Third Workshop on Sino-Tibetan Languages of Sichuan: a brief report

Last month our team organised the third edition of the Workshop on Sino-Tibetan Languages of Sichuan, which followed a first workshop in Taipei organised by Jackson T.-S. Sun, and a second one in Beijing in 2010. The conference was hosted at the EHESS.

Alexis Michaud set up a lively website for the workshop. A Book of abstracts is available.

Nearly all fields of linguistics were represented during this conference, and the proportion of papers on phonology and phonetics vs. morphosyntax was relatively well balanced.

It may be unappropriate for me, as one of the co-organizers, to praise the success of our workshop. Yet, I think that it was noteworthy in at least one respect. The advantage of small-scale workshops like this one is that people working on closely related research topics can get together and interact with each other in a better way than in huge conferences. In this workshop, we established a record for the number of presentations on Naish (four) and Rgyalrongic (eight). The presentations on these languages also happened, for some of them at least, to be on related topics: all papers on Naish were about tonology, in particular. This allowed detailed and productive discussions both during the question sessions and during breaks, and it was quite a rewarding experience — at least for me.

Among the participants at the conference were three native speakers of the languages under investigation: Wang Shuangcheng (speaker of Amdo Tibetan and dialectologist himself), Skalbzang Phuntshogs (whose name is sinicized as Geiru Pincuo, a speaker of Northern Pumi collaborating with Henriette Daudey on language documentation) and bLobzang Nyima (a speaker of Rtau [rəsɲəske] who lives in Paris and collaborates with our team). Their presence was in my opinion an essential element of the success of this workshop: during discussions, it allowed for immediate reverification of data cited by participants. It is already a tradition, since 2008, for the Sichuan Workshop to include native speaker participants, and I hope that this tradition will continue in further instalments of this conference.

Zev Handel has expressed his interest to organize the next workshop in Seattle, and I look forward to it already.

Welcoming a computing engineer to the HimalCo team: Céline Buret

Technical aspects are central in the HimalCo project. This project allows us to hire a computing engineer for a duration of 2 years. The selection procedure took place from June to early September. We were impressed by the quality of the applications that we received. In spite of the modest financial conditions offered, there were a number of outstanding candidates, each with their own strong points, and all highly motivated.
The project team is proud to announce that Ms. Céline Buret, a highly experimented IT person, will join us on November 18th, for an initial period of 2 years.

December 2013 update: the work on dictionary formats is in full swing already. The HimalCo blog has gone quiet as our attention focused on starting up a GitHub repository which, among many useful functions, helps us keep track of scripts as they are gradually improved before a public release. We plan to make some scripts available in the Spring of 2014.

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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Victor Segalen: an explorer who gave a bad name to foreign scholars in China

A Chinese friend doing archaeological work once asked me, ‘Have you heard about Victor Segalen?’ (謝閣蘭) And then, ‘What do you think about him?’

Before our discussion, my impression was positive. I liked Segalen’s literary works; and I believed that Segalen was equally serious about exploring China. Unlike others, he learnt some Chinese; and he went to faraway places, (re-)discovering major archaeological sites. His style of writing is decidedly on the romantic, passionate side, lacking the kind of matter-of-fact information that is required for serious scholarship, but poetic licence seemed OK on the part of an explorer from the last years of Imperial China. There are some obnoxious colonial overtones in some of his writings, but that too seemed OK if viewed in the context of his time.

My Chinese friend’s perception was different. As an archaeologist, he pointed out that Segalen had unearthed sculptures, taken pictures, and gone his own sweet way, leaving ancient art objects exposed to the elements and to depredation, without even reporting their location in sufficient detail. That was an eye-opener for me. Inspired literary works cannot serve as an excuse for leaving a mess behind. As an archaeologist, Victor Segalen simply did not do a serious job. When in a foreign country, one is seen, willy-nilly, as a representative of one’s own country; and so Segalen gave a bad name to foreign scholars in China.

The morality for linguists is simple. When we go and collect data, beyond our immediate interests it’s important to think in terms of stable repositories that guarantee long-term conservation and online availability for researchers and for the communities.

Alexis Michaud

I'm a linguist specialized in phonetics, focusing on un(der-)documented languages.

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Incentives for publishing text corpora and multimedia documents: About a recent discussion on the Tibeto-Burman list

In-depth language documentation is clearly a priority duty for linguists of our generation. This is what will remain as our most important legacy. It is also a major driving force for real advances in linguistics, as multimedia digital databases open up a tremendous potential for testing linguistic analyses and building computer models: a huge space opens up once we have a reliable, high-quality empirical basis for our studies.

This point has been made eloquently in various forums; it can now be considered a rather uncontroversial point of view. Realizations tend to lag behind somewhat, though. In addition to personal conviction, institutional recognition is required for academics to invest as much time as they should (and in many cases would like to) into the time-consuming tasks of preparing data for long-term preservation, online circulation, and further computer processing. There has been a vivid discussion about publications and publication venues on the Internet list “Issues and Announcements Related to Tibeto-Burman Linguistics” lately (Tibeto-Burman internet domain). Stephen Morey pointed out that:

“Here in Australia, the Australian Linguistics Society has set up a subcommittee to work out ways by which text corpora – annotated, analysed and curated – can be assessed and counted as research output just as articles in journals are. This follows on the recognition of the scholarly merit of Language Documentation by the Linguistics Society of America in 2010.
Once academics can get credit for this kind of work, we’ll be able to put more time into it and this will be of benefit to communities in the long run as well.”

This was a response to Guillaume’s suggestion: “I think that our community should value more the production of dictionaries and text collections including translations in the local national languages, not just in English (or even only in the local languages, without English), even if this kind of publication never get cited. Citation-based evaluation of academic productivity has a highly detrimental effect on the field, and evaluators should really make a special case for non-English publications intended for speakers of the endangered languages.”

To me, the exchanges over the Tibeto-Burman list conveyed a keen sense of the excitement of doing linguistics on under-resourced languages. This is an era for pioneers, and the frontier is… in our own gardens, which we must cultivate, following the motto of the Pangloss Collection! The framework is in place: long-term archiving and stable identifiers; open archives for consultation; CreativeCommons licenses… and it’s now a matter of getting one’s act together. In the long run this is well-invested time and effort, as the hours, days and months of manual weeding, pruning and trimming make for great documents, which always find an appreciative audience at some point.

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.

Talking dictionaries for Himalayan languages

In addition to parallel corpora, the main objective of this research project (HimalCo) is to create a set of online talking dictionaries, in particular from Japhug Rgyalrong, Khaling, Thulung and Yongning Na. We are still weighing our options concerning the structure of the platform (in particular, whether or not to use LexiquePro), but we have decided that all dictionaries will be encoded in a Toolbox-like format, either directly generated by Toolbox itself or exported from FLEX.

Files in Toolbox format are easily manipulable with PERL scripts. They can be easily converted to HTML and combined with sound files to produce a simple interface for web dictionaries, like the Arapaho talking dictionary (this could be an alternative to LexiquePro):

http://linguistics.berkeley.edu/~arapaho/arapaho_english.html

It is also easily convertible to LaTeX code, which can then compiled into a PDF file to produce a professionally typeset version of the dictionary with hyperlinks for cross-references. We place special focus on online tools, and on the web version of dictionaries, but it is also necessary to have printed versions accessible to the speakers of the languages.

Also, it is trivial to write PERL script to convert from one writing system to another (for instance, from IPA to Devanagari script in the case of languages of Nepal) and to automatically generate entire paradigms for either the complex verbal flexion of the Kiranti languages or the intricate tonal alternations of the Naish languages.

Within the three years time frame of this project, it would be irrealistic to work on lots of dictionaries at the same time. For this reason, we decided, in the case of the three Kiranti languages under study, to compile verb dictionaries only. These dictionaries will comprise all the verb roots, their derived forms, example sentences, and a complete list of automatically generated paradigms. This is also a better service to the communities, as many Rai (Kiranti ) intellectuals attempt at making dictionaries themselves, but experience diffculty with the complex verbal morphology of their languages.

I have finished a first draft of the Khaling verb dictionary (the example sentences were collected during my field trip in Solukhumbu last February), and I am bringing it to Nepal next week for proofreading, finishing the section on complex predicates and recording the examples for the web version. This dictionary will continue to improve over the years; on the other hand, a first publishable version is now in view, and I hope that it can soon be made available to native speakers as a practical, easy-to-use book.

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.

About Exploratory Field Trips

These days, the project team is busy finalizing administrative issues. One slight difficulty is that the funding agency, the Agence Nationale de la Recherche, does not have a separate category for exploratory field trips: trips to the areas where the languages we study are spoken, and where we collect the data which is then organized, made available online (in the Pangloss Collection) and analyzed. In the budget documents, they are pooled together with the budget items for attending conferences, workshops… As a result, linguistics project with a fieldwork component look pretty strange from the point of view of current administrative/accounting standards. It looks as if too much money were spent on international travel.

This administrative episode gives us an opportunity to emphasize the specificity of exploratory field trips, which are central to our work. Fortunately, the people at ANR are open to suggestions and interested in understanding how our work is actually conducted, so the odds are that we shall be able to carry out numerous field trips, as originally planned. Who knows–perhaps exploratory field trips will even come to be recognized as a special category of “mission” in administrative typology? At some research centres with a strong tradition of fieldwork, such as LACITO, the two (“Conferences/Workshops” and “Fieldwork”) are already distinguished, as a matter of course.

 

Alexis Michaud

I'm a linguist specialized in phonetics, focusing on un(der-)documented languages.

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HimalCo – Himalayan Corpora

This project proposes to build parallel corpora for three sub-groups of the Sino-Tibetan family, covering a total of 8 little-described oral languages. These corpora will be made up of texts and lexical data. Texts that share a similar (sometimes nearly identical) narrative frame will be selected, drawing from the strong mythological traditions of the Greater Himalayan region. One set of parallel texts will be assembled for each sub-group: Kiranti (from Nepal), and Rgyalrong and Naish (from China). (Note that “parallel texts” in the sense of our project does not refer to texts with aligned translation, as in “parallel Classical Greek texts”: Greek on one page and English on the facing page, but to traditional texts put in parallel according to the junctures of their narrative frames.) The alignment of texts on the basis of their narrative frame will allow for the cross-language comparison of highly similar native materials; among other benefits for research, the typologically salient features of each sub-group will thus come to the fore with greater accuracy than can be obtained through the type of elicitation often used for cross-language comparison, e.g. the Pear Story.
HimalCo includes the two essential steps of (i) first-hand data collection in the field (in Nepal and China) and (ii) state-of-the-art transcription, annotation and formatting of the entire data set. In addition to classical interlinear morphemic glossing, translation and sound synchronization as implemented in the LACITO Archive (to which the participants are regular contributors), the narratives will be organized into parallel corpora in each of the three language subgroups, and the lexical data will be serve as the basis for talking dictionaries: dictionaries combined with sound recordings of individual entries (words spoken in isolation) and of example sentences.
The team, which includes an IT specialist, will develop simple interfaces for the consultation of parallel corpora and talking dictionaries, allowing the comparison of material in individual languages, across languages of a subgroup, and across subgroups. This project will provide the solid empirical basis which has heretofore been lacking for research on these languages: all the materials will be made freely available online through the LACITO Archive, whose interface will be enriched to allow consultation of parallel texts and talking dictionaries. These objectively verifiable data will be available for the in-depth investigation of a broad range of issues that include topical issues in synchrony and diachrony (comparative morphology; reconstruction of Tibeto-Burman morphology; and study of the evolution of morphological systems) for which these languages have key evidence to contribute.

Alexis Michaud

I'm a linguist specialized in phonetics, focusing on un(der-)documented languages.

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Himalco – Parallel corpora in languages of the Greater Himalayas