Episode 4: Hugo Cardoso on Researching Creoles in Sri Lanka & India

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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 interview will be with Hugo Cardoso. Hugo is a Creolist and he does work in Sri Lanka and India. If you don’t know what a creole is, the most basic explanation is, a creole is a stable natural language that has developed from a mixing of two or more other languages. It differs from a pidgin; a pidgin is not considered a full language but a creole on the other hand is learned as a first language or native language by children and is considered a completely formed language. I’m going to read a bio for Hugo before we get to the interview:

Hugo Cardoso is a researcher and professor at the University of Lisbon. He obtained his bachelor’s from the University of Coimbra and his MPhil and PhD from the University of Amsterdam. He specializes in Portuguese-based creoles spoken in South Asia which he has been researching for over a decade. He has worked closely with the creole-speaking communities of Diu and Kerala in India, and more recently with the Portuguese Burgher community in Eastern Sri Lanka. He is also a depositor at the Endangered Languages Archive and a recipient of the Endangered Languages Documentation Program Grant. 

MTB: Thank you so much Hugo for joining us. To start, can you tell us about where you conduct your linguistic fieldwork?

Hugo Cardoso: Yes, sure. Currently I am doing fieldwork in Sri Lanka, more specifically Eastern Sri Lanka, on the Portuguese-based creole that’s spoken there, but this is the tailend of a whole process. I started elsewhere; I started doing research in India and I still do. In India I have done fieldwork in two places: one is called Diu, it’s an island off the coast of Gujarat in Western India, and the other field site is actually in the state of Kerala, which is the Southwest of India. Specifically, in two different towns, Cannanore and Cochin, there is a particular variety of Portuguese-based creole which is spoken in these two locations. So, I’ve collected data in both of them. I started in Diu and then there were some developments and I realized there was work to be done in Kerala and I moved on to Kerala. And Sri Lanka has been my latest addition.

MTB: How did you decide to start working on those languages? Did you have some prior connection already to the communities or the field sites? How did you pick India and Sri Lanka?

Hugo Cardoso: No, I mean, not at all. I didn’t have any prior connection. It all came from an academic interest which I developed when I was doing my undergraduate study in the University of Coimbra, in Portugal. I had a professor there who was instrumental for this whole development. His name was John Holm, he is a very well-known Creolist, and he was teaching at Coimbra at the time. One of his objectives, and he kept saying it all the time and one of the reasons why he moved to Portugal, he was an American, was because he wanted to, in a sense, create a new generation of Portuguese Creolists who could look at the Portuguese-based creole from a different perspective. I was one of them in the sense that he really inspired me to look at these languages. Then when the time came to do my Master’s, I went to the University of Amsterdam to work on a creole. 

MTB: A Portuguese-based creole?

Hugo Cardoso: Now that’s the interesting thing. For my master’s, I looked at a creole which is mostly English-based but has a very important Portuguese connection, a Portuguese lexical element, and that was the topic of my MA. This is Saramaccan which is a creole spoken in Suriname. For that particular work, no fieldwork was necessary. I did all my research from published data, old dictionaries, modern dictionaries, etc. Then, when the time came to decide to look for a topic for my PhD, I thought, okay there’s been a lot of research done on Portuguese-based creoles and creoles based on other European sources, but they tend to concentrate on the Atlantic. Considerably less research has been done in Asia and the Pacific. So I thought, why don’t I move to that side of the world? And so that’s how it happened. I spoke to Clancy Clements, who was a person who was doing, at the time, research on one of the varieties of Portuguese creole in India. I asked him, “what do you suggest?” and that’s how I came up with my PhD project which was the one about Diu. Then everything else followed from there.

MTB: I see. We spoke a bit about this off the podcast, but can you talk a bit about what was the reaction or did you have any difficulties in being a Portuguese person doing research on a Portuguese creole in the postcolonial context? Was this a challenge that you faced and can you talk about that?

Hugo Cardoso: Yes, sure. I mean that’s actually been one of the most interesting things about this whole process. The fact that I have worked in three different locations because the constraints that that poses are not the same in all of them, and that has a lot to do with recent history. So, as I told you, I started out with Diu, and Diu is a particular case because Diu along with two other areas of India, Daman and Goa, were Portuguese colonies until 1961. 

MTB: Very recently.

Hugo Cardoso: Yeah, that memory is still very present. Not only is it still politically very present, there are people there speaking Portuguese because that is how they were schooled in primary school. That creates a situation in which Portuguese, European Portuguese especially, but Portuguese in general, still performs the function of a norm, so there is some pressure among the community from Portuguese. So, the ideas which are often associated with creole languages,  that they are watered down or corrupted forms of a standard still holds some currency there. That was the source of my constraints when I was working in Diu. It wasn’t that I was unwelcome by any means. On the contrary, I think I was very welcome because I was Portuguese, so that was not a problem at all. But in terms of getting the people to speak the creole to me in an unconstrained way, that was a process. So, it took a while. I had to be there for a while, people had to gain familiarity with me and become comfortable before I could start getting good data for my research. With some people, I could never bridge this ideological gap. Some people could never speak to me freely the way they would speak at home. The exceptions were the children of course, because the children are a product of the period which came after integration in India, so these things really don’t apply. So with kids I could actually start getting the raw data from the beginning. In fact, I learned a lot of my Diu creole from children before I could actually start talking to adults. 

MTB: And they didn’t have that same emotional hangover that maybe their grandparents had from remembering the recent history?

Hugo Cardoso: That’s right. It is quite interesting as well because when I finally could establish some relationships with some families that allowed me to get this kind of data, it would not be uncommon, for example, if I was interviewing a child or perhaps their mother or father, it wouldn’t be uncommon if the grandparents were there, for them to intervene in the sense of, “that’s not how you say it”. They would always try to correct it to a form that was closer to Portuguese. So it’s not that what I was getting was incorrect but, from their perspective, it wasn’t what I should be hearing. 

MTB: Yeah that’s interesting, wow.

Hugo Cardoso: So yeah there was that. Then in the other two locations this doesn’t apply because…

MTB: Because they were not so recently part of Portuguese empire?

Hugo Cardoso: Not at all, not at all. 

MTB: Ah ok.

Hugo Cardoso: That connection was broken in the 17th century so there have been centuries of development that don’t depend in any way on education in Portuguese or some recognition of Portuguese as the norm. So, it was much easier in that sense to start collecting data there.

MTB: How did in the last two field sites, or uh, last two communities, how do people feel about their language, their Portuguese-based creole? Did they have a different language attitude towards it?

Hugo Cardoso: They do, they do.

MTB: In comparison to the first community, I mean.

Hugo Cardoso: Yes, certainly. These notions that what they speak is a corrupt form are not there. Often what develops among these communities, not only the ones in India and Sri Lanka but elsewhere as well, is this idea that what they speak is some sort of crystalized 16th century Portuguese, which it isn’t. There’ve been all sorts of transformations, so it’s not, but it’s a way of looking at it. Their attitude is very different in the sense that they don’t have as much hesitation speaking to someone who comes from Portugal and who is obviously a native speaker of a standard variety of Portuguese. On the other hand, these are also languages which are disappearing and to some extent the communities are aware of that. In one of the cases in fact, the one of Kerala, I ended up contacting the last speakers, so the people I was recording were the last ones, and I could only locate six speakers. So, it’s the very end of a process of shift and language death, right? So, there are these feelings of nostalgia about when the language was still vital among the community and among the families and how it’s changed. In Sri Lanka it’s a little different because the community is a little larger as well. So each location is different in that sense.

MTB: Yeah. Can you talk about any non-research related challenges that you faced while you were in the field? Such as some culture shock or did you get sick at all? Did you have to overcome…

Hugo Cardoso. *laughs* well you do get sick. 

MTB: It is part of the experience, right? *laughs*

Hugo Cardoso: It is. There are these cyclical moments of health issues, but luckily nothing too serious. The only thing that was a little more serious that I had to go through was typhoid. But, luckily, I had done all the vaccinations and all that so it wasn’t a terribly difficult case.

MTB: That is a good tip to get all the vaccinations.

Hugo Cardoso: Yes, yes, do. Because you know, as this particular case taught me, even if all of that doesn’t prevent you from getting the diseases, it makes them much less serious, so it is easier for you to overcome them. As for culture shock, yes in some ways, but nothing too serious again. You know, I had never been to India before I started this fieldwork there, so my first trip was for the fieldwork. My port of entry was Mumbai which is a massive metropolis and it can be a little overwhelming. I mean there are things that you have to adapt to.

MTB: Yeah, definitely.


Hugo Cardoso: But those things that you have to adapt to, in my experience in India anyway, are mostly associated with metropolitan areas. You know all of the confusion…

MTB: The hustle and bustle.

Hugo Cardoso: Yeah, right. But my field sites are very different. They’re smaller, they are very quiet. And, in a way, because they were all in the past Portuguese colonies there is a certain familiarity to the community and also their way of living. So, I immediately felt very welcome there, that was not a problem at all. No, I can’t think of anything that was particularly complicated. I know that a lot of people that do fieldwork do so in conditions which are quite difficult, you know, in material terms, quite difficult in terms of accommodation or electricity and things like that. That was not the case for me because even though these were small places they were urban places, right? So there was running water, there was electricity, you know, with some gaps, but it was there. There was transportation, there was internet, you know it’s not as challenging.

MTB: Yeah, that’s great. Do you have any data loss horror stories to share?

Hugo Cardoso: Luckily, no, I have always been very careful. 

MTB: Oh wonderful, ok.

Hugo Cardoso: Haha, I’ve always been very careful with that. I always make lots of copies of my materials. There was a moment recently where I lost everything that I had in my computer, but luckily…

MTB: You had backed it up?

Hugo Cardoso: Bits of it were not necessarily backed up in my main backup and that was my concern, but because all of the materials had also been copied by other team members, everything was recoverable.

MTB: Wonderful. 

Hugo Cardoso: Right.

MTB: Yeah. Don’t you feel this is a wonderful time to be alive and to be doing fieldwork? Before, it was all analogue tapes and now we can just so easily make digital copies.

Hugo Cardoso: Yes, absolutely. 

MTB: It’s great.

Hugo Cardoso: So there is no excuse to lose your materials, haha. 

MTB: It’s really true. It does happen but…I haven’t had any experiences yet, but I’m hoping not to have any at all, haha. Lastly, or second to last, can you talk about your equipment? So now you are working in the field fairly regularly and so you have equipment that is still on the market. Can you tell us what you use? At least audio and video recorders.

Hugo Cardoso: Right, actually there’s also been a progression. I’ve always carried into the field video recorders and audio recorders, but in the first two sites I couldn’t rely on video a lot because of sociolinguistic constraints and it wasn’t perhaps always acceptable to video. That has changed in this Sri Lankan project, a lot. It’s been remarkably easy to work with video. So what I do, and I’ll tell you a little about what I have right now which is the Sri Lanakan project equipment, I work with two solid state recorders, I bring two and I use one of them mostly which is a Zoom H6, but I have a backup. It’s very good in fact. So this is what I use. But then I also carry another one which I had from previous projects which is a Marantz, just in case something happens. Then we work with two video cameras; they’re Panasonic. We went with the same video camera twice to make sure that everything is compatible between the two and the quality of the recording is also comparable. The reason why it is good for us to use two cameras is that this particular project, the Sri Lankan project, has a very important ethnomusicological component, which focuses on music but also dance. So very often we have to use both cameras to get different angles and then we will combine both of them, if we feel like it and if it’s important. So, we have two video cameras, Panasonics, and then lots of microphones for different occasions. We have two cardioid microphones that we attach to the Zoom H6 and we have one very good wireless lapel microphone, a Sennheiser. This has been one of my favourite pieces of equipment because, being wireless, it gives the whole setting a lot of freedom. It allows us to do very interesting things like walkabouts or to have people demonstrate practical things on camera that show the work of a blacksmith or a carpenter or cooking something in a way that is comfortable for the person who is doing it, right? Without all of the wires.

MTB: Not cumbersome. Yeah, doesn’t bother them.

Hugo Cardoso: Yeah. So these walkabouts, for example, have been quite interesting and because the reach is quite long you can actually film from far away if necessary and you can still hear perfectly. So, I really really…

MTB: Recommend them?

Hugo Cardoso: Yeah, I really like that. Then we have a shotgun microphone and we got a very good vocal microphone, a Rode NT2-A, and this was again specifically because we have this ethnomusicological approach and this is a very good microphone for some performances. So we also use it specifically in these contexts. And then of course everything that has to go with it, cables, stands, tripods, all of that.

MTB: All the other bits, yeah. Lastly, what advice would you give to someone who is about to go into the field for the first time?

Hugo Cardoso: Ok hmm…well, fieldwork is a very good opportunity, in personal terms as well, it is a very good opportunity. There are some essential elements to make it work and I think in my experience anyways, flexibility and sensitivity are essential because you’ll be in a situation where the success of your project, the success of what you intend to do, doesn’t really depend on you that much or not only on you, it depends on the people around you. So you have to be able to engage quite deeply sometimes with very different people. That’s not only a necessity in practical terms that you have to listen to what they wish to do or listen to what they don’t want to do and run with it, but it’s also, I think, a moral imperative. This is how you should approach your work there. So yeah, flexibility for sure, sensitivity at all levels. Political sensitivity, you know you have to be careful about the topics that you raise or the topics that you are going to archive and publicize. And then, in practical terms, if this is the beginning of a long term project, if you are, for example, preparing to submit a proposal for funding, I think it is a good idea to do a pilot trip first. To contact the community and to make sure that the community are available and open to it. This I think is very important. Not that I’ve ever had any such issues, I never had any problem like this, but when I started my fieldwork in Diu I did take a risk because I set up the whole project before I’d even gone there. So that risk creates a bit of anxiety.

MTB: Yeah, yeah. 

Hugo Cardoso: And if it doesn’t work it could be a problem. So, if possible you should do a pilot trip first.

MTB: Yeah definitely, that’s good advice. Ok, well thank you so much, Hugo.

Hugo Cardoso: My pleasure.

MTB: I really appreciate it so much for taking time out of your schedule. Can you tell us where our listeners can learn more about the work that you are doing? For example, they can visit your data in ELAR perhaps?

Hugo Cardoso: Right, so for this project on Sri Lanka, the materials are deposited in ELAR, Endangered Languages Archive. So, if you go there and you search for “documentation of Sri Lanka Portuguese”, which is the official title of the project, then you will get our collection. To get access to the other materials that I’ve been producing and from the other field sites, you can search for me on my research centre which is the Centre for Linguistics of the University of Lisbon. On their website there are links to everything else.

MTB: Great and I will include those links in the show notes as well.

Hugo Cardoso: Perfect.

MTB: Thank you so much.

Hugo Cardoso: 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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