What a linguist does do (part 1)

I suppose it’s true that people in most walks of life have questions they’re sick of being asked. For linguists, The Question is inevitably “How many languages do you speak?“. If you answer that one with “Well, actually I’m interested in sign languages,” you’re in for a whole series of further Questions, including “Oh, so you know Braille?” and “But sign language is universal isn’t it?” The other assumption that’s generally made about linguists is that we’re grammar nazis (“Oh, you’re a linguist? I’d better watch how I speak around you!“). Worst of all is that sinking feeling when you meet an actual grammar nazi who starts ranting at you about split infinitives with the conspiratorial look of someone who assumes you share their outrage.

Of course, the fact that no-one seems to know what linguists actually do has to be the fault of us linguists. So, in this post I’m going to talk about one of the things that many linguists do spend time doing, linguistic fieldwork.

Linguists are interested in languages. Often, the languages we’re interested in are not ones that we can speak (or sign) fluently (or even at all). Therefore, we sometimes have to go out and find people who can. Fieldwork can cover a broad range of activities. It may involve days of travel to a remote location, or it may involve talking to your grandmother.

A persistant stereotype of linguistic fieldwork is that it involves a lone researcher travelling to a remote village, facing danger and physical hardship to unlock the secrets of a mysterious language.

This may give you the sense that linguists are real-life Indiana Joneses, risking their lives to bring back linguistic treasures, racing back to their seaplanes with a bagful of particularly magnificent tones, an impressive series of ejectives, or a unusual pattern of ergativity, pursued by blow-pipes and poisoned darts.

Although there have been occasions when linguists have come into communities uninvited, taken what they wanted and run off back home, this approach is not generally considered good practice.

I was lucky that when I went on a fieldwork trip to the Arawak village of Kabakaburi in Guyana, we were lead by one of the great Caribbean field linguists, Ian Robertson. There’s no doubting Ian’s intrepidness: anyone prepared to lead busloads of keen but inexperienced students (I include myself here) into the bush (loaded down with suitcases apparently containing, in addition to fieldwork necessities, a month’s supply of granola bars, tamarind balls, several barrels’ worth of Crix, enough assorted electronic devices to open a small Radioshack franchaise, and enough clothing to ensure that even if all of us fell in the river and had to change several times, we’d still be able to dress up for dinner in dry clothes) clearly has no fear.

maxi in Guyana
Thanks to Anshier Son-St Marthe for the picture

But in other respects, Ian is about as far from the Indiana Jones linguist as you could get. First, far from being an explorer from outside, this was a trip home for Ian. As we made our way to Kabakaburi, by plane from Trinidad, then by various buses and boats, he pointed out where he went to school, and everywhere we went, he was met not by blow-pipes, but invariably by smiles and hugs.

The warmth of the welcome we received when we finally reached Kabakaburi, on the banks of the Pomoroon River, was testament to the length and strength of the relationships Ian has built up over the years.

Having miraculously managed to get out of our boat without anyone falling into the river, we walked up to the house of Canon John Bennett. Bennett was an amazing man, who carried out groundbreaking linguistic research on his own language, Arawak (a.k.a. Lokono), in addition to being the first Amerindian Anglican priest in Guyana. Like many other languages around the world, Arawak is now highly endangered. It was once spoken by everyone in Kabakaburi. Now only a few speakers remain. As with so many other endangered languages, this decline didn’t happen because the language was no longer useful or viable, but rather, as Bennett himself described, because people were made to feel ashamed of it:

People were made to feel that speaking their own language was something sinful almost, certainly something bad which should be discouraged. I remember even then, however, feeling that the ability to speak one’s own language was something good and shouldn’t be lightly discarded.*

Despite the efforts of Bennett and others, Arawak remains highly endangered, and may be gone altogether within decades.** If that does happen, Bennett’s work, including an Arawak-English dictionary and a teaching guide, will be among the few fragments that remain for future generations of a language and culture many centuries old.

The strongest memory I have of our trip involved almost no language at all. When we met him, Bennett was 94, and had lost most of his hearing and his sight. As we gathered around his bed, I sat on the floor by his feet and Ian exchanged a few words of Arawak with some of his family, before holding Bennett’s hand and speaking to him through his daughter, who spoke directly into Canon Bennett’s ear. Then Ian introduced me and gestured for me to take Canon Bennett’s hand, and I sat for a while holding hands, saying nothing.

When linguists conduct fieldwork, they are often trying to investigate a particular grammatical feature of a language, or to make certain kinds of recordings. I have done those things on many occasions myself. But this particular experience sticks with me because it reminds me of the importance of making connections: between linguists and communities, between older speakers and younger learners, across divides of place and time.

Linguists do learn to speak other languages, and some of the best field linguists speak many languages, but this is rarely the end goal. If we want to understand why a language is no longer being spoken by children, and how we might be able to support the efforts of speaker-linguists like Canon Bennett in documenting and perhaps reviving their languages, then learning to speak the language is not enough. We have to understand the lives of the people, and to do that we have to make real connections and build real and meaningful relationships.

*This quote is from a book of correspondence between Bennett and Richard Hart, highly recommended if you can find a copy of it.

**Check out this video about the Arawak/Lokono language, featuring another great Caribbean field linguist, Hubert Devonish.

4 thoughts on “What a linguist does do (part 1)

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