Saturday, December 18, 2010

N-gram games

Google have announced a new toy to play with - actually, it's not really a toy, but the biggest searchable English language corpus in the world. 360 billion words from around 5 million books are at your disposal. That's over a thousand times larger than any existing corpus.

It's not as well structured as some university-based corpora - for example, they've side-stepped the issue of copyright with newer books by not showing you the context of the word you're searching for. There's also no ability to fine tune for genre, or anything other than "British" or "American" English. But it's still a lot of fun. There's a nice discussion about it here on good ol' Language Log, but if you're more interested in just playing you can head here.

I thought I'd use it on some old lexical friends of ours to see how it goes. First of all, after our recent discussion about "luck out" I plugged in that phrase. These are the frequencies I got:

Given that there wasn't much in the newspaper corpora from earlier than the mid 20th century this chart adds to the theory that "luck out" is a relatively recent phrase. Especially when we look at some of the examples from the 19th century and find things like:

we must not leave " good luck" out of the statement, as we feel assured that ' good luck' is a great point towards a fortune (Pierce Egan's book of sports, and mirror of life, 1832, p. 71)


Have yure eyes about you, and luck out for sparks
(Thomas Hood, Hood's own, or, laughter from year to year, 1939, p. 352)

The first being a different structure, but still picked up thanks to the OCR not picking up punctuation while the second appears to be an outdated way to spell 'look.'

The same types of mistaken reading occur up until the first reference I've found for the phrase as we know it. In George A. Meyer's 1975 book "The two-word verb: a dictionary of the verb-preposition phrases in American" where we find the entry for "Luck":

Used as a verb only in the expression "luck out", luck out I (9) Slang. John lucked out when his motorcycle crashed into the big truck. (He was not seriously injured.)

This adds weight to the earlier analysis that the 'positive' definition of "luck out" is more of a USA usage than a UK one - and with the earliest usage I could find was a quote from a baseball player in 1971 the time frame for this 1975 book entry is also about right. After that 1975 entry there are more that pop up, and it appears that the sharp upward curve in the frequency count is somewhat attributable to increase in this phrase

Another old friend of ours here is the pejorative term "douche bag." Here we see a spike in usage in the 1920s:

The 1920s peak in usage is from the heyday of the douche bag as a piece of medical equipment, and the search function provides you with a baffling and occasionally scary array of books and journals on the topic. These kind of references occur right into the 2000s, and are still more common than the derogatory usage, but this begins to creep in during the 1970s and 1980s. Still, these references are not nearly as common as to single-handedly explain the rise in usage of "douche bag" since the 1970s.

Strangely enough, our old buddy "awkward turtle" has not made it into a publication in the Google corpus. This is possibly because the corpus stops in 2000 and "awkward turtle" is newer, but also likely to do with the fact that only using published book corpora gives a limited type of language use. A reminder that while book and published material corpora are interesting and useful they're not always the final word on language use!

You too can play at home! The Lousy Linguist has a great little post today about how not to interpret n-grams, but have a play for yourself and if you find anything amusing let us know below!

Happy New Year!

After a lovely few weeks holiday I've sent my own personal Porter back home - with a chuck of my ever-growing book collection. Having time off over the Christmas and New Year period was lovely, and certainly a different experience to this time of year back home. I'll share a few of our adventures over the next week or so before I head back to the village and leave email behind me for a few weeks.

One of the social highlights of the holiday was New Years Eve, when we met up with some friends, and a few of their drunk friends and ended up at a jazz bar drinking cocktails until the small hours. Of course, the Western New Year isn't that exciting in Nepal - it's one of at least a dozen that crops up.

There's the Nepali New Year which is in mid-April - it's based on the Bikram Sambat calendar also used in India. We're currently in the year 2067, which actually makes 2011 seem a little behind the times.

Then there's the Newari New Year - Newars being indigenous to the Kathmandu Valley, and their calendar is the Nepal Sambat. For them, New Year falls in around Tihar, so some time in November and we're only in the year 1332 right now. There's a push among certain groups to get this recognised as the official calendar of Nepal.

Next is Tibetan New Year, known as Losar, and celebrated by various ethnic groups in Nepal that are Buddhists of the Tibetan schools. But, to make things complicated, there are no fewer than three different dates for Losar. The first is Sonam Losar, which follows the lunar new year. The thing I like most about Losar is that it is celebrated for two weeks - which sounds like a proper party to me! This is the Losar date that Tam speakers celebrate - and for 2011 the first day conveniently falls on my birthday. The second Losar, Gyalpo Losar, is celebrated on the 5th of March in 2011. It's celebrated by Buddhists from Tibet and several Buddhist ethnic groups in Nepal. Finally, the Gurung ethnic group celebrate Tamu Losar as a fixed date every year, as opposed to basing it on the lunar calendar. These guys actually kicked of the Losar season, with Tamu Losar falling on the 15th of Poush, on the Nepali Calendar - which this year was the 30the of December - meaning they were recovering from their hangovers just when Westerners were embarking on theirs.

The Tharu ethnic group in the Terai - the flat lands in the south of Nepal that are heavily farmed - also celebrate New Years on a different date, although I should find out more about them. And there is a small but not insignificant Muslim population in Nepal which means that they recently celebrated the Islamic New Year on the 26th of November.

Deck Nepal with boughs of holly

With the arrival of the Handsome Pen pal now only hours away I've decided to give the blog a bit of a rest over the Christmas break. I'm determined to try and do no work for the next couple of weeks - although I'm sure I'll find more language factoids to share with you, and crazy adventures always have a habit of finding me here.

While I'm away, I thought I'd use the break to take questions from the floor. If there's anything you've ever wanted to ask me, now is the time. Whether it's about life in Nepal, Tam and other specific languages, or just linguistics-y stuff in general feel free to put it as a comment below or, should you know my email address, write to me there and I'll answer throughout January.

Of course, this could backfire spectacularly if it turns out that my readership figures just come from my mother constantly hitting refresh on her browser to check I'm still alive.

Have a lovely Christmas and a great start to 2011!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Going Dutch

I've made friends with another resident-guest at the guest house I'm staying in while back in Kathmandu. He is form Holland and volunteering at the school next door - I shall refer to him as Jan for future reference.

Since hanging out with Jan I've met more Dutch people in Kathmandu that I did when I was in the Netherlands. They are all variously interesting people, I don't think either Kathmandu or Jan tend to attract dull people. Last night when we decided to venture out to a nice Newari place I found myself to be the only non-Dutch person at dinner.

It was a lovely dinner; the food was nice, the conversation interesting and we were in a lovely old building. When it came to the end of the evening, and paying the bill Jan turned to me and said - "we all pay for ourselves, that is how we do it at home".

In Australia the colloquialism for this kind of payment arrangement is "to go Dutch" - and so I went Dutch with a table full of Dutch people, and spent the next 5 minutes telling them how amusing it was that what I had always thought was a bit of a nonsense phrase really did appear to have its etymology in the bill paying practices of the Dutch.

"hmm, you really are a linguist, aren't you" one member of the party concluded, in what he assured me was a complement.

Hard to here sounds

For the last couple of days I've been adding new words to the dictionary from a list one of my consultants made for me. We've currently got about 1140 words, if you don't count affixes like the plural suffix, (which is -ya).

Anyway, I thought this would be a good time to share with you one of the reasons that I find working with Tam is difficult, and that is the different sounds that it uses.

Different languages have different sound systems, that's one of the reasons they sound so different. Sure, most languages might have a vowel that kind of sounds like 'a' but there's every chance it's a little bit different.

We lock into these sounds very early on in our language learning, some research shows that we begin to pick up on some of it by listening to our mothers voices before we're even born. And we get very good very quickly at making the sounds in our own language. It's how Arabic speaking children have no trouble with all those glottal sounds that always get me, or how English speakers can say 'th' with ease.

So we tune into the differences that are found in our own language which means we stop paying attention to distinctions that can be found in other languages. this is why I can't hear the difference in Polish between three different sounds that all sound like 'sh' to me, or how some English speakers can't roll their r.

When it comes to Tam, the worst sounds for me all sound like 'ta' or 'da'... while in English we only perceive two sounds there's a lot more happening in Tam.

Firstly, in English we only have 't' and 'd' - which is a voicing distinction. Try saying each with your hand on your throat and you'll notice that it vibrates more when you say 'da' than 'ta'. In Tam, there is the voiced 'd' sound and the unvoiced 't' sound, and also an aspirated 't' sound (which gets written with a h next to it) - this third sound is a 't' but with more air coming out with the sound. So we have three sounds 'd', 't' and 'th' where English only has two.

Secondly, Tam has retroflexes, which English doesn't. A retroflex sound is where you curl your tongue up so the bottom bit touches the roof of your mouth. It's quite a common sound for this corner of the world - Nepali has it and it gives Hindi some of the rhotic (r-sounding) quality associated with it. There's a retroflex for each of the above sounds, which I'll write them in capitals. so there's 'T', 'Th' and 'D'.

Thirdly, Tam has tone. Tone is a feature of many languages - if you've learned Chinese or Vietnamese you've come across it. Basically the vowel sounds higher or lower. Fortunately Tam only has two tones, high and low. And, thanks to some complex historical reasons that I shan't bore you with, aspirated sounds only have high tone, and voiced sounds only have low tone, but unvoiced and unaspirated sounds such as 't' or 'T' can take either. So there's another distinction that English speakers don't make.

Finally, there is a vowel length distinction that's very hard to hear. While there's 'a' there is also 'aa'. English has long and short vowels too, but there is also a quality different, the throat area tends to be more tense for short vowel and lax for long vowel. But in Tam it's only length and can be quite hard to hear. So that doubles the amount of options that there were.

So in English we have 'ta' and 'da' - which means that we can hear the different between 'tag' and 'dag'. In Tam, instead of just a two way difference, all those variables give us sixteen different sounds. That means that Tam speakers hear the difference between 'tag' (with low tone), 'tag' (with high tone), 'Tag' (with low tone), 'Tag' (with high tone), 'dag', 'Dag' 'thag', 'Thag', 'taag' (high tone), 'taag' (low tone), 'Taag' (high tone), 'Taag' (low tone), 'daag', 'Daag', 'thaag' and 'Thaag'.

While my ear has gotten better the longer I listen to Tam, there's still a lot of times that I can't hear the difference, which can make writing up the dictionary rather hard!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Debate O'clock

Over at the Economist they're running an online debate about that old linguistic chestnut "does the language you speak shape the way you think?" Check out the fisticuffs here

I'm sure most of the comments will just degenerate into "I speak language X and in my personal opinion..." but it's always a great topic. It's subtle, and messy and, if argued with any sophistication, nuanced - but it goes right to the heart of why we use language, where (or if) the boundary should be drawn between language and culture and just what happens in our heads.

Also, it's always exciting for linguistics to get a gig in the mainstream media!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Wedding: now with photos!

Now that I'm back in Kathmandu I've added photos to the wedding adventures. You can read about all the fun I had at a 3 day Nepali wedding here and here.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Iron stomach

On this field trip I am cursed with the twin good fortunes of being well-fed by the friends I live with when I'm in the village, and also having a very robust digestive system.

Last trip I was also relatively well fed - but spent more time living alone in KTM where I had more autonomy as to what I would eat, and how much. Also, for most of last trip, I was - to a greater or lesser extent depending on the week - quite sick. It's not something I really mentioned on the blog partly to prevent unnecessary worry and partly because it was so persistent it wasn't worth mentioning. So even with an unhealthy diet and a lack of exercise routine last year I still managed to come home not looking too different to when I departed (I did lose a heap of weight in the middle and ate a lot of cake to make up for that).

My iron digestive track has lead to the development of a stomach a little less solid and a little softer.

I have never eaten so much in my life as I do in the village here - and growing up with a Polish grandmother I can tell you that is not a flippant statement. How they eat so much rice is beyond me. The strangest thing is that after a week we had to sit down and have a serious conversation because my friend has been concerned that I'm not eating much. I pointed out that Nepalis eat a lot more rice than Australians - I didn't point out that since they won't let me do any work I'm not as hungry as she is after 8 hours in the fields.

Of course, having a more robust digestive system has made me much more cavalier about where I eat and what I eat. I still don't ever think I'll be able to eat the fresh coconut sold on the streets of Kathmandu, no matter how much my mouth waters every time I walk past - but I have eaten all manner of questionable things on this trip and remained unscathed.

I'll just have to hit the salads and bike riding when I get home.

A white christmas... in the distance

This year marks the second time in my life I'll celebrate Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere - and once again I'm not doing a very good job of a traditional Christmas.

Last time was in 1998 when my family celebrated with some friends in California. That involved poolside margaritas in the sun (well, margaritas weren't for me, given that I was about 13 at the time) making it much more like your average Australian Yuletide celebration.

This time Kathmandu is sunny, if a little chilly in the mornings. The good thing is that as long as it's a clear day (smog permitting) and we go somewhere with a good view we should be able to see snow covered mountains in the distance.

This year is the first time I'm spending Christmas anywhere other than a Christian-heavy Western country. To date, the festivities consist of one scraggy Christmas tree in the trekker's supermarket, and Sufjan Steven's Christmas EPs on repeat. This doesn't upset me too greatly - I find Christmas in Australia faintly nauseating, possibly a hangover of too many years working in retail. Also, this year I'm more excited about the countdown to the arrival of the Handsome Pen pal rather than Santa Claus. Still, I love spending time with my family at Christmas, I think in the next week or so it'll dawn on me that I'm missing that, and my grandmother's Christmas pudding.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Tech Dramas pt. 2

First of all, let me say I am enjoying being back in Kathmandu

After my first bout of tech dramas earlier in the trip the small problems keep trying to trip me up.

Firstly, and most frustratingly, my own portable hard drive has decided to stop working, but only with my PC - it's still talking to my Mac (perhaps it's a snob) but that makes backing up and transferring something of a pain. Also, because I only had my PC with me for the last month it meant wasting my 16GB SD card as a temporary back up facility.

Secondly, I've been left with a giant terrabite hard drive to deliver to someone, as well as use for myself. First of all, it's annoying because KTM currently has 4-6 hours without electricity a day, so thanks to its external power requirements it's useless for large chunks of the day. Also, someone has done something to the settings and now I can't copy to it, so it's become completely useless to me as a back up option.

Third woe is that my little GPS tracker I was so excited about has stopped working. Most annoyingly, it tells me with its deceptive little blinking light that everything is ok, and then when I stick it into my computer it tells me there's no data there. The only thing more annoying than tech failing you is tech failing you after 8 hours of walking up and down hills.

I'm still getting stuff done, but if there's one thing that freaks me out it's having insufficient back up. I may sound like I'm being hyper-sensitive on the issue of backing stuff up, but I had a very traumatic experience a few years ago where I lost three different back ups of my work in the space of a week (laptop stolen, thumb drive error and then bag stolen) and would have lost all my work had I not left a backup CD at my parents place (huzzah for off-site storage!) so I'm kind of a bit highly strung about this stuff. Thankfully I've still got everything it an least 3 different places!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Farewell sleepy little town

Tomorrow I'm heading back to Kathmandu to count down the days until Christmas, and eagerly await the arrival of the Handsome Pen pal/faux-Husband.

Living in a small town has been a very different experience from big-city KTM and also very different from living in a small village. One thing you notice very quickly is it's small enough for everyone to recognise you, but unlike a small village they won't come and talk to you, only look at you.

I've made myself some friends here - the cook place where I go for lunch most days, a woman from a beauty shop who I purchased some shampoo from the first day has become someone I chat with every day.

Also, having nothing to do here besides leave the house for lunch and a walk around town (which takes approximately 25-30 minutes to do a lap) it's also proven to be a rather productive place to work. Still, I'm very eager to be getting back to KTM. High on the list of things to do are eat salad, have a shower with warm water and get a massage. I'm not sure what order to do those things, but probably not at the same time.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Wedding (pt. 2): Taking your new wife home

[note: now with photos! 13/12/10]

Part one can be found here.

To date: the 7 hour party trek to the bride's house ended in celebrations, eating, dancing, singing, and all-night carousing.

The party was in no way over. Once again, we joined the celebrations when they reached our village, the band was heard long before the party arrived. When I say the groom was taking his new bride home I mean it quite literally. The bride was covered in a large blanket and carried all the way to her new village by her new husband. That's a good 7 hours of walking, a large part of which included steep ascents and descents on poorly maintained stone paths.

The groom's village was a place I hadn't visited, so I quite liked the walk. The pace was set to something between meandering and wandering and there were lots of stops along the way. The groom lived down in the valley near the river, and closer to a large town, so when we arrived there was a much larger open space as well as plastic chairs and electric lighting.

By this point I had perfected my mantra of answers I would repeat in every conversation “Australia”, “yes, he's in Australia”, “no children yet” and “2 ½ months” conveniently I'm half way though my trip so this does for both questions “when did you arrive” and “when are you going.” Answering such questions in Nepali provoked the usual response of amazement and wonder, but answering them in Tam left most people utterly bewildered. There were lots of people there that hadn't met me yet, and none of them had ever heard someone from beyond their own social group, let alone a foreigner, speak their language before. I was instantly adopted by more than a few old women over the course of proceedings.

There was more singing (the same songs), more dancing, more eating and more drinking. Some people again celebrated throughout the night, but I once again accepted an offer of a bed and a chance to sleep.

I thought the next morning would be a low key, sober end to proceedings – but realised I was probably wrong when I was a woman preparing a large saucepan full of chang (home made millet beer) at 7:30 am. There was another feeding and more of the kind of carousing I was becoming used to. I could even join in on a few of the songs by this point.

When we left at 12:30 pm the party showed no signs of stopping, more than 48 hours since it commenced. I loved how easy-going everyone was. I didn't even know the families but nobody thought to question why I was there. Everyone and their whole family were there. Even the bride wore socks and sandals.

Wedding (pt. 1): Collecting your wife

[note: now with photos! 13/12/10]

A Nepali wedding, like most things in Nepal is exuberant, has the appearance of being shambolic, involves a large, complex web of relatives and takes on an organic life of its own. I've split this post up over a couple of days, partly because there's so much to mention and partly because I'm still recovering.

The basic format of the wedding was like most in Nepal. First, the groom's family walk from his family's house to the bride's family's house. There is a ceremony and then they return to the groom's place, or a party destination, to celebrate. As it was a country wedding, the walk from the groom's village to the bride's was a 6 hour walk up and down hills and the whole wedding went for two and a half days.

We joined the celebrations as the groom's party passed through our village at 4:30 in the afternoon. It was quite easy to tell when they arrived given they came with their own processional band:

There is nothing quite like a Nepali band. Comprising of a variety of woodwind instruments and percussion the noise is distinct. To the Western ear here is something distinctly atonal about the melodies – which meander around to a never-ending improvised tune. The party had left at 11 am that day, and there was much drinking and merriment along the way:

That guy clearly isn't drinking Sprite... it's like the guys hold the buck's party on the way to the wedding.

And so we set off with them. There was something distinctly magical about walking along the edges of terraced mountains as the sun set and the band played on.

The descent into the bride's village is one I've made before – it's steep, and the stairs are small and prone to slipperiness. Factor in that the sun had just gone down at there were few flashlights and it actually became a rather stressful walk. People who know me well know that I'm not great with stair-based situations (which is, of course, why I work in Nepal) and while I've gotten better negotiating paths around here this was particularly stressful. It amazed me that people were capable at negotiating the path and they weren't even sober.

We arrived at the bride's village at 6 pm. Several of the terraces had been given over to a massive mass-dining area, where people lined up and were fed in batches from giant pots. The process went on for over an hour, and was repeated again the next morning by the bride's family and again that evening and the following day by the groom's. I was surprised that I flummoxed them by not eating meat. It appeared that I was the only vegetarian among 300 Buddhist guests – but thankfully someone rustled up some daal for me. This was repeated for every meal for the rest of the wedding, and most people were mystified by my strange dietary preference. Most people here can't afford to eat meat more often than once a week or fortnight, so to pass up the rare opportunity seemed to them a folly.

While we were eating there were some formalities that were taking place. The groom and his family entered the bride's house, where the local Lama was waiting to bless them all. This happened again at the groom's house, and I got to watch that time. It appeared, on the whole, that these proceedings weren't actually that important to anyone but the immediate family and everyone else was much more interested in eating, dancing, singing and drinking.

Which is what we busied ourselves with too. Impromptu groups of singers would strike up a tune, and happily sing along to the same song for up to an hour. Some men and women would get up to dance, and they received money from the other guests. I'm not sure what the money was for, or where it went.

A friend had found a place for me to sleep, and given that there were several hundred people and not many beds I took the offer gratefully. I fell asleep to the sound of singing, and woke up throughout the night as singing gave way to drunken singing and then was joined by the crowing of roosters. They had partied all night and when I woke at 6 am some were drinking morning tea while others were starting the morning with more home-distilled alcohol.

We sat around, sang some more, visited friends in neighbouring houses, ate once again at the mass serving area and then took our leave ahead of the main party. They would catch us up in our village on their way back to the groom's house, but the kids needed to be sent to school and some of us needed a nap.

While that would be the end of a great party at home, it was only the first half of proceedings. The wife still needed to be taken to her new house, which will form the second part of the story tomorrow.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Two weeks, 75 emails...

Not to mention the 352 unread items in my RSS reader, and the fact that the internet in the town I'm in is like something from the mid-ninties...

I'm currently in a larg-ish town near the villagee for a couple of weeks to work with some other speakers, and enjoy things like plumbing, personal space and food that isn't daal and rice.

Although I've just settled in here, I'm back to the villages in a couple of days for a wedding. It's a tough life, but someone's got to enjoy all that singing, eating and dancing.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cheese cheese cheese cheese cheese

This morning I decided to throw in the transcribing of stories for a couple of hours and stroll over to a farmers market I'd seen advertised in one of my favourite cafes.

It turned out to be a goldmine of foods that I've been missing from home. As you may have guessed from reading the title to this post there was cheese! Mozzarella, feta and some rad pungent French-style stuff. There was also cake that tasted like cake, and bread that looked like bread. And avocado. The only things missing from my list of food stuffs I regularly day dream about were Portuguese tarts, cherries and decent ice cream. But it was more than exciting enough as it was.

I know where I'll be every Saturday that I'm in Kathmandu.

Back to the village

My return to Kathmandu has been but a brief visit to organise myself for a longer stint in the country. The harvest season is upon us, and in a few weeks most of my village-side Tam speaking friends will be up to their elbows in rice fields. So I leave again on Sunday for what will be a couple of weeks in the village and a couple more in the nearest town, where the amenities aren't much better and there are more noisy vehicles around to boot.

This means that tomorrow, as well as packing in as much work as possible, I'll also be packing bags and making the most of all the things that I can't do outside Kathmandu. So hopefully I'll have time to eat a salad, hang out on g-chat, get a massage, speak some English, have a glass of wine (or two) and sleep in a bed that's actually long enough for me. It promises to be a great day!

The lack of readily available internet also means I obviously won't be posting quite so much. But don't worry, I'll be well looked after and sufficiently over-fed and will be back with lots of amusing and bemusing stories in a couple of weeks!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Nepali Picnic

Today I took a break from study, having been invited by a friend to attend a picnic. This friend runs a school for kids who are at risk of dropping out of society. It's a small school where children are socialised into education before the organisation supports them in mainstream education.

The 18 or so kids were all excited to be having an excursion, which was in a small park a short bus ride from the Kathmandu. It was, in many regards, like most other picnics I've been on. Excited children, games, a quiet-ish park. But when it comes to catering Nepalis do picnics like no one else.

Basically, the picnic involved bringing the kitchen along - including two gas cookers and a large gas bottle. At one point there were no fewer than 6 of us preparing food:

It was rice and curry - but being a picnic there were lots of exotic ingredients that aren't in the usual meal; tofu, mushrooms, egg, sweet curd. It was truly a sight to behold, and has certainly set the benchmark rather high for future al fresco eating.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Weather I'm here or at home... doesn't matter today. Both Kathmandu and Melbourne have an expected top of 28 degrees.

So we've finally reached the point where Melbourne's summer is kicking into gear, and the days here are slowly getting cooler (the nights are getting cooler rather rapidly).

One good thing about the cooling weather here is that it's not accompanied by cloudiness of a winter at home. It's still lovely and sunny!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Tihar: Sel Roti

The last few days have been full of candles, marigolds, fireworks, singing in the street and food. You can see lots of pretty photos of those first few things at my friend Amos' blog here and, so I thought I'd let you know about Tihar food. I know this is supposed to be a linguistics blog and not a food blog - but after 3 days of continuous eating food has been somewhat at the forefront of our attention.

Tihar is a very positive festival, and part of that is you eat lots of luxury food to celebrate - amongst other things - Laxmi, goddess of wealth, and cows, the sacred animals of Hindu. So there's lots of dried fruit, nuts, curd, fresh fruit, meat and all those things that are a bit too expensive to eat too much of most of the year.

Another thing that's eaten this time of year is Sel Roti, which is something like a doughnut, but less fluffy. They're deep-fried rings of sweet bread made from rice, and this year I got to watch my friends making them. I took enough photos to be able to bring the Sel making experience to you guys as well - but be warned, you might find them slightly less appealing after reading this!



3 kg of uncooked rice, soaked overnight in water
1/2 kg sugar
1 lt liquid ghee
6-8 cups plain wheat flour

step one:

blend up the rice, ghee and sugar in small batches. Doesn't that look yummy already?

step two:

blend in the flour, you may need to feed small batches back in to the blender. Do this until you have the right consistence - something that will still flow but isn't too liquid.

step three:

Fry! To get the attractive ring shape one must have the batter at the right consistency, then swirl it around deftly into the bubbling oil.

Repeat, more than a few times, and there's your Sel:

Those white dots are grains of sugar that have come in contact with the oil, and give a crunchy counterbalance to the smoothly blended rice dough. Those who cook might have noticed that 3 kg of rice is a lot of base ingredient to start with, and you'd be right. All up our friends made around 100-150 Sel, which took about 3-4 hours just for the frying alone, and this in a small household. It gives you an idea of just how much eating goes on here over Tihar!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Lucking out, pt. 2

A few days ago I mentioned a conversation with friends where we had been divided as to whether 'luck out' was a good or bad thing.

The results beyond out little lunch time gathering were just as mixed - so we're definitely not the only people who are likely to have this argument. Urban Dictionary, that most authoritative of lexicographic tools, argues that the 'luck out' divide is one between US and UK English, with it being used positively in the US and negatively in the UK. My pitifully small sample number of approximately 1.5 UK English speakers and 0.5 US English speakers would appear to conform to this analysis, but those numbers are much too low for me to throw my opinion behind.

Looking very quickly at a comparison between newspapers from different countries. Note, I took a wild guess this would be the most common form used in news reports and didn't bother searching variants like 'lucking out.' The New York Times up to 2007 had 326 references for 'lucked out', The Independent (UK) had 19 references since 1994 and for an Australian angle The Age had 44 search items with 'lucked out' since 1995. I'd love to spend all day going through the clippings, and tallying which sense is used where, and the oldest reported uses etc, but work calls . With only a quick flick it looks like the NYT references are all using the positive sense. the Independent also mostly uses the positive sence but the term mostly crops up in American references and quotes, such as this article on US beaknik Sarah Jepp:

but despite having "lucked-out" with an inexpensive room on the Venice Canals, L.A's vacuous side was beginning to grate.

I'm not sure if a more colloquial UK newspaper would have given a different result, but I'm not plunging into an archive of The Sun this early in the morning.

In The Age there are a mixture of usages, much like our small Australian contingent at the lunch table showed mixed attitudes to the meaning of 'luck out.' This rather pointless article about a pampered dog (From Zero to Hero, 22/05/95) uses the positive sense:

MAX, the five-year-old chihuahua, started life as a pet shop boy. For three weeks, his owner-to-be visited the pet shop almost every day, eyeing this sweet little fur ball all alone in a cage. At the end of three weeks, Jean Pierre Heurteau could resist no longer, so he bought Max and home they went. Max didn't realise it then but he had lucked out he was to start a lifestyle to die for.

While this article on seafood (From the deep 01/07/03) uses the other sense:

"I marinated pieces of the squid in seven different marinades for 12 hours and 24 hours to disguise the flavour, yet this made things little better.

"It's safe to say it won't be appearing on our menu," says Kerry.

Munro is mortified and suggests Kerry must have lucked out with the samples he supplied, but if you're a chef, supply-chain failures in the quality of the product cut little mustard.

You won't find lucked on in Merriam-Webster online. But it does occour in the Oxford English, although, interestingly, only the positive sense, which they site as a US term:

e. to luck out (U.S.), to achieve success or advantage by good luck in a difficult, testing, or dangerous situation.

In the last post, I withheld my own opinion on the matter so as to not bias the conversation. In the interest of full disclosure, I only ever use 'luck out' as a negative thing. If you lucked out things certainly didn't go your way.

Lucking Out

Tihar continues unabated - I'll give a run-down later, but at the moment I'm stuffed and suffering from sel roti overdose. Also, I have a question I need your help with!

Over lunch with a few friend the other day it transpired there were two very different opinions about the meaning of the term 'lucked out' that divided the group. Half of us firmly believe that it is a good thing to luck out, while the other half thought that it was a very bad thing to luck out.

I won't tell you yet which group I fell into, because I'd like your opinion first. Let me know via email, or in the comments below and I'll do some dictionary digging as well as some scouring of the web and see what I can come up with.

Friday, November 5, 2010


We're right in the middle of Tihar, the Hindu festival of light - also known in some other countries as Dipawali - and one of my favourite times to be in Kathmandu.

Unlike Dasain there's no sacrifices to be seen. The last two days have been celebrating crow (messenger of death) and dog (loyal friend and guide after death) worship respectively. Today is worship for both the cow (sacred animal in hinduism) and Laxmi (goddess of wealth). Today we're going to a friend's house to help in a ceremony to welcome Laxmi (and her wealth generating powers) into the house. Conveniently, at various points this includes eating lots of yummy food and lighting lots of candles. Tomorrow will be Bhai tika day (brother tika), where the whole family gather, eat more yummy food, and honour their siblings by painting multicoloured tika on their forehead.

You may be thinking at this point, why am I always talking about celebrating Hindu festivals if I'm working on a language spoken by Buddhists? It's a good question, and there are a number of reasons. The first is that one of my closest Nepali friends is Hindu. The second is that everyone here is pretty chilled and most Buddhists will, to some extent, celebrate Tihar. The third is that Bhuddists have only one really big party festival, and that's Lhosar (new years) celebrated in February, which I'll also be around for, but it's still a little way off. And, finally, because Tihar is so much fun!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The top three problems with having pale skin on field work

1. Sunburn. I now have a pretty brown patch on my back.

2. You can actually see how dirty you are. Enough said there.

3. Everyone can pick you for a foreigner a mile away.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

My Husband

Before I keep talking about my village-side adventures there's someone I need to mention.

Much to the dismay of Nepalis, and my grandmother, I am a happily unmarried 25 year old woman. In Nepal this makes me rather old to be unmarried, while most of my friends my age here have kids in primary school. That's not to say I'm single either, the Handsome Pen pal, as well as being me favourite international correspondent, is also my long-time (and long-suffering) boyfriend.

This causes a bit of difficulty in Nepal, because here there's really only a binary difference between 'single' and 'married' - I once tried to explain to a shopkeeper that in Australia it's verycommon for people to live together without being married, and he asked if the government makse that hard for people. How do you begin to explain that the government actually make it easier by legislating for de facto relationships?

And so, to make life easier here, the handsome Pen pal very kindly masquerades as my Faux-Husband. I don't really feel too bad about lying because it means people don't think I'm single, or crazy. Also, as most of my lying is done in Nepali it doesn't feel as weird because more often than not I'm talking about my 'sriman' and not my 'husband'.

Of course, the standard question that comes after asking if you're married is to ask if you have kids. The answer, as it is to my nan is always 'later'.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Village Life

The village I ended up staying in last week was not an exclusively Tam speaking village (of which there are five), but one of the local hub villages where there are a mix of languages spoken. The best way to describe village life is that it's like living in a medieval village, albeit one with mobile phones, solar panels and plastic thongs.

I stayed with a family, a woman my age with an 8 year old and a 4 year old. Most women my age tend to have a child or two, but I still find it rather alarming! The 5 year old is the grottiest person I've ever met - in only the way that a 4 year old boy who happens to live on a farm can be. What amazes me the most is how hard working people are, in ways that I've never known people to have to be. There's no plumbing so children are send on the down hill walk every morning to fetch water. People still cook over wood fires and most people (myself included) wear the same clothes every day for most of the week. It was certainly no luxury wilderness retreat!

Back in Kathmandu

It's felt like an epic adventure, but I've only been away about 12 day!

I arrived back in Kathmandu this after noon, very tired and much much dirtier than you probably want to read about in a blog post. I've solved the second problem with what was probably one of the most satisfying hot showers of my life, and plan to solve the first one with an imminent sleep.

It has been a rather successful mini-adventure on many fronts, I'll let you know about it all over the next few days of posting.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A short adventure

I'm heading off from Kathmandu tomorrow morning to spend a couple of weeks out in the villages where Tam is spoken. I'm looking forward to getting away from the Kathmandu smog and shaking up my routine a little.

I'll be back within two weeks. I've told myself that I need the first trip to be short, so that I can come back and take stock of what I need - but it's really so that I can be back here to catch up with friends and enjoy Tihar, the festival of light, in early November.

If I come across an internet cafe I'll post when I can, otherwise I'll see you all in a fortnight!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A little night music

Friday night, the say before a festival and the locals are partying like it's a two day weekend (which it is!!). The intersection near my guesthouse has been closed and there's a concert going on.

It's nice working to the sounds of live Nepali pop - but hopefully they'll be very Nepali about the whole thing and not let it run too late, I'm even less of a party animal that usual while fieldworking!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

KTM weather

As well as being a great time of year for festivals, this is also my favourite few weeks of weather in Kathmandu. The nights are finally getting cool enough to think about using a blanket, but not so cold you don't want to get out of bed in the morning. The days are sunny and warm, and frequently the sky is getting clear enough for a good view of the mountains that hem the valley.

Combine this with Kathmandu emptying out for the festivities, and a few days without classes or elicitation sessions and even I'm feeling relaxed!

1000th word: It's something good!

Ladies and Gents, it is an auspicious occasion indeed. After 13 months and many sessions, the thousandth word entered into the database is:

lála लाला (n.) - something or someone. N: केहि ; कोहि

Yup! Something was the 1000th word. It certainly won't be the last either.

Four weeks in...

I arrived in Kathmandu exactly four weeks ago today. When you spend every day working with dated data files, and grant money requires you to track your daily spending it's never very easy to forget the date. So far the trip feels to be going at a good pace, it's certainly not dragging but I appear to be getting quite a bit of work done.

Today is also the last day of sessions I'll be doing with A. for the while. It's been a very productive month tying up lots of questions left over from last year (and raising a few more!). I've felt more relaxed this time, I'm sure having a schedule of things to do has made it much easier.

I'll be hanging out in Kathmandu to celebrate Dasain, then taking a quick trip for about 10-12 days to the country. This will give me a chance to sus things out for a longer trip, and clear my lungs of the KTM smog!

But before that I have a few days to chill out and enjoy the relative peacefulness that had descended on Kathmandu for the holiday season.


Dasain is definitely in the air.

Children are on holidays from school, the shopping areas are packed and the newspapers are full of articles about how people have lost the true meaning of the holiday now our lives are so full of meaningless junk (yes, it all sounds too familiar).

Dasain officially started last Thursday and is 15 days of the most important festivities in the Nepali Hindu calendar. Much like Lent and Christmas, for most people the earlier days of the festival aren't that important. The biggest day is the 10th day, where the elders of the family bestow tika (red colouring, rice and yoghurt) on the foreheads of the family. Everyone gets dressed up and eats lots. Fortuntely I've got a family or two to be adopted by for the festivities - and I've got some new threads to pick up as well.

The other important day is the 9th, and to a lesser extent the 8th. These are the most popular days of slaughter and sacrifice. Slaughter? I thought we were drawing parallels between Christmas and Dasain just moments ago. Well, the whole point of Dasain is to honour the Goddess Durga, who saved existence by defeating an evil demon disguised as a buffalo. To keep Durga happy for the year the family slaughter an animal and bless things with it - houses, cars, etc. The standard middle class procedure is for goat, but if you're poor it might be a chicken and large temples receive buffalo for slaughter. The animal is generally eaten by the family afterwards, think of it as killing your own Christmas turkey.

Most Buddhists (and myself) find the mass slaughter rather disturbing. Many of them will visit their local temples over the next few days to pray for the animals being killed. I, on the other hand, will not be visiting anywhere this Saturday.

Of course, the other reminder that it's Dasain is the goat being kept somewhere in the neighbourhood that woke me up early this morning with it's pitiful bleating - but I can hardly get too annoyed with it, I know it won't be around to keep me awake for too long.

Monday, October 11, 2010

New Language!

Every linguist and their blog have been talking about the media attention regarding the newly discovered language Koro in India (see news article here).

It's great to see language documentation getting some press, even if it's a bit over the top - see Claire Bowen's or Mos's thoughts on the matter.

Lozguistics readers might be interested to know that the 'newly discovered' Koro is in the Tibeto-Burman family, just like Tam. And, just like Tam has only recently come to the attention of linguists.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


I'm sitting in the guesthouse garden waiting for my room to be cleaned. I'm sure I could be upset about the fact that it's 1 o'clock and I still can't get back in to my room, but the weather's so lovely today, and I've managed to clear out my inbox a bit so I guess it's not such a waste of a morning.

I've also managed to straighten out some of my tech problems this morning. This involved less technical brilliance on my behalf and more going to buy new gear. While I'm often heard to complain about Thamel and its tourist shops, they do come in handy sometimes!

Assult and Batteries

This field trip I am being assaulted with a constant stream of small scale technological dramas. I'm not sure if this is some kind of karmic retribution for not having any problems on the last trip, but it's all rather frustrating.

There was the initial problem of having to bring the two lap tops. Not that it's really a problem, they stay here in KTM and I don't really have to lug them anywhere. It's just annoying that I have two computers that both do about 85-90% of what I want, and not 100%.

The second drama has been that it appears the power here has blown a couple of my smaller appliances. My wall adapter that serves as a charger for my phone, video camera, and iPod no longer appears to work, although I'm yet to try a power outlet outside of the guesthouse, so hopefully it's just this place that's the problem. This drama is easily solved as there are a few camera shops in Thamel so I'll just have to fork out some money and pay tourist dollar.

The annoying thing to have blown is the charger pack for my rechargeable batteries. I try to use rechargeable batteries to limit the number I go though - especially because it's not safe to leave them here for disposal and I have to lug them home. Now not only am I potentially stuck with a lot of unrechargable rechargables but I'll still have to buy disposables too.

The most annoying thing to date has been that the battery in my video camera has been beginning to play up. I thought this was just a problem I was having, given that it hasn't been used a lot in the last 9-10 months. According to the internet though, I am not alone when it comes to battery problems for this brand.

I'm not going to name names. I haven't bothered to spill brand names when things work so it's not fair for me to only give negative reviews of tech on this site. Suffice to say though that if you're ever looking for a simple to use video camera drop me a line and I might suggest a brand to not buy. Fortunately I have an older model where you can still access the battery pack. Even better, the pack can be replaced with disposables. Obviously this isn't an ideal situation, especially given the problem above, but it means the show can go on.

I don't want to be too optimistic and hope this is the end of the troubles, but I am glad that I'll hopefully sort most of them out before being much more isolated from the city!

Desh: A film review

As promised, a review of this morning's cinematic entertainment. Although, to be fair, I do judge Nepali films on very different criteria to most other films. For example, the more ridiculous or inexplicable a plot point is the better. Need to move the film along? Suddenly the lead character has a little sister who dies a horrible death. Two characters make inadvertent but potentially lustful eye contact? Time for a song! Crazy dancing and multiple scenic locations for no narrative reason added for free.

My summary of the plot is potentially not very accurate, given my Nepali is not quite up to the more intricate parts of the film.

A young boy is traumatised when is father is killed at war (the death scene eerily reminiscent of early Monty Python, although I don't think it's a deliberate homage). It is his grandmother who leads the child to follow the way of the pen and not the sword (in some very transparent visual cues) and so he becomes a journalist (and thankfully we miss a large chunk in the middle of his life and find he has grown up to become Rajesh Hamal, god of Nepali cinema.

Now, I'm a little hazy here. It appears that he is a journalist, but he spends a lot of time hanging out with university students. I'm not sure if they're trying to pass an indeterminately middle aged man off as a university student but if they are then having him carry a leather satchel at all times (all times!!)is not very convincing.

Anyway, he hangs out with Uni students, who are all apathetic about Nepal and plan to go overseas to study. He incites some kind of national pride in them, but they get a little carried away and are misdirected by some villains (you can tell they're villains, their eyes are funny). The students incite a bandah (this is one of the more believable plot points).

The bandah is a success! But the younger sister of the main student leader is killed after they're unable to get her to a hospital because of said bandah. This is the price the student leader has paid for his misdirected enthusiasm! But it's ok, the journalist is here with some kind of dossier, which they use against the villains (what's in the dossier? I have no idea, but the over is red and has Ganesh on it...). The students become reporter to out the villains, and then like all good Nepalis, form a political party. At a massive rally for their new party Rajesh Hamal is shot in the stomach in as assassination plot. Does he go to hospital? No, he hides the wound with his ever present satchel until it's too late and his friends must leave him to fall over and die, but not before his nephew appears so he can pass on the pen to the future generation, thus ensuring his legacy, and violently collapsing about six seconds before the credits.

In between there's a love story, some dancing, and a boy sets an evil man on fire and kills him in retribution for the loss of his family and no one reports this matter to the authorities. It all makes perfect sense...

Check out the poster, and a music clip from the film here.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Morning Movies

Only in Nepal is it considered completely normal to arrange to go to the cinema for an 8 am screening. Not sure what we're seeing but I'll be sure to give you a review this afternoon!

Friday, October 8, 2010


That is the number of entries I currently have in my Tam lexicon!

So in the next couple of weeks, with the rate I'm collecting data, we should hit 1000 individual words in the lexicon (not including personal names, village names and some borrowed terms). What will it be? Hopefully something amusing! Stay tuned and I'll let you know when it happens!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Relatively excited

I'm rather excited after today's session because during an elicitation task A. produced some awesome, spontaneous relative clauses. A relative clause in English would be something like:

The man who is wearing glasses.

They're generally hard enough to elicit in forced constructions, and it's not often you get some good, clear natural examples. Today we were working through some video stimulus created by the rad people at MPI, which had about 60 short videos of people 'putting' - putting hats on heads, water in cups, books on shelves, napkins in exhaust pipes, apples in socks... all a bit strange but a nice break from the usual routine.

A. used some great relative clauses to describe some of the people - including the man who is wearing glasses that I described above. Although, it probably translates better from Tam to say something like 'the glasses wearing man'.

Yup, I know, probably not much to get excited about you might think - but then it doesn't take much to make a session satisfactory!

Half way throught the week...

In trying to be positive about the 6 day working week in Nepal, the only thing I can come up with is that half way thought the week happens on a Tuesday night, a whole half day earlier than for you five days a week lot.

Not only am I comfortably transitioned to the second half of the week, but I'm beginning to transition to the second phase of my field work... I'm almost wound down asking questions about things I had to chase up from last trip. That's not to say I now understand things perfectly, I'm just moving on to more naturalistic narratives, conversations and things like that - certainly makes a nice change!

Sunday, October 3, 2010


In the battle between the Kathmandu pollution and my airways the coarse unrefined smog that passes for breathable atmosphere has finally won out, and I have been left a coughing, spluttering, voiceless mess.

Am really looking forward to a visit to the countryside in a couple of weeks!

Friday, October 1, 2010

New Month

Happy October!

I've found today's date extra amusing for data collection...

Every day when I record I upload these recordings to my computer. There I keep track of all the meta data (date, place, speakers, content - all very important stuff).

One very important thing with lots of files is keeping naming conventions consistent. My system is to put the date, backwards to keep everything in order, and the file number, because often I'll make more than one recording across a day. And so perhaps now you know why I'm so amused by today. Yup, doesn't take much to keep me amused - the first file recorded today I got to name:


Am also greatly looking forward to Sunday week...

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Butter the devil you know

I should say, in all fairness, that by and large I love the food in Nepal. Sure, for most people it's daal, vege curry and rice twice a day - but as a vegetarian I'm certainly not complaining about that. Being culinarily compatible with your field site is a rather important part of feeling comfortable on field work. I could never work where my friend Mos works; where fried pig fat is a local delicacy. Nor do I have the fortitude to live where another fiend of mine works, where she describes one menu item as, and I hope she won't mind me quoting her, "a rat with an extra long nose and a plate full of slimy spinach."

So by and large, Nepali food is tasty and they're very much on board with the whole vegetarian thing. But there is one foodstuff that I can't cope with very well - butter tea.

Butter tea is a traditional Tibetan style drink popular among many of the hill dwelling culturally Tibetan people of Nepal. It involves blending milk and butter and salt and then serving it hot from a giant thermos. Originally the blending occurred in a giant wooden churn and a woman's domestic skills were judged on how well she made tea (a rather physical job) while now the hard work in most urban families is left to an electric blender.

The tea is rich, almost like a savory broth. I could cope with one cup perhaps, but the customary practice is to keep the small cup permanently brim-full.

Fortunately butter tea is something of a special delicacy, so it's not served too often. Although it means that when it is I'm rather obliged to partake. At least while I'm drinking I can console myself with the knowledge it's made from neither pork fat or rat.

Traffic jams in Kathmandu...

...even the cows have to queue.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Going Native

One thing I love about Nepal is that many of the women wear these bright beautiful kurta surwals.

While last trip I wore long skirts and tshirts this time I decided to get in on the KS action. To westerners they look a little like pyjamas - in fact, I have a pair back home that I use for that purpose. Not only do they look like pyjamas, but they're as comfortable. And you get to wear them all day. And you get them made for you individually. I'm not sure what's to love about them.

So I got some made, but I've been a bit wary about finally heading out in public. I'm not sure why I should worry about being stared at, it happens enough anyway, what with me being a tall, pasty, pale-haired freak (I've had 3 conversations in the last 2 days about how tall I am...). Maybe I've just been worried that wearing a KS would push me even further towards being a freak instead of redeeming me.

But so far today it's been ok. There's been some amusement among the guesthouse staff, but A. gave me the thumbs up so I feel more comfortable already.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A suddenly peaceful day

I've been getting back into the swing of sessions - and the data crunching that comes with them.

Today I was supposed to meet with another speaker that L. had met - I'm beginning to be convinced that L. really does know everyone in Nepal.

Anyway, so I had time today to digest all the data from working with both A. and the new woman I only did a little bit of work with A. this morning. When I got back to my guest house I found L. there, waiting to tell me that the new woman was too busy to come today. So now I only have a fraction of the usual work to do... I think some leisurely afternoon reading is in order!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A new house, a new baby, and the second time around...

In discussions with seasoned fieldworks prior to my departure, many of them spoke enthusiastically about the second time around. People are glad to see you, you all know what the procedure is and you're all a lot more comfortable. After catching up this morning with my friend and main teacher of Tam it's my turn to also do the same!

Things didn't get off to a great start - but then anything involving me, Nepali and a phone rarely does. This became apparent after I organised to meet her at her house and then found out that she no longer lived there! But the old man who sits out the front to read the newspaper every morning was there and he kindly offered to take me to A.'s new place ("It'll be good for my karma," he said) and we took a scenic detour via the river to throw in the trash.

A.'s new place is rather nice. There's running water and more secure doors. After clearly up the initial confusion (I was supposed to ring her at the old house to collect me) we spent the morning catching up, working our way though each others' respective families, swapping stories. Her daughter is pregnant and due in December so that was exciting news.

I gave A. a draft of the dictionary of Tam that I've been tinkering with - and the whole family were gathered 'round. Not only is she glad to have it, but she said she'd make not of any errors, which will help no end!

And so after almost a week of reading, relaxing and generally not doing much it's time to get down to work. I'm actually looking forward to it - and now I took can talk about how much easier it feels second time around!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

5 must have items

If I had to describe my personal packing style I would say that I am generally a minimalist - always choosing the convenience of a small pack or suitcase over preparing for all eventualities. I say 'always', but that's clearly not the case when it comes to fieldwork trips. Although I brought a minimum of clothes and not even a second pair of shoes, I managed to almost exceed the baggage limit again on this trip. Bags full of computers, gadgets, gifts, and of course noteboooks.

However, for the mountains of stuff I brought with me, here is my list of 5 things that I can not live without here:

1. Water purifying UV light: It's like something straight out of Sci-Fi; think sonic screw-driver but with only one of the functions. I spend so much time here being careful about what I eat/drink that if I were anywhere else you'd think it were a phobia - but in Nepal stomach upsets and much worse are a daily reality. Unfortunately, the water in the guesthouse rooms is not physically clean enough to drink (the light is great, but no defense against floaties) - however I'm ready and armed for the countryside!

2. Nail brush: one of the most contented parts of my day is filling a bucket with hot water and scrubbing Kathmandu off my feet.

3. The pink pencil: I'm not normally one for superstition and such - but I have a pink mechanical pencil that I used every day of the previous field trip, and have with me again. It's nice to have something so familiar to write down so much unfamiliar language with.

4. Skype: Ok, so I didn't really bring it with me, but I am officially now a massive fan of Skype. It's so much better than phone calls for the basic fact that silences aren't awkward - you can just wave at each other. And what's the use in having a Handsome Penpal if you can't see his Handsome face from time to time?

5. Laptop: it's a bit of an obvious one, but in many ways my laptop is like an electronic umbilical back to my other life. It's full of movies, songs and photos. Not to mention I can use it to Skype and internet. Oh... and do my work... It lets me be much more on top of data processing than I would be if I left it at home and just came back with a pile of tapes/CDs/SD cards.

Of course, one thing about Nepal is that there are lots of really great books here at really affordable prices - which is going to do nothing for my baggage weight management issues!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Cruisy times in Kathmandu

I've settled in to being back in Nepal rather easily. It's less humid than I remember it being at this time of the year, but apart from that it's like I've never left.

My Nepali is getting a good airing and it's not as horrible as I thought it was. It's slowly coming back to me, although there are a lot of gaps still.

While it feels comfortable and familiar there's been something a bit weird about being here, and it took me all day yesterday to figure out what it is. Basically it feels weird to be hanging out in Kathmandu and not working. Normally in Kathmandu I feel a daily race against time to keep up with data collection and analysis. But at the moment I'm waiting a few days to acclimatise before getting back into work and it feels rather nice. But I guess in the long run there's only so much cafe-hopping and strolling that one can do. So I'll hopefully get stuck into work in a couple of days.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

I'm totally sure the last nine months weren't a dream...

... and yet it feels like I've not been away. Everything looks the same, it's all as crazy as ever, I'm just better equipped this time to deal with it. Already caught up with my Nepali teacher to arrange some (much needed) conversation classes, and about to chai with a friend at our favourite cafe.

I guess this is the luxury of a second trip - I've only been here 3 hours and it already feels more like home than in did in the first 3 weeks of the last trip...

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

T minus 6 hours

After the most charming spring day (magnolias and sunshine!) it's only a couple of hours until until my flight.

The lead up to this trip has been so much different to the last one. The stress has been much less about the prospect of a strange place and unknown situation (to think I went last time not knowing what language I was working with!) and this time the stress has been much more about ensuring I'm prepared to collect maximally useful data - in the words of Orwell "all data are useful but some are more useful than others."

I've been a lot more relaxed about this trip in many ways. For example, I've still got stuff to take strewn around my room and have chosen to blog instead of pack. I've also decided at the last minute to take my mac as well as my shiny new EEE. The little'un (named Flynn) will be super useful away from civilisation, but the mac (named Errol, he came first...) deals with high qual. video better - I just shan't be lugging it to cafes for interneting like last time...

This will be the third Australian spring in a row that I've missed. And of course I'll miss friends and family, and the Handsome Penpal will have to get used to being my penpal again - but I'm also excited at the prospect of catching up with friends, seeing what is left of my Nepali and embracing the opportunity for new anecdotes at my own expense.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Work... in a hardware store

I've spent a couple of afternoons this week loitering around my local hardware store, stealing their paint colour swatches. I'm not planning on repainting my room at the guest house in Nepal, instead I'm using the little colour swatches to check the definitions of different colours in Tam.

My current database has two separate words that roughly equate to blue and green - but a similar language I've been looking at has only one word for the two. This isn't too uncommon cross-linguistically; they're known generally as grue languages.

So I've got a whole bunch of blues and greens and aquas and bluey greens, greeny blues, yellowy greens and purpley blues as well as a bunch of other colours and I'm hopefully going to get a clearer picture on what the deal is.

If I were a proper linguist I'd use a Munsell Chip set, which is obviously much more universal than the 2010 Dulux colour range. However paint shop swatches are free and this is really only a primary analysis.

I've also been spending time in magic shops, buying magic tricks to hopefully elicit the way Tam speakers show surprise. It's times like these that I find it rather amusing to do the work that I do...

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Half Way!?

I was in a casual conversation with some of the other graduate students in the department last week when one of them asked how far through I am. As long as you're not near the end of your candidature (and tether) this is a perfectly legitimate question to ask, but one I hadn't given much thought to, what with all the prep work distractions.

Some quick mental calculating resulted and I realised that I'd been doing this for 18 months, to the day. That means I'm half way through my scholarship time (tactfully ignoring that I can apply for an extra 6 months later down the track. That means I'm half way though. I don't feel half way though. I'd be lucky to have 20,000 words (25% of the 80,000 requirement) and even then nothing is any way fit for publishing. Time has flown like I never knew it to in undergrad.

So here's to the first half of this crazy adventure, and here's hoping that the next half will be as enlightening...

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

By the book

This week I've started getting into some serious note book preparation. Those shiny new notebooks I purchased a couple of weeks ago are already being put to good use. I've started writing down all the questions I've got from last trip (for example, I got the verbs 'hear', 'see', 'touch' and 'taste' but not 'smell') and I've started writing down all the things I think I'll need to explore on this trip.

I'm excited because every hour I spend working on it here is one less hour of my afternoons this tedious process (and stressful when there is the time constrain of the next day's session) will take up while I'm in Nepal, which will leave me more time for proper analysis, and, of course, socialising!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Worfian Romp

Guy Deutscher has written an article for the New York Times on linguistic relativity. Check it out here. It's fun and intimidating and touches on some interesting work done in the last ten years or so.

Monday, August 23, 2010

New Toys!

Getting ready falls into a few categories, and one of my favourite is geeking out and getting ready all the electronic gear that I need. This trip I'll be taking two new toys... I mean... electronic items for work purposes that I am very exited about.

The first is a shiny tiny new eee pc. Last trip I took an older one and my good old MacBook. This time I've merged the compactness of the small computer with (a fair amount of) the functionality of my bigger laptop. I'm impressed by how far the specs have come on these things even in the 12 months since my last trip. Hopefully it's going to save me about 3-5 kg in weight for only a small sacrifice in usability.

The second is a cute little geo-tagger, about the size of a Mars bar. Turn it on while outdoors and let it silently beep away as you journey along. While it's on it chats to satellites and stores that data away. Then, when the journey's finished plug it into your computer and it will map your path onto Google Earth, and if you taken photos (and your camera's clock is correct) it will merge that info with your photos so you know when/when you took them down to the meter (also the altitude and and the temperature!). This is hopefully going to sort out that small problem I have of there being no known maps of the area I'm working in.

As always I'll also be bringing my audio recorder (actually, property of the department, which I must remember before I become too attached), video camera, still camera, backup hard-drive and jumbo headphones. Geek out indeed!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Tell Us Where

A group of researchers in Victoria are currently using smart phones in a quirky and fun project called 'tell us where.'

The idea is super simple - log into on your internet enabled phone anywhere in Victoria, Australia, then confirm your location. Once you've done that type in a description of where you are - just how you would normally describe that place to another person.

Simple as that!

Lesley Stirling at the university of Melbourne explains what your input will be used for:

"We will use this information in an academic research project that aims to discover the underlying rules and principles for how people talk about places in Melbourne and Victoria (the game is currently limited to Victoria). By submitting your place descriptions you will be helping generate a large body of knowledge about how humans describe places in Victoria. In turn this will help develop better web searching, mapping and navigation systems, and even emergency services. For more details about the research behind the project, please see"

Everytime you log in and submit an answer you'll go into the draw for an iTunes voucher, and you can log in as many times as you like. Sounds like great fun, and a relatively unobtrusive way to gather really interesting data. Just a pity my phone is about 5 years before the smart phone revolution!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Taking Note

Yesterday morning was a flurry of all those dull post-holiday activities; washing, clearing out the inbox, checking my bank balance etc. Which left the afternoon free for me to do the first thing on my pre-departure to do list - buy my field note books.

I have always been a bit of a stationary fiend, and so I take buying field books very seriously. On a whim last year I purchased some Marbig Colourhide 120 page books. They're not the most fabulous paper quality but they have some other features I quite like. The first is that they are spiral bound, which makes it easier to fold them when working. It makes them slightly less sturdy than say a moleskine or general exercise book, but convenience wins out in this instance. Secondly, they have a nice sturdy plastic front cover and thirdly, the covers come in a range of colours which makes it easier to rummage for the right one when they're scattered all over my desk.

I've purchased 10 so far, they're stacked up on my desk waiting to be filled. Some I will sketch out ideas for sessions and things I need to ask still. The others will be filled at later dates when I have new questions, or with narratives and stories.

I've also purchased some A5 moleskines for general ethnographic notes and couldn't resist buying some adorable A6 ones as well for general notes. I'm fond of moleskine for the relative robustness as well as the nice paper, although it appears there's a dead bug pressed into one of the pages of the first book I opened which I hope is not an ominous portent.

And so this marks the beginning of the pre-departure month of organisational festivities. I will probably return to a more ad hoc posting schedule so you can join me on the bureaucratic adventure that is organising a field trip!

Monday, August 16, 2010

A choice holiday bro

And so in a blink holidays are over and I'm back on campus as though 10 days in New Zealand were nothing more than a Pinot induced hallucination. It was a very relaxing time. I did take a while to switch off from work; at one point I thought it would be fun to figure out Mauri phonology and phonotactics based only on the bilingual public signage and river names but the handsome penpal who was also chauffeur for the holiday rolled his eyes and I realised that maybe it would be good to not think about linguistics for a few days.

And so the road tripping was punctuated with handsome trying to explain what high octane fuel is (it has eight hydrocarbons, hence the 'oct'- you can get septane too, who knew?) and me trying to explain what backformations are.

Ok, so I didn't do too well at not talking linguistics - but honestly the conversation came up because of something both of us had noticed while chatting with a number of locals. The New Zealand term of affection for Australia is to refer to it as "Aussie" as in:

"Where abouts in Aussie do you live?"
"How long are you over from Aussie."
"I have a friend visiting Aussie at the moment."

This coinage flummoxed us. I don't know anyone in Oz who would refer to the country as Aussie (and my survey of 3 gives highly significant statistical data to back me up with 100% of Australians agreeing).

What's it all about then? Well, my hunch is that it's a backformation. A backformation is where people look at a word and assume (often incorrectly, although that's not really a problem) that there's some kind of analysable structure to it. For example - if a bikini is a two piece bathing suit then in some line of logic you can call a one piece a "monokini".

And so, the only reason I can think of for referring to Australia as "Aussie" is that Australians are referred to as "Aussies" and so to be "Aussies" they must come from "Aussie."

It's not really the most sophisticated example of a backformation - but for a country that is so linguistically similar to ours it was a rather interesting difference.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


The Handsome Penpal and I are taking a couple of weeks off and heading over to New Zealand. I'm declaring the adventure an internet free zone and so will have to save up all my Kiwi language anecdotes for a post-trip post.

For your amusement in my absence, I've listed a few of my favourite language-related blogs. If you have any you like to read and think I should add to my RSS list let me know in the comments section below!

Language Log - A swarm of top notch linguists, you'll be hard pressed to not find something to tickle your fancy.

Fully (Sic) - Linguistics news with an Aussie accent.

Literal-Minded - If you like taking things to their logical conclusion.

The Visual Linguist - This is new to my blog roll, but is written by a guy interested in the multi-modal linguistic communication of comics. How could it not be awesome?

Johnson - Named for Samuel himself. The Economist gets on board the linguistics train. For those that like their copy editing with lashings of reality.

lolPhonology - How all linguistics should be taught...

PhD Comics - Not about linguistics per se, but an occasionally frightfully accurate depiction of the life of a graduate researcher.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Nasal dramas

I appear to be the only person among my nearest and dearest not suffering from a winter runny nose (maybe my body and I have reached a mutual understanding that I don't have time to be sick). However I am currently having my own nasal crisis, although of a slightly different, more orthographic kind.

Because most languages have sounds beyond what are easily represented by the standard English alphabet, one way to transcribe is to use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). It has lots of handy symbols for lots of handy sounds (here's an interactive version).

I've been using a few of the symbols - eg. ʃ to represent the sound English speakers write as 'sh', or ɖ and ʈ to represent sounds that we don't have in English - they sounds much like 'd' and 't' for English speakers, but the tongue curls up and the underside is used - they're called 'retroflex' for this reason.

There is also one more nasal sound than we have in the English alphabet, called a palatal nasal. This is made by making an 'n' sound - but moving the tongue back so it's against the top of your mouth - sounds a bit like 'ny'.

The IPA has a handy symbol for this; ɲ. However, I've just noticed that I've actually been using this symbol instead; ɳ - which is a retroflex nasal instead. A subtle difference indeed, but how it has escaped my attention and the attention of 3 supervisors until now is quite a mystery to me.

All I can say is thank goodness for the find and replace functions of word processors!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A weekend rant

As a general rule, I do like to try and keep things as up-beat as possible when talking to people about linguistics. It is a topic a lot of people don't come into contact with during their education (which I think is a shame!) - although most people do have personal feelings about thinking pertaining to language. It's fun, it's fascinating, I rarely feel inclined to write a post that makes me sound like a troll.

The latest xkcd comic though has inspired me to don my grumpy linguist hat. I own a lot of hats, and I have to say this is my least favourite. The comic stars 'the count' from Sesame street using a counting system that only has the values of 'one', 'two' and 'many'.

Now, this isn't as strange as it may seem to speakers of Indo-European languages (that would be you). Lots of languages don't feel the need to be as numerically precise as others. So some only have these values. Others also have the value of 'more than two but less than about eight', which is known as a paucal. This is quite common for languages spoken in Australia, and occurs in South American languages among others.

Which leaves me with two basic problems I have with this comic. The first is the use of the term 'primitive cultures.' Cultures that used these systems aren't 'primitive', they are as complex and sophisticated as any that uses a more specific counting system. Many Australian languages with simple counting systems also have very sophisticated kin-term system. I'm sure most English speakers would take offense if speakers of these languages consider us a 'primitive culture' because we don't have a single word for 'the two of us, where I am your maternal grandmother and you are my granddaughter.'

Secondly, the comic doesn't just insult the speakers of these languages, he insults the people who research them. Obviously, I'm one to take this insult rather personally. The mouse-over text from the comic reads thus:

Cue letters from anthropology majors complaining that this view of numerolinguistic development perpetuates a widespread myth. They get to write letters like that because when you're not getting a real science degree you have a lot of free time.

Actually, it's not a myth, it's fact - and I don't have a problem with that. What I have a problem with is the assumption that only Anthropologists are interesting in this phenomenon, and not linguists, or psychologists, teachers and even mathematicians. I'm not even going to bother walking into the trap of pointing out that linguistics is a real science and that I'm very busy; it is, and I am.

This is all rather disappointing Randal at xkcd is normally rather on topic with matter linguistic. I might just print it out and keep the image, which I find to be rather cute.

Friday, July 9, 2010

100th post, chapter to bed, and secret codes

It is the 100th Lozguist post, which is a rather exciting milestone for a project that I thought was mainly going to be used as a way of convincing my parents that I was alive while on fieldwork. But I've enjoyed continuing to post on my return, and I hope you've enjoyed continuing to read.

Another celebratory milestone has just been reached today; I've just finished the draft of the final chapter of the sketch grammar! Granted the whole document is full of things like 'find a better example', 'find a better reference', etc. but knowing that there is a bit over 20,000 of stuff written is comforting, and I have a rather clear idea of what I need to do to fill those holes.

In the wider world, United States Cyber Command have created a flashy new logo with a secret code in it! Cryptologists and linguists have a long history together, in fact sometimes figuring out the structure of another language feels like you're code breaking... Shame on The Age though for implying that nerdy and cool were mutually exclusive categories!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A grammatical category with attitude!

I have been trying to intersperse my frantic writing attempts with more reading to make me feel a little bit methodologically informed. I found Bybee and Fleischman's "Modality in grammar and discourse" (1995) sitting on one of my office-buddy's bookshelves (where I do my best book browsing...).

I figured it would probably be worth reading, given that my topic is supposed to be the use of grammatical modal categories as used in discourse. While reading the introduction I got the same feeling I normally get while reading about modality; a sinking that sits somewhere in the base of my skull and pit of my stomach at the same time. The final paragraph, however, filled me with such delight I will copy it verbatim:

"So, here goes, readers. We hope you enjoy the papers. And don't be put off by the realization that mood is a grammatical category with an attitude! We'll get it straightened out on of these day."


Saturday, July 3, 2010

The perverse thrills of the organised traveller

While wandering around an outdoors store yesterday waiting for the Handsome Australian Penpal, who was trying on ski jackets, I found myself purchasing mini travel soap and coveting clothing compression sacks. It's still two and a half months until I head of to Nepal again, and I'm already thinking about packing. There are three types of people in the world; those that hate packing, those that love packing, and those that stuff everything in at the last minute.

I like compartments in travel luggage, I like considering contingencies, and as evidenced by my purchasing of the miniature soap I also like doing all this much to much in advance. I'm afraid at this rate I'll be all packed a month in advance!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Lol link

Whle I am not normally to be found lurking in the world of facebook, I've been finding the work of lolPhonology sufficiently amusing. If only my undergraduate phonology class was so amusingly instructive!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Proud to be 'Strine

While I would normally refrain from using this blog as a political forum - I would just like to say that I am happy to have woken up this morning to a country where we now have a leader with one of the most impressive broad Australian accent we've seen in the corridors of power for a long time.