Episode 25: Tibeto-Burman Field Linguistics with Shobhana Chelliah

URL: https://fieldnotespod.com/2021/02/18/episode-25-Tibeto-Burman-field-linguistics-with-Shobhana-chelliah/

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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 this is a bonus episode with Shobhana Chelliah. Shobhana Chelliah is a Distinguished Research Professor of Linguistics and Associate Dean for Research and Advancement at the College of Information at the University of North Texas (UNT). She is a documentary linguist interested in creating descriptions that expand typological discovery, primarily of the Tibeto-Burman languages spoken in the Manipur state, India. Her publications include the Handbook of Descriptive Linguistic Fieldwork co-authored with Willem de Reuse. Shobhana also recently published Why Language Documentation Matters. Along with John Peterson, she is the series editor for Brill’s Studies in South and Southwest Asian languages. She is an Associate Editor of the journal Himalayan Linguistics and is on the Editorial Board of the Journal Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman AreaJournal of South Asian Languages and Linguistics and is on the Advisory Board for the Journal South Asian Languages. She is also the founding director of the Computational Resource of South Asian Languages Archive.

I really loved recording this episode. Shobhana Chelliah is someone who I’ve wanted to have on Field Notes for ages, and I was so nervous before chatting with her, but she’s actually just the nicest, kindest person. I really enjoyed a lot of what she had to say, and her thoughts on decolonizing linguistics really stood out to me, especially because she highlighted how her positionality as a person from India affects how she thinks about the act of decolonizing. And something she said that I just want to highlight is, she said that decolonizing means letting others decide — which is just so powerful and relevant and important to remember at all times. And I also loved how energetic she is — she’s clearly so passionate about everything she does, even though she’s working on so many different things — and also her optimism about how we, as linguists, are actually well-positioned to effect the change in our field and in the world that we want to see.

MTB: Well, thank you so much, Shobhana, for coming on to Field Notes. I really appreciate you making time in your busy schedule.

Shobhana Chelliah: Thank you so much. I’m very happy to be here.

MTB: Oh, my gosh, I’m so excited to chat with you. I really appreciate it. So to start, can you share with our listeners how you first became interested in linguistics?

Shobhana Chelliah: Oh, sure, so unlike many, you know, language nerds, I actually began with an interest in language through reading of fiction. And I have a bachelor’s in English literature, and I read voraciously all through high school and through college, and I was specifically interested in, you know, on how people can use their words to get another person to do things, so one person’s words resulting in actions from another. So I guess you can call that, you know, propaganda or political speech. So I came to linguistics with that interest in language, and I started my master’s in linguistics at Delhi University after my bachelor’s in a college in Delhi in English literature, but I soon kind of became very interested in morphological diversity, reading about different languages and their structures and doing linguistic puzzles. It just kind of worked for me. It clicked as something that I really wanted to pursue, and I had some great teachers, too, who had different perspectives. So my master’s advisor, K.V. Subbarao, was really in the generative, you know, tradition and taught us syntax, and that also was a lot of fun. And so those were sort of my foundations in linguistics. And after that, I came to the University of Texas at Austin in 1984 to study with Tony Woodbury, and I was able to then really get into morphology and totally enjoyed doing that. So that’s where linguistics really took hold in my life.

MTB: Cool. Did you start working on Indian languages and languages of India right away within your PhD, or did that develop gradually?

Shobhana Chelliah: I actually started working on them pretty soon, because when I was a master’s student, Dr. Subbarao, K.V. Subbarao, had one of our classmates, Promodini Nameirakpam, a Manipuri speaker, work as our consultant, so she was both a student in our class and a consultant, and, you know, I started with that language. And so when I came to the US, I continued working on that language. That was actually Willem’s idea. Willem de Reuse, who’s my colleague and also my partner, said, “Hey, why do you want to go looking for another language when you already were working on something so interesting?” And so I attribute my continued interest in Manipuri to his one-off chance but well-placed comment way back in 1984.

MTB: Oh, my gosh. So you knew Willem back then.

Shobhana Chelliah: That’s when we met, actually, at the University of Austin in Texas, yeah.

MTB: Oh, wow. That’s so cool. Can you tell us a bit about your positionality, so who you are as a researcher and as a person in relation to the communities that you work with?

Shobhana Chelliah: Yeah. This is such a great question. India is a very complicated place. It’s got, you know, huge socioeconomic disparities between the different communities, layers and layers upon different educational levels and so on. So within India, you know, I come from an educated, privileged class of people, and already there I realized that I’m sort of an outsider to the communities that I work with. On the other hand, I also feel a deep connection and affinity to them because I understand, I think, where they’re coming from and what their needs are because I understand what infrastructure and other kinds of challenges they may be feeling. So my position is both as an outsider and as a member, so I feel like a lot of the people that I work with look to me for support. It’s almost like in the Indian social fabric, you know, we’re supposed to be helping each other, and aunties and uncles are supposed to help their nephews and nieces even if they’re not their kids, their sons and daughters. And in the same way, I think we’re expected to sort of help people in these kind of situations where people want to get an education, they want to work on their language, they want to be superior linguists for their communities and for themselves. And so that has always been sort of the way that I see myself positioned and the way that I think the people that I work with in India see my position: as somebody who is there to pull them up and help them compete in the marketplace of linguists across the world. There is no reason why they can’t, yeah, in the global field. So I would say that that’s where I am, and I think the fact that I’m working in the US hasn’t that much influenced this, because I’m in India very often, you know, pre-COVID, at least twice a year. That has helped me pursue those, you know, really kind of fulfill like that obligation, almost, I would say, and also totally enjoyable and rewarding for me as well.

MTB: Yeah, that’s so interesting. It sounds like there’s almost this like added responsibility as someone who’s from India, like when you’re working in India versus like a white person or a Western person, just coming in, like there’s like a certain level of responsibility or expectation that you also have to manage.

Shobhana Chelliah: I agree with… Yeah, that’s right, and people have told me that off and on, you know, how… Sometimes, if you have older people visiting you, they will give you a little bit of advice, and I’ve had people say that to me, like, “You’ve had a lot given to you. You really should be doing more” — or not “You should be doing more,” but “You can be doing a lot, and so we’re looking forward to seeing what that is.” That kind of thing, you know. So I think that that has been something that I’ve heard and something that I’ve really taken to heart, and I’m glad that that’s worked out like that. So I hope I do get continued opportunities, you know, to encourage the up-and-coming linguists in in India.

MTB: Yeah, that’s amazing. So you’ve been working in documentary linguistics for a while. Can you take us through your field biography? So you mentioned starting with Manipuri in your master’s at Delhi University, and then you moved to North Texas, where you continued. So since then, have you kept with the same language and same community, or have you worked with other communities?

Shobhana Chelliah: I have had a chance to work with other communities. A good friend of mine now, someone who was my consultant when I was in Manipur in the 1990s, Dr. Harimohon Thounaojam, was working on a language called Lamkang, which was spoken very close to where he lived. There were family friends who were Lamkang speakers. He himself is a speaker of of Manipuri or Meitheilon, and as a linguist, student of linguistics, they had — the Lamkang community — asked him to help with description of their language, development of orthography, and he then agreed to do that, and in his master’s and his PhD he worked on this language. Well, once he is done, he asked me if we could, you know, work on publishing some of that material, and in that process I got to know his family, friends, particularly Beshot Khullar and Rex Khullar, just amazing people who have, as community members without linguistic training, done an enormous amount of documentation on their own collecting, you know, proverbs, and riddles, and songs, and stories and publishing those, recording them, and continuing to do that. And so I worked with them in Chennai. I worked with them in Manipur. Two speakers, additional speakers, of Lamkang who also have been working on orthography, Bible translations, know some linguistics, Daniel Tholung and Swamy Ksen, came to the US. We brought them to UNT, University of North Texas, where I work, to interact with our students and to work further on their language.

And so that kind of model of having our students in the US work with the communities that we work with in India, we’re continuing to do that. Myself and my colleague Sadaf Munshi, who works on the languages of Northwest India, want to continually bring like people back and forth, so we take our students to India, and we bring the community’s members and linguists that we’re working with there back to the US to work with our students. So Lamkang was one of those languages that really I’ve been working on for a while now, and we have a digital collection of Lamkang at the Computational Resource for South Asian Languages (or CoRSAL) Archive, which is housed at the UNT Digital Library. So that was one language that took up quite a number of years, and we continue to work on grammatical descriptions of that.

Since then, I’ve been more and more interested in interlinear glossed texts and what they can do to help young linguists in India add to the pool of data that they’re using for their descriptive work and specifically kind of looking from one language, IGT, to a related language and seeing if there can be some help in more rapidly kind of doing descriptions if you have, you know, access to that kind of information. A lot of the information on Indian languages that currently exist are, you know, sentences that don’t necessarily have a richness of morphology, you know, instantiated in them. They’re not exemplars of complex morphology. They’re usually quite simple, and so it’s hard for people to get a hold of, you know, to really describe the morphology accurately without better data.

So following that, what we did was, I got to know some speakers of languages in Assam. So most of my work has been in Manipur, but recently I would say, for about five years, I’ve been visiting Guwahati University and the Indian Institute of Technology in Guwahati. These are both in the state of Assam, and there they have languages, as in all of India, lots of different languages spoken there, but they have a group of languages called Boro-Garo, and so we are working currently with the language Boro and the language Dimasa, and another language called Kokborok, and these are all closely related languages. And we’re attempting to create interlinear glossed texts of these three languages and to see if we can discover something about the nuances of case marking and differential marking in these languages. And I just finish this off just by saying that when I say “we,” I mean myself and my co-PIs Alexis Palmer, who is a computational linguist, and Scott DeLancey, who is also one of my mentors from the University of Oregon, along with a very large team of people in India, and Jonathan Evans in Taiwan.

MTB: Wow. And all of this work is kind of ongoing, right? So you’re working on a lot of different stuff.

Shobhana Chelliah: Yeah. Yeah. It’s so funny. It is a lot of different stuff, but it’s all quite closely related. Sometimes I do find that I’m swimming in… I have to go out and take a walk, clear my head, “What am I doing today?”

MTB: Yeah.

Shobhana Chelliah: But I have an amazing group of students, I’ve been very fortunate to have funding so that I can work with students, and I have great colleagues, so it’s a lot of fun too, and yeah. So there are different strands, but the unifying strand is really trying to create these annotated corpora of connected texts to improve analysis.

MTB: That’s really good. Okay, so you touched briefly on it, but can you tell us a bit more about your main research interests?

Shobhana Chelliah: One of the main things that I’m pursuing currently is on differential marking, so how do speakers, you know, decide whether or not to highlight a particular entity, and what mechanism do they use to to do that? And so that would be a main kind of linguistic goal, and that’s what we’re doing, my team and I are doing, with the Dimasa language and using Boro and Kokborok to understand the Dimasa better. So that’s the kind of linguistic thing. And then ongoing is like working up all of the leftover things from Lamkang that we have not yet published on but that we have results on, so the, you know… Basically, we’ve done bits and pieces, and we still have to do things on the noun morphology and there’s a lot of stuff that we need to write up on tone and so on, so we’re working on those things, as we can and usually when somebody asks me for a paper, I’m like, “Okay, what do we have left over on Lamkang that we need to work on?” And then at the same time, we’re trying to get some pedagogical materials ready for Lamkang. So things that we want to put on very simple PowerPoints that we can then just present as kind of voiceover PowerPoints to people who might be interested in the community. We’re not doing more detailed kind of things like doing storybooks and so on because there are people in the community who are interested in doing that in a writing system that they’re interested in using, and so we’re there to support them, but we’re not taking that on ourselves.

I have two other short things that I’ll mention. One of them has to do with connected texts, but it has to do with the content of those. So I’ve been working with some of my political science colleagues to talk about how people who are doing fieldwork might want to expand the kinds of things that they’re collecting to include information that their consultants, their speakers, would want to provide as a story to the world on how they feel their language is being endangered — for example, having to move to a different village, having to, you know, suppress or not use a language for fear of some sort of, you know, retaliation. Some of these things are super, super sensitive, but we wanted to discuss: Where do we draw the line and where is it our responsibility to help these people voice their experiences? Because no one else is really there and knows the language the way that we do. Certainly, political scientists would not be able to do that without our helping, and political scientists are using numbers that come from the state, so the elites, rather than the experiencers. So that’s one thing that I’m really interested in doing, let’s say, in the next 10 years of my career.

And then finally, I’m working with Kelly Berkson and another team of people to look at COVID-related materials for refugee communities, specifically the Chin community, the Hakha Lai speakers in Indiana, again, to create annotated texts on health and ideas about wellness that would then go to CoRSAL finally. So all of it has to do with connected texts, but it’s a little bit of a different focus for each of those research projects.

MTB: I know everyone faces challenges in the field, but are there any challenges that you’ve been through or that you’ve faced while you were doing fieldwork that you could share with us.

Shobhana Chelliah: When I was first in the field, the hardest thing was like the isolation. I had to like stand in line to get to a phone to call home, and everybody would stand around me and wait to hear what I was going to talk about. There was no privacy or anything like that, and, you know, there was curfew, and so you couldn’t go get your soap. Stuff like that has now changed so much, so isolation is not so bad. I would say the challenges are really that we’re not able to stay in the communities long enough. Like when I was younger, I could stay for nine months, but having a job and having to be here means that we’re really just able to go off and on, and so you’re not able to build the bonds and the… that you would want to, although social media helps a little bit with that.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah. I found that the isolation… It was strange, though, because I was never actually alone. I also didn’t have that much privacy. I lived with a host family, and they had a lot of kids, and I helped care for the kids, so the only time I was really alone was when I was sleeping. But you do feel lonely. Like I would go days and days and days without speaking English or thinking in English, and that sometimes made me feel kind of lonely.

Shobhana Chelliah: Yeah, I would agree with that. I remember listening to the news read at slow speed just to hear some English.

MTB: Oh, my gosh.

Shobhana Chelliah: That was fun. Yeah. Oh, the funny thing about Manipur is that they sell a lot of country-western music. So I listened to a lot of Sting, Madonna, and then all this country-western stuff on cassettes. That was also helpful. I don’t go back to the field by myself anymore. I always go with a group of people or at least a couple of students. My student Mary Burke has come with me several times. That has been a really nice change, and then that feeling of isolation doesn’t hit quite so hard because you have a combined goal and also background. Yeah.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I can’t even imagine. You know, now we have iPhones and I can, you know, FaceTime home, text my family every day.

Shobhana Chelliah: It was a different time, yeah.

MTB: Do you have any thoughts about what we can do in the field of linguistics to decolonize linguistics and, more broadly, academia?

Shobhana Chelliah: Well, I feel like with the work that we do, we’re really well positioned to break down what we do into segments where people who may not be able to participate in the venture otherwise can participate. So with tools like, I mean, I’m going to say Saymore. That’s one example. There are other tools that are easy to teach, easy to learn, and are super, super helpful. We can bring people into projects in ways that we never could before, and so young people are so, you know, learn technology very easily. And sometimes even people my age, when you teach them how to do something like Saymore, they’re like, “Okay, I got it,” and then they can just produce a lot of information — perhaps not in the best IPA transcription and perhaps not even in a very standardized orthography, but enough to go on so that you don’t have oodles of data that you can’t use at all. At least you can see what’s going to be useful and then process it further later on down the road, and in that way making it not your project, but making it like a collaborative project.

So people talk about this all the time now, but I found that in my… My work is like, never underestimate what somebody can contribute, and what they want to contribute, and what how they want to be involved. So decolonizing also means letting other people decide, rather than you’re deciding what needs to be done. And that is sort of something that we as field linguists are also very well-positioned to participate in that venture, because we know that for linguistic analysis, we need a broad slate of genres to be getting our information from to get good linguistic description, and so if we leave it up to people who are in our projects who are the speakers, who are the experiencers, and who will be ultimately the users of this information to say what they want for those genres to be and to let them decide, you know, what needs to be recorded and analyzed, we both serve the purposes that we need, but also serve the purposes that they need.

Another thing I think that’s really important is to kind of disseminate and highlight what it is we can offer. We’re almost like vendors in the sense that we’re offering a possibility that others may not know about. So communities may not know that this could be an end product that they could use, and then they’re able to come to us and say, “I need your help. I need you to help me with this.” To me, when you talk about decolonizing, I almost feel like there’s so many layers to it. To me, I’m… Just going to that layer of Indian academic linguists, that I want to bring them into the world marketplace of linguistics. I know there’s a layer even below that — or above and beyond that — which is people who are not academic at all. But in India — I don’t know if you are aware, but there are so many native-speaking linguists, so by helping that linguist, you’re helping that community, you know? So it’s great. You get a lot out of that. This is a huge question that you’ve asked, but I’ve kind of touched on my small take.

And you asked me a question of like, is it different for me because I am not, say, like a Western linguist going in? I think that that is true, that you can see that my concerns are very, very different, and so the ethics question, the questions about fieldwork ethics, the questions about being colonial in archiving, the questions that a Westerner might ask for ethical concerns are similar to what I need to be asking, but they’re also slightly different because I’m coming from a different perspective of… I don’t know how to… I don’t know if I’ve really thought it through to explain it in a podcast, but I just want to say that I feel that it’s different because I feel like my concerns are more that I need to be doing more to support the endeavors of these young scholars, and to expose them to all the possibilities out there, and to give them those things. That, I feel, would be unethical not to do that — rather than feeling, “I’m going there to get something from them and make my career on it,” which I think are the two different concerns, like, “I’m not doing enough,” or “I’m taking too much.” I fall on the “I’m not doing… I would be in danger of not doing too much, and that would be unethical.” So that’s what I wanted to say about that.

MTB: No, no, no, no. Yeah. I think it’s like, you’re right. It is like a huge question, very complicated, and kind of like… I should probably do like a whole episode on… I ask everybody about this, like, “What do you think about decolonizing linguistics?” Because I think we need to hear like lots of different people’s perspectives on it, but it is like such a huge, a huge issue.

Shobhana Chelliah: Right. Right. Yeah, it goes back somewhat to IGT also, to interlinear glossed translations — weirdly so, because we use all of these Latinate terms to gloss things, and then it’s completely opaque to people who aren’t linguists, so how are we… You know? So you’re right. This question goes deep, and it’s also, is different for different people, different situations, and also could be interesting from a very granular perspective as well.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah. Definitely. Okay, so my final question is: What advice would you give to someone who wants to do fieldwork working with speakers of Tibeto-Burman languages and is just starting out (like an early career researcher)? Do you have any advice for them?

Shobhana Chelliah: Sure, and I’ll keep it really short. I think you would be well served to find communities of Tibeto-Burman linguists who work on Tibeto-Burman languages and to attend their meetings, because this community of linguists is very nurturing and less territorial, I think, than some other communities of linguists. There’s the meetings that take place on a regular basis the International Conference on Sino-Tibetan Languages and Linguistics, the Himalayan Linguistics Symposium, the Northeast Indian Linguistics Society Meeting, and here you can meet both linguists and native-speaking linguists and community members and who are interested in language and supporting their community’s efforts in describing and documenting their languages. So the first thing to do, I think, would be to hook up with these communities, starting first, maybe, with some emails depending on the regions that you want to work in. Is it China? Is it Northeast India? Is it Tibet or Nepal? And so on. And then just coming to those meetings, and I think that would be a great first pass. Now that everything is virtual, that should not be too difficult to do. And then getting an idea then of what needs to be done, and where are their openings? Where are communities looking for help? And so that would be the way that I would advise people who want to start working in those languages to go.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah. That’s great. Thank you. Well, thank you so much, Shobhana. This has been really great, really informative. Where can our listeners find you if they want to learn more about your work?

Shobhana Chelliah: I would definitely send them to the CoRSAL website, which is where we’re doing a lot of work right now, and I do have a website and I will send that link to you. It’s schelliah.ci.unt.edu. That would be where I send them. I think on the Wikipedia page, the link to that webpage is also there.

MTB: Okay. I’ll link that.

Shobhana Chelliah: All right, well, I hope we can talk again sometime.

MTB: Thank you. I’m really grateful for you sharing this with us. I feel like I have so many things to think about now.

Shobhana Chelliah: I’m really grateful that you listened to all of my talking, helped me kind of think through some things as well, and I very much enjoyed talking to you. Thanks.

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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