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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