Recalibrating Documentation: Reflections on 10 Years of Language Documentation in the Tanzanian Rift

Jul 14, 2021 08:39 · 2964 words · 14 minute read

hello my name is Andrew Harvey and welcome to my talk “Recalibrating Documentation: Reflections on 10 years of language documentation in the Tanzanian Rift language documentation has had a major impact on the trajectory of linguistics since the turn of the century both in terms of what is considered linguistic data as well as how that data is collected and used taking my work 10 years of documentation in the Tanzanian Rift Valley area as a case study this talk reflects on how my practice has been shaped by language documentation discourse as well as how the local context has shaped how I do language documentation three central topics to be explored include the effect of a documentary approach on grammatical description the emergence of literary genres from documentary materials as well as the potential language documentation has for supporting the narrative sovereignty of marginalized speaker communities finally the talk will provide some assessment on the futures of language documentation on the continent and what language documentation in Africa must become to ultimately succeed at the same time the talk explores what collaboration can look like actively pushing back against the idea of this work being the top-down pursuit of a lone wolf linguist examples will be provided as rich audio-visual material throughout drawing on the verbal arts of the Gorwaa Ihanzu and Hadzabe people as an introductory note this talk itself will be archived with the following DOI and will be available on YouTube you’ll see that throughout this talk most examples will be provided along with a unique identifying number designed to allow quick access to the specific recording in which the utterance or speech event takes place this identifier is composed of two parts: an alphanumeric code to the left of the full stop and number to the right of the full stop the alphanumeric code to the left of the full stop corresponds to the file name of the bundle which is the primary unit of organization in the audiovisual archive deposits and can be accessed by entering it into the search bar within the deposit the number to the right of the full stop corresponds to the utterance number within the recording this can be found by looking at the accompanying ELAN file and looking in the phrase segment number tier or by referring to the numbered utterance in the pdf file in this case the highlighted utterance in this pdf file would have the following unique identifier first I’d like to start here visually at the intersection of Nelson Mandela and Julius Nyerere roads in Dar es Salaam and acoustically with a group of Gorwaa singers sometime in the mid 20th century this may seem incongruous but the audio we have just listened to came from a documentation of sorts housed at the old Radio Tanzania Dar es Salaam branch located right at this intersection it’s a collection of recordings of traditional Tanzanian music made on the request of Tanzania’s post-independence president Julius Nyerere shortly after the country gained its independence from Britain this particular recording again and again marks important parts of a journey I’ve been on as a documentary linguist and we’ll return to it or iterations of it throughout this talk this version came without a title but a Gorwaa singer who I’ll introduce a little later in this talk gave me a version of it and called it a formula often used to begin a story in english we might call it once upon a time as far as I know it remains one of the earliest extant recordings of the Gorwaa language of course this was not my first encounter with the importance of recorded materials much of my formation took place during the documentary turn in linguistics perhaps best characterized by Himmelmann’s 1998 definition of documentary linguistics as radically expanded text collection I’m very much a product of that text collection impulse a decade and a half after him on 1998 I had begun my work on Gorwaa a project which continued as a lone wolf style project until 2018 and collected around 208 hours of audio and video recordings with that said in many ways the Tanzanian context is different from the western context in which language documentation was conceived including in the way described by Muzale and Rugemalira 2008 and my approach to documentation has in turn been shaped by these differences in 2018 myself and members of the Gorwaa speaker community actively began transforming the documentation project from a lone wolf project leading conducted by me into a community-based project led by Gorwaa speakers themselves from the time this project began to present around an additional 281 hours of audio visual materials have been collected and analyzed by these insider researchers these materials are now openly accessible in the digital Endangered Languages Archive based at SOAS I helped establish a new project with the Ihanzu speaker community based on the same insider model in 2019 and since that time insider researchers have collected and analyzed more than 200 hours of Ihanzu audiovisual materials which are again openly accessible at ELAR in the same year my colleague Richard Griscom and I began another project of this kind together with the Hadza-speaking community which to present has collected and analyzed more than 200 hours of audio visual material all of which is again openly accessible via ELAR all of this is to simply situate myself within documentation as a subfield and to provide some context for the reflections to come returning to my first experiences with documentation that is leading an outsider documentation of Gorwaa between 2012 and 2018 my initial motivation to take this approach was that it would lead to a better grammatical description this has been articulated by linguists in several different venues throughout the years and is related to the reproducibility crisis in wider scientific circles but has been most clearly argued for linguistics in Berez-Kroeker et al.

2018 which among other arguments states that if our analysis can be linked to the data from which they derive then they can be more easily checked verified or disproven so at its heart this approach is about honouring linguistics as an empirical science the resulting documentary data however manifests itself in surprising ways patterns emerging in natural speech that I would never have gone looking for myself say through elicitation take this example in which Pascal Bu’ú’ and his father Bu’ú’ Saqwaré are talking about a historically important tree in Yerotonik village at one point the tree is described as iimi-saaw where iimi is a noun meaning something like “people” or “mores” and saaw is an adjective meaning “far” Gorwaa commonly employs this structure with the resulting compounds giving a meaning more or less idiomatic in nature surprisingly however these patterns do not behave as we would expect an incorporated noun to behave so take for example the noun-adjective compound slaqwa-hhoo’ where the slaqwa literally means “body” and hhoo’ literally means “good” together the form means something like “fat” or “healthy” here we see the adjective inflecting for the gender and number of its head the cow and here we see the adjective inflecting for the gender and number of its head bull the difference that is that the adjective is in a masculine singular form is an important piece of evidence in that it shows agreement is not with the noun body because body is feminine singular but actually with the noun bull which is masculine singular all of this is how we would expect an adjective in Gorwaa to behave however when the head of the adjective is plural in this case cattle we not only get the adjective part of the compound agreeing for gender and number but we also have the nominal part of the adjective seemingly inflecting for number instead of the singular slaqwa we now have the plural slaqoo for a form that in all senses seems to be incorporated it is typologically surprising to see it available for inflection in this way so in very real ways once I chose a documentary approach initially for reasons of reproducibility the data the language began speaking in interesting and unexpected ways this occurs on the level of grammatical structures but also at the level of speech genres so in addition to a language documentation approach allowing overlooked grammatical structures to emerge from recordings of natural speech so too does a language documentation approach lend itself to the inclusion of literary genres for example it was not long after receiving the original version of our Gorwaa song that I myself recorded the same song at the house of one of my consultants it was there that I learned that the song was linked to Gorwaa rain making practices which themselves are linked to the Bantu-speaking peoples of northern Singida region including the Ihanzu-speaking people to whom we will now turn for a further example of how studying the literary genres of the Rift Valley Area reveals the interconnections of its people so to say that the Ihanzu-speaking people of northern Singida region possess a lively riddling tradition is an understatement indeed recordings made of the Ihanzu riddling are some of the most raucous recordings we have made and are great shows of wit and pragmatic virtuosity less expected is the fact that during riddling the posing and answering of the riddles is the briefest part of the exchange much more extensive is the bargaining portion that is when a riddler poses a riddle which the answerer cannot answer the answerer must offer something to the riddler to buy the answer this may be food or farming implements but more often than not it is a physical place like a town or village much of the back-and-forth is then the riddler and the answerer talking about what they know of places their vices and their virtues in this way riddling is a sort of moral geography lesson in which people exchange what they know of villages towns and cities throughout the area this is explained as the explicit goal of riddles by John Kipimo when interviewed by Samweli Isiah and can be seen from the screenshot of conversation when Samweli asks John why people riddle John answers that the purpose was such that children here written those people be made to know this place was good and this place was bad indeed the pedagogical purpose of riddles and riddling is a salient feature across the wider area of central Tanzania but would not have become apparent had it not been for the collective efforts of the Rift Valley Network: an active group of academics and local people researching the histories languages and cultures of the Tanzanian Rift Valley Area a subfield we can playfully call Riftology this group one I’m very proud to have helped set up and support works on the recognition that the Rift Valley Area is home to so much diversity and so much complexity that working alone is essentially futile instead the network operates on principles of collaborative knowledge creation coming together on topics of interest one of these topics of interest was riddles and during several months of reading groups presentations and workshop conversations we came to see that across the groups of the Rift Valley Area riddling was a central pillar of traditional learning and so I was pleased that when I returned to recordings of Gorwaa riddling I encountered the same sort of back-and-forth again involving these moral geography lessons returning to our song the story doesn’t end with its modern day renditions further research has been conducted throughout the Gorwaa-speaking community about the individuals named in the song about the context in which a song like this would have been sung and like in this video here about the family of rainmakers named in this song importantly and as can be seen here most of this research is now being conducted by local members of the Gorwaa language community in fact virtually all of my language documentation since around 2018 has been primarily led and conducted by insiders that is people who identify as members of the speech community they are researching but why conduct language documentation in this way after all projects of this kind take a great deal of time to plan and develop and require a considerable amount of mutual trust between insider and outsider actors this assessment of the Ihanzu and Hadza proposals indicates that it is very clear that reviewers usually themselves documentary linguists were highly skeptical of the ability to work in this way with the Hadza- and Ihanzu-speaking communities despite this my colleague Richard Griscom and I are increasingly seeing data emerging from these projects which suggests that by many measures making space for insiders to act as agents in documentation results in documentations which are measurably more comprehensive which we address in detail in the talk shown here but are also more meaningful to local communities which we address in the talk listed here for now I’d like to mention one facet of this concept of meaningfulness for local communities and that is something called narrative sovereignty narrative sovereignty essentially refers to people being in control of how stories are told about them and when local people are given the tools they need to document their languages their cultures and their daily lives that control over how they are represented rests with them here we have been watching recordings that my colleague Richard Griscom has made of Hadzabe people hunting and of course the Hadzabe are famous among anthropologists documentary filmmakers and tourists for the fact that a subset of the community still practiced subsistence hunting and forging and in many ways this is how the Hadzabe have been represented to the outside world a quote by prominent anthropologist Nicholas Blurton Jones does a particularly good job of encapsulating this image of the Hadzabe people as an isolated homogeneous population quote “[throughout the 20th century] day by day Hadza have little to adapt to but their environment and each other” end quote based on my understanding of the language I believe this to be untrue both for the 20th century as well as for the many centuries that preceded it but furthermore when we foster space for narrative sovereignty to develop we also see that Hadzabe people show us a very different image of themselves than this quote provides as well consider for example this clip taken by insider researcher Endeko Saymon here not only does the interviewee Baghayo recount stories of hunting but he also talks at length about the local rainmaker something that hadn’t been documented among the Hadza before as well as the rituals which were associated with the Hadzabe people visiting her what Baghayo describes is strikingly similar to practices of Bantu-speaking peoples to the west people with whom the Hadzabe have been in contact linguistically culturally and historically for a very long time indeed the Hadzabe people are and have been just as much a part of the Rift Valley Area as any other group and the picture which emerges when narrative sovereignty develops is rich in some ways cosmopolitan and most importantly how the Hadzabe people choose to be represented much of this talk has been spent propounding the virtues of the documentary approach and certainly there are many a documentary approach presents possibilities for better descriptions better engagement with literary genres and even better representations of the people with whom we work I’d like now to conclude by affirming in the most ardent way that no documentation alone will not save us returning to that original recording of the Gorwaa song which has taught us so much about the Tanzanian Rift Valley Area this is an image of the hall closet from where it came it and a treasury of other early recordings of traditional music remain there year after year in the heat of the Tanzanian coast degrading more and more with the wet of each passing monsoon season and at its very worst we can see in it the reflection of the recent disaster at the University of Cape Town Library after the fire just a collection of undigitized material in peril but that is not what I am afraid of at its best the music archive as every archive digital or not is only that a repository inanimate disembodied and removed from the community from which it derives in other words the next great challenge of language documentarians both insider and outsider will be to bring the archive back to the speech community to make it relevant to make it valuable and to make it theirs again I’m optimistic about this project I think about Festo Massani pictured here at left an insider researcher with the Gorwaa documentation project who will soon be completing his master’s degree on Gorwaa riddles employing archive material some of which he recorded himself or local researchers Nange Chaka and Angela Sampson traveling for more than an hour into the bush to make sure distant members of their Hadza-speaking community could still have their voices included in the project to conclude then I titled this talk recalibrating documentation because as much as a documentary approach has shaped my understanding of African languages and African linguistics the documentary approach must to grow and change in response to African language data in African language contexts I hope through this largely reflexive presentation I have shown some of the ways in which this recalibration is happening and must continue to happen as well as highlighted the work and stories of the ones to lead this recalibration the local speakers themselves thank you and here are my references.