Sociolinguistic Symposium 22

June 27th to 30th saw the University of Auckland hosting the 22nd Sociolinguistic Symposium. This is the first major(read:large) international conference I’ve had the privilege of attending, and coming from a small cozy circle of Australian linguists it was quite an eye opening experience.

Pōwhiri welcome ceremony to kick off SS22. Image courtesy Chloé Diskin (@ChloeDiskin)

Firstly, I’m reminded of how broad a church sociolinguistics actually is. There are researchers from a variety of research methods (critical discourse analysis through to quantitative corpus linguistics), with a variety of concerns (identity, language revitalisation, education policy), and from a variety of regions in the world. One friend imparted some good advice early on, that the symposium is a good opportunity to get a feel for what are cutting edge topics and concerns in the world, and indeed that’s a good way of summarising my overall feeling about the conference.

There were some concepts I’d vaguely heard of in the past that were relatively prevalent: “Translanguaging” and “superdiversity” being the main ones. I came to get a bit more of a feel for the concepts, but anyone who had the misfortune of hearing me rant knows my feelings on the terms. I can appreciate the ideas behind the words, but I think they are truly ugly words. I’m sure there’s an analysis to be made out of that sentiment.

The highlight session (other than our own Variation in the Pacific long colloquia!) was the “Fresh insights on traditional variationist methods in non-English contexts” session organised by Uri Horesh (@urihoresh) and Jonathan Kasstan (@JRKASSTAN). The emphasis was on the notion of “style” which, to be honest, is not something I even remotely consider in my research because we’re not at a stage of description where style is a concern. The panel was overall a good reminder that there are plenty of people innovating with methodology, and tackling and problematising concepts such as style and prestige from their own research contexts. Heads up to Maya Ravrindanath Abtahian working on Garifuna.

Our own panel was a solid show of how variationist and quantitative methods are being applied to investigate phenomena in the Pacific. The Wellsprings Project’s very own Marie-France Duhamel presented on Raga, a Vanuatu language that shows interesting conservative language tendencies in contrast to it’s more diverse neighbouring languages. Anne-Laure Dotte presented on the change happening in the unique and extensive possessive classifier system of Iaai, a language of New Caledonia. Brook Ross presented on a possible emergent Auckland variety of New Zealand English. Isabelle Buchstaller showed how level of education in English in the Marshall Islands conditions h-insertion (a possible import of sociolinguistic evaluation of h-dropping from English?). Wilfred Fimone (@WilfredFim) presented negative results for glottal stop deletion in Rotuman; an interesting reminder that not all variation is given social meaning, or sociolinguistically conditioned. And Miriam Meyerhoff gave a whirlwind talk on how we should choose our variables carefully when investigating the relationship between individual and social group.

One of the things that came out of attending the other variation colloquia and seeing the presenters in our session, was that “small datasets” are not a problem. It’s really the willingness of researchers to give things a red hot go, and for us to amplify the findings from more “exotic” or “minor” contexts. I feel pretty strongly about this, and am uber thankful to Miriam Meyerhoff for giving us this opportunity on an international stage.

…And some personal reflections

I find is slightly ironic that for a conference that talks about the importance of multilingualism, challenges to hegemonic discourses, and questioning the dominance of major cultural groups over others, the vast majority of attendees continue to be presenting on English, and other large population languages. I don’t make this statement as a word-version of an eye-roll, or a statement intending to accuse linguists of being egocentric or eurocentric, or whatever-centric (although when I’m feeling less generous I do feel the rumbles of frustration). I make this observation with a lot of ambivalence. Marginalised groups within English/major language contexts absolutely should be researched. Major languages that are not English should also be researched to contribute their insights towards (socio)linguistic theory. Varieties of Englishes can also contribute to challenging the assumed theories coming out of studies of American Englishes. We contribute to research in ways that we can.

But I also can’t help but feel nervous at the lack of interaction I had with sociolinguists outside of the Pacific context, and Australia. I suspect part of it comes from the lack of knowledge, and not really knowing how to interact with people who work in different contexts (this goes both ways: I’m not placing blame on my potential interactants, this applies equally to myself). Also if you are attending an international conference as an L2 speaker of English, this adds another layer. But if we as researchers are unwilling to take those steps to build bridges to those we are less familiar with, how on earth can we expect our wider communities and societies to build bridges and listen to the marginalised voices that we as researchers supposedly represent? How can we as researchers, who represent marginalised voices through our research, possibly expect to have wider society listen to these voices when we ourselves are so reluctant to build bridges across to different research contexts within our own field?

Again, I’m not putting myself off the hook. Trying to interact with people of different regions and areas is awkward, takes care and energy, and requires patience. And at conferences you may just want to catch up with your immediate colleagues and collaborators with whom you may not regularly interact with as much as you like. Maybe I’m just grumbling about something that comes inherent with the way modern conferences are organised. I’m not pontificating to people that they should pay attention to small languages, or non-Englishes or whatever. I’m merely feeling circumspect about what it means to be part of a broad conference, when all of us participants are trying to deal with jet lag, bleeding out of energy, and trying to put our talks together for an international audience.

(Would “linguist speed dating” be an event that conferences can organise? Sign up, see which linguist you’ll be paired off with, and have dinner with them?)

Anyway, thank you to the wonderful volunteers and unpaid organisers for pulling off a momentous task. Though I would like to suggest to the leaders of the conference, they may wish to reconsider in the future the outsourcing of conference planning to a company that can’t possibly know how best to organise an international conference which requires sensitivity to intercultural communication.

Presenters at the “Variation in the Pacific” long colloquia. From left to right, me (duh), Wilfred Fimone, Marie-France Duhamel, Brook Ross, Miriam Meyerhoff, Anne-Laure Dotte, Isabelle Buchstaller. Photo courtesy Marie-France Duhamel.



Elan/Praat Machine Segmenting

My number one hated stage in transcription work is segmenting. I would sit there fuming while manually segmenting the recordings I made before I could even start transcribing. It was frustrating because it seemed like something that a machine could to a relatively good approximation of instead of me sitting there for hours doing it for each file!

Luckily, it turns out that between Praat and ELAN, you can very easily have a decent approximation of segmentation done for you.  Not perfect, but it saves HEAPS of time. If you have a ton of recordings to segment into units before you need to transcribe, this is the process for you!

Thank you to T. Mark Ellison for helping out with this heaps.

Praat stage

First load the sound file that you want to segment into Praat (Open > Read from File). Create a Praat Textgrid file based on silences.:


This next part is our best setting after a few trials:


The resulting text grid should look something like this:

Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 11.14.15 am.png

The *** is where Praat has segmented for sound. It’s not perfect, but it gives a pretty good shot at things, and you can adjust the boundaries manually in Elan. Save this text grid now.

ELAN stage

Import your Praat text grid:


Cheers Hedvig for letting me know that if you tick the “exclude silences” box, you can have ELAN automatically remove any empty segments from the Praat text file:

Screen Shot 2017-05-05 at 4.15.56 pm.pngAnd you will have your segmented Praat text grid as a layer in Elan looking something like this!

Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 11.26.42 am.png

The longest file we tried it on was a 1 hour recording of Samoan (cheers Hedvig Skirgård from Humans Who Read Grammars for providing the file!). It took about 8 minutes for Praat to segment. A 10 minute recording is done in no time.

Now be on your merry way setting up your tiers and transcribing to your hearts content 🙂

Workshop on the Languages of Papua 4

Starting the year with a bang, I made my over to the Workshop on the Languages of Papua 4 held at Manokwari, West Papua, Indonesia! That was 1) my first ever talk at an international conference (debut!), and 2) my first ever time in Indonesia (a pretty niche location, I know). The last workshop was held in 2014, just a bit before I started my PhD. I’d heard good things about it, so was pretty keen to check it out for my self. It did not disappoint!


West Papua gets a bit of a bad wrap as a site of sensitivity re: Indonesia, West Papuan Independence, and things like that. But the city it of Manokwari itself felt very safe, much safer than a city like Daru in Papua New Guinea. Those of us who work on the PNG side were all amazed that the roads were beautifully paved, and that there were motorbikes! We had a great time chilling, and the hosts at the Universitas Papua were wonderful hosts.

View from the water front Cafe Laut at our accomodation, the Hotel Mansinam.

The conference was held across four days, and brought together linguistic researchers who work in the island of New Guinea and the surrounding islands (West Papua in Indonesia + Papua New Guinea). A broad range of topics were covered (which is the way these regionally focused conferences inevitably go), and there seemed to be a good spread of Austronesian and Papuan languages being represented. Topics ranged from grammatical descriptions, language contact, cultural practices, pragmatics…

The talks I personally found super interesting and relevant was the stuff that is coming out of Marian Klamer and her mob over at the University of Leiden. They are working to untangle the complex language history of the Sunda Islands, trying to work through inherited change vs. contact induced change. There was then the familiar work of Russell Gray‘s using ecology to model language diversity, and all the stuff from our usual ANU mob. I don’t know an awful lot about prosodic structure and phonetics of that kind, but I enjoyed the findings of that ilk (here, here) like those presented by Nikolaus Himmelman, and Carlos Gussenhoven.

It was also a nice opportunity to spend some intensive time with fellow fieldworker/Papuanists/people who work in this region – other PhD students, but also finally meeting the Bill Palmer who’s editing a soon-to-be published book about Papuan languages and linguistics… one of the first things I contributed to upon commencing my PhD!


Cheers to Yusuf Sawaki and David Gil for a wonderful conference!


Prof Poplack Giving Me Some Thoughts

Prof. Shana Poplack giving a master class on variationism at the University of Queensland

The frequency at which a particular variant/linguistic variable occurs may change over time, but the conditioning factors are stable.

In which case, for language change to occur at that locus of variability, something needs to happen to disrupt the transmission of those conditioning factors to the next generation.

I’m trying to unpack the diachronic consequences of long term, stable multilingual communities with balanced bilinguals making up the population. For where I am in Southern New Guinea, I feel I should read up of this, about the social networks of hunter-gatherer societies… Because there must be some effect about interaction frequency and social networks in explaining language change?


New Fields of Morphology Workshop

As a self-identified sociolinguist (of sorts), I must admit very abstract descriptive linguistics scares me a little bit. This is a problem for someone like yours truly who works on a language with quite complex verbal morphology. But luckily! There are plenty of opportunities around CoEDL and the Wellsprings project to listen in on talks, attend workshops and summer schools. The following is just a short write up of what I got out of it. I find forming a narrative about events like this helps me to remember some of the cool stuff that came out of the workshop, but it also helps to put my own work into perspective,.


The workshop was great because not only did we get to hear directly from some legendary linguists of various subfields of study (the photo on this post featuring Gregory Stump of the Paradigm-Function Morphology fame!), but also great because they are an opportunity to see the breadth of interest that various linguists have under blunt labels such as “morphology” or “sociolinguistics” or what have you. I may not every become a theoretical morphologist, but it was great to see things like how typological approaches to comparing inflectional paradigms is being tried and tested (Grev Corbett with Canonical Typology, or the Parabank mob of the Glottobank project applying phylogenetic models to inflectional paradigms). There was also cool stuff by Felicity Meakins, Bill Foreshaw and John Mansfield doing corpus work on Australian languages and asking questions of inflection in their respective research languages.

But I guess for me, it was an opportunity to pick up on the kinds of discussions that self-identified morphologists find interesting, and important to figure out. There were a lot of questions on how to best account for complex paradigmatic particularities of individual languages, the relationship between syntax and morphology, ideas that inflectional morphemes may have structures of their own, how sub-paradigms are a thing and how that interacts with syntax (or vice-versa)… A lot of the detailed nuances were a bit beyond me, but it was intensely useful in a quick-and-dirty way to see what is considered important, and I think it’ll help me get a better leg in on describing Nambo’s verbal paradigm (i.e. I’ve now a better idea what to look out for in the data, and where to go in terms of literature for help!)

Cheers to my sempai Matt Carroll for being one leg of the organisation 🙂 (The other being one of my former lecturers Rachel Nordlinger). Tomorrow starts the CoeDL Summer School for more intensive linguisticking, hurrr.

Procedure: DEM+COP Decategorialisation

Kandra interviewing Wenembu in Nen language, Bimadebn Village. 2014.

Notes for myself regarding a Nen/Nambo study my supervisors and I are working on.

Observation: DEM+COP constructions in Nen and Nambo function as a focus marker of some sorts. The copula verb in these sister languages (seems to?) agree on person, number, and tense, with the A/S argument of the clause. This focus marker, however, appears to be losing it’s agreement as the combined DEM+COP is becoming fossilised/grammaticalised.

Question: Is this grammaticalisation happening at the same rate in Nenland and Namboland? What are the heavy-use bilinguals doing?

Need to:

  • See what Nen speakers are doing. Are they decategorialising?
  • See what Nambo speakers are doing. Are they decategorialising?
  • See what the heavy-use bilinguals are going. Are they decategorialising?

Code for Nen:

  • Identify the focus markers (DEM+COP followed by ambifixing verb)
  • Note: Is it decategorialising? Y?N. If yes, on: Tense, Number, Person, All?
  • Mark in also instances where DEM+COP is functioning just as the copula (code = Z)

Tier Structure

Pastor Blag interviewing his wife Sambo in Nen language, Bimadebn Village. 2014.

Tier structure:

  • Prom: Speaker initials and PM (e.g. BT PM)
    • Sph: Spelling (orthographic) Phon. Type whatever is in the transcription text.
    • ClPh: Close Phonetic. Paying attention to consonant voicing, and syllable boundaries where possible. Don’t worry too much about vowel quality at this point in time. (e.g. ge.ym, gym, ge.dn.z.ron)
    • PromGl: Prominence gloss. Break down of demonstrative type, and agreement of copula. (e.g. DEM1+3sgU:nphd. See below, “Types of DEM” and “Copula Code”)
  • WhichV: Where is the main verb? (e.g. R, RR. See below, “Which V”
  • Decat: Is the copula of the prominance marker decategorialising? Yes (D), No (A), others. See below, “Decat Tier Code”
    • Decatcat: Category that is decategorialised.
  • NP: What is the person number of the NP of the prominence construction?

Tier Codes

Rusien (left) being interviewed by Fasawar (middle) and Jimmi (right), Bimadebn Village. 2014.

Types of DEM

  • DEM1 = ge
  • DEM2 = gs
  • PV = äte
  • FUT1 = bä
  • FUT2 = ä

Copula Code

  • ym = 3sgU:nphd
  • tm = 3sgU:ypst
  • dnzron = 3sgU:rmpst
  • däron = 3duU:rmpst


  • R – The first verb to the right (in the transcription) is the main verb.
  • RR -The second verb to the right (in the transcription) is the main verb.
  • Z – Zero copula.

Decat Tier Code:

  • D – Decategorialised
  • A – Agreeing
  • C – Caveat. There appears to be decategorialisation happening, but it may not be a true case due to contextual information (e.g. this bag gs ym, it was made like this back in the past). The Decatcat tier for code C is still to be coded as though a D.

Decatcat Tier Code:

  • N – Number
  • P – Person
  • T – Tense
  • When there is more than one, code in alphabetical order. (e.g. tense and number = NT, person and tense = PT)


NP Tier Code:

  • Orthographic representation of the prominence construction NP.
  • NPDeets: person and number, e.g. 3sg

Examples in ELAN:

Screen Shot 2017-02-02 at 9.02.44 am.png
A regular example of where the prominence marker is agreeing with the NP person numer and the main verb TAM.
Screen Shot 2017-02-02 at 9.21.06 am.png
Note the Decat tier. Coded C for ‘caveat’, and Decatcat tier is coded T for tense. The prominence construction reads something like “This house gs ym had been burned.”

Notes on odd cases

  • When the PM or main verb has a super plural
    • Coded as D on the decat tier. The NP tier for the noun phrase sets the person and number as 3sg.

Also coding for gesture

Pastor Blag mid-gesture.

Code on Gesture tier:

  • TO = Touch Object
  • FP = Full Point
  • HP = Half Point
  • FB = Full Beat
  • HB = Half Beat
  • OG = Other Gesture, e.g. motion, eye gaze, nod, without a point or beat. If these other gestures are accompanying a point or beat, it is coded for point or beat.
  • MOT = Motion gesture (e.g. acting out verb, motion of inclusion (e.g. ‘all of us’), motion of hither/thither)
  • NG = No Gesture

Where ‘Point’ includes open hand gesturing to a referent (real or imagined) as well as the canonical one-finger point.

Where ‘Beat’ = non-pointed hand motion approximating a up-down/down-up movement of the hand.

Where ‘Half’ means below the waist.

Fieldwork 2016

Flight out from Morehead Station, South-Fly District of Western Province, Papua New Guinea.

It’s been about a month since I’ve come back from fieldwork, and I’m also back from a bit of annual leave. Feeling refreshed and ready to get back into the fray of things!

Last year I left my fieldsite a month earlier at the onset of a harsh dry season, made worse by the worst El Niño event in a decade. The news once I’d gotten back to Australia wasn’t good, and also very difficult to get hold of news. I was unable to get hold of my contact in the village, and what I’d heard from the neighbouring village via whispers on the grape vine were about deaths. These villages are almost 100% subsistence farming. That means they have to grow all their food to live. Because of the drought, the usual wet season didn’t come this year. Which means that there’s a reduced harvest. Which means hunger.

Aftermath of a bushfire, October 2015.

Naturally there was a lot of trepidation about going to the field this year. I wasn’t sure until about a month or so before going that we would actually be going at all. On the one hand, you don’t want to be a burden to your host community. If the harvest is reduced, and feeding mouths is tough, an extra adult in the community is an extra mouth to feed. In a place where hospitality to visitors is so important, locals will insist on feeding you… which may mean that other needy people (e.g. kids) might not get as much. On the other hand, you don’t want the community to feel they have been abandoned and forgotten. The South Fly Region of Papua New Guinea is one of the least developed areas of Papua New Guinea, and the locals feel that their government, and the outside world, has forgotten them.

So my supervisor suggested a short (two week!) trip, and I went along. And it was a very, very good thing to do.

Sorry it’s out of focus… The tough people of Govav village.

Firstly, I was able to see for myself what the effect of the drought was on the area. It was a real relief to be able to see people safe and sound, and in pretty good spirits. I had heard that in other areas of PNG, social problems in communities were exacerbated due to resource scarcity caused by the drought, but I wasn’t able to detect that in the two weeks I was on the ground. Some people were a tad gaunter than last year, but there were no deaths across the three villages I work with. People seemed genuinely happy to see me. And I was very happy to see people doing ok.

The second good thing about the trip was that it put a few things about natural disasters like drought and famine into perspective. This drought was scary from a personal point of view, knowing how tough the terrain is, and what a very basic subsistence lifestyle means in terms of survival. This drought episode has reinforced to me the robustness of human beings. I don’t mean to trivialise the drought though; I can only imagine what it is like to have to live through the thought that you might realistically not be able to survive on your home turf because you can’t feed yourself and your family. It just makes the thought and news very real that global warming and extreme weather phenomena are threatening the lives of millions of people. My host village is about 1000 people, in an area 30km by 10km. People will suffer, but humans have a way of surviving through it as a species. When we talk about human resilience we tend to gloss over the suffering that is experienced through that though.

The awesome ladies of Arovwe and Bevdvn, looking over a recording I made last year and helping me out with translating it.

And the third good thing was, of course, I got some new data, and worked through a lot of data from last year too. I was thrilled to be able to work much more closely with the women in the community. The ground work and time spent last year has born fruit this year. I just felt good in the field, getting work done, getting along with people, our gear such as the solar panel and power all worked etc. I can see that, indeed, fieldwork at the same field site can get easier over time.

Now that the El Niño is over, the La Niña has taken over and is brining a lot of rain. It rained a lot while I was there. The last two weeks saw a lot of rain. Which may bring a new set of problems for the people in South Fly. Time to give them another phone call to see how they’re doing.

– eri

It’s raining a bit more than usual for this time of the year.