May 30, 2012

When did I grow two heads?

So when you've devoted the last 10 years of your life to working on Aboriginal languages it's easy to forget that what you do is actually quite unique in the context of wider (whiter?) society. It's what I do (nearly) every day and what I think about every day and has become completely normalised to me.

I do have enough self-awareness to know that I don't lead an average life and have an interesting job but I wasn't quite ready for the responses I got last night when I talked to a couple of people about what I do. I was chatting to an acquaintance - a tertiary-educated professional who has lived in Katherine long enough - who asked me what my PhD is about. So I gave my spiel that tries to make it sound not completely obscure and esoteric. The conversation went something like this:

Me: "I'm looking at two languages from Ngukurr - Kriol and a traditional language, Marra - and looking at how you talk about the same topic in both languages. Like, a lot of people think that each language has a unique way of describing the world and it reflects that culture. So I'm trying to look closely at that idea because there's only a few old people who speak Marra now and everyone else speaks Kriol."

Other guy: Blank look. Extended pause. Then...

"The other day someone used the word 'pusillanimous' and I had to look it up in a dictionary".

An hour later I was small-talking with another guy I'd just met who is new to Katherine (works for the RAAF) and gave him even simpler details about what I do and was met with a similar blank look and silent response.

Is what I've devoted my life to so bizarre that it leaves even well-educated people who are not strangers to the Katherine Region dumbfounded?

I do understand why a fellow NT-linguist colleague chooses to tell randoms that she's a teacher rather than Aboriginal language linguist. But for me, I don't want to hide what I do from regular people for the sake of social niceties (and therefore perpetuate Aboriginal languages as being 'unseen' and overlooked). If what I do confuses others or makes them uncomfortable then that's their problem, not mine.


Will Steed said...

I ended up reducing mine to "Chinese phonetics", or if there was some linguistic background "the phonetics of Chinese (dialect) tones." That got me enough blank looks and smile-and-nods that I wasn't going to complicate it any more than that.

bulbul said...

Is what I've devoted my life to so bizarre that it leaves even well-educated ... dumbfounded?
I know this kid who graduated the same program as me and even he considered what I was doing back then (which was good ol' plain dialectology), quote, "weird bullshit". Now it's quite likely that he is a spoiled arrogant brat who, as they say in our parts, can't see past his own nose, but I've had this reaction from other people. I'm starting to think that linguistics truly is way to bizarre for your average educated Joe. So the answer to your question is "yes, it is".
And when - or if at all - I get into this PhD programme in computational linguistics where I will examine word order variation as related to informational structure of a particular Semitic language using corpus methods, come September, I'll be telling people I'm a programmer.

Donovan said...

Hi mate.

I just found your blog while searching for information on programs for learning indigenous languages (programs for non-indigenous linguists).

I run a popular language learning blog and would like to spend some time with native speakers learning their language and documenting it on my site with video to encourage others to give more support.

Are you able to point me in the right direction? (you seem like the person to ask)

I'm in South East QLD.


Anonymous said...


Casey here, (the one who just commented on your most recent post regarding the Coordinator position at Ngukurr Language Centre).

I found this post of your's particularly interesting because I have been met with similar blank looks and confused reactions when dealing with the same concept in a more simplified version (read more white-friendly aka related to Italian, Swedish and English rather than Aboriginal languages and English). I think I was discussing the different ways in which you can say the same thing in Swedish and English and yet how they each can have a completely different perspective/assumptions underlying them. Yet to someone who hasn't studied another language this seemed incomprehensible.

I'd be really interested to hear what findings you're uncovering through your PhD. I can understand people not being excited about the topic of your thesis (sure, languages aren't everyone's thing...), but not 'getting it'. That's disappointing.

Looking forward to your thoughts!

Anonymous said...

I found your explanation quite clear, but I may not be the best focus group as I hang out with a lot of academic types, including linguists. I'm suspicious that it's not a lack of understanding but more a "why the hell would anyone do that?" response. I get that occasionally, even though the field I work in is conventionally considered "useful".

And can I just say I'm really enjoying your blog, it's given me a lot of insights into a part of Australia I've never been to. I came via Jo, who I used to play netball with.