Episode 3: Lyle Campbell on Language Documentation in the Americas

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Hello and welcome to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. I’m Martha Tsutsui Billins and today we’ll be hearing from the legendary researcher, Lyle Campbell. Before we turn to the interview, I just wanted to remind you that you can email us at fieldnotespod@gmail.com. If you have a question about fieldwork or if you’ve already done some fieldwork and you have an experience to share, please write in.  On the last episode of season 1, we will be discussing listener questions and trying to answer them, the best we can. So, please email us! So, with that out of the way, let’s turn to the interview with Lyle Campbell. Thank you for listening!

MTB – Today I would like to welcome Lyle Campbell on to the podcast. Lyle is a very well-known linguist, known for his studies of indigenous American languages, especially those of Central and South America; also on historical linguistics in general. His research and teaching specializations include: indigenous languages of the Americas, documentation and revitalization of endangered languages, historical linguistics and typology. He is the author of 21 books, and over 200 articles. Two of his books, “American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America,” and, “Historical Syntax in Cross-Linguistic Perspectives, co-written with Alice Harris,  were awarded the Leonard Bloomfield Book Award by the Linguistic Society in America for the Best Book in Linguistics published in the previous two years.

MTB –  He is also co-founder of the Catalogue of Endangered Languages and a member of the Governance Council for the Endangered Languages Project. So, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy conference schedule to speak with us, I’m very honored that you had time today to talk.

Lyle Campbell –  It’s a pleasure and I wish you all the best of success with your podcast!

MTB –  Thank you so much. So, to start, you’ve had a very long and successful career in linguistics, involving much fieldwork. Can you tell us a bit about where you’ve conducted fieldwork during your career?

LC –  I can, I’ve done fieldwork with communities in Central America and South America. Many, some in North America as well. I think…  I did a lot of work with Mayan languages and the Mayan language communities, and other communities in Central America, and I’ve also done quite a bit of work in South America especially in the Chaco region.

MTB –  Can you tell us a bit about how you started working in Central and South America, do you have some kind of personal connection? Or a research interest in those languages?

LC –  Yes, I was always had interest in those languages. I actually started wanting to work in Uralic languages, and I spent a lot of time trying to learn something about that. But, I discovered that there are lots of good people working there, and there’s simply so much more that needs to be done in the Americas where there aren’t people working, either to document the languages or to help communities that are interested in supporting or revitalizing their languages. So I just switched to the Americas.

LC – I was lucky because I had some courses in some Native American languages as an undergraduate and then I was on some Peace Corps projects to write grammars of a Mayan language and of  Quechuan. So I had some start before I actually then had to make decisions about where to go and do fieldwork.

MTB –  Cool.. And do you have any particular fieldwork experiences that stick out in your mind that you could share?

LC –  Oh yes, too many. I’m trying to think of the ones that would be perhaps most valuable for someone who’s contemplating doing fieldwork, hasn’t done it before. I think that the choice is always partly a matter of just opportunity and personal interest with your background and things like that. The kinds of experiences I had, they’re all the wonderful ones where the wonderful people you interact with and the friends and relationships that you make, and then there are the difficult ones. The difficult ones are the ones where no one tells you how horrible the fleas are. My father called them the ‘man-eating Central American fleas.’ And there are just these uncomfortable things about the insects biting you and all the illnesses you get.

LC – I think I got amoebic dysentery nearly every time I went to  do fieldwork. One called histolytica seemed to love me. And, the kind of hardships that involve just travel, you know getting on buses where the bus drivers are so macho they want to compete with each other with the lives of a hundred people, racing each other up and down mountain sides against oncoming traffic and things like that.

LC –  There’s some scary horrible things that happened, but also lots of wonderful things. In my fieldwork, I often ended up riding mules or horses way off into the sticks and ending up in a different climate zone where I didn’t have enough clothing or something like that. Or ending up in a village where you end up sleeping on the bench in a local school or in a local jail where the fleas eat you alive. Things like that.

LC –  I could tell you a couple stories if you want. Well, I’ll tell you a shorter one and then if you have time I’ll tell you a longer one. So when I worked with Xinca people in Guatemala near the coast of Guatemala, I asked the guys I was working with about a story someone wrote that was about some, a folklore story.

LC – But it had something like witchcraft in it, and they didn’t want to answer and I thought, oh, this is a delicate topic. We won’t pursue this. And then later they asked me, ‘Why did you ask that? You have all those powers.’ And I thought, what do you mean I have those powers? And so I asked them and they said, ‘Well, you can leave your body and go off in your spirit and do your deeds whether they be good or bad and we can tell when you come back cause we can hear your spirit land on the roof’.

LC –  And so they thought I was a witch, a sorcerer. And it turns out that they thought most old people in the village were witches too. And I was quite shocked about that. Usually I was considered, they thought I was either Peace Corps or a priest or something like that. They didn’t seem to mind that I was, to them, a witch.

LC –  Another one, a little bit longer, but this is when I was doing fieldwork in Peru and Bolivia, we were doing a survey and dialects of Quechuan.

LC – And people kept telling us about this very unusual dialect in Apolo, Bolivia. And kept recommending that we should go there. And it was, we didn’t want to because it was very difficult to get there. You either had to trek over the Andes for three weeks or you had to go in with the bush pilots, which are never safe.

LC –  So, eventually after we were told so often how important it was, we decided to go. To go there we had to get a document called a ‘Salvoconducto’ from the government, which meant basically, we had permission to go to an area where there were guerillas.

LC- Supposedly there was guerrilla activity in the area. Then we showed up to the airplane and it’s in pieces and they’re filing things and so it was very late taking off, a small bush plane.

LC –  And then they put it back together and there were only four seats, and then the back part had all these iron elbows for building, and then the bottom had beef carcasses which they were flying out to people to eat. So, it stunk to high heaven. And then they had announced the bubonic plague in the area we were going to so they sprayed the airplane with DDT, so it really, really stunk.

LC –  Actually, after we took off it wasn’t so bad. But it was bad in the beginning. And I was the gentleman so I ended up sitting on the iron elbows because there weren’t enough seats for all of us. And then we got out to Apolo, there was, the wheels wouldn’t come down on the airplane. So, the airplane circled around many, many times and went way up and it did many maneuvers and then it was starting to get dark and they were starting to run out of fuel and so the pilot went way up high and then he just let the plane fall. And then as it got near the ground he did an abrupt maneuver that changed the flight back up so that there would be kind of a tension on the bottom of the airplane. And he did that three times, and on the third time the wheels came down and we landed. And then we were stranded in town because we had only planned to be there a day or two, but we had to wait, I think eight or nine days, until the next flight. Which was okay, because Apolo was a very nice place, it was warm and had nice waterfalls. About eight thousand feet up, which is much lower than the top of the Andes and La Paz, where we left from.

LC –  Anyway, it turns out the dialect wasn’t all that interesting. It was interesting but it was actually one that had come there from Peru and so it wasn’t as different as everyone said it was, it was just from somewhere else.

MTB –  This was in Chile or Argentina?

LC –  This was in Bolivia.

MTB – Bolivia, oh.

LC –  And then, so we left and there was a much smaller plane this time, but fewer of us. And we remembered on the way out that the plane was flying through these passes in the Andes, and so you’d look out the windows and see the wings almost scraping the mountains, going through these mountain passes. Well on the way back it was all fogged in. And so the pilot was flying by his watch and he would watch his watch for a while and fly, and then he would change the direction of the airplane by his watch. And this was really scary because it was scary enough going out when you could see the mountains, and it turns out that there was no bubonic plague in the area and the guerillas were a long way away.

LC – But the comandante, the guy in charge of the military base there, was drunk when we landed and so he kept alternatively demanding that we either give him the contraband or that we give him our documents and we didn’t want to do either, we didn’t have any contraband of course.

LC – He was demanding the contraband in Portuguese, and the documents in Spanish. Anyway we convinced him we would turn in the documents in the morning when we could write it down officially, and he was still drunk in the morning so we gave them to the second-in-command. So, that’s a long story about this sort of fieldwork. It was an interesting experience.

MTB – Yeah,  What an experience. Wow.

LC –  And you probably don’t need any more stories than those, I could tell you a few more.

MTB –  Well my next question was, can you tell us about a non-research related challenge, but having a plane that doesn’t have wheels that come down sounds like –

LC –  Well, that’s part of the research I guess? Issues with transport. I think the non-research challenges are especially, in many of the, the developing countries of the worlds of people, work with endangered languages. It very often has to do with just the visa problems, and the problems of police wanting bribes, and the bureaucracy being almost impossibly cumbersome. Some of the other problems have to do with, depending on what part of the world you’re in, there are people who are very unhappy about outsiders coming to do research with their languages and their cultures.

LC –  Sometimes it’s a very delicate, you have to do very delicate things to be able to win over people’s trust enough to be allowed to work. I have never had much problem with that, but sometimes it did take time and you had to cultivate, cultivate the trust to be allowed to work there.

LT – In North America it can be very, very difficult, where tribes and tribal councils just have  prohibitions about certain sorts of things that can be done or they own the data if you do research and they don’t want it to be made available to other people sometimes. Sometimes for good reasons and other times because they might not have understood the purpose of the data in the first place.

LC –  There are all kinds of challenges like that, that have to do with transportation, and bureaucracy, and living conditions, and things like that. I guess these are the things we don’t teach our students very much in field methods classes because we’re so interested in learning how to deal with eliciting data and analyzing data, and describing it.

MTB –  Absolutely. Can you tell us if you’ve had any data loss horror stories?

LC –  I haven’t.

MTB –  Oh, lucky!

LC –  But I know people who have had some very horrible ones. One of the students who was in a department I was in, had her whole dissertation with all the data in the back of her car and someone broke in the trunk and stole it. And she didn’t have a copy. And a long time ago, in the Soviet Union days, a linguist who- you know, it was very hard to get permission to work with languages in the Soviet Union. So a linguist worked there. And I think he spent a year and six months in the community, at least working with speakers from the community. And he had all these recordings and all this data and it was all lost in the airplane on the way home. A whole year’s worth of work was lost.

LC –  I think the moral of all this, especially nowadays when we have good computers and things like that, is back up, and back up, and then back up and have it in multiple sites.

MTB –  Yeah, most definitely. We had another guest share a story where her car had been broken into and she had lost all of her data, and this was back in the days of analog where it was not so easy to make copies and backups.

LC – Yeah, the one I was talking about was before, I’m not sure, it might have been early in computer days, but she hadn’t made it back up. Because it was really bad. I mean, sometimes people make backups but they keep it in the same place and then the house burns down or the thieves get it and then you’re just out of luck.

MTB –  Yeah, definitely. Can you speak a bit about, how has the field of documentary linguistics changed since you’ve started?

LC –  Well, that’s a very good question. I think, different scholars will have different takes on it.  In my history, I began about the same time that Chomsky and transformational generative linguistics was very, very powerful. And so, there was a tendency for people to avoid, to want to do theoretical things and to avoid doing descriptive, documentary-type things. But still, even in that period of time, there were many, many people writing, doing language description, writing dissertations on indigenous languages and endangered languages. Sometimes using that model and sometimes not. So, it never died, it just was pushed back, and the interest, it wasn’t as central.

LC –  Fortunately after about 1990, the need to do research on endangered languages and to document them and help with revitalization became a priority in linguistics. Some people would say it’s the highest priority in linguistics and even in many of the social sciences. And so that, the attitude changed very markedly.

LC –  The other thing that changed was with Nikolaus Himmelmann’s paper about trying to make a distinction between language documentation and language description.

LC – I personally think that was a very unfortunate sort of split. There were good things that came of it. We really did need to incorporate the technology better, and we really did need to do a better job of getting more genres incorporated in our descriptions, and the various things that were advocated. But, at the same time, if all you do is collect text, then you never get the analysis, then your job isn’t done. So I never gave up the typical American version of language documentation, which I think most people working in American Indian languages never gave up.

LC – And that was the typical Boasian  approach that language documentation meant a grammar, a dictionary,  and abundant texts.

LC – And I think now it’s evolved back so everyone recognizes the value of all these those things.  Although, some people spend more time dealing with the archiving technology side of things and others spend more time dealing with the, the data collection and analysis side of things.

LC –  So, it has had its history and has changed over time. I think it’s all been good though. I don’t think it’s ever been bad, other than the bad part of not having enough linguists and trained native speakers, and activists to do the kind of work that needs to be done.

MTB –  Thank you. Finally, what advice would you give someone who is about to go into the field for the first time?

LC – Well, good question, but I guess it needs some context so, advice for how to deal with bureaucracies, or advice with how to deal with universities, or advice about how to deal with communities? All of those things, there are stories about how to best approach all those various things. I think if you simply have no background at all and you contemplate this, then the first thing is to get some training. Get enough training in linguistics or some parallel field that will allow you to actually do the kind of collection and management and analysis of the data that would allow you to do a good job.

LC – If you already have some background, then the question is what language will you choose? Well you can go to the Catalogue of Endangered Languages at endangered languages.com and if you want, you can do a triage and select the most endangered languages in the world.

LC –  That’s one way to do it. The other way to do it is to talk to people that are in areas that you’re interested in. Or some people will go to areas that they have some personal or family connection to, or some other interest text connects them to it. So choice of language has various variables. The advice I think I would give that I don’t see very often from other people or in manuals for how to do fieldwork, and I assume it works differently in different parts of the world, but it’s very hard to just show up and knock on doors and say, ‘hey talk to me and let me do this kind of documentation product I want to do’.

LC – It’s very important, if you can, to go through all the proper channels of getting, you know, letters from your university, supervisors, colleagues, whatever. Get letters from indigenous institutes or people of some stature in the country where you’re going to work. And then it’s important, when you try to go to the communities, to deal with people that can put you in contact with speakers and others that are interested.

LC –  Often if you can show up with a letter from the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Culture, or whatever that says that you’re a good person and the purpose of your project is to try to collect data that will be useful for education and for the community’s language interest, then with that you can go to the mayor or whoever the head man in the village is. And if you don’t have that, you can still go try to talk to local leaders, the village, the mayor or the chief, or the head man or whatever.

LC – And sometimes you can go to the missionaries who have confidence with local people, they’ve been accepted and they can introduce you to some people and say ‘this is what this person is doing’. But introductions are really important.

LC –  If you just show up on the spot it can take months, or you may never, you may never be allowed to do it. But it can also just take months for you to make the kinds of connections where you finally figure out that you’re a sort of okay person and the project is okay enough to allow you in. But these permissions, getting the permissions and doing it properly is incredibly important.

LC – I think one another important piece of advice is, don’t listen when they say you shouldn’t turn down drinks and food or anything that they offer you. That’s just stupid.

LC –  If you have spent thousands of dollars, maybe your own or somebody else’s, to get the equipment and to travel to someplace and to begin a project, it’s utterly wrong-minded to then eat something that the locals have offered you that’s going to make you sick, and then you just have to abandon the project.

LC – Everyone everywhere understands that there are things that make people ill and if there are things that people don’t like, then you have to do is just say very politely that, thank you very much but, my stomach won’t deal with this. Or it makes me sick or maybe not. But I’ll get ill, or I can’t eat it because- it’s never a problem. Even though sometimes you read the handbooks and they say you should take everything they offer you regardless of what it looks like. But I think that’s important advice: to protect yourself so that you can actually get the project done.

MTB –  I think that can apply to more than just food, to set boundaries where you need to, to be able to continue working at a high capacity.

LC –  Oh yeah, all kinds of cases. Young people flirting with people in the village and then getting kicked out. Or maybe doing more than flirting. The kinds of liaisons that you create, particularly if they involve romance or anything beyond that, those can be incredibly horrible for the fate of a project. And then you have to exercise ethics.  Some of those things are not permitted, and you have to play by the local ethical rules, not by your outsider rules.

MTB –  Yeah, definitely. Well, thank you so much Lyle. And can you tell us where our listeners can learn more about your work? Do you have a website? They can buy your books?

LC –  I guess there’s a website, I have a website at  the department of linguistics at the University of Hawaii of Manoa. And I think on that it has, it has my curriculum vitae and I think there are several papers, but I think you can also just, if you want to read things, I think you can also just click my name on Google Scholar and there will be several things that will come up that you can see to read. I’m happy to receive email and send things to people too, if they’re interested.

MTB –  Wonderful, great and I will link in the show notes your website so that they can find that easily. Thank you so much!

LC –  There’s a Wikipedia page too but it’s not very helpful. [laughs]

MTB – Okay! [laughs] Thank you so much.

LC – You’re very welcome, it’s a pleasure.

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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