All posts by Aimée Lahaussois

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.

 

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Nepal News

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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

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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

Fieldwork in Nepal, Oct-Nov 2014

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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.

On the notion of parallel corpora

We borrowed this idea from the field of translation studies, where translation equivalents are aligned and then stored as translation memory to be used during later translation tasks.  What interested us was the idea of aligning linguistic data across languages and retrieving aligned segments for the purposes of analysis and comparison.

One of the remarkable features of Kiranti languages in Eastern Nepal is that their mythology is surprisingly similar: in some cases, perfect calques of sentences are found across different language versions of a same story.  This seemed like a good starting point for building a corpus of aligned material based on resolutely native data, as opposed to more artificial (but still interesting) material such as Frog stories and Pear Stories.

We have set up a prototype for the aligntment of stories, and so far, it is quite promising:  we have aligned three different versions of the story of Kakcilip–in Thulung, Koyi and Khaling–in such a way that similar content across languages is tagged with a Similarity label.

The Similarity labels appear above the sentence numbers in the full-text versions of the story in the different languages. When a sentence with such a label is selected, it leads to a view of that same sentence in the languages involved in the similarity.

We had, of course, to define the notion of similarity for the purposes of this alignment: for the time being, our working definition is that it concerns a segment of text of similar narrative function or content.  This allows us to align, in addition to material sharing lexical and morphosyntactic features, sentences in different versions that outwardly have no connection (different names of protagonists, different actions, different objects involved) but that share narrative function, in being, for example, a turning point within the story.

The ability to see the same (or a similar) sentence across languages makes it possible to identify the individual languages’ available tools for expressing similar material.

We have also associated a concordancer with the aligned corpus, which means that we can look for specific morphemes or lexemes and then compare them across languages.

For more details on the technical set-up, you can see our paper presented at LREC 2012, in a workshop on Building and Using Comparable Corpora.