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 (

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 ( ). 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 (, 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'.