Episode 18: Documenting Linguistic Avoidance in Datooga with Alice Mitchell

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Martha Tsutsui Billins (host): Hello, and welcome to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. I’m Martha Tsutsui Billins, and today’s episode is with Alice Mitchell. Alice Mitchell is a Junior Professor in the Institute for African Studies at the University of Cologne in Germany. She holds a bachelor’s degree in German and Linguistics from the University of Oxford, and an MA in Language Documentation and Description from SOAS. She also holds a PhD in Linguistics from the University at Buffalo. Prior to starting her current position in Cologne, Alice spent one year as a Humboldt Fellow in the African Studies department at the University of Hamburg. She also spent three years as a postdoc in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Bristol. Her research focuses on the Datooga language of Tanzania, where she has been conducting fieldwork since 2012.

In this episode with Alice, we discuss her work in Tanzania, and if you’re interested in the Datooga, you can check out Episode 16 with Richard Griscom. He also works with another community of the Datooga, and I really enjoyed this episode. Alice works in pragmatics, and one of the things she is researching is the avoidance register in Datooga, which is something I find so interesting. Alice’s research is a little bit different from other episodes that we’ve aired in the fact that she works with speakers of Datooga who are children, so she talked about how working with kids is different from working with adults. And I found her work really fascinating, and I’m excited to share it with you.

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MTB: So thank you, Alice, for making time to come on Field Notes.

Alice Mitchell: Yeah. Thank you for inviting me.

MTB: Yeah. You’re welcome. So to start, can you take us through your fieldwork biography?

Alice Mitchell: Yep. So I think my very first fieldwork was when I was doing my master’s in language documentation and description at SOAS and Dr. Julia Sallabank took a couple of us on the master’s with her to Guernsey, where she does fieldwork, and we had our first experience doing fieldwork on language revitalization and endangered languages. So that was my sort of first ever taste of fieldwork, and then for my master’s thesis, I was working on preschools in minority languages in Europe and looking at the connections between the preschools and to what extent they influence each other. So I interviewed a couple of people in different minority language — well, not in the language, but about these different schemes. And then, yeah, so that was my first foray, and then my first proper fieldwork — that was in situ, right, not during a field methods course — was then for my PhD in Tanzania with Datooga speakers. And that’s the community that I’ve worked with since then, since 2012. I find the language and the people so fascinating that I’ve not yet been tempted to do fieldwork anywhere else, though I’m sure I will at some point.

MTB: Yeah. I totally relate to that. At this point, I can’t really imagine working with any other communities. I feel very connected to the Amami community, so…

Alice Mitchell: I was just going to say the more you learn about a language, for me at least, the more and more things you start to find interesting about it.

MTB: It’s true. Yeah. I feel like my list of things that I want to research in the future is just getting longer and longer, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to ever move on to, or maybe I’ll just branch out a bit and…

Alice Mitchell: Yeah, and continue with more than one project, yeah.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, definitely, but I was just wondering, how did you become interested in Tanzania or with the Datooga speakers?

Alice Mitchell: That’s a good question. So I think I became quite interested in Africa in general while I was at SOAS, because, obviously, there are a lot of researchers there working on African languages, and I was becoming more and more interested in linguistic diversity. And then when I started my PhD… Actually, I read a book by Tucker Childs, An Introduction to African Languages, and he had this one section on… I think it was the section on sociolinguistics, and he talked about these avoidance registers that you find in some Nguni languages, and I just found that so fascinating. Yeah. Then I, with the help of my PhD advisor, Jeff Good, I then kind of bombarded loads of Africanist linguists with an email saying, “Does anyone know of any fascinating kind of special register or special variety that hasn’t been documented?” Because I was particularly interested in these kind of sociolinguistic varieties. And actually, I got a surprising number of positive responses back, but one email particularly grabbed my attention, from Maarten Mous at Leiden, and he told me about the avoidance register in Datooga, which nobody had really worked on at that point. He knew about it from working on a neighbouring language, and there was an anthropologist who had worked with Datooga people, and he put me in touch with her, and she was incredibly generous with her time and also her contacts with the community, and that’s actually how I got in touch with my host family in Tanzania, who are still my host family. Yeah, so that’s how it came about, and yeah, it was indeed an absolutely fascinating topic to pick.

MTB: I love stories like that where everything just lines up at the right time.

Alice Mitchell: Yeah, and I would say people were very generous. And I know that’s not always the case, I think. I mean, I wondered… I had the impression that perhaps linguists who work in Africa, there’s so much diversity there that we still know very little about, so people are very excited when students are interested and…

MTB: Yeah, definitely. That was my experience as well. I didn’t really know where to start. I just knew the language family I wanted to work with, so I emailed Patrick Heinrich, who is a sociolinguist who works in the Ryukyus, and he’s definitely one of the most well-known linguists. And as I was emailing him, I was thinking, “This guy is not going to email me back. There’s no way. He must get so many of these.” And right away he emailed me back, and he was like, “Oh, this is fantastic. Let’s Skype,” and…

Alice Mitchell: Yeah, that’s wonderful.

MTB: But yeah. It’s so nice when senior scholars are generous like that. It’s really, there’s enough to do. Right? We need more linguists.

Alice Mitchell: Yeah. Yes. Absolutely. Yeah.

MTB: So can you describe a bit more about like the Datooga language and the community that you work with? It’s okay to be very specific, because we had Richard and Andrew on as well, who also work with the Datooga, but different communities, I think, right?

Alice Mitchell: Yes. Yeah. That’s right. Yeah. So Datooga is a dialect cluster that belongs to the Southern Nilotic language family, and the dialects are more or less mutually intelligible. I mean, they’re not actually all very well-documented, so there’s ongoing research into that. I work mostly with  Gisamjanga and Barabaig dialects, and the other thing about Datooga, so it’s… The size of the speaker population’s estimated about 150,000 speakers, and there’s not like one community that all live together, because they’re semi-nomadic cattle herders. They’re spread out all over the country. So I’ve been focused, I’ve been working in sort of based in a small town in Manyara Region in northern Tanzania and then visiting neighbouring villages. So it’s a little bit different from the variety that Richard’s working on.

MTB: Are they villages in the sense of what we think of as a village, like very static, or do they go off and…

Alice Mitchell: Yeah, that’s a really good question. So the villages closer to the kind of main town, which is called Haydom, are fairly village-y in the sense that you have a centre with maybe a school and a church and some shops, and then the houses, the compounds aren’t too far away from each other, and there’s a lot of transportation between the town and the village. One of the… The village I’ve spent the most time in, yeah, is really not what we would think of as a village. For administrative purposes, it’s called a village, but it’s huge, and compounds are maybe half a mile to a mile away from each other. There is a village centre, but really it’s mostly just bush with compounds dotted around. Yeah, that’s where I’ve done the majority of my more ethnographically oriented research, but I’ve worked with speakers in several different villages. And then also, depending on the kind of work that I’m doing, so if I’m doing more sort of elicitation-based work, then I kind of have people come to me a bit in the town, so I’ve met quite a variety of people from different places, and I wouldn’t really… I mean, I guess the community that I work with, in a way, they’re families. They’re like extended households.

MTB: Yeah. That’s nice. Can you talk a bit about your main research interests? So you mentioned avoidance registers. Can you talk a bit more about that?

Alice Mitchell: Yeah, so I’m interested in, well, lots of different things, like we all are, but particularly the ways in which we use language to negotiate our social relationships and the diversity in the ways that different communities around the world do that. So what’s, avoidance is all about interpersonal relationships, and showing respect, and that kind of thing. So that’s my main interest. And I’m also particularly interested in the kind of nuts and bolts of everyday conversation and social interaction. So yeah, topics in pragmatics, linguistic anthropology, interactional sociolinguistics, those kinds of areas.

MTB: Can you give an example, like a short example, of how people might use name avoidance or something like that just so we can understand it?

Alice Mitchell: Yeah, sure. Yeah, so if people aren’t familiar with these kinds of elaborate avoidance registers, I can give an example, a sort of fake example, from English. So yeah, among sort of traditional Datooga women, and this also happens in other communities in Africa, it’s taboo to say the name of your father-in-law and also lots and lots of other in-law relations, as well as words that sound like those names. So let’s say your father-in-law’s called Tom. Then you can never say the name “Tom”. Like even if your brother was called Tom, that would now be taboo, and you’re also going to avoid words that sound similar like “tomorrow”, or “tomato”, or “tomboy”. So in order to get around all of these taboos, women have developed a conventionalized avoidance vocabulary with multiple words, actually, for anything that they might need to avoid. So the Datooga language is huge, because every single word has like at least three alternative lexical items, as well, for women that might need to avoid it. So that’s roughly how it works. And because women are avoiding not just father-in-law, although he is kind of the key target of avoidance, also anyone who falls under the category of father-in-law, so all his brothers and cousins. Also, mother-in-law, all of her sisters, and going back multiple generations, so it’s a very extensive set of words that women avoid, and it really has quite an impact, or can have quite an impact, on women’s everyday speech patterns.

MTB: Yeah. That’s so interesting. Wow. So next, can you give some details about your current project, VariKin?

Alice Mitchell: Yes. So this was a project I’ve been working on for the last three years at the University of Bristol. So this is a very large ERC-funded project headed by Professor Fiona Jordan at Bristol, and it’s looking at cross-cultural diversity in kinship systems. And there’s several different subprojects. One of them is looking at how children acquire concepts related to kinship, so how kids figure out… Well, for one thing, what kinship terms mean, because we find so much diversity in how we classify kin. So that’s the part of the project that I’ve been working on. And although my postdoc’s now finished, I’ve moved on, I’m still very much — current project. Yeah, so I’m looking at how Datooga-speaking children start to use kinship terms and how they’ve developed concepts of kinship through language use, so it’s a kind of language socialization project with quite a big ethnographic component and also recording lots of children’s everyday interactions, observing their activities, their play, and so on to kind of try and figure out how they develop these quite complex concepts relating to who’s family, who’s not, how you classify different types of people.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah. That’s cool. And that leads in nicely to the next question, which is, can you tell us more about how working with children is different from working with adult speakers and how have you sort of navigated those issues about consent and… Yeah, tell us about that.

Alice Mitchell: Yeah, so this project, I did the fieldwork in 2017, and it was the first time I worked with children. So previously to that, of course, children are always around everywhere, but yeah, the focus was really on children’s language now. One of the problems, of course, is that children are very mobile, so it’s difficult to kind of get them sat in one place, which makes recording language use a little bit more challenging. So yeah, I had two lapel microphones with little bumbags that the children would sometimes wear, and this is a method some other researchers have used also in Australia. There’s a project on language acquisition in Murrinhpatha, and they get the kids to wear these little backpacks with the recording equipment in. For me, because I only had two, and there are a lot more children that that in a household, it wasn’t really an ideal method of recording, so I also, I just often would follow the kids around as they went about their daily activities with the video camera, and then the best times to record were really mealtimes and nighttimes when everyone was gathered in one house. So yeah, there are definitely unique challenges recording children’s language, and also transcribing children’s language. Right? Because often it’s quite unclear what they’re trying to say. And they also have their own words for things. Right?

MTB: Yeah.

Alice Mitchell: So that was quite interesting. As for consent, that’s obviously a very tricky thing in general, I would say. I mean, the family, one of my main host families, some of them, they wouldn’t really understand the concept of a university, research is a very foreign idea, but I try my best to explain what I’m doing. They see the kind of whole process of putting the recordings on the computer. And then, so parents give consent for their children to participate. That’s kind of the standard way of doing it. And then getting the assent of children — well, the kids are really excited, generally, about the recording equipment, and they love watching themselves back. And you just have to sort of, I don’t know, of course, think about how to protect them, but also our research, in a way, is really celebrating these children’s experiences. Other issues, of course, come with when I’m actually presenting the data. At the moment… So I’ve also recorded data with children in the UK, and parents are more sensitive about having pictures and so on, and then you can… There are ways to pixelate video images and so on, but yeah, if that sort of answers your question.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah. Definitely. Would the kids ever get kind of bored of, like if you were trying to get certain kind of language data from them, and would they just decide that they’d had enough and walk off?

Alice Mitchell: Mm-hmm.

MTB: For adult consultants, they have to have a lot of patience, sometimes, and I always try to not overstay my welcome, but it could take like 30 minutes or even an hour to record, and I can’t really imagine kids wanting to sit down for that long.

Alice Mitchell: Yeah, so that’s a, yeah, really, really good point. I mean, I’m never doing any kind of… Well, I have done some questionnaires and stuff with kids like asking them specific questions about kinship relations, but that’s always really, really fast. It’s like five minutes, max. Kids just do whatever they want, and I follow them around, so it’s never really asking them to stay in one place. It’s just recording what they’re doing, so yeah. But actually, with the lapel microphones, sometimes they would ask me to wear them, and then they would come back after half an hour, and they were like, “Yeah, we’re done.” So yeah, they did have a point where they were like, “Okay. I don’t want to wear this weird thing anymore.” But that actually reminds me of something else that would be good to say about working with children. So when I started recording spontaneous interaction, one of the things people always ask about is, “Oh, aren’t people really self-conscious and just pay attention to the camera?” And with adults, I was just amazed at how maybe they’ll comment on the camera now and again, but they really just drown it out. They just don’t think about it. They’re too busy getting on with their lives. With children, the camera never gets old, ever, so every time you turn it on, it’s an exciting thing. So I use a Zoom Q8, and it’s got this little light on the front, and if the noise is too loud, it flashes. And once the children discover this, obviously, they just loved it, so they were like clapping and making as much noise as possible to get this little light to flicker on and off.

MTB: Oh, so funny.

Alice Mitchell: Yeah. So that’s definitely a challenge, and basically you just have to kind of wait for them to get absorbed by something else, but you really have to be prepared for that in a way that, with adults, it’s just — they don’t behave that way, obviously.

MTB: Yeah. [laughter] Oh, that’s so funny. What did you do when they started doing that? Were you just like, “Well, this session is garbage now”?

Alice Mitchell: Yeah, basically. Yeah. Yeah. So I think I tried a lot of different strategies, but the best one is just, wait it out, be patient, and just, if you have to get rid of the first 15 minutes, that’s — 

MTB: That’s fine.

Alice Mitchell: And maybe it’ll come in useful one day. I mean, who knows.

MTB: Yeah, for sure.

Alice Mitchell: Maybe there’s some kind of interesting research topic there.

MTB: How funny. Let’s talk about equipment. Can you talk about which… Well, you said you use the Q8, which is the one with the fisheye, right?

Alice Mitchell: Yeah, that’s right, with the microphone that’s sat on the top.

MTB: Right. Yeah, and then other major equipment?

Alice Mitchell: Yeah, so my 2017 field trip, I really relied on the Q8 a lot, and it made great recordings inside. Datooga houses are made of wattle and daub, and then the sound quality was great. It’s quite small, which — the houses aren’t very big, so that was nice, too. So I also use a Sennheiser ME 62, which I really like, also for conversation. And I also had one of those little — it’s like a GoPro, but it was a Sony Action Cam that I used for a while, and that was really nice for small spaces. For elicitation, I have a Røde NTG-2, which I think is quite a popular one, which is all right, although I don’t like it as much as the Sennheiser. And then as I was also mentioning, I had some lapel microphones from Audio-Technica, lapel microphones that were then… They’re wired so then you… I got a tiny little, I think they were TASCAM audio recorders that would fit in the bumbags for the children to wear. But ideally, if I had a very large budget, I would definitely go for wireless lapel microphones, and then the children would have a lot more flexibility. It would be a lot more comfortable for them. And then, I guess, other equipment that’s really important for my fieldwork is solar panels, so I had a recommendation (a Voltaic Systems one) that was really pretty powerful. You could power a laptop off of it, and then these kind of more simple ones that just unfold. And then I became a mobile phone charging centre for the whole village, obviously, but that’s a nice service that I was able to provide.

MTB: Yeah. Definitely. Oh, that’s so funny. They just walk up and plug into your…

Alice Mitchell: Yeah. They would come, and they’d kind of… You can’t really just show up and ask for something in this culture. Right? You have to say hello and then kind of somehow indicate that you want your phone charging, but yeah. It was really, it was quite funny the constant demands of the solar panel.

MTB: That’s nice, though. It’s funny what people end up — in the community — end up wanting. Like Andrew Harvey made this great point about how the community might not actually be interested in your recordings and your data, but they might rather learn how to edit photos on a laptop so that they can create a business in the future, or learn how to make playlists.

Alice Mitchell: Yeah. Right. My main transcription assistant, or my most recent main transcription assistant, started learning to touch type on my computer, and that was kind of one of the most useful things I could offer her, really.

MTB: Yeah, so sometimes it’s unexpected. And then can we back up a little bit, and you were saying how your current project is looking at kinship terms? Can you just say a little bit more about that just so we have a better idea?

Alice Mitchell: Yeah, I can say a bit more about that, if you want. So exactly. So kinship terms are the words we use to classify kin — mother, father, aunt, and uncle — and if we compared Datooga and English, for example, “mother” is, like in many other African languages, your mother’s sister is also your mother. Your father’s wives are also your mothers, and, for example, you distinguish grandparents on the different sides of the family, unlike in English, so you have your mother’s mother and your father’s mother. You use different words for those. Also, if you look at the category “cousin” in English, which actually includes a lot of different types of relatives, for Datooga people you have a different term for every single type of cousin relation.

MTB: So like first cousin, second cousin, third cousin.

Alice Mitchell: No, sorry. I mean… Your mother’s sister’s children, right? So for Datooga, those are considered like your siblings. Actually, sorry, that is wrong. Your father’s brother’s children are kind of considered your siblings, whereas like your father’s sister’s children, you would have different terms for. You have mother’s brother’s children and your mother’s mother’s children. You would have different terms for all of those people. Yeah, so that’s one of the questions is then, how do children learn to distinguish these types of people and apply the terms properly? And I’m also interested in things like, so Datooga have a clan kinship system, so when you’re born, you’re born into your father’s clan, and clan is important for various different sociocultural, political matters, but obviously children have to figure out somehow what clan they belong to, what “clan” even means. Right? That they belong to their father’s clan, not their mother’s clan. And it’s interesting looking at how children kind of negotiate this. What I’ve found… Well, one thing that’s been quite challenging is that Datooga speakers actually don’t use kin terms very much at all because they use names. That’s their person reference preference. So children don’t refer to their parents like using “mum” or “dad”, and they don’t call their uncles “uncle”. They use their names. Not their birth names, but a different kind of name that every Datooga person has. So, looking at how children are acquiring these kin terms is actually a little bit tricky because actively they don’t…

MTB: Yeah. It’s hard to catch them using them.

Alice Mitchell: Yeah. Exactly. And actually, what’s interesting is, there’s quite a lot of more idiomatic uses of kin terms. So, for example, if you want to say like “I swear” in Datooga, like “I swear for something to be true”, you say literally it’s like “your mother’s stomach”. So that’s, even the very young kids, that’s the first time you’ll hear them using the kin term “mother” in that context, right, rather than actually referring to someone. So, looking at all these kinds of issues related to that, but I’m also interested in a more kind of anthropological sense of how certain relationships are maintained through linguistic practices. So the mother-child relationship’s a very intimate close one for Datooga, so looking at like mother-child interactions, how those work linguistically is really, really interesting. And the other thing, so if the compound that I was doing most of my research in, so you’ve got children of the same age who belong to different generations because of the way, because you’ve got polygyny. You’ve got like a daughter-in-law of the main household head who’s roughly the same age as his most junior wife. Right? So then you’ve got like a four-year-old child who’s actually technically the classificatory father of a child the same age. So the question is, obviously they’re all children. They interact like siblings, but at what age do they kind of realize that they stand in these different relationships to each other? I remember one time there was, I guess, this… I think they were both about six or seven. These two boys were fighting, and then this kind of head of the household just kind of made this comment like, “Oh, they wouldn’t be fighting if they knew that…” They were thinking of the fact that that child’s actually the other one’s father. Right? Classificatory father. And I thought that was kind of interesting. It takes time for these relationships to become meaningful.

MTB: Yeah. That’s really interesting. This is the last question. What advice would you give to someone who’s just starting out and is thinking that they’d like to do some fieldwork in the Rift Valley? Do you have any hot tips?

Alice Mitchell: Well, I guess given what we were both just saying earlier, get in touch with other researchers. Don’t be afraid to do that. People like hearing from people who are interested in similar things. Some practical advice, I would say make sure you take smart clothes with you to the field. This is something I didn’t really think about when I first went, and you are very likely to get invited to special events, special occasions, and even though you can get amazingly nice clothes made for you in Tanzania very easily, it’s good to look smart. Don’t have this idea that you’re kind of going into the bush, and you should just have your safari gear on. I mean, people are really well dressed in Tanzania, and yeah. That’s something I always made a note of, and on future trips, then, I made sure I had nice clothes. Another thing I would say is, as much as you possibly can, learn Swahili before you go. It’s really… For me, where I was doing my PhD, there were no Swahili courses available, and I did manage to find a Swahili teacher who sort of became a tutor, but really, I had to mostly teach myself. But, I mean, it’s just going to be so much of a help to you if you can speak Swahili already, so I would really invest time in that. And another thing… This isn’t true just of the Rift Valley, but of anywhere, when you actually start working on a language, I would, if I was kind of advising my past self, I would really make every effort to learn the language as well as to just study it. So use every opportunity — I mean, even your first day. Right? You’ve elicited some simple words. Well, make flashcards. Start learning them already. Think about it both as not just a researcher, but also a learner, and I think that way, fieldwork becomes so much more rewarding. And of course, then you can interact with people in a very different way if you can speak their language. I actually had a recommendation for an article, too.

MTB: Yeah. Leslie Moore’s paper.

Alice Mitchell: Yeah. She’s got a really great article about communicative competence in the field, and she gives some very practical suggestions for learning languages, but I think sometimes, not all linguists, but sometimes linguists don’t really think about actually learning the language. Right? And I’m someone who… You know how everyone gets really annoyed when people ask, “How many languages do you speak as a linguist?” I personally don’t find that such a stupid question. As a linguist, surely we like learning languages. I know there are many different kinds of linguists, but for me, that’s not an annoying question, actually. I think it’s really, really important to try and learn the language we’re studying. And then, yeah, I listened to some of your other episodes, and I think people gave some really, really great advice, so don’t want to really repeat anything. One thing I would say on a sort of, I don’t know what you would say, like psychological level, is, don’t expect too much of yourself when you’re first starting out in the field. It’s tough in lots of different ways, and you’re bound to think, oh, how someone else would be doing that, right, if they were in the field. Just try and not think like that and be kind to yourself, and so what if you really don’t get much done in your first trip? Just try and soak up the experience, and the relationships that you make are the most important thing.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, that’s really true. Well, thank you, Alice. I think that’s a great note to end on. So where can our listeners learn more about your work or find you online if they want to read more about what you’re doing?

Alice Mitchell: So I have a website at the University of Cologne, where I’ve just moved to, and then I think I have a Google Scholar profile that you can find my articles on, and then I’m also always very happy to receive emails from people, so perhaps you can put that there, too, my email address.

MTB: Oh, great. Thank you, Alice.

Alice Mitchell: Yeah, thank you, Martha. It’s really nice to e-meet you. Have a nice day. Bye.

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!

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