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"

1 comment:

  1. All of Lauren's loyal readers should know that not only has she been conducting her own research, she has also single-handedly been running the support team for mine. She's delivered me electronic equipment, chased up an external hard drive when data threatened to eat up my entire computer, and come to visit and give me moral support (and some extra small koala toys).

    Thanks Lauren! No way could I have done this without you. :)