Monday, 13 October 2014

Lessons Learnt from St. Elizabeth

Two weeks ago, I visited the Deaf community in South St. Elizabeth for the second time to conduct some linguistic research. I was there for two days. And what an experience it was!
Up until I started visiting the South St. Elizabeth community in August this year, my experiences doing field research came primarily from my being an undergraduate linguistics student. My first such trip was to Moore Town, a Maroon community in the Cockpit Country. The trip was part of the Creole Linguistics course. At the graduate level, I had to go to Linstead, St. Catherine, for an Advanced Phonology (ugh!) course. The aim of the trip was to determine whether or not Jamaican Creole is a stress, tonal or pitch accent language. Ambitious, ikr!!!   

Each of my prior field research trip lasted for only a few hours - five (5) the most. Also, for these trips, I was with other students. So, if anything went wrong, we had each other's shoulders to lean on and, most importantly, we had people with whom to share the blame!  Naturally, then, my field research experience, up until now, has been pretty limited. The trips I had, however, made it easier to me to launch out on my own for hours upon hours in the field.  

Here are eleven (11) lessons I learnt on my last research trip to St. Elizabeth:

1.   Do not underestimate the amount of work you can cover during on a given trip. I'm not sure what led me to believe I could have gone through 90 minutes of data in two days! A file may be short, but very complex; a file may be long, but pretty simple!

2.   Ensure you have all your equipment before leaving for your trip. Forgetting my laptop charger cost me valuable time and money. 

3.   It's best to maintain a balance between not overestimating and not underestimating your language helpers' eyes. They do not always see everything you see as a linguist! Remain skeptical until proven wrong/right, and do so without giving the impression your language helpers don't know their language! The data quality and or their eyes may not be as good. You may also be seeing more than is actually there. Well, something may be there, but of no linguistic significance! 

4.   The people whose language you are researching may be less hard on you than the people who write all that field research ethics stuff you may have read in books that are aimed at helping you on the field. Country Signers gave me that "stop-being-worried-we-are-fine-with-you-taking-pictures-and-so-on" look. In fact, on my first trip, several come to me asking for my camera and teaching me Country Sign! Still follow the rules and don't exploit your assistants.   

5.   Remember you can have an influence on how subsequent researchers are accepted/treated by members of the speech community. Country Signers spoke of how many people from Jamaica and elsewhere have visited them. It was obvious Country Signers haven't been turned off by prior researchers.  

6.   "Si an blind, hear an deaf!" Some of the things you see are best ignored.  Do nothing to jeaprodise your relationship with members of the speech community. Sometimes this means you have to keep your eyes and hands shut. Like you, your language consultants aren't angels!

7.   Language helpers work best when you express genuine interest in them. Get to know them. Establish friendships. Live with them, if you can. Avoid staying at guest houses and hotels, only visiting when you need to work on your data. Don't be in a hurry to get your recorder or computer.

8.   If you are working with data that someone else annotated, keep in mind the annotator is only human. They may have left out something. They may have gotten something wrong. Do not begin your analysis until you are confident in the accuracy of the annotation(s).

9.   Be perceptive/sensitive. Some language helpers are too nice to tell you they are tired. If you have to return to the community some other time, do so. Don't allow your helpers to suffer from your unrealistic goals.

10.   The Deaf are usually concerned about being away from home after a certain time in the evenings/at nights. If your language helpers do not live close to where they meet with you, they may be able to spend more time with you if they don't have to worry about how they will get home. So, if can help them get home, offer your assistance. It works wonders!

11.  Language data is usually "messy." There are many "imperfections" -  interruptions, partially produced constructions, corrections, etc. Don't be deceived by the perfectly formed constructions you see in linguistic books, journals, etc!  
So, these were the things that stood out to me during my last visit. They remind me of a saying I heard from a preacher a few years ago, "Experience is the best teacher, but the school fee is high." 

What's in a Name?! Quite A Lot, Actually!

Names Names
In addition to first, middle, last and pet names (Bertram Omar Gayle and Owen), I have had many other names. Most of these names are based on my first name and on my pet names (e.g., B, Bert, Bertie, Bertie-Bert, Berch, Berchie, Oyen, Owi, Ow); the rest are nicknames (e.g. Betty, Egg-An-Bread, Blacks, Blackie, Deacon). Some are meant to poke fun at my perceived sexuality (e.g. Uman Man, Bman, BertRAM, GAYle); some describe my complexion or the size of my cheeks (eg. Blakie, Blacks, Blacka, Pum-Pum Jaw); some as signs of informality and or familiarity (e.g., Bertie, Berch, Owen); some are mispronunciations by Africans (e.g. Beh-cham, Beer-cham) or by Jamaicans (eg. BerTHram, Birth-Ram, Bercham).

And More Names
There are newer names too. Since I started to grow locks, I have been called by all almost every name known to Rastafarians, expect "Bobo" - Dred, Ras, Fire, and so on. Thanks to Facebook (FB), many people now know me by my FB name, Black Raven. Since becoming involved in the Deaf community, I've had two name signs.

Sign Language Names
In the Deaf world, sign names are signs the Deaf use identify someone. No! It has nothing to do with Deaf people forging your signature. It's simply the way someone same is "said" in sign language. Many things can be said about name signing in Deaf cultures. I'll not get into all of that. For now, I will say two things. First, only a Deaf person can give you a sign name. Second, a common sign naming practice involves using one of your hands to form the first letter(s) of someone's English name(s) and placing that letter-shaped hand somewhere on the body. Sometimes, where the hand is placed on the body and how the letter-shaped hand moves (if it moves) tells us something about the person who is named.  
So, for me, my first sign name was the letter B, placed on the forehead and moved along the top of the head, following the natural curve of the head, to the back of the head. Why? When I was given this name sign, I had a Mohawk! I now have locks, so my name has changed. My new name still begins with the B-hand. This time, however, the B-hand is placed at the side of the head, just above the ears, and it moves down just above the shoulders. Hint: flowing hair!    
Deaf people also use sign names that are 100% descriptive. That is, they have nothing to do with the letters of the alphabet, they only tell you something about someone - how s/he looks, how s/he walks, what s/he does and so on. (This sorta reminds me of the nicknaming practice in the community in which I grew up in Westmoreland. Imagine there are three people, one with a big nose, another with a large forehead and another with one leg, they'd be called "nose," "farid" and "one foot" respectively. Let's get back to sign naming. In another post, I'll talk about the similarities I've noticed between nicknaming and sign naming in JA.) 

Sign Language Names in St. Elizabeth
For my research, I am studying a language called Country Sign Language (CSL). CSL originated in the southern part of our "bread basket" parish, St. Elizabeth. I visited the Deaf community in St. Elizabeth for the second time two weekends ago. When I was there noticed that
  1. the older members of the community have two name signs - one in CSL and the in Jamaican Sign Language (JSL) 
  2. name signs in CS are 100% descriptive
  3. when you ask a Country Signer her/his name sign, s/he is most likely to give you her/his JSL sign name
  4. the name signs in JSL *appear to involve only a hand forming a letter of the alphabet and placed somewhere on the body
When did Country Signers begin moving away from the more descriptive type of name signing?  When did they begin using the hand-alphabet type of sign names? Well, an alphabet is important to education. My guess is that the new practice started with the introduction of Deaf education and with exposure to other sign languages in which the hand-alphabet is important - JSL, American Sign Language [and British Sign Language (?)].   
And why do Country Signers prefer to give outsiders their JSL name signs? Are they simply being nice by using the Sign Language with which outsiders are more familiar?  Is the preference reflective of what's happening in the community - the slow death of CS and the prestige of JSL?