Project Profile: Documenting Ramari Hatohobei, the Tobian language, a severely endangered Micronesian language

Today on the ELAR blog, Peter and Bobby Black discuss their  project documenting Tobian. Tobian (Ramari Hatohobei) is the language of Tobi, one of the Southwest Islands of the Republic of Palau, a Micronesian nation in the western Pacific. Severely endangered, Tobian is currently spoken by approximately 150 people. Tobian and the dialects of Sonsorol, Merir, and Pulo Anna, the other three Southwest Islands, are closely related to the languages spoken in the outer islands of Yap and Chuuk. Intensive work was done with [deleted elderly] Tobian speakers to document their language through collection of vocabulary, stories, poems, and songs in their relevant socio-cultural contexts before it is lost

  1. On the language ecology of the area:

Tobian is a small endangered language being redefined and subsumed daily as it coexists in a small community embedded within a larger society speaking an unrelated language that is dominant in everyday life. Members of the community speak or understand many other languages including English, Indonesian, Japanese, and, in the past, German.  All of these languages have left traces in Tobian.  Palauan and English are the national languages in the Republic of Palau; Tobian is only distantly related to Palauan.  

2. What is your research question and why did you choose it?

Working with Tobians to document their language arose naturally out of Peter’s 50+ year relationship with them starting when he was a Peace Corps Volunteer on Tobi Island. The Tobian language is incompletely documented although there is much archival material dating from American seafarers in the mid-19th century through German ethnographic researchers in the early 20th century and on to other work done mid-20th century.  Peter was engaged in the documentation of Tobian from his first days in the community and Bobby’s work on it began in 1990.  

Tobian is at the extreme western end of a dialect chain beginning far to the east that spreads across many islands, and as such has attracted spasmodic interest from various researchers, all of which was useful to us in our project.    

The ELDP grant gave us the opportunity to attempt to capture as much spoken Tobian as possible, along with traditional knowledge in various areas.  

3. Why did you want to work with this community?

A highlight for us throughout this project was how pleased many community members were with this documentation effort.  They were very eager to participate and help.  An abiding concern is for their language, Tobian, to be available for their children and grandchildren.  Community members were especially pleased with the illustrated children’s stories in Tobian and English, particularly one in the form of a colouring book illustrated by a young Tobian boy.

4. What’s been a challenge in this project and why?

Challenges arose because neither of us is a trained linguist.  Moreover, there is lots of variation in Tobian which made transcription difficult.

Peter:  We took an early decision to refrain from attempting the production of an authoritative Tobian system for spelling.  I learned to speak Tobian in 1967 at a time when only a few of the islanders were literate.   Many Tobians now view my Tobian as archaic, but it is well known to most of them.  I had one course in descriptive linguistics as part of my graduate training.

Over time as more and more Tobians became literate, a loose set of writing conventions emerged.   Because literacy was first achieved in English for most people, their representation of Tobian was heavily based on English spelling.  Since our work on documentation grew out of my years of work with the Tobians and was primarily directed at community building, there was little need or interest in achieving phonetic accuracy in recording speech.  The transcriptions that we did produce relied heavily on assistance from native speakers.  

Bobby:  For the most part, I never felt my lack of fluency (to put it mildly) in Tobian was a major barrier.  Tobians were well aware of my limitations and helped me immensely.  During my sessions of filming and recording, there was almost always at least one Tobian present who understood English and could convey my questions/comments to the rest of the group.

I had read as much as I could find about documenting languages before we got started, although I read much less in linguistic analysis and theory.  I had also looked at the available language documentation and dictionaries for related languages. And, of course, Suzanne Romaine, Merton Professor of English Language in the University of Oxford 1984-2014, was always available to answer questions about best practices.

Peter and Bobby:  In our 3100-word ‘Toward a Tobian-English Dictionary’, there are no doubt many errors.  We tried to cast as wide a net as possible and where possible noted in each entry the progression and changes in words and language from the mid-19th century until today, including words recorded by American whalers, German ethnographers, and more recent scholars.  Many entries are words borrowed from English and German as well as  Spanish, Japanese, and Palauan. Where possible, we noted the original word and its meaning.  The primary entries, of course, were provided by contemporary speakers.   We captured as much variation as possible from today’s speakers of Tobian—old, young, monolingual (very rare), bi-, tri-, and quadruple lingual—all of which affects how people spell words and capture sounds.  This document is currently being managed by a member of the community and will be placed in the archive.

5. If you could start the project again would you do anything differently?

If we were to start again, we would attempt to include more extended periods of time spent with the community.  

6. What still needs to be done?

Much remains that could be done with the Tobian community vis a vis documenting their language—it depends entirely on the imagination and energy available on the part of the community and those attempting to document the language.

Additional video documentation of more traditional skills such as canoe-building, fishing, weaving, and more would be very useful and welcomed by the community.

We think an extended project along the lines of Edvard Hviding’s work with Marovo speakers in the Solomons would be incredibly valuable as a cultural and environmental and linguistic resource for the Tobian community and, especially its children. [Edvard Hviding, Reef and Rainforest: An Environmental Encyclopedia of Marovo Lagoon, Solomon Islands (in Marovo and English with scientific identifications and colour illustrations), UNESCO: Paris, 2005.]

7. What is the current level of documentation?

Ample opportunity remains for documenting the Tobian language, especially in areas of traditional culture which are in danger of being lost as the last generation to be born on Tobi Island is aging.

Thank you to Bobby and Peter for sharing a look into their project! To learn more about Tobian, visit Peter and Bobby’s ELAR deposit page, found here: https://elar.soas.ac.uk/Collection/MPI191291

Further information can be found on Peter and Bobby’s Friends of Tobi Island website http://www.friendsoftobi.org

The Friends of Tobi Island Facebook page also reflects some of their work: https://www.facebook.com/Friends-of-Tobi-Island-115063481856708/

 

Project Profile: A discourse-based documentation of San varieties in the Western Sandveld Region

Today on the ELAR blog, ELDP grantee Lee Pratchett discusses his project documenting San varieties in the Western Sandveld Region (Central district, Botswana). Lee is currently away on field work in Botswana and was kind enough to give us a look into his current work.

  1. Can you give us some background on the language ecology in your area?

This project focuses on the scantly documented and highly endangered languages spoken by the Kalahari San in a region known as the Western Sandveld, a vast area in the Central District of Botswana. This region is both linguistically and ethnically diverse. The San of the Western Sandveld speak language varieties which belong to the East Kalahari Khoe sub-branch of the Khoe-Kwadi lineage, one of the three genealogically unrelated phyla commonly subsumed under the label Khoisan. These languages are referred to collectively as Tshwa – but they are highly diversified and we suspect that they do not form one single linguistic unit.

Traditionally, the San are hunter-gatherers; however, they survive today on a mixed-economy of small scale agro-pastoralism, government welfare, and low-paid labour working on cattle farms. The cattle farms are usually owned by different and socially more powerful groups, such as the Tswana, the Kalanga, and the Pedi. Most San are fluent in Setswana (Bantu, Niger-Congo), the national language of Botswana. In fact, in various communities, San parents talk exclusively in Setswana with their children and the transmission of Tshwa to younger generations has ceased entirely.

According to speakers, pressure from Bantu pastoralists forced some San communities north into their current locations. Some of these communities would have therefore lived further south until approximately two generations ago. This makes it highly likely that there was contact with other languages spoken by San from an altogether different Khoisan lineage called Kx’a. This is another potential research avenue that I will hopefully find time to explore.

What is your research question and why did you choose it?

This project undertakes documentation in some of the eastern-most reaches of the central Kalahari, an area that has not been subject to vigorous, systematic language documentation. The region is key to several important research questions – not only related to linguistics, but also for our understanding of population dynamics in southern Africa over the last few thousand years. As such, the language varieties targeted in this project are a “research priority” for historical linguistics in the Kalahari Basin and indeed southern Africa (Güldemann 2015ː 38). Importantly, many of these languages are critically endangeredː only in a minority of the communities surveyed thus far is the language actively used as a primary means of communication.

Mma Mantswae uses a lot of gesture as she recites a folktale about a mischievous hare.

Another intriguing aspect of this project relates to a claim found in anthropological literature that suggests the existence of another, entirely unintelligible language spoken by hunter-gatherers in the region (cf. Valiente-Nouailles 1993). This is exciting for numerous reasons, not least of all because it was only in the 1970s that researchers first documented ǂ’Hoan (Kx’a), some varieties of which are spoken on the south-eastern fringes of the Western Sandveld. This moribund language is distantly related to the language I documented for my PhD. Any new data would be of huge value to southern African linguistics, but also compliment my own personal research interests.

Language documentation affects the entire community. Here, an informant from my previous project, ǀKx’aece Baeba, leads a session where speakers identify the names of animals using picture cards. In many Tshwa communities, children rarely hear elders talking in their mother tongue.

What’s been your highlight of the project so far and why?

By far the highlight of this project so far came a few days agoː one of my most patient, reliable, and charismatic language informants, Ditsoto Ranamane Abaye, who has been accompanied by his cherished and worn guitar every time we’ve met, allowed me to record him playing some music of his own composition which includes him singing in Tshwa. We recorded five songs in the garden of the Khama III Memorial Museum in Serowe. After each song, Ranamane, known locally as Rams, discussed the song with the curator of the museum and passionate folk-musician, Scobie Lekhutile. Scobie himself knows the local San languages well and even worked with German linguist Rainer Vossen when he was conducting research in the area in the 1990sǃ As it turns out, Professor Vossen was one of my chosen referees when I submitted my project application to ELDP.

My main language informant, Ranamane Abaye, is a highly talented musician. Here he performs Tsam kuun “Let’s Go”.

Ranamane’s music stops time. His voice is both rough and soft, with an honest soulfulness that emanates life experience. The playful, joyous rythm of the first song causes my mind to shuffle through snapshots of my trip so far. Even when the melody takes a deeper, heavier tone, his fingers seem to whisper gently over the guitar strings.

Scobie then let us in on the meaning behind the different songs, which range from the celebration of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to stories of injustice at the hands of more powerful ethnic groups. This music is both effortless and complex, and I feel privileged to have been able to listen and, more importantly, to understand. Ranamane is well known for one song in particular called Tsam kuun or “Let’s go” that brings everyone to their feet. The irony is that this song is not supposed to be a party song at allː it talks of a San man who is forever being scapegoated by the other local ethnic groups and so suggests to his wife “let’s go”.

Ranamane is well-known locally for his music, but he is also an avid story teller.

Ranamane is one of a very small handful in his community to speak his mother tongue regularly. But Ranamane uses it to forge a unique cultural medium that blends an endangered language, history, politics, and local music styles. The upsetting truth is that although Ranamane’s music has so much to say, very soon, there will be very few who understand the language he is singing in.

I have even been told that Rams does his own version of No woman, no cry – now that I just have to hear!

What’s been a challenge in this project and why?

The resistance of communities or community members to the project has been a constant challenge. This is not because the community does not see the value of the project itself, but rather because getting an unfair deal – something I am afraid to say is not at all without precedent. Southern Africa is full of San iconography. The romantic vision of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and the flora and fauna of the Kalahari brings tourists in their droves from around the world. Yet, acculturation here is rife and poverty amongst the indigenous San is disproportionately high. I became aware of this sad reality during my previous project; nevertheless, informants were usually very excited to take part in an incentive that would contribute to the documentation of their culture and provide an additional source of income. Many of the new informants have been much more suspicious of my work. They are more conscious that some people make a lot of money marketing San culture. The bitter history surrounding the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, the ancestral home of many San groups before being evited in the late 20th century, also figures prominently in local discourse.

As a result, community members are more cautious about engaging with the project. One elderly informant even asked if she would appear on Facebook – although I cannot imagine she really knows what Facebook is. Others demanded that I speak with every type of official, headman, social worker, community development officer, and police officer, before even the most basic of research questions could be asked. Sometimes this meant that a lot of time was invested only to learn afterwards that the language was not used any more. It also means that the entire community must be on-boardː if a community member does not necessarily want to contribute his or herself and feels uncomfortable about the project in general, work comes to a swift halt until the individual feels reassured. The more tedious aspect to this is not investing time to ensure harmony and build trust, but rather that, sometimes, those with the strongest objections are the ones least likely to benefit directly from the project. This has been a test of diplomacy on multiple fronts.

What still needs to be done?

There is still a lot to accomplish. Two tasks are never far from the front of my mind, and both contribute to producing a faithful description of the language. The first is to do with the representation of the language community in my evolving language corpus. This means visiting more than one community wherever possible to work with a variety of speakers. Here in the Kalahari, some communities are only five or ten kilometres apart, others are hundreds of kilometres apart. But without having a reliable data sample, however small, from different communities, discussing linguistic variation and divergence becomes all but impossible. Furthermore, we do not know when such an opportunity will arise again or how the vitality of the language and culture will change in the very near future. To this end, I believe I have made good headway, and early indications signal that the extra legwork will be worthwhile.

My home from home.

My second concern relates to compiling an accessible corpus of natural language data with which to describe the language. As far as this is concerned, there is still a mountain to climb – or rather, a desert to cross. The corpus itself promises to be diverse, and I look forward to transcribing Ranamane’s songs and some of the other folktales collected so far. However, in practice, this is very difficult as I have yet to find informants who are conversant in English. For the time being, I work through a Setswana translator even for elicitation sessions. This makes the entire process arduous for all concerned and much is lost in translation. One must be conscious not only of the language structure of the metalanguage (English) but also the language it goes through (Setswana). Sometimes, it feels like playing Chinese whispers on helium. Thus, whilst I still need to get a firm grip on the language itself, I am conscious of having enough time to make sure I do not end up with hours of recordings that no one can access.

It might seem naive to expect that the Tshwa speak English at all, but it is the official language of Botswana and the first language taught at school. And, in my experience, the standard of English in Botswana is generally good. If anything, the situation reflects the high drop-out rate of school children in San communities.

Thank you, Lee! To learn more about Lee’s project and the San varieties, visit the ELAR catalogue.

References

Güldemann, Tom & Anne-Maria Fehn (eds.). 2014. ‘Beyond ‘Khoisan’: historical relations in the Kalahari Basin. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Valiente-Nouailles, Carlos. 1993. The Kua: Life and Soul of the Central Kalahari Bushmen, Rotterdam, A.A. Balkema.

Project Profile: Description, Revitalization and Documentation of Nam Trik

Today on the ELAR blog, Geny Gonzales Castaño writes on her work documenting Nam Trik, a Barbacoan language spoken in the Colombian Andes. Geny’s work has also included revitalization efforts, such as literary workshops and a workbook for the community.

On the language contexts:

Nam Trik, also known as Guambiano, is a Barbacoan language spoken in the Colombian Andes. Traditionally, Nam Trik’s speakers have lived in four resguardos (settlements recognized by Colombian State, with territorial autonomy and ruled by traditional authorities named Cabildo): Guambia, Ambaló, Quizgó and Totoró.

This project focuses on two communities where Nam Trik is critically endangered: Totoró and Ambaló. In Totoró, according to a 2013 census made by the community authorities, there are 76 native speakers (1% of a total population of 7023 people), who are all over 50 years old.

In Totoró, the use of Spanish has displaced Nam Trik in all daily interactions and there are now two generations of monolingual Spanish speakers. There is no intergenerational transmission of the language. Nam Trik is only spoken sometimes at home between grandparents. It is common that when a grandparent dies, the remaining spouse stops speaking the language altogether since there is no one else in the family to speak to.

On revitalization efforts:

From the 1970’s, indigenous people in the department of Cauca, where Nam Trik is spoken, have struggled to defend their history and the indigenous languages, training teachers to educate their children according to the situation of indigenous people and in their respective languages.

Since 1980’s, the authorities and school teachers in Totoró initiated linguistic revitalization projects including the development of alphabets and educational materials for teaching Nam Trik as a second language at school. For several reasons these efforts unfortunately didn’t yield the expected results and Nam Trik is still dying.

The school teachers, like the majority of the adults who live in these communities, are not Nam Trik speakers. This situation makes the teaching of Nam Trik very difficult and the task is made harder by the absence of appropriate resources. Furthermore, it is difficult to find the support and the funding from the Colombian government to provide continuity in these efforts and programs.

Nevertheless, the Nam Trik indigenous authorities, the speakers and the indigenous school teachers in Totoró are not giving up.

On Geny’s involvement and ELDP project:

I feel very proud and privileged to support them in these efforts since 2008, when as a member of the group of research GELPS (Group of Linguistics, Pedagogical and Socio-cultural Studies of Colombian South-western) I became engaged in the development of educational materials for teaching Nam Trik in this community.

In the last years many Nam Trik speakers had to stop participating in the Nam Trik programs, meetings and activities for reasons of age. Others have also passed away, like Mrs. Ismenia Sánchez, who passed away in 2013, and whose death has saddened us deeply because she was an enthusiastic and active participant in all the activities on teaching and transmitting Nam Trik in Totoró.

This situation highlighted the urgency to think about the possibility of starting a project of detailed documentation of the language as soon as possible. In 2014, as PhD student in linguistics at the DDL (Dynamique Du Langage) laboratory in the University of Lyon 2 (France), I obtained a grant for linguistic documentation from ELDP.

Before starting the documentation project I met with speakers and authorities in Totoró, where a difficult question emerged. What should be documented and why?

At this point we were facing two different paths and ideas about what should be documented. On the one hand, it was the objective to strengthen the Intercultural Bilingual Education in Totoró through teaching ancestral knowledge by responding to the requirements of the Ministry of National Education. On the other hand, it was the interest in documenting the uses of language in everyday situations which the potential learners can use in their own lives to restore the functions that the language has lost; which is crucial in the case of Nam Trik in Totoró. Finally, we have decided to do both.

On teaching traditional practices:

We decided to focus in two traditional practices, that are no longer recreated in everyday life, but which are part of the curriculum of the indigenous school, where the indigenous authorities and school teachers are also trying to revitalize them. First, the traditional process and techniques to build a mud-walled house, which is considered a male activity. Secondly, the elaboration of handloom woven of fabrics; chumbes and ruanas and jigras (traditional bags), which is considered a female activity.

In the case of the elaboration of chumbes, ruanas and jigras, we organized meeting with elders who explained the different parts of the loom and the weaving process, from the preparation of the wool after the ewes are sheared to the process to making each kind of textile.

In the case of the process and techniques used to build a mud-walled house, we interviewed two Nam Trik speakers, Don Aristides Sánchez y Don Marcos Ulcue, who were part of the team that built a traditional house in the high school of the resguardo in 2010, as part of a project to strengthen the Intercultural Bilingual Education in Totoró. This house also became a place for Nam Trik speaker meetings, where we carried out several of our recording sessions.

On creating a workbook for the community:

Most of the data for this project was recorded in meetings, where people simply got together to tell stories around the fire as they used to do after working in the fields. A group of seventeen elders participated in these meetings: María Gertrudis Benachí, Marco Antonio Ulcué, Erminia Conejo, Aristides Sánchez, Carmen Tulia Sánchez, Carolina Luligo, Micaela Luligo, Marcelina Conejo, Ismailina Sánchez, Encarnación Sánchez, Tránsito Sánchez, Barbara Conejo, Juanita Sánchez, Inocencio Ulcué, Nemesio Bolivar Conejo, Gerardina Sánchez and Jose María Sánchez.

We thought that all these wonderful stories, which are part of the oral tradition of Totoró people, must be accessible for other people from the community who were not attending the meetings and workshops of the project.

For this reason we decided to make a workbook with some stories narrated in Nam Trik during the working and recording sessions, which contain the transcriptions and the translations. We encouraged the participation of community children through workshops on children’s reading, where after reading the stories, we asked the children to draw illustrations on the stories’ topics.

Some of these illustrations were used in the workbook entitled “Namoi kilelɨpe as’an c’ipɨk kɨn” (this is the way of telling of our ancestors), which was printed with funding from COLCIENCIAS-Colombia (Administrative Department of Science, Technology and Innovation of Colombian government), and delivered to the community the 20 November 2016. This workbook includes a compact disk with accompanying audio and video for stories contained in the book.

With the aim of recording Nam Trik in its daily use, we recreated a grocery store in the traditional house of the high school, bringing different kinds of products from the community and the speakers performed the dialogues which normally are developed in a grocery store between customers and vendors. The speakers also performed different kinds of greetings and salutations, in different situations (how to greet your relatives when they go to your home to visit you, how to greet someone you cross on the path…).

On Nam Trik literacy:

Some linguists have become aware of the fact that linguistic documentation and description does not revitalize a language itself, especially if it does not make part of a larger engagement led by the speakers and community members. Now, as linguists involved in this kind of projects, we are starting to ask ourselves what else should we do and what can we do to support the communities in their process to maintain and revitalize their languages.

In Totoró Nam Trik speakers are not yet literate in Nam Trik or even in Spanish. This can be an obstacle to teaching Nam Trik in the school and involving the speakers in this process. Taking this concern into account, we decided to organize workshops on basic literacy in Nam Trik which were directed by Lucy Tunubalá and Alexander Chavaco Nam Trik, speaker of Ambaló, who is also a bachelor student in lenguas originarias at the Indigenous and Intercultural University of the indigenous organization CRIC (Indigenous Regional Council of Cauca).

These workshops, which at the beginning were mainly targeted to the Nam trik speakers, now include a diverse group of Nam Trik learners, including teachers, indigenous authorities and most importantly children and youths, and a space recognized by the local indigenous authorities and the community.

Despite the difficulties and challenges associated with this project, thanks to the close working relationships with Nam Trik speakers, Totoró community and authorities and their close support, especially from the coordinator of the indigenous educational program Mrs. Claudia Patricia Sánchez, we not only have achieved the goals proposed but also encouraged Totoró people and the Nam Trik speakers to be locally recognized and to continue with their own projects and ideas.

Thank you, Geny! To learn more about Nam Trik, visit Geny’s deposit on the ELAR catalogue.

Project Profile: Documentation of the Beth Qustan Dialect of the Central Neo-Aramaic language, Turoyo

This week on the ELAR blog, Mikael Oez writes about his ELDP project on Turoyo, a Neo-Aramaic language spoken in south eastern Turkey.

 Can you give us some background on the language ecology in your area?

The Turoyo language of the mountainous region of Tur ‘Abdin (the mountain of worshippers), south eastern Turkey, is known to its indigenous speakers as ‘Surayt’ or ‘Turoyo’, that is, ‘the language of the Tur ‘Abdin’. It belongs to the Central Neo-Aramaic (CNA) language group. This group of languages is sometimes also referred to as North Western Neo-Aramaic (NWNA).

The Turoyo dialect of CNA was originally spoken by indigenous Christians who have lived in Tur ‘Abdin and the surrounding areas since the first centuries of the Christian era. By definition, as spoken or vernacular dialects they were not written down (until modern times), but conveyed orally from one generation to the next. Without written records, it is rather difficult to ascertain precisely how far back Turoyo has been spoken as a distinct language. With the recent recognition of the importance of oral dialects, scholars have now started to look for evidence of its chronicle use and the interaction and borrowing from other languages in its milieu, such as Syriac, Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish and Persian.

What is your research question and why did you choose it?

The project is designed to shed some light on establishing more precise boundaries between the dialects and on the dynamics of feature transition. This will introduce much needed fresh material to boost discussion about the mechanisms of interaction between languages, such as lexical borrowing and externally induced grammar. For instance, villages with better links and nearer to the city of Midyat, the main urban centre, are often more influenced by the Arabic language, and Arabic words are often Aramaicised in Turoyo, i.e. they take an Aramaic pattern when they are conjugated, whereas villages borrow from their neighbouring Kurds, and hence Aramaicise Kurdish words. The Aramaicising of loan words is particularly interesting when they are verbs as they match the endings of the native words when they are conjugated.

Can you tell us more about the content of your deposit?

This project aims to record tales about Muslim visitations to the shrines of Christian saints, old wives’ tales and supernatural legends, such as the telling of djinn stories amongst Christians, and stories of magical practices. In doing so, this project will provide records of interaction between Muslim and Christian communities, and record invaluable vernacular data for which there are no written material. The recordings will also address aspects of daily life such as procedural texts, instructions, directions, interactions, discussion, negotiations, and informal talks.

I was slightly concerned about these topics, as people often shy away from these topics since they mostly fall into mysticism. However, I was very surprised about the hospitality and the openness of my consultants. They were very happy to pass on their invaluable experience, which I believe would have been lost if it were not recorded.

One of the recordings I thoroughly enjoyed was when I requested three generous ladies to cook cultural food, to be part of my procedural texts. To my surprise I realised how sophisticated the culinary art is in daily foods in Tur ‘Abdin. I can still feel the delicious taste of that original food in my taste buds.

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What’s been a challenge in this project and why?

I originally intended to travel to the Beth Qustan village in Tur ‘Abdin to conduct my fieldwork. However, due to the unstable political situation, I decided to change my location, and instead conducted my project in Germany within a diaspora speaker community. This meant I had to conduct much searching, coordination, and a careful selection of the displaced native speakers. I initially began working with people in their 80s. This made me realise that we had already lost the knowledge accumulated by octogenarians, as they found it much harder to remember things, and to talk in details about their culture. I immediately changed the focus of the project to a later generation, (speakers aged 55-65).

What still needs to be done?

There are at least a couple of dozen Neo-Aramaic dialects originated from Tur ‘Abdin, which have not yet been documented. I realised during my fieldwork that if these are not documented before losing the generation of native speakers I worked with, this is to say, in five to ten years, we will also lose all invaluable knowledge about their culture and traditions. The Aramaic civilisation goes back more than 3000 years, which we have not preserved. We have the technology and equipment today to capture this fascinating civilisation at a very low cost. The only thing we don’t have on our side is time.

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Thank you, Mikael! You can see Mikael’s deposit at: https://elar.soas.ac.uk/Collection/MPI1035085