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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