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.