Book cover for grammar of belep

Interview with Chelsea McCracken

image of grammar of Belep book
Chelsea McCracken
A Grammar of Belep

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.

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Fanni is Radnóti's wife
Located near the Tang capital city of Chang’an, site of the modern city of Xi’an in Shaanxi province, in central China.
Soldiers of that time commonly wore a white head cloth, similar to what is still worn by some peasants in China today.  The implication is that the conscripts were so young that they didn’t know how to wrap their head cloths, and needed help from elders.
Before China’s unification under the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C. there were several competing smaller kingdoms.  Han and Qin were two of these kingdoms. Han was located east of famous mountain passes that separated that area from the power base of the Qin dynasty, with its capital in Chang’an. The Qin dynasty itself only lasted about 15 years after unification due to its draconian rule, but soldiers under Qin rule retained a reputation as strong fighters.
The area of Guanxi, meaning “west of the passes”, refers to the area around the capital city of Chang’an.
This is an alternative name for a province in western China, now known as Qinghai, which literally means “blue sea”.  Kokonor Lake, located in Qinghai, is the largest saline lake in China.  
Before China’s unification under the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C. there were several competing smaller kingdoms.  Han and Qin were two of these kingdoms. Han was located east of famous mountain passes that separated that area from the power base of the Qin dynasty, with its capital in Chang’an. The Qin dynasty itself only lasted about 15 years after unification due to its draconian rule, but soldiers under Qin rule retained a reputation as strong fighters.
Oulart Hollow was the site of a famous victory of the Irish rebels over British troops, which took place on May 27, 1798. The rebels killed nearly all the British attackers in this battle. (Source: Maxwell, W. H. History of the Irish Rebellion in 1798. H. H. Bohn, London 1854, pp 92-93, at archive.org)
The phrase "United Men" is elaborated upon in the Notes section below.

Ghetto


An Italian word meaning “foundry.” It originally referred to a part of the city of Venice where the Jews of that city were forced to live; the area was called “the ghetto” because there was a foundry nearby. The term eventually came to refer to any part of a city in which a minority group is forced to live as a result of social, legal, or economic pressure. Because of the restrictions placed upon them, ghetto residents are often impoverished.

"You’re five nine, I am do-uble two"


A reference to the year 1959 and the year 2020.

"The Currency"


Meaning US dollars - this is drawing attention to the fact that Cuba is effectively dollarized.

"Sixty years with the dom-ino stuck"


This sentence is a reference to the Cold War notion that countries would turn Communist one after the other - like dominos. Cuba was the first domino, but it got stuck - no one else followed through into communism.

رحلنا


رحلنا, or "rahalna," means "we have left."

Habibi


Habibi means "my love."

Ra7eel


Ra7eel, or "raheel," means "departure."

3awda


3awda, or "awda," means "returning."

أهلاً


أهلاً, or "ahalan," means "welcome."

a5 ya baba


a5 ya baba, pronounced "akh ya baba," means "Oh my father."

golpe


Treece translates "golpe" as "beating", which is correct, however misses the secondary meaning of the word: "coup".

Carlos


The “Carlos” referred to in the poem is most likely Carlos Bolsonaro, a politician from Rio de Janeiro and the second son of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s current president. His and his father’s involvement in Marielle’s murder has been questioned and investigated.