If you are a frequent follow of our website, you probably saw last month’s Language of the Month was about Belep, a language found in New Caledonia. My main contact point for information and clarification was Chelsea McCracken of Rice University. I had the opportunity to ask her a few follow up questions, which were extremely informative as she is also the author of the first grammar of the Belep language. Continue reading to see what she had to say.
1. Please tell me a bit about your academic background. I earned my Ph.D. from Rice University in 2012. I also hold a BA from St. Mary’s College of Maryland in French and Mathematics (2007).
2. How did you first encounter Belep? What made you want to study it further in depth?
I didn’t know linguistics was a discipline until I took an elective as a junior in undergrad. As soon as I realized that this was what I wanted to study, I did an independent study on the languages of New Caledonia. In grad school, I knew I wanted to work on language documentation and I wanted to use French as a contact language. My advisor had worked in the Pacific and she knew someone who knew someone who worked in New Caledonia. I asked this person if she knew any local languages that were undocumented and looking for the assistance of a linguist, and she sent me to Belep. The Belep Language Committee was looking for a linguist to offer assistance on their orthography project so it was a perfect match and we could help each other. Belep is also fairly straightforward phonologically while having a huge amount of morphosyntactic complexity, which really piqued my interest.
3. What was the experience like creating the grammar? I spent approximately nine months in Belep over the course of three years. I would visit for a few months, then come back to the US and intensively process my findings and write some chapters, then repeat. While I was writing, I would listen repeatedly to my recordings, so by my third field trip I could more or less converse in and do elicitation in Belep (I like to say my Belep speaking ability is like 200-level in college). Grammar writing was endlessly fascinating and challenging–trying to figure out the best analysis for the data, and one that would make all my observations fit together most seamlessly, was very rewarding. I was extremely grateful for the Belema’s help and support on my project, and it was great to develop working relationships with the speech community and to help them in their project of revitalizing Kanak languages.
4. Did you find you learned more studying or being out in the field learning the language with the people? The field methods course that I took was very hands-on–we worked very closely with a native speaker of Asante Twi (and fellow grad student), so even though it wasn’t off-site it had many of the same intellectual challenges and rewards as typical fieldwork. When I went to Belep, the new challenges were primarily logistical–where I would live, what I would eat, how I would find language consultants. One great benefit of being in the field is getting to hear Belep conversations happening all around you, like at the breakfast table or at bingo or on the street. I always kept a notebook on me so that, in listening to these conversations around me, I could pick out any words or constructions I didn’t already know and ask about them. Naturally-occurring conversation is the most representative form of linguistic data, and also the easiest to elicit when the language is widely spoken in the community!
5. What would you recommend to others looking to help codify less studied languages? The most important part of a language documentation project is serving the community–doing work that they find useful and respectful and that benefits them rather than exploiting them. If the community is not invested in the project, it’s difficult for it to succeed. I recommend learning a lot about the community’s culture and society and letting that inform your project, as well as doing your best to learn the language. The best documenters of a language are native speakers/members of the speech community themselves, so doing as much as you can to support their training and turn the keys over to them furthers the project. You can’t really be effectively apolitical.
6. Is there anything else you would like to tell us? As a region that has undergone colonization, New Caledonia has been in a revolutionary struggle for at least the past 50 years or so. There has been a lot of unrest in recent years as several referendums have failed to produce the independence that is nearly universally desired by the Kanak people. Everyone should learn more about the status of colonized regions like New Caledonia–the US has a number of colonies as well which experience similar struggles.