Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Right now, I’m in a class called Field Methods. The goal of this class is to describe (at least in part) a language, using information obtained by working with a native speaker of the language in question. It’s very interesting, both for the language, and for the experience of getting data from a speaker. However, I’ve also found it hugely entertaining, in that some of the sentences we elicit (ask for translations of) are completely absurd and quite funny.

Eliciting Data

Now, there are two ways to go about this. Preferable is to have the speaker tell you a story or narrative, which you can then go through and analyze line by line. This provides good, natural speech, and also lets you see a variety of constructions as used in real life.

The other option is to elicit translations of individual sentences. This seems to be the way that most language description begins. First, you ask the speaker how to say, for instance, “sheep”, and then ask them how one would say “I saw a sheep”. From there, you might ask how to say “You saw the sheep”, and keep slightly modifiying the sentences until you start to get enough data to do more complex analysis.

However, there are times where you want to figure things out, but don’t want to wait for them to occur in a narrative. When you’re fishing for certain grammatical forms and slowly making sentences more and more complex, the sentences look less and less plausible, and usually end up seeming quite funny, no matter the language.

The road to absurdity is paved with grammatical intentions

On one afternoon, we started with a rather normal transitive (has both an agent and a patient) sentence “He hit you”, then changed to “I hit you”. Then, we decided to look into verb Tense (timeframe) and Aspect (defining this is a whole post of its own). So, we went to “I hit you this morning”, still with good intentions, and then “I hit you many times this morning”. “I hit you last year” was next, followed by “I used to hit you last year”.

Then, things developed a more threatening tone. Looking to see if the future tense acted any differently, we asked our speaker how one might say “I will hit you”. From there, we asked for “In the future (but not now), I will hit you many times”. Then, “In the future, I will be hitting you regularly”, and finally, “In the future, I will be hitting you (not just once, but many times), regularly”.

At that point, we realized that we’d gotten a tad absurd, and went back to more normal subject matter (“I’ll be seeing you regularly”).

Sometimes, we just hop right to crazy

However, there’s not always a buildup. Sometimes, in the heat of the linguistic moment, we’ll stumble upon a certain contruction and want to substitute another noun or word, to see if it still works or if it changes the sound system. These can be truly wonderful.

Through this process, we’ve ended up with the rather disturbing “Sell me to him [the sheep]”, the slightly creepy “This is indeed my female sheep here”, the prophetic “Tomorrow, you WILL see vultures”, and the polygamous “the young man will marry all these women”.

Also, sometimes, you’ll want to test certain noun-forming suffixes. For instance, we we were given the word for “bad man”, and naturally, we wanted to know how to say “bad sheep”. There, we went to “the bad sheep made the kids drink alcohol yesterday”, and then ended up discussing a very bad wild boar.

Be careful what you say

Even with phonetics training and several years of language study under our proverbial belts, we can still mispronounce things. Usually, this just makes the sentence unintelligible to the speaker, but some times, we can mess up for comedic gold. For instance, in the language we’re studying, “ai go: fu:” means “I am at home”. When I said it back to the speaker, I misspoke and said “ai ga fu:”, which, after a bout of laughter, he translated as “I’m going to fart”. Although funny enough in a classroom, I’ve no doubt that these sorts of errors have caused more than their share of embarrassment, and maybe even a fight or two.

So, although linguistics is a serious discipline, the actual study process isn’t always completely serious. We manage to have some laughs, even while picking apart unfamiliar grammars, and I think that’s really one of the best parts of the job.

There are other perks, too. Although I’ve not had the occaision to use it yet, it is rather nice to know how to call somebody a “bad sheep” in Zarma.


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