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Professor Mary Paster Experiments with Variations in Studying Language in the Field

Mary Paster

Last fall, students in Professor Mary Paster’s Fieldwork in Linguistics class had the unique opportunity students to conduct fieldwork with Somali immigrants, an experimental approach to the class, which proved a valuable variation on studying language.

Paster, a phonologist, focuses her work on African languages and indigenous American languages, working with native speakers. She is particularly interested in the I-language approach to inter-speaker variation in language, which she explains, “is based on the theory that language is an internal psychological phenomenon that exists in the mind and/or brain of an individual speaker of a language, as opposed to being something that resides ‘out there’ in the world, such as in dictionaries, in culture, or somehow floating in the ether.”

Over several trips to San Diego, which has a large Somali immigrant population, the students had the unique opportunity to study the Maay language in this manner. During sessions at a Somali restaurant, the students asked the speakers to translate words, phrases and sentences from English into Maay, recording them and transcribing phonetically while they listened to the speakers’ pronunciations. Holding the sessions at the restaurant gave students a much closer taste and view of both the Maay speakers' food and culture, Paster says.

Inter-speaker variation "might be differences in how people pronounce their consonants or vowels, which we might call different ‘accents,’ or it could be different word choices for the same concept, like ‘soda’ vs. ‘pop,’ or even different ways of constructing sentences," explains Paster.

Those who study inter-speaker variation attempt to identify those aspects of variation in groups alongside attributes such as age, ethnicity, gender, class, where they were raised and/or where they live.

In the Maay research, students often had a “tomato/to-mahto” experience, Paster says. The plural forms of nouns have a lot of variation and two speakers would sometimes argue and then agree to disagree. For example, what could mean “belt” could also mean “poison,” thanks to one way to make a plural being the suffix –o (which also changes to an n and m before it) and another being the suffix –yal.

“One speaker said that the plural ‘belts’ is sunyal and that you can't say sumo to mean this because sumo would mean ‘poisons.’ The other speaker said that ‘poisons’ is sunyal and you can't say sumo to mean 'poisons' because this can only mean ‘belts.’ The fact that they stood their ground and argued with each other showed that they were both certain of their own pronunciation,” explains Paster.

In a typical linguistics fieldwork class, one native speaker of a lesser-known language is hired to work with students throughout the semester, both inside and outside of the classroom. Students learn to do linguistic fieldwork while building a description of the grammar of the language.

“If you just talked to one speaker and they said one thing, you might think that was the only way to say it. Or if one speaker said something and then later a second speaker contradicted them, if the second person was certain then they might convince you that the first person was wrong, or you might think there was some uncertainty. So for this purpose it was great that we had the speakers in the same room together,” Paster says.

Paster theorizes that the specific variations among the Maay may be due to the unique circumstances they have encountered as refugees forced into exile from their homeland and dispersed to camps filled with people from other places and ethnicities. Some may spend 10 to 15 years in the camps, sometimes coinciding with a person’s formative years, and then come to the United States and forge new communities with Somalis from various locales and backgrounds, she says. This is in contrast to a “normal” situation in which one is born and raised in the same place for a long period of time among people who have the same origin and upbringing, keeping the local dialect stable and the group’s speech reflecting that group and locale.

Paster presents a Western analogy: “Say you’re from England and you move to the U.S. as an adult, and gradually your British accent gives way to one that sounds American to your British friends. If changing even one variable has these dramatic effects, you can imagine what kind of linguistic chaos might ensue if you change all of them at once for a large group of people,” Paster says.

In San Diego, working with multiple speakers presented challenges as well as rewards. Some Maay speakers are extremely well-adjusted to their new life in the U.S., while others aren’t fully fluent in English. Sometimes interactions became awkward, and at other time students sometimes felt a deep emotional impact of working with people with heartbreaking life stories.

But the rewards of engagement were also deeply felt.

“They really threw themselves into it,” says Paster. “Based on my observations and on the students’ course evaluations, the whole experience ended up being a lot closer to the ‘really awesome’ end of the spectrum than the ‘complete disaster’ end.”

The students bonded with each other, and a fondness developed between them and the speakers. They also learned that linguistic research with native speakers can always be challenging, and they understood the need to always stay flexible, says Paster. While the next Field Methods class will be taught in traditional fashion because of budgetary constraints, the risks of trying something new were worthwhile.

Rodrigo Ranero ’14 has enjoyed the class so much, he's taken it twice. Regarding the Maay project, “Working with many different speakers and [delving] deeply into different areas of the language…was just fascinating to be able to see what working in the field is actually like.” He’s put his classroom skills to work on research projects in Guatemala, helping to chronicle and create instructional materials for the Xinka language.

Paster has presented her work on Maay in invited lectures at the 44th Annual Conference on African Linguistics and at the UC Berkelely Linguistics Department Fieldwork Forum. Currently, she’s working on a language reclamation project with the local Native American Rumsen tribe of Pomona (Chino), funded by the Foundation for Endangered Languages.

She has previously worked on projects in the languages Ga (Kwa, Ghana), Leggbo (Upper Cross, Nigeria), Pulaar (West Atlantic, Senegal), Tiriki (Bantu, Kenya), Maay (Cushitic Somalia), Luganda (Bantu, Uganda), Asante Twi (Kwa, Ghana), Manyika (Bantu, Zimbabwe), Tofingbe (Kwa, Benin), Kikuria (Bantu; Kenya), Achumawi (Northern Hokan, Northeastern California), Buchan Scots (Northeastern Scotland), Mixtepec Mixtec (Oto-Manguean, Mexico) and Malayalam (Dravidian, India).

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