Wrapping up the 2011 Field Methods class on Lopit

This semester is drawing to a close, and that means that the 2011 Field Methods class is finishing up. The Field Methods class aims to give students a taste of the training and skills needed to engage in language documentation.

For this year’s class, run by Dr Brett Baker with 10 of the Honours cohort, we have been working with a speaker of Lopit, an Eastern Nilotic language spoken in the Republic of South Sudan.

Working on the Lopit language was challenging, particularly because Lopit and other languages in the region have received very little documentary attention, making it hard to know what sorts of features we might find. At the same time, it was exciting to see the linguistic patterns gradually revealed through the questions and tests planned by the students, and to be able to piece together some parts of the grammatical puzzle.

Lobong in a recording session with Eleanor and Jovial

For those of you who like the details: as a result of our investigations it appears that Lopit has not just lexical tone, but also morphosyntactic (distinguishing grammatical functions in some cases, such as relative clauses). It has a fiendishly complex set of noun conjugations for number, with dozens of distinct morphological realisations of either a marked singular, marked plural, or both. It has at least two genders, masculine and feminine, which can be facultatively alternated to indicate size of an entity (where Feminine implies ‘bigger’ and Masculine implies ‘smaller’). Modifiers of nouns agree both for gender and number of their heads, with mass nouns being specified lexically for singular or plural agreement. Verbs agree primarily for subject but in some combinations of subject and object (first and second person), agreement morphology is apparently sensitive to the contrastiveness (in a discourse sense) of the subject. (Brett wonders if this is possibly the most difficult language ever attempted by a fieldmethods class in linguistics, and would welcome feedback!)

The students chose diverse topics for their projects, including interrogatives, reciprocals and reflexives, external possession, the phonetics of tone, metrical structure, number marking, relative clauses, nominalisation, and noun phrase structure.

While we definitely don’t yet know everything about Lopit, we know how to say all sorts of useful things like “I bought one sheep’s head and one goat’s head” and “the monkey caused the squirrel to be eaten by the leopard”, as well as how to talk about “salty apples” or “big, black, angry goats”. We also thoroughly enjoyed hearing the Squirrel Story, which was used for some transcription tasks.

There is a lot more interesting work to be done on this language and the many other under-documented languages from this region. Rosey Billington will be continuing work on Lopit phonetics as part of her PhD. We are very grateful to Lobong (Arkangelo) Lohine, a postgrad student in linguistics at Monash, for being such a fantastic teacher.

We still have a lot to learn about Lopit, but for now it’s “hómó bìnó” to Lobong for his patience and time, and “áwóló ìsó náng ìjè mòìté”.

2 Comments

  1. Lobong (Arkangelo) Lohine
    Posted November 7, 2011 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    “áwóló ìsó náng ìjè ngòlé”

    Hi Rosey,

    The Lopit sentence is okay except for the word ‘ngole’ (yesterday) should have been ‘moite’ (tomorrow).

    “hómó bìnó”

    Lobong

  2. Rosey
    Posted November 7, 2011 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    Oh no! How silly. Thankyou, i’ve fixed it now. It doesn’t make much sense at all to say “I will see you yesterday” – i’m just so used to using “ngòlé” because of all the questions we’ve been asking about things that happened in the past, so I wrote that automatically. (This is a good example of why ‘linguistic priming’ is not ideal!)

    Thanks Lobong 🙂

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