My first dictionary!

Part of my PhD project involves documenting the language that I’m working with. This means that for this dialect of Yolmo (spoken in Nepal) I’m the first person to sit down with speakers and try and figure out what the rules of the language are, and how it works. A side part of this is collecting lots of different words. It seemed silly to leave all of that data languishing on my hard drive, so I’ve teamed up with some staff at Melbourne Uni who have a grant for working with small languages and with the World Oral Literature Project to create a small dictionary from what I’ve got. There’s a great custom book centre here at Melbourne Uni who are printing it for us, and have also done this snazzy green cover for me.

I’m no lexicographer, and time constraints mean that the dictionary is teeny tiny - only 1300 entries across 90 pages. But it’s the first Lamjung Yolmo-Nepali-English dictionary in the world and you guys are the first to see the proof copy, hot off the press. It should be printed next week, I’m going to gatecrash and take photos to share!

Things we wish English had: Reported speech markers

One of the things I’m focusing on in my research is how you report the speech of other people. The classic way of doing this in English is to use the verb ‘she/you/etc. said.’ There are other ways to do it in English ('she was like…’ or 'and then she went’) but Yolmo and Nepali have a much more convenient way of going about it.

Both languages use a small particle at the end of a sentence when they want to indicate that someone else said it. In Yolmo that particle is lo and in Nepali it’s re. When you get into the nitty gritty of how they work these two are slightly different but they work much the same to indicate what you say isn’t your own words.

For example, if you asked what time our friend is meeting us for dinner I could just reply with:

'seven o'clock lo

It’s a useful particle for gossip:

'she doesn’t like him anymore re

means that it’s not you saying it, it’s the other person’s words.

This is, in a very general sense, part of an evidential system in that it is a way of grammatically expressing how you know what you know. When in Nepal I find it a rather useful little feature of every day conversation.

Story about the dictionary in The Voice

Those of you who still buy physical copies of newspapers and picked up The Age on Monday might have stumbled upon an article about my work on the Lamjung Yolmo dictionary in The University of Melbourne’s advertorial supplement The Voice.

For those of you who missed out, you can read all about the cool things happening in language studies at The Voice online. The section about my work is copied below, if you’re interested.

An inspiring 26-year-old, Ms Gawne has produced a short dictionary which is the first published work in Lamjung Yolmo, a language spoken by people who live in the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal.

The book is part of an ongoing project funded by the Australian Research Council called ‘Social cognition and language: the design resources of grammatical diversity’, and is a partnership project with the World Oral Literature Project.

Ms Gawne says she started working on the project by sheer accident.

“I was going to work on a closely related language and asked a friend in Nepal to help me find some speakers. The woman my friend found spoke what we thought was the language in question, however it wasn’t until a few weeks later that I realised she was in fact speaking Lamjung Yolmo – a previously unknown dialect.”

Undeterred, Ms Gawne continued with the project and ended up with the first published work of the language.

Lamjung Yolmo is a Tibeto-Burman language spoken in the Lamjung district of Nepal in only six villages made up of approximately 700 people. They still largely live a traditional lifestyle, farm on terraces and work the land with buffalo and oxen. After hundreds of years of isolation, 10 years ago the Nepalese government put a proper road and electricity into the area.

Ms Gawne says community members migrating to cities for work and a growing preference for Nepali to be spoken at home means the use of Lamjung Yolmo is declining.

To help share the work, which is not intended to be an exhaustive inventory of the language but just one component of its ongoing documentation, Ms Gawne has produced 40 copies of the dictionary that she will take back to the community early this year.

“Instead of leaving this work languishing in a database, the published dictionary is an opportunity to give something back to the Lamjung Yolmo-speaking community and share it with a wider audience.”

Lamjung Yolmo dictionary is available again

A couple of years ago I published a small dictionary of Lamjung Yolmo based on the lexical database I built as part of my PhD work. I used the Print on Demand (POD) publisher started at The University of Melbourne (a joint venture between the University Library and Bookshop) because it was an affordable and scalable option; I only wanted about 50 copies to take back to Nepal with me, and it allowed other people to purchase copies should they wish. 

While POD is a perfect solution for a publication like this, and allows linguists and communities to access well-made books at a more affordable price, it’s still a developing industry. When the University Bookshop was sold to a private company, the custom book publishing office packed up and disappeared without even giving authors the chance to print more copies of existing titles.

On the advice of Nick Thieberger on the Paradisec blog, I decided to migrate the dictionary over to CreateSpace, an Amazon company. The scale of their service means that it’s hopefully more stable. I think the dictionary also looks even better. Best still, the scale of their industry means that you can now buy a copy for only $6USD (and it costs me even less to buy them to take to Nepal).

CreateSpace also gives the opportunity to link the publication into a Kindle e-Book option. This involves a bit more tinkering around, and unfortunately I couldn’t get the Nepali Devanagari working in the Kindle ebook format. You can still download a PDF version from the World Oral Literature Project site.

Overall, I’m really happy that the dictionary is back in print. You can buy copies from the CreateSpace website and Amazon.

Sounds hard

For me one of the things about working with a language I’m not a native speaker of is getting my tongue and my brain around the sound system. It seems obvious to say, but dDifferent languages have different sound systems, that’s one of the reasons they sound so different. Sure, most languages might have a vowel that kind of sounds like ‘a’ but there’s every chance it’s a little bit different.

We lock into these sounds very early on in our language learning, some research shows that we begin to pick up on some of it by listening to our mothers voices before we’re even born. And we get very good very quickly at making the sounds in our own language. It’s how French speaking children have no trouble with those vowels that always get me, or why English speakers can say 'th’ with ease

So we tune into the differences that are found in our own language which means we stop paying attention to distinctions that can be found in other languages. this is why I can’t hear the difference in Polish between three different sounds that all sound like 'sh’ to me, or how some English speakers can’t roll their

When it comes to Yolmo, the worst sounds for me all sound like 'ta’ or 'da’… while in English we only perceive two sounds there’s a lot more happening in Yolmo.

Firstly, in English we only have ’t’ and ’d’ - which is a voicing distinction. Try saying each with your hand on your throat and you’ll notice that it vibrates more when you say 'da’ than 'ta’. In Yolmo, there is the voiced ’d’ sound and the unvoiced ’t’ sound, and also an aspirated ’t’ sound (which gets written with a h next to it) - this third sound is a ’t’ but with more air coming out with the sound. So we have three sounds ’d’, ’t’ and 'th’ where English only has two.

Secondly, Yolmo has retroflexes, which English doesn’t. A retroflex sound is where you curl your tongue up so the bottom bit touches the roof of your mouth. It’s quite a common sound for this corner of the world - Nepali has it and it gives Hindi some of the rhotic (r-sounding) quality associated with it. There’s a retroflex for each of the above sounds, which I’ll write them in capitals. so there’s ’T’, 'Th’ and ’D’.

Thirdly, Yolmo has tone. Tone is a feature of many languages - if you’ve learned Chinese or Vietnamese you’ve come across it. Basically the vowel sounds higher or lower. Fortunately Yolmo only has two tones, high and low. And, thanks to some complex historical reasons that I shan’t bore you with, aspirated sounds only have high tone, and voiced sounds only have low tone, but unvoiced and unaspirated sounds such as ’t’ or ’T’ can take either. So there’s another distinction that English speakers don’t make.

Finally, there is a vowel length distinction that’s very hard to hear. While there’s 'a’ there is also 'aa’. English has long and short vowels too, but there is also a quality different, the throat area tends to be more tense for short vowel and lax for long vowel. But in Yolmo it’s only length and can be quite hard to hear. So that doubles the amount of options that there were.

So in English we have 'ta’ and 'da’ - which means that we can hear the different between 'tag’ and 'dag’. InYolmo , instead of just a two way difference, all those variables give us sixteen different sounds. That means that Yolmo speakers hear the difference between 'tag’ (with low tone), 'tag’ (with high tone), 'Tag’ (with low tone), 'Tag’ (with high tone), 'dag’, 'Dag’ 'thag’, 'Thag’, 'taag’ (high tone), 'taag’ (low tone), 'Taag’ (high tone), 'Taag’ (low tone), 'daag’, 'Daag’, 'thaag’ and 'Thaag’.

It doesn’t mean that they are all necessarily words in Yolmo, it just means that they can hear the difference between them. While my ear has been getting better over the last few years these things still stump me sometimes!

[Lauren’s currently in off in the hills of Nepal for field work. This post originally appeared on Lozguistics.]

The reviews are in!

The Lamjung Yolmo Dictionary has not yet been reviewed by any of my academic colleagues, but it’s now been in the hands of some very interested reviewers for a couple of months now. In many ways these reviewers are more important than the academic ones, because they’re the speakers of of the language.

Most of the feedback from speakers fell into two categories. The first type of reaction was one of general interest and gratitude. Although some people will never do more than flick through the dictionary, admire the pictures and leave it to be forgotten on a shelf, that’s enough for them and they’re happy with that.

The second type of reaction was to take to the dictionary with a critical eye and start pointing out all of the errors. Some people would just pick it up and read out things that they had a problem with, while others (like in the image below) would take to it with a sharp eye and a sharp pencil.

This process was less distressing than you would imagine. Sure, it’s not the greatest feeling to have every page of something you’ve written pulled to pieces - but there’s a lot more to it than that. First, you have to separate out genuine errors from differences of opinion. It’s a bit like giving a British English manuscript to a US English speaker. We have differences of opinion about spelling conventions, and all the more so in Yolmo since this is the first time anyone’s seriously tried to write the language down. 

The other reason I’m actually ok with this process is that this has provided a wealth of new information. Until the dictionary was in such a pretty format no one cared enough to read it. I’d tried leaving copies with people before and never got such a reaction. Although it’s unlikely that I’ll have the opportunity in the near future to remake the dictionary there is still a lot of use for this feedback. I could have been the kind of lexicographer who waits 20 years to publish and tries to make a perfect product, but the vagaries of funding mean I can’t guarantee Yolmo speakers that I’ll be around after completing my PhD.

Most interestingly, the two types of feedback weren’t necessarily from exclusive groups. Even though someone was happy to ‘correct’ every entry in the dictionary they were still excited to have it. On the whole it was quite the success!

Here are, as promised, some baby goats.

The recent visit to the villages where Lamjung Yolmo is spoken was a great success. I spent a day learning how to make baskets, discovered than an empty corn cob is called a pìŋgu and got to see some great sunsets. There are a few more things I got up to that I’ll share over the next few weeks. 

Lamjung Yolmo now in Ethnologue!

I often tell people that I accidentally started working on Lamjung Yolmo for my PhD. I had initially intended to work on Kagate (and eventually have started a project with its speakers), and in initial conversations was told by the people I work with that was the name of their language. I’ll save the story of language-name complexity for another day, but the upshot was that I ended up focusing on a variety of Yolmo spoken in Lamjung that had never been discussed in the literature before.

It’s been really interesting to discover how different it is to the previously documented varieties, and also to see people who know Nepal’s language landscape be surprised when you tell them there are half a dozen villages of Yolmo speakers 200km from where anyone expected them to be.

In 2013 there has been a revision of Ethnologue - the most comprehensive listing of all known languages - and Lamjung Yolmo has been added in the list of known Yolmo dialects. This is a nice step towards better recognition of the Yolmo people of Lamjung and their language. It was also nice that it happened just before my completion talk, so I could tell everyone who was there!

Yolmo article in Babel, and good news for 2014 subscriptions

Edition 5 of Babel Magazine is out now, and the ‘Languages of the world’ article is a two page spread I wrote about Yolmo. It was nice to share with a general audience what I’ve been up to, and like the update to Ethnologue, further helps cement the Lamjung dialect I worked on for my PhD as part of the language landscape.

For those of us who live outside of the UK there is also good news for next year. Babel will be offering digital subscriptions as well as print - which is basically a 50% saving on subscription price and you don’t have to wait for the mail! It’s an exciting development and I look forward to another great year of articles!

It’s not very often that I get to use the words ‘library’ and 'thrilling’ in the same sentence; but last week I had a thrilling time at the archives in the library at of the School of Oriental and Asian Studies (SOAS) in London.

The Library, apart from having a generally excellent collection of books, also houses the archive of Professor Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf (1909-1995). As well as having an excellently Germanic name (he was Austrian) von Fürer-Haimendorf (vFH) was an anthropologist who spent many years working in India and Nepal. He was the first Westerner to be granted permission to work in Nepal and spent a lot of time with the Sherpas who live near Mount Everest, although he worked in numerous places around the country.

In the archives are diaries and fieldnotes, as well as photographs and drafts of articles. I was there to see some of the original notes that vFH made during his time in Nepal. It’s such a massive collection that I only got to skim the surface, but it was fascinating.

It was tough going reading scrawled hand-notes that he’d really never intended to be used by anyone else. It was worth it though. I loved reading about Kathmandu as it was before I was born, of how he took 350kg of gear (I take around 30), the price of yaks in the 1960s (around rs. 300, or 3.75AUD today) and finding pages where clearly accidents had happened:

Or opening a notebook to find a scrap of paper with a note, or a letter, or some other paraphernalia:

I was very excited to find some fieldnotes from 1957, when vFH made a trip up to an area near where I work. It turned out that he visited a village only a district over from where I stay, and the Yolmo speakers get a passing reference! Four days of reading for a passing reference may not sound like much of a success, but there is so little evidence to substantiate the migration of Yolmo speakers to this part of Lamjung, and there’s something amazing about holding a historical record in your hand.

A big thanks to the team at the SOAS archives for being so helpful!