Trip Summary: Anchorage, Alaska

Dates: April 6 – 16, 2010

Location: Anchorage, AK

I just returned from my first research trip to Alaska! Rosetta Stone flew me up to Anchorage two weeks ago, so I decided to do some fieldwork while I was up there. Work being as it is, I didn’t have a great deal of time for elicitation (let alone analysis), but the whole trip turned out to be a great success.

Before I went, one of my Rosetta Stone contacts put me in touch with Leo, a native speaker of the Iñupiaq dialect of Iñuit. The Iñuit dialects cover the entire northern coastline of North America, from Kotzebue in Alaska to Greenland and Labrador (see here for a full map). The Iñupiaq language is currently endangered, with estimates of about 2,000 speakers left (Krauss 2007). While a good deal of work has been done on the broader Eskimo-Aleut language family, not much professional work has been done on Iñupiaq (but see my annotated bibliography). Leo’s dialect, which is unique to the region around Point Hope, has received almost no academic attention whatsoever. So this trip was an attempt to do some initial documentation of that dialect, focusing mainly on the sound system of the language, but attempting to collect and transcribe any short narratives and ethnographic information as well.

This was also my first real research trip in the field. While I did a year’s worth of research in Kenya, that was before I understood how linguistic fieldwork worked. So my ancillary goals for the trip were to become familiar with the whole process of doing fieldwork, including elicitation and recording, organizing data and metadata, transcribing and analyzing speech, using recording equipment and linguistic software like ELAN and Praat, and in general learning how to be a good linguist. Claire Bowern’s book Linguistic Fieldwork was invaluable in this endeavor (read my review Book Review: Linguistic Fieldwork: A Practical Guide (Bowern) here). I’d highly recommend this for anyone about to go into the field for the first (or even second or third) time.

In preparation for the trip I bought my first digital recorder and microphone: the Marantz PMD661 and the Shure SM63.

I was extremely impressed with the PMD661. All the controls seemed in the right place, and after a quick read-through of the manual I had all its features down pat. The small size and light weight made it perfect for carrying around with me, and pretty unobtrusive during recording as well. I used a small microphone stand for all my recordings, since Leo sat (mostly) still during all our sessions. However, I’ve learned that omnidirectional microphones aren’t the best for the kind of recording I was doing – they pick up far too much ambient noise. For my next trip, I’ll be purchasing a dynamic cardioid microphone instead – probably a lavalier.

I arrived in Anchorage very eager to study some advanced aspects of morphosyntax. Antipassives had caught my eye, and I was interested in the isomorphism between the ergative and genitive case functions (they’re collapsed into a single case called the Relative). Could there be a functional motivation for this patterning? My original hypothesis was that I would find a close correlation between the Relative and definiteness or specificity. Also, Iñupiaq has extremely free word order, so I was interested to see how word order interacted with information structure.

Of course, I wound up investigating neither of these things. Instead, I had a great series of sessions with Leo where I elicited basic word lists and simple sentences, and began working out the phonotactics and phonology from the ground up. Leo was a great expert consultant. He would spell each word for me and repeat it two or three times while I was scribbling away, and he would translate back into English , explaining where the word came from or what it was related to. He’d toss in funny anecdotes and stories, useful phrases, or little factoids about whaling. Leo himself is a retired whaling captain, Iñupiaq teacher, and jitterbug competitor (though he still returns to Point Hope to compete from time to timeǃ). He’s also familiar with some of the more traditional Iñupiaq dances. On our second day of elicitation, he showed up with two drawings, done by his son, of some traditional whaling activities. It was an ethnographer-linguist’s goldmine. Leo taught me all about whaling, describing what time of year it happens, how they’re caught, what the role of each person in the boat is, and the Iñupiaq words for all of it. I even recorded a short, 30-second narrative of him talking about the start of whaling season in Iñupiaq. The next day, he helped me transcribe it. Later, after visiting the Alaska Zoo and telling Leo about it, he told me the Iñupiaq names of all the different animals I had seen.

Needless to say, the trip didn’t turn out anything like I expected. I learned a great deal about fieldwork and working with speakers. I learned, for example, that you should check for hot tubs hidden behind walls before you turn on your recorder, but that if you get to know the hotel staff, they’ll let you record in one of their suites for free (and toss in some homemade cookies at that). I also learned how to carefully navigate legal and ethical concerns, and that I should start preparing much further in advance for my next trip. I learned too how to negotiate payment for your language expert, but that a small gift of thanks goes a long way too.

Now, I’m coming home with enough data to keep me busy for months. I’ll continue working out the sound system as I’ve started doing, and when I feel I have a good grasp of that, I’ll move on to basic word classes and morphology. I’d like to return in the future, and work both with Leo and other speakers from Point Hope on some more advanced topics as well. But overall this was a great first experience in fieldwork, and I think I come away much wiser for having done it.