ELAR & Chouette Films Video Installation: Kagate (Syuba) 2

Today on the ELAR blog, we are featuring the second film created by Anna and Remy Sowa at Chouette Films. This film was created from footage from the Kagate (Syuba) deposit at ELAR, deposited by ELDP grantee Lauren Gawne from Superlinguo.

Thank you to Anna, Remy, Lauren, and the speakers who made this film possible! The rest of the films will be featured on the blog (one per week) for the next several weeks. You can view the first of the Kagate films here.

ELAR & Chouette Films Video Installation: Kagate (Syuba) 1

Today on the ELAR blog, we are featuring the first of the beautiful films created by Anna and Remy Sowa at Chouette Films. This film was created from footage from the Kagate (Syuba) deposit at ELAR, deposited by Lauren Gawne.

Thank you to Anna, Remy, Lauren, and the speakers who made this film possible! The rest of the films will be featured on the blog (one per week) for the next several weeks. You can read more about Lauren’s work on her blog, Superlinguo. Stay tuned!

**If the video does not appear in your browser, you can try viewing it here.

Language Fest! International Mother Language Day 2017

On February 21st, 2017, students, staff, community members and researchers came together to celebrate International Mother Language day at SOAS in the Paul Webley Wing, Senate House. This event showcased not only the linguistic and cultural diversity of our school, but also some of the great work being produced in the areas of language teaching and Linguistics at SOAS.

In addition to the contributions of students and staff, we collaborated with artists, poets and filmmakers to make some unique pieces and displays on the topic of language.

Take a look below to see a few of the displays and events presented at Language Fest 2017:

Artist Judith Glynn’s Tree of Language is a piece based on the genealogy of the Indo-European languages.

Sheena Shah speaks on N|uu (Khoisan) languages and their wide inventories of click sounds.

Student Lauren Baker gives a short tutorial of British Sign Language.

Mary Kuper has created a series of paintings inspired by metaphors of the body drawn from languages of the world. Attendees were invited to draw and share their own metaphors from the languages they speak. Click here to see a collection of these metaphors.

SOAS We Talk is a student-run project celebrating 100 years of diversity at SOAS. Attendees participate by filming a short excerpt in a language they speak. These videos are now available on YouTube and on the SOAS We Talk visualisation

Seeing & Hearing Endangered Voices: The Endangered Languages Documentation Programme collaborated with Anna and Remy Sowa who created films using footage from several projects housed at the Endangered Languages Archive. These films were made with the support of the following depositors, whose documentation is featured in the films; Andrey Filchenko, Lauren Gawne, Swintha Danielson, Lena Terhart, Peter and Bobby Black, Jonathan Amith, Ross Perlin, Darja Hoenigman, Serge Sagna and Saloumeh Gholami. Later in the day, Zena Edwards hosted Home Speak, a poetry slam in collaboration with the SOAS Spoken Word Society. Poets delivered creative offerings on speaking other languages, being mono-lingual, and how language helps us to understand ourselves, the world we live in, and how language connects with ideas of diversity, ethnicity and belonging.

Poets who performed their original works at Language Fest were:

Zena Edwards
Shareefa Roots
James Messam
Mujtaba Ahmed
Indigo William
Nicole Nienhaus
Tanya Denhere
Jally Kebba Sousso
Annie Rockson
Neimo Askar
Troy Cabida
Stefan Keilbasiewicz
Thank you to everyone who participated and helped to make Language Fest an unmissable occasion!


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.


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.

Where in the World is ELAR? Docip and ELAR Oral History Project Collaboration in Geneva

This past November, ELAR partnered with the Indigenous Peoples’ Centre for Documentation, Research and Information (Docip) to create an online archiving platform using Mukurtu CMS. Senior Archive Assistant, Martha Tsutsui spent four weeks in Geneva, Switzerland, interning at the Docip headquarters as a consultant on the Oral History Project. The materials archived included digital heritage items collected from two symposiums (2013 and 2015) that brought indigenous peoples from all over the world together to share their stories at the United Nations in Geneva. At these symposiums, elders were interviewed and recorded by youth participants. The digital heritage collected from these events is now in the process of being archived on the Mukurtu site: http://bridge-to-the-future.com. The project focused on archiving the materials on a platform which would be useful to the community, user-friendly, and built according the community’s wishes and goals for archiving the materials. The majority of the site’s materials are open to anyone with an internet connection (with access restrictions on sensitive materials per the communities’ wishes).

Youth participants at the symposiums and subsequent workshops have committed to continue to collect digital heritage from their elders, which they can self-upload onto the mukurtu platform.

This video was produced from the 2013 Symposium:

Currently, the platform is still in the early stages and materials are still being uploaded. Docip planning to officially launch its Mukurtu site later this year.

Learn more about the Oral History and Memory Project here: https://www.docip.org/en/oral-history-and-memory/




Video Installation Project at Language Fest 2017

Today on the ELAR blog, Remi and Anna Sowa from Chouette Films talk about the video installation project they created in collaboration with ELAR.

Please tell us about yourselves (background) and about your language installation project?

The initial discussion about the language installation project will always be memorable for us. We met Mandana during the AHRC award ceremony at the BFI in November 2015, where our film ‘Kanraxël – The Confluence of Aganck’, the fruit of our collaboration with Prof Lüpke at SOAS, won the Best Research in Film award. In the euphoria of those moments we began to develop the idea for the project. Mandana wanted to create a language installation where people would be surrounded by multiple screens showing ‘mini documentaries’ that use data from ELAR deposits, and which depict the linguistic diversity of different regions. Our motto at Chouette Films is “people’s voices should be heard rather than being left to gather dust on library shelves or to vanish in long-forgotten memories”, so the idea fitted perfectly with our philosophy. Our hope is that the project will make the public more curious about the invaluable ELAR language resources, and will make us all appreciate and celebrate the multitude of languages spoken in the world.

Why did you get involved/starting working on this project?

Working on a project that documents languages that are at risk of vanishing has been such a privilege. Perhaps one day we will be able to tell our kids we had an opportunity to work closely with a language that, sadly, might no longer exist. Alternatively, we hope, the opposite might be true: thanks to projects like these, we will have played a part in preventing the extinction of a language.

Languages are much more than just words: language is at the core of culture. Languages are living organisms that keep transforming and evolving – and that is why they should be protected. We recently read a quote, “Where there is a desire to use a language, creativity naturally follows.” (Positive News, 2016). Although we are not speakers of any of the languages we have been working on, creativity has played a big part in the editing process. We would like to see this as our humble contribution to the preservation of these languages, similar to the Last Whispers exhibition produced by Lena Herzog, but in a visual form so the speaker’s gestures and body language are seen.

Can you talk about your experience working on this project?

Although the aim of the project was to focus on preserving the precious linguistic diversity of the different regions ELAR works in, it quickly became apparent that we would have to consider some serious questions regarding accurate and sensitive representation. How do we edit the material in a culturally and ethically sensitive way? How do we ensure we do not misrepresent or offend anyone, or portray participants as ‘tribal’ or ‘exotic’? Moreover, how can we tell a story without interpreting it – that is, stay truthful and authentic.

Luckily, we were fortunate to have the support of ELAR depositors, who kindly gave us permission to ‘experiment’ freely with their resources. Most depositors have actually been in ‘the field’, and are in constant touch with the communities they work with or, as in the case of Serge Sagna, are native speakers of the languages we were working with. The depositors offered invaluable insight and expertise and, more importantly, had the opportunity to gain first-hand feedback about our work from the language communities themselves. This gave us a tremendous advantage to build on the strengths of the principle of a shared anthropology. We were able to work remotely with each depositor – though it felt was as it they were sitting by our side in our editing suite – and ask for their feedback at different stages, allowing us to fine-tune our work until everyone was completely satisfied with it.

Which languages/deposits did you work with?

We have worked on a variety of languages spoken in very remote places, such as the Tobi Island in the Republic of Palau, and Kamchatka in the Russian Far East. Each of the languages we worked with not only sounded like music to our ears, but we were also amazed at the richness of different meanings, and the cultural concepts they encode. To name a few, we worked on Paunaka, a critically endangered language spoken in Eastern Bolivia and documented by Swintha Danielsen and her team. Today, there are only eleven  speakers left. Similarly, the Vasyugan Khanty language in Siberia, documented by Andrey Filchenko, is only spoken by three people.

It was fascinating to learn the cultural settings in which some of the languages developed. For example, Minderico, spoken in a small village in the centre of Portugal, developed out of a need for wool combers, blanket producers, and traders of the region to protect their business from ‘intruders’. Later, this secret language extended to all social and professional groups and became the dominant means of communication among the villagers. Today, however, there are only 23 fluent Minderico speakers left.

Do you have any comments on the use of language in film?

A number of studies have demonstrated that the act of merging images and sound through the medium of film has a remarkable effect on audiences by touching their emotions, feelings and creating a sense of empathy. It is almost like a peculiar multi-modal language – the language of film, so to speak. We could not phrase it better than the director Alexander Mackendrick, who said: “Actions and images speak faster, and to more of the senses, than speech does… [cinema] is not much non-verbal as pre-verbal’ (Bloore, 2013: 3). It is the power of ‘film language’, and especially documentary language, that drives us. The language of film can engage everyone, regardless of cultural boundaries, levels of literacy or age.

Moreover, it is quite common that while watching a film, audiences realise that ‘images make them hear and sounds make them see’ (Trinh T. Minh-ha in cited McLaughlin & Pearce, 2007: 109). The ELAR video resources we worked with were a great example of this phenomenon. A similar thing can happen while travelling abroad to a country where we do not speak the language: we tend to open our senses and begin to notice different aspects of communication that we would not have otherwise. It is astonishing how much can be understood via non-verbal communication.

What were some challenges? Can you give a specific example?

During the edit of the documentation material of Meakambut, a language spoken by semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers in Papua New Guinea (provided by Darja Hoenigman), we made a classic mistake. We did not have enough material for the closing shot. As the story takes place in a forest, we added an extra shot showing some trees from a different rainforest which we happened to have in our library, and which we thought looked similar. However, as Darja kindly and patiently explained: “The Meakambut are considered guardians of a territory that carries an important, mythical meaning to them. They would immediately recognise the tree at the end of the film as ‘alien’ to that area. For the Meakambut people, spirits of the bush inhabit trees, stones, creeks and caves, and there are ancestral spirits around in rock shelters. Each prominent tree carries the name of a spirit, and many of them have serious taboos around them”. So even though the shot we had used of the tree was only four seconds long, it would have been extremely offensive to the Meakambut, to the extent that it could cause land disputes, or worse, make them believe that a curse had been put on them through breaking land taboos. We refined our ethical sensitivity on this subject and learned a valuable lesson from it.

What have you learned working on this project?

Working on the project has been a reminder that the question of representing ‘others’ is directly linked to ethical issues. It was our responsibility to gauge the balance between public appropriateness (e.g. whether or not to use a clip of a dog stew prepared by the Dulong people in China in one of the videos), authenticity and storytelling.

The wisdom of proverbs advises us that, if we are to see further, we must “stand on the shoulders of giants.” For us, one such ‘giant’ is Brian Winston, a former governor of the British Film Institute, whose words gained particular significance in the context of this project when asserting that “the real difficulties of ethical documentary production rest far more on the relationship between documentarist and participant than between documentarist and audience” (Winston, 2000:1). While filmmakers should never underestimate their audience, Darja’s video exemplifies perfectly that our prime responsibility is towards the participants. The Meakambut people do not care about the aesthetics of a film cut, or about the film conventions that we would like to follow – their rules about what does, or does not, fit together are different. It is our job to learn how to understand their views, and our duty to respect them. Of course, we still try to follow filmmaking conventions, as well as the rules and regulations of our own society, but they can never come before local demands have been satisfied.

Another ‘giant’ on whose shoulders we would like to stand, and whose work  is of particular significance to the project, is Trinh T. Minh-ha. She developed the concept of ‘speaking nearby’ (as opposed to ‘speaking about’ something or someone). It is a very simple idea, and sadly, not often adhered to in filmmaking practice. When dealing with power relations, speaking for, about, and on behalf of differs significantly from ‘speaking nearby’. An example of this would be the way one speaks about someone close to them, their mother for example, in their presence, as opposed to when they are not around. For example, if the mother is not present, the close relationship makes it difficult to talk about her objectively; however, if she is present, the way she is being talked about is may be very different as the speaker will be careful in the way she is addressed and spoken about, and she may respond. Similarly, in editing we had to bear in mind the concept of ‘speaking nearby’. This made us more conscious of the presence of the participants, which in turn had an impact on the ethical and aesthetic choices we made.

Can you speak on one or two obvious differences between your project and documentary linguistics?

This is a very interesting question, and in fact we have found that there are many similarities between our work and language documentation. In our work, we often follow David McDougall, a pivotal figure in the development of ethnographic cinema and visual anthropology. McDougall argued that observational documentaries are most effective when they allow the people depicted in them to be the ‘bearers of the immeasurable wealth and effort of human experience’ (McDougall, 1998: 130). The priorities of research also de-emphasise the filmmaker, because to pay attention to the observer is to draw valuable attention away from the subject at hand. This methodology is reflected in language documentation, where “observed communicative events” (Himmelmann 1998) – that is, observed with minimal influence of the researcher – play a central role in the analysis of linguistic behaviour. Since most ELAR depositors use this methodology to film daily language use, we found that participants were very familiar and at ease with the presence of a camera. Nick Broomfield’s observation,”it’s not the presence of the camera that changes people’s behaviour, it’s the relationship they have with the people behind it’ (Winston, 2013: 50), is especially relevant here.

As for differences, we think another challenge to ethical documentary production is the question of preserving and documenting events versus creating a narrative from the event witnessed. This is linked to the degree and nature of intervention of a filmmaker. For some, the question of authenticity  invariably clashes with aesthetic considerations or the need for storytelling, but we prefer to liberate ourselves from this by acknowledging that the ‘documentary’ will never be representative of the real world, and that the filmmaker cannot capture shots of life as it would be if the camera were not there. Instead, “documentaries are performative acts whose truth comes into being only at the moment of filming” (Bruzzi, 2006: 10). Here, Bruzzi reminds us that we must acknowledge a different concept of ‘truth’ that does not deny reconstruction and re-enactment.

Although we did not film the material we worked with, this principle has helped us to liberate ourselves during the editing process. Afterwards, we relied on the feedback from the local people to judge the authenticity of edited material. To conclude, and in the words of Trinh T. Minh-ha: “For me, the best documentaries are those that remain aware of their fictional nature as image, and the best fictions are those that document the reality of their own fictions” (McLaughlin & Pearce, 2007: 106).

Thank you, Anna and Remy! To see Anna and Remi’s video installation, come join us at Language Fest at SOAS tomorrow (February 21) from 12:00-17:00. 

Language Fest at SOAS on February 21st, 2017

ELAR and the SOAS World Languages Institute (SWLI) are excited to announce the Language Fest on 21 February 2017 at SOAS, University of London. This will be a special one day language festival, inviting members of the SOAS and wider community to experience SOAS’s work with languages.

Artist Judith Glynn’s work visually representing the development of Indo-European Languages.

Dr Sheena Shah, Dr Hannah Gibson and Dr Mandana Seyfeddinipur, the organisers of the event, have brought together SOAS staff, students and artists showcasing their work on, with and through language.

Language Fest highlights the importance of languages and diversity to SOAS and will mark International Mother Language Day 2017. International Mother Language Day is a worldwide annual observance to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. The date represents the day in 1952 when students demonstrating for recognition of Bangla as one of the two national languages of (then) Pakistan, were shot and killed by police in Dhaka, the capital of what is now Bangladesh.

Some highlights of the events will be:

Metaphors we live by: the body and expression of envy. 12-5pm Paul Webley Wing, Atrium walkway.

Mary Kuper’s Artworks inspired by metaphors of the body

Using the Endangered Languages Archive resources and linguistic studies of metaphors, artist Mary Kuper has created six pictures combining metaphorical expressions from different languages. These pictures express basic human emotions, such as happiness and jealousy. The paintings encompass the richness of human experience and their translation into linguistic expression. In addition to exhibiting these works, we will feature a wall  open to students who wish to contribute striking metaphors from languages they speak.

Home Speak. Poetry Slam 5-7pm Paul Webley Wing, Atrium.

Zena Edwards and the SOAS Spoken Word Society are producing and hosting ‘Home Speak.’ The theme of this poetry slam will feature the languages we speak, can’t speak and don’t speak. Poets will deliver creative offerings on speaking other languages, being mono-lingual and how language helps us navigate our inner worlds, our own identities, and our environments. This work aims to explore how language connects with ideas of diversity, ethnicity and belonging.

Poet Zena Edwards will lead a poetry slam on the theme ‘Home Speak’

Seeing Endangered Languages & Hearing Endangered Voices. 12-5pm Paul Webley Wing, Cloister space.

Language Documentation

Visitors and students will have the opportunity to watch a selection 3 minute films showcasing materials from the Endangered Languages Archive. Anna and Remi Sowa, founders of Chouette films, have produced these films together with the language documenters as a visual testament to their work.

The Endangered Languages Documentation Programme at SOAS supports linguists, anthropologists and community members worldwide to document the world’s linguistic diversity and to deposit this material in SOAS digital Endangered Languages Archive (ELAR). They go and live in the communities and record, learn, translate and transcribe languages which will be falling silent in the next 5, 10, 20 or 50 years. Speakers talk about their past and their current lives and what they expect from the future. They speak about how they make things, how they worship and also hunt.

Come, watch and listen to these speakers and learn from our staff and students about the effects of globalisation on language diversity and how SOAS research and teaching affects this process.

In addition to the above events and exhibits we will host a series of interactive talks and language taster sessions throughout the day in the Paul Webley Atrium walkway. Topics include:

  • Click Away: An Introduction to Khoisan languages- Sheena Shah
  • Mother Tongues: Multilingual repertoires of Senegal- Abbie Hantgan and Chelsea Krajcik
  • Meet the SOAS Grambank Coding Team
  • Sylheti Language Taster Session- SOAS Sylheti Project
  • The importance of Newar language (Nepal Bhasa) as a mark of identity for Newar communities in London- Newar Language Society

To find out more and see the full programme of events, visit the SWILI event page.

Be sure to follow us on FaceBookInstagram and Twitter to receive updates and information about Language Fest.

Celebrate Linguistic Diversity Online With the Mother Language Meme Challenge

Join the Mother Language Meme Challenge by creating a humorous or reflective internet meme in your native tongue. Starting today and running through February 21st, we invite you to take part in this fun online campaign to commemorate International Mother Language Day.

International Mother Language Day was founded to promote and celebrate linguistic and cultural diversity around the world, with a special emphasis on indigenous, minority, heritage, and endangered languages. With the help of digital tools and the internet, there is now a unique space for expression and connecting with others also working to revitalize their mother tongue.

Co-organized by Rising Voices and our friends at the Living Tongues InstituteFirst Peoples’ Cultural CouncilIndigenous TweetsEndangered Languages ProjectFirst Languages Australia, and the Digital Language Diversity Project, as well as a number of global partners, the Mother Language Meme Challenge invites you to put your creativity and passion for languages to work by creating a meme in your mother language.

Meme in the Tének language from México. Created by Luís Flores.

Meme in the Tének language from México. Created by Luís Flores.

To take part, just follow the simple steps outlined on the Challenge’s website (http://memeML.org), which includes finding an image, adding text and hashtags, including #MemeML, and sharing on your favorite social media platform. You will also find links to some free, web-based platforms to create and save your creations. In the month prior to International Mother Language Day 2017, we’ll be sharing, retweeting, and liking contributions from around the world and featuring some of our favorites here on Rising Voices.

If you are an organization, collective, project, or other group currently working on language revitalization around the world, we are looking for new partners to join us to promote this Challenge. We are also looking for others to help translate the site into more languages so that we can reach speakers of more languages. Please contact us for more information.

ELAR is proud to announce we will be partnering with Rising Voices,  Living Tongues InstituteFirst Peoples’ Cultural CouncilIndigenous TweetsEndangered Languages ProjectFirst Languages Australia, and the Digital Language Diversity Project for the Mother Language Meme Challenge.

This post originally appeared on the Rising Voices blog on 23rd Jan, 2017.