Harvesting an archival deposit for your linguistics dissertation

By Jonas Lau

This week on the ELAR Blog, ELAR depositor Jonas Lau tells us about his experience working with somebody else’s ELAR deposit for his MA dissertation. After finishing his MA in Language Documentation and Description at SOAS, Jonas went on to study a PhD in Linguistics at the Universität zu Köln, receiving an ELDP grant for his fieldwork. His ELAR deposit can be accessed here.

If you study language documentation and description or a related subject, you might do so because real language data fascinates you, and if you could, you would pack your things right away to start your own fieldwork. At least that was how I felt when I started my master’s degree. I was determined to work with primary language data but a one-year degree does not leave much time to execute your own fieldwork, so I decided to ask other people for data they had collected. If language documentation is really about collecting copious amounts of recordings for other researchers to use, most deposits must have plenty of unanalysed data on topics that have not yet been touched. 

As I knew I wanted to do research in Nigeria in future, I thought about working with a deposit of a Nigerian language. At the time, I worked at ELAR, where I met Sophie Salffner, who had worked on Ikaan, an endangered language of Nigeria. After discussing my intentions of using documentation data for my dissertation, she told me she had some nearly untouched elicitation recordings on negation in Ikaan that I could work on. My dissertation topic was born! 

Sophie Salffner’s Ikaan deposit at ELAR. Salffner, Sophie. 2010a. Ikaan and related dialects of Ukaan: an archive of language and cultural material from the Akaan people of Ikakumo (Ondo State, Nigeria). London: SOAS, Endangered Languages Archive. URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2196/eaacb80f-8877-4cea-8573-63c9f526393b. Accessed on 26/03/2020.

Working with her deposit was rather easy. Later, I discovered that it is quite helpful to have cleaved your way through an entire deposit at least once before setting up your own deposit. Although I found some other recordings with negated sentences, I mainly stuck to the elicitations, as empirical work with entire texts in a completely new language would have been rather ambitious for the trimester that we had to write our MA dissertations. Especially for a language with no comprehensive grammatical description available. I realized that it is incredibly valuable to be able to talk with the depositor, as they usually have an unpublished wealth of knowledge about the language. For an outsider, becoming acquainted with the language takes many hours of working with the language data. This is why I think it is extremely important for field workers to continue their research on the language and make as much of the knowledge they have available. Even archived field notes were a great help to me. Because every bit of information about an under-described language helps following researchers.

Obviously, working with other people’s data has its limits. Follow-up elicitations to test hypotheses might not be possible. But still, I managed to describe as much of the negation structures in Ukaan as the available data allowed me. It was a great experience and a helpful preparation for my own fieldwork. I recommend using archived data to anyone who wants to write a thesis with primary data but does not have the opportunity to collect their own data.

The work with the deposits finally had other benefits for me. Sophie put me in contact with another language community in a village next to the villages where Ukaan is spoken. They were interested in documentation work and welcomed me warmly in their village. I started my PhD and went on two field trips to do research on the language Àbèsàbèsì (or Akpes in the literature), which is possibly related to Ikaan. Having worked with Ukaan helps me enormously with my grammatical description of Àbèsàbèsì.

Thanks for sharing your experience with us Jonas!

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