Archive for Fieldwork

"Chinese" well beyond Mandarin

A topic which I have raised here and elsewhere a number of times is that of Sinitic topolects and languages (www.sino-platonic.org/complete/spp029_chinese_dialect.pdf), and I have also called attention to the increasing domination of Mandarin in education and the media.  Even native speakers within China sometimes don't appreciate quite how varied the Sinitic group of languages can be.  People often say that someone can move from one valley to the next, or one village to the next, and just not be able to make themselves understood.  But until you've been in that situation yourself, it doesn't really hit home.  Before long, I'll post on Shanghainese and will provide audio recordings that will demonstrate clearly just how different it is from Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM).  There are countless other varieties of "Chinese" that are just as different from each other as Shanghainese (or Cantonese or Taiwanese, for that matter) are from MSM.

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Androids in Amazonia: recording an endangered language

Augustine Tembé, recording a story using a smartphoneThe village of Akazu’yw lies in the rainforest, a day’s drive from the state capital of Belém, deep in the Brazilian Amazon. Last week I traveled there, carrying a dozen Android phones with a specialized app for recording speech. It wasn't all plain sailing…

Read the full story here.

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Android app for oral language documentation

Steven Bird, "Cyberlinguistics: recording the world's vanishing voices", 3/11/2013:

Of the 7,000 languages spoken on the planet, Tembé is at the small end with just 150 speakers left. In a few days, I will head into the Brazilian Amazon to record Tembé – via specially-designed technology – for posterity. Welcome to the world of cyberlinguistics.

Our new Android app Aikuma is still in the prototype stage. But it will dramatically speed up the process of collecting and preserving oral literature from endangered languages, if last year’s field trip to Papua New Guinea is anything to go by.

Read the whole thing.

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Oh, we got endangered languages / right here in New York City

[ Note: the San Diego wing of Language Log Plaza is about as far from NYC as you can get in the continental U.S.; I just couldn't resist the title. ]

Surely, most if not all of our devoted Language Log readers have by now noticed the recent NYT story "Listening to (and Saving) the World's Languages", about some of the work being done by the Endangered Language Alliance to document and preserve endangered languages spoken in New York City. (And in case you hadn't noticed it, there it is. Check it out.)

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So many languages, so much technology…

Suppose you had 100 digital recorders and 800 small languages, all in a country the size of California, but in one of the remotest parts of the planet.  What would you do?  What would it take to identify and train a small army of language workers?  How could the recordings they collect be accessible to people who don't speak the language?  My answer to this question is linked below – but spend a moment thinking how you might do this before looking.  One inspiration for this work was Mark Liberman's talk The problems of scale in language documentation at the Texas Linguistics Society meeting in 2006, in a workshop on Computational Linguistics for Less-Studied Languages.  Another inspiration was observing the enthusiasm of the remaining speakers of the Usarufa language to maintain their language (see this earlier post).  About 9 months ago, I decided to ask Olympus if they would give me 100 of their latest model digital voice recorders.  They did, and the BOLD:PNG Project starts next week.  Please sign the guestbook on that site, or post a comment here, if you'd like to encourage the speakers of these languages who are getting involved in this new project.

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Kaioá

This is a video clip provided by Dan Everett, in which he interviews Kaioá, a Pirahã man in his 30s.   Dan's transcription, translation, and discussion can be found here.

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The colleagues down the hall

This is a long-overdue follow-up to my post (from April 26), announcing the availability of the film The Linguists on Babelgum.com. A couple things that I failed to point out in that post: first, the version of the film on Babelgum is the DVD version, not the slightly shorter cut that has aired on PBS; second, there are several additional clips that you can watch separately on Babelgum that are on the DVD. Search for "the linguists" on Babelgum and you'll find links to the trailer, the film, and the additional clips. These are all available for some unspecified limited period, so watch 'em now if you're interested.

What I'm really following up on here, though, is this comment by Jesse Tseng.

I was struck by this sentence [in the film, spoken by David Harrison–eb]:

I don't see how you can justify devoting your research career to the syntax of French (a language with millions of speakers), when the skills that you possess could help document a language that is going to go extinct within your lifetime.

Hmm. The fieldwork skills I possess would make me go extinct long before any tribal language I helped to document. And good luck doing any syntax at all with your 15 sentences of Kallawaya…

Seriously, I was disappointed to hear this gratuitous swipe at the colleagues down the hall. I would like to believe that we are all engaged in a common endeavor, with the same justifications. And when linguistics departments get cut, all the sub-fields of linguistics go down together. Or are they hoping that the money then gets funneled into Anthropology?

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Experiencing language death

Usarufa speakers experience the webUsarufa is a language of Papua New Guinea with just 1200 speakers (ISO-639 code "usa").  There's no fluent speakers under the age of 25, so the language must be considered moribund.  Before posting recordings of this language online, I needed to get informed consent, so I introduced some speakers to the World Wide Web.  We poked around for a while, finding useful sites about about insecticides for dealing with the taro beetle.  Then we turned our attention to audio.

I played them a recording of the "last words" of the Jiwarli language of Western Australia.  After some questioning looks I explained that this language is now dead, and we were listening to its last speaker before he died.  As one they all looked down, shaking their heads in disbelief and saying sorry, sorry, sorry….  It was as if I told them a mutual friend had died.  They urged me to put that recording on a cassette tape so they could take it back to their village.  That way, everyone would surely understand what will happen to the Usarufa language unless there are serious attempts to revitalize it.

I wasn't prepared for the intensity of their response.  Now I'm wondering if a collection of such recordings might be a useful tool in promoting language revitalization, and also in explaining the concept of language archiving.  (Thanks to Ima'o Ta'asata, James Warebu, Sivini Ikilele, and Waks Mark for their dedication to the preservation of Usarufa oral culture, and to Aaron Willems and SIL-PNG for facilitating this work.)

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Now anyone can watch The Linguists

As I announced on Thursday, David Harrison was just here in the San Diego wing of Language Log Plaza to screen and discuss the film The Linguists, at UC San Diego on Thursday and at San Diego State University on Friday. Both events were hugely successful — a fantastic turnout of around 150 people at each screening. David then headed to Rutgers University (my graduate school alma mater, as it happens) for a similar event during Rutgers Day on Saturday, where I'm sure the turnout was also great.

In case you missed all of these screenings, or if your PBS station didn't air it (or you don't get even have a PBS station!), or if you just want to see it again, the film is streaming for a limited time at Babelgum. Click and watch!

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The Linguists in San Diego

If you happen to be in the San Diego / La Jolla area this afternoon at 5pm PDT, why don't you cruise by the beautiful UC San Diego campus to enjoy a screening of The Linguists followed by discussion with one of the linguists featured in the film, David Harrison? It's free and open to the public. Many more details can be found here. (If you miss it today, there's another screening at 5pm tomorrow at San Diego State University.)

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Next month: The Linguists premiere on PBS!

Beginning with a few sneak previews at smaller film festivals prior to its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival a year ago, The Linguists has been touring around the world — sometimes with David or Greg available for discussion, sometimes without — with exclusive screenings for lucky audiences. There are still a few such screenings left in various places, but soon many more of us in the United States will be able to enjoy the television premiere of The Linguists on PBS: on or after February 26, depending on your local station.

Note: thus far only Alabama Public Television seems to be on the ball about posting the premiere in its online broadcast schedule. I welcome links to other updated PBS station schedules in the comments.

(The PBS premiere is noted at the end of yesterday's Q&A with David and Greg in GOOD Magazine; tip o' the hat to Ben Zimmer.)

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Give the gift of The Linguists

Just in time for the holiday season: The Linguists educational DVD! According to the announcement on the LINGUIST List, it "includes 30 minutes of DVD extras profiling endangered languages around the world and efforts to archive and revive them; and a discussion guide created by Dr. K. David Harrison and the Center for Applied Linguistics."

The catch, of course, is that this DVD was produced for educational purposes, which somehow makes the price a whopping $300. But c'mon, you know you want one.

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Economic linguistics

According to Tim Arango, "I Got the News Instantaneously, Oh Boy", 9/14/2008, some so-far anonymous computational linguist caused United Airlines to lose more than a billion dollars of its market capitalization, over the course of about 12 minutes last Monday.

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