Monday, October 3, 2011

Spring at home

Thanks to a couple of years of fieldwork it's been a long time since I've enjoyed a spring at home. It's been so nice with the football grand final, the start of daylight savings and the jasmine blossoms. It makes a change from the humid, sticky end of monsoon in Nepal!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

First Lecture

This year I'm making the most of being home for a whole 12 months by doing lots of teaching as well as lots of writing. Last week I was fortunate enough to give a lecture in the subject that I'm tutoring for! The subject is all about linguistic diversity, and it's designed for students who are at the end of their undergraduate course.

The class I had to take was on cross-linguistic variation in event description. I was lucky enough to be able to base it on two of my favourite areas of research - evidentiality and gesture. I used lots of real examples and all of my favourite examples. I was amazed at how quickly an hour of talking could go! Hopefully the students also found it relatively painless...

Friday, August 5, 2011

Strange ideas I sometimes have

I was chatting to a class about dialects of English the other day, and how some are so different as to almost boarder on being non-mutually comprehensible.

How excellent and interesting it would be to get two disparate groups of English speakers - for maximal difference let's say northern Scottish and Indian - and get them to work together in a situation where there is no standard English. I wonder if they would try and drift towards a dialect that is not native to any of them, or create a pigeon/creole? I think it would be excellent to have a Creole where the superstrate and substrate languages are both English. I got terribly excited about the idea but the students didn't appear to take to it as much as I did.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Break time

I handed a giant wad of printed pages to my supervisor last Friday, which somehow constitute my two-year report. I've got at least a week until she gets it back to me, so I'm using that time productively to get some serious tv/reading/gaming in, as well as a bunch of social engagements. It's so nice to have a few days brain recharge.

Friday, July 8, 2011

year three (?)

Sometimes PhD comics are just a bit too close to reality:

I've technically been on leave for three months to get myself back on track after the last field trip (the kind of leave where you still work every day, which is not really fun). I should have done my 2 year milestone report about three or four months ago, and even if you subtract the 3 months leave it's still a good month or two over due. If it wasn't for the fact that the enrollment office keeps track of these things on the internet I'd have no idea that they're under the impression that I'm going to get this finished by the end of May next year.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

New (financial) year resolution

It's the end of the financial year here in Australia, although that doesn't mean too much to a PhD student.

While walking home from dinner the other night in the beautiful fog I decided rather abruptly that I would like to have a first draft of my thesis done by Christmas.

This is a good three months earlier than any other time-line I've considered, and also requires a terrifying words-per-week count - but I figure that while I'm brain deep in data I may as well just smash out as much of it as I can. I also figured that if I told the internets of this plan I'd be more likely to be stuck with it.

We'll see how I go - I've already written at least 10,000 words in the last month an my brain is already quite melty, but a draft would be the best possible Christmas present I can think of.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Map Win!

I've so excited - I've just found out that the satellite images of the area I work have been updated in Googlemaps. So now, instead of pixely greenery I can see each village and the paths between them. It's going to make it a lot easier to map the area now, especially after my GPS tracker failed on the last trip.

I don't think I'm going to get any work done today, instead I'm taking a virtual tour of where I work!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Nepali cinemas banned from early session

One of those "only in Nepal" stories today, from one of my favourite Nepal blogs that is not written by an ex-pat in Nepal or a Nepali-overseas; X-Nepali.

Their most recent post was on the news that the Film Development Board of Nepal have decided to act as moral police and stop early film screenings to stop students cutting classes. X-Nepali point out many good reasons why this won't work, and what other problems face school-age children in Nepal. But why I find it delightfully and typically Nepali is that the ban is on films before 11 am. In Nepal it is completely typical to see a film at 8:30 in the morning. Until I went to a session that early while there I don't think I'd ever set foot in a cinema before about 2pm.

I have no idea whether this ban will come into effect, but it will be interesting to see how the FDB fare coming between Nepalis and their beloved cinema.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The alphabeical bibliography

I've been reformatting my bibliography for the work I've written so far and I've realised that I'm only a few letters off having a reference from people with surnames from every letter of the alphabet. The only ones I'm missing so far are:

F, I, Q, R, U, X and Y

The 'F' should be easy. I'll just mention something by F├╝rer-Haimendorf or Fisher who both wrote a lot about Sherpa, which is closely related to Tam. The 'R' will also be easy; one whole chapter of my thesis is a reflection on Robbins and Rumsey's 2008 collection on the Opacity of Mind doctrine. The others I'm not feeling so sure about. Surely there's a Young that's written something about Tibeto-Burman languages or copula verbs or something? Perhaps a Xaviers or Xenophone? A Quinn or an Unger?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Opening line

When not finishing up the sketch grammar, most of my time this week was taken up with fretting about writing the introduction to my thesis. I always leave introductions until the end, but I have to have this one done for a meeting in a few weeks. I know I can always come back to it, but the first crack is never fun.

Given that the thesis is looking at how Tam has all these cool grammatical features that encode social information I decided to start with a truism: 'Humans are a social species.'

I relish the irony that it's past 11pm on a Saturday night and I'm sitting on the sofa in my tracksuit pants, ignoring Handsome (who is, in turn, ignoring me and playing computer games) and indulging in some very anti-social activity.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Sketch grammar done, for now

I've finally finished adding all the additional bits to the sketch grammar part of my thesis! It's terribly exciting, even if it's a still a bit terrible in parts. There's not a lot I can do about that, I'll have to wait until I've written some other chapters so I can fix up this bit to reflect what is written further down the track. As you can probably tell, it turns out writing a document this big (ie. a book) is quite a different pace to how I normally write, and a lot more circular.

Still, for now I'm happy with where it stands - it's around 31 thousand words (31, 308, but who is counting?) - although around 7,800 of those are of examples, so I have 23,500 words of thesis content which is very exciting. Because all of the examples are presented so spaced out, and thesis formatting requirements include 1.5 spacing and giant margins the document is a 230 page behemoth - and that's without the title, table of contents, bibliography or any appendices. It's dawned on me that the final product is going to be pretty darn hefty, which I'm quite pleased about.

Speaking of final products, finishing the sketch grammar means that I can turn my attention to other matters, like the tiny problem of the 20 thousand words I have due for my 2 year milestone in 6 weeks time. This is going to include my introduction, general background reading and then look at a bit of data. I've already got a couple of thousand words kicking around, but that leaves me having to write 600+ words a day (although I've scheduled weekends in there). It's going to involve some serious finger crampage but I'm excited at the prospect of having half my thesis written once it's done!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Happy birthday Rajesh Hamal!

Today is the birthday of one of my, and one of Nepal's, favourite actors - Rajesh Hamal.

Debonair, with a good voice and the ability to land a flying kick, Rajesh possesses all the skills needed to be one of the top actors in Nepal, which is why he has been for many years, and still continues to be. His youthful long hair allowed him to play a university student journalist in last year's Desh (my review here).

He's also king of Nepali product endorsement. It wasn't his fault that after his endorsement for Real Juice there was evidence they were selling out of date juice. During my time in Nepal I've also seen billboards where he's spruked concrete and canola oil - not to mention the dozen or so films he is in every year. Even turning 47 today Rajesh shows no sign of slowing down. Happy birthday Rajesh!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Stuff that (linguistic field workers) like

I've been reading 'stuff expat aid workers like' since it started up six months ago. I was put into it by a friend doing aid work in Nepal - and while I occasionally find it hard to relate there are some posts that really hit home for me. For these you could do a find-and-replace with 'expat aid worker' and 'field linguist' and it would basically be a post on this blog. For these occasional gems SEAWL is the only 'stuff X like' blog that I always read.

The most recent post about 'having a guy for that' is so on the money with how I run my life in Nepal. I have my tailor, my shoe guy, my fabric guy, my Nepali sweets guy, my jeweller, my travel agent, my bookshop guy, my paan guy and all number of other specific people for specific jobs. Like the blog above mentions, I really like introducing friends and colleagues to 'my guys' and, of course, if you're going to Nepal I'll happily put you in touch with them.

Although the SEAWL post gives the impression that this set up is to make one feel more impressive when showing off in front of fellow foreigners, there are also other more practical reasons as to how these relationships develop. It's partly out of laziness - places like Kathmandu are big and if you want something but don't know where to start looking it can be a slow slow process. Once you found someone who'll get you what you need why go back to looking? Also, being such an old-ball giant white Nepali speaker means that going back to the same people every time circumvents the 'yes I do speak you language/no I'm not rich/I don't have kids/etc.' conversation. And finally, in a place where if always takes a little while to feel like you've got social connections, it's nice to have familiar faces to say hello to on your way though somewhere.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Snail Mail

The Nepali postal system has set a new benchmark in tardiness and inefficiency. A postcard that I sent to the Handsome Penpal arrived on Friday. Which is quite impressive considering that I sent it in early October last year... good thing it didn't say anything too important!

Friday, May 27, 2011

My IPA craft project

I don't normally cross-post content here and over at Superlinguo but I'm so excited that I've finally finished my Easter craft project that I want to share it with everyone.

I cross stitched the pulmonic consonants of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). It ended up taking so long not because of the individual characters but because it took forever to grey out the areas that aren't physiologically possible.

If you're not familiar with the IPA I'll give you my patented 30 second lesson. The vertical categories vary by the place of articulation - that is where in the mouth they are made. The first are 'bi-labial', made with the lips. The 'p' and 'b' are more or less exactly as you make them in English, by time you get to the question-marky think you're at your glottis, where you make sounds. If you say 'uh-oh' that gap in the middle is a glottal stop. See, you make them without even knowing! Good work you! On the horizontal the difference is manner of articulation - that is how you make the sounds. The first ones are 'stops', which you make by closing your mouth fully at some point and releasing it. below that are nasals, such as 'm' and 'n' and 'ng' in English. And so on. A chart with all those labels can be found here. Linguists, and especially phoneticians, use these symbols to accurately represent the same sounds across many different languages.

Next I'll have to start on the vowels!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Negative failures and other post-trip data holes

One of the most stressful things about field work is that you have a limited amount of time and an unlimited number of things you want to ask. Often you end up with so much more data than you can ever analyse, but sometimes it's not until you get home that you realise that no matter how comprehensive you've tried to be there are things you've forgotten to get.

One of the things I seem to generally forget is to make sure that I get the negative equivalent for some constructions. so while I have lots of 'let's do X' and 'I want Y' I don't have a lot of 'let's not do x' and 'I don't want Y.' I also can;t find a decently set out di-trasitive paradigm (X gave Y Z).

I'm sure that all these things are possibly buried deep in notebooks, especially from some of the older sessions when I wasn't as up to speed on databasing all the utterances I collected. Still, it's learning these things that make me more competent every trip. It's just annoying on a Friday when I just want to finish writing this chapter section.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


This post is a post of milestones.

Today I hit 30,000 words in my mini-grammar of Tam. It's still unfinished, and I'm sure it'll grow and be pruned back before it's finished, but that's a heck of a lot of words and it has become quite an unwieldy thing.

Secondly, this is the 200th post on this site. Not bad for something I thought would last one trip. Of course, now I'm blogging over at Superlinguo I probably won't keep posting here quite so frequently.

And thirdly, since my last post this site has clocked up 4,000 visits. So thanks for stopping by!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Meet Superlinguo: new blog project

The other day I mentioned that there was an exciting new project bubbling away in the background, and now I'd like to formally introduce you like you're two friends I've known for ages but who never show up to the same parties - I know you'll like each other.

Superlinguo is a radio segment presented by my good friend and fellow linguistics freak Georgia Webser at RRR fm in Melbourne. We've teamed up and now offer you Superlinguo the blog, over at Tumblr. It's your one stop fun shop for quirkiry from the world of languages and linguistics. You can also catch us @superlinguo over at Twitter.

I'll still be blogging here of course, so don't despair! But Lozguistics will go back to focusing largely on my work, and I guess be a little more technical than Superlinguo. Hopefully I'll see you over at Superlinguo some time!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

RIP Sai Baba

Anyone who has spent time in Nepal will recognise the image of the afro'ed orange-clad Sai Baba. An Indian Hindu mystic, his picture can be found in shops, homes and micro-buses alike.

Sai Baba died last night - you can read an obituary in the Kantipur Times here, or a slightly different take over at my friend Brian's site here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Mother Tongue: Bill Bryson

Ever since Bill Bryson's 1990 love letter to the English language became a snazzy orange Penguin Classic I've been meaning to give it a read. Last weekend, between meeting family and catching up with friends, I had a lot of commuting time to give it a read and finally finished it over the Easter break. Having read it I've written some of my thoughts on it, in what will be the first, and perhaps last, Lozguistics book review.

There are some observations about this book that need to be shared straight up. Firstly, this is not so much a book about English as a global language as it is about English as a British and American language. True, you can't really talk about the history of English or its rise to global popularity without mentioning these guys a lot, but English speakers in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and a score of other places might feel themselves to be somewhat under-represented. Secondly, this book is now the age of a fully licensed driver in Australia (21 years) and occasionally it shows. English in Asia is treated as an amusing curio, and it would be hard to say today that India as trying to distance itself from English these days as it's become the major identifier of the aspirational classes.

If you're looking for an amusing collection of anecdotes held together by Bryson's trademark wit and enthusiasm then Mother Tongue a great casual read. However there are a few things that rankled while I was reading.

The first is that Bryson falls into the trap of equating the different orthographic conventions of other languages with their difficulty. Sure, Gaelic languages have some very different spelling to English, but I'm sure that with five minutes and a conversion list you'd be doing ok. There are a lot more complicated things in life than remembering that for Irish Gaelic speakers 'w' is pronounced more like 'oo.'

Secondly, there are quite a few factual errors. He falls prey to the Eskimo snow hoax (the completely unfacual assertion that there are a zillion words for snow in Eskimo), refers to Tasmaina's indigenous languages as still being spoken when the last speaker died over a century ago. The couple of paragraphs on Australian English in the whole book are riddled with errors, the worst of which being the Bryson claims we prefer the word 'cookie' to 'biscuit' - you only have to ask the average Australian to see that he's wrong (unsurprisingly, his book about Australia 'Down Under' was written a decade later than Mother Tongue).

While the book is still an enjoyable read, once you spot a few errors it's hard to believe everything that's said. If he clearly doesn't know what he's speaking about when it comes to Australians how do I know that he's telling the truth about the Scottish?

Despite what I felt about these things, if you're looking for a fun read about English and don't want to be faced with any linguistic terminology then Mother Tongue is still an excellent read and stands above many of the books out there today. I wish I had a better memory so that I could use all of his excellent anecdotes about word origins, spelling conventions and word-play as my own. It's no surprise that it has become a Penguin Classic and will entertain for years still.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

2011: year of writing

So now I've been home a couple of months from my last field trip you may be wondering what my plans are from here. I'm kind of wondering that too - but one thing I can tell you is that this year there is lots (and lots) of writing ahead.

I've now completed the bulk of my data collection. I'll spend the next month or so finishing the sketch grammar for my thesis. This is the short document I've written about how the language works and will go at the start of the thesis. By short I mean about 30,000 words, which is pretty abbreviated when you consider that a full grammar can go up to 100 000 words easily.

Once that's all tidied up I'll get stuck into chapter writing. I've decided that for the thesis I'll focus on three main areas of Tam. The first will be the verbs that mean roughly the same as 'be' in English as these do really cool things. The next is reported speech - how you say what someone else said - which Tam has a couple of very different ways of doing. Finally I want to look at questions, because you use those 'be' verbs to do some cool stuff. Underlining all this is that these features are parts of language that really involve the outside context and especially fellow speakers to work effectively.

So hopefully by the end of the year I'll have written the majority of the thesis - around 80 000 words. This will give me enough time and space for a short 'mop up' trip some time next year.

There are other projects going on as well. I'm currently tutoring 1st year linguistics which is a blast. I've got a few papers planned with different people and a medium sized project. I've also got some other exciting things planned which I'll hopefully be able to share with you all soon!

Friends, and then some

There was no silly Friday post last week as I was enjoying a brief visit up north. The trip was partly to catch up with various family and friends but also partly to attend the 100th birthday celebrations of the Handsome Pen Pal's (HPP) great Aunt.

We escorted the HPP's grandmother to the event - and didn't even get in the door of the venue before running into a crowd of relatives. I was introduced by grandma as the HPP's 'friend', which produced some sniggers from HPP and I as we are rather a bit too friendly to be classed as just friends. I wasn't too offended, I just assume that friend and girlfriend have rather similar meanings for her; my grandmother also occasionally refers to the HPP as my 'little friend', making him sound more like a pet than anything.

During the party the HPP clearly decided to hypercorrect his grandmother's earlier labelling by referring to me as his 'partner', even though he is much more likely to use 'girlfriend' in other situations. 'Partner' is, to my mind, an interesting and useful word. Broadly speaking I would say it has three main uses. 1) is when a de facto or relatively serious couple wish to mark out that they are in more than just a casual relationship - it's the kind of relationship where you love each other enough to happily tag along to great aunt's 100th birthdays. 2) gay couples who wish in certain contexts to sidestep mentioning their beloved's gender in a way that the gender specific boy/girlfriend can't. Although, of course, they can use it for reason 1 as well. Finally 3) more mature members of the dating pool who feel that it is a bit strange to refer to their new squeeze as their 'boyfriend.'

And so, in my geeky linguist way, I found it rather adorable that the HPP decided to talk me up while meeting relatives. In many ways it isn't too dissimilar to the contextually appropriate re-fabrication of truth (which some may call a lie) that I employ in referring to him as my 'husband' while working.

At the end of the day I overheard the HPP's grandmother refer to me as his 'girlfriend' - as I'd assumed, she didn't really see much difference between the two words. So all in one day I was a 'friend', 'girlfriend' and 'partner'; none of them particularly untrue but all with their own value-added nuance.

And how did I refer to the HPP? Well, I sidestepped the issue altogether and when people asked how I fitted in I would just gesture towards the HPP and say 'I'm with him' leaving it up to them to decided if I were his friend, girlfriend, partner, PA or security detail.

Friday, April 8, 2011


This is a photo I took while in Nepal, of an alleyway I'd travel down every time I visited the tourist trap that is Thamel - where there's Western food, English books and faster internet to be had in abundance.

I'd never have thought to have taken a photo, but every time I walked this way with the Handsome Pen Pal he'd quietly snigger like a naughty school boy. Perhaps you've already had a snigger too.

See, what I didn't know, and what the people of Nepal clearly don't know, is that in online communities 'cyber' is short for 'cyber sex' - and so every time the HPP saw this sign and the many like it he found it to be hilarious and inappropriate.

Like Nepalis, I think it's perfectly acceptable to use 'cyber' as interchangeable 'internet' - it just goes to show that the same word doesn't always have to same meaning for everyone. After the HPP pointed it out I'd have a little snigger too, and thought I would share the joke with you to celebrate the end of the week.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Language and Literacy

Although I'm generally not one to use this blog as a vehicle for promotion this is one occasion where there's something worth sharing with you.

A lot of the work I do for my research is language documentation - I listen to the language, I work with people and I write it down and try and explain how it works. But there's a whole other branch of working with people and language and that involves teaching them to be literate in their own language.

In the Western world so many of us take our literacy for granted, but in places like Nepal education for the masses is a rather recent idea and people are taught in Nepali, which is generally their second, or even third language.

The folk at the Language Documentation Centre (LDC) in Nepal are one of the few NGOs in the country trying to help people gain literacy in their own language. This has many flow-on benefits. Learning to read and write in your own language makes those skills easier to transfer to a second language (eg Nepali), it empowers people who thought their language was of little use/interest as it wasn't written down and it allows people to do those things we take for granted, like writing an inventory of stock in your shop or write letters.

This month, the LDC are trying to raise money to help female literacy in Nepal. Four thousand US dollars is enough money to help almost 500 women gain literacy. You can read more about their project and donate here. These guys are a really small NGO - they have about 3 full time staff and I can promise that none of the money you donate gets skimmed off to pay for glossy advertising or luxury cars.

Having seen firsthand the reality of life as an uneducated woman in Nepal I could give you endless reasons to give money. I know I sound like a cheesy celebrity ambassador but this is one way you can make a real difference.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Drag Queen Linguist Names

Today I thought I'd kick off the Friday blog shenanigans again and share with you some linguistics based drag queen names I came up with while killing sometime yesterday. Linguistics is certainly not short on technical terminology to draw upon - and for any terms that might not be familiar I've included a web link, usually to Wikipedia.

Anne Affra (anaphora)
Jenny Tive (genitive)
Alla Tive (allative)
Mera Tive (mirative)
Len Ishon (lenition)
Elle Ipsis (ellipsis)
Al Veola (alveolar)
Cardinal Vowels (cardinal vowels)
Sir Kumfiks (circumfix)

As you can see, there's almost a whole family's worth of Tive. Feel free to add your own in the comments section below!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

'to app' - my favourite new verb

Last night I went out with some of my lovely friends to a local brewery that opens the doors to its own bar once or twice a week. It was a great chance to catch up with friends - but it never matters how pleasant the company is, how tasty the food is or how beery the beer is in these situations there's a part of my brain that just never stops thinking linguistics.

And so, at the end of the night when one of my responsible friends pulled out her phone to summons a taxi my ears pricked up when she said:

'I'm going to app a cab'

App a cab! This is excellent and mysterious, I thought. I asked my friend to explain. It transpires that there is a smart phone app that lets you order a cab and check the progress of your order. For the act of summonsing a cab using this app my friend appropriated the word app as a verb. This is not very exiting in itself, English is always taking nouns and making them verbs, it's something that English does very well - think of things like 'to email', 'to fax', 'to kindle' which all started out as nouns.

The linguist in me immediately set about trying to discern the meaning of the verb. It turns out that by checking TramTracker (A staple on any Melburnian's app list) one does not 'app a tram' but if there were an app that let you order pizza one could perhaps be 'apping a pizza' - among my small test group the jury was still out on that one.

I wonder whether 'to app' will make it into wider use. My friend told me that she acquired the verb from the same friend she acquired the app from, so it's not just a one-off coinage. It made me realise just how far 'app' has come from simply being the shortened form of 'application software' - it now has a life of its own. It's a potentially pertinent point given that Microsoft and Apple are currently having a bout of legal fisticuffs over the trademarking of 'App Store.'

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What a Shocker of a gesture

It looks like it's taken some front page gesture news to shake me out of my lethargy and get back into the swing of posting.

Over on The Age website this afternoon Jarryd Blair made a public apology following a 'hand gesture' that he made while his team were being photographed following their pre-season cup win. You can read the story here. Obviously events in Japan mean that it didn't stay as the main story for long - but longer than any other gesture related events in recent times.

The story centres around whether it was an offensive gesture or not. The offensive gesture in question is colloquially named as the 'shocker' which, if you're not too faint-hearted you can read about the meaning of here. Which, if you read it, gives some idea why people might have found it offensive.

But there are some questions - such as whether he was really making that gesture. Blair's thumb is not curled back and his two fingers aren't quite brought together. His apology conveniently sidesteps mentioning whether he knew the offense caused by his gesture, instead labelling his own actions as merely "careless and inappropriate."

But lets assume that he did intentionally pull that gesture, I'm sure the large majority of people would have been oblivious. This is an emblematic gesture, and like the 'peace sign' or rotating your finger near your temple to indicate 'crazy' the meaning of these gestures is only apparent if you already knew it. As far as the rest of us were concerned he's just doing a bad impression of a heavy metal music fan.

The irony is that the prudish folk who made this an issue by forcing an apology from Blair have made the event into a news item and drawn the attention of people who, like me, were happily ignorant of this little gesture until today.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Trip Stats 2010/2011

Because it wouldn't be a field trip without keeping track of the important stats.

Days away: 160

Number of words currently in dictionary: 1215

Number of notebooks used: 9
Number of pages: approx. 464

Number of individual audio recordings made: 181

Weigh change: +6kg

Weight of bags on way to Nepal: 16kg
Weight of bags on way home: unknown
Number of bags of biscuits given to airport staff, thus avoiding knowing how over-weight my bags were: 1

Amount over budget: 23:47AUD

Number of hours spent on buses: approx 96

Top three most embarrassing moments:
1. Hitting a young child in the face with a frisbee
2. Burning a child's hair with a stick of incense
3. Having to step over a crying woman in a doorway at the funeral

Friday, February 25, 2011

Home again

I always love coming home from a trip. All those things you take for granted when you love somewhere every day become novel again; fresh air, potable water, people who share the same frame of reference as you etc.

I'll probably be AWOL for a week or so, enjoying the things mentioned above and a few more, but I'll be back to share some of the final adventures that I had in Nepal, and outline what's planned for this year.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Goodbye KTM... for now...

It's always easy at the end of a long trip like this to tell yourself that five months wasn't that long after all, and everything worked out pretty darn well. It has been a good trip in many ways; I've made lots of new friends - both foreigners and fellow visitors, I've improved my Nepali to the point where getting by every day isn't exhausting, and I'm coming home with much more thought out and better organised data.

So the trip has been good in many ways, and here at Lozguistics I like to keep things on the more lighthearted end of my time here, but there have been less-than-fun times as well. I've gained an impressive amount of weight thanks to a lack of running and an excess of rice and sugar tea, I'm pretty sure the aforementioned tea has left me with at least a couple of dental cavities, I spent at least 2 months with lice and at times I felt more homesick than I even have before.

But you take the bad with the good and there's been enough good to balance things. And it's definitely time to go home, digest my data, return to normal eating habits and be able to drink tap water. It's much easier to say goodbye to a place when you know you're coming back. My only regret from the last 5 months is that I didn't go see Bryan Adams play the first rock gig by a foreigner in Nepal last night.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


As the countdown units for tomorrow's departure move from days to hours, Nepal also has a countdown under way; as of today it's 99 days until the deadline for a new constitution.

I don't want to go too much into the political situation here. This is, after all, supposedly a blog about Linguistics in Nepal, not Politics. I don't really follow politics here all that closely - it's hard to while cut off in the village and also it tends to rarely have any news worth celebration. Also, I like this blog to remain not so cynical and it's hard to do that when talking about the political situation here, where basically the only stable feature is the complete instability.

So it's no surprise that all major players in the constitution writing process are saying the deadline will not be met.

I've decided it's now a race between the Nepali constitution and my PhD thesis. I have between 12-18 months of funding left and a personal desire to wrap most things up by September 2012 (I feel like one day I'll regret committing this statement to a public forum). I'm willing to take bets, I think it's going to be close.

Friday, February 18, 2011


The part of a trip that's never any fun is packing up to go home. The problem here is compounded by the fact that field work involves a lot of technical gear, and also that books in Nepal are really really cheap.

It means that it's all about the tough love when it comes time for packing. No fiction is coming home with me - and as a bit of a boon I've made a bit of money back selling them to the bookshops here. I've also ditched a lot of clothes, and the only toiletries that are coming home with me are my carry-on necessities.

Still, it's going to be a close call on Sunday at the airport. Let's hope I get a check in clerk who's in a good mood.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Style Cream

Every time I see these chips in a store I have to giggle - and wonder what 'style cream' is supposed to taste like. I finally got around to buying a packet just for the photograph.

It may look like a very simple type setting error, but there's actually a reason for such an error. There are half a dozen flavours to chose from, and all of them are named for a country. So, off the top of my head, there's also "Italian Tomato" and "Indian Marsala." Only the "American" flavour is "style," that is, "in the manner of." Therefore it's no surprise that a non-native speaker parsing these packets would assume that "style" is modifying "cream" and not "American."

Even understanding the reason for the error doesn't stop me staggering every time. I'm sad to report that the chips do taste like sour cream and onion in American style, and not style cream, which I imagine would be a bit like eating hair styling products.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Today and yesterday has been gray skies and constant rain - it all feels much more like a winter at home than the KTM dry season. It's all very confusing, and makes navigating the streets even more difficult. It also makes doing work more difficult, with the constant rain it makes doing audio transcriptions quite difficult!

There's also been some very impressive thunder and lightening. One of the small towers at Swayambhunath got struck by lightening Monday night - you can check out the damage here.

Soshan: film review

A critic of Nepali cinema can't really afford to be critical. To pick on the problems that plague Nepali cinema would really be to miss the point. It doesn't really matter if the flashback to the hero's mid-90s childhood involves flat screen televisions. Nobody cares that the music from the dramatic points are taken directly from other films (tunes from both Star Wars and Indiana Jones made it into Sashan without a shred of Post Modern mashup irony). And lose plot points don't really bother anyone (where did the female lead's grandmother disappear to during interval?).

So if we're to ignore the plot errors, shoddy editing and occasionally woeful acting then what's left? Well clearly more than enough for Nepali audiences, who exhibit an enthusiasm that Australians usually reserve for a game of football. It's completely appropriate to cheer on the hero as he rescues the love interest with some improbable fighting skills. It's fine to turn to your friend and offer your opinion of the film as some kind of live audio commentary. And if it's getting dull call your friend and offer a commentary to them.

Sashan is the story of a rich man and his son. Our hero turns up at one of his father's villages to open a new hospital dedicated to his mother. There he falls in love with a local village girl. Cue many song and dance numbers and many costume changes (which are a way to show off ones budget). The hero stops a local bad man from kicking the girl's family out of the village (by grabbing the sharp end of a machete - Nepali heros have some improbable qualities), and realising their love for each other they get married. Our hero must dash off overseas for something important, leaving his new wife waving goodbye as his helicopter flies off over the mountains (again helicopter = impressive budget).

This would probably be enough material for a whole film, but it's just setting the scene. The girl's family are eventually bested by the baddie, and seek help from the hero's father. When they arrive at the palatial house nobody knows about the marriage. the son has a girlfriend and is frankly rude to the woman who loves him. The rich man lets the girl and her father stay. While there we watch her heartbreak - then the hero's older brother kills the girl's father because he finds the hero drunkenly harassing the girl who's really his wife. The police find the girl with her dead father on the road and arrest her for murder. By this point she's also quite clearly pregnant, to add to her woes.

Still following? Just when things can't get worse it transpires that the hero has a twin brother, thus solving the mystery of his rudeness. But our hero is heartbroken when his dad tells him that she is dead - it's ok, nan breaks down and tells him she's in jail when she can no longer bear the guilt of knowing that the hero's mother was killed by his father because he thought she was sleeping with the chauffeur. And the hero's older brother? Actually the son of the chauffeur. The elder brother goes crazy and kills the whole family as a very slowly delivered revenge. He kidnaps the hero's very pregnant wife and stages an improbable death for her - letting the hero have a chance to come in, guns blazing, and singlehandedly shoot down a battalion of thugs and save his beloved - who has quite forgiven him for not being his nasty twin. Cue happy ending with hero, heroine, cute new baby and hero's nan who has somehow survived. There was also something about the UN security council but I can't say I understood that.

Nepali films are generally fairly similar to each other. They all have a good mix of fighting, romance, family drama, song, dance and unpredictable plot twists. Like Desh, this film had several didactic monologs from the hero exposing the many virtues of good Nepalis. Like my favourite Nepali film Kusume Rumal this film also had one dance scene full of cross dressing. I'm not sure if this is a common feature of Nepali films, but I'm sure there's a great thesis in it.

One thing I've noticed is that every time I go to the cinema I understand more. I can't say I really follow the intricacies of the plot - UN security council? And how did the girl not figure out that the hero had a twin? - but I can figure out how people are related to each other and the general gist of what they're saying.

Going to see a Nepali film is like I imagine Indian cinema was 30 or 40 years ago. In many ways it would be a shame if they stopped dubbing the dialog in post-filming, and if car breaks didn't squeal every time a car stopped. The charm of Nepali cinema is not in the quality of its production, but in the enthusiasm that the audiences bring to it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


I've finally got around to adding a couple of photos to the post I wrote about the village funeral I went to a few weeks ago. I was reminded because yesterday I went to not one, but two Buddhist funerals.

These were slightly different to the last one, as both of them were cremations. The previous ceremony I attended was about helping the spirit move on to the next phase of its existence, while both of these were about fare welling the more physical elements. In the more northern parts of Nepal and in Tibet sky burial is a common way to return the body to the world - leaving the body exposed to birds of prey and other animals. However it's not so practical in Kathmandu or the hills where I work and cremation is preferred.

Like the village funeral both of these events involved a lot of butter candles, a lot of feeding people and whole lot of incense. What was interesting at both of these events is that there seemed to be a lot more gender segregation - with women doing the majority of the cooking, praying and crying.

It is perhaps something of a shame that I didn't get to stay to see either cremation take place - but after visiting Pashupatinath I think I've inhaled enough ashes of dead people for one trip to Nepal.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Another wedding

During my last stay in the country I got to attend another wedding. This one was smaller than the last, and because I kind of had a hang of the format and basic Tam conversation I found it all a lot easier than the last one.

This wedding was interesting because the couple already had a 2 year old daughter. While having children before marriage is becoming increasingly more common back home it's not something I've come across here a lot. Or at all. Courtship is usually a bit of a whirlwind here (or taken care of by one's parents) so there usually isn't time for a pre-wedding bub.

People I talked to in the village said this kind of arrangement is becoming more common, and there certainly seemed less scandal about it than I would expect in Kathmandu.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Having spent the last 5 months in Nepal pretending to be married I now have such an impressive wedding ring tan that when I return to Australia and stop wearing the ring it's going to be tough to convince people I'm not pretending not to be married.

Friday, February 11, 2011


I was really excited that this year my trip coincided with Losar - the Tibetan New Year. I arranged everything so that I'd be in the village for the festivities and was looking forward to sharing lots of anecdotes and photos with you.

However, Losar turned out to be a bit of a fizzer. The uncles who usually organise the party were working overseas this year, and no one stood up to fill their place. Most of the people who wanted to dance and party went to a village a few hours away and so the rest of us had a very quiet night of it.

Although Losar may have been a fizzer I learned one important lesson - it doesn't matter what type of New Years you celebrate, if you just rock up on the night and hope for an entertaining evening it's usually a flop.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Load Shedding

"Load Shedding" is something I've alluded to a few times in posts here, but I've never explained what it is properly.

Basically, there's more demand for power in Kathmandu than there is power. This is partly because most Nepali electricity is generated by hydro-power, and now that it's dry season there isn't so much water around. According to most Nepalis it's also because Nepal sells its electricity to India so it can make money instead of delivering it here.

To deal with this shortfall, whatever may be causing it, the city is divided into seven blocks and they alternate who has access to power. throughout parts of the year you may find yourself without power for a a couple of hours a day - never more than about 8 hours through out the week. At the moment, however, in the very depths of the dry season we are without electricity for approximately 14 hours a day. You can check out this week's schedule here, if you're curious I live in group 6.

Given that I do a large amount of work on computers, this is obviously an inconvenience for me, but it constantly amazes me that the city continues to function as it does at all. On most nights one can hear the steady hum of generators (a must of any size business that wants to survive here), and meals by candle light aren't romantic, just pragmatic.

It's things like constantly streaming electricity that I take for granted at home, but when you're without it for more than half of every day it suddenly becomes rather a luxury!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A dozen days

I'm back in Kathmandu, quantifiably older (no longer in my early 20s!) for the final dozen days of my field trip. These I plan to spend tidying up data, sleeping in read beds, catching up with people, eating salads and having a few final frantic data sessions.

The final jungle adventure continued to be a shambles. My main consultant didn't surface until my final few days, there was a week without power that made working hard, and there was a wedding and Losar in there too - not to mention that I had a supernasty bout of gastro that put me out of action for a few days. With all that ot's impressive I got any work done at all.

I'll be sharing some of those adventures over the next few days, for now I need some more salad and an early night.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Final village adventures

After my two days of R&R I'm back off for my final 2 weeks or so of village living.

It should be a hectic fortnight – There's another wedding, as well as a dance. There's also Losar, the Tibetan New Year which will be a few more days of eating and partying. It will also be my birthday while I'm there. I have no intention of actually telling anyone in the village this, after all, it's not like any of them will be able to make me pancakes. I don't mind having such a low key birthday, although it will be with a tinge of sadness to note that I'm now to old to be let loose on air at my favourite Youth Radio Station. No longer part of the 'yoof' but still kicking about at the same university I did my undergrad at… still, there's no time to be to introspective about it, I've got work to do!

Next time you hear from me I'll be in KTM and getting ready to say goodbye to Nepal!

Going to a funeral

Funerals are never something you really want to go to. But when it's for a 92 year old woman you've never met who died peacefully in her sleep, and you've never been to a Buddhist funeral before the idea of it doesn't seem too bad. At 92 she well outlived the Nepali life expectancy of 67 years.

Much like a Tam wedding, a funeral is a protracted, multi-day event involving many people, much food and a good deal of socialising, dancing and more eating.

It was an hours trek to the village – once again we left so late that we were scrambling in the dark by time we drew near – many of the party having walked all the way from the main town 4 hours away.

The tent that was erected for the funeral

That night was all daal, rice and sel roti - which is the default party food, and great for serving to large crowds. Thankfully, unlike weddings, funerals are a vegetarian affair so there was no need to worry about what I was eating this time.

The first day was a flurry of activity, it appeared there were mainly close family around, and lots of priests who had come from across the community to help celebrate the event. There was a large tent set up, and inside funeral offerings were set up. These are called torma, and are red sculptures made of flour and decorated. They look amazing all set up - from a distance they reminded me a lot of Russian Orthodox architecture. These sculptures take a whole day to make and are destroyed after the event.

I should probably mention there was no corpse, Buddhist funerals are about helping speed the spirit on to the next phase and much less about the corporal farewell that Western funerals are so focused on. The body had been cremated a fortnight ago and the local cremation site. This event was being held 21 days after death – These Buddhists have a thing for odd numbers, and especially seven.

The day after many more people came from all over the place. There were more prayers, more eating and hundreds of candles made of butter were lit in batches of 108 (another auspicious number). As soon as they were burnt down they were refilled, left to set, and relit giving the whole affair a buttery odor to mix with the incense.

[photos will follow when I'm back in KTM]

That afternoon, evening and late into the night there was dancing – but I'm afraid I missed this as I had to leave to call my little sister on her birthday. Also, after two days of sleeping on the floor being spooned by middle-aged women and woken at 4 am I decided it was about time I got some sleep in my own hard bed.

It was definitely a great experience, and I'm glad I was invited along. Again, no one really questioned why a Christian was there talking part, in fact a lot of people were very kind in explaining what was happening. Once again my halting Tam conversational skills were a bit hit and I met a lot of really interesting people. There was some weeping (and a very awkward moment involving me climbing over a hysterical 70 year old who threw herself down in a doorway and couldn't be moved) but on the whole it was a very positive and optimistic affair.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


I've come to town for a few days to enjoy some time along and some food that isn't daal bhat. Also, it's much warmer down here, and the place I'm staying even has tepid water for showering!

This trip to the village is proving to be a frustrating one. My main speaker has gone AWOL so I'm scrambling around doing much less work than I should and wonering how I'll be it all done before heading back to KTM in a couple of weeks.

Still, the thing about working with language in a field work context is to remember that people speak language. If I wanted less stress I could have chosen a topic where I stay at home and use nice safe data (databases, catalogs, archives, University people) - but really, where would the fun in that be?

And so I find myself the only Australian in town on Australia day. I think I'll try and remember where that shop was that sold dusty bottles of cheap South Australian red.

Friday, January 14, 2011

To the villages! One last time...

Once again I've stuff everything back into bags, said my round of farewells at my usual haunts around town and I'm ready to head back to the village for my final stay.

I'm looking forward to it, with excitement and trepidation. Trepidation because whatever I fail to collect on this trip wont get collected. Excitement because I'm getting more comfortable there with every visit. Also, with Kathmandu experiencing 'load shedding' (i.e. no electricity) for over 12 hours a day I'll actually have more consistent electricity in a tiny backwater village than in the capital of the country.

It should be another adventure-filled adventure. I'll be there for Losar, the Tibetan New Year, as well as my birthday (not that I'll likely be telling them that) and I heard from a friend that there's a funeral scheduled in one of the villages in a few days time. I didn't know the person, but like Tam weddings that seems to be a minor concern regarding my attendance.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Where linguists go to party

Sorry to the non-linguists reading today. This is a photo of a bar in Pokhora. For those who need the joke explained, X-bar is a very popular way of dealing with syntax. And for those who need that explained, syntax is figuring out the rules of how words and stuff fit together to make sentences.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Making News

After a lovely long Christmas lunch that also filled up a couple of the early hours of the evening, the Handsome penpal/fake Husband and I decided to walk around the tourist area of Kathmandu enjoying the festive ambiance.

While trying on silly hats at a roadside store we got chatting to a couple of people also playing with the merchandise. One of them was a reporter for one of the Nepali language newspapers writing about how Christmas is celebrated in Kathmandu.

We chatted for a while, mainly in Nepali, about Christmas here, and how it compares to the warm weather in Australia. He asked if he could quote me, I said sure, he took some notes and we went on our way.

The next morning we picked up a newspaper, and low and behold there was the report! I was rather impressed at getting my name into a Nepali newspaper. As I read on (largely with the help of a dictionary, my written Nepali skills aren't great) I also became highly amused.

There was the usual low-lying Nepali male misogyny to kick off the piece - where I was introduced as the "Australian beauty" - but that was pretty par for the course and not too much of a surprise.

What was more amusing is that, for much of the three or so passages attributed to me as direct quotes I had to look up the words in a dictionary because I didn't know then. According to the article I referred to the "waataawaran" (environment) of festivities and the "jhilimilii" (glittering) lights. These weren't the only words I had to look up before I could understand what I had apparently said.

It's not surprising the quotes aren't word perfect, considering he was scrawling dot points into a notepad. In fact, I'm rather glad he made my Nepali more eloquent for me!