Whales and usual fieldwork

by Tim Roth

On January 21, I got back to the United States after two weeks of fieldwork in Musoma and I have a white whale on my mind. Herman Melville’s mid-19th century novel Moby-Dick is embedded in the American consciousness. You can’t escape it even if you haven’t read it. Bob Dylan named it in his Nobel Prize speech last year as one of the books that has influenced him the most. He alludes to it in many of his songs. The Starbucks coffee chain is named after the chief mate in the novel. Along with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” from A Tale of Two Cities, “Call me Ishmael” is one of the most famous opening lines in Western literature. Not sure exactly what it is about the novel. It surely can’t be the chapters on the biological taxonomy of whales.

Four years ago, when I began to think about what I wanted my PhD topic to be, I became fascinated (not obsessed) with one morpheme in particular in our project languages, Vká-. It was glossed as an inceptive in the few articles that mentioned it, but there were always footnotes that wondered openly exactly what it was doing and how it functioned. And so this was a perfect topic–there were plenty of questions to explore, and it was something that was not going to be easy.

And here I am now, and I don’t regret a thing. I am still fascinated (not obsessed) by my topic, and that has spread to other parts of these languages, including verbal semantics and TAM in general. I consider each of my short-term trips to the area to be a success. I feel like I have figured out quite a bit about how the verbal systems work in these languages, Vká- included. But there’s always something we don’t know. And there always will be. Before my PhD, I had done a fair amount of fieldwork. But through this project I have realized viscerally just how unpredictable actual linguistic fieldwork is. You have your boat, your nets and lines, and your harpoon. Your questionnaire and sample sentences and scenarios. You know what you’re after. You have your questions and you want the answers. Like Captain Ahab you’re going after your white whale. And in this novel, just like Moby-Dick, knowing everything is out of reach. But you snag enough for it to be completely worth it every time. My advisor sent me an email that sums up this sentiment: “It seems that you got a lot of nice data again, although maybe not everything you wanted. Usual fieldwork”.