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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