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

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