Radio Silence

Despite appearances, I haven’t disappeared off the face of the earth.  I’ve just been kind of busy.  Semester started two weeks ago, and it was very much a case of straight in the deep end as far as workload goes.  I’m loving the course though – it’s much more hands-on than the last paper I took (which was all theory all the time).  This one is on linguistic field work – how you would investigate and describe a previously unknown language (which is something “proper” linguists spend a lot of time doing, because there are a LOT of languages out there that have only a few elderly speakers left, so the race is on to document them while we have a chance, both for the benefit of future generations in that culture who might want to revive their language, and because every language adds data that helps us understand how language works overall).  Anyway, that’s what we’re learning to do in this course.
Unfortunately, the department’s budget doesn’t stretch to sending us all off on a field trip to some remote Pacific island, so we’re simulating the experience by having a speaker of a Pasifika language come in to class to work with us.  Her language, Bislama, which is spoken in Vanuatu, is actually reasonably well described in the literature, but we’ve all had to promise not to look up any previous research on it (or even Google it), so that we can have the experience of studying a completely unknown language from scratch.  It’s really fun (in a geeky linguistics sort of way) – we spent the first two weeks getting an idea of the phonology (i.e. which speech sounds are in the language) and collecting some basic vocabulary, and this week we’re going to be working on some of the morphology and syntax (grammar).  Bislama is a “pidgin” language (actually, technically it should be called a creole), which is really interesting, because so many of the words sound almost but not exactly like English (e.g. to say “the cat is in the house”, you say something that sounds roughly like “puss-cat eestap insite long house”), but from what I know about creoles (promise I haven’t broken the rules and looked anything up – this is just general knowledge picked up from previous courses) , there should be some really interesting things going on with the morphology and syntax – and in fact, we’ve already picked up a bit of that just from the few sentences we got while we were eliciting vocabulary (that word “eestap” for example (or it might be two words, “ee stap” – I haven’t figured that out yet) – it’s possibly a copula (like “to be” in English), but it’s behaving kind of oddly and not turning up in other sentences where I would expect it to be.  So I’ve picked that as my first topic for investigation – I’m planning on eliciting a lot more sentences of the “the cat is in the house”, “the cat is on the chair”, “the cat is fluffy”, “the cat is hungry”, “the cat is sleeping”… variety in this week’s class.
Sorry, I’ve probably completely bored you all by now (not my fault – my current bedtime reading is a book called Describing Morphosyntax, so you can’t expect normal human conversation out of me!).  Anyway, in other news, after dragging on forever, we finally got our contract situations (sort of) worked out.  Unfortunately our attempt to get the programme permanently established failed (sort of – it was more of a “not right now” than an actual “no”, so we’re going to try again in a year or two), but they did at least give us decently long-term contracts this time, so I’ve got a job until the end of 2017 at least, and hopefully by then the university will be in a better financial situation so we can try again for permanence.
I can’t remember if I mentioned here that I’d applied for another job as a backup, in case CEISMIC didn’t work out.  I actually got offered the job!  The job offer came at the same time as the news that they wouldn’t be giving us permanent contracts for CEISMIC yet, so I had a few days of soul-searching while I decided whether I wanted to take the safe but relatively boring new job (which would have been a permanent contract), or stay doing what I love with CEISMIC and risk being out of work in a couple of years.  In the end I decided life is much too short to waste on taking the sensible boring path, so I turned down the new job and signed the fixed-term contract for CEISMIC.  I’m certain I made the right decision (though ask me again at the end of 2017 if they don’t renew our contracts…) – if I’d taken the other job I think I’d always be looking back at CEISMIC and regretting having left.
So yeah, I think that’s pretty much all the news.  Work and study, that’s about the entirety of my life right now.  So don’t expect to hear a lot from me here until November-ish.
See you on the other side!

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  1. You’re not boring me; this is very interesting! What is the difference between pidgen and creole, in short words? If you have time; this is just idle curiosity, not research!
    Changing the subject, slightly, I heard a program on America’s NPR station this morning, a travel program. Rick Steves was interviewing an author from Utah,Terry Tempest Williams. She mentioned the intricate language of prairie dogs, colony-dwelling rodent-like animals that live in the American southwest. I was curious and looked it up:

    1. The difference between a pidgin and a creole is very simple: a pidgin becomes a creole when someone has it as their native language.
      Pidgins arise when two communities without a common language need to communicate (eg because of colonisation, or for trading). Pidgins are typically very “simple” grammatically, meaning things like tense aren’t usually marked (so instead of saying “I went there yesterday”, you’d say “I go there yesterday”), and usually involve a mixture of words from the two languages involved. They don’t usually have a very rich vocabulary – just the essential words that are needed for trading or whatever.
      Pidgins turn into creoles when people from the two communities start intermarrying, and their children grow up speaking the pidgin as their first language. Over a couple of generations, the creole usually becomes a lot richer and more complex, because it needs to have words and grammar that can describe the subtleties of all aspects of life, not just a few simple situations. The grammar often ends up looking very different from either of the two languages the creole descended from. A creole is very much a language in its own right, not just the stereotypical “pidgin English”.
      As well as languages like Bislama and Tok-Pisin, which date from European colonisation of the Pasific, creoles have popped up all the way through human history. In fact, there’s a theory which says that English itself may be a creole, which emerged when the Germanic tribes (like the Angles and Saxons) invaded the previously Celtic-speaking British Isles. It would certainly explain why English grammar is so different to that of German and Dutch, even though so many of our words are so similar.

  2. Thank you! Your explanation was understandable and interesting. Isn’t language fun? I’ve always been interested in word origins and similarities of languages, but have never studied it seriously.
    I had never thought of the word “creole” in that way. I think of it as an American ethnic group from Spanish and French colonial times.
    Also, cuisine. One of my favorite recipes is Shrimp Creole. Creole cuisine is not the same a Cajun, but similar. (“Cajun” is from “Acadian”, the French colony in what later was known as Nova Scotia was called Acadia.)

    1. I think the word for small-c creole comes from big-C Creole – I’m guessing because Creole was the first creole language to be properly studied (for a long time, pidgins and creoles were just dismissed as “ignorant black people not speaking English/French properly”, so nobody thought they were worth studying 🙁 )
      I was really hoping to hear some Creole spoken when I was in New Orleans, but we weren’t there long enough to go to the right places to hear it. We did eat some really good food there though! (I’m not sure if it was Creole or Cajun, but I definitely enjoyed it 🙂 )

  3. Not boring me either, I love languages and learning about them.
    Then again I'm the one reading an Abnormal Psych textbook and getting sideways looks for discussing Adolescent Neurological development or the Communist Manifesto (stupid sociology course is a headache and I'm not the one taking it!) in public. Uni stuff is the only thing we talk about anymore but at least its keeping the brain sparking.

  4. Not boring me either, I love languages and learning about them.
    Then again I'm the one reading an Abnormal Psych textbook and getting sideways looks for discussing Adolescent Neurological development in public. Uni stuff is the only thing we talk about anymore but at least its keeping the brain sparking.
    Ok, for some reason the system thinks this message is spam and is blocking me from posting it. Got to wonder what the filters are set for!

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