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”.

Twists in the road and routes of enquiry

by Hannah Gibson

One of the exciting things about research is the unexpected directions in which the findings can take you! Back in 2014 I had just started a postdoctoral research project at SOAS examining the presence of an unusual word order in a small group of East African Bantu languages. In some of my initial reading I came across a tantalizing line in a MA dissertation by Johnny Walker:

“…Simbiti shares an innovative compound form with Kuria and Gusii to indicate the Present Progressive. The form consists of a focus-marked infinitival followed by a copular auxiliary (predominantly of the –li/-ri variety…”

It was exactly this structure which was the focus of my research and I had, until this point, only identified the verb-auxiliary order in four languages (including Kuria and Gusii which he mentions). Its presence in Simbiti took the count up to five, and although I didn’t know it at the time, would lead me to examine this construction in a total of six languages and ultimately result in me getting on a plane to Tanzania.

Fast forward almost two and a half years and I have conducted research on two separate occasions in the Mara region – home to Simbiti and Ngoreme (the sixth language in my study). This has lead also to my involvement in the Mara Project.

The Mara region is of linguistic interest for many reasons. I have been drawn to working on these languages due to the high levels of language contact that characterise the region. I am particularly interested in the ways languages change – and do not change – in contexts of high multilingualism, and the Mara region provides an ideal case study for this.

I am also particularly interested in what happens in instances of contact between unrelated languages. Again, the region provides a great example of this. In addition to the some 20 Bantu varieties spoken in the area, the Mara region is home to the Nilotic languages Datooga and Luo. Cushitic languages have also historically been present in the area.

My research focuses on the effects of language contact on the structural level – such as the origins of the unusual word order that started this path of enquiry! I am also involved in a related project at SOAS which examines morphosyntactic variation and I have just started using the methodology developed by this project to explore the variation in the Mara languages. It’s an exciting time!

Linguistic Fieldwork in Tanzania, Sep.-Nov. 2016

by Antti Laine

After more than twelve hours on planes and airports, flying via Berlin and Abu Dhabi, I finally landed around noon on the 6th of September. As soon as I walked out from under the terminal’s grand canopy of reinforced concrete, the distinct scent of the city hit me with the confirmation that I had indeed arrived in Dar es Salaam.

Of course I already had my visa for three months at this point, but there was more business to take care of in the city. It took a couple of days of buzzing around town in bajajis to take care of everything. I visited colleagues at the University of Dar es Salaam and met with fellow researchers who were also staying in the city at the time. Naturally I had to make a stop at a good bookstore near the Askari monument to obtain some more books in Swahili (including some Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Usiku Elfu na Moja and Historia ya Afrika.

Another thing to take care of was the bureaucracy surrounding my research permit, so I headed (having printed and filled out the appropriate papers and taken some passport photos) to the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology, universally known as the Sayansi building. I had a busy day driving around in a bajaj paying application fees and returning receits to the offices.

All this was naturally happening simultaneously with getting acquainted with the local culture – and the local language. My knowledge of Swahili was extensive but hopelessly theoretical, and getting the hang of the practicalities is still an on-going process. At first the biggest trouble was with understanding what’s being said. One thing I noticed was that people seem to talk quite loudly to each other, but very quietly to me, which I find rather frustrating. Often I would struggle to hear what someone was saying, so I wouldn’t even know whether or not it was something I would’ve understood in the first place. Luckily, though, the ear seems to be capable of learning and adapting, and my language proficiency keeps improving with every passing day.

I feel like none of these early experiences with the language, culture, navigating the city and taking care of the bureaucracy would have been anywhere near as succesful without Hannah, a friend and more experienced researcher, who was kind enough to be (and I was lucky enough to have her) travelling with me. Her knowledge of what to do and how to do it, familiarity with the city and a general understanding of how one should go about one’s business in this country was all an invaluable help, providing me with a softer landing to this expedition. Without her, I would probably still be stuck in traffic in Dar.

While being stuck in traffic in Dar is and was a fact of life, we did manage to return to the airport (even though our bajaj’s were stopped on the way by the local intersection thugs demanding money) and catch our flight to Mwanza, on the shores of Lake Victoria. The city, second largest in Tanzania, seemed small and peaceful after the buzz of four million people in Dar. The house crows had become little egrets, cattle egrets, black kites and marabou storks as we drove towards the city centre from the airport. Mwanza, however, was not to be our final destination. Instead, we drove north along the lakeshore to Musoma, capital of the Mara region on the eastern side of the lake.

Musoma is a lakeside town on a peninsula on a peninsula. Sort of. The town is located on a spit jutting north from the side of the beginnings on a larger peninsula – the centre is surrounded by water on three sides, and the name apparently comes from the Kwaya word for peninsula – omusoma. The centre is a low but densely built place bustling with people and motorcycles (pikipiki‘s), and that’s where one will find food and drink and whatever shopping needs to be done (gambuti or Wellington boots for example, if one is inclined to go to the lakeshore marsh to see some birds – I saw 37 different kinds in one morning, though a later trip to the Serengeti upped my one-day record to 99 [as of the time of writing, I’m at 153 species in Tanzania on this trip]). There’s a supermarket called Alpha Choice further south of the centre, but it’s a bit of a long way to be sitting on the back of a pikipiki so I haven’t visited.

One very noticeable feature of Musoma is the trade in dagaa, the tiny fish apparently called ”silver cyprinid” living in the lake. People are carrying bucketloads around and selling it in street corners and it can be seen around drying in the sun. The lake itself is lovely and its shores beautiful. The breeze coming from over the water is a respite from the equatorial heat, and you can’t complain about things when sipping a cold Tangawizi on a lakeside bar at sunset. Also, water birds. There’s no swimming, however; schistosomiasis will get you.

Musoma is the capital of Mkoa wa Mara, or the Mara Region, straddled between the lake, Kenya and the Serengeti, with the Mara river running through it (my first sightings of the purple swamphen and the African spoonbill were along the river, among others). The region is about the size of the Netherlands, and home to as many as 20 (or more) distinct languages (depending, as so often is the case, on the definitions of language and dialect). Most of them are Great Lakes Bantu languages, but the Nilotic languages Luo and Datooga are also spoken in the region. There is also evidence of Cushitic languages being spoken here in the past, so this is in a way a place where three of the large African language families come together. A diverse area indeed, with plenty of interesting things going on in the languages, including various contact phenomena. Good hunting grounds for some linguistic research.

Which brings us to my reason being here – research for my PhD. My aim as part of a larger project at the University of Helsinki is to investigate four of the local Bantu languages: Ikoma, Nata, Isenye and Ngoreme, closely related languages spoken in the southeast of the region and classified, along with Ikizu and Zanaki (perhaps known to many as the language and people of mwalimu Julius Nyerere), as the South Mara languages. The project aims to compile a comparative grammar of these languages, and I’m tasked with investigating their morphosyntax. A more accurate description of my future thesis, with a clearer picture of the major topics and emphases, will (hopefully!) emerge as I muck around in the data and discover ever more interesting things.

Currently, on my first expedition, I’ve been mostly focusing on negation, object marking and relative clauses, but also more basic things – gathering various missing forms and collecting (and checking) vocabulary, all of the languages in question being rather underresearched. Some interesting phenomena have already being popping up, including in the phonologies, which is an additional thing that needs to be figured out for the languages. I definitely seem to have my work cut out for me.

Another thing that has been infinitely helpful for me here in Musoma is the offices of the good people of SIL working in the region. The linguists, translators and other staff have been kind enough to grant me access to their facilities, not to mention their community and daily lives (and birding expeditions), making me feel welcome in a foreign land. My appreciation and heartfelt thanks go to all the people working here at the office!

In terms of the fieldwork itself, I’ve been conducting my interviews at the SIL, mainly with speakers already familiar with the offices and the kind of work we’re doing (finding informants – another matter in which the help of the people here has been invaluable). At first I found the interviews rather rough and exhausting, being able to read prompts in Swahili and hoping I’d get the recordings I wanted, but not being of much use in terms of discussing the material with the informants. As I went along, though, and as my language skills kept improving, I achieved a more practical and confident way of working, and I seem to be better at staying on top of things. Ultimately I feel like the learning curve hasn’t been too bad at all. (Though some of my earliest recordings still have long monologues of the informants explaining something in Swahili, which I wasn’t able to catch at the time and which I have to go through carefully to see what types of interesting things we were discussing.)

Another month (a bit less, actually) to go, still some work to do. Things are running smoothly and it seems I have a good plan and timetable to work through. It hasn’t been raining as much as it should this time of year, and as someone who’s not the biggest fan of heat, I’m quite looking forward to December in Helsinki. Snow under my feet and the harsh wind on my face is starting to sound like bliss (though the reality will probably be dark and rainy). Actually, the weather here in Musoma isn’t too bad – we’re far enough above sea level and tempered by the mass of lake water next door to keep the temperatures a lot nicer than it might be in some other locations (I’m looking at you, Dar es Salaam).

For my next trip, I really need to get my own pikipiki. Also, better shoes – mine are falling apart in addition to being a bit too warm. Or maybe I will go shoe-shopping in town as I’ve been planning to for a while. Still haven’t bought ones I’d need to play frisbee and football on the weekends, either. As for the rest of this trip, I’ll have to figure out how to send finished books back home so I don’t have to carry them. Then it’s off to Dar for a few days (coastal birds, anyone?) and then home.

In Musoma, on the the 1st of November, 2016