Documentation of Oubi

This week on the ELAR Blog, wildlife veterinarian Jenny Jaffe writes about documenting Oubi in Côte d’Ivoire while researching chimpanzees in the rainforest of Tai National Park. You can access the resulting ELAR collection here.

By Jenny Jaffe

As a wildlife veterinarian, I have worked in all kinds of places where the wildlife is not the only interesting thing about the location. With a Dutch-American background, I have been very lucky to get to know lots of different people, cultures, foods and languages. Though I am not a linguist, I am a lover of languages. Whenever I am in a country for more than a week or two, I put in some effort to be able to communicate in the local language. This has led to basic knowledge of languages like Malagasy, Thai, Kikongo, Kichwa (Ecuador) and  Danish as well as more advanced levels of Spanish, French, German, Italian, Bahasa Indonesia and Krio (Sierra Leone). It is enjoyable for me to make the connection with locals and communicate with colleagues in their own language. As well, there is the simple joy in comparing how languages work, how words are formed, unusual expressions, and completely new sounds.

With this background it makes sense that I was interested in learning a bit of the local language for my latest job in Côte d’Ivoire. I would be following habituated chimpanzees in the rainforest of Tai National Park, and would be living in quite an isolated fashion, working with local colleagues as well as with a few (mainly European) students and volunteers. My supervisors made sure to check that my French was up to scratch before I got the job, but there was zero expectation that I would learn Oubi, the main language spoken in the region. This was purely my own interest. Before leaving for the forest, still with quick internet access, I tried searching online for information. All I could really find was some basic facts; that it was a Kru language, that less than 10,000 people spoke it, and that about half of these lived on the Liberian side of the border and the rest on the Ivorian side of the border.

In an effort to get more info, I contacted a friend in Berlin who is a professional linguist, Sebastian Nordhoff. He dug around a little bit and said there was indeed hardly anything to be found. He was the one who suggested that if there was so little available, I might be interested in gathering some information myself and making recordings while I was in the area. Later on, he also provided me with the Atlas Linguistique wordlist in French, and with guidance on elements which might be useful to ask about specifically, as I had no idea.

Once I got settled in, I let my colleagues know I was interested in learning Oubi. In some of the camps, there was no phone network at all, and asking for translations of words was a fun way to pass the time. Initially I mainly learned useful expressions for me in the forest, like “I am going to eat”, “I am going to pee,” “Where are the chimps?”, and “I am tired and am going to bed!” It was very gratifying when they would actually understand what I said, as the tonalities were a skill I never mastered. It probably helped that my vocabulary was limited and they could often guess from the context what I was trying to say!

Soon, I learned how to count, words for body parts and family members, and started making recordings. Once I got the wordlist for the Atlas Linguistique, I would wangle my co-workers into relatively short sessions of ten words each. We would go over the words together, then I would record with my phone while I said the word in French and they gave the singular and plural in Oubi. I found the pluralisation of nouns very variable and unpredictable, hence it made sense to always include this in the recordings. Some fun discoveries were that they have no collective noun for ants, just specific words for at least five different types of ants. Sadly I did get to know the vicious biting ants quite well over my time there!

Toubaté Georges, the oldest speaker of Oubi. Photo by Jenny Jaffe

On one of my very few trips out of the forest, to the small town of Tai, I ran into the patriarche des Oubis, the oldest speaker of Oubi, who was the grandfather of one of my colleagues. Other people in Tai had told me anecdotes about his life that seemed fascinating, but occasionally a bit unlikely – like him serving in the French army in the Second World War! Mr. Toubaté was very friendly and despite being 88 years old, seemed alert and with an excellent memory. Sebastian had told me that recording life stories could be valuable, so I informed if he would be open to an interview where he would talk about his life in French and in Oubi. He was! I checked with his family members if I should bring a bottle of spirits to the meeting to pay my respects, a common tradition when meeting elders. They assured me he did not actually drink alcohol, but would be pleased with some coffee and powdered milk. Armed with these gifts, I made my appearance and was warmly received. His life story was indeed fascinating, and I felt very privileged to be able to ask all about it. It was gratifying that back in the forest, my colleagues showed interest in these recordings and shared them amongst themselves on their mobile phones. This way they could hear from the horse’s mouth that their patriarche had served for France in Vietnam (then Indochine) rather than in the Second World War!

Back in Germany, Sebastian introduced me to the team at ELAR, and through another colleague to a linguist specialised in Kru languages. It was so lovely that she was genuinely excited about this new trove of recordings from an as yet undocumented language. Sorting out the metadata for the ELAR archive was a little more time consuming than expected, but as I only had a few dozen files, it was not too bad. The guidance from the ELAR team made it pretty straightforward. Apart from feeling pleased that my efforts were appreciated by professional linguists, it is also very nice to hear from my colleagues in Côte d’Ivoire how proud they are that there is an interest in their language.

Many of my wildlife conservation colleagues end up in quite isolated spots to study animals. Not all of them are interested in languages, but most do need to communicate and many could be tempted in recording basic information on undocumented languages. If there was a ‘toolkit for non-linguists’ detailing what type of information and recordings would be useful, and what type of metadata is important, I am sure many would be willing to participate.

Thanks Jenny!

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