8 months to completion: quick progress note

This is a {quick [progress note]}
(i.e. a quick note about the project’s progress)
rather than a {[quick progress] note}
(i.e. a note reporting quick progress in the project)! 🙂

Dictionaries are big pieces, which raise many (most?) issues that linguists can confront when tagging and encoding data.

The dictionaries are currently here:

To come in the next 8 months: an Android interface for the dictionaries; improvements in parallel texts; and stable embedding of the dictionaries in the interface of the Pangloss Collection. Plans for later include full lemmatization of texts; phoneme-level alignment of transcriptions of the Na texts; and ‘crowdsourcing’ for the improvement of the dictionaries and collections of texts: allowing easy deposit of new resources and offering tools for a widened range of contributors (including the communities of speakers) to enrich the annotation through added translations, comments, and feedback generally.

The project’s funding was entirely consumed by the end of last year (2015), as originally planned. The ANR agreed to allow us to extend the project’s duration for 1 year, i.e. until December 2016 (without extra funding). The work now continues thanks to other sources of funding: the “Empirical Foundations of Linguistics” project (funded by ANR-CGI from 2011 to 2019); financial help from the participants’ home laboratories; and when necessary, our own money (e.g. for my next field trip to Yongning, in May 2016, which will help finalize a book-length study of the tone system of Yongning Na).

Alexis Michaud

I'm a linguist specialized in phonetics, focusing on un(der-)documented languages.

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Phonetics in the Field: topics of data acquisition, e.g. means to avoid reverberation when recording audio, and use of electroglottography

How to avoid reverberation when recording
How to avoid reverberation when recording

To study less-documented languages where they are spoken, know-how of various kinds is required, including the essentials of sound recording (along with some knowledge of botany and medicine, if possible). From a technical point of view, if one is going to spend weeks and months transcribing and studying a recording that will remain as one of the only traces of a language, it is well worth taking a few precautions to achieve good audio quality. Whenever possible, I pad up my workplace with quits, to avoid having too much reverberation. The result is acoustically OK, though visually unattractive! (Follow this link to get to the recordings) The cardboard boxes piled up in the room contribute to covering up the hard, smooth surfaces (cement walls and floorboards).

Placing the electroglottographic collar
Placing the electroglottographic collar

Ms. Latami Dashilame had not participated in linguistic fieldwork before she began to teach me her language. As we became more familiar, she willingly accepted to take part in such unfamiliar tasks as phonological investigations and phonetic studies, using somewhat impressive (but fully innocuous) techniques including electroglottography: a measurement of vocal fold contact during speech. (Click here to access a web page presenting electroglottography, including some scripts for analysis of EGG signals.)

The traditional Na costume, which she had put on that day for the visit of a journalist who wanted to see us at work, includes an elaborate head-dress which is incompatible with a head-worn microphone. On the other hand, it combines easily with the collar of the electroglottograph.

Linguists who do fieldwork have ample opportunity to realize the paramount importance of mutual understanding between the investigator and the consultant. I think that ‘laboratory phoneticians’ stand to gain by learning from fieldworkers’ experience of the data collection process. This is one of the beliefs that inspired a joint paper with Oliver Niebuhr about “Speech Data Acquisition: The Underestimated Challenge“.

To me, growing acquaintance with my teacher Ms. Latami Dashilame is a wonderful learning experience. In her childhood, she was one of the actors in a documentary-fiction film about the Na and their unusual family structure (‘A-zhu’ marriage among the Naxi of Yongning《永宁纳西族的阿注婚》). Later, her son became an anthropologist, specializing in Na (Moso) society, and a number of his colleagues came to her home. She witnessed how the Na of Yongning became an object of curiosity and fantasy, and how Na culture became folklorized for the promotion of the tourist industry, with its pleasant sides and its less lovely ones. These experiences shook her belief in some of the traditional beliefs that had been passed on to her by her elders, such as Buddhist beliefs. While she conscientiously goes through all the prescribed rituals on a day-to-day basis, her own belief in Buddhist teachings such as reincarnation was faltering. The narratives that she recorded show how she suspends her belief in the traditional lore of a waning cultural universe which nevertheless remains hers.

Photos: Qin Qing (秦晴), 2012

Alexis Michaud

I'm a linguist specialized in phonetics, focusing on un(der-)documented languages.

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Thulung in Paris, followed by a visit to Nepal

Following the earthquakes in Nepal this spring, it was difficult to get the authorizations to travel to Nepal on official French government business, and so the process was begun to try to bring Chandra Kala Thulung to Paris.

While French citizens can buy visas upon arrival in Nepal, the reverse is not true, and thus began a long process of attempting to secure a Schengen visa for Chandra. This process involved many months of waiting for visa-related documents sent to Nepal to arrive (they never did) and eventually resorting to getting more local help: CNRS has a network of CNRS offices around the world, tasked with facilitating international cooperation. The Delhi office came to the rescue, agreeing to receive Chandra’s visa documents and hand them directly to the French consulate in Delhi (there is no longer a French consulate in Nepal, and visa applications must be sent to India). The French scientific consular officer in Delhi signed off on the visa request, vastly speeding up the process. The result was that Chandra’s visa was ready in Delhi, one week before her planned departure, the “only” remaining issue being how to get it back to Kathmandu in time (thus bringing us back to our original problem which was circumventing a not-very-reliable Nepali postal service). The CNRS office in Delhi tried to use DHL (which apparently does not service “remote areas” such as Kathmandu!) and eventually found a local carrier. There are no street addresses in Nepal, adding another layer of complication, but Chandra eventually got her passport and visa, 36 hours before her flight!

Once she arrived in Paris, we got to work quickly and efficiently, and the three weeks sped by, with many epiphanies about Thulung for me along the way: among them, clearly (for the first time) contrastive vowel length, and a fairly clear understanding, finally, of where to look for the applicative -t suffix which is such a fundamental feature of Kiranti verbal morphology but is much more elusive in Thulung (because of the merging in many cases of CVC and CVCt transitive verb types as well as the much more productive use than in other languages of an analytical causative).

I then followed Chandra to Nepal, where we continued work on the verb dictionary we are compiling (480 verbs so far, with clear verb category assignation and recorded examples for each verb).

The second week of my trip, I worked on Khaling ideophones in view of a presentation at the Himalayan Languages Symposium scheduled for November 26-28th in Kathmandu. We have yet to see whether the symposium will take place: Nepal is in a tough spot these days, with a politically-motivated blockade at the Indian border resulting in a fuel crisis bringing the country to its knees and making transportation and cooking very difficult, as supplies dwindle.

My Khaling hosts spent my last afternoon in Nepal building a wood-fire stove on their roof, ensuring that whatever happened they would still be able to cook meals. The construction was a cheerful event, with lots of laughing interspersed with discussions about the best design for a stove and how someone should take a picture and send it to (Indian PM) Modi to show how hard he was making Nepalis work.   Yet again, Nepalis face adversity in good cheer and with their usual resourcefulness.


photo 1

photo 2

photo 3

Au revoir to Céline Buret — with all our thanks!

Céline Buret brilliantly completed her two-year contract with CNRS as the main engineer in the HimalCo project. This post is to say a BIG Thank You and wish her all the best in the next steps in her career!

The Python library that Céline developed to implement the LMF ISO standard for dictionaries is now available online. For an example of what the XML code looks like, check out the Na dictionary in LMF format (machine-readable). This file is available for download from the same page as the (human-readable) PDF version. This deposit also provides the full database in its original format: as a TEXT file that can be opened with the Toolbox software (SIL MDF format).

Further development of the tools is being taken up by her colleagues Séverine Guillaume (permanent member at CNRS) and Rémy Bonnet (on a contract funded by LabEx “Empirical Foundations of Linguistics”).

Merci Céline !!!

Alexis Michaud

I'm a linguist specialized in phonetics, focusing on un(der-)documented languages.

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Nepal News


Like anyone with a strong attachment to Nepal–and many more besides–we were heartbroken to witness from afar the two major earthquakes which devastated Nepal on April 25th and May 12th. Thankfully, the individuals we work with most closely have all reported that they are safe. While there was serious damage in Solu district, where the Rai languages are spoken, it seems that the number of casualties was not as high as was initially feared.
The French government is for the time being not allowing French civil servants (a status covering French academics) to travel to Nepal. As a result, we are working to bring a Thulung speaker to Paris during the summer, which will allow us to continue to work on these amazing languages while giving Nepal time to recover from its wounds.  We still hope to return to Nepal in the fall–Nepal has expressed that the best way to help is to travel to the country, as it relies so much on tourism–and will find ways to spread the word about these languages either way.

Nepal, February-March 2015: Khaling dictionary work



Guillaume and I recently returned from fieldwork in Nepal. The main goal for the trip was to finalize–to the best of our abilities–the Khaling verb dictionary that we have been working on.

Verbs are of course traditionally presented in dictionaries in their infinitive form, a form which–for Kiranti language–is insufficiently informative morphophonologically to make it possible to conjugate verbs.

The Khaling dictionary is exclusively verbal, verbs being listed by their infinitive but also by their roots, allowing users to recover the information necessary to assign them to a verb class. The dictionary is trilingual–Khaling, Nepali, English–and includes multiple culturally relevant trilingual example sentences for each verb, along with recordings (accessible in the online version) of infinitive forms, relevant conjugated forms and examples. The dictionary will also contain verb conjugation tables, enabling users to generate all the forms of the verb in question (generating these verb forms is no simple task, considering the possible number of verb stems and agreement markers which index agent and patient. See our paper cited below). Ultimately, the dictionary will be accessible through an android app, as cell phones are ubiquitous in villages (and more convenient in some ways than paper dictionaries).

The trip was thus spent poring over definitions, translations, example sentences, as well as finding new verbs which had not yet been included. The work was exhausting but also enriching–the examples were rife with interesting data on valence and argument structure–and we shared many laughs over Dhana’s love of alliterative examples [such as phoŋkantsha po:lu pɵnɛ plôntɛsi, ‘Uncle readied himself for basket weaving’]and Dhan Maya’s favorite themes for examples (oranges and buffalos).


Another highlight of the trip was a meeting of the Khaling cultural association–presided over by our friend chairperson Dhan Bahadur Khaling (Dhana)–during which Guillaume gave a speech (in Khaling) exhorting the community members to advance the cause of their language, among other things by putting together a wikipedia page on and in Khaling.


It is interesting to note that Guillaume’s was the only speech in Khaling, despite the majority of the audience being speakers.

We were very moved to receive phengas, the traditional Khaling vest, at the assembly.  Below is a photo of some phengas.


We will return next February to work on compound verbs in Khaling–another important part of the verbal morphology.


Jacques, Guillaume, Lahaussois, Aimée, Michailovsky, Boyd, and Rai, Dhan Bahadur, 2012. “An overview of Khaling verbal morphology.” Language and Linguistics LL13.6

Endangered Languages and New Technologies

The book “Endangered Languages and New Technologies” edited by Mari C. Jones has just been published at Cambridge University Press:
New technologies can help the documentation and analysis of endangered languages through digitalisation, archiving, the creation of smart electronic resources, and by bringing new methodologies to this linguistic domain.
This book presents a range of exciting realizations and new projects from field linguists, typologists and computational linguists, to handle documentation and analysis of endangered languages in a smart and connected way.

The first part of the book focuses on the development of new technologies for endangered languages. This part opens with a paper written by Aimée Lahaussois about the application of the concept of comparable corpora to closely related endangered languages (“The Kiranti comparable corpus: A prototype corpus for the comparison of Kiranti languages and mythology”). The same stories were collected in the field (eastern Nepal) in three languages (Khaling, Thulung and Koyi) and aligned on the basis of similar semantic content. For a technical explanation of the structure behind the corpus, see the following article, written by Aimée Lahaussois and Séverine Guillaume (LACITO), “A viewing and processing tool for the analysis of a comparable corpus of Kiranti mythology”:

The material in the corpus and the corpus interface will be expanded through the HimalCo project.

Various other projects are described in the articles that make up this part, on topics as various as European dialect syntax, cross-platform keyboard layouts, machine translation, online data analysis through Collaborative Data Management System, Learning Management Systems, etc.

The second part of the book is about methodologies and how to apply these to technology: digital curation through semantic web, long-term preservation with the CINES, sound alignment software, social media, sharing platforms. The articles in this section also discuss new technologies in education and fieldwork, and revitalisation of endangered languages into communities.

Digital dictionaries are also mentioned, especially the issues of standardization and interoperability. This topic is of great concern to us with HimalCo project where we are developing dictionaries based on the LMF ISO standard. This standard provides a model for the description of online dictionaries:
This standard also defines an XML format to represent these lexical data. The goal is to publish online dictionaries in an exchangeable and parsable format.

Another area of interest for us with HimalCo is the development of a smartphone application, which would enable minority speakers to access and propose modifications for online corpora.

Fieldwork in Nepal, Oct-Nov 2014



I have just returned from another very successful field trip to Nepal.  The frequency of trips–3 a year thanks to the ANR grant–contributes to the efficiency of data collection, as it provides continuity from one visit to the next, not only for me but also for the speakers involved.

Because I work on three different languages–namely Khaling, Thulung and Koyi–one issue is to balance the time spent on each one.  Koyi has proven somewhat challenging, as the number of speakers is much lower than for the other two languages, and even then, I have only been able to work with consultants whom I would label semi-speakers.   Yet they are semi-speakers in an odd way: limited numbers of nouns, but no problem (seemingly) conjugating verbs, despite the complex verbal morphology we find in these languages.  As for Thulung, last year I met a delightful and very good consultant I have been working with since, making great progress resolving some lingering mysteries, such as reflexive derivational morphemes -si and -s (presented at Syntax of the World’s Languages in Pavia in September).  Work on Khaling has been very satisfying because of the strong Khaling community that has gathered around our main consultant, Dhana Khaling, who is chairperson of the Khaling Rai association of Kathmandu.  As a result of his position in the community, and the fact that Guillaume and I stay at his house when in Kathmandu, we are at the center of a very vibrant community: Khaling people, living in Kathmandu or visiting from the village, are forever stopping by for tea or for a cultural, social or ritual celebration, which provides a wonderful opportunity for us to interact with a great number of Khaling.

My most recent field trip was centered around collecting Khaling ideophones–in collecting mythological texts, we had come across a number of ideophonic prefixes, and wanted to learn more about them.  They proved a very entertaining topic to work on, in light of the constant stream of visitors: they are fun to elicit and produce, were starting points for a number of wide-ranging discussions, and we all had many good laughs while collecting what ended up being close to 400 ideophones!

The data needs considerably more analysis before being written up for publication, but ideophones in Khaling (as in other languages) revolve around sensory experiences, with sound being the primary source, but also covered experiences such as texture, color.  This topic fits in nicely with previous work–Guillaume and I published a paper recently (https://benjamins.com/#catalog/journals/sl.38.2.05jac/details) about an auditory demonstrative in Khaling, which clearly taps into this grammaticalization of sensory experience, but it also connects with work we have and are carrying out on verbal morphology, as many of these ideophones are adverbial in nature.

Our next trip will also be on Khaling, in February-March 2015, and we will take the opportunity to study the many compound verbs found in Khaling.

Fieldwork in Yongning (language: Na), August 2014

Here is a short report on a field trip to Yongning that took place this month. This time, three students of Dr. Yang Liquan 杨立权 (on the right in the picture) asked to come along to learn more about fieldwork. Not that there is anything I can add to the wealth of available publications on the topic of linguistic fieldwork (a wonderfully concise and informative introduction is Dixon’s “Field linguistics: a minor manual”), but “an ounce of practice…”

Meeting Naxi, Mosuo and Bai colleagues in Lijiang, before leaving for Yongning. Left: Latami Dashi; right: Yang Liquan
Meeting Mosuo, Naxi and Bai colleagues in Lijiang, before leaving for Yongning. Left: Latami Dashi; right: Yang Liquan

The students got to practise International Phonetic Alphabet on a language that has relatively complex phonetics. The set of useful symbols for Na includes ɭ ʈ ɖ ʑ ɕ ɻ ʁ ʂ ʐ ʋ ɿ ʅ ɳ ɲ ŋ, æ ɑ ə ɤ , nasal vowels, and symbols for tone. The different language backgrounds of the students (Na/Mosuo, Bai, Mandarin dialects, English…) led to an initial division of labour among themselves: one could pick voicing differences easily, another was able to recognize different sets of apicalized vowels… This allowed for lively ‘cross-tutoring’ sessions. The aim, of course, is for each trained linguist to be able to identify and learn the entire range of phonemic oppositions found in the language under investigation.

Now the students are back to Kunming, and it will be up to them to decide to what extent they are interested to launch into fieldwork of their own — to break new ground, to make discoveries about languages of Yunnan, and to establish a sizeable record before these go out of memory.

Here is a group picture on the last day of fieldwork.

Hosts and students, at the main consultant's home. Top to bottom and left to right: Yunnan Univ. students He Wenju, Ji Xi and A Hui; the main consultant, Latami Dashilame; and her daughter-in-law Guo Geiruo
Hosts and students, at the main consultant’s home. Top to bottom and left to right: Yunnan Univ. students He Wenju, Ji Xi and A Hui; the main consultant, Latami Dashilame; and her daughter-in-law Guo Geiruo

Concerning research on Na, the main highlights were:

(i) advancing from the current state of the Yongning Na word list towards a decent dictionary, in particular verifying the identification of plants and animals;

(ii) getting answers to many small questions that had come up since the last fieldwork 9 months ago; and

(iii) recording new data, this time with a 4-channel recorder that allows for the recording of an electroglottographic signal plus audio from a table microphone, a head-mounted microphone, and an extra head-mounted microphone for a person serving as the speaker (storyteller’s) respondent.

A recording session
Checking signals and adjusting input levels at the beginning of a  recording session

In this case, the respondent was the student A Hui, who is a native speaker of (another dialect of) Na, and has special interest in a language and oral literature that have not been fully passed down to people of her generation. Her discussions with the hostess extended well after the recording sessions were over.

Talk about real communication: discussions in the Na (Mosuo) language, outside the (home-made) recording booth
Discussions in the Na (Mosuo) language, outside the recording room

The weather was cool and the nights cold (rainy season), but there were occasional sunny intervals. Electricity is now available most of the time, and with the help of a voltage stabilizer, plus a UPS for short power outages, we were able to use electronic equipment without any glitches. Extra batteries carried us through the occasional power cut.

The ritual of ‘walking around the mountain’ took place during our stay, allowing us a half-day off from linguistic work, and a view of the magnificent scenery of Yongning, under a spectacular cloudy sky.

Hill top above the Yongning monastery, on the day of a ritual: walking around the mountain
Hill top above the Yongning monastery, on the day of a ritual: walking around the mountain

We are grateful to those who made this intensive fieldwork possible, and in particular to our hosts and consultants.

Alexis Michaud

I'm a linguist specialized in phonetics, focusing on un(der-)documented languages.

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Project currently developing on GitHub — out of public view

The project blog has gone quiet in the past 5 months, as texts and dictionaries are in the making in a (nonpublic) GitHub repository. Tools for data migration from Toolbox / MDF format to XML and LaTEX are now operational. Painstakingly collected linguistic data and innovative technology make a heady cocktail: we were excited to see the very earliest professional-looking draft versions of our dictionaries.

Aimée Lahaussois made a field trip to Nepal earlier this year; Guillaume Jacques is beginning one in Southwest China; and this post’s author will visit again Yongning (also in Southwest China) in August. Lots of tasks are under way. In GitHub jargon: hundreds of ‘Commits’ (updates of documents and scripts), 9 Wiki pages, (currently) 33 ‘Issues’ (tasks to be done)… and high hopes of having great things to showcase here in due course.

Alexis Michaud

I'm a linguist specialized in phonetics, focusing on un(der-)documented languages.

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Article on Associated Motion in Japhug Rgyalrong

The article Jacques (2013) has been recently published. While the HimalCo project has already produced several presentations at various conferences, this is the first published article of the project.

Like all the scholarly productions of our project, it is based on corpus data (on the Japhug language) that will eventually all be made available on the Pangloss website. The article has two aims: first, to describe the associated motion construction in Japhug Rgyalrong and second, to use these data to contribute to the discussion on cross-category harmony (the idea that word order and affix order are correlated in some way). Since the second part might only interest theoretical linguists, I will now offer some reflections on the first part.

Languages with associated motion have a set of verbal affixes that describe a motion event occurring before, during or after the action referred to by the verb. In addition, they also have a competing construction with a motion verb and its complement. Since none of the world’s major languages has associated motion, this category has been relatively neglected, though it does not appear to be particularly rare. In the article, I focus on the semantic differences between the two constructions and show that a syntactic test involving negation works only with the motion-verb construction, not with the associated-motion construction.

For further information on Associated Motion as a cross-linguistic category, I recommend the work of Antoine Guillaume (2006, 2009) who has extensively worked on Tacanan languages. He and I are planning to work together on the typology of Associated Motion.



Guillaume, Antoine (2006). La catégorie du “mouvement associé” en cavineña: apport à une typologie de l’encodage du mouvement et de la trajectoire. Bulletin de la société linguistique de Paris 101 (2): 415–436.

Guillaume, Antoine (2009). Les suffixes verbaux de mouvement associé en cavineña. Faits de Langues : Les Cahiers 1: 181–204.

Jacques, Guillaume 2013. Harmonization and disharmonization of affix ordering and basic word order. Linguistic Typology, 17 (2):187–215

Third Workshop on Sino-Tibetan Languages of Sichuan: a brief report

Last month our team organised the third edition of the Workshop on Sino-Tibetan Languages of Sichuan, which followed a first workshop in Taipei organised by Jackson T.-S. Sun, and a second one in Beijing in 2010. The conference was hosted at the EHESS.

Alexis Michaud set up a lively website for the workshop. A Book of abstracts is available.

Nearly all fields of linguistics were represented during this conference, and the proportion of papers on phonology and phonetics vs. morphosyntax was relatively well balanced.

It may be unappropriate for me, as one of the co-organizers, to praise the success of our workshop. Yet, I think that it was noteworthy in at least one respect. The advantage of small-scale workshops like this one is that people working on closely related research topics can get together and interact with each other in a better way than in huge conferences. In this workshop, we established a record for the number of presentations on Naish (four) and Rgyalrongic (eight). The presentations on these languages also happened, for some of them at least, to be on related topics: all papers on Naish were about tonology, in particular. This allowed detailed and productive discussions both during the question sessions and during breaks, and it was quite a rewarding experience — at least for me.

Among the participants at the conference were three native speakers of the languages under investigation: Wang Shuangcheng (speaker of Amdo Tibetan and dialectologist himself), Skalbzang Phuntshogs (whose name is sinicized as Geiru Pincuo, a speaker of Northern Pumi collaborating with Henriette Daudey on language documentation) and bLobzang Nyima (a speaker of Rtau [rəsɲəske] who lives in Paris and collaborates with our team). Their presence was in my opinion an essential element of the success of this workshop: during discussions, it allowed for immediate reverification of data cited by participants. It is already a tradition, since 2008, for the Sichuan Workshop to include native speaker participants, and I hope that this tradition will continue in further instalments of this conference.

Zev Handel has expressed his interest to organize the next workshop in Seattle, and I look forward to it already.

Welcoming a computing engineer to the HimalCo team: Céline Buret

Technical aspects are central in the HimalCo project. This project allows us to hire a computing engineer for a duration of 2 years. The selection procedure took place from June to early September. We were impressed by the quality of the applications that we received. In spite of the modest financial conditions offered, there were a number of outstanding candidates, each with their own strong points, and all highly motivated.
The project team is proud to announce that Ms. Céline Buret, a highly experimented IT person, will join us on November 18th, for an initial period of 2 years.

December 2013 update: the work on dictionary formats is in full swing already. The HimalCo blog has gone quiet as our attention focused on starting up a GitHub repository which, among many useful functions, helps us keep track of scripts as they are gradually improved before a public release. We plan to make some scripts available in the Spring of 2014.

Alexis Michaud

I'm a linguist specialized in phonetics, focusing on un(der-)documented languages.

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Ongoing fieldwork on Yongning Na — Lijiang, China

A new fieldtrip to Yunnan has begun. Despite a declining health, my teacher/consultant gives me some time every day to continue research on Yongning Na (Mosuo). The main objective is to make headway in the description of the language’s tonal grammar. Work sessions mostly consist in transcribing narratives; verifying earlier data; and eliciting phonological materials.

My consultant is currently staying, not in the village of Yongning, but at her son’s home in the town of Lijiang. Working here has the big drawback that it’s not “immersion fieldwork”: this is not a Na-speaking environment. On a positive note, power cuts are few, and there is Internet. Also, my consultant misses Yongning; now living in an apartment in a recent concrete building, she sees Na/Mosuo life from a distance, and this makes the task of teaching me folk tales and traditions more interesting to her than when I interviewed her in Yongning, from 2006 to 2009.

Here are some photos of the beautiful Dongba Culture Research Centre in Lijiang, where I have a chance to meet Naxi-speaking colleagues. In Lijiang these days, there are also visiting scholars from various countries: Roselle Dobbs, from New Zealand, who studies another dialect of Yongning Na; and Mike Opper, an American student who is currently reflecting on a topic for his PhD in phonology/phonetics.

This time a Canadian student with Yunnanese roots, Meng Yang, has come along to get a feel for fieldwork in Yunnan. (She also participates in current research activities of her Master’s thesis supervisor, Marc Brunelle, on languages of Vietnam.) During 3 weeks, she will grapple with the complexities of Yongning Na tone by focusing on one specific morphosyntactic phenomenon: tonal change in phrases made up of a noun followed by a demonstrative-plus-classifier expression, e.g. ‘this piece of carpentry’, ‘this flock of sheep’, or ‘this bowl of tea’. The tasks proposed to her include (i) preparing data for elicitation, on the basis of a glossary that indicates the most commonly used classifiers for each noun, (ii) participating in the transcription of the consultant’s answers, (iii) annotating recordings of these phrases, and (iv) looking for examples in narratives, to comparing them with the elicited data. Three weeks may seem a long time for investigating a single construction; but this is by no means a trivial task, in view of the high number of tonal categories in the language. (See a book chapter in press about numeral-plus-classifier phrases in Yongning Na.) The aim is to get to the heart of the issue and produce as fine-grained and definitive a description as possible. Given the state of endangerment of the language, the description must be accompanied by sufficient documentation to arrive at a high degree of certainty, so that even the most fastidious phonetician/phonologist will have a sufficient empirical basis for verification.

The next step will then consist in relating the findings on this construction (noun plus demonstrative-plus-classifier) with facts about other parts of the system that have already been investigated, finding out to what extent the tone patterns are similar to those of other constructions. This is a rewarding stage of the work, when the evidence converges, and the bigger picture emerges. Also, after years of exploration, it is a satisfaction to obtain stronger and stronger confirmation for the earlier analyses.

Mike and Meng have organized a ‘Phonetic notation and field methods’ course for colleagues at the Dongba Culture Research Institute who are going to set out to work on heretofore undescribed language varieties: dialects of Na/Mosuo and Naxi. For this 15-hours course, extending over a week and a half, Meng and Mike produced a Chinese translation of the International Phonetic Alphabet: a really useful tool in my view. Two teaching documents are available: ‘Basic IPA training’ (in Chinese: ), and ‘Phonemic systems’.

Among recent publications, I have just posted

  • the full text of an invited talk on tone systems in Naish at the International Conference on Phonetics of the Languages in China (ICPLC-2013), and
  • a review of Thomas Pinson’s recent dictionary of Naxi. One point that is relevant to the HimalCo project is that the 2 dictionaries of Naxi that appeared in quick succession at the end of last year (2012) are both paper-only, and not actively circulated by the publishing-house, making it difficult for interested readers to access the information. This appears as further confirmation that electronic format is the way forward for dictionaries.

Finally, some new multimedia documents have also been made available in the Naxi and Na sections of the Pangloss Collection. Transcribing and annotating is time-consuming: transcribing 1 minute of recording takes about an hour for an experimented specialist of the language, not to mention the time verifying the annotation and translation, adding time-alignment with the recording, and preparing the metadata (description of the resource for indexing). There now exist methods for the rapid collection of new documents, but “there is ultimately no way to avoid this pernicious transcription bottleneck” (see Steven Bird’s riveting fieldwork report). So each new completed document can be considered as a significant victory.

We will start our trip back to neighbouring Vietnam on October 30st. When I get back to the International Research Institute MICA, I will resume my work to contribute to the development of the Institute’s online collection of linguistic data, the AuCo Collection.


Alexis Michaud

I'm a linguist specialized in phonetics, focusing on un(der-)documented languages.

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Victor Segalen: an explorer who gave a bad name to foreign scholars in China

A Chinese friend doing archaeological work once asked me, ‘Have you heard about Victor Segalen?’ (謝閣蘭) And then, ‘What do you think about him?’

Before our discussion, my impression was positive. I liked Segalen’s literary works; and I believed that Segalen was equally serious about exploring China. Unlike others, he learnt some Chinese; and he went to faraway places, (re-)discovering major archaeological sites. His style of writing is decidedly on the romantic, passionate side, lacking the kind of matter-of-fact information that is required for serious scholarship, but poetic licence seemed OK on the part of an explorer from the last years of Imperial China. There are some obnoxious colonial overtones in some of his writings, but that too seemed OK if viewed in the context of his time.

My Chinese friend’s perception was different. As an archaeologist, he pointed out that Segalen had unearthed sculptures, taken pictures, and gone his own sweet way, leaving ancient art objects exposed to the elements and to depredation, without even reporting their location in sufficient detail. That was an eye-opener for me. Inspired literary works cannot serve as an excuse for leaving a mess behind. As an archaeologist, Victor Segalen simply did not do a serious job. When in a foreign country, one is seen, willy-nilly, as a representative of one’s own country; and so Segalen gave a bad name to foreign scholars in China.

The morality for linguists is simple. When we go and collect data, beyond our immediate interests it’s important to think in terms of stable repositories that guarantee long-term conservation and online availability for researchers and for the communities.

Alexis Michaud

I'm a linguist specialized in phonetics, focusing on un(der-)documented languages.

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Himalco – Parallel corpora in languages of the Greater Himalayas