Category Archives: Field trip reports

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.


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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

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 ( 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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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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Khaling verb dictionary

I came back lack week from a short stay in Kathmandu, where I worked with my main collaborators (in particular Dhana, Dhan Maya, Yadav Kumar and Eka Prasad) on the draft of the Khaling (-Nepali-English) verb dictionary. All entries were revised at least two times, and we recorded most of the example sentences (except for some “sensitive” words). I do not claim, though, that the result is perfect, and I think that some additional proofreading is necessary.

Due to the time constraints, I decided not to go to the Khaling villages this time, but to stay at Dhana’s home in Kathmandu instead. It is amazing how, hundreds of kilometers away from the Kiranti heartland, it is possible to live in a Khaling-speaking environment in a suburb of the capital. Even Dhana’s children (and some of the neighbour’s children too) are good speakers of the language, a remarkable accomplishment in comparison with other Rai communities in Kathmandu.

The recording conditions were not ideal of course at my friend’s home (especially with the dogs barking incessantly), so we looked for a recording studio. Thanks to Dhana’s younger brother, Pavidhan, who is a composer and arranger of local music, we found a first studio, which was unfortunately located nearby the house of people who were keeping a dog: its furious barks were audible from within the recording room. We thus had to move to another location, where we could benefit from better recording conditions, but only a portion of the dictionary was recorded in that studio.

Aside from the dictionary, which was my main focus for this research trip, we worked on the verb paradigms, especially complex predicates and reflexive verbs. I now have enough data to write an article on this topic, which I hope to finish before June. I have also recorded a mythological story recounting the creation of the world, which presents some commonalities with the one analyzed by George van Driem in his Dumi grammar.