Tag Archives: interdisciplinarity

Meet a Fieldworker: Willem Adelaar

The year 2019 has been named by the UN as the year of indigenous languages, and to commemorate this Language Landscape will be hosting a series of events around the topic of what it means to speak an ‘indigenous language’, multilingualism and the movement and representation of language around the world. These events will be hosted in and around London, Oxford, Cambridge and Glasgow, and if you are interested in hosting your own Language Landscape event, we are open to the opportunity to collaborate wherever you may be in the world! 

Since Language Landscape (LL) came together in 2013, our aim has been to challenge preconceptions of where languages might be spoken around the world, and notions of monolingual nations. This has been done by thinking about how language can be represented in a visual form in a geographical context. Thus, when visiting the LL map, it is possible to find examples of language being used ‘outside their country of origin’. A search for Chinese on LL for example reveals that there is representation in at least ten different countries. Likewise, the project Czech it Out! boasts examples of spoken Urdu, Slovenian, Bulgarian and Russian in Czechia. In this way, viewers can also find examples of indigenous and endangered languages like Náhuat-Pipil in El Salvador, Tz’utujil in Guatemala, Taiyal in Taiwan, Nez Perce in the USA to name a few examples.

In addition to the events which will be published at a later date, we are also starting a new blog series titled ‘Meet a Fieldworker’, where we will speak to different types of researchers who have worked with indigenous language and speech communities around the world, and who can offer a unique insight into what language means to people of diverse communities. We start the blog series with an interview with Willem Adelaar (WA) Professor Emeritus of Amerindian Languages at Leiden University and we discuss how linguistic fieldwork on languages has changed over the past few decades. Adelaar conducted fieldwork in the Andean and Amazonian regions of South America in the 1960-70s, and he talks about how technological advances have changed the way in which research is conducted, as well as how ethical considerations have expanded to include collaboration with members of language and speech communities as well as researchers from other disciplines. We hope you enjoy read!

————–

ED: How are things different now compared to when you conducted fieldwork?

WA: If I had to do fieldwork now, I would need to familiarize myself with a number of technical issues, including modern ways of archiving. I could do fieldwork like I did in the 60s/70s, but we used to build our archive on paper, in a notebook and on system cards. Now, for example, you are expected to use a computerized archiving programme, which I would have to learn. My recordings are now in a digitized archive, but this is thanks to project funding specifically focused on archiving pre-digital data. I was a guinea pig of sorts. When it comes to fieldwork however, people now have to prepare for it in a different way.

ED: Are the methods of fieldwork different?

WA: In a sense they are. More technical assets are now available. We used to rely on fieldwork manuals such as Hockett, Samarin, Pike and Nida. We used relatively large and clumsy tape recorders, which sometimes would refuse service in the sunshine. But technology has developed since then. We now have advanced recording equipment, computers and video recorders. Handbooks such as the one by Gippert, Himmelman, and Mosel provide an overview of the possibilities of modern language documentation. However, continuing to conduct this type of field-based research also presupposes large and complex documentation projects for which the funding has now largely dried up (e.g. Volkswagen Foundation and ELDP). Fieldwork in the US particularly is more successful in smaller projects.

ED: How have ethics changed?

WA: Ethics was not an important issue in the past. Now it is more relevant, in some countries such as Australia, and also at EU level, but not necessarily so much in other countries like the Netherlands. Sometimes the issue of ethics still requires a content, and this may take time to resolve.

ED: Why might ethics be an issue today?

WA: Researchers now have recognized that previous ways of working were insensible to ethical considerations. We now recognize that we should give something back to the community so now we attempt to do so. But that I would argue is plain decency. So before the view was that you couldn’t do anything because you were only paid for research, without space for additional activities focused on speaker communities. Today people are free and less free in some ways. There are academic restrictions (teaching obligations, administrative tasks, etc.), things are more organized, there is more competition. There is still no organized system today for providing or giving back to the community. Projects are temporary, they create an infrastructure for 2-3 years, then disappear. If you are in a situation where you can’t give back, then you simply don’t. No one else will do it for you. But modern researchers do what they can to give back to the communities. These are also more demanding and rightly so.

From my own experience of gathering lots of data over several years, you would hope that people in the communities would become interested and involved in the documentation and the revival of their languages. This interest however has to come from the locals themselves. Together, you can combine the know-how and eagerness for action e.g. within indigenous populations who speak the language. It is true that the exposure of speakers to the presence of linguists in their communities has often changed their attitude and made them more conscient of the importance of rescuing a linguistic heritage.

Another thing that has changed very much is the idea of multidisciplinary research. Before you hardly talked to each other, as a linguist you rarely met an archaeologist or an anthropologist. You were completely different creatures. Now you at least try, but it still isn’t easy. Money also plays a role within this dynamic. If you have access to a lot of funding, you also have to use it in an adequate way. You can form a diverse research team. It gives you the feeling of strength and support. We should also listen to each other and learn from each other. Look at historical reconstruction for example. Before, our research was focused on rigid synchronic description, but now you know for example that a phoneme is no more than a theoretical construct and that each sound has a history. The historical background is significant for understanding the present. Morphological and phonemic structures differ, and you can see there is an ongoing change taking place in a language. We realize this more now whereas before it was a deadly sin to combine synchronic and diachronic research. Now you can think about the history of what you are seeing. Similarly if you are looking at a specific language, you need to consider the context of the languages that surround it. Language contact is part of your perspective on language.

In my case, I would have liked a local group to take over the work I did. As a European in my case, research was for me and for linguistics. If you are dealing with a large community, you cannot talk to everyone. But really the impact of research has to spread like an oil stain. It has to sink into the local environment, and this is what is often lacking. In some parts there are local interested and concerned people, for instance, teachers or retired civil servants who try to do something with the local language, but this can also go wrong e.g. in the case of the Cuzco Language Academy, whose authority is not accepted by linguists. For this to work, indeed, local efforts should also collaborate with science. Nonetheless continuity is more easily obtained with such institutions. Furthermore, it is often easier to do this with smaller groups as it is being done in Brazil, where language experts within a specific language community can receive training and as a result, can always be available to the language community. But this is more difficult with larger language groups like the case of Mexican Nahuatl.

——-

More information about W. Adelaar’s work can be found here.