What can go wrong, will go wrong. What can’t go wrong, will go wrong, too.

Posted: December 13, 2009 in ignorant stereotyping, languages, linguistics
Tags: , , , , , ,

I’ve got a fascinating article about fieldwork and the blunders linguists-cum-anthropologists sometimes do.

I wanted to add a quantifier like “when they haven’t done enough research before setting out on an Oceania trip”, but then I realized that, no, actually, there are things you can’t really know beforehand, because sometimes you will just make mistakes, OK?

Boldly went where no linguist had gone before

Gunter Senft researched the language (and culture, inevitably) of the Trobriand Islanders in Papua New Guinea.  The most reliable book about Trobriand Island at the time Senft was about to set out there was still Malinowski’s stuff from 1920 and 1930.

Which is why when he arrived the stuff he knew was:

1. Stuff from Malinowski’s publications.

2. The interrogative pronouns avela (who), avaka (what), ambeya (where) and the general deictic beya (this, that, there, here) he was taught by a Catholic priest from the local mission(1).

Mistakes were made

That said, some of the mistakes Senft made were rather silly and avoidable(2). This is because they were clearly caused by projecting Senft’s language on the language he was trying to learn/investigate. For instance, he showed a spider web and asked someone what it was, to which the answer was kapali la bwala. Because he already knew that kapali meant spider, he assumed that the la bwala part was another noun, which he then interpreted as “net”.

Later, it turned out that la was a possessive, and bwala meant in fact “home”, so that the whole expression should be interpreted as “spider’s house”, not web.

Other times, though, Senft really couldn’t have known.

For instance, when he heard a word bweyowa, after consulting the native speakers briefly he decided it was the deictic “here”. However, a look at a map at a map hanging at the Catholic mission(3) suggested that Bweyowa is rather a variant of Boyowa, and is actually the name of the island on which he lived.


When Senft pointed at a piece of carving (for which the islands seem to be famous) and asked for a name for it, he was told it was uligova. It took him some time to find out that the word was actually for what the carving depicted, namely “a crocodile“, which was the reason while the language speakers had continued to snigger at his wacky antics for some time.

At first children were afraid of him whenever he went(4), so an event when a kid didn’t cry was a cause for further investigation. When a mum with a non-crying kid approached, Senft decided he could ask for the kid’s name. Upon hearing his voice, the kid did finally start crying, and the mum said gwadi e-kokola, which  Senft painstakingly noted down as the kid’s name.

What the phrase means, however, is “the child is afraid of you”.

Resistance was sort of futile

The more serious mistakes were however the ones that directly threatened to make Senft a pesona non-grata on the island: the lack of proper manners, his social misbehaviours.

For instance, he kept asking people about the names of people who were already deceased, and noticed that some of them would not want to speak to him again shortly thereafter. It turned out that it was a huge faux pas to ask about one’s dead relatives on the island.

Senft also made a blunder when he asked about a word that was part of the women’s language, and which men were forbidden to utter. He also shouldn’t have mentioned profanities that were part of children’s songs outside of the context of the songs.

One of the most hilarious mistakes, in my opinion, was the one Senft made with regard to greetings. He would go out to bath every morning, carrying his towel and soap stuff, so that he was sure everybody knew where he was going. This is why he was quite puzzled that the people he would pass on his way would ask him where he was going anyway, and that they were quite discomfited when a detailed answer was not forthcoming.

Finally, one of Senft’s neighbours explained to him that he should always answer the questions as exactly as possible, because they were as a matter of fact greetings. The details were required for two reasons:

1. the practical one: there were many accidents involving coconuts on the island,

2. the sort-of-practical one: the islanders believe that the world is filled with the malevolent spirits of dead people, known as kosi, who are fond of scaring people so that they become disoriented and get lost in the jungle.

So, by asking him for his exact route everybody was showing that they care a great deal about his well-being, and Senft, by being dismissive of those questions, acted like a complete jerk.

And this isn’t something that only happens to foreign researchers. Prof Kobayashi who specialises in NE Japanese dialects, once accidentally asked about a name of a plant in a village in which the exact same words actually meant “fart”. His informant was a nice old lady; one can only imagine how outraged she was at the young (then) post-doc behaving so rudely(5)!

(from Gunter Senft, “Ain’t misbevahing? Trobriand pragmatics and the field researcher’s opportunity to put his (or her) foot in it”, Oceanic Linguistics 34/1)

(I suppose I could send the pdf if I’m asked really nicely)

(1) Catholic missions are like cockroaches. Or locusts. D:

(2) OTOH, it’s easy for me to say.

(3) At least they aren’t completely useless.

(4) As a person who had Japanese kids crying at her formidalby alien sight, I can sympathise ^^;;;;

(5) This is a story I heard from prof Kobayashi himself. There’s even an article about the word, somewhere.

  1. ekolog says:

    Field work without trapping animals carrying infectious diseases is not a field work. It’s barely a field trip :P My friend is doing this in Cambodian jungle and keeping score of diseases contracted. After 2 years spent in the forest she’s leading her faculty’s scoreboard! :D

    • To be fair, the article wasn’t about the diseases he surely must have caught. He lived there for two years. So.

      Linguists keep track of mistakes they make. Equatorial parasites aren’t nearly as interesting :P

  2. ekolog says:

    Damn, not sure why I wrote last comment logged in as Lukasz. Could you correct it to my usual nick and link? Thank you!

    Also: My hovercraft is full of eels!

  3. miskidomleka says:

    Is it true that:

    the Philippine island Luzon was named this way because somebody (Magellan, maybe) approached the island, noticed someone in a boat and asked about the name of the island. The person replied “Luzon”. Which, as it turned out later, meant “I am rowing”


    • Huh. This is the first time I’ve heard this story! I’ve no idea, but will try to look it up. Somewhere. Le Google is completely silent on that matter, as far as I can see.

      Nonetheless, interesting :)

      Scratch it, I’ve got it!

      Luzon (traditionelles Chinesisch: (呂宋; pinyin: Lǚsòng)[1], ist die fünfzehntgrößte Insel der Welt und Heimat von 46.200.000 Menschen (Stand 2008). Der Name der Insel ist chinesisch und bedeutet übersetzt „niederes“, „südliches“ oder „kleines“ Song. Benannt wurde die Insel nach dem ehemaligen Reich Lusongguo (呂宋國); pinyin:Lǚsòngguó)[1], was übersetzt Luzon Reich heißt. Ein Unterschied zwischen Lusonguo und anderen Bereichen des philippinischen Archipels war, dass der Regent ein König (王), war und kein Fürst oder Sultan[1]. Die ersten Europäer, die Kontakt mit Bewohnern des Reiches hatten waren die Portugiesen, die Anfang des 16. Jahrhunderts, die Insel Malakka erreichten. Sie nannten das Reich Luçonia bzw. Luçon und seine Einwohner Luçoes.[2] Unter spanischer Herrschaft wurde der Name der Insel in Nueva Castilla (Neu-Kastilien) umbenannt.

      (From German Wiki)
      In case you don’t understand German, the name of the island is originally Chinese, and means “Southern/Lower Song”, and was derived from the name of the country called “Southern Song” (the original Chinese notation has the extra character 國 which is the older version of the character for “country”, and is often found in names of countries :)). Meanwhile, the Spanish used to call the island “Nueva Castilla”.
      I sort of don’t understand the “呂” character though. My Chinese dictionary says it’s 1) surname, 2) name of a part of the tone. And well, *I* know that the character for “south” doesn’t look like that. Maybe it had a completely different meaning in older Chinese? Only, there should be some traces of that in the modern meaning, because the use of Hanzi/Kanji tends to be rather conservative, and they retain the same meanings for ages.
      Well. My dictionary sucks, though. Would need a bigger one. Hmmmm.

  4. miskidomleka says:

    Another myth debunked!

    Anyway, I even can’t remember where did I read that “rowing” thing. It was like 25 or 30 years ago :-)

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