I’ve had a request for a post about my work, and after all I am supposedly here on research, so here goes. I’ll try not to bore you too much with the linguo-babble. (Actual linguists, go ahead and skip the next paragraph or three.)
For starters, there’s roughly 7000 languages in the world (depending on how you count, which is a complicated issue in itself, but let’s just say the line between language and dialect isn’t always clear). The number about which we know nothing or nearly so is huge – a quarter? half? more? – and depending who you ask somewhere between 20% and 90% of the 7000 will cease to be spoken in the next 50 or so years, mostly because they’re being overtaken by larger regional or (inter)national languages like English or Indonesian or Swahili.
So what I’m doing is taking one of those so-far-undocumented languages and documenting it. There’s a few different arguments for doing this sort of work. The David Harrison argument says that languages encode all sorts of cultural knowledge that disappears when the language dies. The Inuit don’t have 50 words for snow, but their language certainly does distinguish between more different kinds than English (let’s see, we’ve got snow, sleet, hail, maybe ‘wet snow’… not much), because it’s an important aspect of their life. If a language uses a different word for ‘go’ depending on whether you’re walking with or against the flow of the nearest river, that encodes a pretty detailed knowledge of the local river system; or you might have a language that names a plant after the disease they use it to cure, or a month after the food plants that ripen then. All potentially important knowledge, which becomes at least less accessible if you stop speaking that language. The counterargument is that it’s a property of human language that any language can express any concept, and therefore that knowledge can be expressed just as well in Indonesian as in Wandamen, but I don’t quite buy it. There’s a difference in ease of expression for sure, one word vs a sentence or two, the name of something vs a fact to remember about it. There’s a difference between remembering that apples fruit in September and calling September Apple-month. So even if we can’t say that cultural knowledge is necessarily irrevocably lost with the death of a language, I think we can say that it becomes less readily and explicitly accessible. Whether the preservation of this knowledge is important is another question – diversity for its own sake? the intangible, arguable good of remembering traditional ways? the more tangible benefits of medicinal plants? – but I think it’s safe to say that it’s better preserved if the language is preserved with it.
The argument I usually take, since it pertains to linguistics rather than some fuzzy concept of ‘the good of humanity’, is that we linguists are in the business of (among other things) discovering universals, and it’s awfully hard to claim something as universal when you have no data on (let’s say) a third of the languages out there. There’s a lot of things that we claim all languages do, in terms of word order, and sound structures, and so forth, and if we haven’t found a language yet that does those things it’s pretty safe to say that they’re at least rare. But if you’re talking universals it’s important to distinguish between rare and impossible, because if it’s rare you have to account for it, whereas if it’s impossible you have to account for the lack of it. Of course we’ll never have all the data on all the properties of all human languages past and present, and even if we did that doesn’t cover the whole space of possible human languages (some things that don’t happen probably don’t happen because of chance, rather than because of impossibility). But we should still do what we can to gather what data we can get, because the more we have the better off we are. And the languages that do cool unusual things (from the point of view of the well-studies European languages) are the same ones that are likely to be underdocumented, because often they’re the ones without any close relatives (more related languages means more chance that at least one of them has been studied, and therefore we’ve seen this before) who’ve developed on their own, and often that means they’re small and remote and harder to get to. So anyway, while I’m sympathetic to the cultural preservation argument, I’m here for more-data-is-better reasons, because who knows what theory my Wandamen data might provide support for, or counterevidence against, or what cool properties it might have that we want our theories to account for. Also I like getting paid to hang out on tropical islands. But don’t tell the grant bodies that.
Wandamen itself is an Austronesian language (Eastern Malayo-Polynesian, South Halmahera-West New Guinea, Cenderawasih Bay, if that means anything to you), roughly as closely related to Indonesian as English is to Russian, but related nonetheless, and with plenty of loan words. The last speaker count was done in 1991 and estimated roughly 5000 people who used the language, but from talking to my consultants that sounds a little low. There may be ~5000 ethnically Wandamen people, but it’s also used as a lingua franca in Wondama regency, which means non-Wandamen people in the area speak it as a second language for inter-ethnic communication. And given the sheer mind-boggling number of different languages around here, from both the Austronesian and various Papuan families (see ETHNOLOGUE for a language map, which in my opinion is missing a couple), a lingua franca is a useful thing to have. From what I can tell it’s small but not in immediate danger of extinction – young people in cities like Manokwari don’t speak it anymore (they use Indonesian and Papuan Malay instead), but young people in the villages do, and again as a lingua franca it’s in regular use as a second language. Who knows what the story will be in 50 years – Indonesian and Papuan Malay are becoming more widespread – but it’s not a case of five elderly last speakers, like many languages around the world.
And Wandamen itself has several dialects, between three and nine depending who you ask. My main language consultant, Ibu Marice, speaks Windesi, and the other that I meet with occasionally speaks Wamesa. Pak Mathias tells me that Wamesa is the original homeland of all the Wandamen people, and the only reason the language is called Wandamen is that that’s the name of the area where the Dutch missionaries who write such things down first landed and set up their school. Though Bu Marice would probably say the same about Windesi.
Which brings us to: what the hell am I actually doing here? Recording a lot, analyzing a little, transcribing even less. Most days I show up at the CELD office at the university around 9:15am. I meet with Bu Marice around 9:30 or 10, and we spend roughly and hour doing elicitation. Some days that’s mostly vocabulary – names of plants and animals, lists of words, some short sentences and cultural information. Some days it’s storytelling, when I try to get more natural speech patterns and hopefully examples of things I wouldn’t think to ask about, or wouldn’t understand the explanation about if I did ask. (We speak standard-ish, Papuan-accented Indonesian with each other, and my limitations become daily more apparent. Though actually all the translating it all into English in my transcriptions is great for my Indonesian – okay, so ‘karaini’ in Wandamen means ‘sarang’ in Indonesian, but what the hell is ‘sarang’? “Beehive’, as it turns out. Now I know.) And some days are more grammar, with verb conjugations and pronoun paradigms.
These last are probably the most immediately relevant for me. My dissertation will likely be a reference grammar, describing more or less everything there is to describe about the language, which is about as huge a task as it sounds. But my focus is the morphophonology, or what happens to the sounds when you put different word parts together. So verb conjugations have a lot of that. And where English has roughly six person/number distinctions (1st, 2nd, and 3rd person, singular and plural, or I, you, he/she/it, we, y’all, they), Wandamen has 15. There’s first, second, and third person. There’s singular and plural, but also dual, for talking about exactly two people (we two, you two) and trial for talking about three (them three). And, like Indonesian, it makes an inclusive/exclusive distinction in the first person: we (me and you and maybe somebody else) vs we (me and somebody else but not you). So that’s 15 pronouns, though luckily the verb forms in the trial are the same as in the plural. And if you put the “we” prefix (for example) on a verb that starts with a p, it comes out looking a little different than if you put it on a verb starting with an r. And that’s roughly what I’m looking at.
Some other cool things about Wandamen: In the second and third person singular (you and he/she/it), if the verb starts with a consonant rather than a vowel the conjugation prefix becomes an infix. So if the verb is ‘tawa’, to fall, ‘I fall’ is ‘itawa’, with the prefix i-, ‘you fall’ is ‘tuawa’, with an -u- inserted, and ‘he falls’ is ‘tiawa’, with an -i- put in. If the verb starts with a consonant everything is just a prefix, so ‘api’ eat becomes ‘yapi’ I eat, ‘buapi’ you eat, and ‘diapi’ he/she/it eats.
The system of possessives is complicated, and I’m still working on figuring out exactly what on earth is going on. But for starters: in English, the possessive pronouns are my, your, his, our, etc. So with 15 pronouns, there’s 15 of those. A lot of languages make a distinction between something that’s inalienably possessed (your foot, for example, or your mother) vs alienably possessed (i.e. my laptop; I own it but it can readily become not mine). Where they draw that distinction varies – what about your shadow? your name? bodily fluids? your house, in a culture where your family has lived in that house for more or less forever? Wandamen, so far as I can tell so far, makes a three-way distinction: one way of saying ‘my’ for body parts and names, another for family members, and a third for normal alienable possessions (including shadows). And instead of changing the pronoun, it also puts a prefix and/or suffix on the noun. So if ‘ru’ is ‘head’, ‘my head’ is ‘runei’, your head is ‘rumu’, and ‘them two’s heads’ is ‘sundumi’ (sun+ru+mi). But ‘my father’ is ‘yai’, ‘your father’ is ‘tamamui’ (???) and ‘them two’s father’ is ‘mutamabuai’ (????). And my house (anio = house) is ‘ine anio’, ‘your house’ is ‘nomu anio’, and ‘them two’s house’ is ‘sunewe anio’ If your head isn’t totally spinning, and I sympathize if it is (remember, these are just three of the 15 slots in each paradigm), you’ll notice a few patterns coming out, but it’s a real beast.
The other angle I plan to take on this, if I can get enough data from different dialects, is a historical/comparative one. How do the dialects differ? What do they have in common? Given that, what did the proto-language likely look like? And what can the differences tell us about language contact? There’s a ton of language contact in the area, both with the gazillions of neighboring languages and also through extensive trade networks (cloves, nutmeg, slaves) going back a few thousand years between Cenderawasih Bay and the spice islands of Maluku, particularly Ternate and Tidore, which speak non-Austronesian languages and tended to be the ones in power, at least until the Dutch took over. The spice trade of course was worldwide – nutmeg was worth roughly its weight in gold in England, where they thought it would cure the plague – so there’s influences from farther afield than just Maluku coming through as well. So if Windesi borrowed a lot of words for fruit and colors and Wamesa didn’t, what does that say about who was talking to whom? (I’ve yet to collect fruit and color terms for Wamesa, but I’m told they differ quite a bit between dialects.)
So that’s pretty much what I do. After my hour of elicitation I copy the sound files to my computer and go goof off for a while, maybe check email, because frankly elicitation is exhausting. Then I work until lunch, maybe transcribing earlier recordings, or entering words into the dictionary, or trying to figure out what the hell is up with those possessives. I usually go home for lunch, since it’s a nice walk, then work some more at the office in the afternoon. And in the evening I come home for dinner, work a bit more, maybe read a book if my head feels like it’s about to explode from too much Wandamen, as it often does by that point, and watch Master Chef Australia or Leverage or whatever other bad western show happens to be on in the living room (often cooking reality shows or So You Think You Can Dance, though last night it was Cougartown – no wifi at home but they get the Singapore/Hong Kong satellite tv network).
More exciting news: on Saturday I’m going to Bintuni, which is traditional Wandamen country and a place I may want to spend a chunk of next year’s long trip in. (Pros: lots of Wandamen speakers from various dialects. Cons: too many crocodiles to swim in the ocean.) And I paid my first, uh, cigarette money today while getting my letter of permission to travel from the police station – when the guy holding your passport asks for 50,000 rupiah (roughly $6), it’s hard to say no. But I got the letter, and Bintuni should be fun – hopefully I’ll have a lot to write about when I get back on Thursday.