Program spurs students to do detective work to explore Aboriginal languages

Students and instructors chat before a whiteboard filled with grammar terms.
From left: Akshay Aitha (UC-Berkeley), Lydia Ding (Carleton College), and Sarah Mihuc (McGIll University), meet with Professor Claire Bowern to discuss what they have discovered while studying a little-known Aboriginal language as part of the 2017 Grammar Boot Camp.

In this boot camp, students learn to take risks and get “messy” — by studying grammar, that is.

Claire Bowern, professor of linguistics, conceived of the Grammar Boot Camp several ago as a way of contributing new linguistic knowledge about endangered languages. Students in the program come to Yale for a month to work with archival field notes and recordings in an effort to create a publishable sketch of a grammar. This year, the program included students from the University of California-Berkeley, Carleton College, and McGill University. They were tasked with studying Noongar, an Australian Aboriginal language.

The whole point of the boot camp is to analyze things that haven’t been analyzed before,” says Bowern.

Akshay Aitha, a rising senior from the University of California-Berkeley, knew almost nothing about the continent of Australia, in terms of linguistics, when he arrived at Yale. He found the program to be “fascinating” because it was not a topic that was covered in his curriculum at UC-Berkeley but is important to the field of linguistics as a whole. “A lot of assumptions that linguists used to make have been broken by Australian languages,” he says.

This year marked the fourth time that Bowern held the Grammar Boot Camp, which is funded by a National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates grant.

“A risky enterprise”

It is a risky enterprise,” says Bowern of the Grammar Boot Camp. “These students are basically writing a book in a month and that could go very well or it could go very badly. We don’t know how it is going to go at the start of it because we don’t know exactly what is in the materials. I have a general idea about the materials, but I haven’t analyzed them closely prior to the start of the program.” She uses languages that are closely related to others used in previous years to “bootstrap” the analysis of the current language.

Bowern says that to the best of her knowledge this is the only program of its kind in the country. She gives the students some guidance in the first week or two of the boot camp, but then it is up to the students to work out what they need to do to analyze the data and how to use their skills and interests to get the most that they can out of that data.

In addition to learning about a previously unknown language, the students in Bowern’s Grammar Boot Camp also contribute knowledge about Australian languages as a whole.

There is an assumption that all Australian languages are the same, and by working with materials from related but distinct varieties, the students in the program document some of the diversity of Australian languages as well,” notes Bowern. “There are three dialects that make up the Noongar language, and these are related to languages that are spoken across just about all of Australia presently.”

The students studied material from the various dialects of the Noongar language that were collected from the 1830s to the 1950s. “We are trying to amalgamate them and work out as much about the structures of the language as possible,” says Bowern.

This is very important work to be doing because there are a lot of languages that are either not well documented or that are endangered,” says Sarah Mihuc, a recent graduate of McGill University. “This program was a great opportunity to do the type of research that I would like to continue doing in my career.”

One of the highlights of the program for Bowern is the opportunity to work with “keen” students who endeavor to write a book in a month. “Seeing the data come off of the page and seeing how these language structures relate to other structures that I’ve seen in Australian languages is amazing.”

Along with theoretical interests, fieldwork — which is going out and finding speakers and writing descriptions — this kind of linguistics is one of my main interests,” notes Aitha. “If I end up in a career in academic linguistics this kind of work would be what I would want to do. The boot camp is good practice and experience.”

Carleton College graduate Lydia Ding says the Grammar Boot Camp was “phenomenal … It’s a lot like detective work trying to figure out what a writer means when they say something or what kind of patterns we can find in their data that maybe they don’t explicitly mention either. It is also very intensive” — which, she adds, is not often the case in a semester-long class.

“Messy” data

For Aitha, the program was an opportunity to take what he learned in classes and apply it to linguistic research. “The data that the students were given to study the Noongar language is messy,” explains Aitha. “This program is like using the tool kit that we learned in classes and actually applying it to linguistic problems that haven’t actually been solved before.”

One surprising thing that the students uncovered in their research, says Bowern, is the way in which the more recent speakers of this language in the 20th and 21st century have used both internal community resources and published resources to create a variety of Noongar which is “both not the same as the 19th century and pre-settlement types of Noongar but nonetheless are still very much recognizable as the Noongar language.”

The sources that we have been working with have looked at a very specific aspect of the language and have used inconsistent ways of transcribing the data,” says Aitha, who used sound files to figure out the phonetics and the sound system of the Noongar language.
“This is one of the first attempts to modernize observations that people have made about the language in the past almost 200 years.”

Bowern says that each time she has held the program the students have gained enough knowledge about the language to produce a published research article. “We have four grammars in various stages of publication now, from acceptance to distributed within the community.

These students very much lived up to expectations in being able to produce something that is high quality and well supported and publishable specifically for the language data,” she adds.

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