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Linguistic typology

Randy LaPollaRandy LaPolla
Email: r.lapolla@latrobe.edu.au

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University podcast, I will be your host, Matt Smith. And I'm here today with Professor Randy LaPolla, who is the Chair of Linguistics at La Trobe University and Director of The Research Centre for Linguistic Typology. Thank you for joining me, Randy.

Randy LaPolla:

Thank you.

Matt Smith:

So, I'd like to ask you to first give me a bit of a breakdown on what exactly is linguistic typology.

Randy LaPolla:

Linguistics in general is the scientific study of language and communication. And linguistic typology is basically focusing on the forms of languages, looking at the types of languages, the types of structures we find in languages in a very strict level. In fact, within our own field we've recently had an online debate about this: "What is typology?" because it technically could include everything. It's all structure of language. And so, one of the things we are doing is looking at “What possible types of language structure do we find?”. And then, also comparing them and trying to categorize them into types. Typology is literally the study of types. So, we are looking at different languages, and then looking at the types of structures that we find, and then trying to categorize them in some way. And possibly explain them as well if we can, using functional or cognitive explanations.

Matt Smith:

So that's linguistic typology. And what sort of work is your research group involved in?

Randy LaPolla:

In our Centre everyone here is documenting and describing an endangered language, in other words, a small language that is going to disappear. Right now in the world, there are about 6,000 languages, but they're spoken by very small groups of people. Ninety-six percent of the people in the world speak only 10 languages. You know, the big languages like English and Chinese and Spanish and French. Then there are all of these other thousands of languages. They're spoken largely by small groups. Because of globalization, largely, the languages are disappearing. So, one of the main things that we do is each one of us is committed to documenting and describing one of these endangered languages. Usually, they're undescribed previously, so people don't know much about these languages. So, we will go and live in their village in the mountains or on the islands or whatever for up to a year at a time. And try to learn the language, learn the culture, and then, do a documentation of it, which will include collecting texts of the language, possibly making a dictionary of the language, and writing a reference grammar of the language. And then, if the community wants it, we also make pedagogical materials. And possibly help them with language maintenance issues.

Matt Smith:

So why is it important work to preserve a language that in essence is dying out?

Randy LaPolla:

The main thing is that each language uniquely reflects the worldview of a particular society. Language doesn't develop in a purposeful way. It develops like a path through a field. Language develops in a kind of unconscious way as the side product of people trying to communicate. Those patterns that work, that get repeated often enough, will be conventionalized as what we think of as language. What we think of as the rules of language are really just conventions. But those conventions will reflect the culture of the people in a very direct way because language develops as you repeat a particular way of expressing yourself, and the only way you would express yourself in that particular way is if it was important to you that the person understand that particular aspect. Once those forms get conventionalized, you can say that that language uniquely kind of represents their way of thinking, their way of construing the world, their way of understanding things, and also what's important to those people, what aspects they talk about, what aspects they constrain the interpretation of.

Each language is a unique way of construing or understanding the world. So, we think that each one has value because it's not the case that all languages are translatable. Each language is unique. So even something simple, like ‘spoon’ or ‘cup’ or ‘table’ or ‘leg’ or whatever, the meaning is not going to be exactly the same in each language. So, the meaning of a word is really how it's used. And in each culture it will be used differently and the meaning will be different. Each language is very unique. And it's important to document the world view of each of these languages because it's an important aspect of human heritage.

Matt Smith:

A lot of communication isn't just lingual. There's also things like hand actions, the body language, does this also come into your work at all?

Randy LaPolla:

Yes, very much in a very big way. That's why we say, what we look at is not really language but communication because communication actually doesn't depend on language. Very often we will communicate with a raised eyebrow, with a hand movement, with a body movement, with a facial expression. Because we're social primates, it's important to our survival to guess the motivations of other people. So, if somebody is coming at me and they have something in their hand like a stick or knife or something, I have to guess whether their motivation is good or bad towards me. It's part of my survival. Your understanding of what they're doing is going to be based on what you know of the person, what you know of the culture, what kind of shared assumptions we have.

So, communication is very, very strongly culturally based. There's just no such thing as communication out of context. It's all about the whole context. It's all pragmatics. This is why culture is so important. And just writing something down doesn't mean that a hundred years from now, people are actually going to understand. And aside from the changes in the language itself, there are also changes in the culture. I mean, so when Shakespeare used the word office, he used it in a very different way than we'd use office now. In Shakespeare's time it meant ‘duty’; it means something like where we're sitting now in our time.

Matt Smith:

It's even easy to misinterpret people while you speak your own language as well. And maybe they even have the same upbringing as you. One thing that I do want to ask you is the work of this Centre takes researchers around the world to some very remote places, what is some of the experiences you've had while trying to preserve languages or working with different cultures?

Randy LaPolla:

It's always an eye opening thing to go into a culture where people think of you differently. When we go into these remote communities… I mean we had one person working in the Amazon, where they had never had contact with anyone outside their own group until 1968. So, they think and act in a really very different way from everyone else that we had been in contact with. So, it's an interesting thing to learn another culture. I mean, when you really become bilingual in another culture it means thinking in a different way and seeing the world in a different way. So, you are actually doubling the size of your world. And that's always a very interesting thing. That's one of the things that for us is makes it so much fun to do linguistics. Because when you do experience another language, another culture, it's a very liberating thing because you see beyond the limitations of your own culture. Sometimes there's physical dangers. Certainly there's always physical discomfort because you're going into very remote communities with often no electricity, no running water, no sanitation. And so, that's also an experience in learning to live to survive in that kind of situation and get your work done without electricity and all these other benefits.

Matt Smith:

Just take a lot of batteries, I suppose.

Randy LaPolla:

Well, we have a number of ways of trying to deal with that. One is just work with a pencil and paper. One is bringing in solar energy things. Some of our people will bring in batteries. Some have crank chargers. Some communities are now getting electricity. But, this is something that happens as communities become wealthier and they get electricity, the first thing they get is a TV. Of course the TV is going to be in the dominant language. And so, then the language shift to the dominant language is going to become even faster. And also, people will want to sit around and watch TV at night, rather than sit around and tell you stories or talk to you about their language. Our work is made a little bit more difficult and more urgent.

Matt Smith:

What sort of successes has your group had in preserving languages?

Randy LaPolla:

One in particular happened recently. It was one of our people Mark Post. He worked with a group called the Galo. He was a post-graduate student at that time. This was an unrecognized group of people. In other words, the government didn't have them recorded as what they call a scheduled tribe or a recognized minority. And of course, very often when these people don't have any kind of record of their language, they don't have any pride in their language. They think "Oh, we don't have a real language. We just talk."

But after he went in and he wrote a reference grammar of their language, created a dictionary of their language and a collection of texts of their language, they felt that their language was legitimate. And also, he was able to help them go to the Indian government and say "Look we have a legitimate language and culture. Recognize us as a scheduled tribe." And the Indian government did. So, their language is now being taught in schools in India. So, that will help their language to be maintained. So, that's a very, very positive outcome.

And we've had similar things happen in other areas. I work with a group in Burma writing a dictionary and a grammar. And they're very keen to have this, largely, because they want to see their language maintained. They think the young people are not learning their language well enough. And so, they want to have these materials for the young people to be able to refer to.

And it also gives them status because right now, they are not recognized as a separate minority. Right now they're subsumed within the Kachin minority group, which is a large group in Kachin state, in the northernmost state in Burma. So they don't have a separate identity. But once we get these materials together, then it's much more likely that they'll be able to be recognized. So, we do all those kind of things. That's a very positive outcome.

Matt Smith:

Is work being done in Australia to preserve Aboriginal languages and dialects at all?

Randy LaPolla:

Yes. In Australia we originally had about 250 languages before the British came here. Now, we only have about 17 that are really viable. But of course, people are working to maintain those that are already viable. But, in a number of cases, we also had languages that have been lost, but are now being reclaimed. There's a recent paper actually from Canada about the relationship between aboriginal language knowledge and youth suicide, where they show that where the youth maintained their own language, the suicide rate is zero. But among those youth who lose their language, you have a very high suicide rate. And so, they don't think that this is a coincidence.

Matt Smith:

This has to do with the sense of belonging?

Randy LaPolla:

Yes, the sense of identity, sense of belonging, and having a sense of who you are. And so, this is something that's very much happening here. They found the same sorts of things in Australia. And so, you have groups like the VACL, which is the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages. One of our people, Tonya Stebbins, has now just submitted an ARC linkage proposal in collaboration with VACL to try to facilitate language reclamation. The language has been lost, but they try based on whatever recorded materials they have.

Much like what happened with Hebrew in Israel, where it was a strong identity point for them. So, even though if Hebrew wasn't spoken by anybody as a native language, they were able to work it up into something that now everybody can use as an everyday language. And so, they're trying to do much the same kind of thing with a lot of the aboriginal languages here. Even though the language that ends up spoken might be somewhat different from the original, it's just the sense of having their own language, and their own culture, and having that some kind of status. They find that that's very important for their social well-being. So, these language issues are really important for human security, for community security, and for individual security.

Matt Smith:

Professor Randy LaPolla, thank you for your time.

Randy LaPolla:

Thank you.

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