Sociolinguistics position at UC Santa Barbara

The Linguistics Department of the University of California, Santa Barbara seeks to hire a specialist in sociocultural linguistics. The appointment will be tenure-track at the Assistant Professor level, effective July 1, 2015. We are especially interested in candidates whose research has theoretical implications bridging linguistic anthropology, sociolinguistics, and related areas. We prefer candidates whose research engages with the departmental focus on discourse-functional approaches to language and who can interact with colleagues and students across disciplinary boundaries at UCSB. Language area is open, although experience in conducting research on a language other than English is desirable. Candidates must have demonstrated excellence in teaching, and will be expected to teach a range of graduate and undergraduate courses in sociocultural linguistics and to contribute to the department’s majors in Linguistics and in Language, Culture, and Society. For more information on the department’s program and initiatives, see

PhD in linguistics or a related field is required. PhD is expected by the time of appointment. To ensure full consideration, all application materials, including letters of reference, should be received by Friday, November 7, 2014. The position will remain open until filled. Applicants must complete the online forms at and must submit the following in PDF format: letter of application, statement of research interests, curriculum vitae, and 2 writing samples. Applicants should request at least 3 academic letters of reference to be sent directly to UC Recruit by the November 7, 2014 deadline. Materials submitted via fax or hard copy will not be accepted. Inquiries may be addressed to the Search Committee at

Applicants selected for an interview will have the option of either a Skype video interview with the search committee or an in-person interview at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting in Washington, DC (December 3-7, 2014); interviews in either format will be considered equivalent. Our department has a genuine commitment to diversity and is especially interested in candidates who can contribute to the diversity and excellence of the academic community through research, teaching and service. The University of California is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action employer. All qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, or any other characteristic protected by law, including protected Veterans and individuals with disabilities.

Philosophy of Fieldwork, or, Kwa heri Kenya!

Fieldwork, at least for me, never feels so much like fieldwork as it does like visiting good friends, which in many cases is exactly what it is. Everywhere I’ve traveled for language work, I’ve been welcomed as a member of the family, treated to the best foods that place has to offer, and cared for as one of their own. Nowhere has this been more true than my time here in Kenya this summer. Rukiya welcomed me back to Mombasa like a long-lost son and helped me prepare for my trip to Kisii; Janet and Kennedy hosted me for weeks at their farm, and made sure I had everything and everyone I needed to do the language work we set out to do; and Gladys was not only a wonderful, caring, and perpetually cheery host, but worked tirelessly with me to make sure we translated all the stories we recorded, taking breaks only to prepare meals for the household. If this trip has been wildly more successful than I dared hope, it’s only because of the support and friendship of my remarkable hosts. Everything I’ve accomplished here simply would not have been possible without them.

I think there’s a lesson for fieldworkers in that: successful fieldwork is personal. Productive field trips hinge on the quality of the relationships you establish within the community. These are the people that will help you seek out language experts, the ones you can depend on for questions, who will protect you from social fumbles or ills. Most importantly, these relationships – and especially staying with a host family – help cast you in an appropriate social role that other community members will understand. Many people in Kisii, for example, don’t entirely understand why an outsider would come to make recordings of people talking some language that provides no social advancement (in their view), let alone a white person. In fact, many Abagusii have never seen a white person at all. So it’s understandable that these people would have no idea how to approach me. I don’t fit into the usual social roles. Being introduced as a son, a friend, a brother, etc. with a Kisii name – even when the lack of blood relations is plainly obvious – gives community members a familiar social anchoring. They may not know how to greet an mzungu, but they know how to greet the son of their neighbor. Here in Kenya, because many sons stay will continue to be cared for by their parents until age 30 or later, this has been a really convenient role for me to take on (since I’m still only 28). In future years, this may have to change though. I’ve noticed that many many more people have asked me this trip whether I have a wife, and if I plan to take a Kenyan wife. From different discussions it’s become clear that this is due in large part to me approaching the age where Kenyan men are expected to be married and heading a household. So perhaps in future years I’ll pay the several hundred dollars it would take to build a small house here of my own.

Of course, assuming a social identity from a different culture is not without its inconveniences. Adopting the role of a son means that I’m treated like a son rather than an adult, and am expected to follow the commands and requests of the parents just like my homestay brothers would. It also means opening oneself up to all the concommitant social obligations that come with family membership, such as favors or requests for goods or money. And you may not always know when the request is a typical request that a family member would make or a rather inordinate one that’s simply taking advantage of the perceived wealth of white people. This can be, and has been, very frustrating at times, but I’ve found it helps to think of this as my way of repaying my host family for everything they do for me, when direct monetary payment would be inappropriate.

In general, I’ve found that the more successfully I adapt myself to Kisii culture (or the culture of whatever language I’m working on), the better the results of my fieldwork. The days (or hours) I get frustrated with Kenyan / Kisii culture and find myself switching back to English or reverting to certain American habits are my least productive days in terms of research (though perhaps they function as a helpful respite from cultural immerson that then allows me to dive back into my work more fully the next day). But the days I work hard to use only Swahili and Ekegusii, to effect Kenyan mannerisms, to use Kenyan ways of gesturing and speaking, and approach to planning and scheduling as Kenyans do (i.e. not really worry about it), are the days I’ve been rewarded with the most ethnographically rich data, not to mention incredible personal experiences. To be sure, doing this with any consistency is hard if not impossible, and for a while during this trip I was beating myself up for not being as ‘good’ a fieldworker as I could have been, for letting opportunities slip that I could have leapt on, if only I had been willing to put on my Kenyan hat for a few more hours. But of course, expecting this kind of inexhaustible patience is simply irrealistic, and the fact is there will simply be days during fieldwork you’ll need to recoup. Take full advantage of them, vent your frustrations to your loved ones back home, take some alone time if the culture and locale permits – or just go inwards for a while and learn to take solace in inner solitude, so to speak – and then dive back in the next day.

It’s also unrealistic to expect that you’ll find every aspect of the culture agreeable or even morally acceptable, and so assuming an identity in that culture may be harder at times than others. You’ll simply have to decide for yourself which aspects of your own cultural identity and habits you’re willing to put aside for a while for the sake of getting good data, and which things you’re not willing to change. The more explicitly you can think about these things, the easier it is to think about you’ll handle situations of cultural conflict when they arise. For example, I came down with a cold two weeks ago, and anticipated right away that – out of concern for my well-being – my host family would be offering me various cures and things they thought were good ways to cure a cold. So I decided to be open-minded, but politely and firmly refuse anything I thought would be detrimental to my recovery. So when I was offered porridge with lots of lemon juice, I took it even though the porridge isn’t particularly healthy. But when Gladys very kindly went out and bought me medicine for a runny nose when in fact I needed the exact opposite – nasal decongestant – I simply accepted graciously, took it to my room and tucked it away in a bag. Later, Gladys thought me crazy when I said I wanted to take a cold shower to help reduce my temperature, since everybody always heats water before bathing with it. But I insisted and felt much better aftwards, so much so that Gladys and I wound up doing several more hours of translating that night.

On the whole, fieldwork often feels like sacrificing one’s social and physical comforts for the sake of getting good data, but it’s helpful to remember all the lasting relationships and remarkable experiences that come out of it as well.

So here I sit in Nairobi, much-delayed in my departure from Kenya, having navigated more-or-less successfully the mental and emotional labyrinth of cultural immersion, at the end of two months of fieldwork in Kenya. Looking back over the trip and thinking about all the things me and the members of the Ekegusii Encyclopedia Project hoped to accomplish while I was here, I’ve suddenly realized just how much we’ve done. By far the most important accomplishment was the recording, transcription, and translation of about 35 traditional folktales in Ekegusii, totalling about 1 hour of continuous speech. I could not be more thrilled with this result. While we recorded many more things than just these folktales, I wanted to concentrate on at least getting these translated, because they have the widest range of applications and potential outputs of everything we recorded. In terms of my research, I now have a sizeable corpus of natural discourse with which to do grammatical analysis of phenomena from the level of the phoneme all the way up to the level of discourse. But in terms of outputs for revitalization, we now have an entire collection of traditional folktales that can be made into audio CDs, children’s books, and/or animated videos, for distribution to families and schools in the Kisii area. These materials are an incredible cultural boon to the Abagusii people, and will keep us busy for some time preparing them. (Incidentally, if there are any art students out there interested in collaborating with us in making illustrated children’s books or animated videos, please get in touch with me.)

Rest assured, then, that this is hardly my last post on Ekegusii and the Ekegusii Encyclopedia Project. Having made these strong ties to the Gusii community is only just the beginning. We’ll continue to work remotely together on these projects while I’m in the States, and I’ll be looking to return to Kenya in future summers, and continue to foster what I hope will be lifelong relationships with my Kenyan families.

Building a Corpus of Ekegusii

I’ve learned that the ideal time for doing recordings is between 5pm and 7pm, after people have finished their work for the day, but before the heavy rains start for the evening. Since the only thing separating the people sitting in the living room from the sky is a sheet of corrugated metal, the sound of the rain hitting the roof makes recording all but impossible. I’ve pulled it off in a pinch though, and actually managed to get some surprisingly good-quality audio. I’ve also gotten pretty good at setting up recording environments in the dark, since at Ken & Janet’s farm the power goes out whenever it rains, and at Gladys & Charles’ farm they don’t turn on the solar-powered batteries until they start preparing dinner, usually around 8pm.

Despite devoting this past week to translating the recordings I already have, recording opportunities have continued to present themselves. The other night I finally was able to record about 2 hours of conversation surrounding dinner (mouth noises while eating and allǃ), and I was thrilled to get that much natural conversation. Tonight one of Gladys’ neighbors also came over to record a story, and wound up recording about 10 songs together with Gladys as wellǃ Since one of the songs was traditionally sung during the female circumcision ritual, I asked Teresa, the speaker, to explain the song’s role in the ceremony to me in Ekegusii, and so I recorded a great conversation between Teresa and Gladys talking about that. In short, this week saw the completion of everything I could have hoped to record for this trip, providing me with an array of data types: traditional stories, personal histories, conversations, songs, explanatory discourse, and even a proverb or two. In future trips, I’d love to record the several hundred proverbs that Kennedy & Gladys included in the back of their dictionary. Helen, an absolutely sweet woman who teaches kindergarten and provided me with about 20 stories, also said she’d love to record a collection of riddles with me as well. I think putting together a collection of short recordings like proverbs and riddles would be invaluable both for research and language revitalization purposes. In terms of research, it’s a realistic goal with a defined scope, with data that’s fairly homogenous, and likely to include lots of rare and archaic words. In terms of language revitalization, the Ekegusii Encyclopedia Project would love to be able to put recordings and explanations of all the proverbs and riddles online, and so doing all these recordings would directly enable that. So I’m beginning to mull over the possibilities of doing something like that during my next visit, possible next summer (funding willing).

The vast majority of my time this past week, though, has been devoted to slogging through the stories we’ve recorded with Gladys, one phrase at a time. It’s incredibly tedious work, but Gladys has been absolutely indefatigable and insists on getting as much done before I leave, taking breaks only to prepare meals, after which she’ll come out to the porch where I’ve setup my little workspace and say, “Ok Nyakundi, time for class!”, and we’ll resume translating.

To give you an idea of what this involves, I first have to take the recording and segment it into manageable chunks, usually just a short phrase at a time (what are called ‘intonation units’ among linguists). I have special software (ELAN) that allows me to do this in just a couple minutes. Then Gladys and I listen to each phrase and write it down in Ekegusii. We’ll typically listen to each phrase a dozen times, unless it’s some really frequent phrase, which at this point I’m able to write down and translate myself. The first few passes we focus on just making sure we heard the words right. Then I write an initial guess at what I’m hearing, which almost always needs further correcting. A huge obstacle in this kind of work is that people will pronounce things different in isolation versus in a sentence. And in a language with tone like Ekegusii, this is especially problematic, because the tones often change depending on the context of the sentence. So I first start by writing the sounds I hear, without worrying about tone. Even this isn’t as easy as it seems. It can actually be very difficult at times to distinguish between the /e/ and /ɛ/ sounds (bait vs. bet), or /o/ and /ɔ/ sounds (cot vs. caught, though not all English speakers make this distinction), so the next few listening passes are usually to make sure I haven’t missed any of the vowels. Next I’ll go through and listen for tone, at first with Gladys saying things word by word, and then by asking her to say the sentence as a whole, and comparing that to what I’m hearing in the recording. With the Ekegusii phrase now written more-or-less accurately, we then work together to translate the phrase to English. This too is not as easy as it seems, because it’s important to capture all the meaning of the Ekegusii sentence in a way that will allow me to piece together what’s going on in the language later. This usually means writing a translation that isn’t really grammatical English. This is actually fine, since most speakers tend to translate literally and word-for-word anyway – a huge help for me when doing analysis. That’s one phrase. Then we move to the next. When we’re done, we have a nice transcript in both Ekegusii and English, although both will have to be transliterated later into text that speakers can read. Because I use the special characters of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to write the Ekegusii, it needs to rewritten (transliterated) into the way of writing that people use every day when writing the language, a version that doesn’t involve any tone marks or special vowels, etc. In addition, I’ll also need to write an edited English transcript that’s understandable to English speakers. But for the purposes of my research, the IPA transcription and literal translations is extremely helpful.

All in all, it takes about an hour to transcribe and translate just 1 minute of text. Despite the slow going, and despite both Gladys and I coming down with a cold for a few days, we’ve managed to transcribe and translate a total of 42 minutes of traditional storiesǃ I couldn’t be more thrilledǃ It’s shaping up to be an excellent corpus of Ekegusii discourse, that I’ll be able to use for all sorts of research projects in the future, and that the Ekegusii Encyclopedia Project will have as a rich cultural archive.

Documenting Ekegusii

One of the nice things about being upcountry is that it makes for great cardio. At this altitutde, running takes on a whole new level of difficulty. My second day at Ken & Janet’s farm I managed a 2.5-mile run (compare that to the 6 miles I usually do in Santa Barbara and you get a sense of the relative difficulty) along the switchbacks snaking through the hills, and was treated to views of the valley glowing with sunlight below. It’s best to run as early in the morning as possible since there are fewer people out and as a white person you tend to attract less attention. Exercising simply isn’t a recreational activity for the majority of Kenyans. While those in the city at least tend to know what you’re doing (but yell to get your attention as you’re running anyway), people in the more rural areas find it bizarre. And the kids think it’s hilarious, and will often run after me laughing and shouting things til they get tired of it (good quality headphones are a plus here). Learning how to say ‘I’m exercising’ in Swahili helped too.

After my run, I had my first pocket shower, which turns out to be a lengthy process because you need to heat up water, and the shower bag still hangs low enough that you have to squat down to wash under it. Coincidentally, this is how most Kenyans wash anyway, taking a sponge bath out of a basin of hot water on the ground, so I think that actually had something to do with why the family took to it so quickly.

My third day on the farm, Ken & Janet’s two boys returned home from boarding school in Kisii Town. The boarding schools here sound pretty intense: they’re not allowed to take electronics or almost any personal belongings with them, and only talk to their families when they coordinate a phone call through one of the teachers or schoolmasters. So the boys were very happy to be home for the summer. At the same time, they’re anxious to get to Mombasa, which they consider their home and where all their friends are. Being typical teenage boys, they get bored pretty fast on the farm where there’s very little to do and electricity is intermittent. Hearing them complain about not having power for the three days it was out was pretty hilarious actually, and Janet had a good time poking fun at them about it. Their names are Mark and Michael. I actually share an Ekegusii name with Michael, also known as Nyakundi when he’s in Kisii. Mark is about to start his last year of secondary school, and has aspirations of going to university to study economics / business, and then wants to open a business in Mombasa or Kisii. Michael is a few years younger (in his first year of secondary school, I think), and is passionate about music and movies. He seems to know the actors and plot of every one of the hit movies from the past decade. Both of them love basketball, which surprised me a bit (soccer being the huge sport here, like it is pretty much everywhere in Africa). After they returned to Mombasa about a week ago, Mark messaged me excitedly that the basketball court they play at now had lights: “Now we’ll play until dawn!”

Since we needed groceries, once the boys were settled in we waited for a matatu for three hours, to no avail. So I caved and we called a taxi into town. We wound up having a nice lunch (terrible food and service but a fun time getting to know the boys and Janet better) at a place called The Nile, on a second floor balcony overlooking the only roundabout / major intersection in town. Then we went shopping in the open air market and at Nakumatt (Kenya’s version of Walmart) before heading home. That evening, since I happened to have a movie rental on my phone that was about to expire and because the power went out when it started raining, the boys and I piled onto the couch to watch Jack Ryan on my phone – with popcorn and everything! I’ve discovered that roasted corn and popcorn are quite the thing here. In fact, thinking on it now, I don’t think a single evening went by without there being roasted corncobs as a pre- or post-dinner snack.

The two weeks following went by in a blur. The next day I spent at a hotel in town, enjoying access to fast wifi, while Janet attended a funeral. (I’m sad to say that the number of funerals and deaths that Ken, Janet, or Gladys have been affected by in the mere two months I’ve been here probably numbers around a dozen. Granted, Kenyan social networks and families tend to be significantly larger than American ones, so this is somewhat expected statistically and in my experience the normal rate at which people experience these things here, but that doesn’t make the loss any less significant.) The next day Janet also had to run errands, so she dropped me and the boys off at her mother Thenina’s house. Upon learning what I was doing in Kenya, Thenina immediately wanted to tell me a story. Anticipating this, I had brought my Edirol recorder with me, and so got a great recording of the story of Hare and Cheetah. The really neat part was, when she was done Thenina explained the story to Mark and Michael, whose Ekegusii is largely passive. Over the course of the two weeks at Ken & Janet’s, as I recorded various songs from different people, the two of them were treated to all sorts of traditional stories they had never heard before. I don’t think they quite realized the stories even existed, so they would sit and listen eagerly anytime I was recording. This turned out to be great for my research too, because it gave the speaker an audience who could actually understand (mostly) what they were saying, and therefore give them someone to direct the story to. It seemed to put the speakers a lot more at ease. I also learned a number of things I wouldn’t have otherwise, because the storytellers would often explain things to Mark and Michael. For example, every story in Ekegusii starts with Moganó ngóːcha ánde? ‘May I, the Story, come?’, to which the audience is supposed to respond, Moganó ínchuo ‘Come, Storyǃ’. The reason for this, it was explained, is that the speaker takes on the identity of the story itself, so that it’s no longer the person just telling the story, but the story narrating itself. Mark and Michael soaked it all up. And as I’d be going about the house asking Janet about the words for this or that thing, Mark and Michael would jump in and ask questions as well. They even memorized a few of the proverbs that Ken & Gladys included in the back of the dictionary after I had shown that section to them one night. So I was thrilled to see them fostering an interest in their language.

By the end of my two-week stay with Janet, I had recorded
• 2 hours of video documenting the process of planting, harvesting, winnowing, cracking, and grinding sorghum, with continual explanations and discussions between the women of the entire process in Ekegusii
• A few short conversations in Ekegusii
• 30+ traditional folktales, about 2-5 minutes each
• An autobiography, several hours in length (the speaker asked if he could just record by himself for a few hours after dinner one night, wanting very much for his story to made available online!)
• Several Christian songs
• 1 flour-grinding song
Gladys is hoping to get someone to record a few traditional songs with me as well, and I’m thinking that this week I might do something I’ve been wanting to all month, which is to setup some recorders around the living room immediately after dinner, when people tend to sit and chat and tell stories for a good hour or so. The trick is that I want to get permission from everybody in advance of dinner and start the recorders early so as not to make people too self-conscious (or at the very least, to let them get used to the recorders for a bit first). And even as I was leaving Ken & Janet’s farm, I had other people in the neighborhood telling me they had more stories they’d like to record with me as well!

That said, at this point I’ve got way more data than I could hope to process while I’m here, so while I’m still recording with anybody who requests it, I’m otherwise not actively looking to record more for the time being (the exception being that post-dinnertime conversation, since I don’t have much in the way of really natural conversation yet). And that is precisely why I now find myself here at the farm of Gladys and her husband Charles, some distance on the other side of Kisii.

Since Janet had never planned to stay long in Kisii, and the boys were eager to return to Mombasa, they caught a bus back to the coast last Friday, leaving just me and Morris at the farm. Since I had already done an elicitation session with Morris for Luhya the week prior, and since he knew that I was recording stories, he asked if I wanted to record some Luhya stories as well, and I happily said yes. I probably won’t do anything with the data for the time being other than archive it (so if you’re a researcher interested in any of the Luhya languages let me know), but it’s possible that if I return in future summers we’ll be able to continue working together.

After a few days of quiet at the farm, Gladys arrived in Kisii and arranged to bring me to her farm on the other side of town, where our major goal is to translate as many of the stories I’ve recorded as possible. So that’s where I sit now, on the porch overlooking her tomato greenhouse and watching newly-hatched gosslings waddle around the farm under the protective eyes of their parents. But now it’s time to get back to translating!

Leaving Mombasa

[This post was written on Aug. 8, but since I've been without power for 3 days you're getting the delayed version :) ]

Hard to believe it’s only been a week since my last post! Last Friday I treated myself to a day at a place called Aroma Cafe in Mombasa while the rest of my homestay family was at work. The hilarious part was that I spotted about six other wazungu (white people) when I walked in – more than I had seen during my entire stay in Mombasa combined. Americans like their lattes, I guess.

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