The other day I was working with the speakers on some grammatical questions of MalakMalak regarding manner of motion, purposeful and continuous motion which got me thinking about the relation between my running and my work.
When they hear the word ‘fieldwork’ some people might think, that linguists like me run around the bush all day, collecting bush food, going hunting and fishing, exploring sacred site and dreaming tracks, encountering exotic animals, and listening to mythical stories around the campfire. While I love all of these activities and wouldn’t mind doing them seven days a week, a typical fieldwork day is slightly less ‘glamorous’. I spent most of my early mornings preparing sessions, transcribing data, adding dictionary and grammar entries, reading up on previous work on related languages, and editing story books and posters. In short, this is pretty much the same kind of work I’d be doing in Chicago, except for the fact that my ‘Corner Office’ here has a considerably nicer view and more airy outlook than the windowless confines of my desk at the university.
At about 10am I leave for my other ‘office’ to work with the MalakMalak ladies. After greeting almost every smelly cat, dog and tame cockatoo that has made the little settlement its home, I set up for recording. One after the other, my three main speakers sit down. One always closest and with an air of authority as she is ‘the language person’ of the family, the youngest shyer and a little off as if unsure that she belongs here, and finally, the eldest, always at a greater distance, looking as if she is not actually interested in what we are doing, but occasionally jumping in with great spirit and the knowledge of her advanced years concerning the language, or, more often, with a joke, that leaves us giggling for some time.
On a normal day, I will start the day by listening back to previous recordings and checking my transcriptions and translations. As it is virtually impossible to ask the ladies to simply repeat what was said, this is always a lengthy process. Often, I need to twist my tongue to suggest my initial transcription in my best shot at MalakMalak, usually resulting in a fit of laughter and ridicule for my mispronunciation, or, more often, misheard statements. Then I may hear a part of the original sentence repeated, more often than not with altered word order, as this is not fixed in MalakMalak, and with added words to ‘fix up’ the utterance. When I have finally figured out what I think might be the original utterance out of all of this, quite regularly, a discussion starts on other aspects among the speakers. If we listen to a dreamtime story, events are regularly re-narrated, added or corrected, details about the dreaming place for the story, traditional customs and techniques, and people or animals are discussed. Consequently, in the end I always end up a little wiser and a little more confused.
When this is done, we might have time to check entries in my dictionary, set up a language game to play, record more stories or details about customs, or asking a range of questions on aspects of grammar – what we call elicitation. And this is where we go full circle. In case you were wondering what I got out of that grammatical session I referred to earlier, ‘running continuously in one spot’ translates to manmanma in MalakMalak. This is opposed to tyagadma which is ‘running with a purpose’. Having seen me on numerous evenings training on the roads of Woolianna, the speakers told me with a grave face: ‘You know, what you are doing is manmanma, but if we go running, it is tyagadma.
And there you have it.