February 07, 2007

back in Ngukurr

I got back to Ngukurr on Sunday. I actually felt like a real adventurer going deep into the wilds. I had to drive 40kms down a very soggy and muddy unsealed road until I got to 4mile boat ramp, on a very swollen Roper River. From there, a boat made the 1 hour trip up the Roper to get me and take me back to Ngukurr. And now I'm here, and I could be here for a couple of months because the roads will be cut for quite a while. So yes, I feel a bit like I'm in wild depths of Australia. (But not really, because this place is far from foreign for me now).

So I'm straight back into work. The last few weeks, some of the language mob have been working with another lady. She's not a qualified linguist, but it was good to have her around to keep things moving along in my absence. And so the language mob had to work a bit more independently. Their task was to make a book about bush medicine. And they did a great job. R and A wrote short stories for about 10 bush medicines, and F and B did the same for Marra. They did all the writing themselves and did the best they could, and they actually did really well.

However, they did get stuck with not knowing how to spell quite a few words. They decided to have a go anyway, and then wait for me to help straighten it out. And so that's what we've been doing since I got back.

But it's felt a bit funny. Really, these guys have done great work to do as much as they have and their writing is actually really good. Mistakes are inevitable. But it's felt funny to have me come in and 'correct' their work. Firstly, it feels a bit like I'm coming in saying they've done it wrong, when their work is good and they should be really proud of what they've done. Consequently, doing these corrections has made it very clear how prescriptivist linguists can be. I feel like I've come in saying: 'I know the orthography, I know the way things should be spelled, and I'm going to change how you've written your language'. It feels strange.

But I don't know how it can be different. I mean, the language mob put me in the 'expert' position themselves and they want me to make sure it's right. (But I'm still concerned that it's disempowering). And I also think that they would like to improve their skills and learn more from me, so I don't think what I'm doing is a bad thing. All the corrections I'm doing are with the language workers. I guess the worse scenario is to go off and do it all myself without them - somehow this would be easier though, in that I probably wouldn't realise how prescreptivist I'm being. But when I'm doing it in front of the language workers, it's plain as day.

Does anybody out there have any similar experiences... like a linguist working on a bilingual school program... does the linguist always end up having the final say on spelling when producing materials? (I guess that depends on the skills of the blekbala linguists too...)


jangari said...

When the CSIRO did some research on the fish species in the Daly, one problem about spelling came up. Now, this orthographical issue has always been there, but it had previously never arisen to become a problem, but I suspect it is one that occurs in many Australian languages.

One of the fish that was being investigated was bream, which in Wagiman is called binkan, with an alveolar nasal followed by a velar stop which, in this environment, is voiced, so it should be represented by a g. Of course, that would be a big problem, since it could be read as ŋ, which it certainly is not. So we (that is, the linguists) use k instead and accept the orthographical irregularity (that after n, a single k is voiced), but the speakers of the language are less accepting.

I've been trying to think of better solutions; I think Jaru separates the two with a full stop, but bin.gan looks even worse to me, as if it were a typo or a problem in the coding language (i saw it working on an xml-based dictionary and thought it was code gone awry).

The best option would of course be to use ŋ and reserve ng for the nasal + stop cluster.Unfortunately it's such a well-known digraph that this could be difficult. Also it isn't always possible to use ŋ.

I think the most workable option is to separate the bin from the gan with a dash, the only problem being that it then resembles a morpheme boundary, especially in coverbs that look like they've been reduplicated but are in fact unsegmentable, such as gornkorn-na. If it were written gorn-gorn-na it would signal to the linguist that it is a reduplication of some coverb gorn-na, which is plainly wrong. Having said that, for speakers and readers who are not concerned with orthographic representation of morpheme boundaries, this is the best solution.

There are other issues with Wagiman spelling, especially when morphology-driven allophony come into play, but this comment is too long already!

David Marjanović said...

The best option would of course be to use ŋ and reserve ng for the nasal + stop cluster.Unfortunately it's such a well-known digraph that this could be difficult. Also it isn't always possible to use ŋ.

I can imagine two other possibilities:

- Is the apostrophe already in use? If not, you could write n'g. This is in use from Uzbek to Haida.
- The Tatarian Solution: ñ. More easily available on keyboards than ŋ, and present in ISO-8859-1. For a look at what it looks like in use, visit the Tatar Wikipedia: http://tt.wikipedia.org. Confusions with Spanish are not terribly likely, are they?

Wamut said...

thanks for the comments, but I think you've both slightly missed my point.

There are always orthographical issues and linguists can always come up with a myriad of ideas to tackle them. My point is that when working with the Marra mob here, it was blatantly clear how prescriptive it is - linguists making decisions over the actual language owners.

When we work removed from the language community, we are allowed to be prescriptive in relative ignorant bliss, but I can't do that out here. It's quite a stark thing to see it happening so plainly.

Am I making any sense?

David Marjanović said...

Sure. (I was actually just responding to the other comment.)

How was the Marra orthography agreed upon to begin with?

What kinds of questions did the people who wrote the stories ask you about spelling?