indigenous groups

Victor Golla vkgolla at
Sun Feb 9 21:53:06 UTC 1997

[NOTE:  The posting of the following message was delayed a couple of
days, owing to a technical glitch.--VG]


Dear Endangered Languages people:

Am I the only one who is tired of hearing how "communities" and
"cultures" do this or that?  These are constructs useful to sociol
and anthropological discussion, not objective reality.  Mark Line,
for eaxmple, writes:

> The difference is: the Scots don't mind, but the Maori do.

But not all Scots don't, nor Maoris do.  What about the dissidents?
Are they any less "Scot" or "Maori"?  (Remember Two Crows, anybody?)

> the issue here has to do with the Maori's culturally dependent point
> of view about non-Maori activities

There is no "Maori" point of view.  There are points of view associated
with individuals who designate themselves Maori.  These differ and

> I will accept the fact that the Maori themselves have taken the
> conscious action of placing themselves in charge of their own language

Unless he is discussing a formally structured government or association
 -- maybe he is -- "the Maori" do not constitute a discrete entity.  And
 even were a formalized "Maori" body to exist, it is not easy to imagine
 it "taking charge" of language -- of what is essentially one-on-one
 interaction.  (Shades of the Iowa anti-German laws!)

 Human beings seem to be cognitively hard-wired to readily believe in
 the objective existence of social groups, in their internal homogeneity,
 and in their sharp boundedness.  But social reality is not this simple,
 and we do not further the understanding of language decline and
 replacement by summoning up comfortable but misleading myths.

 --Victor Golla
   Anthropology, UC-Davis

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   Date: Sun, 9 Feb 1997 13:56:04 -0800 (PST)
   From: Victor Golla <vkgolla at>
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   Subject: re: "fieldwork"
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   Dear Endangered Languages people,

   Like most, I've found the recent discussion of fieldwork and its
   uses both encouraging and frustrating.  Encouraging because it
   seems to indicate a resurgence of interest in encountering real
   language data.  Frustrating because so much of the discussion has
   gotten mired in sterotypes and polemics.

   Like "community" and "culture"--which I carried on about in my
   earlier posting--the very term "fieldwork" is one of the problems.
   The "field" of 19th century colonial officers and gentlemen-amateurs
   is long gone, but the mystique of living "among the natives" lingers
   on and has insinuated itself into our discussion.  In my experience
   some of the most fruitful encounters between linguists and languages
   take place in quiet academic settings in Europe and North America.
   My own mentor, Mary Haas, got nearly all of her "field" experience
   with Thai in Ann Arbor and Berkeley, and even her Creek and Natchez
   work--carried out in Oklahoma--was done in offices, hotels, and
   people's living rooms.
A certain kind of anthropological linguistics--certainly any
investigation of conversational interaction and public discourse--
requires the intrusion of the linguist into local settings, often
in remote and physically demanding places.  So do the missionary
functions of SIL.  But most linguistic data gathering requires only
a speaker and a linguist, a comfortable venue, and time to do the
work.  It is something every linguistics student could be required
to do with relatively little hassle, and even most dissertation-level
work could be carried out in similar circumstances.

One of the postings during the past week suggested that what we
need is a "secular SIL".  Insofar as SIL provides the best currently
available training in linguistic data collection and data processing,
I think this is an excellent idea;  I have made similar proposals
myself.  But SIL also prepares its personnel to work "in the fields
of the Lord."  Most linguists have humbler goals, and no great use
for pith helmets.  The real essence of linguistic "field" work is
an intense, protracted interaction of speaker-model and linguist-
learner, and it is this--a largely cognitive, psychological matter--
that needs to be focused on.

Tony Woodbury has suggested that not all "informants" are equal.
Some individuals have the capacity to generalize and organize the
abstract facts of their native language, and in combination with a
linguist they create--co-create--deeply insightful analyses.  By the
same token, not all linguists have the capacity to work in this
co-creative and collaborative way.  Nancy Dorian's original idea,
which got us started on all of this, was to put together an
anthology of fieldworkers' experiences, not so much as a "how-to"
manual as an attempt to show what kind of cognitive and social
process linguistic discovery is.  If done well, such a book would
be a major breakthrough, and my enthusiasm for the project grows
by the day.

--Victor Golla
  Anthropology, UC-Davis

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