All posts by Alexis Michaud

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

Scientific journals need to make access to research data a prerequisite for reviewing

Data sets on which our publications are based need to be made available, for obvious reasons of verifiability, replicability, and cumulative progress in research. This point is made eloquently in many publications. For instance:

“Openness is one of the central values of science. Open scientific practices such as sharing data, materials and analysis scripts alongside published articles have many benefits, including easier replication and extension studies, increased availability of data for theory-building and meta-analysis, and increased possibility of review and collaboration even after a paper has been published. Although modern information technology makes sharing easier than ever before, uptake of open practices has been slow.” 

(Morey, Richard D., Christopher D. Chambers, Peter J. Etchells, Christine R. Harris, Rink Hoekstra, Daniël Lakens, Stephan Lewandowsky, et al. 2016. The Peer Reviewers’ Openness Initiative: incentivizing open research practices through peer reviewRoyal Society Open Science 3(1).)

Since I first wrote down my fundamental beliefs on this topic back in 2002, the field (linguistics, and specifically, phonetics) has not changed as it should have: disposable data are still the norm. This post takes the example of three small data sets that I deposited this year (data associated to publications from the early 2000s) to illustrate the current situation of lack of support for the conservation of research data. The conclusion is that changes to the mainstream model of publication and evaluation should be made now: scientific journals need to make access to research data a prerequisite for publication. And for these changes to happen, we need to take action. 

1. Data from my first phonetics paper

My first phonetics paper was published in 2004:  “Final consonants and glottalization: new perspectives from Hanoi Vietnamese”. Phonetica 61(2–3). 119–146. It is based on audio and electroglottographic recordings. At the time, neither the reviewers nor the editor asked for access to the research data. Various pieces of software carry out citation counts to estimate ‘impact’ (this paper was cited 1 time in PubMed, 33 times in Web of Science, 120 times in Google Scholar, etc.) and analyze ‘traffic’ (how many times the PDF was downloaded, when, by whom, etc.). On the other hand, even though the corresponding data (multimedia recordings) have been online for more than a decade, no tool that I know of ever tried to establish connections between the study and the data (and software) on which it is based.

The recordings were first made available online in 2005/2006 through a “Databases” project at Université Paris 3 – Sorbonne Nouvelle that aimed to make linguists’ data available online in good order, as multimedia files accompanied by metadata and logically structured transcriptions and annotations. The metadata (here) are sufficiently clear that a web crawler could identify the language of the recordings as Vietnamese: the language is encoded in the metadata as x-sil-VIE, and while this code is not very widely used, a key to the language codes used in the database is available (here), clarifying that this is a code from the Summer Institute of Linguistics’ Ethnologue database and that it refers to Vietnamese. The deposit is also associated with a PDF description (here) that is not hard to ‘mine’ for information, not to mention that high-tech tools could conduct automatic language recognition from the audio files. 
Software built by Google Scholar engineers is pretty good at identifying references despite the bewildering diversity of formats. Similar results could be attained in locating data sets, allowing for multifaceted search across databases, tracking data set usage, and so on. Linking data, publications and software into an Open Science environment is not a technical impossibility: the reason why it is not happening is that Open Science is clearly not a priority of the big players (the commercial publishers and service providers). The assessment of research output (for finding a job in a research institution and keeping it) is based on publications, with little if any recognition of the time spent on the empirical basis of science. And (in phonetics) the evaluation of a submitted manuscript is often conducted without even a sample of the data on which the results, discussion and conclusions are based.

This year, the data set of my 2004 study was made available in the Pangloss Collection, with time-aligned transcripts and translations. These data not only constitute an indispensible complement to the research article: they also have potential for an open-ended list of uses. (The materials are currently at bottom of list here.) But for want of institutional recognition and support, such efforts for making data available along with publications remain an uphill journey. 

2. Sample data from a 2003 book chapter

In 2003, I contributed a chapter to a book about focus marking:

“Focus et tons lexicaux: de la variété des paramètres prosodiques”. In A. Lacheret-Dujour & J. François (eds.), Fonction et moyens d’expression de la focalisation à travers les langues (Mémoires de La Société de Linguistique de Paris, Nouvelle Série, Tome XIII), 13–47. Louvain: Peeters. 

This was my first contribution to a book and I was keen to make a good job of it. In view of the relevance of speech prosody to focus marking, I suggested to the editors to have multimedia materials published alongside the printed volume. They agreed to this, and not a few of the contributors to the volume chose to make audio or video recordings available on a CD-ROM. The printed volume, with accompanying CD-ROM, is available from a dozen of university libraries in the (French) network of academic libraries, SUDOC. The catalogue entry mentions the CD-ROM, but cannot go into any detail on its contents, which limits possibilities for locating these data samples.

When I deposited the preprint version of my chapter in a preprint archive about four years later, I forgot to upload the supplementary files. I have now done so, and the WAV files are now available as supplementary files associated to the publication (here), also with a PDF providing explanations. I feel good about doing so, but it is, again, a lonely journey. I frequently get e-mail asking me to confirm authorship of a paper, to review my list of publications in a database (there are quite a few of them: in addition to ORCID, there are also databases of open access publications), but I never got e-mail asking for this kind of assistance (‘academic crowd-sourcing’) in relation to data or software. This is because, as recapitulated above, the importance of primary data is oddly underestimated in current ‘publication ecosystems’ in linguistics.

3. Sample data from a 2003 conference presentation

In the same year that I wrote my first book chapter (in French), I wrote a paper (in English) for a conference about speech prosody. ‘Deaf and dumb’ papers about prosody sound like a strange paradox, so I asked the organizers whether they would find it useful to have multimedia files accompanying the research papers. Like the editors of the 2003 volume published by the Société de Linguistique de Paris, the editors of the “Prosodic Interfaces” conference (Amina Mettouchi and Gaëlle Ferré) found the idea relevant and forward-looking. Participants were encouraged to submit audio files for inclusion on the CD-ROM containing the conference proceedings. These files are still accessible (as of 2018), here. This year, I added the files associated to my conference paper to the deposit in the preprint archive, here; while doing so, I felt proud about these excerpts, which (in my perfectly objective opinion as data collector and author of the paper!) add a lot to the publication. Cited examples can be listened to, and I also included audio recordings of explanations provided in Naxi (the target language) by language consultants expressing their intuitions about subtle stylistic nuances associated with two variants of an utterance (one with a full form and the other with a reduced form). This allowed a colleague who is a native speaker of Naxi to spot a beautiful example of syllable reduction (which I had not noticed) inside the very sentence in which the consultant described processes of syllable reduction: a lovely case of mise en abyme, and a further piece of evidence of how pervasive syllable reduction processes are in the Naxi language.

But contrary to what I thought, such initiatives failed to gain much traction among linguists. Despite possibilities for embedding sound files of cited examples into PDFs (as exemplified in this paper), it has not yet become common practice to offer at least a sample of data alongside scientific papers. 

Conclusion

“An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching”, as the saying goes: looking it up, I realize that it’s from none less than Mahatma Gandhi. But it’s now over 20 years since I made documentation and conservation of spoken language data one of my ‘lifelong’ priorities, and judging from my experience, making small steps on one’s own will not get us where we want (any more than sporadic, individual attempts at consuming less resources and creating less pollution can avert environmental disaster). To advance towards open science, we do not only need to get the principles right and put them to good practice. We also need to do advocacy and change the rules.

The field needs to take a turn towards Open Science, and this is not going to happen without us investing some of our time into it: taking a strong stand, and voicing concerns that are key to our discipline’s future, every time that we have opportunities to speak out: as authors, as members of editorial teams, as evaluators, and so on. If scientific journals make access to research data a prerequisite for reviewing (as they should really have started to do two decades ago), also insisting on open access (with an embargo of several years or even decades where necessary), practices will change, and the Open Data Excuse Bingo will be a thing of the past.

Open Data Excuse Bingo. (Click here for source)

Alexis Michaud

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

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Twitter

Release of Persephone (/pərˈsɛfəni/), an open-source automatic phoneme transcription tool

This is a follow-up on a previous post about experiments using automatic transcription for Yongning Na. It’s been an eventful and exciting time!

Oliver Adams has now released his automatic phoneme transcription tool. It’s all open-source code. Here is the address: https://github.com/oadams/persephone

The transcription tool is named Persephone (/pərˈsɛfəni/), after the goddess who was abducted by Hades and must spend one half of each year in the Underworld. Which of linguistics or computer science is Hell, and which the joyful world of Spring and light? For each it’s the other, of course. The name Persephone is intended as a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the sense of estrangement and uncanniness that one can occasionally feel in interdisciplinary collaboration. Interdisciplinary work has difficulties and rewards of its own – like fieldwork, in a way, but to some fieldworkers the difficulties can be perceived as the last straw, coming on top of a heavy work load. It is clear that linguists engaged in language documentation cannot spend half their lives learning about language processing, any more than computer scientists would want to spend half their lives reading books of linguistics. But linguists can be convinced to spend… maybe one fifth of their time playing with software and understanding how state-of-the-art tools work. “Digital Humanities drive the scholarly tradition towards a more uniform approach or an approach where the divide between two cultures – humanities on the one side, and computing on the other – is no longer constructive”, as a report of the Research Data Alliance puts it.

There is a presentation and user guide written by Oliver on the project homepage on GitHub. A paper (LREC 2018) is available here.

Alexis Michaud

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

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Twitter

Speech recognition for newly documented languages: highly encouraging tests using automatically generated phonemic transcription of Yongning Na audio recordings

Automatic speech recognition tools have strong potential for facilitating language documentation. This blog note reports on highly encouraging tests using automatic transcription in the documentation of Yongning Na, a Sino-Tibetan language of Southwest China. After twenty months of fieldwork (spread over twelve years, from 2006 to 2017), 14 hours of speech had been recorded, of which 5.5 hours were transcribed (200 minutes of narratives and 130 minutes of morphotonology elicitation sessions). Oliver Adams, the author of Persephone, an open-source software tool for developing multilingual acoustic models, volunteered to experiment with these data. He trained a single-speaker automatic speech transcription tool over the transcribed materials and applied it to untranscribed audio files. The error rate is low: on the order of 17% of errors in phoneme identification. This makes the automatic transcriptions useful as a canvas for the linguist, who corrects mistakes and produces the translation in collaboration with language consultants.

Today I am posting my initial report to Oliver Adams, written in the field in Yunnan, on May 12th, 2017. I consider this date as a landmark in my work documenting Yongning Na! This document remained confidential until today because its online availability would have de-anonymized a submission that was under double-blind review for a workshop in Australia (the Australasian Language Technology Association Workshop, Dec. 6-8, 2017). This paper, which presents Oliver’s work to an audience of language technology specialists, is now available here.
Continue reading Speech recognition for newly documented languages: highly encouraging tests using automatically generated phonemic transcription of Yongning Na audio recordings

Alexis Michaud

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

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Twitter

“Tone in Yongning Na” now published!

Book cover: Tone in Yongning Na

The volume Tone in Yongning Na is now published.

It is open-access: the book is freely available as a PDF from the publisher’s website.

It is open-source: the LaTeX code is freely available on GitHub (from the same page as the PDF).

Last but not least, the analyses are based on data hosted in an open archive (the Pangloss Collection) that allows free download of original sound files and transcriptions (no login required).

I think I should now let the book speak for itself 🙂 and thank once again the many colleagues who helped all along the way.

One of the aims of this blog post is to spread the word about the publishing house. Publishing a book at Language Science Press was a sparkling experience all along. If you do not know about Language Science Press yet, I strongly encourage you to read the description of the “Motivation”, “Setup” and “Vision” of this wonderfully forward-looking publisher.

Alexis Michaud

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

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Twitter

Project completed! Looking back at the past 48 months, and forward to online grammars and more connected data

The completion date of the HimalCo project (2013-2016) is the day after tomorrow: December 31st, 2016. It’s a good time to look back at the past 48 months, and forward to more and more connected data: online grammars with one-click links to data, and other improvements for the greater benefit of linguistic research.

The aim of this project was to build several types of corpora (traditional stories and dictionaries) for unwritten and endangered Sino-Tibetan languages spoken in Nepal and in Tibetan areas of China (Khaling, Thulung, Koyi, Japhug, Zbu, Khroskyabs, Na), as well as to produce tools to analyze and format these corpora. We were able to develop a dictionary interface on the Pangloss collection website (http://lacito.vjf.cnrs.fr/pangloss/dictionaries/), and an online tool of parallel corpus comparison (http://himalco.huma-num.fr/corpus/comparable/index.htm and  http://lacito.vjf.cnrs.fr/pangloss/dictionaries/). The Khaling, Thulung, Japhug and Na corpora of the Pangloss collection were also significantly enriched.

The software engineer Céline Buret collaborated with us during 24 months. She developed a python library which implements in XML the lexicographical norm LMF, with conversion tools from the MDF format (used by many fieldwork linguists to make their dictionaries) to LaTeX, HTML and DOC. PDF versions of the dictionaries have been generated using LaTeX, and a paper version of the Khaling dictionary has been derived from it.
Continue reading Project completed! Looking back at the past 48 months, and forward to online grammars and more connected data

Alexis Michaud

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

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Twitter

“Tone in Yongning Na” is the first book to enter Open Review stage at Language Science Press!

The HimalCo project allowed for the completion of the linguist’s “three treasures” for the Yongning Na language: a dictionary; a collection of texts; and a monograph. This monograph was submitted in June 2016 to Language Science Press.

Language Science Press publishes high quality, peer-reviewed open-access books in linguistics. All publications are free for both authors and readers. General Editors are Stefan Müller (FU Berlin) and Martin Haspelmath (MPI for the Science of Human History). They are supported by a high-profile Advisory Board.

The book, entitled “Tone in Yongning Na: Lexical tones and morphotonology”, was accepted in October 2016. Anonymous reviewers provided a wealth of comments and suggestions, which were gratefully implemented. Now “Tone in Yongning Na” is the first book to enter Open Review stage at Language Science Press. I hope you will want to have a look!

Two quick notes for readers:
(i) The draft that is currently open for you to review has a few unsightly page breaks and line breaks: for instance, the word “construction” begins at the end of page 144 (“construc-“) and the ending (“tion”) is orphaned on page 147. Some examples are also split over two pages. And a few lines spill into the margins. Please kindly disregard these issues concerning page breaks and line breaks: we’re aware of those, but page breaks and line breaks will only be finalized at the very end of the typesetting stage.
(ii) It seems that the PDF made available on the reviewing interface, PaperHive, is not searchable. It makes it hard to navigate the volume. In case you struggle with this, you can download the (searchable) PDF at the following address:
https://www.dropbox.com/s/nekau4g6q91tg6t/109ToneInYongningNa_Draft_21Dec.pdf?dl=0
You can then EITHER provide your comments by logging in to PaperHive and locating the places you have comments about, OR send me comments by e-mail (alexis.michaud@cnrs.fr). All comments will be gratefully acknowledged whether transmitted through PaperHive or by e-mail.

Alexis Michaud

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

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Twitter

8 months to completion: quick progress note

This is a {quick [progress note]}
(i.e. a quick note about the project’s progress)
rather than a {[quick progress] note}
(i.e. a note reporting quick progress in the project)! 🙂

Dictionaries are big pieces, which raise many (most?) issues that linguists can confront when tagging and encoding data.

The dictionaries are currently here:
http://himalco.huma-num.fr/dictionaries/index.htm

To come in the next 8 months: an Android interface for the dictionaries; improvements in parallel texts; and stable embedding of the dictionaries in the interface of the Pangloss Collection. Plans for later include full lemmatization of texts; phoneme-level alignment of transcriptions of the Na texts; and ‘crowdsourcing’ for the improvement of the dictionaries and collections of texts: allowing easy deposit of new resources and offering tools for a widened range of contributors (including the communities of speakers) to enrich the annotation through added translations, comments, and feedback generally.

The project’s funding was entirely consumed by the end of last year (2015), as originally planned. The ANR agreed to allow us to extend the project’s duration for 1 year, i.e. until December 2016 (without extra funding). The work now continues thanks to other sources of funding: the “Empirical Foundations of Linguistics” project (funded by ANR-CGI from 2011 to 2019); financial help from the participants’ home laboratories; and when necessary, our own money (e.g. for my next field trip to Yongning, in May 2016, which will help finalize a book-length study of the tone system of Yongning Na).

Alexis Michaud

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

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Twitter

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

Cite this article as: Alexis Michaud, "Phonetics in the Field: topics of data acquisition, e.g. means to avoid reverberation when recording audio, and use of electroglottography," in Himalayan corpora, 03/12/2015, https://himalco.hypotheses.org/242.

Alexis Michaud

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

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Twitter

Au revoir to Céline Buret — with all our thanks!

Céline Buret brilliantly completed her two-year contract with CNRS as the main engineer in the HimalCo project. This post is to say a BIG Thank You and wish her all the best in the next steps in her career!

The Python library that Céline developed to implement the LMF ISO standard for dictionaries is now available online. For an example of what the XML code looks like, check out the Na dictionary in LMF format (machine-readable). This file is available for download from the same page as the (human-readable) PDF version. This deposit also provides the full database in its original format: as a TEXT file that can be opened with the Toolbox software (SIL MDF format).

Further development of the tools is being taken up by her colleagues Séverine Guillaume (permanent member at CNRS) and Rémy Bonnet (on a contract funded by LabEx “Empirical Foundations of Linguistics”).

Merci Céline !!!

Alexis Michaud

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

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Twitter

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.

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Twitter

Project currently developing on GitHub — out of public view

The project blog has gone quiet in the past 5 months, as texts and dictionaries are in the making in a (nonpublic) GitHub repository. Tools for data migration from Toolbox / MDF format to XML and LaTEX are now operational. Painstakingly collected linguistic data and innovative technology make a heady cocktail: we were excited to see the very earliest professional-looking draft versions of our dictionaries.

Aimée Lahaussois made a field trip to Nepal earlier this year; Guillaume Jacques is beginning one in Southwest China; and this post’s author will visit again Yongning (also in Southwest China) in August. Lots of tasks are under way. In GitHub jargon: hundreds of ‘Commits’ (updates of documents and scripts), 9 Wiki pages, (currently) 33 ‘Issues’ (tasks to be done)… and high hopes of having great things to showcase here in due course.

Alexis Michaud

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

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Twitter

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.

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Twitter

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.

Continue reading Ongoing fieldwork on Yongning Na — Lijiang, China

Alexis Michaud

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

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Twitter

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.

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Twitter

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.

Cite this article as: Alexis Michaud, "Incentives for publishing text corpora and multimedia documents: About a recent discussion on the Tibeto-Burman list," in Himalayan corpora, 09/04/2013, https://himalco.hypotheses.org/48.

Alexis Michaud

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

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:
Twitter