Sally Thomason on the joys (and perils) of linguistic fieldwork


By Andries W. Coetzee
Nov 03, 2012 Bookmark and Share

Flathead Lake, Montana

The Flathead Lake that Sally drives past en route to her fieldwork site

Sally Thomason, our Department chair, has been doing linguistic fieldwork on the Flathead Reservation in northwestern Montana every summer for nearly thirty years now. She has done a tremendous amount of documentation and of grammatical analysis on Montana Salish. But finishing a project like this is not easy, especially not for someone who loves interesting consonants and complicated words! Since Sally tells the story so beautifully in her own words, I hand over to her below. (The special characters needed to transcribe Salish do not work on the system used by the University for this website, and I have therefore uploaded a pdf document with the correct transcription for all the Salish words used in this story here.) Now over to Sally:

This summer, like every summer since 1981, I visited the Flathead Reservation in northwestern Montana to work in St. Ignatius with several of the few remaining fluent speakers of Salish-Pend d'Oreille, the easternmost Salishan language.  My field trips are almost always one-day trips – more would be tough, given the other work I have to do and the fact that it takes me two days to prepare for each day in the field and another two days or more to process the data after a day's fieldwork. They're grueling twelve-hour days, thanks to the 212-mile round-trip drive, part of which goes along the whole thirty-mile length of beautiful Flathead Lake.

For about thirty years now I've been working on a dictionary of the language, the resource the Culture Committee and the elders have said they most want to have.  One thing I've learned, maybe the main thing, is how very hard it is (at least for me) to finish a dictionary – to get a major dictionary project into a state that is fit for publication.  I've learned a lot since 1981, and much of the data I collected in my first ten or twenty years of working with the elders is flawed in the transcription or the analysis, or both.  I can't face the thought of publishing inconsistent and in part wrong data and analyses.  But every time I tell myself that THIS summer I'll just work on correcting errors and not getting new data, I'll settle down to work and the elders to check my older data and ... they give me new words.  I cannot resist new words.  And in twenty or thirty years there will be no one left who remembers the old words that these elders heard their parents and grandparents use; that makes it even harder to close down the corpus and spend the time I have for Salish on correcting old mistakes rather than increasing the database.

My field sessions last about seven hours, with breaks and without constant intense concentration that would be too tiring for the elders as well as for me.  (Even then, I usually need to eat a power bar to make sure I don't go to sleep and veer off into the lake on my way home.)  I always work with a group of elders: that way I can hear different views on a word's subtle meanings and on options for translating sentences, and I also get to hear table talk "in Indian". The elders enjoy the group sessions much more than they would private sessions; they've told me that these summer sessions with me, together with occasional elders meetings during the rest of the year, are their only chance to talk their language nowadays.  And they like being reminded of old words that they often haven't heard for decades.

Salish-Pend d'Oreille is, of course, the world's most wonderful language.  It has 38 consonant phonemes and morphology to die for, the perfect language for me, given my enthusiasm for consonants and elaborate morphology.  In my fieldwork, I get most excited about tiny bursts of insight yielded by a single surprising word.  Here are four examples from my 2012 field season.  In a mid-19th-century text (Horatio Hale, 1846), which has a Salish wordlist, I found a plural form of swe 'who'; so I checked with the current elders, and sure enough, they have a regular reduplicated plural (with somewhat puzzling glottals added), su7su7wé, which they use in sentences like Su7su7wé Lu šey'?  'Who are they?' (lit. 'who.pl 2ndary this/that?' I haven't encountered another language with a plural interrogative pronoun (not that the Salish word is a pronoun in any formal grammatical sense), though for all I know there may be dozens of languages that have this feature.  

Another intriguing item that I discovered because of Hale's 1846 wordlist: he had a word poius 'ugly from age'; when I re-elicited the word, the elders laughed at his gloss – the word, they said, is p'uyús, and it means 'wrinkled face'.  They're all pretty wrinkled with age, and I don't think they liked Hale's assumption that wrinkles mean ugly.  

The third item, one I first ran across in another old source and wanted to check for the modern language, was a word for 'grizzly bear cub', qeLsmXé (lit. 'child.grizzly', with a prefix qeL- `child of'). One of the elders said that that word was all right, but he'd usually just use Lsm'Xé 'small grizzly'.  This form is striking because smXé 'grizzly bear' has an s- prefix, roughly a nominalizer; and the diminutive prefix L- ought to be added after the s-, not before it. In fact, I have heard sLm'Xé for 'small grizzly' from other elders in the past.  So it looks as if at least some current elders (most of whom are about twenty years younger than the elders I worked with a decade or two ago) have reanalyzed at least some s-initial words as prefix-less.  

The fourth example came up when the elders gave me a word nkw'e7él'istn 'I chewed them out, bit into them'.  The root is kw'e7 'bite', and I guessed that this is a calque from the English metaphorical expression chew someone out.  But then they added another word with the same root and a very similar meaning, kw'a7kw'a7ápqis 'he bit him on the head, he bawled him out' (the vowel changes in the reduplicated root are due to the uvular stop later in the word).  This can't be a direct calque on English, because we don't have such an expression.  If it's an old Salish expression, it suggests that 'I chewed them out' also isn't a calque from English – or else that they calqued 'I chewed them out' and then extended the metaphor to biting a particular part of the body, namely the back of the head, -ápqis.

All tiny examples, as I say, but I find such things endlessly fascinating.  That is probably another reason I can't focus on correcting mistakes in my dictionary files instead of getting new data – that, and the fact that the elders would miss these sessions if I stopped making my weekly trips to St. Ignatius in the summer.