I just returned from fieldwork in Myanmar, where we spent several days training staff and students at two different universities (Mandalay University and Yangon University of Foreign Languages) in fieldwork and data-gathering techniques. I also spent a week with the team in a village where a Palaung language is spoken (in the mountains of Shan State), conducting fieldwork with staff and students from Mandalay University's Department of Anthropology. We were able to get lots of great recordings of stories, histories, and explanations of cultural practices in the local language, with translations in Burmese.
This will be part of an ongoing collaboration with University of Zurich and these universities in Myanmar, where we are helping to build capacity and share our different kinds of expertise between these departments. There is still a lot of descriptive work that needs to be done among these language groups, and regarding their connections to larger Myanmar society. I'm still learning a lot about how Myanmar culture and language works (I'll be taking a Burmese language course at UZH in the coming semester), and I'm looking forward to working more with the universities in Myanmar in the future.
On some of our 'off' days, we went sightseeing in Yangon and in Bagan. While I'd been to the Shwedagon pagoda before, Bagan was a pretty incredible place (although possibly the hottest place I've ever been) simply because there are SO MANY temples and pagodas. Literally everywhere you look, if you have any kind of a view above the trees, you see a temple or a pagoda, or multiples of both. This time of year is not the best for visiting (so hot), and apparently you used to be able to climb more temples a few years ago, before the earthquakes made this dangerous, but it was still pretty amazing.
The last post was a bit of a brain dump to make sure I didn't forget a few lessons I learned, in part because I knew I was quitting the job that involved doing ML type things. While I was working there of course I learned a lot and (I think) acquitted myself pretty well, but language processing and machine learning are not really what I spent 4 years doing for my PhD. Python is a programming language that I picked up to make my work in grammatical description and syntax easier, and while I find ML (and programming) pretty interesting, my main interest lies in understanding how languages work through comparison, with the ultimate goal of reconstructing linguistic structures and (hopefully) prehistory.
A year and a half ago or so I started working on a grant proposal for that exact thing with some researchers at the University of Zurich. This is a relatively young department that is doing some really cool research in typology, processing, and language acquisition from a corpus-based perspective on multiple languages (both Indo-European and non-IE families/phyla). At the same time historical linguistics is a huge focus in the department, as is modeling language change. This is super exciting because I take the perspective that language is spoken by individuals in communities who acquire language from their forbears (history), use it as a tool for communication (processing), which gives rise to statistical tendencies that all languages share (typology). Since it is individuals using language, this is done in an idiosyncratic way, but since language is learned and guided by principles of processing, the only way to get at both the commonality and the uniqueness of language is by investigating actual language corpora (recordings, transcriptions, etc). Of course the story of how languages change is much more complex and involves many more factors, but be that as it may, this is a great place to be.
Picture: Lake Zurich from the hill above the university
So, long story short, we found out last October that the grant had been funded, and the family and I started making plans to move to Zurich. More on that later, perhaps. With this project, our goal at the moment is to build a database of Austroasiatic language corpora that we can then investigate for all sorts of interesting phenomena, but focusing (initially at least) on word order. By comparing word order in multiple languages of the same family we intend to make an effort toward reconstructing the form of the parent languages from which the present-day spoken languages diverged, and also to identify language contact and interaction effects to contribute to discussions about the development of word order patterns cross-linguistically.
Just a quick blog post to mention that one of the tools I use in language documentation and description, Transcriber, is newly repackaged for use with OS X El Capitan! This is a big deal because previous versions (from 2013) failed to work, then the program was supposedly 'updated' (and didn't work), so I've been using the 2005 Windows version in a virtual box. But I just tested the new release (new as of 4 hours ago) and it works great on my Mac (just have to update the settings to default to UTF-8 for character encoding) and also with my trs2txt converter for Toolbox! Happy transcribing!
I'm a linguist and singer-songwriter. I write about life, travel, language and technology.