Episode 33: Azeb Amha on Afroasiatic language documentation & description

URL: https://fieldnotespod.com/2021/11/27/episode-33-azeb-amha-on-afroasiatic-language-documentation-description/

[Intro music]

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 Azeb Amha. Dr. Azeb Amha, from the University of Leiden, is a linguist with interest in the morphology and syntax of Afroasiatic languages, linguistic typology and the interdisciplinary fields of anthropological linguistics and sociolinguistics. She has worked extensively on the documentation of languages in Ethiopia, including Oyda, Wolaitta and Zargulla. She is an ELDP grant recipient, and a depositor with DOBES and the Endangered Languages Archive.

This interview was such a treat for me to record with Azeb. She’s someone who I’ve been wanting to have on the pod for quite a while, and I just knew that she would give such insightful perspective on what it’s like to work within her own community, with her mother tongues, as well as her experience working in other communities. One of the really interesting things I love about doing this podcast is getting to talk to so many different people who have such a range of experience doing fieldwork, and Azeb has worked on several languages, so she’s done a ton of fieldwork, and I think her enthusiasm and her passion for her work really shines through in this interview. And also, I wanted to mention, if you haven’t joined the Field Notes Patreon, Azeb also has a bonus episode for this month, November 2021, and that will be available to Patrons at the $5 per month and above tier, and I’ll link that in the show notes.


MTB: Thank you so much for taking time to come on to Field Notes. I really appreciate it, and I’m so excited to hear about your work and your experience. To start, can you introduce yourself very briefly, like where you are in the world and your name and where you work?

Azeb Amha: Thank you very much, Marti, for having me for this interview. I also appreciate it a lot. My name is Azeb, Azeb Amha. I am currently based at the African Studies Centre in Leiden, at Leiden University. That is an interfaculty institute at Leiden University, and I’m doing there research and teaching in linguistics and issues related to language, for example language and power in Africa, and language and society and some issues in anthropological linguistics.

MTB: Amazing. Awesome. Thank you. I’m so excited to learn more about that. Can you share with us how you first became interested in linguistics and languages?

Azeb Amha: Yes. Yes. [That was 3:33] partly coincidence, it may be partly something that was in me for quite some time. You know, when I joined university at Addis Ababa University, that was a long time ago, there was in the university system in the first year is called freshman program, and we get general courses. We do not get to know what kind of study programs, disciplines you can expect at university when we finish high school. There wasn’t that much orientation about what to expect, and once we are at university, it is around the end of the first semester that we get orientation about the programs that are there. At that time, there was no internet, and you don’t see much information beforehand. So when I joined university, you know, it’s via people who were from the same high school as me who joined the university a year or two before, and I could not find out what kind of study programs they joined, and often those are disciplines like law, like history, and so on, and not much about language and so on, linguistics. That wasn’t something I knew much about, but once in the program, I met a friend of my sister. My sister graduated in the year I joined university, and one of her friends was a fourth-year linguistics student, so my, with this girl, you know, like she’s now my older sister, we met often, and she told me a lot about the kind of courses she was doing, research, term papers she wrote, and she was at that time writing her thesis as well. So we talked a lot about that, and I found it really very interesting. Later, the university also gave orientation about the various departments we could choose from, but at that point, I had a lot of information about linguistics. I was interested. Originally, my major interest was in something like law or history, but finally, I joined linguistics, and that’s one of the things. But the other thing is that, you know, as a multicultural, multilingual society, language is all over, you know, in our daily lives. Even when I was in high school, in the neighborhood where I grew up, a number of languages were spoken, so we talked about languages, how people say the same thing in different languages, how people speak a specific, a certain language. For example, Amharic’s a national language, is spoken differently by people from different linguistic background. So that kind of interference from one’s own language was a kind of a thing we knew about, we joked about, so, you know, it was easy to make that connection with linguistics.

MTB: Yeah. That’s really interesting. So in the community where you grew up, there’s a lot of language contact, like different people from different languages all interacting together, or is there like one language that’s bigger than the rest?

Azeb Amha: Yeah. Where I grew up is in southern Ethiopia, where Wolaitta, the area is, the town is called Sodo, a middle-sized town, city by now. And there were really lots of people. I was just thinking for another interview sometime back, and there were… We had neighbors, you know, opposite my house, next to my house, people who spoke different languages. I myself had friends from families whose first language is Oromo, Tigrinya, Gurage, you know. These are all different languages, and in the area itself, Wolaitta is a major language. The majority of people spoke Wolaitta, but at school, in the church, and so on, it was Amharic for us. [It was 8:11] in my family, I had family members who spoke mainly Wolaitta, there were family members who spoke mainly Amharic, so I grew up bilingual speaking these languages, and when outside of home, depending on the person I was playing with, or even when I was a bit bigger, in high school and so on, depending on the friendship I have, I would, I can switch between Amharic and Wolaitta, but the same, my friends would do. They might switch between Gurage and Amharic or between Tigrinya and Amharic depending on whom people spoke. So there were a lot of, a number of languages spoken in the area. So I think, yeah, that was a linguistic situation. It was very interesting, highly mixed.

MTB: Yeah. That’s really interesting. And is, like Amharic and all the other languages, are they all Omotic languages, or are they from different language families?

Azeb Amha: They are from dif… Amharic is from the Semitic branch, Ethio-Semitic language, and Wolaitta is from Omotic, and the other languages I mentioned (for example, Oromo), we had neighbors whose first language was Oromo, the actually different varieties of Oromo were [Warjih 9:35] Oromo and [Shewa 9:36] Oromo we had. And Oromo is a Cushitic language. There were Gurage speakers, and that’s also Semitic, like Amharic. Tigrinya speakers, also from the Semitic branch of Afroasiatic. So these are not from the same language family, and the Omotic language I had initial contact is Wolaitta.

MTB: Wow. That’s so interesting. That’s really cool. So, I would love to hear more about your main research interests, so what are you working on right now? You mentioned briefly that you’re doing… Is it language empowerment?

Azeb Amha: The major work I’m doing now is a documentation project. I have a project with the ELDP to document an Omotic language that’s called Zargulla, and I did fieldwork, collected lots of materials. Maybe we can talk more about that later. And I am doing now annotation, archiving, you know the system, how it works, so transcribing…

MTB: Yeah. [laughs]

Azeb Amha: … the audio and video recordings and annotating, and, you know, archiving in ELAR so that the linguistic and the speech community can make use of it. That is what I mainly do. Next to that, I have a few things, writing projects on various topics I’m working on, on grammar issues, but also on specific cultural linguistic items based on this data, on Zargulla, but also, other languages I have done research on earlier. For example, I did language documentation of Oyda. Oyda is also an Omotic language. It was an endangered language. I did the documentation work together with colleagues from Germany some time ago, and that is archived at DOBES, and based on that, I have done recent some anthropological linguistic kind of item on this, especially interesting aspect of the language. I did some publication recently. So it is that kind of thing. And the language and power issue I mentioned to you earlier, that’s related to a course, to students of African studies, research master African studies program is being given in my department, and it was in that we have a multidisciplinary course in which various disciplines try to explain in a kind of reflective way how their own, you know, scholars would discuss how their own discipline has affected understanding Africa, you know, from the…

MTB: Oh, wow.

Azeb Amha: … anthropological perspective, historians, linguists, demographers. So we are a number of colleagues within that course who give specific aspects of our discipline to show how various disciplines shape understanding society in various places, in this case specifically in the African continent. And within that program, I chose to discuss about, you know, multilingualism, how it arises, how it’s maintained, and how it is sometimes endangered or is threatened there by people losing diversity and what that means, you know. Like, for example, in multilingual societies, there is choice of languages to use in administration or education, thereby sidelining other languages. One or a few languages may be used, and the rest might be sidelined. And in that case, what that means to the speakers of those languages that are not used in that kind of educational, administrative function. Would it lead to inequality? Does it contribute to marginalization of certain groups in society or not? And we look at examples from various linguistic areas in Africa, and we talk about, you know, the connection, also, globalization, so we want to maintain that connection, at the same time also maintain diversity, and how that balance can be kept to. So that’s a general discussion within discourse that I look at.

MTB: That’s really interesting. Does the cour… Is this the first time you’ve taught the course, or is it an ongoing course?

Azeb Amha: Oh, no, it has been ongoing, actually. We started, 2004 we started a course, but, you know, it evolved to this type of topic. I talk initially, you know, more like historical linguistics and what it meant to various disciplines on social studies or in the humanities and so on, and then we focused at various times on different aspects of language and society, but at this point, I’m looking at, you know, language, discourse, and inequality in relation to, you know, this power aspect I mentioned earlier.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah. That is so interesting. I’m just… The reason I asked if it was the first time you taught the course, because like over the years as you’ve taught the class and it’s evolved, have you seen any, like, common recommendations come out from the students or the instructors about like what we can do to work on this inequality or like how language policy affects marginalization of speakers of smaller languages?

Azeb Amha: This is really something that’s close to me, and I appreciate it that you ask. You know, the course is for kind of awareness, a kind of introduction. You know, that… Often, when we talk about African studies, it is mainly African economy or African demography, it can be conflict and so on, but linguistics for non-linguistic students is not really an issue, whereas my understanding is that this is really central to their own fieldwork. You know, for the students, it’s called Reflexivities and Methodologies, and interdisciplinary methodologies, and in there, you know, every student who goes to Africa to do fieldwork, be it history, be it politics, economy, they will be confronted with language, multilingualism, the way they select consultants, “With whom can I speak?” “Where is what language spoken?” and “What does that mean?” Which one is, for example, the national language? Which one is a language of media or administration? And that realization beforehand can affect or can have impact on the kind of research that they do.

What happens is that most of the students that are not from linguistic background and so on, they know there is diversity, they know there is multilingualism, but there is this attitude like, you know, “I speak a global language like English or French. I can go to Africa and have any consultants that I want. I can do my research for six months or longer without any concern about language,” but that is not the case. In practice, when you are doing research, say, in a rural area, one has to consider, “How can I communicate with the people?” Because often, the kind of research [these research master 17:59] African studies students doing are very sensitive issues, sometimes personal issues. It can be about trauma. It can be about [unclear 18:09]. It can be… And in those kinds of contexts, one has to really think about which language is used in the area. How can I directly communicate with my consultants? You know, they should… They cannot expect that, everywhere, English is spoken in Africa. That is a false assumption, but that assumption is there, and I want to make them aware that there is a lot of diversity, linguistic diversity, and in many parts of Africa, even where English is the official language, the majority of the society do not speak English, so to reach those people, one may need to use a translator or something, but when one uses translators, there are other things that come into your methodology. Research gets affected because there are different reflexivities one has to consider about the attitude of the translator. That all plays a role in the kind of the quality of data a social scientist gathers. So language truly plays a major role in every aspect of scientific work we do, so people need to be, students, we try to make them aware that there is this issue, and, you know, there are different aspects of that. I can talk about that a long time, but… [laughs]

MTB: Yeah, yeah, no, no, that’s really interesting.

Azeb Amha: But it’s very interesting, and I find, you know, students often are very much interested, they get very interesting literature already existing which they read about, and they’re highly engaged and back from fieldwork, also, they really link, you know, their fieldwork experience into language, and that is interesting.

MTB: It also makes me think that it’s an issue about amplification too, like whose stories get to be told, right? Like if you’re not a speaker of French or English and researchers are only working with speakers of French or English or other, you know, major languages, then people who don’t speak those languages, like, they never get to share their experiences.

Azeb Amha: Exactly. Yeah, that is, you know, it is about, whose voice are you representing? I’m involved in a methodology course also later in the year, and there also is this issue of language, about representation, whose voice gets heard. If you only want to talk to the elite, yes, that might work, but if you want to reach to people’s life, which is often the interest of most students to really experience what’s on the ground, and they, as I mentioned earlier, they do research on all aspects of society, and it’s not only in the urban or in the capital city that they do research. They go to various places. So it is very relevant and very interesting, and, as you said, if only certain people are heard, by doing that, as scientists we intensify more the inequality that’s already there by denying voice to certain people who may not speak those, say, national languages or global languages like French and English, so it’s very important to be conscious of this and do things differently where it’s possible.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. You mentioned that you grew up bilingual, and I know that the issue of like, “What is your mother tongue?” is so fraught and like so complicated, but I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about your experience as an insider linguist, as a native speaker. I know you’ve done lots of work with different languages, but can you speak to your own experience of working with a language that you speak?

Azeb Amha: Yes. Yeah, this insider-outsider linguist is very interesting. In my case, you know, I am insider at two different levels. One, as someone who is born and brought up in Ethiopia and doing research on languages that are not my mother tongue, so as you know, I speak Amharic and Wolaitta as my mother tongue, my first languages. These are, I do research on Wolaitta. I did a number of publications, so I consult people… You know, I can use introspection as a kind of methodology to do research, but I also interview people, and sometimes the people I interview are my family. For example, I have lots of interviews with my mom, my aunties and uncles. That’s a different kind of insider than when I do research, for example, in Zargulla. I’m insider by being Ethiopian, speaking Amharic, which a number of my consultants also speak. There is a certain form of being insider, but that’s different from being an insider in Wolaitta. And both of these have implications that there are different results of these. For example, when I do research with my family or people I know in Wolaitta area, it’s much easier to identify consultants, to decide on topics I want to discuss, and I’m somehow confirming or verifying data I already have in my mind, I thought about it, and so on.

So the kind of work I do is very different. And it is much different from someone who comes from Europe or like my colleague from Japan who wrote on Wolaitta. There is a difference. They have to first learn the language and find a way to get deep into things, but for me, it was easier, but there is also an emotional side to it. For example, I might be more attached to the recordings, data I annotated, with my mother than I did elsewhere. So there is that kind of insider aspect to it, which can have various emotional aspects, but there is a insider in the sense of my own language, the way society, or the people, my consultants, or the speakers, engage with it are different. They might be more critical about my work, or sometimes they give me a kind of responsibility, “Ah, you don’t need to bring out this kind of thing about our culture or our language.”

I remember first when I did research on ideophones on Wolaitta, I just came to that research actually by chance. I was looking into the phonology. I was examining reduplication patterns, and at that point, the term “ideophone” was also not widely known. We called them onomatopoeia. And I knew that relating it to onomatopoeia, and I recognized some of them to be that, but when I made the list, you know, using introspection method, I came up with a long list of reduplicated words, and then I went to check with my mom about these things, and then she listened to me and looked at me and says, “What? You know all these words? You know, these are insults. Why do you discuss… Do you discuss this in public?” [laughs]

MTB: Oh, my gosh. [laughs]

Azeb Amha: “Who told you this kind of thing?” I mean, she really loves languages. Often, she’s one of my best friends, you know, when I come back from fieldwork, starting from my [unclear 26:25] that she will say, you know, “What did you do with these people? How do they speak? Can I hear?” She listens to my recordings, and so on, and she even accompanied me to fieldwork at one point. But in this case, I mean, in their own language, she thought, “Oh, these are not nice words, you know. Do you discuss this with outsiders?” So there is that aspect to it that I experienced as a different kind of being insider. And with the other languages, I think knowing that I’m from Ethiopia, I speak Amharic, fieldworks I did in Maale, Oyda, Zargulla (these are different Omotic languages), so I think I could make the link very quickly compared to, say, someone who goes from Europe or America. And that link also has a more durative aspect to it. You know, it’s not something that is finished when the project is finished. You keep in good or bad that friendship. That working relation continues, in that sense. I don’t know if I answered your questions about insider.

MTB: Yeah, no, that’s really… That’s so funny about your mom. She was like… I never really thought of that, but it seems so obvious that, like, words would have more of a, like language would be more culturally loaded for the speakers than they are for the researcher.

Azeb Amha: Yes, and when you read some out, you know, one after the other in sequence, yeah, that was her impression, yeah.

MTB: Yeah. Was she okay with it after you explained why you [unclear 28:16] research or…

Azeb Amha: Yeah. Actually, she gave me lots of more words and examples, and we really had fun talking about, you know, like these are terminology about walking, different types of, you know, walking (people who walk fast, when they are stout, or thin, or things like that), and then she would call, “Oh, that sounds like so-and-so in [unclear 28:43].” And we laughed a lot. Yeah, she loves it. She really likes it. Yeah.

MTB: That’s so awesome. That’s really nice that you can share this with her. Can we talk about how we can involve more community linguists and get more community members involved in language documentation and language research? Do you have any thoughts on that?

Azeb Amha: Yes, yes. I think this is a very important issue. It’s essential to, especially at this time and age, to really work closely with community. First of all, because this asymmetric relation between researcher and researched have changed. You know, people, when we are doing research, we just do not go to a place and say, you know, “We want this information from you,” obtain it in some way, and walk away, but we have to… We have now a kind of ethical, moral consideration to make about, what does that research mean to the people we research? Whatever linguistic form. It can be a grammatical research, research on a grammatical topic. It can be on a comparative thing, or language documentation as we do, but I think we are now more and more accountable to society when we do research, and that accountability doesn’t, shouldn’t stop by just explaining what the research is about and how useful it is for science or for society, but make, engage people really, you know, in the work itself, make them feel what it means, but if it is something, especially when it’s about language documentation, about culture and so on, we, as researchers, should participate in the cultural or the linguistic activities they are doing and, you know, learn by doing things together, by working together with them, and they also learn more about our work, as well as about their own language and culture by collaborating with us. So it creates reflexivity on both sides, recognition of things.

So we need to do that. We need to engage people more, and, in my experience, I have had experience at different levels, you know, engaging people just as interviewees, but also more and more as I got experience in doing fieldwork, especially the kind of fieldwork one does for documentation, engaging community is really more important. I have realized that, and these days, like my assistants, we can look at it by dividing… You cannot work with the whole community. It’s not a homogeneous group when you go to a research area. There are different types of people, and you cannot work with the whole people. You know, the entire community may not engage, and you have a way to select people. But once that selection and that friendship is established, there should be trust and sharing of responsibility in obtaining the information, in collecting the data, in the analysis. So I tried to engage my assistants, in this case in the ELDP project on Zargulla. I especially have had really a good experience working with consultants that could collect data for me. We do annotation together, including things like on Praat, for example, you know, analyzing, chunking the data, doing annotation, transcription. They participate in that, and this has really helped me because as researchers, we have only a limited stay at the field site, and when we are there, things may not be conducive to do exactly what we want to do. If you consider my example, my project on Zargulla is to document their language based on the salient aspect of their culture, that their day-to-day activities. These are a farming society, so I wanted to study their language by studying, by looking into, by recording, documenting, asking questions about how they do their farming activity, observe it when they are doing it. Some tale about their farming activity in a historical perspective or in terms of a concrete plan to do next or what is ongoing, so the impact of each of these kind of questions [unclear 33:35] you realize what it means for the grammar.

So when trying to do that, for example, I went in 2017 for first fieldwork for documentation. I decided on the time in consultation with the people. “This is the best time to come if you want to see how we do farming, and so on.” But by chance, when I arrived there, the rains were late, so there was drought, and there was no farming activity at that point. People were… They had prepared the land, but they could not sow or whatever, so it became more like, you know, narratives and things they told from their mind, like in earlier linguistic research, non-documentary linguistic research like narrative texts and so on.

And then in the next year when I discussed with them and I thought I found a better time, I planned and I come in that year, in 2018, the rains came too early, and they were too much, so there was flooding. I couldn’t move around, and you cannot do recording and work like that in that kind of situation. So at that point, I realized, “Look, I cannot be around all the time. I cannot choose the best time to do recording. I’m here every time three months, four months, and when I come back in my own institute in the Netherlands, I’m staying long, so I might miss something.”

So I decided to work better with my consultants and train one of the consultants the little I know about recording and keeping data. So I left recording equipment with him, and before my departure, we had recording sessions. Initially, the things he recorded were not good, but later I realized he was really gifted. He was also very good, you know, in moving in various terrains. You know, it’s a mountainous area. He could move easily from place to place and do recording of various sorts, what they… And that gave me, really, the chance… Now I have much more, richer data about literally every kind of product that they produce, how they produce, you know, everything like that. So that, I wouldn’t have done if I did the recording, the collection of data, just on my own.

So community participation, for me, meant like, you know, in collecting data also, my consultants, I left the material with them, and they did collect varied and very quality information which they themselves found interesting and useful. So I feel happy with that. And next to that, in the times I am there, we work together, you know, from different levels of annotations we do together, and they are directly participating in that, and that makes me very happy, and I think that is a useful strategy for oneself as a researcher, and also for the community. So that kind of engagement must come.

Another thing I realize in this time, especially, why it is so important to really empower people and make them do part of the work is that we saw how COVID struck unexpectedly. We are all, you know, back home. We cannot travel for fieldwork, and so on. Things do not get stuck if people work, collaborate with consultants, and using them not only as consultants but as kind of co-creators of knowledge, co-researchers. We should do that, and I think institutions and researchers, everybody needs to collaborate on this and, you know, make use of this possibility to collaborate. So it’s very, very important, I think, for us as linguists, but in general in humanities and social science research, community engagement is essential. It provides more diverse and useful data, it allows for continuity, and I think also in the future if the people have taken part in really collecting the data, they also cherish it more, they find it more important, I think.

MTB: Yeah, absolutely. Azeb, thank you so much again for your time. Where can people find you online if they want to learn more about your work?

Azeb Amha: I have personal page within the ASC’s website, and there is a staff profile in which my publications and ongoing project are listed.

MTB: Perfect, and I’ll link that in the show notes.

Azeb Amha: And then especially if one is interested to look into the kind of documentation work I do, the ELAR site on the Zargulla project shows information that I have collected, issues the recordings that are annotated. It’s ongoing work, but that’s one website I’m very proud of, ELAR, ELDP. Then I have also website within the DOBES program on Oyda. It’s also a documentation project which is interesting.

MTB: Perfect. Awesome. Thank you so much.

Azeb Amha: 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! [Outro music]