Podcast transcript

Podcast transcript

Our language in your hands

 Dr Mark Turin

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Transcript

Matt Smith

Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast. I'm your host Matt Smith and today we’ll be hearing from Dr Mark Turin, a linguist and anthropologist from Yale University, and Program Director of the Digital Himalaya Project. He recently made a BBC Radio 4 documentary series called Our Language in Your Hands focussing on the linguistic diversity of South Africa, New York City and Nepal, the latter of which is the focus of much of his work.

Mark Turin

I went to Nepal in my gap year, to go and teach English in a remote mountain school in the Himalayas, and I had a wonderful time. I had a place to study languages at university when I returned to Cambridge but during that time in Nepal, a formative nine months really, I fell in love with languages, and I realised that in a country like Nepal, home to over a hundred languages, there was so much to explore, but there was something to explore that was through language into culture, or through culture into language. In other words, language and culture struck me as the discipline that I wanted to understand, and I returned to university to study anthropology. Having studied anthropology, I realised that I still had this hankering to learn one of these endangered Himalayan languages. They were undocumented, they were unwritten, and it was through a professor in the Netherlands that I became affiliated with, and got a PhD studentship to work on, that I found the language I wanted to work on. He had a map in his office of all the different languages of the Himalayas, different colours according to whether they were extinct or endangered, or already documented, and he went off to get coffee and gave me five minutes to choose a language. And when he came back I said “I want to do that one” and he asked why, and I didn’t really have a good answer, other than to say, it’s high up in the mountains, and I don’t think it’s been documented before. He said, yeah, go check it out, and that was Thangmi.

Matt Smith

I'm going to pronounce there wrong because there was an emphasis there, but Thangmi.

Mark Turin

Yes, correct.

Matt Smith

Tell me a bit about that language. How many people speak it? What are some of the characteristics of it?

Mark Turin

Thangmi is a Tibeto-Burman language spoken in central eastern Nepal by about 30,000 people. What’s interesting about the group as well as the language is that it’s spoken also in Darjeeling in north-east India and a bit in south Tibet. The Thangmi community have moved across the Himalayas. They are not a sedentary community. They farm in the mountain hills of Nepal, but they also do long distance trade, they worked building the tea plantations and the roads of east India. So the community, and then of course the language, has travelled. What’s notable about the Thangmi is that they have just not been on the linguistic map of Asia. A couple of Gurkha recruiters in the 1920s described them as the inferior of all other groups, and warranting no further attention. They were dismissed. So when I discovered that Thangmi was still spoken, the community was still very active, had a very interesting culture, and were completely undocumented, save a couple of cursory studies in the 1970s which didn’t lead to much, that was an opportunity. Linguistically, it’s unique, as all languages are, speech-form. Culturally they’re very interesting because they are one of the only communities in Nepal who still continue to eat beef and in Nepal’s Hindu kingdom, as it was before it was declared a secular republic, beef eating was outlawed.

Matt Smith

How do you go about researching a language like that? I suppose that what your goal became from there is to immerse yourself in the language and the culture and live there and learn and document.

Mark Turin

That’s correct. There is no one size fits all model for language documentation. I think the variable factors include the disposition of the field worker, and his or her approach, as well as the communities themselves. In many parts of the world you’re not particularly welcome as somebody interested in learning a language – you have to really declare your intent, maybe sign some sort of contract with the tribal or native council, that’s not the way it is in Nepal. I think what made it interesting for the Thangmi to welcome me into their community also, was that they wanted to use the linguist, the anthropologist, to get visibility from the nation states. They had been erased from the map, and it was through the process of my field work that they also became legible – they became a documented, ethnic, linguistic group.

You become a child again when you learn a new language, certainly if there’s no written form. So hours spent making mistakes, trying to find people who had the honesty to correct you. My best language teacher was a ten-year-old girl, because everybody else would say, oh that’s wonderful. You said it perfectly. You speak better than we do. Of course, was rubbish, and she said, Uncle, that was all wrong. And she would pad around behind me, following me around, and tell me when I got it wrong and correct my grammar.

Matt Smith

Nothing like the honesty of a child.

Mark Turin

Absolutely.

Matt Smith

What do you do with all this information. It’s all very well to collate it but how do you communicate it?

Mark Turin

Linguists have been quite effective I think at reaching the audiences online, on air, in print. We are a discipline that is challenged with documenting some of the unique diversity of our species, and that diversity is ever more endangered. How we collect it and then how we protect it and then how we connect it to other audiences, really is the trick of what we do. The collection has to be ethically robust but it also has to endure. Connection now involves the web, more often than not. Increasingly people have collections that are born archival, they’re born online and they massage those collections and they spit them out in different formats. So for example, I produce articles that are read by a small academic audience, books like that as well, but many of the most valuable interventions and publications, are things that have audio-visual content, maybe have value for the native community themselves. So I’ve produced a little tiny tri-lingual dictionary, I produced primers, I’ve helped produce school books and other materials. So I think linguistics, definitely field linguistics, is increasingly multi-modal. It’s not just text and books, certainly if you’re working with aural cultures. And also our publications can have different audiences – academic, public, the lay audience, and the community themselves.

Matt Smith

There’s a lot of pressure in those communities to adopt the national language, to adopt English as well, as a secondary language or sometimes as the primary language. Is there a lot of retention of Thangmi amongst the community?

Mark Turin

There is. It’s a nice question actually, because one can see within the community there is both push and pull factors, that support local language use. I was never one to say, oh, you should all speak only your ethnic language, in fact one would be accused, and rightly so, of tribalising, further marginalising already marginalised communities. The issue really is whether or not Nepal, going through this transformation politically that it is right now, has an opportunity to leapfrog and go beyond the kind of one size fits all monolingual language policy of much of the Anglo-Saxon world and embrace its own ethnic linguistic diversity. To that end, there are many Thangmi who want to learn better Nepalian English. There are many Thangmi who have lost Thangmi who want to learn Thangmi again. You can’t mandate this stuff for a whole community. What I think you can do is put in place a supportive educational system, a curriculum, that allows different languages to flourish, where there is not one language in which everything is done. For example, many children who attended Nepalese schools, national schools, from minority communities, and I should add Nepal is 38% ethnic, so a large part of Nepal would go to such schools – those kids enter the school where the language that was spoken was completely different to their home language and as a result, they felt quite alienated and out of sorts. Those kids often drop out. The retention of children from minority communities in national schools is very very poor. And they found that when you introduce the local language, the mother tongue, as a transitional speech form, to help the kids stay in school, make it feel more supportive, more nurturing, and essentially more like the home, then retention continues, kids stay on, and you have a much better success rate and achievement rate.

Matt Smith

You produced a two-volume dictionary, if I am correct in remembering.

Mark Turin

There is a two-volume grammar and dictionary of the Thangmi language.

Matt Smith

It went past language. It went into culture as well, and those sort of aspects. How do you see that as part of a language?

Mark Turin

The way that you see the world is reflected in your language, and your language is reflected in the way that you see the world. The Thangmi community have a very elaborate kinship system, and that is a system that defines terminologically the relationships between people, and I’ll give you a couple of examples. So in English we have the word ‘cousin’ and we can make it more or less close by saying ‘second cousin’ or ‘once removed’ etc, but basically our understanding of cousin is a generic category that encompasses anybody within the thing that we think of as cousin. Thangmi do not have such a category. They also have much more sophisticated understandings of uncles and aunts. There are eight different uncles, depending whether they are the father’s elder, father’s younger brother, mother’s elder, mother’s younger, or then father’s sister’s husband, younger sister, older sister etc. So the Thangmi kinship world is very intricate and ornate, and each of those terms reflects also a specific social relationship, so one kind of uncle has certain obligations to a nephew, another one has different kinds of obligations. It took me a couple of years to understand this whole system, not only to document it, but also to understand what those relationships mean and do. And then one day I discovered that if you’re speaking from the perspective of being a woman, the whole system changes again. And I’d worked almost exclusively with men. So I had to start all over again.

So, in these linguistic forms, cultural understandings are embedded, and in many ways, if your language is an aural language that has had no written form, language is also the vehicle for the transmission of cultural knowledge, of history, of understandings, of art, of creativity. To be a really good linguist, you have to be culturally interested, and to be a good anthropologist, you have to be able to learn the language.

Matt Smith

I find that a lot of English words are remnants from other languages, or adaptations of words from other languages. Did you find that after you learnt this language, and after you spent so many years speaking in it, that once you went permanently back to English, that you retained some words that you accidentally throw in, in normal everyday conversation?

Mark Turin

I do that more with Dutch, which is my mother’s tongue. I speak Dutch with my mother, and also with Nepali, the national language of Nepal, which I'm very comfortable in now, I'm quite fluent in. This language, not so much, maybe for an interesting reason, that the language is very much a language of a place. When I was living in the villages that were Thangmi-speaking villages, I got fairly comfortable in Thangmi, and towards my final years there I would say conversationally fluent. In fact, one of the members of the household woke me up in the morning and said “You were sleep talking in Thangmi last night” and that went around the village, and everyone was very proud of me for doing that.

Matt Smith

You must have been proud of that.

Mark Turin

I was. But I wish I’d known what I’d said. When I moved to Kathmandu with many village friends, I realised that the context for speaking Thangmi had essentially disappeared. Yes, we could do the most pedestrian forms of discussion – have you eaten? Are you tired? Are you hungry? Where are you going? But so much of life in Kathmandu, like life in Melbourne, involves motor bikes and electricity and computers and telephones and that kind of stuff. There were no words for that. So there were very few words that I would be able to introduce into everyday speech in London or New York, let’s say, that are not specifically local village words. But I would like to answer another part of your question, which is the way you started, to say that English has all these little remnants of other little bits and pieces, and it does. So too does Thangmi and I would say that to do good field work on a language, you actually have to know a lot of languages in the area, to know which bits have been borrowed in, otherwise you assume that all of those words are indigenous. One example would be the Thangmi shamans, and they are the only ritual practitioners in the community, they call themselves guru. Now guru we all know is a Sanskrit-based word. We use it in English, you know, oh, he’s a guru of this or the guru of love, but guru actually comes from the Indian tradition. If you tell a Thangmi shaman that you think the word guru, his word for himself, is a loan word, he won’t be at all impressed. So we may know one thing historically about a word and it’s very different to how that works locally in that context in that village. So people indigenise words and understandably, believe that they are native.

Matt Smith

When you delivered this two volume dictionary, what was the reaction that you got, and was it the one that you expected?

Mark Turin

I’d worked for almost a decade to produce a two-volume, 900-page, two books of Thangmi grammar, culture of language, and also texts and dictionaries you see, and I returned to Nepal with it this summer in published form. I was unsure how I would be received and to speak quite honestly, I was uncomfortable with some of the problems that swirl around that book. Firstly, that book is published in the Netherlands. It is hugely expensive, even western universities can barely afford it – it’s $230. How on earth could somebody in Nepal afford a book like that – it’s a year’s salary. It’s also written in English, but also in a very obscure form of English, linguistic English, so it’s a book that has symbolic value, as something to prove that the grammar was documented, my work was done. But as a practical handbook of local utility, it had very little value. I’d been working for many years on other forms of publications that would have maybe more relevance and more purpose in the village, but I have been challenged, and quite rightly so, by members of the community, who say, why is this in English? Who’s it for? Why is it so expensive? And when are we going to be able to have an edition? So, I didn’t have a book launch in Nepal this summer, and I would like to do that only when I can produce a local edition, in Nepal, which is affordable for all.

Matt Smith

Is that the next project?

Mark Turin

I'm working on a number of different projects right now. One that particularly interests me relating to Thangmi, and I feel that I must complete, is that the shamans, when they go into trance, and also during all of their rituals, birth rituals, marriage rituals, and death rituals, they sing and chant in a ritual speech form. It’s not a different language really, it’s like an elevated register. It’s like going into posh English or something. I’d worked for years with these incredible aural narrators, these bards, and would like to put that book to bed. And the first volume is going to be a book of Thangmi wedding rituals. It’s going to be in three languages – Thangmi on one side, Nepali, the national language, on the other side, both written in the Nepali script, so that local people can read it with an English translation at the bottom. Again it’s not going to sell, but it’s not really about that. This is more a piece of cultural repatriation, returning these aural texts, with associated audio files online or on dvd, also in print form, to the community. And that is actually something that the shamans themselves want. The exciting thing about the digital turn, and the technology that we’re using to record this and that we use in the field, is that you don’t have to flatten it any more. Not only can you have different versions of the same song or chant, or word, you can record them in a way that is somehow more representative and reflective of the moment of speech. Now, the shamans that I’ve worked with, some of them are very against the idea of writing things down, and only written. They’re happy to have it as a sort of secondary appendix. They are fascinated by video. For them, video represents somehow their shamanic world more, and they want to have copies. I worked very closely with a shaman in Darjeeling, just north of one of the main tea plantations. He was the most important Thangmi shaman in the whole area. Whenever there was a ritual, he was called. Last year, during the monsoon rains, his house was washed away in a landslide and he was the only victim. After his death, we were contacted by members of the community, to ask us for the recordings we’d made, with him, of the death ritual, in which he was so expert, so that the younger shamans could learn from those video recordings that we had, to understand how to do a death ritual properly and to do it for him. So those are things we could never have expected.

Matt Smith

You presented a BBC radio series quite recently. How did you balance general interest with as much academic knowledge as you can cram in, in such a project?

Mark Turin

It’s a wonderful opportunity to work with radio professionals, two senior producers, David Stenhouse and Mike Rickards, and both are very experienced at working with longwinded academics, so that was number one, that was helpful. But we decided to go to three different places, with very different linguistic landscapes, Nepal, which I’ve spoken about with you and I know very well, and we documented in the way that the process had been returning with my books to these villages. And at the same time we met all kinds of people in Kathmandu and other places, who are linguistic activists, or politicians, interested in the role of minority speech forms in everyday life.

We also travelled to South Africa, where I had the privilege of spending time in the South African parliament, and going to a Soweto school. What I like so much about radio, is the intimacy. You can really go anywhere with this equipment in your pocket. You don’t stand out with big signs saying, oh oh, BBC, BBC. So we could work in a nuanced way, in an intimate way, and just get everyday stories about how language is being used and deployed in school, in politics, and on the media.

And the last episode of the three part series was in one of the linguistically most diverse, most dense cities on earth, New York, because when people move, they travel with their languages, and New York of course is a beacon for migrants. And when they settle, they often find other members of their speech community and a way for the language to live on. So while we naturally think of Spanish and maybe Cantonese and Hindi and Gujarati, major national or sub-regional languages being spoken in New York as well as London and Melbourne, finding the last few speakers of some of these most endangered languages in New York city is enormously exciting.

Matt Smith

That was Dr Mark Turin, linguist from Yale University. Make sure you check out his series on BBC Radio 4, Our Language in Your Hands, as well as the Digital Himalaya Project. Mark was a guest of the Research Centre on Language Diversity at La Trobe University where he spoke at a three-day conference, the recordings of which are on iTunesU. Just search for linguistic diversity and keep your eye out for the picture of the Scrabble board. That’s all the time we have today for the La Trobe University podcast. If you have any questions, comments or feedback about this podcast, or any other in our series, then send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au.

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