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The Undergraduate Experience: Field Linguistics

 
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In a mini-series of posts over the summer we'll be showcasing our undergraduates, their work and their experiences of studying Linguistics at Huddersfield. Our first post comes from second year English Language and Linguistics student Maariyah Akudi.

The students of Field Linguistics at the University of Huddersfield don’t quite fit the image that most would have of field linguists - a group of rugged linguists in a remote location learning a dying language. Instead, we are in the classroom with an informant of a lesser known language, trying to obtain data through discussion of a series of questions and pattern spotting.  The language we were learning about this year was Sorani Kurdish. It is spoken mainly in Iraq and written in the Sorani alphabet, which is based on the Arabic alphabet. 

It’s always important in data collection such as this to have a systematic approach. I am definitely not one to have a built-in corpus in my brain, so we first began with a series of translation seminars of the various words in Kurdish with Mahmood (our informant). This led us in the direction of noticing small patterns and morphemes, which are the smallest units of language to carry grammatical meaning. For instance, in English, our definite article is ‘the’ whilst in Kurdish they have the bound morpheme -(a)ka. While ‘the’ is a separate word from the noun it modifies, “-(a)ka” attaches to the end of the noun. Here’s an example:

(1)    The dog               (English)

(2)    S’ag+aka             (Sorani Kurdish)
        dog+DEFINITE
        “The dog”

We then moved onto making simple noun phrases with pronouns and possessives where we saw that morphology is such an important part of the grammar of this language. We discovered how complex contrasting languages can be when we learnt how a single noun can have up to 5 various inflectional morphemes attached: when you take just definiteness, plurality and possession into account, the word s'ag (the root word for dog) can have 24 variants. We also made paradigms of verbs in not only the past and present/future tenses but also in the first, second and third person. This can be difficult to comprehend for English speakers but when you finally understand the detailed inflectional morphology of this language, the satisfaction is absolutely worth it.

Although we use English as a metalanguage in class, I would not advise thinking of English as the standard form of the structure of all languages. I definitely learnt this after we spent two hours of the seminar deeply questioning the purpose of a mystery vowel appearing on nouns and came to the conclusion that it has no independent purpose and simply just appears whenever an adjective or a demonstrative pronoun does!

There are many advantages to the skills learnt in this class. Working in a highly collaborative way pushes you to speculate about your ideas and think critically when it comes to language. You are able to not only able to improve on skills needed to transcribe language but to develop higher level descriptions of language, which are always valuable for future study and when planning on choosing a career.  

Glossary

Bound morpheme: A form “which cannot occur on its own as a separate word, e.g. the various affixes de, -tion , -ize , etc.” (Crystal. 2009, p.59)

Inflectional morpheme: “Inflectional affixes signal grammatical relationships, such as plural, past tense and possession, and do not change the grammatical class of the stems to which they are attached […] e.g. walk, walks, walked.” (Crystal. 2009, p.243)

Metalanguage: "Linguistics [...] uses this term in the sense of a higher-level language for describing an object of study (or 'object language') - in this case the object of study is itself language. (Crystal. 2009, p.302)

Morphology: “The study of the internal structure of words. More specifically, morphology deals with units within the word which have an identifiable meaning or grammatical function. These are often referred to as morphemes.” (Carr, 2008, p.104)

Paradigm: “A set of grammatically conditioned forms all derived from a single root or stem is called a paradigm.” (Crystal. 2009, p.349)

References

Carr, P. (2008). A Glossary of Phonology. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Crystal, D. (2009). Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.