Bulanjdjan asks for field horror stories about things we’ve done in the field that we really wished we hadn’t done.
And in field linguistics and language revitalisation, the need to crticially evaluate our work and ask for help/advice is crucial. And while I do this on a personal, informal level, sharing this with a wider audience is pretty scary. But I also really think it’s important, especially for new researchers/field workers, to hear other’s stories of abysmal failure or of cultural insensitivity or of sudden (and very late) realisations in basic linguistic analysis. I think this is important cos it gives new field workers license to make mistakes and to admit to them! (Cos how else can we learn from them?) Surely the ‘sink-or-swim’ mentality to inducting new field workers is out-of-date?
I must admit I’m a bit of a believer in the sink-or-swim (at least, guided sink-and-swim). There’s nothing like making the mistakes to make sure you only make them once, or twice.
Here’s a small list of things that I can admit to doing (but really wish I hadn’t done)
- Offending people by not eating something I’ve been given. I remember one time when it was really hot and I was feeling dehydrated and queasy, and someone gave me a bunch of oysters, covered in sand in an old tin from the beach – couldn’t touch them. The response was “oh yes, white people like their food from the supermarket, Aboriginal people eat this bad stuff” and weeks of careful work was demolished in half a second, even though I was trying to explain that many people paid a dollar or more per oyster and getting them fresh off the rock was a luxury they seldom had.
- Assumptionsabout cultural knowledge, e.g. assuming something like nursery rhymes weren’t shared experiences when they were, or asusming something was shared knowledge when it wasn’t. I lost either way with this, because on the one hand I was implying that there was an ‘Australian identity’ that Aboriginal people did not share, but on the other that they shared an identity that they didn’t want to share.
- Forgetting who is in taboo relations with each other and not warning someone when an aloorr was approaching, like I was supposed to.
- Linguistics/actual elicitation things:
- leaving the pause button on. It’s my belief that this is something that you have to do in order to get it out of your system. You’ll never remember until you’ve actually lost data…
- asking “what’s this” and getting a response, and not writing down the referant at the time. I have a lot of tapes with this sort of thing on them, which I had to go back and check afterwards.
- leaving the microphone switch off. Again, like the pause button thing, something you have to do a few thimes before you odn’t forget.
- forgetting to elicit crucial pieces of information. e.g. for a Bardi verb you need to know several forms before you can work out what its underlying form is. There are also some nouns that look like verbs. It’s easy to tell if you have the 3rd singular or 2nd singular, but there’s a few I only have in the plural in the “present”, so I can’t tell if they’re argument-taking nouns or verbs. Case allomorphy is another one. Nothing like dictionary work for realising that there’s a heap of stuff you didn’t ask and really should have (or ran out of time to ask)
- I can’t think of any d’uh moments for synchronic analysis (although I’m sure they’ve been many and I’m repressing them), but for historical and etymology there’s nothing quite like seeing the blindingly obvious after months of thinking about it.
There’s another thing which probably plagues me more than mistakes, and that’s the things I didn’t ask people who’ve now passed away. Couldn’t have been done, I don’t think – I don’t think I could have done more work with speakers on Bardi field trips, but there are still so many things I wish I’d been able to ask, that we’ll now never know.