

But, as mysteriously as the whole drama arose, it has dissipated again, and I'm now taking a trip out of the valley. It is shorter than I would have liked, and it's coming so late in things that I won't really get a chance to process or confirm any data that I get, but it is certainly better than not going at all.

So, if I can't find an webbage in my journeys for the next week I'm afraid the anecdotes will have to wait until I return home on Friday.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

When A Language Isn't... The Sequal

Yesterday, I did something that I wanted to do since before I came to Nepal, and something that I had no intention of doing the whole time I was here...

The thing I wanted to do, was visit a K. speaker. A while ago, I mentioned that I wasn't actually working on the language that I thought I was, but in fact a language that had exactly the same socio-linguistic features, just that the speakers lived about 200 km further West (http://lozguistics.blogspot.com/2009/10/when-language-isnt-language.html).

This gentleman, however, speaks the language that I was originally interested in. And so, after a lot of time organising to meet, I took a cab out to the KTM vally fringe for an afternoon. It was great talking to N. about his language, and noting the similarities and differences in his and A. attitudes towards their respective languages. Also, having done a short wordlist with him, I can also compare some things on a linguistic level.

And the thing I didn't want to do? Well, when I rocked up in the cab, N.'s son was waiting for me, with his motorbike. And so we took a quick spin along the quiet country back roads. Once I got over worrying about having my brains dashed out and wasting three months of work (oh, and the rest of my life too I guess), it was almost enjoyable.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


It doesn't matter how many times I eat out in Nepal (and trust me, it's quiet a lot) whenever I see 'buff meat' on the menu I instantly think they have a butcher hooking them up with the remains of gym junkies rather than buffalo.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Vocabulous, pt 2.

The cool thing about long, sprawling freestyle narratives is that all kinds of fun things pop up. Today I learnt a verb that meant 'to crack someone's resolve' - ie, their resolve not to drink. I also learnt that the verb used to mean that someone's hands were tied is the same verb as 'choke', so their hands were literally choked.

I'll let you try and work these amusing pieces of vobabulary into your own story.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Day In The Life...

A while ago my friend the Frog wrote a post about how his routine in a new city has all the hallmarks of his old routine back home ( http://largefrog.wordpress.com/2009/11/03/the-routine/ ). My life very quickly fell into a routine here, albeit somewhat different from home. As it's the day off for the week and I'm not following my normal routine I thought I'd give you a run down of my very dull days.

05:00 wake up - my early morning starts have reached a new level of earliness here. At the start it was because Jet lag made it convenient. But really, most of Nepal is in bed by ten so it's been easy to just kind of go with the general population. I make myself muesli, and do some work.

6:30 leave for A.'s - I think most linguists prefer their collaborators to come to them, but the half hour walk gets me out of the house for a bit. I like the sights and sounds (not necessarily the smells) of my daily walk.

7:00 - 9:00 - Session at A.'s. This involves a cup of sweet black tea at the start, and a cup of milky tea with biscuits at the end. Somewhere in between all the sugar we do linguistics.

9:00 - 10:00 - I wander home, occasionally stopping past an internet cafe, or the local dairy to buy some yoghurt.

10:00 - 16:00 - This part of the day passes in a blur, in which I feel like I spend a lot of time doing a lot of work and not getting very far. Lunch is often a strung out series of snacks. Have become very fond of packet soup, apples, and rivita with peanut butter.

16:00 - 17:00 - Nepali class. Although this is fairly sporadic as my teacher can be a bit vague sometimes and so can I.

17:00 - 20:00 - At some point I'll have dinner, often with S. in Thamel, or at my friend's house. Our place has no kitchen, except for an electric kettle, so there isn't a lot that gets made at our house except beverages.

20:00 - Pick up a book, or just vague out, until about nine o'clock when I get myself ready for bed, fall asleep and then start it all again.

I didn't promise it was an exciting routine...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Get Me A Dream Analyst!

To add to my list of things to cry 'woe' about; First, I sat on my glasses, and now they are getting their revenge by sitting wonky on my face. Second, I have a cold and and my face is stuffed with snot - when A. sympathised with me today she used the Nepali verb that's also used for cry, I think saying that one's nose is crying is much more poetic. Third, S. and I are having a tiff with out house cleaner over money and garbage removal. Dealing with surly house cleaners is not something I generally have to do in my life.

On a linguistic good note, last night I had the first dream where I recall speaking Nepali. For long winded and inexplicable reasons, someone was trying feed my mother chicken, and I turned to them and said in Nepali "she's vegetarian". Yup, that was the extent of it. I think my cold has made my head go funny.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

That Feeling In My Stomach...

There's less than thre weeks to go until it's time for me to pack up the audio-recorder and call and end to this adventure. In that time I have to get to the country-side, visit another consultant in a village near Kathmandu, attend a conference, finish transcribing the video I recorded and tidy up what loose ends I can find.

I can no longer tell whether the feeling in the bottom of my stomach is the mild food poisoning that's been plaguing me since I arrived or the thought of everything there is still to do...

Monday, November 16, 2009

Yaks In The Jungle With Gastric

No language is an island, and every language is constantly borrowing words and constructions from it's neighbours. Well, that is the speakers borrow them, and then they become part of the language.

This is something I have been reminded of time and time again while here. I've had Nepali people ask me what the English words were for 'load shedding'(ie enforced blackouts) and 'gastric'(stomach upset) - they were rather confused when I said they were the English words.

It's happened the other way as well - during sessions one of the words for forest was 'jungle'- a word that, like us, they have borrowed from their Indian neighbours, and, of course, the word for 'yak' is 'yak' - in this case we're the ones that did the borrowing from Tibetan.

Word borrowing can be a useful record of how languages interact and share. It's also fun to see what words get borrowed.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Tale Of Two Languages

While in Nepal, my time is taken up with two different languages - Nepali, which I use to get by in life, and run a lot of the elicitation session in, and K. which is my target language of study. My experiences of, and with, these two language, has been rather different.

Nepali is the langauge in which I have some productive competence. That is, I can speak it - not fluently by any benchmark, but certainly enough. In K. however, stringing together two sentence is a task of great difficulty. It's a common phenomenon that linguists don't possess any fluency in the language they're studying. While there is a school of thought that emphasises learning to speak the langauge being studied, I find that, especially on this short trip, I'm stuggling to find time to document, let alone learn.

That doesn't mean that I have no competency in K. I have found I've developed relatively good intuitions about what's grammatical - often for reasons I haven't expicitly analysed yet. My competency in K. would definitely fall into a much more passive category than my Nepali.

Because the two languages operate in two very different parts of my brain, there is relatively little cross-linguistic interference. There are a few lexical domains where I've done extensive elicitations in K. that interfere with Nepali - I'm much better with K. body parts than Nepali - but on the whole I don't tend to get too confused between the two languages.

Unfortunately, between the two of them they've obliterated any Polish-speaking skills I had remaining.

Friday, November 13, 2009


The cool thing about doing narrative tasks is that you never really know what's going to come out of them. For that reason I can now add fun vocabulary to my K. lexicon, like 'alcoholic', 'cower', 'medicine' and 'newspaper' - none of which I would ever think to elicit in a usual session.

The uncool thing about narrative sessions, is that they're mind-numbingly tedious to deal with. And I've jumped straight from cute little 2 minute monologues full of single verb sentences, to a 40 minute 2 person dialog shot on two cameras and an audio recorder, with lots of mumbling, talking over each other and language switching. We get through a few minutes of this every session, but it's painfully slow, and there's a lot of data entry behind that that takes up most of the day. And A. is getting sick of having to listen back to her own voice every day for 2 hours.

Looks like this is going to consume a lot of my remaining time here, but there's lots of fun stuff coming out of it thus far...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

All Quiet On The Work Front

Today I took my little laptop to A.'s house so that we could begin to listen through the audio recording of the videoed task for my transcription.

Anyway, while I thought the speakers would be loud enough, they were no match for the ceaseless ambient noise from the neighbourhood. Spend a frustrating 15 miuntes with three of us hunched around the computer before calling it a day. Annoyed at myself for not just buying speakers yesterday and instead wasting a whole day.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Same Same!

A few days ago I wrote abut the fun of minimal pairs (http://lozguistics.blogspot.com/2009/11/minimal-pairs-maximal-entertainment.html), and how these words can differ in the tiniest ways.

I've come across a number of lexical items from that collection that I've been worrying over. I just can't hear the different. Take 'minute' and 'star' as an example pair. I can't tell the different. It's not tone, it's not aspiration, it's not vowel length.

That's because these two aren't minimal pairs, but homophones. That is, they're both 'karmu'. Likewise 'song' and 'put' are both 'lu'. Here I was trying to make life hard for myself when the answer was really very simple.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Thoughts Of A Home Invader

Today's session was rather different to the routine that we've established over the last couple of months. Today I ran a task that involved A. and her cousin speaking - where I normally rely mainly on A. - and a task involving telling a story with pictures I provided - instead of usual tasks like sentence and word elicitation, or simple storytelling. And, just to really shake things up, I recorded the whole thing, not only with my audio recorder, but two cameras as well.

When I proposed this task, I really had no idea how A. would react to it. I mean, it's one thing to sit around with an audio recorder (in fact, it's quite easy to forget that it's on), and it's another thing to shut all the windows, turn lights on, have cameras staring at you and not drink any tea for a whole hour.

But she was totally fine with it, as was her cousin. In fact, they really enjoyed the task. It made me reflect upon just how obliging people can be. It's something that S. and I have discussed (Incidentally, I will point out with much excitement that S. is returning to Ktm on Tuesday after a month in the field). People can be incredibly generous with their time. I don't know if it's because they're flattered someone is showing an interest in the language they speak (or, in the case of S., their children), or if it's that we're just too stingy with our time back home. All I know is that everyday when I rock up at the house at 7 am I'm awed by the fact A. is willing to sit down for two hours and talk with me.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Changing pace

Over the last week or so I've definitely noticed a change in how I approach sessions, and my attitude to this whole project in general. I find there is less and less that surprises me during sessions, and there's less and less time spent on collecting new data and more time spent going over old stuff.

That's not to say that I understand everything that I've got so far. Far from it. That's part of the reason for the shift. Going through things rigorously to put into the Toolbox database has made me much more critical of things that I'd overlooked earlier - like why only one sentence in a paradigm is different ('I eat', 'you eat' and 'she eats' all have the same verb, but 'it eats' is different).

Anyway, things are likely to take an even bigger shift after tomorrow. As part of my data collection I'm video taping A. and her cousin at a prepared task. It's likely to take anywhere between 20-40 minutes, and is designed to get lots of different grammatical constructions. Most of the remainder of my time here will be spent going through it with A. and transcribing what was said.

Am now going home to check for the 8th time that the batteries in both of my cameras and my audio recorder are all charged.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Study Munchies

I have always suffered from the study muchies - a strange state produced by prolonged periods of mental exertion where I develop an overwhelming desire to eat large quantities of very trashy food. If linguistics were some kind of high profiled sport I'd be writing to the makers or Coconut Crunch biscuits, 2pm instant noodles and Mango Frooti beverages to sponsor me.

Those who claim not to be afflicted by this problem I envy for their good fortune, or their ability to lie so well.

It doesn't help that said muchies and not only cheep, but easy to obtain on my way to/from my house at one of the 7 different small grocers on my street. They sell these amazing roti for about 10 Australian cents each. And by roti I really mean donuts.

I am really very glad that almost all of my skirts are wrap-around.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Minimal Pairs, Maximal Entertainment

Today I spent a large part of the session going through sets of minimal pairs that I've accumulated. A phonetic minimal pair is where two words are exactly the same except for one feature. So 'tin' and 'ten' are a vowel minimal pair in English, and 'pet' is a consonant minimal pair with 'bet'. You can have more than two words that have minimally same features, for example, 'head', 'had', 'who'd', 'hid', 'hod' and 'heed' are a minimal vowel set for Australian English speakers.

Anyway, A. thought the whole affair was hilarious. After the first set or two she cottoned on to what I was doing, and with every pair her and her cousin would fall into fits of laughter. My recording of the session is punctuated by fits of giggling and exclamations of 'same, same!'

It made me remember that while my knowledge and understanding of K. grows daily, for A. it's a natural and subconscious thing. She's spoken the language all her life without ever having to reflect on the fact that 'brother' and 'body hair' are exactly the same, but the former has low tone and the later has high.

It also made me remember that language is silly and fun - as though I needed reminding.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

I Think It's Time We Started Seeing Other People...

... it's not you... it's me. You just can't give me everything I need...

For most researchers, fieldwork is mainly completed working closely with one or two people. But there comes a time when you need to broaden your horizons. It's a chance to check that what one person thinks is right holds across a number of speakers. That way you're documenting a language, not an idiolect. And no, an idiolect is not a language spoken by idiots - it's someone's personal (ie idiosyncratic) variety of language.

Today I had my first session with someone other than A. One of her cousins is staying with her for a week. It was a very basic session, we did the 100 word Swadesh List, which is a list of basic vocabulary that a lot of linguists use as a starting point. It was one of the first things I did with A. almost two months ago, and it was exciting to notice while we were going through it that I felt about a thousand times more confident than I did the first time I worked my way through this list with A.

This will hopefully be the first of many sessions with other speakers. Plans for a trip to the country are beginning to firm up.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Ngew Sounds

One of the (many many) differences between K. and English is that K. has word initial velar nasals.

To back up from the jargon a second - a velar nasal is a sound. English has this sound as well, it's a nasal sound you make by closing your mouth at the velar (near that hangy-downy bit) and making a sound through your nose. It's the -ng sound in 'sing', 'thing', 'ring' and 'wing'. The differences is that in English it only occurs at the end of a word, never at the start.

The word for 'I/me' in K. is 'nga'. It's been more than a month and I still trip up trying to get my tongue to fall into that position. It's just not natural for me. It ends up somewhere near my hard pallet (ie. the roof of my mouth).

I've started a rigorous training regime so that A. doesn't have to correct me every time I try and say 'I'.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


Although I waxed lyrical about Toolbox's usefullness very early on, for the last month I have been trying to tweek it to actually work in the way I want it to. That and intermittant periods of willfully ignorning it. Toolbox is a database program, which means that if it's set up the way you want it's effective and efficient.

All credit for getting it working actually falls to Nick T at uni, who is currently very high on my list of incredibly awesome people.

Now I just have weeks worth of data to input...

In The Bag

When it comes to my handbag I like to think that I walk the fine line between minimalists (keys, phone, wallet) and girl guides (prepared for anything). Fieldwork has definitely pushed me well to the 'be prepared' end of things. Every day I make sure I never leave without the following:

- usual wallet stuff (keys, phone, wallet)
- pens, pens, pencil, erasers, and spares
- audio recorder (who has not misbehaved since that one unfortunate incident)
- spare batteries and spare spare batteries
- phrase book (generally pointless but occasionally useful)
- anywhere between one and three mini dictionaries
- a shawl, because Ktm is starting to get chilly of a morning
- tissues (because one should never assume here that people have toilet paper in their houses
- fieldwork book where I write everything as we go
- my camera, because I'm determined to get a photo of the man riding the flatbed tricycle laden with wobbling meat who I occasionally pass on my way to A.'s house
- water bottle (I'll happily drink hot tea, but prefer my own water)
- my little notebook in which I organise my entire life

Unsurprisingly, my small handbag was long ago abandoned for a big slouchy bag. I'm building up rather good shoulder muscles. Perhaps I should upgrade to a hiking pack.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

For Example...

There are basically two aims to fieldwork. The first is to try and figure out exactly what the hell is going ok, linguistically speaking, when people use the language they use. The second, which is inextricably linked to the first, is to furnish yourself with examples of the phenomena you've observed.

A written grammar is really just someone making assertions about a language and backing them up with examples. For example , if I were writing a grammar of English, I may make some observation like "plurals normally end in -s" and then give example sentences that I'd collected from an English speaker - "the three dogs", "she ate four cakes".

Examples are important - but when you're reading a grammar you take them for granted because they're just there, in print, looking very legitimate and impressive. Some of them are quite famous. Any Tibeto-Burmanist would instantly recognise "He said that he went there" as being from Hale's seminal work on the conjunct/disjunct system (the rest of you don't need to worry about it at all).

Anyway, it's easy to forget that these examples come from somewhere. Hale actually sat down at some point and asked a Kathmandu Newari speaker to say "He said that he went there". Also, when you start thinking about it, a lot of example sentences are quite strange and you wonder where they come from. Were they prepared by the researcher? Recorded on the fly during a session? Part of a narrative? How do you get such wonderful sentences as "(It is said that) I used to love my little dog a lot" (taken from Aksu-Koc & Slobin 1986)?

I'm building up a fair corpus of wacky sentences - especially as I've been turning to Nepali textbooks for inspiration. I wonder at this early point what will take my fancy later as being clear and pertinent examples of what is important in this language. I hope it's not some of the sentences from recent sessions such as:

"why do you beat the dog?"
"the earth is round"
"you never spoke English while living in Australia"
"before eating I wash my hands"
"he was cured because of good medicines"

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Wall

It's one of those things that has to happen at some point on every field trip. It's the point where you just want to give up. Where you hit a wall and decide that you'd much rather be sitting at home drinking tea (without sugar!), watching Tony Jones on Lateline and getting up in the morning for another day of predictable repetition.

I had really hoped that a few days of mind-numbing physical effort climbing mountains would give me a bit of fresh enthusiasm. But I'm feeling the data piling up, the analysis becoming more chaotic, and the computer software is not reading my mind and working automatically. Computers once again you fail me with your lack of psychic ability!

Although I'm ready to call it quits today I know the chocolate cake I'm about to order and a good night sleep will make things a bit better. That and I'm stuck here, so I may as well keep working. Interestingly, as of today, I'm halfway through my time in Nepal - which helps put a positive spin on the though that it's all downhill from here.

Monday, October 26, 2009

No No, No Yes

Spent the last few days visiting S. to see what good old fashioned 'roughing it' fieldwork is like. Hiked two days through the Himalayan foothills, to a field site that is at altitude and is a short walk from a lovely view of Everest. Ate a lot of apple pie and instant noodles and didn't shower much. Also got a chance to try and speak some Nepali, which reminded me of something that I really wanted to blog about earlier.

Each language has difficulties for the beginner. K. - as I've complained about ad nauseam - has it's tonal system, French et. al. has it's gender system, Eskimo has few words for snow, but lots of ways to modify them. Native speakers have no problem with these things, and it's these differences that, although trying at times, are what make languages so interesting.

Nepali is interesting to the English speaker in that it has no direct equivalents for 'yes' and 'no'. Instead, you use the conjugated form of the verb. So if someone asks "do you feel hungry" (tapaai bok lagio) your reply is "I feel hungry/not hungry" (malaai bok lagio/lagdaina). "Is he here?" (u yaaha cha) is replied to with "is/ is not" (cha/chaina).

Like most languages, there is a bit of a way around this. If you want to say yes, you can say "hajur", which kind of means 'sir' but can be said to anyone.

Still, as a speaker of a language that has a rather easy out when it comes to answering yes/no questions, it's been, and still is, a huge processing load to make sure I understand the right question, remember the verb and re-conjugate it just to answer straight-forward questions.

I've been told Welsh is similar, anyone else learnt or heard about a language without yes and no?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

To The Hills!

As a not-quite-but-nearly-halfway-there break I'm taking a week off to visit S. in the Khumbu region, eat l.ts of apple pie and do a bit of walking. I've even aquired myself a pair of walking poles - going with the theory that if I'll compensate for my lack for fitness with fancy gear.

If you don't hear from me in the next week it's because I'm without internet. If you don't hear from me for longer than that I've been eaten by a yeti.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Shake It

As the mid-trip frivolity continues, I'm going to make a few more not-so-work related posts. Obviously, the theme will still be linguistic; this is "Lozguistics" after all. "Loz eats her way through all the cafes in Thamel", or "Loz buys outrageous amounts of clothing and books and makes herself feel better by telling herself she's just helping the local economy" would be whole blogs in themselves.

Before I dedcided it was a great idea to take up field-work on a Tibeto-Burman language - with no real experience in either fieldwork or Tibeto-Burman studies - I did a lot of undergrad work with gesture. Although the only work I do with gesture now is try and convince my supervisor to publish papers so I can get my name on them, I still have more than a passing interest in the field.

In Nepal, acsent is deomstrated by shaking the head from side to side. I've decided to get in on this, to varying sucess. Firstly, it made me feel dizzy for quite a few days. Secondly, I occationally get confused and shake my head to mean 'no' instead of yes. Thirdly, I still feel like I'm signaling ambivilance, which is what I'd use the gesture for at home.

Still, it's been rather fun, now I just have to get used to saying 'la' instead of 'yeah' while back-channeling.

In a Sari... Speaking Polish

While I am happy to report that the first half of this story was a hilarious sucsess, the second half was less so.

The great thing about the sari is that I, a veritable giant in this country, can fit into the same sari as my slender five foot friend. So, I let myself be treated like a (giant) Barbie doll and got sari-ed and bangled up.

We went downstairs to hang out with the neighbours. The neighbour, a treking guide, brought his group home to celebrate Tihar. The trecking group included a Swede, who I impressed with my one sentence of Swedish ("My boss is stupid"), an Italian, who speaks a language I like to claim absolutely no prior knowledge of (Nope, I didn't spend 10 years learning that langauge at all...) and two Polish women.

Now Polish is a language that, up until about 6 weeks ago, I would have said I have middling competence in. But with speaking Nepali every day, it took me about 30 seconds just to say "I speak a little Polish" and even then I think I used Nepali word order.

After a very confusing mangling of Polish I went back to speaking to my Nepali friends and spent the rest of the evening trying to conjugate Nepali verbs using Polish tense.

But, you know, at least I got to do it in a Sari...

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Happy Tihar

For those of you that were worried that I have been spending too much time working and not enough time doing, well, other things, rest assured the next week or so abounds in non-worky adventure. Unless my supervisors are reading this - and then it is moderately full of adventure and still very productive.

This weekend is Tihar - the festival of lights. The whole city is decked out in marigolds and fairy lights. Today I made marigold chains and tomorrow I'm going to learn how to make roti.

Next week I'm off to Khumbu for 5 days to visit and friend, eat apple pie and maybe get a good view of that big mountain they have.

Global Lexicon

As I try and move away from set elicitation (where I ask A. to translate a sentence from Nepali to K.) I'm trying to get more natural spoken data. So, today, I asked Asa to tell me about the different food and drink that they have in her home village.

I found out all about the different meats they eat, and about these dumplings they make by mixing salty milk tea and sweet flour. One of the drinks that A. mentioned was koga. I asked her to tell me more about this Nepali beverage:

"You know, coca cola."

And so once again my romantic notions get in the way of capitalistic realism. Still, it's good evidence of the voicing of non-word initial syllables. Or perhaps that's just a lack of aspiration and my ears playing tricks on me again. Back to the tapes!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

When Friends Fail

One of my best friends on this trip so far (of the non-human friend category) has been my digital audio recorder. I have absolutely no faith in my primary transcriptions while in sessions, so being able to listen back is vital. The recorder is small, light, records in high quality .wav format and, after the session, allows me to cut my recording up so that there's in more managable sizes. I could also use it to convert my files to mp3, but I find it's a bit slow for that.

Yesterday, as it was dividing a file for me... it froze! I used the standard IT solution of turning it off and turning it on again, and it was still not playing happily. So I gave it a stern talking to and went off to dinner without it.

(I should probably note at this point that I don't often take my audio recorder to dinner... I find it makes my laptop jealous).

Fortunately, when I got home my audio recorder remembered who is boss and started working properly. But for a while there I thought we were in trouble!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Good Days and Other Days

Some sessions everything goes great, and you're convinced that you and your informant are totally on the same page and everything is cruising along.

And other sessions you ask them how to say 'how far is Pokhora from Kathmandu' and you spend 5 minutes sitting there while they call their son to check just how far apart they are.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sit Down! or, How Not To Talk To a Lama

Like all languages, except maybe that spoken by surly teens, K. has a variety of politeness strategies. One of these, is that when speaking to someone who commands the utmost respect, such as a Lama you use an entirely different verb.

So, if you're talking about a normal person eating, you use the verb 'sadong' and its conjugations (please, don't think of asking me what they are...), but if you want to talk about a Lama eating you use the word 'sho'. There are a handful of verbs that have a regular form and a 'respect' form, most of them pretty common ones like eat, drink, sleep, come, stand etc.

This is all very well, and quite a nice way to do things - however, trying to elicit data with respect forms is quite difficult. Its easy to get someone to say things like 'you ate all the rice' or 'you didn't eat rice' - but it's a bit hard for them to imagine saying 'you are not eating rice, most holy Lama'. Sure it's grammatically possible - but it's just not easy getting people to say it.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

''A'' Drama That Won't End

Continuing to listen to more and more data, I'm now less convinced that the problem I had trying to tell the difference between two As is actually a problem of two different sounds.

Instead, I think that it's just one /a/ sound, but that can be made more forward in the mouth (like Australian 'rang'), or further back (like 'rung') but which can change depending on things like which other sounds that it's made near, whether there's a high or low tone, or whether it's long or short.

This kind of mind-changing throughout the analysis period (and after!) is a standard part of the process - no one's going to hear everything perfectly on the first parse - but it does lead to crazy, messy notes, which doesn't sit well with my clean-freak nature.

Other phonological problems I'm still not sure about (If you have no interest in phonetics, just stop reading now):

- There is one sound that could either be an affricate [dz](like English 'jam') or a frictive [z] (like the French 'rouge')
- This language has alveolar stops - like the t and d in english (although I think they're more dental)- and retroflex stops (where you curl your tounge under) and I can't here the difference a lot of the time.
- As well as alveolar/ retroflex distinctions there's a voiced/voiceless unaspirated/voiced aspirated distintion on all the stops. Basically, aspiration is where a little bit of air comes out when you make a sound, like English sounds p,t and k. Unaspirated is where your vocal cords don't vibrate, but you don't actually make any noise. English b, d, and g are often voiceless and unaspirated. Voiced stops are really heavily voiced. My silly English speaker ears hear all voiceless unaspirated as voice.
- Tone. I'm getting better, but you know, it's like suddenly realising reality has another dimention, but only if you look at it from the right angle...

Friday, October 9, 2009


Yes, I admit it, I am weak. I can't hack the 6 day working week and I'm taking a Western Weekend - Sunday and all.

I don't think the 6 day working week is a bad thing - especially if you work 10-5 like normal people. But my days have been much longer and I'm not getting much analysis done, which means I'm not really making the most of session time. So this will be catch up time. I might also get some sightseeing done...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Hardcore Linguistics

Thanks to the unusually late monsoon rains, and the muddy sludge-pits that are Kathmandu roads, I found that for a second time yesterday I was laying on my back thinking 'how did I get myself into this situation.'

I really dont want to tell you how muddy I got, or how bad I smelt - suffice to say that even one of the homeless chroming Thamel kids looked at me like I needed a shower. I scraped my arm up nice and well - don't worry mum, I put lots of detol on it. Apart from the shock, a few scratches and having my brand new skirt ruined, I'm ok, but it did make me feel like a very hard-core fieldworker.

Take that armchair linguists!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

When a Language isn't a Language

This post is a bit of a long'un, and is something of a summary of stuff that's been happening over the last three weeks or so, regarding the status of the language I'm working on. I thought I would wait til I had a better handle on the situation before sharing it all.

Before coming to Nepal, I had read a lot about a couple of languages in particular. One is a relatively large language spoken in an area north of Kathmandu, we'll call it Y. for now. The other is very closely related, spoken by a small population - around 1000 people - 100 km east of the Y. area - the story is that about 5 generations ago they left the Y. area, and went into paper making.

When L. found me a K. speaker I was quite excited, as no work had been done with anyone from this language for about 30 years (which reminds me, I'll blog later about the politics of working with speakers). In the first few sessions, what A. told me lined up with what was said about K.; 500-100 speakers, related to, but slightly different to Y. and a family history of paper making. Only thing is, a week or so later when I brought a map of Nepal with me, she lives in a village 100 km WEST of the original area.

So here I was with a language that was what it was, but it also wasn't. Quite how the other group of K. speakers (which is undoubtedly not the same language/dialect) came to such prominence, and this group remained unknown, even to people who have worked with Y for many years, remains one of those curiosities of a country of itinerant polyglots. Both groups likely migrated out of the Y. speaking area at the same time and took to the same occupation, and thus their groups and their language were given the same name. Still, it's a rather cool parallel.

As it is, all reports indicate that this language is very very closely related to the language it split from. Also, the name K. is not going to remain, as it's related to an occupation that is a low-caste occupation, so people are a bit hung up about it. I'll continue to refer to it as K. for blogging purposes, but that will change in the future.

Would I Lie...?

Today I found myself flat on the floor saying repetitively in Nepali "I am not asleep" in the hope that everyone was on the same page about the verb 'to lie'. It is somewhat worrying that I feel more confident in my charades skills than my Nepali dictionary reading skills.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


during a session on clothing, attempts to elicit the K. word for 'underwear' met with five minutes of uncontained mirth from A., her daughter, cousin and pretty much the whole family. Everyone was so busy being amused that the only conclusion they could come up with was that they use the Nepali word. Will have to wait til I meet some other speakers to fill this lexical gap.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Marty Isn't Home

Turns out our absent treking-guide upstairs neighbour isn't called Marty, his name is Peter. 'Mati'is the Nepali for upstairs.

No wonder the cleaning lady thinks I am crazy...

A Silver Lining

Con: The person revving their motorbike downstairs was rather annoying and made very loud sounds while I had my recorder going during a session.

Pro: The irritating volume helped Asa remember the K. word for 'loud'.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Spot of 'A' Bother

So, reading back through my notes, and listening to files, it's become apparent that I've been transcribing two different sounds with the same symbol. I've been using 'a' for the vowel sounds similar to those in 'rang' and 'rung'. this is not surprising, I'm not a geat phonologist - actually, I'm not really a good syntactician, or morphologist, or semanticist really.

Not sure how to rectify it in the transcriptions I've already done, or in the transcription program I use where there's no access to fancy fonts, but I guess recognising the mistake is the first step...

Saturday, October 3, 2009

By the Book

The complexity of sentences that I'm attempting to elicit in K. have so quickly outstripped my competency in Nepali that all my example sentences from yesterday's session came out of S. and my rapidly expanding collection of Nepali course books. It still took me longer to prepare the session than to run, so much so that I didn't even bother to feel guilty.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Oh Brother Yoghurt!

Yesterday's session involved a bit of 'cleaning up' work - checking things over, and filling in some lexical gaps from what I'd collected so far. In a session on food items I'd negelected to get the word for yoghurt after being distracted by a prolonged dicussion about Tibetan butter tea.

I asked A. for the word, using Nepali, added it to my list and moved on. When I was going over my notes again I noticed that the word for yoghurt looked very much like the word for brother that was in a sentence below.

Checked with Asa again today, and sure enough, turns out yoghurt was a totally different word - but she thought I'd said 'dai'- older brother, not 'dohi'- yoghurt. The fault is all mine, my Nepali pronunciation is not always brilliant.

It did make me wonder if I'd ever have noticed the mistake if I hadn't had the two words on the same page. Maybe best not to think about these things...

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Let me tell you a story...

At some point in any elicitation process you have to let go of the comfort, safety and laziness of translating wordlists and sentences and move on to short narratives and stories.

Yesterday I asked A. if she could tell me about her family. This provoked much consternation, and so I said I'd let her prepare for today.

She had decided to get her daughter to write it in Nepali and recite it to her and then she translated it into K. Not the most natural language situation, but a good start. Then we listened back and line translated it into a strange Nepali-English hybrid. Although I often find my lack of Nepali and A. limited English a hindrance in sessions the story turned out to be not that hard to work though.

I already collected family terms, so a lot of the narrative makes sense to me, but there's lots of exciting things that haven't come up in sessions so far. Of home now to transcribe it and check it out in detail!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Fieldwork Beyond the Work

Although I frequently complain about the mindboggling volume of work involved in in this venture, there are some fun times as well.

Today S. and I were invited over to A.'s house for lunch. I haven't really spent any time there beyond elicitation sessions, but it was a lot of fun. We watched some mysterious Tibetan action-drama film and ate great homemade daal-bhat.

Today is 'bhai tikka' day - where brothers put a tikka on peoples'foreheads. A. did the honours for the family, despite the fact she's not anyone's brother, and S. and I walked home with full bellies and big white tikkas on our foreheards. Apparently red tikkas are Hindu and white are Buddhist, you learn something all the time.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Lowering the Tone...

... sorry... this post isn't actually smutty (and yes, yes, I promise I'll remember to tell you how it goes if I have a session of eliciting naughty words).

I'm not talking about the tone of decorum - I'm talking about linguistic tone. Tone is where you use the relative pitch of what you're saying as a way of contrasting lexical difference - So if you say 'uncle' in Mandarin with a different pitch you could accidental say 'rabbit' - which is embarrassing for you - unless you're uncle is a rabbit.

Most languages from the Tibetan family have tone - Lhasa (modern 'Tibetan'), Sherpa, Gurung, Yohlmo and Manange all still have lexical tone. So, after my first session, I wasn't too surprised to have found the tone pairs that I was so excited about.

Thing is, I'm not very good with tone. I'm not good at hearing it, or analysing it. And because it's basically only a two way distinction in Tibetan languages it can be hard to really hear the contrast.

S., with her usual, level-headed dispensing of advice, has loaned me her intro to Tibetan book (I'm not sure how she had room for clothes with all the invaluable books she has with her). I've been listening to the accompanying CD trying to get my head around it. Not much luck so far - lets hope that there aren't too many minimal pairs more likely to cause offence than uncle and rabbit.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Money, Money, Money...

Nepal has run out of money.

The day before the biggest festival begins, and there is no physical money to be had in the whole country:


S. and I have enough money to feed ourselves for the next few days, but our rampant book buying may have to be curtailed temporarily. I'd gotten used to living with scheduled blackouts, patchy hot water and main roads that I wouldn't even take a rally car down, but somehow it never occurred to me that a whole country could run out of paper money.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

All I Want Is a Book of Nepali Verb Conjugations...

It's not too much to ask, is it?

They've got them for every European Language. Was not impressed by S.'s suggestion that I write my own.

Friendly Neighbourhood Linguistwoman...

As it's the Daisan holiday, sessions are not just A. and I at the moment - but her daughter, sister, niece, son, and, second cousin. We were working with animal names and we were getting confused between spiders and scorpions. someone mentioned Spiderman - and with a bit of superhuman note flicking I was able to give the K. for Spider-man; "kyobidza shawabu". Perhaps not so catchy, but everyone thought it was hilarious.

Score one for linguistics and one for laughs.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

And I Thought My Job Was Hard...

Yep, those legs are attached to a person, and that fridge is strapped to his forehead... Kind of makes you realise your life isn't that tough.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Home Sweet Home

This post goes out with an apology to all those suffering through the crappiness of the rental market in your respective cities...

Although life has been very pleasant in the guest house, it was never going to be the best option in the long run. The traffic was a bit too noisy, the bed was too uncomfortable to really be conducive to sleep or long term spinal health, and there was a cow that would moo all night...

So S. and I thought we should find somewhere else to live. We happened to check out a noticeboard in a cafe offering a two bed room apartment. It's short walk from Thamel, in a quiet area, came partially furnished and is costing us AUD 80 a month each.

All well and good, the only small worry is that our landlady has said that as part of the rental agreement shell make use of the lounge room some afternoons between work and the commute home. Fortunately there are locks on the bedroom doors, and with the amount we're saving on rent I may be making good friends with the staff of a few cafes around Thamel on weekday afternoons...

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Quiet Place in Kathmandu...

... it doesn't exist...

Although I am becoming familiar with the dude selling stuff that starts singing his wares at 7:30, and the construction team that starts at 8 o'clock, and the motorcyclist that leaves outside the house at 8:30. It makes for an interesting session, trying to record around the daily noice of the city.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I do love a good slaughter...

In a couple of days it'll be one of the biggest holiday seasons in Nepal - Dasain. Although mainly a Hindu festival it's a bit like Christmas, where families get together and the wheels of commerce come to a grinding halt for a few days. Although, unlike Christmas it has a whole day dedicated to slaughtering goats all over the place.

I have been looking forward to the festival as a chance to have a few days off from sessions to catch up, regroup and have a break (the working week here is 6 days, and the one day off is never enough). It's mentally straining for two hours in the sessions, then I spend about four hours processing (although I don't get it all done and a backlog of things I want to do is already mounting) and another two hours preparing for the next session, because I have to figure out everything I want to do first and then translate it into Nepali. Then I also have Nepali classes, and have to do other things like eat, be social, sleep.

So I asked L. how many days holiday I should give A over Dasain. - 'Oh, no problem,' he said. 'She's a Buddhist, you give her one day off.' I almost wilted at the thought. Have decided to embrace my inner Hindu for a week and make myself a vegetarian goat to slaughter...


Yesterday I committed the folly of forgetting to turn on my tape recorder for most of the session...

I won't pretend I wasn't a little glad to have less to listen to after yesterday's session...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Paper, Paper, Paper

I thought having four work books would be enough - plus a smaller one for non-linguistic notes, my daily diary, my planner, my three books to write neat copies of vocab lists in IPA and my wad of paper for working stuff out... But after 3 sessions I've already used 30 pages of one of my 60 page books. I'm going to go through all my note books in less than a month at this rate!

Between the twenty-thousand note books and the huge number of resource books I've been buying it's likely that I'll not have any room in my luggage home for anything but paper...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Toolbox-ing Clever

I never thought I would ever say this... but this post is an ode to how useful analytical software is.

Toolbox is a database program, which is basically a dictionary where you add entries, then when you put longer texts in -eg. sentences and stories - it will help you analyse the words into English based on the words in your dictionary.

I was putting the words from yesterday's session in, and getting a bit tired of how mundane and repetetive the process is in the early stages. I added the word 'eight' which is 'ki' - and Toolbox flashed up a screen saying "you've already got that it means 'who'" - so I looked though my notes and there it was! I had a tone minimal pair - that is, they were exactly the same in every way except one had low tone and the other had high tone. Toolbox also noted that 'he' and 'one' were also the same - another tone pair! I got A. to confirm them today. I possibly would have noticed it myself, but never as quickly as Toolbox did.

Apart from my moment of excitement it's been going well, but it's hard. In 90 minutes of recording there is so much data, but you have to absorb as much as you can and get ready to do it all again tomorrow. And without the luxury of other people being there you have to listen to your doubts but not let them overwhelm you. Luckily, Ktm has lots of cafes with nice cake, which is a short term panacea to my worries.

Monday, September 14, 2009

To Work Indeed!

L. sure has lived up to the stories I heard about him, after yesterday morning's post he introduced me to A., a K. speaker living in Kathmandu, and this morning we had our first session!

So this is probably a good juncture to explain exactly what (ideally) happens in an elicitation session. As it was only the first session, I decided to keep it simple, and get words for body parts, colours, numbers - things that I kind of know the Nepali words for, because A. doesn't speak much English. L. had explained to her that she needed to repeat what I said in K. three times. Only problem is, when I asked her "what is your name" she tried to teach me how to say it in K. - much confusion ensued...

It was a very crazy session, L. stayed, and A.'s son helped translate, and other family members kept coming in to check out what was happening, and of course, everyone had an opinion. Also, being Kathmandu, it is impossible to not have background noise, the recording is littered with the sounds of motorbikes, birds, people hocking up lungs, and mobile phones ringing.

Although I'd prepared about 7 pages of words, all in English and Nepali, we were done in a little over an hour. So I'm going to have to do heaps of work to ensure that I have two hours worth of stuff for future sessions.

A, is lovely, and appears to approach the whole endevour with the attitude of a bemused mother. Her son and daughter understand a little K., but they mainly speak Nepali.

So now I have about 60 minutes worth of audio, and some 60 or 80 pieces of vocabulary. I'll spend the rest of the day reading over the transcriptions, checking the recordings, adding things, writing it up in the 'good' notebook, putting the words into the database program, and figuring out what to do for the next session tomorrow.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

To Work!

In all my supervisor's stories about her field work in Nepal, one person looms large. He was the local go-to man. If there was something you needed, if there was a language you were interested in, he could get you what you needed and find you who you needed as though it were no trouble at all.

L. is still living in Nepal, although my supervisor hadn't had much contact with him. Until this week that is. And now L. is back on the seen. He's a bit like the overzealous Nepali uncle I never had. With L. on the case my days of long Nepali classes, sightseeing and shopping (it's a legitimate form of Nepali practice, and economic assistance...) are most likely coming to an end and it's time to do some actual work.

Also, S. arrives from Australia today. She's working on a different language and focusing on child language acquisition, but it'll be good to have someone else around to hangout with.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Language Learning Solutions

I've decided to supplement my daily Nepali classes with afternoons of cafe-hopping, drinking coke and working through Matthews' 1992 "A Course in Nepali". Both the choice of text and daily intake of said noxious beverage are on supervisorial advice.

It's a good book, no frills, just straight into the meat of things, with lots of examples - although I do feel like a bit of an old colonial - in lesson one I learnt how to ask where the washer man was, and if our servant was in the house. I also learnt how to talk all about sons, but daughter wasn't even mentioned in the vocab list. Maybe it'll be in lesson two, with the possessive form.

Was jubilant in my victory of buying a terribly trashy ring from a street side seller using only mangled Nepali today. Of course, when it all becomes too much I've come upon a solution to avoiding English, but not speaking Nepali; the Bakery Cafe only hires deaf staff, so I don't have to speak at all.

Spent half an hour over coffee daydreaming about tossing in all my other plans and documenting the sign language of the Nepali deaf community - until I remembered that I knew even less about sign language structure than I apparently know about spoken language. Oh well.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

It's All Nepali to Me

Somewhere on my long, constantly changing, and tastefully colour-coded to do lists was a deceptivly simple looking item - learn Nepali. I never expected that working from a 'teach yourself' book and reading dialogues with S. over chai once a week would lead to fluency (although I think the consumption of chai and not coffee certainly enhanced the learning). But I also didn't expect that there would be so many other things to do before leaving that I wouldn't get much further than learning the alphabet and telling people my name.

So I'm trying to throw myself into things a bit more now that I'm here. I have daily lessons every morning, and spend my afternoons amusing the locals with my manglings.

It doesn't help that I'm living in the tourist end of town where everyone speaks English. And, unlike when I was in Poland and looked enough like a local, I can't try and fool people into thinking that I speak the lingo.

It's always fun to lose the fear and just have a go at things, the guesthouse owner humours me, as does the guy where I buy my paper every day. And my teacher is suffiently earnest to not laugh when I tell her that my mother is Australia, or that I have a girlfriend.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


It's as though I've just tried to find a city that's as different to my own as humanly possible. It's muggy and warm, with small twisting streets where the gutters crumble away into nothingness, debris and scum. The buildings have accumulated the patina of wear so they look like they've been here forever. The air is so choked with smog and icky that I've never been more thankful for the snot in my nose.

And I could not be more excited right now. I've settled into my guesthouse, although they're having a bit of trouble understanding why I don't want to start booking my time full of trekking and sightseeing. I start Nepail lessons tomorrow, and have already had a good crack at ruining the language today.

Am off to find some food, and maybe a power adapter. And to all you doubters, I am very glad I bought my pretty pink crocs because I don't trust my feet in open shoes around here.

The fun begins!

I'm at Bangkok airport waiting for my flight to Kathmandu - and despite months of research, listening to supervisorial anecdotes and devouring the LP guide to Nepal I still don't really know what to expect when I arrive.

Sitting here, I'm reminded of dinner a few nights ago when my housemate J. asked me exactly what I'd be doing while away - which is a fair question. Despite living with me through most of under-grad J. really only gets to hear me talk about linguistics when it involves making terrible jokes about mugs being vases, Gnome Chomsky and the colour grue.

Bascially, over the next few months, I'll be trying to find some speakers of a language - I have a couple of potential languages in mind - and spending a lot of time asking them questions about it in order to document it. And yes, before you ask, it is possible to document a language you don't speak. Hopefully this blog will give some more detailed insight into that process.

But before we get to all that I'm just going to get there, get my land legs and find me some Nepali lessons and some decent daal.