Episode 37: Linguistic Fieldwork with Claire Bowern
August 31st, 2022
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 Claire Bowern. Claire Bowern is a historical linguist whose research is centered around language change and language documentation in Indigenous Australia. She received her BA in Linguistics and Classics from the Australian National University and her PhD in linguistics from Harvard University. She works with speakers of endangered languages, with archival sound and print materials, and uses computational and phylogenetic methods. She is currently the editor of the journal Diachronica. Claire is a professor in Linguistics at Yale University and is also the author of Linguistic Fieldwork: A Practical Guide.
I’m a pretty big fan of Claire’s. I had read her linguistic fieldwork manual several times before even going into the field. It was one of the required texts when I did my masters in language documentation and description at SOAS, so I was really excited to chat with her and hear her story, and if you’re interested in hearing a bit about her fieldwork manual and her writing process, you can check out the Field Notes Patreon, because Claire was also kind enough to do a mini bonus episode for the Field Notes Patreon supporters at the five-dollar-per-month tier and above, and I’ll link that in the show notes for anyone who wants to check it out. Another reason I was really excited to have Claire on the podcast is because Australia has been a little bit underrepresented on the show. There’s only been one other linguist, Dr. Doro Hoffman, who works with the MalakMalak people, and she came on in season two to discuss her work in Australia, particularly about dreamtime narratives, which I will also link in the show notes if you want to check that out. But yeah, I’m really thrilled to share this episode, especially because I think it’s a nice example of someone who’s done a lot of work with not only quite varied groups, but varied language situations, language contexts, and also her experience working with archival materials was very interesting to me. So yeah, let’s get to the interview.
MTB: Hi, Claire. How are you?
Claire Bowern: I am great, thanks. How are you? It’s great to be here.
MTB: Thank you, yes. Thank you so much for taking the time, especially at this time in the semester. I really appreciate it. So to start, just straight off the bat, can you tell us how you first became interested in linguistics?
Claire Bowern: Sure, yeah. So it was probably in high school. I went to an all-girls high school in Melbourne in Australia, and this was the early to mid-‘90s, and so it was the sort of school that made it very easy to study languages and things like that, made it more difficult to do more STEM, math, physics-y type of things. So I did a lot of languages, and I thought it was really cool, and my Japanese teacher also taught Latin, and she had done some linguistics as a college student, and so she brought up this idea that maybe linguistics might be cool and so on. So when I went to college, I looked up the linguistics department and took intro linguistics thinking that, “Yeah, maybe that would be fun. Maybe I could do that as well as doing classics,” and I signed up as an English major. The Australian system for college is quite different from the US system, so you specialize from first year and you pick your major from first year. It may be a little different now, but at the time there was not a lot of general education credits or… It was all about depth rather than about breadth. So yeah, so I started thinking about an English major and in classics, so I took Latin and Greek and so on, but linguistics was really, really cool, and so I kept taking more linguistics classes and ended up double majoring in linguistics and classics, and along the way there were people to talk to. The instructors and professors at the Australian National University where I went were very welcoming of students who were interested in research, particularly in Aboriginal languages in Australia and things like that, so I just kind of went into that path and then could not imagine doing anything else. So I went on to graduate school, and I guess here I am. Here I am now.
MTB: Yeah, I hear that a lot where people start out studying something else. Maybe it’s because linguistics is not offered at a lower level of education, you can really only study it in university, but often I hear people start off as like a biology major or engineering and then they take one linguistics course and they’re hooked, and then that completely changes the trajectory.
Claire Bowern: Right, yeah. Actually, for me, the first, the intro class I took at the start, I didn’t actually do very well in it. I really liked it and so on, but the final exam was, it was not something — maybe not something I should admit now and not something I look back on with a great deal of fondness, but yeah, things got better as I kept going, and particularly I think once I was able to see what sort of work I could do combining historical linguistics and the sorts of things I was interested in for classics and so on and work with Aboriginal languages and fieldwork and that sort of thing. The paths started off very far from each other because of course, when you’re doing classics and the linguistics of Latin and Greek and so on, it’s, “Look up what other people have said for the last couple of hundred years in the library,” and it’s often very focused on literature and on history and those sorts of things, whereas at that point probably more so, even more so than now, I was mostly focused on the language structure and things like that and saw the history stuff as being more separate. Of course, you know, a lot of what I argue now is that we shouldn’t treat the historical and social side of things separately from the structural side of language, so it’s kind of ironic that I’m arguing this now and, you know, I’m not pushing it as a, certainly not pushing it as a way that linguistics should be or anything like that. Of course, for doing fieldwork, the social side of things is probably almost more important than the structural side of things, but that was kind of how I got into thinking about linguistics and language and working on Aboriginal languages and then into the field side of things, and then from there into documentation and language reclamation and things like that as well.
MTB: Oh, yeah. I would love to hear more about how you combine historical linguistics and fieldwork and also language reclamation, like you said.
Claire Bowern: Right. Yeah. Sometimes they go together better than for other times. I think for… So for working with communities in Australia, there’s been quite a tradition of people who are interested in synchronic and contemporary language sorts of questions, but also what language can tell us about the past. So one of the things I think about when I think about language change and so on is, what sorts of evidence do we get from language, from contemporary languages, about the histories of language speakers and signers, language users, language communities? We can tell quite a lot from loanwords, from which languages are more closely related to each other, and all of those sorts of things. For Aboriginal Australia, that’s… I think language is particularly important as a source of information about the past because the genetic work is very, very patchy, very controversial, very difficult to make something of and also works with a time frame that’s very different from the language time frame. A lot of genetics work is about the past 50,000 years or the past 60,000 years or longer, even. It’s about relationships between Aboriginal communities and contemporary Aboriginal people and the first migrations out of Africa 100,000 years ago, and that’s definitely not a time scale that linguistics and language really has anything to say about. But we can say quite a lot about the last 5,000 years or also maybe five to ten thousand years, and also about the last couple of hundred years in Australia, and that’s an area that speaks more with maybe anthropology, to some extent archaeology as well, although, of course, archaeology is also interested in the very long scale time frames as well as the more recent ones.
And so when I do fieldwork and think about language documentation and historical things as well, I’m thinking about what sorts of information would go into a comparative study between closely related groups or between groups across the country. That said, of course, once we’re thinking about field work and language documentation, we should also be thinking about what communities want to get out of the field work as well, and sometimes that’s closely aligned with more historical work, and sometimes it’s not at all closely aligned with that. So for the communities I’ve worked with, there’s been some interest in thinking about language and the past and so on, but for the most part, the sorts of things that we say in historical linguistics don’t really line up terribly well with traditional views of the past of Aboriginal communities. So, for instance, for Bardi people, Bardi people have always been in traditional Bardi country as far as Bardi people are concerned, and there’s evidence that communities bring and elders bring to that. For example, the Bardi people know what’s good to eat in Bardi country, Bardi people have the songs and the stories for Bardi country and so on as well. And so I don’t want to… I certainly don’t want to say that’s wrong or anything like that, but historical linguistics provides maybe another way of thinking about other time scales as well. Yeah, so that’s all by way of I guess a long way of saying sometimes these things go together really well, and sometimes they’re much more separate, but either way, they’re kind of ways of working together.
Actually, one more way of thinking about this is the work I’ve been doing more with archive work and with language documentation for communities where the community has undergone a great deal of disruption — that’s a euphemism for genocide; why am I using euphemisms on a podcast like this? — where there is a great deal of genocide that’s happened in Australia over the last couple of hundred years and so I work with communities on language reclamation where the documentation is salvage documentation or memory documentation, and so part of doing the historical work and comparative work is figuring out what sorts of sources work for particular communities, what sort of information is there about language and how can that material be returned appropriately to communities. And so, for instance, if we have word lists in inaccessible sources, say with handwriting that no one can read, we’re working on digitizing those materials and making them available to community members, or if there are notebooks in archives in other parts of the world which are, again, not accessible to community members, we’re trying to make those more accessible and make sure that the right people are able to access their traditional language materials. And so that’s, I guess, a kind of folding together of research work and community-oriented work as well.
MTB: Are there any like lessons you’ve learned from your archiving work that you could share with the wider audience about, you know, archiving with speakers of Aboriginal languages in Australia?
Claire Bowern: So, for example, language documentation brings up a lot of personal information, often. It’s very difficult to separate individual life histories from oral history in general, or community history, or “the way things were”-type recordings. And so when we’re doing language documentation through oral history narratives or through conversations or through things that become more or less personal, some of that is fine to put in an archive, but some of it probably isn’t. Or, you know, I’m thinking about the sorts of conversations I have with my parents or used to have with my grandparents or I have with my kids now. If that was part of, say, language documentation for Australian English as spoken in New Haven, Connecticut in 2022, some of that would be totally fine to put in an archive and I’d be okay with it going wherever, but other parts of it, I would not be okay with for that. And so there’s that sort of thing, but I think that applies to communities everywhere.
Claire Bowern: There’s greater or lesser degrees of personal information.
Claire Bowern: Yeah, no, there are a couple of things that do come to mind for that. So one is that many Aboriginal communities have restrictions on saying the names of people who’ve passed away, and so they might not be in practice when materials are being recorded, but subsequently someone might pass away, particularly people who’ve worked very closely in language documentation projects, and then there’s questions about how appropriate it is to play those materials or to mention that person’s name or things like that. And so that’s one thing that comes to mind, particularly for Aboriginal communities. Another is when working with archival sources, historical sources, older sources and then trying to see what sorts of information is there and how that might relate to contemporary sources. There’s a great deal of material that is either not appropri- would not be said in the same way these days, words that were accepted at the time which are now racial slurs, for example, or things that are put into materials but would just not be recorded these days.
MTB: Yeah. Can you share with us a bit about your fieldwork biography? You’ve done a lot of fieldwork, and I would love to know like, where did you start? What are you doing now?
Claire Bowern: Yeah, sure. Yeah, happy to do that. So I started when I was an undergraduate in, so at the Australian National University as we talked about just before, and in my last year of being an undergrad, I found out that Gedda Aklif, who is now retired but was a PhD student in the early 1990s at ANU, was looking for someone to work with Bardi people in North West Australia to do language documentation work and to help out with school programs and to make sure that the materials that she had recorded with elders were accessible to community members. It’s relevant how she started working on Bardi and with Bardi people as well, because that I think informs a lot of how the fieldwork on Bardi has, what I’ve done and what others have done over the last 20 to 30 years or so. In, I think it was in 1988, 1988 or 1999, one of the Bardi elders who’s passed away now called up the linguistics department of the Australian National University on the phone and said that he was looking for a linguist to help Bardi people document the language, and they were looking for a storybook that would put down Bardi knowledge, Bardi stories, Bardi history, a dictionary (so all the words in the Bardi language and what they meant), a book to teach the kids and the grandkids so that the Bardi language could be passed, on and a set of maps for Bardi places to talk about Bardi country. And so Gedda Aklif started working with the Wiggan family and the Ejai and Isaac families at One Arm Point to do this language documentation. And from the start, work with Bardi for… For this time that — there have been other people who’ve, other researchers who’ve worked with Bardi in the past, but for this documentation project — in many ways, it’s all one project — has been very much community-led along those sorts of terms, so it’s material that sets out Bardi history and Bardi knowledge for Bardi people and for the kids and grandkids.
That said, another thing that’s come up with elders quite a lot is them being very clear that Bardi is just like French, just like other languages, and given that Bardi is a language just like French and so on, and when linguists talk about French and do analyses of French, they publish them in journals and they talk about them with other linguists and in universities and so on, they were pretty clear that they would like that to happen with Bardi as well. So part of showing that Bardi people are still here, that Bardi is still spoken, that Bardi is a wonderful, complex language just like French and should have the status of languages just like French, the elders were pretty clear that they wanted to see it in universities and so on as well. So they’ve been pretty happy with doing linguistic work or work that’s more theoretical linguistics and more about figuring out the underlying structure of the Bardi language, even if that doesn’t always make it into learner’s guides or into dictionaries and things like that.
So I started working on Bardi in 1999. I went as a preliminary field trip to work in the school and with the Kimberley Language Resource Center on stories for school materials and work along those lines, and I liked it, they liked me, and so we’ve been working together pretty much ever since in different formats. So I did a number of field trips between 1999 and 2011, and since then, most of the work has been remote. We chat quite a bit through Facebook, we have a Facebook Bardi group, and it’s… As the elders have passed away, it’s moved more from language documentation and recording and things like that to more language reclamation, revitalization, thinking about how to how to keep the language strong for the kids and the grandkids and future generations. And so we’re continuing to work along those lines, but the nature of the work has shifted somewhat.
Claire Bowern: So, for example, we now have a mobile phone dictionary that has the Bardi dictionary, but it’s available on cell phones and things like that. We now have a Google Drive with the recordings of stories from the last, actually going back to the 1970s on all sorts of different Bardi oral history recordings, and those are for the Bardi community, and we’re always trying to figure out ways to make those materials accessible to Bardi people.
I’ve also done fieldwork in Australia in a couple of different areas. Actually, Bardi was not my first field experience. My very first fieldwork was in Western Queensland shortly before I went to One Arm Point for the first time, and this was with the late Luise Hercus, who was a researcher at ANU and faculty at ANU for many, many years. At that point, she had just turned 75 and was no longer terribly… Actually, I think it was more her son who was no longer keen for her to take trips to outback Queensland to remote areas without someone to go along with her. And so my first fieldwork was accompanying Luise to Cunnamulla and Rockhampton, so two places in Queensland, to work with Kalali and Punthamara community members on language documentation. And so we worked a bit with the late Peter Hood and with the Booth family and made some recordings and checked some things that were recorded in earlier recordings and earlier materials. And that actually led to one of the things I’m working on at the moment, which is a Kalali language reclamation project, and that’s in conjunction with Toby Adams. Toby is really the leader of this this project, so he’s Kalali from South Eastern Queensland, and he contacted me very early in the pandemic (it was like April 2020) to get in contact to see what sorts of things we might be able to do with Kalali to make Kalali more accessible to Kalali community members. And so that has been remote documentation from the start. I’m hoping that Toby and I will get to meet each other in person for the first time this July. I’m going to Australia this summer, hopefully. And yeah, so that work was pretty much aimed from the start at doing, at being remote and being something that was usable for Kalali people who are really spread out over a very wide area in Queensland and Northern New South Wales. So that’s been word of the week sort of things. We also have a mobile phone dictionary and a talking dictionary for Kalali now. Toby’s been doing work with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. They have an ABC Kids program, and there was a podcast that he did. I can send you links to these…
MTB: Awesome, great, yeah.
Claire Bowern: …for the blog and we can put them up.
Claire Bowern: And yeah, so that work has, so that was, I guess, my first fieldwork but is also now the current remote work that that I’m mostly doing. And finally, kind of in the middle of all of these things, I worked in Arnhem Land a bit as well, so this is in the central eastern part of the Northern Territory, the northeastern part of the Northern Territory on Yan-nhaŋu and Yolngu languages, and that was also language documentation materials. We did a learner’s guide. I contributed to a dictionary and various other recordings for language as well. So those have been the main areas of fieldwork direct work with Aboriginal people who, speaking their language or languages or reclaiming their languages. I’ve also been moving more into archival work recently. That started when my kids were really little and it was basically impossible to… Well, impossible or inadvisable to take them on a 24-hour flight to Australia. And since then, I’ve moved more into archival work and comparative archival work as well with the CHIRILA database.
MTB: That’s awesome. It sounds like you were really ahead of the curve in terms of remote fieldwork, and now, of course, with the pandemic, people are all about remote documentation and how can we, you know, do fieldwork without actually going into the field. When you started in 2011, was it a pretty like easy, natural transition or was it… How was it?
Claire Bowern: Yeah, no, it was not easy, and I’d say it grew very gradually over quite some years and has only really been more like documentation over the last the last three to four years or so. One thing that made a big difference was when One Arm Point community got good cell phone service and so better 4G internet connections that made it much more easy to do stuff over the web with things like Facebook or chatting over Facetime or things like that. That made a very big difference, and that’s really only been in the last, I’d say, the last couple of years. I’ve also taught a couple of field methods classes that have been more or less remote, and that was useful when we suddenly had to pivot to online teaching in 2020 to know some of the things that worked and some of the things that didn’t work so much. But we did two previous field methods classes through online linkups in quite different way. So one was with the Goldfields Aboriginal Language Centre and Wangkatha language in fall 2019, and that was, with the time difference, it’s a 12-hour time difference, so we would meet in the evenings, and we would meet with Wangkatha community members in early morning their time and do pretty traditional-type fieldwork, asking questions, we’d share things through Google Docs and things like that. And Roslyn and the other lady we worked with were at the local radio station, so we had a pretty nice set up for that. The other fieldwork was through the Western Carolina University’s Cherokee Language Program.
MTB: Oh, cool.
Claire Bowern: And in 2015, 2016, I think it was spring 2016, if I remember right, we ran a field methods class where we worked through Skype with a combination of the collections at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book Library and the Cherokee Language Program in Western Carolina University. That was a different sort of program, so we were… It was more like a formal classroom setup, and then members of the Cherokee program were able to visit Yale at the end of the semester, and we were able to work intensively with some of the manuscript collections at Yale. I’d say one very big difference between the remote sort of fieldwork and in-person field work was, I don’t think it would have been possible without the existing community connections and knowing each other in person. Starting things from scratch in a pandemic I don’t think would have worked for what we did, although I guess, having said that, the work with Toby and Kalali was starting from scratch but it was kind of meant to be online and it was so… So it was a different sort of… More like we were working together on materials that had already been recorded rather than creating new materials from scratch around the language.
MTB: Yeah. Yeah. I’d love to hear a little bit more about the language context of especially Bardi, but some of the other languages you… I think you mentioned three languages, you know. What is the situation? So you were talking about like language learning materials in the ‘90s. Are those people now, do they have children as well who are learning Bardi? What is it like?
Claire Bowern: Yeah, so each of the three Aboriginal communities I’ve worked with in Australia have very different language histories and language contexts these days. So for Bardi, there are still people with first-language knowledge of Bardi and other emerging elders and emerging language learners. I am friends with the grandkids and the great grandkids of the elders I started working with in the early ‘90s. Those elders, their parents and grandparents worked with linguists in the ‘70s, ‘60s, ‘50s and…
Claire Bowern: …1930s as well, so there’s quite a long tradition of Bardi language work, in somewhat different ways for different purposes, but yeah, so Bardi people have been working with linguists for over 100 years at this point. And as the… So I’d say the generation of elders that I worked with, started working with in the late ‘90s and who started the language program in the early ‘90s, were really the last generation to be more comfortable in Bardi than in English, but that said, there is still a lot of Bardi knowledge in the community and a lot of interest in learning more Bardi amongst people my age and people younger, and some elders as well. And so what we’ve been focusing on now has been more ways of bringing Bardi back into everyday life, ways of using phrases in conversation, ways of making the stories and the language information more accessible. The writing system for Bardi is relatively straightforward, but it’s very different from English, and so for people who’ve grown up reading English, and for then switching to Bardi, that’s quite a hurdle, so we’ve been working on ways to make that easier to do, just so all of the stuff we have for Bardi is not locked up in this writing system that’s not readable.
For Yan-nhaŋu, Yan-nhaŋu is spoken in a region that has a large number of Aboriginal languages and languages that are still being learned and passed on as first or second language… English is at, well, it’s a second or third or fourth language in communities which are pretty highly monolingual. English is used to some extent, Kriol is also used, so there are, and Aboriginal English as well. Actually that’s true at One Arm Point as well. There are Aboriginal Englishes and creoles that that are also used in this context too, but Yan-nhaŋu has been losing out to other related Aboriginal languages rather than to English, I’d say. And so those materials, I’d say, are a record, and I think they are used in community programs and so on, but I haven’t really kept contact with people at Milingimbi community for some years now, so I’m not really sure what, like how that work is being used, and would be happy to happy to help with that if appropriate, but it’s a different sort of… I felt like I was kind of more of a more of a language contractor in Milingimbi than, say, with the Bardi community where we had a much longer negotiation of roles and where, at this point, I have, what, a 23-year history with the community and friends and so on there. So it’s a different sort of working relationship there.
For Kalali, the language situation is more of language reclamation and language awakening. The Kalali community was forcibly removed from traditional country in the late 1920s, and they were moved to a number of different Aboriginal reservations and communities and missions in far eastern Queensland, and so this was a government removal to different areas hundreds and hundreds of kilometers away. And so the current Kalali community, it’s their parents and grandparents who grew up knowing something about the language but mostly hearing English or Aboriginal English or Murri Talk in different communities. There are some Kalali elders who know something of the language, but for the most part this is a situation where we’re reawakening the language and reintroducing language materials after a hiatus of, I guess, 80, 70, 80 years, for the most part.
And this has also been a gathering together point for Kalali people as well, so having… Particularly the work that Toby’s done through the Australian Broadcasting Corporation through the Kullilli Ngulkana website that has been a point of contact for Kalali people who are reclaiming their heritage and finding family connections that they that they didn’t know about. And so language there has been very much about creating community ties, and bringing people together, and I feel very honored to be a part of that even though I’m very far away. It’s been wonderful to see that happen and the work that Toby and the Kalali Culture Committee have been doing.
MTB: Yeah. I’m so inspired by how you continue to have a close relationship even though physically you’re so far from the people that you work with. I think that’s really, really nice. Well, thank you, Claire, so much for making time for Field Notes. Where can people find you if they want to read more of your work or hear more about your research? Where can they find you online?
Claire Bowern: I’m on Twitter with the handle @anggarrgoon, a-n-g-g-a-r-r-g-o-o-n, and I also have a website at campuspress.yale.edu/clairebowern/.
Claire Bowern: Which I guess I linked from the Field Notes website, and yeah, happy to continue the conversation there.
MTB: Thank you. Thanks so much, Claire.
Claire Bowern: Oh, thank you, Marti. It’s been great.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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!