Thursday, April 20, 2006

Researching languages

The research work is going well. I have been recording in two languages, Roper River Kriol and Ritharrngu (or Waagilak as it is also known..). The first thing I did really was sit down with my Baba and translate the information and consent forms into Kriol.. My baba is a bit of a genius, I think at expressing something like 'PhD research' into Kriol, something like 'haiwan stadi bla raidim bigwan buk'... The whole concept of academia and qualifications is, I suppose a bizarre one, but not without congurencies in Ngukurr, having levels of initiation or wisdom, or things you have to complete over the years to show your community that you are knowledgeable enough to teach the subject matter ... I remember thinking how bizarre the graduation ceremony was at UNE, with all the artifacts and costumes and rites that symbolise the separation of Church and the state and rites and roles to be observed... Maybe it is not unlike traditional ceremony.

I have been lucky in a few ways, finding a Ritharrngu speaker whose kinship relationship to me is 'Older sister', yapba, and who does not speak any English (just Kriol and Ritharrngu), she speaks to me a mile a minute, then smiles and gets me to repeat what she has says, she is so obviously used to teaching language with how she directs me and is very patient... some of my other good luck is finding a Kriol/Ritharrngu/English speaker (he has the skin name Wamut- I call him 'son')who is a perfectionist and while transcribing a conversation he makes sure I write it down accurately, and repeat it back to him perfectly before we continue... it takes many hours to transcribe- so far I have been working on a 7 minute conversation in Ritharrngu, and after four hours with three of us working on it we are getting there...

It makes me realise people so rarely think about the words they say, more often about the 'meaning' of what they say. So as soon as I play something back to someone and they hear 'what it means' they have great trouble repeating the actual words said on the recording back. Which is why my perfectionist son is like gold. He continually reminds everyone else that we are writing down exactly what the recording says, and goes over and over it until what I have written down what matches the recording.

Transcribing a language that you don't speak well (especially a conversation) is a bit of a nightmare in that people always make false starts, don't finish sentences or thoughts, and of course aren't always explicit about who or what they are talking about... I am interested in putting the Ritharrngu into Kriol to try and show really that in terms of discourse (i.e. conversation) practice the Kriol language is more like a traditional language than English... Which in turn is why it is so hard to communicate easily (the words are easy enough to learn) in Kriol, and why everyone should have interpreters and professional education about it, rather than assuming they can understand.

So (linguist mob) I am looking at enclitics, determiners/demonstrative pronouns (which can be free or enclitic in Ritharrngu), word order ( focus, topic, how everything is juxtaposed, like 'I saw him, the man' or 'the man, I saw him' etc), speech act verbs, particles etc etc. As you might guess there is a high correlation between the distribution of discourse particles in Kriol ( like, pobala, lagijat, ngi, ngabi, meitbi) and in those in Ritharrngu, so translations into Kriol can match up nearly word for word ( even though Kriol is said to have a fixed word order like English and Ritharrngu has free word order) in terms of words, but also (possibly) conceptually.

I have been recording a few conversations in Kriol with my Niece and my Mami (who are both old ladies) and other opportunistic situations- like the recent public community meetings about liquor permits (again), which have been a bit distressing for everyone ... They are in the format of everyone (anyone) getting up in front of the council building ( with 40-100 ppl standing around) and 'saying their piece', which apart from the content of what people are saying is interesting in the codeswitching between English and Kriol.. People seem to start speaking in English and then repeat what they have said with emphasis in Kriol, swapping between the two.. Actually the different registers and languages that people use in different contexts is even more diverse than I first thought- people seem to through in words from English, Kriol and various traditional languages, all over the place.

It is great having Greg here to talk to, two linguists in one community, a bit of a luxury really. We get together and talk about finding tense suffixes from language ( in Ritharrngu) on Kriol, or English words ( exciting huh?!). Visiting the language centre is a bit strange, and seeing the language centre going about it's business without me is very strange! I can only compare it to when my host sister from Costa Rica ( who had been living in Australia all year) came back to Costa Rica, where I had been living in her bedroom with her family (and she had visited mine in Aus.) ... We knew so much about each other, shared with each others family and friends, but had never actually met!

But everything is going smoothly (relatively), sometimes people come and speak to me about language centre business and I explain that I am researching now and to talk to Greg (pobala my son)... But no-one seems confused by having us both here at the same time ( well actually except for the Old Ladies who are dying to go fishing and keep asking me to go and get the language centre car!).


Blogger Wamut said...


I have one little thing that I'm going to pick on you about because it makes me grimace... your spelling!

bobala main mami, nomo sabi spel. :-)

here's my corrections for you: bobala, maitbi, yapa

i told you I was going to pick on you...

6:09 pm  
Anonymous Laraba said...

it's good to hear about your work and how you are making progress. It's fantastic that you've found the right people to work with, perfectionists and people who understand what you are after, it's *so* important, without them, field linguists are nothing!
Keep on up the good work!
With lots of love from springtime Frankfurt (it's such a different world here! And everyone looks at me in a weird way when I use 'bobala' in German!)

6:17 pm  
Anonymous bulanjdjan said...

Hey wulkundjan-ngan!

I know exactly what you mean about the difficulty of holding people at the 'speech production' phase of transcription checking, before getting to the meaning. IMHO, there seems to be a strong correlation between literacy and understanding what and why the need to first get the speech forms right, before moving onto the translation. Is Wamut literate?

8:56 pm  
Blogger Sophie said...

Sorry main boi! I will try and be more consistant... I don't know if I can manage to change pobala, to bobola (it just doesn't feel right!)- maitbi, yes sorry that is atrocious and yapba- well I like it written that way because it reminds me it is a long stop! But you are right, I need to get it into line...

On the other hand I am a bit torn in my transcription as to represent things phonetically, or with consistant spelling... if someone says 'burru' and then later 'burrum', or daliyu then dalim yu- which way!?

9:30 am  

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