Episode 12: Miroslav Valeš on Fieldwork in the Americas & Spain

[introduction music] 

Martha Tsutsui Billins host – Hello, and welcome to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. I’m Martha Tsutsui Billins and today’s interview is with Miroslav Valeš, who has a PhD in Spanish Philology from the Palacký University in Olomouc, Czech Republic. Since 2007, he has been the Head of the Department of Romance Languages at the Technical University of Liberec, Czech Republic. His research interests include sociolinguistics with a particular focus on minority languages. He has carried out several projects working on native languages of America such as Lakhota and Shuar. Since 2012, he has been cooperating with the community of A Fala speakers in Spain and he has published papers regarding various aspects of the Fala language. Just to let our listeners know, there is some sensitive material discussed in this interview, including traditional practices that some people may find disturbing. Also, this is the last episode of Season 1. Thank you so much to everyone who wrote in with questions and followed and subscribed to Field Notes. Season 2 will be announced on the Field Notes website, Fieldnotespod.com, and on social media, Instagram and Twitter which you can follow us there @lingfieldnotes.

MTB: Welcome, Miro! Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy conference schedule to talk to us and our listeners. 

Miroslav Valeš: No problem, it’s a pleasure. 

MTB: Thank you. So, to start, can you talk us through briefly your fieldwork biography?

Miroslav Valeš: Well, my field work biography actually started when I started with my thesis, with my PhD thesis. It was in Granada, and my early fieldwork included southern dialect of Spanish, Andalus, and my PhD thesis was about that, so the first fieldwork was in the year 2000, and the next was in 2004. The first was for a thesis, and the other was for a postdoc. So that’s where I started. Then I continued with minority languages already, and the first was Fulbright Scholarship to study Lakhota in Southern Dakota, and it was a very impressive experience. After that, from 2010, more or less, I started to cooperated with the Shuar, which is a native group in the Amazonian part of Ecuador. Now, lately, since 2012, I’ve been working with Fala, which is a community on the border of Spain and Portugal, three villages speaking a language of Romanic origin.

MTB: And you work with all three villages?

Miroslav Valeš: I work with all three villages because I try to be unbiased and include all three in equal parts, but still my residence in one of the three villages, so I’m so slightly more bound with one of the three, but yeah, I include all the three varieties.

MTB: Okay. So maybe for this episode we can focus mostly on your work with the Shuar community. Can you talk about, how did you start working with them? How did you choose that community or that language to work on?

Miroslav Valeš: It’s pretty easy to explain. First, I went there as a tourist because I was curious and fell in love with the jungle. I loved the rainforest. It was a beautiful experience, so for that reason, I also got closer to the people, and once I was in the community I was interested in the language, naturally. I started studying the language, and I started studying various aspects of the language, mostly the phonology and the variation, because the Shuar territory is pretty extensive. And the language belongs to a family which was traditionally called Jivaro, but we kind of renamed it to Chicham. And there are various languages, and it is a nice example of a language continuum, and it is not quite clear where the exact border lines between the languages are and what is a language, what is a dialect, and what’s closer to what, so it is also one of the topics that I was interested in.

MTB: Oh, wow, that’s so interesting. Can you give some details about the language vitality now or the language context?

Miroslav Valeš: Yeah, I can give it in nice comparison with the Lakhota language. 

MTB: Okay.

Miroslav Valeš: When I was with Lakhota, the youngest speaker, probably, were 35 years old and there were no young, particularly no young speaker of 25 and below. Shuar is in the similar situation of a decrease, it is only maybe 40-50 years behind. So in general, the grandparents speak the language, the generation of parents speak the language with the grandparents and between them but they speak Spanish to the children. The children still passively understand Shuar because they are in contact with the grandparents and parents, but between them, among them, they speak only Spanish. So you can sometimes see really the loss of the language in three generations and it’s gone like that. So, they are in pretty serious situation. Some other parts of the language family I studied too as part of the project. I say “Shuar”, but it is also Huambisa and Achuar. So Huambisa and Achuar, they are in much better situation because their inter-generational transmission has not been interrupted yet and the children also speak the language because they’re somehow more isolated, more deeper in the jungle. They have less history of contact with Spanish. 

MTB: Can you talk a little more about your research interests in general?

Miroslav Valeš: I’m in language documentation and description is this latest research with a Fala, while with the Shuar it was more the variation.

MTB; Variation.

Miroslav Valeš: The variation and the and continuum matter, so kind of describing how the variation gradually passes from one language to the other. Which is sometimes really nice because the continuum is actually a line, because line is a river, and the people live along the river. They don’t live out of the river, and so once you go down the river and you make interviews, you can see that gradually you take 10 words, and in the next village, 9 is the same like in the previous. In the next it is 8. In the next it is 7. Well, this is sort of simplified of course, but you can see that gradually more and more words are different up to the point that you’ve got a different language. Now, saying between this and that village is the line between that language and that language, it’s of course very difficult. You can’t do that. It’s really, really nice environment and very illustrative how the continuum works.

MTB: Can you talk a little bit about some challenges that you’ve faced while you’re in the field? You’ve done a lot of fieldwork, and I’m sure all the communities were different. Can you say something about that?

Miroslav Valeš: There are many many challenges. Some communities give you more challenges than others. The Lakhota was… I don’t want to be ugly, but it was not really a welcoming community, and…

MTB: To outsiders?

Miroslav Valeš: Yeah, to the outsiders, of course, and me as white, I was always seen as not really… And I didn’t feel welcome. While with the Shuar, it was quite fine, but the challenges were really great because the most important and the most significant was probably the access to the communities. Not only the physical exercise, because sometimes you have to work in the jungle for a day or you go by the river. I actually like that part, it was a nice challenge and I enjoyed it. My guide didn’t really enjoy it-that much walking. She didn’t like walking. But more challenging was probably to find a way how to stay in the community, because of course I can’t just come to the community and say, “Hi, I’m Miro, and I will be living with you now.” So, it’s not that easy. And to explain why it is not easy, you need to know a bit about the history of the contact of these people. There are two aspects probably. One is that in 2009, they were kind of riots in which the Shuar were rebelling against the government, basically, if I simplified. The government and the Shuar are not really friends, and the Shuar for that reason kind of isolate the communities from any government agents, from any mining agents, mining company agents, logging company, gold finders, and all of that. So any foreigner is seen as a potential threat or something suspicious at least. Another, you might laugh, but it’s a story that’s vaguely based on legends, traditional legends, of Pishtaco. But many times the people were telling me stories that really happened and there are pictures, there are whatever. The story always goes in terms that there are 4 white men with all the guns and all the armour you can imagine, and they killed a Shuar and then they are dragging it, and the people are persuading, and the people are persuading them, and they just disappeared like that. The people…

MTB: The white people…

Miroslav Valeš: The white people, they disappeared like that. Like they just…

MTB: Vanished?

Miroslav Valeš: Vanished. Vanished. And they believe it. The point is that the Shuar were traditionally headhunters. They were cutting heads to the enemies and they were shrinking them, and the question, the most important questions for a Shuar is, ¿quién es corta cabezas? “Who is the headhunter? Who is cutting heads?” And they actually abandoned the custom in about ‘50s, so the twentieth century, so not that long ago. I have interviews with people who saw their father to be chopped his head off. 

MTB: Oh, my God. Oh, my gosh.

Miroslav Valeš: And they used to live in the continuous… It wasn’t war, it was revenge, more or less. And small attacks like 20 people ambushed a village, cut a few heads, and got back and then there was revenge, and too-too-too-too, and it was continuous like that. And it was up to fifties, so…

MTB: The 1950s.

Miroslav Valeš: 1950s, and then what happened that in 2009 (2010, 2008? I can’t remember exactly) they found about five or six bodies without a head.

MTB: Fresh bodies?

Miroslav Valeš: Yeah.

MTB: Oh, my gosh.

Miroslav Valeš: So someone did that, and most likely for business purposes because they still can remember how to shrink the heads, the technological part of that, and you can sell it in these parts of the world. If you can sell something for $10,000 to some crazy curiosity collector, it is a good reason to kill someone. And, of course, who killed the people? The white people. The foreigners, gringos, gringos. Well, later they found out the head of the gang was vice-mayor of one of the villages, which is called Yaupi, but once you stick the label on the foreigners, it’s there. 

MTB: So the Shuar believed that the white people had killed these headless murder victims?

Miroslav Valeš: Yeah, or that they ordered it.

MTB: Oh, I see.

Miroslav Valeš: Actually, the Shuar believed that white people cut heads, because the…

MTB: Also.

Miroslav Valeš: Yeah. The question is who the headhunter, who is the ¿quién es corta cabezas? Y la respuesta, the answer is quite clear, the white people, gringos are corta cabezas. So just imagine I got to a community, going along the river in my boat… Well, not… My rented boat with boat man and guide and we got to the family. I was walking around the village, I talked to the teacher. We set for an interview the next day that he would give me an interview and everything’s going fine, and then in the evening they had something like a sound system along the village, and there was the apu, which is the like mayor of the village, speaking. Well, I couldn’t understand. He was speaking in Huambisa. This was with Huambisa, which is part of the Shuar, and he was speaking and speaking, and I was happily drinking and eating and having a good time, while my guide, she knew what he was speaking about. She didn’t tell me. Well, in the morning, the two guys came, and of course, people are visiting all the time, so I thought they just someone from the family came to visit. It was actually an inquiry committee and they were asking me why, what, and so on, blah blah blah. 

MTB: What were you doing there.

Miroslav Valeš: What were you doing there, and what kind of agent am I, whether it is oil company or whether it is government, or who I actually came to kill. And later, and the guide told me that the discourse, the evening discourse was in terms, you know, “There is a white person who came to our community, so please be careful. We all know that white people cut heads, so be careful with the children. Don’t leave them alone.” Yeah, in these terms, seriously. “And anyone who would be willing to help this person is a kind of a treasoner of the community,” and in these terms. And so in the morning, well, I was actually lucky, because the uncle where we were staying was kind of strong enough person and reasonable enough person to say, “Okay, I can have whoever I want in my house, and I don’t mind what they say,” which was good luck for me. Even the inquiry committee got pretty pleased that they found out that I am quite harmless, a strange linguist, and that I am not that danger that I seemed to be. But still. [laughs]

MTB: Wow.

Miroslav Valeš: So of course, access to these communities is not easy. Usually, you need a good contact. So sometimes I got a good contact because of the president of a few communities was a good friend of my friend. And so I got to meet the community. I was teaching English actually. I spent there a week teaching English, and it was really good strategy because the people accepted me. I was not a strange foreigner running around, but I was the one who teaches their children English, and it was highly appreciated. And so it was a good way to get to know the communities, but in other cases, it was not that successful, and even in one case that it was pre-negotiated, I got to the community, and they had a meeting, and they asked me if I’m ready to pay the electrification of the village, like the cables, the bulbs, and more or less $2,000. And if I said “No, not really”, so, “Over there is your…”

MTB: Here is the door.

Miroslav Valeš: “Your boat is over there.” Right?

MTB: Yeah.

Miroslav Valeš: And they just kicked me out. 

MTB: So you had to leave.

Miroslav Valeš: Yeah, I had to leave. I went to another community. I was received really nicely just like always, and then when they started talking about a meeting, I just went to the boat and I went out, because the result was quite clear. And the strategy that seemed to work was that we stopped where one family lived, only one family, and if the head of the family agrees that you can stay, so you can stay. And so I stayed with Don Carlos, who became an excellent friend, and very… Older person, 84, which is really old for that part of the world. And it was really nice, and I visited him more times. He didn’t ask for any money. Of course, I gave him, and I gave him quite a lot of money, but it was voluntary, and he’s a good friend until now. I hope he’s still living and healthy. Last time I saw him was last year, so in 2018, I saw him and he was fine. He was still 84. The first time I saw him, he was 84, and last year he was also 84, so he probably doesn’t really know what his age is. 

MTB: Or maybe he’s just optimistic.

Miroslav Valeš: No, in those days the Shuar were not counting the age. They were actually not able to count, and all these things like, “How old are you,” they couldn’t understand the question.

MTB: Yeah. Because it’s not important, or…

Miroslav Valeš: They only use numbers from 1 to 5. They could get to 10, and with really serious trouble, using the toes from your feet, they could get to 20. But most frequently they only used 1 to 5, and that was it, and so they couldn’t count, really, age, because that’s beyond the count. Also, for instance, the concept of colour. They don’t have a word for colour.

MTB: Really? They don’t have the word “colour” or they don’t have words for different colours?

Miroslav Valeš: They have words for different colours, but they don’t have a different colour, so you can’t ask the question, “What colour is this?”

MTB: Wow. What do you say?

Miroslav Valeš: I was using various like similar questions, but it’s a difficult question to make.

MTB: Yeah, that is a difficult question, wow.

Miroslav Valeš: I mean, there are certain concepts that we consider very basic or automatic, like age, colour, and it’s not…

MTB: But they’re not universal.

Miroslav Valeš: It’s not that automatic.

MTB: Yeah.

Miroslav Valeš: And it’s also one of the nice things that you find in the communities that the values can be completely, completely different from what you are accustomed to.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, that’s true. I’m so interested about this colour thing. So did you just say, “Please describe this thing”?

Miroslav Valeš: Actually, it was part of my research that I was showing them cards with various colours and pictures where there were like a red parrot, and blue parrot, and green parrot, so I was asking about the colour things. Those results are not completely done yet.

MTB: Okay, so it’s still open.

Miroslav Valeš: Yes, It’s still open, but it seems that traditional… I would say the traditional colours, that they were making on purpose like for painting for their dresses, which was red, white, black, and… Actually these three: red, white, and black. So they have slightly more persistence than other colours that you can see around you like green. All around it is green, but many people don’t know how to say “green”, so it seems to be going from the language.

MTB: That’s really interesting, but traditionally there was a word for green in Shuar.

Miroslav Valeš: Yeah, there was a word for green.

MTB: Okay, but it’s been, it’s being lost.

Miroslav Valeš: Yeah. Mostly people use the Spanish word for that, verde.

MTB: I see.

Miroslav Valeš: They just say verde.

MTB: Wow. That’s really interesting. Can you talk a bit about your current project with Fala?

Miroslav Valeš: Yeah, sure. I can talk about that. The difference, if I try to continue with the previous one, is that the community, the Fala community, is extremely welcoming. I was actually lucky, because I started with Lakhota. Then the Shuar were much better, and now it’s paradise, actually.

MTB: Because they’re so open to working with you.

Miroslav Valeš: Yeah, they’re open. We also, it’s a European community, so we share values. I mean, the same values, so you know what to expect from the people, and they’re really nice and grateful that someone is interested in their language, so it’s really nice. The project is now about documentation — description, documentation — and the most part of it is simply to create a database, to create a database based on recordings and existing texts. Now, the database then gives the possibilities of making a dictionary, sketch grammar, archiving things, and so the most part of it is simply to collect the primary data.

MTB: I see. Okay. I think we should say that we should mention that in terms of welcomingness of communities, it’s for good reasons, right?

Miroslav Valeš: Yeah. Sure, sure.

MTB: History.

Miroslav Valeš: The historical reasons with Lakhota, for instance, are quite clear. Even though we can say the Shuar had a much better experience, so they would also have a…

MTB: Reason to distrust you.

Miroslav Valeš: … good reason to distrust, while in most cases, they are quite nice. They were quite nice, even though I was telling the stories of the headhunting and cutting the heads, so in most cases, they were quite nice, and it was pleasant to travel in the communities. And actually at the end, the last two field trips I was travelling alone without a local guide, and I was just going where I wanted to go, and I already knew the strategies how to enter the communities by myself.

MTB: And you were known by them, so you weren’t a stranger anymore.

Miroslav Valeš: Yeah. It’s also, of course, friend of a friend, and this kind of system.

MTB: Yeah. Can you talk a little bit about your daily routine when you’re in the field? Maybe you can compare your daily routine when you were working with the Shuar to your daily routine now with the Fala community.

Miroslav Valeš: Well, my daily routine is not really set, but in general, I try to work creative things in the morning, and if I need something to concentrate on, I try to do it in the morning because my brain is somehow brighter in the morning.

MTB: Yeah. What do you mean by “creative things”?

Miroslav Valeš: Trying to like write a paper, which is not case of the project, but maybe a transcription, a transcription. I try to do the transcription in the morning while some mechanical works (like back up data, whatever) in the evening. With the interviews, of course, you don’t really have a routine. You ask people for an interview, and they tell you, “Okay, tomorrow in the morning,” or, “Tomorrow in the afternoon,” and even though I don’t like afternoon, I simply go in the afternoon. I’m grateful that the person will have time for me, and so there is actually no routine. You do the things as they come. It was the same… Well, it was slightly different with the Shuar, because usually there I was more travelling, so I stayed three days in one community and doing the interviews, and then I went to another community, and then to another, so it was different, while here I’m based in one of the three villages where I am all the time, and when I need something in the other village, I simply go there, and I do an interview or some… I consult the data with the people, and then I go back to my place, so yeah, it is quite different.

MTB: And it’s a very long project with Fala as well, right?

Miroslav Valeš: Yeah, it is a two… With the Fala, it is a two-year project. I am about in the middle. I would actually need it much longer because there is so much work to do that even though the project itself will finish next year… Is it next year?

MTB: 2021.

Miroslav Valeš: It will finish in a year and a half. So, it will actually not finish completely because I will keep working on that, and there will be a lot left because I will do the most urgent things to comply with the objectives, but there will be a lot left on the side and left for the coming years to do.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah. It’s a lifelong project, maybe.

Miroslav Valeš: Yeah. It is, actually, a lifelong project.

MTB: Wow. Okay. Well, thank you so much, Miro. This has been really nice, really interesting. Thank you so much for sharing your stories. Can you tell us where our listeners can learn more about your work?

Miroslav Valeš: They can learn more on the web of CIDLeS, www.cidles.eu.

MTB: EU.

Miroslav Valeš: EU. It is eu. And under the tag of “Projects”, you can find this project. I have some publications in Academia.edu and Google Scholar, too.

MTB: Okay. I’ll link those.

Miroslav Valeš: But mostly the current thing is on the web of the project.

MTB: Okay. Great. Thank you so much.

Miroslav Valeš: Thank you.

You’ve been listening to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. This podcast is hosted and produced by Martha Tsutsui Billins with production help from Laura Tsutsui. Our music is by Lobo Loco and our logo is by E.Vill Designs. If you have a question or a fieldwork experience to share, you can email us at fieldnotespod@gmail.com. You can also follow us on Twitter and Instagram @lingfieldnotes. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please leave us an Apple Podcast review. Thanks for listening!