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Linguistic Fieldwork at Rutgers – Huteng Dai (Vol. III)

Your name: Huteng Dai

Info about the language(s) you did fieldwork on:

The language is Yongning Na (Mosuo), a Tibeto-Burman language spoken in Lijiang, Yunnan (southwestern China). There are at least 6 tonal categories in this language, and the tonal morpho-phonology in this language is extremely complex (see Michaud (2017) for detailed documentation and analysis).

What led to you doing fieldwork?

I was really interested in language documentation back then.

Did you set out with a specific goal in mind, and if so—did you accomplish it?

We planned to document as many words and phrases in this language as possible and come up with a dictionary of Yongning Na. We transcribed and recorded ~10000 words and phrases with IPA.

Are there any problems/challenges unique to your language(s) or region(s)?

My informant asked me to pronounce every word I transcribed until I got everything right. This language has a very complex tonal system, and I had a lot of fun and headaches at that time.

Was there any collaboration with other linguists (or anyone else) during your fieldwork?

Yes, I was mainly collaborating with my undergrad advisor Zihe Li and fellow student Jingjing Pan.

What do you wish you had known going in?

I wish I had known more about laboratory methods so that I could have done some production and perceptual experimentation on the tonal morpho-phonology in this language.

Any major setbacks or disasters?

Apparently, our informant didn’t like any modern technology, so they refused to be recorded at the beginning.

Any lucky breaks?

We did the fieldwork in our speaker’s home, and they provided us with a LOT of food, such as a giant bowl of pork ribs.

What’re some of the best methods of data collection and organization (including equipment) that you’ve used?

We had an awesome homophone table with which we could find minimal pairs and come up with the vowel, consonant, and tone inventories in a few days.

What about the worst?

Our recorder. The quality of the recordings was appalling!

Was there anything you wished you had brought with you?

My camera — Lijiang is such a beautiful town!

What advice do you have for anyone just starting out with fieldwork?

1. Be flexible: nothing we learn from a textbook is 100% applicable in real world. For example, somebody might be inclined toward narrow transcription to “accurately” recover everything they hear, while their transcription ends up being inconsistent. In my experience, we came up with one transcription system (something like our IPA chart) at first, and then use this system throughout our transcription. Although we had to make some minor changes to our system as we knew more about this language, the transcription is overall coherent and reproducible.

2. Record everything;

3. Choose your informant wisely; Some informants are really easier to talk to.

What’s the “coolest” thing you’ve learned through your experiences?

Our informant was very diligent, and before we went, they had accomplished a dictionary with their own characters, gloss, English translation, and Chinese pinyin by themselves! If we linguists teach our informant some basic fieldwork skills, they’ll be the best fieldworkers! And Yongning Na is such a great source for anthropological linguists. In the dictionary, there was one chapter of the sites on the route of their traditional funeral. Each site has a cool corresponding meaning and myth.


Thanks for reading, and thanks again to Huteng for the fantastic responses! If you’d like to know more, you can contact him at his email below:
huteng.dai [at] rutgers [dot] edu