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...