A couple of weeks ago, the Linguistics Club hosted a talk by Dr. Shobhana Chelliah, a professor at the University of North Texas. She has worked with two languages spoken in Manipur, a state in north-east India. Her primary focus was on the process of fieldwork, but first she gave some background about the languages spoken in this region.
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In the North-East Indian states, around 200 languages from the Tibeto-Burman language family are spoken. In Manipur, the main language spoken in the valley, Meitei, is very different from the Naga and Kuki-Chin language groups spoken in the hill regions. Meitei was the first language Dr. Chelliah worked with, and is also the first language of many of the linguistics students in Manipur. Both she and the students are interested in documenting the other languages, such as Lamkang, but there are difficulties.
Compared to Meitei, Lamkang is much more grammatically complex. It has case endings and a complicated verbal system. Like many Tibeto-Burman languages, it is neither purely nominative-accusative or ergative-absolutive. I think a simplified way of explaining that is whether the agent of the action or the patient being acted upon is marked. To figure out what was going on, linguists worked together to compare languages across the family and to compile corpora. Analyzing discourse proved better for explaining the marking system than simple elicitation. It turns out that the agent was generally marked if there was something unexpected about the action, but not if it was run of the mill. You can see how that would be difficult to figure out by simply asking for translations or descriptions.
However, while Dr. Chelliah prefers this more natural method of analyzing discourse, she realized that to catalog the verb forms she needed to do more focused elicitation. Lamkang has two different verb stems per verb and a variety of prefixes and suffixes. Dr. Chelliah had actually brought one of her consultants with her, who was nice enough to pronounce the verbs for us. Because this type of elicitation is quite tiring for the consultant, Dr. Chelliah and her coworkers brought together several speakers at a weeklong language workshop. This allowed the native speakers to discuss the verb forms and break up the sessions with other activities, such as orthography.
Dr. Chelliah’s lecture was especially intriguing to me because I am interested in doing this type of fieldwork. While I realize that it can be quite a lot of work, it also sounds very exciting to puzzle out exactly what is going on in a language for the first time. The vast variety in the world’s languages, both in their sounds and their structures, is simply extraordinary.