Language Documentation Hiatus

My slow and erratic progress on documenting Numbami, the language I did fieldwork on in Papua New Guinea in 1976, suddenly gained traction on October 1, when I imported my old Numbami dictionary file into a new software package I had just been introduced to. Now dictionary work has taken precedence over blogging, photography, and other hobbies as I tediously clean up the many import errors and add many cross-references and reverse-entry keywords. After the cleanup, I’ll have a printable Numbami-English and English-Numbami lexicon and be ready to digitize the text, glosses, and translations of several wonderful narratives I transcribed (in pencil) 35 years ago.

Before I imported the dictionary data, I had begun to retranscribe one of my best narratives whose pencil transcription had gone missing many years ago. A couple years ago, a language documentation specialist at the University of Hawai‘i (my old alma mater) had converted my old cassette tapes to digital media (.WAV and .MP3 format), so I could use Transcriber to align the audio with the transcription.

While underemployed in 1991, I had first input all my manual Numbami wordlist cards into Shoebox. In 2006, a friend helped me convert the Shoebox database into SIL’s new and improved Toolbox. Now I have imported the Toolbox data into SIL’s latest language documentation software package, FLEx, and have begun cleaning and recoding it.

One of the best things I did during my fieldwork was to record and transcribe in the field a good range of narratives: two well-organized procedural texts about women’s work cooking food and about the communal work of processing sago palm starch; two personal tales about experiences being civilians on the front lines during World War Two; and a couple of traditional tales, including an origin myth that combines elements from both coastal and inland cultures. (I translated and blogged a passage from one of the war stories here.)

My host father (long deceased) was a retired schoolteacher and village kaunsil (elected representative to the local government council). He told me that a portion of the timber royalties from village land was allocated to help pay for the education of village youths, who had to leave the village even to attend elementary school. Timber royalties also helped pay for the small diesel vessel that carried people and goods back and forth along the mountainous coast, which lacked an overland highway.

It was not until the 1990s that a Tok Ples (Vernacular) Skul was established in the village to teach basic literacy in the local language, before children went away to elementary school, where Tok Pisin was the lingua franca. I made a tiny contribution to getting it started by sending enough linguistic materials on Numbami to show that it had a workable orthography, which was a prerequisite for any Tok Ples Skul. But my work on the language was otherwise aimed at other linguists, for whom I hope eventually (after I retire) to finish a reference grammar of the language.

But my priorities shifted over the past year from language description to language documentation, thanks to new technologies and new relationships. One factor was the new language documentation software mentioned above. The other was making new contacts via Facebook with well-educated grandchildren of my host father who have mastered English and Tok Pisin well, but know very little Numbami. They are my new target audience, not linguists and not people in the village who still speak the language (to the extent they do).

Numbami is the village language of only one village on the face of the earth. In the 1970s, that village had fewer than 300 people, and even there more people spoke Tok Pisin than Numbami. If the elders had to write, they wrote in Jabêm, the Lutheran mission lingua franca in which all but one old lady had been educated. My host father was educated in Jabêm schools, had taught in them, was an acknowledged authority on the language, and managed to get me interested enough to make Jabêm the standard of reference for much of my analysis of Numbami. (Many years later, I sidelined my Numbami reference grammar to translate Otto Dempwolff‘s grammar of Jabêm after I met by chance online a potential cotranslator in Romania whose German was much better than mine.)

The first paper I published after returning from my fieldwork in Papua New Guinea was on multilingualism and language mixture among the Numbami. If village residents want to find spouses they’re not related to, they generally have to marry someone from a different language group. Unless both spouse and children live in the village, they don’t learn more than the rudiments of the village language. The kids grow up speaking Tok Pisin, in any case. If they pursue education and job opportunities in town, they learn English, too.

Nothing I can do will affect language use in the Numbami village. If people end up abandoning that language in favor of others more useful, I can’t blame them. Villagers have been shifting language loyalties throughout the human history of New Guinea, for all sorts of reasons. The articles I’ve published so far are of little use to anyone except other linguists. But the dictionary I’m now editing may be useful both to a few linguists and to a few educated, town-dwelling people of partial Numbami heritage who want to learn more about their lost ancestral language, but who are accustomed to learning through the medium of English. Finally, the narrative texts may also be of at least historical interest to a third tiny audience of people who learned to speak Numbami in the village and to read it in the Tok Ples Skul.


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Filed under language, Papua New Guinea, publishing, scholarship

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