Episode 32: Michael Karani on Arusa Ideophone Documentation & Description

URL: https://fieldnotespod.com/2021/10/26/episode-32-michael-karani-on-Arusa-ideophone-documentation-description/

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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 Michael Karani. Michael Karani is a lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam, where he teaches linguistics and communication studies. He holds a BA and an MA in Linguistics from the University of Dar es Salaam and a PhD in African Languages from Stellenbosch University. Michael conducted fieldwork for his native language, Arusa, which is a Maasai dialect spoken in Arusha, northern Tanzania, where he studied the Arusa verb system during his MA studies. For his PhD research, he investigated verb morphology and argument structure in the Parakuyo dialect, another Maasai dialect spoken in northern and coastal areas in Tanzania. Currently, Michael is working on further research on Arusa, particularly the expressive grammar, namely ideophones, interjections, and gestures — aspects of the language that have not yet been given enough attention by linguists. He’s currently working in collaboration with Dr. Alexander Andrason from Stellenbosch University.

I really enjoyed getting to chat with Michael. He’s such an interesting person, and his research is so fascinating, especially the work he’s doing on ideophones. I really enjoyed learning more about that. Some of the features in this part of Arusa is not found in other parts of the language, such as clicks, and yeah, I found it really fascinating. It’s always interesting to hear about ideophones and gestures, especially because that’s not something that I work in myself, so I’m always interested to hear about it and how people do that research. But yeah, I’m really excited to share this interview from Michael. Thank you to everyone who was so understanding about the short podcast sabbatical last month. I have a few really exciting interviews lined up that I can’t wait to share with everyone, and if you want to hear more about why I was taking a sabbatical or if you are at the end of the podcast backlog and you’re looking for more Field Notes, you can check out the Field Notes Patreon, where you get one bonus mini-episode every month, and I will link that in the show notes. So with that business out of the way, let’s turn to this interview with Michael.


MTB: So, Michael, thank you so much for coming on to Field Notes. So to start, can you introduce yourself briefly and your work a little bit?

Michael Karani: Sure. I’m Michael Karani, a lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam, and here at the university, I teach communication studies and linguistics.

MTB: Awesome. Thank you. So the first question I want to ask you is, how did you first get involved in linguistics?

Michael Karani: I got involved in linguistics when I joined the university, but also my passion began when I was young because I like our language, our native language, but also the knowledge within the language of Maasai, and I thought it is a good idea to develop that interest and later document the language, have resources written for a future generation.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. So you’re a speaker of Arusa. Can you give listeners who aren’t familiar with the language some context about it, so where is it spoken, who speaks it, what other languages are in contact with it, that kind of thing?

Michael Karani: Yes. As I said, I’m a native speaker of Arusa, and Arusa is a dialect of Maasai, and Maasai is an Eastern Nilotic language spoken in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. Tanzania, in particular, there are three different dialects of Maasai, and these are Arusa, Kisongo and Parakuyo. And the three of these dialects are spoken mostly in the northern part of Tanzania, but Parakuyo is spoken in the coastal area, central and coastal area, of Tanzania. In the context where we have many languages, now we have the Maasai dialect spoken only by children at homes, the language is not taught in schools, so there are limited domains of use, but generally speaking, you know, the community is still vibrant and the language is used as a medium of communication in remote areas where the Maasai live, but we have Kiswahili as a dominant language used in schools and in marketplaces, and this also poses a threat to the vitality and the use of Maasai in Tanzania.

MTB: Yeah. Can you explain the difference between Maasai languages and in the literature I’ve also seen Maa languages? Is there a difference?

Michael Karani: About the terms, you’ll find mostly people using “Maasai,” but also the language is referred as Maa by the Maa community because Maa is the people, and generally speaking, these terms are used interchangeably, so when one says “Maa” or “Maasai,” they generally mean the same thing.

MTB: Mm-hmm. That’s interesting. Is there any kind of official policy that like recognizes Maasai languages or gives any support to them, or is it pretty much just like they’re on their own?

Michael Karani: Yeah, it is… It’s like they’re on their own. Remember, in Tanzania we have more than 128 languages, and the government or the policy promotes the use of Kiswahili and English, and there is no support to local languages spoken by these communities. So you have these individual ethnic groups with their language, and they can only transfer the language to the younger generation when they use it at homes, and there are no other formal platforms where these local languages can be used.

MTB: I see. Can you tell us a little bit more about your main research interests?

Michael Karani: My main research interest is on documentation of Arusa, and I started working on Arusa when I was doing my MA studies. I wrote about the Arusa verb system. I did fieldwork in Arusa, in the Arusa community, but also during my PhD studies, I did an investigation of another Maasai dialect (that is, Parakuyo), spoken in Morogoro and the coastal area of Tanzania. And so currently I work on further research on Arusa in which I… We have a project that is ongoing. It’s about documenting ideophones, interjections, and gestures in Arusa, and I work on this together with Dr. Alexander Andrason, who is a faculty at Stellenbosch University. But also, in connection to that, we recently won a grant to do some research on the sound system in Maasai and Akiek. These are languages that fall under the Rift Valley zone, and with this, in this project, I work with Professor Didier Demolin from France.

MTB: Oh, amazing. Congratulations on your grant.

Michael Karani: Thank you.

MTB: That’s so exciting. Can you tell us more about the ideophones and the gestures and interjections? I’d love to hear more about that.

Michael Karani: Yes. With ideophones, I started this project a little bit earlier, so I was collecting tokens of ideophones that are used… It is small words that are used as ideophones. Most of them come from imitation of sounds or made by human beings, animals, or events. So this is a category of words that have not been given much attention by linguists, and in the literature that is available, there are very few tokens or words that are specifically used as ideophones. Likewise with interjections, the literature we have mentions little, probably five interjections, that we could collect from the written literature, and talking about gestures, there are not really resources documenting gestures that accompany interjections, for example. And just to get a little bit deeper in terms of interjections, we have written an article documenting about conative animal calls, which is part of the interjection project, and we have different sounds that came up as part of the language used by human beings, between human beings and animals. For example, for dispersal, words for dispersal, someone, or giving directives to animals. Just to give an example, we have an interjection like ssúk. This is not part of the regular grammar of the language. You could only find in this context where human and animals communicate. This is calling… When you say ssúk you are actually asking a chicken to go away. Or we have another interjection like ssɛ́k. ssɛ́k is for asking the donkey to move, or séreg to keep moving when you want to call animals like cattle, for example, you can use words like wóu, and this is… It’s a kind of a secondary interjection in which this word can also be found in the regular grammar of the language. So we have two different categories: primary interjections (interjections that cannot be used for other functions other than interjection, and specifically for animal communication), and we have fewer words that can be found, can, you know, have meanings in regular language lexicon, but also they can be used to communicate with animals.

MTB: Wow. That’s really interesting. And then there would be a gesture that would accompany the utterance, or is that a completely separate aspect?

Michael Karani: Sure. The way we described this, for now, it’s all about these tokens, but also we got an idea that it’s also good to investigate the kind of gestures that accompany these animal calls, because we find that when speakers of Arusa communicate with these animals, there are some gestures they do in order to accompany or add meaning or make the animal kind of predict or get the message that the speaker is giving. So we have this as a component that will be worked on or investigated separately, and, of course, connect with these kind of words, but yeah, it’s an ongoing task that we think is good to bring it out.

MTB: Yeah. That’s really interesting. That’s really cool.

Michael Karani: Yeah.

MTB: And the last question I want to ask about these ideophones and interjections briefly is, do you use the same word to disperse all different kinds of animals, or do each type of animal have their own vocabulary? Like if you’re dispersing a donkey, a group of donkeys, is it different from dispersing a group of chickens, or…

Michael Karani: Yeah. These tokens or these interjections are specific to certain species of animals or animal types or… We have different tokens for cattle, for a chicken, for a donkey, for example. So when you want to call a dog, you would use an interjection like [ʘ ʘ ʘ ʘ ʘ] it’s a click. It’s another unique feature of interjections. Or when you want to call a cat, you would say  [ǂǂǂǂ]. It’s also a click sound that we use, particularly for interjections. And calling a chicken, for example, we say kúrú, kúrú or kúrú kúrú kúrú kúrú. So these are kind of, I mean, lexicon or words that are used for specific animals.

MTB: That’s so interesting. That’s so cool. Okay, so can you describe what a general day is like for you when you’re collecting data? Do you have a routine or is every day different? Can you tell us more about that?

Michael Karani: Yes, in terms of a typical day in fieldwork, for example, always I have a scheduled interview, for example, to meet with language consultants, so I have to make sure that I communicate with them early in the morning to make sure that they are prepared for an interview, and then meet depending on the nature of an interview and how much time we have and the subject that we are dealing on that particular day, it can take, for example, an hour or two hours of an interview, and then later try to have time to code data, do some backup, let’s say from a recorder, a sound recorder, to a computer or to an external hard drive. And if there are some follow-up questions that I might have later after an interview, I will have to write them in my notebook just to make sure that you wrap up the day by putting everything together. So that is actually how a typical day looks like.

MTB: Can you tell us how you choose the people that you work with during your research, or do they come and choose you? Like how do you find the people who you end up working with on your projects?

Michael Karani: All right. Trying to support language consultants, I mean, is something that you can decide. I mean, it’s about sampling, but also you can have a kind of purposive sampling where you identify these people early enough, people you think that they can give good data in terms of authenticity, but also their knowledge about the language, but also about the culture and practices in the society, but also people who can give, you know, stories, folklore, and, or real-life experiences. So I use purposive sampling, try to get people who have all these kind of experiences and features that I mentioned. So in most cases, we approach, you know, older people who still have good memory, but also sometimes younger ones who can talk about contemporary life experiences and have a good sense of their language.

MTB: Yeah. Thank you. Can you speak to the challenges or to the advantages that you’ve experienced as an insider linguist and, in your opinion, does working as a researcher cause the community’s perception of you to shift?

Michael Karani: Well, I think there are some advantages working as an insider researcher in your community. For example, I speak the language, so I can, you know, make friends quite easily. I can support people, informants or language consultants, whom I think can provide good data, and I can explain the objectives and why I’m doing such research, and they’re really interested to learn that one of them, a person from their own community, has some interest in language documentation and can tell them the benefits of documenting the language, the knowledge, and the culture. So I enjoy that, but also I can test and try to validate data by asking same questions to different people just to make sure that we ensure data authenticity so that people may not lie to you or simply agreeing that this is acceptable, or, “We say this simply to make you happy,” because that happens. So that’s something that an insider can really get to do in the right way.

But also, talking about challenges, probably the most common challenge is resources. So a person documenting a language that is underdocumented like mine would have a lot of ideas and would want some resources to facilitate documentation in general, have some literacy books written, or compile a dictionary, or write a grammar book, and try to find some ways to disseminate to the community so that people keep learning their language and try to develop their language. So that is something I see as a little bit of a challenge, but also the lack of administrative support or political will in terms of language planning, language policy, that the policies do not really promote local languages in Tanzania. So there is a danger of losing a number of languages because it all depends on insiders, insider researchers, and the community itself, to find some ways to document the language and to train, to teach the young generation about the language.

Yeah, community perception, generally, I would say, is very positive. They see that it’s a kind of advancement to have people from their own community with interest in documenting the language, but also documenting the indigenous knowledge. They share their culture that is somehow threatened by globalization, the dominance of Kiswahili, you know, formal education, and all sorts of modernity that, you know, is getting to these communities. So the perception is quite good, and I don’t think whether, you know, they could see me as, you know, the way they see, probably, foreign researchers, whom they think sometimes they have some hidden agenda. So I think, yeah, that’s how it is in terms of perception.

MTB: Yeah. Do you have thoughts on how we can have more community member linguists involved in language documentation and research?

Michael Karani: Yeah, maybe some ideas about trying to recruit more community members. So, for example, if we get university students with interest in linguistics and documenting their own language, people, you know, students from Maasai community, for example, that would be a good opportunity. Trying to look for scholarships for them and try to, you know, tell them and train them how important is documenting these languages. And also another approach that has proven to be useful is the model that has been used by ELDP researchers Richard Griscom and Andrew Harvey, who trained local researchers, people who reside in the villages, not necessarily with, you know, higher education, but could be a grade seven level, but they can be trained to use computers, to use cameras and audio recorders. And I participated in their workshops, and I really enjoyed. I was, you know, very… It was very exciting to see these people catching up quite quickly, more than we expected, and started using this equipment and document the language, do some basic coding and send data through internet, for example. So that is, I think is a good approach that can be emulated by other inside researchers.

MTB: Yeah. Yes, absolutely. Richard Griscom and Andrew Harvey have both been on Field Notes before, and I’ll link their episodes in the show notes, because they also spoke about this model, this collaborative model where they did the in-community language documentation trainings, and yeah, it was really, really amazing and interesting to hear their experience. What advice would you give to someone who wants to do fieldwork or research working with speakers of Maa languages but they’re maybe early career, they’re just starting out? Do you have any thoughts for them?

Michael Karani: Right. About an advice to researchers who want to work on Maasai, I would start by saying the general fieldwork practices, theory and practices by other researchers are really important, so one would, you know, orient themselves on how to go about fieldwork and what are the basics, how to do good sampling, and how to approach the community. But also, speaking specifically to somebody who wants to do research in the Maasai community, I think it’s good to first establish a good relationship with consultants, educate them about the objectives of the project and why it is important that they participate and try to facilitate the project, but also, if possible, they can have a Maasai speaker as a research assistant who will definitely try to translate and make communication smooth in general, because to have, you know, a foreign researcher who doesn’t speak the Maasai language out there in the middle of the community and there is no means of translation or communication, that would be a problem because in some of these areas, the Maasai area, you could actually go to the village, you don’t find anybody speaking Swahili. So even when you speak Swahili, it’s not a guarantee that you’ll be able to communicate to the Maasai community. And so by having somebody from the speaker community, they can teach you something about their culture, traditions, and customs, and how to get consultants using purposive sampling, for example, because they could be residents of the area, they know people who are good at, you know, giving good data and stories, but also how to get to the remote areas, because the geography might present some challenges, so you need somebody who knows the routes and what is necessary to get there, but also the right season to go there. And some other little things to do and don’t in a certain community, because there are things you do in a certain community, because out of their culture they’re not used to it, they can maybe put them off, and this is really important to get good orientation of the community you want to work in.

MTB: Yeah, definitely. Do you have any advice for insider researchers, like maybe something you wish you had known when you had first started doing linguistic research?

Michael Karani: I think maybe I should speak about my experience first time I went for fieldwork. And I thought because the Maasai would like to have a conversation under the tree, you know, under the shade, and most cases you find trees with some good shade. Now, I went there and I sat with them. It was a kind of a focus group discussion and I thought because they like sitting under the tree, that would be an ideal environment for recording, just to realize that with the wind, but also some noise made by cattle and people passing by, that really made me realize that’s not the ideal area for documentation. So, you know, fieldworks that I did after, it was very important to find a cool place without any kind of distraction. Yeah.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, that’s really good advice. Are there any common misconceptions that you hear frequently about Maasai languages, like things people often think at conferences or if they’re not familiar with this group of languages? Are there things that you’ve often heard that you’d like to bring awareness to?

Michael Karani: Yes. Some of the misconceptions is on the part of the Maasai people, where some of them think that Maasai shouldn’t be in distinct dialects. So they would want to say, “I speak the standard dialect Maasai. I speak the standard dialect,” whereas looking at the facts, the linguistic facts, that’s not the same. So you find them speaking a different dialect, but claiming to be able to speak or to speak another dialect. But also a misconception that it’s a bad idea, it’s a bad thing to have different dialects. And so sometimes they will try to imitate speaking, like people from Kisongo dialect, for example, which is considered to be a standard dialect, you know, and we think, linguistically speaking, this is not right. I think it’s a misconception, because we already have these dialects developed, and they are distinct, and you can tell through the lexicon, the phonology of the language, and I think this is something that they need to be educated, but also for people who, you know, come from other communities, they think that Maasai is always, you know, one language. They can’t tell any difference, or they don’t know that there are different dialects or spoken by Maasai from different sections, so for them, for other speakers of, for speakers of other languages or other communities in Tanzania, they always see that Maasai is one. So I think that’s also another misconception. And also (maybe this is a kind of minor one) thinking that Maasai is a difficult language. You hear people telling you, “Do you speak Maasai? Oh, that’s a very difficult language. How can one learn? Can one learn this language and be able to speak?” So that’s common for people, yeah, from Tanzania.

MTB: That’s interesting. Okay. So the last thing I’d like to ask you is: What future research are you most excited about?

Michael Karani: Yes. I would really love in the future to see myself developing Arusa grammar or somebody else coming up or some insider linguists coming up trying to develop grammars of these other dialects, like Parakuyo grammar, Kisongo grammar, so that they can be described and this distinction, I mean, the differences in these dialects can be well elaborated or described for speakers to understand, but also my wish is to see different small publications or texts for these young generation, primary school children to read some stories. So I wish that people start writing some, you know, stories in Maasai so that people, you know, the young generation can do it. And another wish is that to see if we can establish some language centers in these communities where people can have these resources available for the Maasai speakers or teach other people Maasai language and act as contact to, let’s say, foreign researchers when they want to collect some data, act as collaborators of language researchers when they come to their areas, you know, to do some fieldwork and stuff like that.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you, Michael, so much for coming on Field Notes. Can you tell our listeners where they can find you online, where they can read your work and your publications?

Michael Karani: Well, I’m currently developing my website, so I think when it’s ready, I will share them online, but they can get my works on, for example, Academia, ResearchGate and Google Scholar, so these are the links that I have already. They can see some of my publications.

MTB: Perfect. Great, and I’ll link those in the show notes, and when your website is up, I’ll add that. You can send it to me later. Awesome. Thank you so much, Michael.

Michael Karani: Thank you. It was a great pleasure to have an interview with you.

MTB: 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!

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