Experiments in Language Evolution
I've just embarked on a new phase of work, based in Australia's Top End. I'm asking: what is the future of Language in the world, and what can we do to create a world that sustains its linguistic diversity? Since I'm working with oral cultures, I've decided to share my journey in a series of podcasts: SoundCloud, iTunes.
Trekking on the roof of the world
Once, about halfway to London, I looked out the window and saw the silent twinkling lights of a city far below. I figured out that it was probably Tashkent. Tashkent! What would that be like? Since then, Central Asia hovered in my mind’s eye like a fata morgana. Two decades later I am exploring the area, and recently spent two weeks in Tajikistan.
It’s a short drive from Tashkent to the border. The crossing is dramatic. You walk through a neutral zone shouldering your luggage, overlooked by watchtowers and armed soldiers. It feels all the more special because Uzbeks and Tajiks are not allowed to cross. Their countries are in conflict because Tajikistan plans to dam the river that supplies most of Uzbekistan’s water needs.
After the sixth passport inspection, a soldier opened a four metre gate and I stepped into Tajikistan. I was greeted warmly by my driver, Shamil, and he explained ‘after 200km is starting getting not very good road’. He was right. We drove all day on perilous roads with precipitous drops to raging rivers, and safety barriers that could only be described as suggestions. Danger, high altitude, and splendour – three kinds of breathtaking!
We arrived at Saritag, a tiny farming village built beside an abandoned stone settlement, with a beautiful winding river fed by glacier melt. Trekkers follow this high valley to reach the ruins of the ancient city of Penjikent. The guesthouse had a room for me, and its vivid colours made my personal space seem even more precious. Just outside was a raised seating area with low table where meals were served. After a breakfast of local bread and butter with a delicious berry jam, I walked five kilometres down the switchback road to Iskanderkul lake. The lake is an improbable chalky azure colour. I gazed into the lake and looked up at the sky and the abrupt snow-capped peaks all around, but nothing would account for this colour. I immersed myself in the blueness.
The next stop was the capital. Think of somewhere like Bendigo on a hazy summer’s day, but with a main street busy with taxis and electric buses, flanked with stately buildings bearing signs in Cyrillic, and you have Dushanbe. I entered one of those buildings and was soon set up with a SIM card and 5GB of data for $25. With that I persuaded Shamil to let me wander the town by myself, and spent the afternoon enjoying the monuments and parks, and poking my head into interesting little shops. As the day faded I found a cafe with an English-speaking waiter, sat back with a Russian beer, and watched the Persian-looking people in black suits and bright flowing dresses stroll up and down. I was enchanted.
Heading south, we laboured up to a high pass then wound our way on terrifying cliff-side roads down to the river Pyanj. My fantasy of swimming across to Afghanistan was put to rest; there’s regular military checkpoints, a wild river, and the possibility of landmines. On the Afghan side we saw a path alternately cutting through the cliff-face then threading its way through little stone villages. I saw some Afghans riding donkeys along the path and once even caught their attention. We looked across at each other, wondering what to do, then had the same idea at the same time and pulled out our phone cameras. Two more days of difficult driving brought us to Khorog.
Khorog is the capital of the autonomous Badakhshan Province and gateway to the Pamirs, believed to be the least visited mountain range in the world. Three months earlier there had been social unrest in Khorog after police shootings but it was peaceful now. However, the next morning the Australian Government posted an update: ‘reconsider your need to travel especially if you are travelling in Badakhshan’. I didn’t know what I should do. Stay or leave? Locals were surprised, insisting that everything had been calm for months, so we continued as planned and headed down to the bazaar to stock up on food for my trek.
An hour out of Khorog we turned onto a lonely track and drove up a rocky valley to Bachor, a village of a dozen stone and mud houses hemmed in by craggy snow-capped peaks. I wandered around greeting people, and they would smile to reveal a string of gold teeth. One man was sharpening a scythe. He had a large area of grass to cut so I offered my assistance. From the laughter of several onlookers, I concluded he was not very good at teaching scything!
My accommodation was a traditional Pamiri mud house with a pyramidal skylight, five-pillar main room, and Ismaili Islam trimmings. Each room was split-level with a small area for standing and a raised area for sitting and sleeping. I looked around my room and laughed at the complete otherness of it. This is exactly why I came here. I watched Shamil drive away, put out the lone candle, and settled down for a cold night.
Next morning it was semolina in sour milk for breakfast. I declined the dollop of homemade butter despite the insistence of my host, preferring to round out my breakfast with a precious meusli bar instead. Soon we loaded up the horse and headed off, with my new guide Alimamoul out front. After crossing a little swing bridge we were stopped by a park ranger. I needed a permit? I read the fine print. It said I was allowed to take photos and to keep a notebook, but not to ‘mock or frighten the animals’. I resolved to do my best.
By 4.30pm it was chilly and the sun would soon slide behind the peaks, so we set up camp. Pitching the tents I was suddenly in familiar territory and as competent as any Pamiri. While I was congratulating myself on a job well done, a guy with wild hair appeared over the hill. Clément had been hiking solo for six weeks and had another six to go. This put my own humble efforts into perspective. Alimamoul cooked up a hearty soup with noodles and fresh vegetables and we had a satisfying meal. By now it was freezing, windy and raining, so we retired to our tents. I dug out my e-reader, a modern day magic carpet that could briefly transport me back to Australia. As I drifted off, waking with gasps for breath, I remembered what Colin Thubron wrote on his Silk Road travels: ‘thin air makes for febrile sleep’.
The next day we met our first river crossing and a strange competition developed. As I took off my walking boots, Ali just ran through it. It’s clearly not cool to remove your shoes and wade gingerly in the icy water. An hour later our path was blocked by a wider river. There’s no way he’ll run through this I thought. I waded out thigh deep and after a few seconds my feet ached with the cold. I kept slipping on the rocks. I wondered what Ali would do. I got out my camera, just in time to catch him flying past on top of the loaded horse.
I fell behind as we climbed steeply through 4000m. How could a loaded horse power up a rocky slope while I needed to rest every few minutes? I read the same observation made by a visitor 150 years earlier: ‘I could not help wondering at the mules’ toiling up the steep height and reaching the top, with their heavy loads, whilst, to me, on foot, without any encumbrance, the ascent was most painful’ (Arminius Vambéry, 1861).
Reaching the top I was rewarded with a stunning vista over Yashilkul lake and its 25km length. I sat there in awe. As I picked my way down towards the lakeside I saw two chubby little creatures scurrying downhill at a great pace. Marmets. Now I understood the injunction about respecting the animals. It was hard to resist, but I was too weary to mimic them.
Alimamoul was waiting at the lakeside with lunch and although I had no appetite, I forced down some tomatoes, cucumber, bread, yoghurt, and the universal snack in Tajikstan, a Snickers bar.
Two days later we reached a river that was too deep for the loaded horse. Alimamoul headed upstream to look for a crossing. However, twenty five kilometres into the day’s walk I was not about to waste my steps. I stripped off and carried my pack over my head into the fast-flowing ice-cold water, praying that it wouldn’t get too deep. Mercifully it only reached my chest and I was soon out and feeling so light-headed that I continued walking naked for a few hundred metres. When the grass gave way to a stony path I dressed, climbed to the ridge and found a rock where I could sit and wait, and trace back over the day’s route.
We eventually arrived in Bulunkul, a scattering of mud houses in a desolate valley and the coldest place in Tajikistan, logging –36°C. I studied the people with their deep-set eyes and faraway look, the men with their strong jaws and stiff-legged walk, the women with their flowing clothes in unlikely colour combinations, and the children in their immaculate black and white uniforms.
The next day I rejoined Shamil and we continued our tour of the Pamiri plateau, so-called ‘roof of the world’, with its wide valleys, abrupt mountains and prehistoric settlements. Along the way I finally got the nerve to brave the roadside public pit toilets. I was unsure whether to use the ж or м side until I inspected both to compare the levels of cleanliness; some things are universal. I opted for the great outdoors.
A beautifully crafted documentary about Aikuma by Thom Cookes which aired on ABC’s program The World. This video included a segment about Lauren Gawne and her work on Kagate (Nepal).
Two Interviews on ABC Radio National
Stories from the Brazilian Amazon, with Waleed Aly and Phillip Adams, on ABC Radio National:
The wrap up of my Brazil fieldwork
Of the ~200 languages spoken in Brazil, about half are spoken in the Amazon. During March-May this year I had the privilege to work with speakers of Tembé, Ticuna, and Nhengatu, teaching them how to use mobile technologies for preserving their disappearing linguistic heritage. It was incredible to see how the technology didn’t just enable the work, but motivated people to participate.
Much of the activity was close to water — unsurprising given the vastness of the rivers, often many kilometres wide and holding 20% of the world’s freshwater. Access to language areas was different in each case: an eight hour drive into the rainforest (Tembé), a guide taking me deep into a warren of informal roads and dwellings on the outskirts of a city (Ticuna), and a boat ride up the Rio Negro (Nhengatu).
This fieldwork was a true adventure: going into the unknown with little idea of what to expect, depending on others for the basics of survival, being welcomed by local indigenous people yet finding it challenging to establish shared goals and activities. And there were my new travelling companions Katie and Isaac, who got wind of my travels and wanted to come along for the adventure.
The work is summed up in three articles, each with an ABC interview:
1. Earlier work in Papua New Guinea set the scene: I was there with Florian, my PhD student, for five weeks in early 2012. This story and interview mark the start of my fieldwork in Brazil.
The third linguistic community was Ticuna — interesting, complex, and vexing. I’ll save it for another day…
Photographs from Terra Preta
I’ve just returned from four days in Terra Preta, a 50km boat ride up the Rio Negro from Manaus. My friends from the Tembe trip, Katie and Isaac, joined me and did an brilliant job with recording and transcribing Nhengatu stories. This post has a selection of photos from our trip. (Click to enlarge and see captions.)
The village of Terra Preta is a short boat ride up the Rio Negro from Manaus (satellite picture). I went there last Sunday, hoping to give the Nhengatu people a short lesson in language preservation, and wondering if I could interest them in doing some recording work using our mobile phone app.
After leaving Manaus, we tracked along the northern bank of the river, about 50m out, dense rainforest on our right and a vast expanse of water on our left. The Rio Negro is more than 10km wide in places. We watched a tucuxi, or river dolphin, arching out of the water. Aldevan scared me with his talk about the hazards of the river, the anaconda, jacaré, piranha, candirú (notorious for invading the urethra). Our boat felt tiny as we were tossed around on the wake of the large boats coming in the opposite direction. Still, it was too hot to wear the life vest and it would only slow down my sprint to the shore if we were to capsize!
After about 90 minutes our driver cut the engine and pulled through a gap in the semi-submerged trees that obscured the riverbank. Without the engine noise, the air was suddenly full of birdsong. The three of us, Aldevan, Isaac and I, climbed out of the boat, and laboured up the steep flight of steps to the first house of the village.
We were met by Arnaldo Yarumare. Opening my notebook, I mechanically asked Arnaldo for the name of his language. Baré, he replied. Then he added that no-one speaks Baré any more. How curious to be affiliated with a dead language. Later I checked the Ethnologue entry for Baré and found that the language is still spoken, though probably not for very much longer. Arnaldo continued: like some other Baré speakers, he has now switched to Nhengatu, a language having 10,000 speakers. My curiosity about the language situation satisfied, I was glad to rest in a hammock in Arnaldo’s breezy porch. It had been a 5am start that day. After an hour or so, Arnaldo asked if I would like to try some local food. I agreed and so he led us up the hill, threading our way through wooden houses mostly on stilts, greeting people along the way. Yane kwema.
We arrived at a building with a corrugated iron roof and no walls, set on a raised concrete base. Shade. The benches arranged around the perimeter were close to capacity with about 50 people. In the centre, a large table was set out with food. The moment we arrived everyone moved to the table, filled their plates, returned to the benches, and ate. Would we be invited to join them? No-one acknowledged our presence so I felt invisible, yet being unobserved I felt unselfconscious about observing. Monitoring whether people were speaking Portuguese or Nhengatu.
A lesson in language preservation (take 1)
After lunch the children disappeared, and Arnaldo publicly welcomed us. Aldevan talked about our language recording work. Soon it was my turn. I asked whether the children speak Nhengatu (they don’t) and whether there are any storytellers (there are). They named one man who is now well into his eighties, but not present with us. I asked for a volunteer to tell a story to the group. After a brief pause there seemed to be consensus and a man called Jonas Alesio stood up. I handed him one of the phones and he told a story about the Curupira. His story enthralled his audience. Next, Samuel Alexo agreed to translate. After a 20-second demonstration, he used our Aikuma app to translate Jonas’ story into Portuguese.
Once he finished, I replayed the recording and translation for everyone to hear. (Scroll to the bottom of this post for an English paraphrase.)
I asked the group what they thought of this, and whether they would like us to return another day to record more stories and prepare a CD. In response, Samuel stood and addressed the group, explaining the importance of this work to record the language and to make sure that the children would be able to understand the stories. He turned to me and spoke about the need for an exchange. They could participate in our recording work. Would we help them to produce a DVD?
That was strange! Samuel viewed their participation in audio recording as a favour to me, when I had just presented it as a favour to them. Its true that I wanted their participation. Was it disingenuous of me to present it as a service to them? Perhaps Aldevan’s introduction of me as a researcher was the trigger: Indians bristle at the word pesquisador given the history of outsiders coming and taking things away. As we parted, Samuel offered to speak to the rest of the village and then get back to us.
I was curious to see the computer room, and so we were ushered into a room containing computers, monitors, a router, and uninterruptable power supplies. All still boxed. These would eventually be powered by the generator for a few hours each day.
As we walked away, I commented to Isaac that this was our most positive reception to date. A village leader understood and valued our work and publicly expressed a desire to cooperate. We were soon back at Arnaldo’s house, where a meal of catfish and rice was waiting for us.
A lesson in language preservation (take 2)
On the boat ride back to Manaus I reflected on our brief recording session. There was the woman videoing Jonas on her phone. She kept getting in the way of my photography. Why didn’t I get a wide-angle shot including her? There was Jonas’ one-handed gestures, while he held the phone in his other hand. There was the request to assist with a DVD. The whole situation was screaming VIDEO at me.
In our app development we had focussed on audio because video files are often too large to upload over a 3G network. However, here there was the computer room, and the fact that many Indian villages are getting grants to set them up. There was the wireless router which they unboxed in front of me. There was the requirement to store recordings locally. A local area network and associated file storage would soon be in place. There would be no bandwidth problem.
In this place, and others like it, video documentation on mobile phones would be possible. This was a game changer. The person being recorded would not hold the phone — someone else would be videoing. We would need a new app, one which supported video playback. A user would pause the video to record an audio commentary or translation. Another playback mode would interleave the video with that spoken translation. People would share videos and playlists. The locally-owned phones would become the dissemination medium. Or something like that.
I need to think about it some more…
The Tale of the Curupira
Recounted by Jonas Alexio (Nhengatu), orally translated by Samuel Alexio (Portuguese), paraphrased by Isaac McAlister
Once upon a time, a man went out into the forest to collect sorva. He very much enjoyed working with sorva, cipó and the roots of the piassava tree, for this was how he earned his living. He would spend two or three weeks at a stretch deep in the forest working with these products.
On one particular day, the man came to the foot of a sorva tree. He climbed the tree at once and began to extract the tree’s juice. After a while, from up in the sorva tree, the man heard a strange sound, as if someone were running through the forest, running to get something. When the man heard this noise, a sort of buzzing sound, he looked down to the ground. There he saw what seemed to be a little man. It was what in Nhengatu we call the Curupira.
So the man stared down at this person that he had never before seen in all his life. He noticed that it was covered entirely in long, thick hair, so much so that one could not see its face; and its feet were pointed backward.
Before climbing up into the sorva tree, the man had put his rifle down and left it at the foot of the tree. Having now seen this creature down on the ground, the man yelled down at it, “Leave my rifle right where it is!” At this moment, the creature picked up the karauatá where the man had been collecting the juice of the sorva tree and began to pour it out. Seeing this, the man became very angry and he yelled down, “Look little one! You had better leave that karauatá be or I’m going to come down there and I’m going to give you a beating!” So the man came down from up in the tree and he cut himself a switch. The first lashing that he gave to that creature, it just took it. The second lashing that he gave it, again the creature remained impassive. But as the man swung his switch for a third time, the creature called the Curupira suddenly grasped the stick and struck the man with it, knocking him to the ground where he promptly fainted.
As the man lay on the ground, the Curupira picked up the container of sorva juice, picked up the man’s rifle and finally picked up the man himself and hoisted him upon its shoulder. It then took him back to where the man had left his canoe.
When the man came to, he was lying on the riverbank right by his own canoe. He looked behind him and saw the Curupira sitting not far away from him. Now the man was afraid. He crawled to his canoe. Turning around again, he saw the creature once more now far away. The man got into his canoe and began to row. He headed straight for home.
When he finally arrived home and his wife saw him, she was surprised since her husband usually returned from the forest in the afternoon. This time, though, he had come back quite early. The man’s wife said to him, “My husband, why have you arrived so early? You always come back later than this: 3 in the afternoon, 6 in the afternoon…But now you’ve come back early. What could have happened?” So the man said to his wife, “Look, I’ve been through something truly terrifying! There in the forest, a creature appeared, the likes of which I have never seen before in my life. It gave me a beating and I must have fainted. But, that same creature picked me up and carried me to the river where he left me right by my canoe. That is why I came back so early today.” The man no longer knew what to say or how to explain what had happened to him for he was too frightened. It was then that he began to feel his body ache…
(And there I will end this tale that I have told for you, you all who are white people, here listening to this tale. Thank you very much!)
I recently visited a Tembé village and wrote about it here (Androids in Amazonia). This post has a selection of photos from that trip.