Episode 39: Eric W. Campbell on Otomanguean Language Documentation & Mobilization

URL: https://fieldnotespod.com/2022/10/26/episode-39-eric-w-campbell-on-otomanguean-language-documentation-mobilization/

[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 Eric W. Campbell. Eric is an Associate Professor of linguistics at University of California, Santa Barbara. He received his PhD from the University of Texas at Austin in 2014. Eric is a field linguist who is interested in all levels of linguistic structure and historical linguistics. Eric approaches language in its social and cultural context, focusing on less-studied languages, especially in the Otomanguean languages spoken in Mexico and California.

I first met Eric several years ago when he was an invited instructor at the Endangered Languages Documentation Program training. He led a session on mobilization where he shared his expertise in using documentation data to create different outputs that are useful and often requested by communities, and he’s someone that I’ve wanted to have on the podcast for a long time not only because his work is very community-centered, but he’s also worked with several languages, and he does a lot of work with diaspora communities, which I find very interesting, and additionally, he has experience teaching field methods at UC Santa Barbara, so not only is he a field linguist, he’s also trained others in field linguistics, so I knew that he would have a lot of expertise to share. One of the things that I found the most interesting from our conversation is how Eric talks about what a community is in linguistics and language documentation, so who we think of as a community, like who belongs to a community. He had some what I thought to be really good points about how this concept is often oversimplified in language documentation and description, and I think it’s something that we often forget that the community is not just in one place and is not just one homogeneous group. So yeah, I’m really excited to share this interview, and lastly, after listening to this interview, if you want to to hear some more from Eric, you can check out the Field Notes Patreon (I’ll link it in the show notes), because Eric also did a mini bonus episode on the Patreon.


MTB: Hi, Eric.

Eric W. Campbell: Hello, Marti.

MTB: How are you?

Eric W. Campbell: I’m pretty good. How are you?

MTB: I’m good. Nice to see you.

Eric W. Campbell: Good to see you.

MTB: Okay, cool. Well, thanks so much for taking time out of your busy, busy schedule to share your experiences with Field Notes. The first thing I’d like to ask you about is, how did you first become interested in linguistics?

Eric W. Campbell: Yeah, okay, so it was a pretty roundabout path that I took to linguistics. Right after high school, I was really interested in math and science, and so I went to engineering school for a year and a half, but towards the end of high school, I was also very involved in a band as a musician, and I really didn’t like the way it was going with engineering school after a year and a half, and I decided to move to California and pursue music more and just have some, like some gap years…

MTB: Yeah.

Eric … to really figure out what I wanted to do. And so I did music for about six years and moved around a little bit with my band. When I finally went back to college, I started taking Spanish language classes, and the part that I liked the most was the grammar, looking at the grammar and considering how it’s similar and different to English. And then I took an introduction to linguistics class at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and that’s what really hooked me, just taking a few especially historical linguistics classes, so I took a class sort of about historical effects on language distribution, so linguistic geography you could say. That was really interesting to me, connecting to language change and historical linguistics, and I took a graduate class with Sally Thomason, and that’s when I decided I wanted to go to graduate school to study linguistics. And at that point I was interested mostly in historical linguistics, and since I was a Spanish learner at the time, I was interested in working with communities in Latin America because I had worked with a lot of people in restaurants and coffee shops as I was doing the music.

MTB: Yeah, that’s cool. That’s neat. So you… From California, then you went to Michigan and then you ended up back in California.

Eric W. Campbell: Yeah. We actually moved from California to Virginia Beach, of all places. The guitarist in my band, his brother was living there at the time and had a condo with a couple spare bedrooms. We were able to set up our studio there, and we stayed there for a little bit and then he got transferred back to Michigan, and so we went to Philadelphia, which was sort of the nearest city, and there was a music scene that our music connected with, to some extent, in the late ‘90s.

MTB: That’s cool. What kind of music did you play?

Eric W. Campbell: Some called it space-rock-influenced stuff, so stuff from the early ‘90s like shoegazer, going a little more electronic into the late ‘90s. I always called it organic ambient, so it was very much kind of repetitive, but with groovy beats. Very relaxing type music.

MTB: That’s cool. That’s really interesting. I didn’t know that. Can we see that anywhere? Is it on Spotify or anything?

Eric W. Campbell: Yeah so, it’s on Spotify, and you can find things on YouTube. The band was called Transient Waves. And so you’ll get some physics stuff as well if you search on that, but you can find most of our music online.

MTB: That’s so cool. That’s really interesting. So what was next? Were you always interested in working with speakers in Mexico or… Because I know you also do lots of stuff with diaspora speakers in California. How did that get started?

Eric W. Campbell: I think because when I was looking at graduate programs, the place that seemed to be the best fit was the University of Texas at Austin, and a lot of focus on languages of Latin America there. Several faculty and a lot of graduate students were there when I visited, seemed like a very good fit. I was also very interested in ancient hieroglyphic writing and how the study of that could inform language history, and at the University of Texas at Austin, you had strength in Mayan languages, a lot of graduate students working with Nora England, David Stuart in the art history department, Linda Schele had been there, the Maya Meetings were taking place there, so that was really the direction I imagined going. But after my first year, two sisters, Emiliana Cruz and Hilaria Cruz, well known in our field, invited me to work on their project, which was funded by the Endangered Languages Program out of SOAS and University of London at the time to document the Chatino languages of Mexico. And so we connected, and that’s how I got started working with Chatino in the Chatino project at the University of Texas. At the same time, they said, “Well, there’s this other variety of Chatino called Zenzontepec that we haven’t worked on at all, and there’s been very little work on it,” most of which was done on Terry Kaufman’s dictionary project, the Project for the Documentation of the Languages of Mesoamerica, which would meet every summer in Mexico, usually in Catemaco, Veracruz, to create dictionaries, very large and extensive dictionaries of the lexicons of Mesoamerican languages. And their interest was to document languages that had been written in ancient hieroglyphic writing or had been in centers where such writing was evident in order to understand the history of the languages of Mesoamerica better. And so with Zapotec writing, that brought in Chatino into their project as well. And so at the Cruz sisters’ suggestion, I reached out to Terry Kaufman and he invited me to work on their dictionary project as well, so I got involved both in a lexicography project with people working on a bunch of different Mesoamerican languages, and then the more focused project under the direction of Tony Woodbury at the University of Texas at Austin.

MTB: That’s awesome. That’s really cool. Yeah, Emiliana and Hilaria are very famous on our podcast as well. Hilaria did the live show for Field Notes, and actually Tony Woodbury, I interviewed him last week, and he also talked a lot about Chatino, so that’s really cool. Everyone is connected. Okay, and can you give us some language context for these languages? Like we’ve mentioned Mexico a couple times, so they’re spoken in Mexico. Are there other communities, like how many speakers? What’s the situation?

Eric W. Campbell: Yeah, so I guess focusing on the Otomanguean languages is the family to which Chatino pertains. Chatino is a group of languages and varieties, maybe at least three distinct languages, maybe 17 to 20 different varieties — as often is the case, hard to count or find where one language begins and another ends. And it’s related to the Zapotec languages, which — and these are all spoken in southern Oaxaca… Well, not all southern, but in Oaxaca state in Mexico.

MTB: Okay.

Eric W. Campbell: The southern part of Mexico. And so Chatino and Zapotec are fairly closely related, and I’ve worked a bit on Zapotec languages as well. And I guess estimates for speakers of Chatino languages are probably around 40,000 to 50,000, and for Zapotec languages maybe 450,000 or so. And within the Otomanguean family, Chatino and Zapotec, which form the Zapotecan subgroup, are also related to many other different groups of languages of southern Mexico, for example Mixtec, which I work on a lot with people in California, which is quite distantly related, but you can still find cognates if you know the sound correspondences and see a lot of similar structures that are probably shared and quite ancient.

And most of these groups have significant populations that migrate for work. So with, you know, long processes of environmental degradation and colonialism, exploitation, capitalism, neoliberalism, economies have collapsed to some extent in Indigenous communities in this part of the world, like in many, and folks migrate a lot more for work and to get money to send home. And so folks migrate to other parts of Mexico, especially Northern Mexico, but Mexico City as well, and then throughout most of the United States as well since especially in the mid-‘40s was when it really picked up with the Bracero program towards the end of the Second World War. And communities have rooted in many parts of the U.S. now, especially in California, where I’m based now.

MTB: Can you tell us more about your work with Mixtec speakers? Like are there like special considerations that people need to take into account if they’re working with diaspora speakers in regards to the communities as well as regards to maybe different things about the language?

Eric W. Campbell: Yes, I think it’s important to consider that community is a very sometimes overly simplified concept. So with communities spread around over wide geographic spaces, especially with digital media and technology and travel back and forth, there’s… Communities maintain transnational cohesion, and in California especially, where you have very large numbers of Indigenous indígena people, we can say, from Mesoamerica, organizations have formed, so community organizations by national community organizations that help maintain and, you know, provide a sense of community abroad in the diaspora as well. And most of the goals are sociocultural and related to daily needs in addition to language identity and language maintenance, which most people have an interest in. A lot of daily needs are much more pressing, so adequate medical interpretation, adequate language access in schools for youth, bullying against indígena youth in public schools. And so a lot of the community efforts are centered around that. Labor rights. So most people work in the agricultural industry in California, except for LA, where there’s a lot more construction work and restaurant work available. And so really focusing linguistic work or the language work on day-to-day needs of the community, I think, is an important thing to keep in mind, because the needs are very significant. Comparing this to something more like traditional fieldwork where somebody travels somewhere farther away to a community’s place of, you know, more deeper origin. Then another difference is, people have to work and live in California with the cost of living that is here, so it can be a lot more challenging to find the kind of support financially to keep people going that really have the desire to work on their languages and advance with their language-related goals when they’re balancing a whole lot of other needs. So that’s another thing to consider.

MTB: Do people usually speak Spanish as a second language and then maybe English as a third, or do they speak multiple Indigenous languages?

Eric W. Campbell: It’s a bit of a mix of everything. So some people have Spanish as their second language, this quite dominant second language. Others have a preference for English. Some people are quite fully trilingual and, you know, triliteral as they learn to write their Indigenous language. And a lot of families have parents, well, where you have a couple that are from different Indigenous communities, so you may have multiple Indigenous languages spoken in the home.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, that’s interesting. You spoke a little bit about how you were first interested in historical linguistics, but have your research interests changed since then?

Eric W. Campbell: Yes. I’m interested a lot in language structure and language use at a broad level, so I work a bit with sound systems, word structure, and then syntax and discourse as well, and I think what brings it all together is a focus on discourse so looking at naturalistic language use, so both the structure, how is language actually used in context, which involves all of the levels of linguistic structure, but also the use, and so for what are the motivations people have for using languages in certain contexts or in certain ways for their own communicative interests and needs in the moment. So it’s a very broad interest, but yeah, focusing on language use and, you know, why it is the way it is, why languages are similar in some ways and different in other ways. So this could be for cognitive reasons, communicative and social factors, historical reasons, and so they all tie together. So linguistic typology, historical linguistics, and understanding language through its use in discourse.

MTB: Yeah. Can you share some findings about language, like motivations behind language use, like in the communities or in the speakers that you work with, do you see common threads?

Eric W. Campbell: Yeah, so really, so far the work that we’ve been doing here in California is really getting a handle on the different varieties of Mixtec, for the most part, but working a little bit with Zapotec and also Purépecha more recently, and it takes quite a while to get a handle on the sound systems because of the complex tonal systems, and then to develop an orthography, so there’s very much a focus on getting it to a point where we can start to produce materials that will be of use for the community. And so I guess some of the findings that might be interesting so far in terms of language use are, some of the grad students at the University of California, Santa Barbara are looking at language use among indígenayouth, and so their language choices among their peers or in their family and how you see, you might see different linguistic profiles among siblings within a family where you sort of have a cline of, I guess, comfort with the Indigenous language even within a single generation. You can see this in some families.

MTB: What do you put that down to? Like is it like social factors or fluency or like what do you think?

Eric W. Campbell: I think it has to do a bit with social factors and just maybe the length of time that families have been in the diaspora, and maybe, I think, in a lot of cases, older siblings are the ones that serve as de facto interpreters for their parents, and so they’re almost put in a position where they have to use the language more for immediate needs, so that’s probably part of the story as well.

MTB: Yeah.

Eric W. Campbell: Language brokers, so a liaison between parents, families, and the school system so that there’s adequate access of information to parents.

MTB: Yeah. I saw something on Twitter recently about how that’s actually really bad for young people to have to translate for their parents, and I teach a book in one of the courses, one of the anthropology courses I teach called The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. It’s about this Hmong family who there… They were refugees and they moved to Merced, California, and their youngest daughter becomes ill, and there are no interpreters to be found. This was like in the ‘80s. And they talk a bit about how, you know, that obstacle of having qualified interpreters and or just like family members trying to interpret, and then there’s one scene where — this is a true story — there’s one scene where there’s a janitor who is from Laos and he is like trying to interpret, and yeah, just like the effects of that. Do you see, do you ever hear anything about that, or see that in people struggling with the lack of infrastructure for qualified and trained interpreters?

Eric W. Campbell: As it affects youth the way you…

MTB: Yeah.

Eric W. Campbell: … introduced the…

MTB: Or anyone.

Eric W. Campbell: I haven’t seen cases of it having a negative impact on youth, but granted, most of the people we work with are people that have a strong interest in language, so for somebody that has a strong interest in understanding their heritage or their native language and working with it, then this would most likely be a positive effect because…

MTB: Okay.

Eric W. Campbell: … they would have a lot more experience using it and seeing what the needs are to be able to help their family and their community. But I can imagine the scenario you depict could be a significant burden on many youth that are put into this position that to have to be an interpreter, and that’s, in many cases, it’s those more high-stakes…

MTB: Yeah.

Eric W. Campbell: … contexts where adequate interpretation is most needed. So legal contexts, medical contexts, and educational and labor contexts.

MTB: Yeah. Is there something like that in like Southern California? Do they have interpreters for Mixtec and Zapotec, or is it not so much?

Eric W. Campbell: Yeah, there’s a significant network of interpreter services. So MICOP, the organization we work with in Ventura County, and now in Santa Barbara County, has interpreter services for Purépecha, various, several varieties of Mixtec. And there’s a network nationally too where there’s networks of services that help provide or find interpretation. And the real challenges are around just awareness of the linguistic diversity that there is. So if a Mixtec interpreter is needed in a certain context, well, it’s really important to know exactly which village and which municipality the person that needs interpretation is if from so that a variety close enough to theirs to be mutually intelligible enough to be effective and not problematic can be found. And there’s some misconceptions out there about linguistic, the diversity of the languages that… So Mixtec, for example, is spoken in probably 200 different municipalities, most of which have their own variety, some of which are mutually intelligible and others very little, and so there’s no real way to count varieties or languages, and our knowledge still about which varieties are more closely related to one another and more mutually intelligible is still pretty limited. And then it’s also very dependent on individuals’ experience. So people that work with interpretation and have done so for many years probably encounter a certain set of varieties most frequently in their local context based on where people end up moving to, and they can develop a much greater competence in multiple varieties that they encounter on a regular basis and become sort of multi-varietal in their own language use, even. And so interpreters themselves are the ones that know best which varieties that they can provide better interpretation for, but there’s a lot of education that needs to be done about this in the systems that look for and provide the interpretation services as well.

MTB: Yeah.

Eric W. Campbell: And so that’s one of our project’s longer-term goals would be to develop more materials that would assist places that are searching for adequate interpreter services.

MTB: Yeah, that kind of goes back to my previous question as well about like how are speakers in California potentially different from speakers in Mexico, if they’re interacting with multiple varieties of their language and their language use might be changing as they have so much language contact and language mixing, perhaps.

Eric W. Campbell: Yeah.

MTB: Okay, so I’d love to know what recent projects you’ve been working on, like in the last five years, if there’s something you want to share with us.

Eric W. Campbell: Sure. I’ve been interested in several things. So the typology of tone systems. So, the Otomanguean language present an example of lexical tone with many different contrasts both in terms of what are the tonal elements in the language and then the tonal melodies that you find on words which then are very much a part of the morphology of the language. So it’s got a lot of grammatical tone, you could say, and it’s bound up with the lexical tone in interesting ways. And within Mixtec, for example, there may be some varieties that have two tones or maybe one tone and an unspecified tone bearing unit is the basic contrasts, and other varieties that might have up to, say, 27 or 28 tonal melodies that are lexical, and so words could have one of these different tonal melodies. In Chatino languages, what you find is, there’s somewhere… Like, for example, in Zenzontepec Chatino, there are five tonal melodies on lexical words, so lexical melodies, and then you alternate those around for grammatical purposes, so you won’t do tonal replacement of the melody, not of individual tones in most cases. So it presents an interesting case of, for tone typology, because some of the varieties might be quite more like African tone languages where you might have unspecified tone bearing units, and longer distance tonal processes, things like upstep and downstep or tone spreading, more autosegmental behavior of tone where other varieties might have many more contour tones as basic elements, more like East Asian and Southeast Asian languages. But then on top of that, you have it embedded so much in the grammar itself that it offers an interesting and important perspective on the way tone works in human language.

MTB: Yeah.

Eric W. Campbell: That’s one of the projects I’m interested in.

MTB: Could you give us a minimal pair?

Eric W. Campbell: Sure. So, for example, in grammatical tone, would be, in the Tlahuapa Mixtec variety, the verb for grinding cooked corn for making tortillas in the imperfective aspect IPFV ndíko, high mid, and then the potential mood, so to express future meanings or possible meanings, POT ndiko, mid mid, and then in a perfective aspect PFV ndìko low mid, so you have a three-way grammatical tone contrast there. And that’s another part that’s interesting in the structure of Otomanguean languages is, those kind of verbal inflections may involve strictly tone or maybe tone changes plus the addition of some prefixal element or suppletion in the stem or some consonant or vowel alternation in the stem in addition to some prefix in one or another category and tone melody differences.

MTB: Yeah. That’s interesting. And you mark that in the writing system, as well, mark the tone?

Eric W. Campbell: Yes. Yeah, we do, definitely for documentary purposes so we know what’s what and have things represented exactly as they’re pronounced as much as possible, but then community members may decide to use reduced systems of tone marking for certain more practical outcomes depending on different contexts. It’s really up to the language workers themselves that come from the communities and what’s the most appropriate orthography for a given context.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, totally. Sorry, I like went off on a tangent but there’s something else you want to keep telling us about your projects?

Eric W. Campbell: Yeah, the main project now is working with community members here in coastal California. We call this MILPA, Mexican Indigenous Language Promotion and Advocacy, and so it’s tightly linked into our field methods course at UCSB. So I work with MICOP to recruit people that are interested in working with their language for this class that we offer for graduate students at the university, and so it gives us a full year to develop an understanding of the language and most importantly a relationship with the community member who lives nearby and that has a lot of interest in working with their language and has their own language-related goals that we prioritize in the class as well, and so we work with several different varieties of Mixtec, as I’ve mentioned, and most recently with Purépecha, a gentleman named Martín Gabriel Ruiz, who is the start of a new part of the collaboration, but he also works as an interpreter and a labor rights organizer within indígena community in the Central Coast.

MTB: Oh, that’s cool. That’s awesome. You mentioned that… So you take into consideration the goals of the speakers as well. Have there been like any outputs from these classes? Like what are what are some of the things that people are interested in doing with their languages?

Eric W. Campbell: Yeah, most people want to have, you know, either audiovisual materials online so that people can start to learn the language and see and hear people use the language to help maintain the language. Others like to have print outcomes, that they could have story books, so we’d would make trilingual storybooks with, you know, illustrations, so for example a Mixtec telling of a story, naturally, transcribed, translated to Spanish and English, and then you can have a trilingual sort of parallel text storybook. Others have worked on music projects, recording songs and then putting it to a musical score, and I’ll, again, adding images and creating output that can be printed and then shared with the community. And language games, so like Bingo Lotería games, card games…

MTB: Oh, cool.

Eric W. Campbell: … and things like that, coloring books. So each field methods class, it’s sort of built into the assignments along the way in the class so that there are new practical outcomes coming out, and then with consent of the community member and the students that work on a specific product or outcome, then that serves as a template that can be used, and just replacing the data from other varieties in other languages into the same sort of template. And so I always sort of start to grow a stock of different products that we can, or outcomes, practical outcomes, that we can start to produce, really, once we have an orthography figured out in the case of those printed materials. Otherwise, we’ve been working lately on videos, so COVID and health-related informational videos, public service announcements, and so also transcribing those and embedding, burning subtitles into videos. Even if it’s really just the audio stream that provides the main access to that, it’s still a way to get the written word for languages that, you know, people often have this misconception that can’t be written or shouldn’t be written. That brings the written word as well into different contexts as a sort of supplementary addition to the outcome.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, that’s really cool. How do you get the video material out to people? Is it like on YouTube, or do you have like the audio on the radio, or like how can people… Or is it just like if people know, then they can find it in an archive?

Eric W. Campbell: Yeah, so MICOP has a radio… They’re affiliated with a radio station called Radio Indígena 94.2 on the Central Coast of California, and that can be listened to online.

MTB: Okay.

Eric W. Campbell: And so some of the things we record will be played on the radio as advertisements. And then just websites for individual varieties. So, for example, there’s a Sa’an Savi ña Yukunani website that Jeremías Salazar is developing along with graduate student Guillem Belmar where you can find all of the materials that are coming out of the work with Jeremías and his language on that website. And Carmen Hernández Martínez has YouTube videos and another website for her variety of Mixtec where you can find videos and language activities online that you can do. So a combination of just small private websites that are made public and MICOP’s network.

MTB: Yeah. That’s cool. That’s really cool. Thank you, Eric, so much for coming on.

Eric W. Campbell: My pleasure, Marti.

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

Eric W. Campbell: Right, so my main website online is within the linguistics department at the University of California Santa Barbara, so it’s linguistics.ucsb.edu, and then if you go to People, then you’ll find me there in the faculty.

MTB: Great.

Eric W. Campbell: And I keep my CV there and copies of publications and a little bit of information about the work that I do on that website.

MTB: Excellent, and I’ll link that in the show notes so people can find it. Thanks, Eric.

Eric W. Campbell: Great. You’re welcome, Marti. Thank you.