Monday, September 12, 2011

Notes from the field - 8/9/11

Notes from the field 8/9/11 (morning)

Yesterday I made good progress with Don Francisco on getting full paradigms for all the nouns in Triqui. I don't know why I just didn't barrel forward in the past to get these, but perhaps I didn't see the relationship between certain roots that raise among all the different tonal patterns in the language. Sometimes fieldwork is like this.

I have two housemates now, Brenda and Álvaro, a couple from Tlaxiaco. Brenda is a teacher at CECYTE, the technical school here in San Martín. Álvaro is her husband. They will be staying in the other room here. They're very nice and we chatted a bit last night. They cleaned up the room where they're staying quite nicely. It's difficult to keep things looking decent here in San Martín with all the mud and with people being farmers (essentially). I can't imagine what Triqui people would think about my relatives' houses where we all take off our shoes before entering. Cultural differences abound.

Last night I was able to chat for a bit with some different people here in San Martín, such as Rodolfo and Adolfo. It was nice having a coffee in the evening and having the energy to have a relaxed chat. Rodolfo was apparently very impressed at my knowledge of Triqui. I sometimes am surprised at how many words I know as well. It's just that putting them together is a bit of a trial sometimes. I'm getting better though. I've been speaking more in Triqui with people here during this trip.

I miss Paul, but I think he misses me more right now (which is very sweet). He's back at our apartment in New Haven and trying to develop his lesson plans for the semester while putting things away and cleaning the things we didn't have a chance to clean before we left. I wish I was able to help him back at our apartment. However, I don't want to let feelings of longing get me down while in the field. It can be really lonely here and I've learned that letting your feelings get to you can be disastrous. You can get into a depressed funk that hinders your fieldwork. This "funk" also doesn't help you escape the field in any way. So, years ago, I decided that the best remedy for these feelings was obsession with work in the field. This is just a coping mechanism though.

Today is nice and sunny, if perhaps a bit hazy. I've been feeling healthy lately, which is rare in the field for me. Bringing oatmeal to eat in the morning and avoiding drinking any water from the pozo has been a good idea. I also have been eating canned tuna and plenty of peanut butter and crackers. All this breaks up the relative amount of chile in my body at any one time.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Notes from the field - 8/7/11

8/7/11 Fieldwork, day 1.

I had a good day today. It went at a somewhat leisurely pace. I woke up having to use the bathroom, which is never a pleasant experience in the field, but hey. I thought I was going to work with Don Francisco at 9 AM, and I should've been on time (I was eating). He came by at 9, but then decided to go do tequio (community work). I should just trust him to be on time. I'm too used to flaky consultants. He's not flaky.

Anyways, we started working around noon, after I had spent some time relaxing and preparing an elicitation list. We worked for 3 hours straight, focusing first on noun paradigms, but then on other grammatical things. I had thought that he had real trouble with paradigms, but then we went back to them and he seemed to really get it. I shouldn't be afraid to explain what I want and why I want to get it. Things went swimmingly afterwards. At 3 we took a break. I decided to have a snack of tuna fish and peanut butter with crackers. Lame I know, but Wilfrido's wife wasn't preparing dinner until like 6 PM, so I had to have something to hold me over. I had just eaten a little bit of bread this morning and I needed some protein. At 5 PM, I worked with Wilfrido for an hour. He's much quicker "getting" what I ask, but seemed less interested. I know that paradigms are boring, but where in a text would you ever find "your star" or "his prickly pear"? These are things that don't come up in conversational speech and relate to tonal alternations in the morphology. Eliciting them has been fruitful so far, so why not finish the task by getting all the possessible nouns' paradigms?

At around 6, I was able to call Paul and talk to him for a bit. This was nice. I'm glad I have such easy access to the internet and that I can see what is going on with him. It's so much less stressful than when I came to the field years ago. After that, I had a dinner of rice, beans, tortilla, and mustard greens. Healthy stuff here.

I worked with Don Francisco for another hour after that, but we were both getting tired. I talked to him about recording a story tomorrow and he seemed really interested. I think this is the type of stuff that really turns people on. I enjoy doing it, but it requires tons of time and I end up having to put off any experimental work on Trique in the meantime. Maybe amidst elicitation, I should do some text recording though. It sounds like fun.

I am a bit worried about having to run my psychoacoustic experiment here. It's almost ready. I just have to change it to Spanish (from French). However, it's REALLY boring and doesn't directly relate to Trique listeners. So, I'm hesitant to even run it with them. I wish that I could instead just run something different, but that requires creating something new and I just don't know if I would have the time to do all the work required for another experiment. Yuck. So, what do I do? My postdoc wants me to run another experiment, but I don't actually find it to be feasible with the speakers. Experimental world, meet rural Mexico. I wish that I had stayed with the older experimental paradigm. That's certainly more of a fruitful enterprise.

Hmm, come to think of it, perhaps I can put something together that simply gets at confusability between tones? That would be both fun and give me some more info about how Trique speakers perceive tonal contrasts. Okay, something to put together tomorrow.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Notes from the field - 8/6/11

I always like to share my field experiences with people, but internet access in rural Oaxacan towns is either non-existent or quite slow. So, I've decided to post my field journal entries from a month ago into my blogger as if I were currently in the field. The following entries are dated almost a month ago now, but I will continue to post them here as if you were reading them while the events were unfolding.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

What a day. I am back in San Martín Itunyoso. It feels weird to be here, knowing that I'm both not going to be here for very long (just 10 days) and knowing what I've done this summer. Paul and I spent all summer moving, visiting family & friends, and settling in to our new lives in Connecticut. In many ways, I don't really feel like we have settled in to Connecticut that much. We have lots of stuff and we have been able to clean up the apartment a bit, but so many things are still not unpacked. And now I'm off in Oaxaca.

Paul and I also haven't had hardly any time to just relax and do what we want, like watch movies, work, go out for a nice dinner, etc. Our schedules and free time have been governed by work necessities. I guess that is life though. You go through periods with lots of travelling and periods where you stay put. If this journal is any indication, I've been really wanting to stay put recently.

Anyways, I'm in San Martín. I felt really nervous yesterday and this morning about coming here. I was worried about everything: getting to Tlaxiaco on time, having a place to stay, getting time to work with consultants, even whether or not I was getting sick (which makes fieldwork much more suckier). Michael gave me a ride to the "suburban van" station where you get a ride to larger towns around Oaxaca. The trip to Tlaxiaco took about 3 hours, which was made longer by some road construction and the excessive amount of eating the driver decided to do while he was driving. Once I got to Tlaxiaco, I went to try to find a telephone to call Benigno, my main Triqui consultant. He was working today though, so his phone was off. He also didn't have any space available to leave a message. I was worried that if I didn't get a hold of him, there would be no way for me to get to the village.

Saturdays are "market" days in Tlaxiaco, which has been a center of trade/commerce since pre-colonial times. The people at the bottom of this picture are selling comales (clay plates you lay on top of your fire to cook with).

So, I decided instead to just walk right into the outside market. Saturdays are market days in Tlaxiaco, full of tents covering people selling all imaginable products. Trying to manage the narrow passageways with a rolling suitcase is a real pain. Luckily, within about 30 steps, I spotted Benigno's brother Wilfrido. I was happy to find him so quickly and to have some friends who could help me get to San Martín Itunyoso. Unfortunately, almost all the people from San Martín had left Tlaxiaco already, so they said they had to take a van out of the city toward San Martín. After trying to find a van that could accomodate 4 more passengers, my luggage, and their purchases, we just decided it was best to take a taxi to San Martín. It cost 250 pesos (about $20), which is lots of money for most Oaxacans, but I was happy to pay it if it meant that I could get settled in more quickly and finally eat something.

We got into San Martín at around 5 PM or so. After saying hello to people, I went to find Don Francisco, my main Triqui consultant of late. His son is away in California as a migrant worker, so he has an extra empty house that I can stay in. I stayed there last time and it was reasonably comfortable with a good amount of privacy. It also stays somewhat warmer than the outside air, which is a bonus in chilly, rainy San Martín. Don Francisco was very happy to see me and pleased to offer me his son's place to stay in. This ended my last anxiety about coming here. I hadn't been able to get a hold of Don Francisco before coming, so I didn't know how much we would have been able to work together or if I could stay at his son's house. Luckily, this worry was abated.

I had a very full meal with Benigno's family, consisting of eggs served in a chile sauce, roast chicken, steamed mostaza quelites (greens), local sweet potatoes (very dark purple ones), and of course, fresh tortillas. It was a nice meal at the end of the day, finished with a sweet cup of coffee. I'm tired though. I hope tomorrow isn't as dreary and rainy as today is. I need some sun.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Sitting in airport lounges

American businessmen are really bored. They do not enjoy waiting without talking. They must be the talking type. Sitting at the lounge at my computer waiting for my flight, I am surrounded by American businessmen. They sit constantly looking at their telephones. They talk about nothing with friends and relatives. They talk about the fact that they're waiting at the airport. They check multiple times to see if their flight is delayed or not. They talk about the fact that their flight is leaving in 40 minutes, 60 minutes, whatever. They are really, really boring.

American businessmen are really boring.

They are also really loud. One thing I think that I enjoy about France is the fact that people have volume control. It is considered rude if anyone further than 5 feet away from you can hear your conversation. To speak louder is considered yelling. Mothers quickly hush their children when they start to make noise. Cell phone conversations are muted and restaurants, oases of peaceful bliss. I generally don't think that it is appropriate that I hear a conversation when I am sitting more than 30 feet away.

So, anyways, they should learn to shut up or read a book.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Under the spell of the written word

In his recent post, Robert Lane Greene discusses how generations of "language sticklers" have been on the wrong track. His article is an advertisement of sorts for his new book You are what you speak: grammar grouches, language laws, and the politics of identity.

Greene argues against the idea that history represents decay with respect to language. The assumption of historical decay is one that many journalists writing about language consistently fail to observe. It's not simply the journalists who assume that language is under decay, but many academics. Theoretically speaking, they might understand that history isn't decaying, but surely this must have nothing to do with the loss of whom or use of like in different varieties of English, right? So, the argument goes. Any experience with historical linguistics or with language contact is bound to convince one that this assumption is false, as many a linguist would be quick to observe.

My point here is not to talk about the idea that language change is not decay, but to discuss a different subtext that is a bit dirtier - the importance of literacy to this debate. While it is delightful to see a popular writer on language talk about the myth of language decay, the topic of Greene's article quickly changes to literacy and the stylistics of English writing. Implicit in his review is the idea that changes in English writing reflect language change at some larger level. But does writing UR 2 KEWL [jɹ tʰu kʰul̴] really reflect a drastic change from writing You're too cool. [jɹ tʰu kʰul̴]? Greene argues that we shouldn't be concerned with these changes in writing because so many people are now literate and we are bound to observe what he calls "bad grammar and mechanics" in a pluralistic society. In other words, Greene withholds condemning those who write UR 2 KEWL (after all, they're writing), but then proceeds to judge them based on their stylistic choices. It's "Love the sinner, but not the sin" or something like that.

Greene's tone is judgmental because, like many, he only can speak about language from the perspective of literacy. He has no other way to discuss real language differences. Thus, all orthographic differences appear to be more important than they really are. This isn't, of course, the natural state of things. In 90% of the world's languages, there is no literacy and no writing system (Harrison, 2007). In these languages, the written form of words is often seen as a barrier to communication rather than as a river through which linguistic thoughts may flow.

Literacy learning among Itunyoso Trique speakers. It is hard to read 9 tones.

In my work developing an orthography for Itunyoso Trique, reading and writing are considered excessively difficult skills. The language has 9 tones. This means that different pitch patterns change the meanings of words. There are four level tones: numbered 1, 2, 3, 4 (where 4 is highest), three falling tones, numbered 43, 32, and 31, and two rising tones, numbered 13 and 45. Working with speakers, I have developed a system for writing the language, but it hasn't been thoroughly tested. Chances are, the system will change based on the needs (and concerns) of Trique speakers. What really isn't a concern among Trique speakers is slight variation in writing a word. I have seen the word [joʔoh 4.5] 'land' written as 'yohó', 'yohoo', 'yoó', and 'yo'óho'. Since the glottal stop /ʔ/ is often so elided (as creaky voice), it is difficult for speakers to identify it as a consonant in the word.

I would consider it wonderfully clear (for me at least) if Trique speakers would be motivated enough to read and write in one particular way, but it would also be presumptuous for me to expect them to converge on one system. Besides, inflexible writing systems are often created by external forces like governments, the aristocracy, or the Academia Real de Español - and Trique people have no reason to respect or even like impositions of this kind.

From this perspective, Greene's judgment just starts to look silly. Yes, it is a wonderful thing that most English speakers in the United States can read and write now, but why assume that they should converge on a single system that everyone can understand. Perhaps it would be better to ask if English can allow public spheres for different variants of written language? Real pluralism permits this for spoken language. Why should written language be a sphere for more stricter judgment?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Eclectic musical taste

If I could mark a type of music that I am really attached to recently, it would be indie music mixing electronic music sensibilities with real instruments and intelligent composition. I suppose the two artists that have turned me on to this have been Owen Pallett and Patrick Wolf. They are similar in that both have some classical musical background and can play various instruments, but they are also each young and angsty.

Owen Pallett is young and angsty.

They're also both gay. I don't know if there is a gay musical sensibility. Perhaps there is and I have it. There you go, I listen to "gay." They sort of look alike too though. Maybe I just like listening to tall skinny pasty white guys.

I am reminded of the appeal of music by Tattle Tale or Magnetic Fields. I suppose that Magnetic Fields isn't quite as electro-oriented as Owen Pallett, but every song is different, has different instruments, and a unique melody. Ukeleles, organs, trumpets, and lots of violins. By comparison, guitars are just boring.

This all sounds very modern to me. Maybe it is an old style that my personality has just come to be acquainted with. However, here is my theory. 30-50 years ago, kids who learned violin or cello knew that they would be playing classical music to dwindling crowds of uninterested sixty-somethings. I suppose that the occasional violin strung its way into a Beatles song (at least the sitar did, but that was a hippie thing). These were exceptions though.

The kids who wanted to learn violin in the past 20 years haven't wanted to play just to their grandparents. They grew up with much more excitement. They listened to LCD Soundsystem and heard Philip Glass. Given these circumstances, they have had to pave new ways with their musical talent. They can add drama and innovative style to classical pieces, as Hahn-Bin has done (below), or they can rock out their cello in cheesy 8-bit style. I'm glad things have moved in this direction.

Supposing that I can write...

I'm going to give this blogging thing a try. It's perhaps the modern version of keeping a journal. At the very least, it feels freer than writing somewhere like Facebook or LiveJournal (even). And I really want somewhere where I don't have to try to sound smart to other academics and can occasionally make silly statements (not false ones I hope). LiveJournal is the old platform with very few of my neurotic gay friends (and I don't know anyone gay who isn't also neurotic). Facebook has become the professional platform. So, where is the space for randomness? for occasional poetic license? for freedom of creation? I guess I'll try to make it here.

I suppose that it is fitting that I discuss writing in my first post. I can write socially. It's just like chatting with new people. I rarely make many mistakes. It's when I start to try to sound intelligent that I get into trouble. And as an academic, I suppose that I have to sound intelligent most of the time. I'm scattered though, stereotypically scattered and lost in thought. I'm Doc Brown in Back to the Future, but without the car or the zany haircut.

I monkishly approach writing research papers. I amass incredible amounts of random lists. I write down disparate ideas on scrap pieces of paper, folded in half, on ripped-out notebook sheets, in notebooks, in margins, in textfiles on my computer, and in "commented-out" spaces in the actual LaTeX document of the paper I'm writing. My notes are, at times, intelligent. At other times, unintelligible. Though, as a linguist, I have to be on special alert. After all, the committee who reviewed my paper is standing on my shoulder and staring down at my tangential style of writing with head-shaking disapproval.

Well, not really. Perhaps this is even what prevents me from writing more clearly. When I read colleague's papers and other published papers, I feel like I'm just a clown trying to bash the keys together in order to create actual prose. I really really have to be in the right state of mind with the stars properly-aligned to create an academically-responsible text.

It's not that I am lazy. Far from it. I can get research done. I can read a lot and I can focus on things for hours at a time. I just don't like writing for academics. They're a tough crowd. I am afraid to write even the smallest statement without some source for my words. I end up getting side-tracked mid-sentence for a source to some minimal assumption that I wish to make. I expect to get attacked for stating that the earth is round without citing Galileo himself.

Anyways, it is late as I write this, so I will probably soon stop making sense. I have no idea how I am going to finish my revisions to my paper by Monday. I have an immense amount of work to do and I am afraid to ask for an extension of a few days. After all, that's admitting weakness, no?

I promise (if anyone ever reads this) that all my posts will be incredibly interesting and change your life forever. At least I think so.