Thursday, May 24, 2012


I have no excuse for not updating my blog on schedule (that would have been three days ago according to the syllabus). This week has been difficult, my brain is exhausted from understanding only 5-30% of the Kichwa spoken to me during the majority of each day, despite the feeling that I understand at least 80% of the words spoken. When I'm not listening to or attempting to speak Kichwa, I'm usually listening to or attempting to speak Spanish. Or reading something in English in order to "relax," which hasn't been helping lately.

I have probably also been worn out by the constant attention to trying to behave in a culturally acceptable manner, which instead of being calm and self-possessed about I have decided to handle with the maximum amount of anxiety possible. I know this is counterproductive but I do it anyway. But enough complaining.

First an update on the situation I wrote about last time. I am now living in a small town outside of Puyo and I have noticed that the harassment here is much less. People here often greet each other as they pass, and if I am walking in town with my landlady we will undoubtedly run into several people she knows along the way and stop to talk for at least a minute. If I am out alone I still sometimes get stares or whistles, but I'm going to attribute at least part of that to my foreignness rather than my gender, and the rest doesn't feel nearly as aggressive as it did in Quito. So overall it has become much less of a concern, and I'm not slipping into the paranoid antisocial spiral that I feared at first.

However I still have a few questions about how to build a working cultural framework for concepts like sexism. What I mean to say is, in the United States I have no problem feeling indignant about all sorts of things that happen within my culture and which I think should change, manifestations of sexism, racism, homophobia and the like. And in a lot of ways our collective culture has changed in a positive direction, even though there are plenty of things to be concerned about. But when I'm in another culture, I'm not sure I have the right to judge anything. I'll go for racism and marginalization of indigenous communities within the larger context of Ecuador, but that's about it. Mostly I want to be an effective ethnographer and participant observer, so I want to be in a descriptive mode for the time being rather than an evaluative one. But somewhere along the way, that breaks down.

On one hand, I'm concerned that I will compare the two cultures and judge my own to be superior. This would be anthropological blasphemy, wouldn't it? At first I think of course I don't think my culture is better, if I consider the culture of the US to be mine, because there are a lot of things about it that I reject. But then I realize, the US is not "my" cultural region if I reject so much of it, and besides it's too heterogeneous to count as just one region. My actual cultural alignment is in large part to a very small sector of the population, actually several different groups including linguists, NPR, and academia as a whole (obviously some overlap). And the strongest cultural attachment I have is to questions of Right and Wrong. Luckily I don't have too strong an attachment to the Right and Wrong ways of eating, drinking or riding on a bus, so I can adapt to new ways of doing those things mostly without judgment. (Although I will admit to slight apprehension on the drinking clean water front--it's my weakling American body, can't handle the same types of microbes as strong Ecuadoreans can.) Even in the realm of religion I feel I have a very strong opinion that the Right way to handle things is to pretty much always respect other people's beliefs and when possible to try to understand why their spiritual beliefs are valid and valuable to their lives. So that seems to balance things out-- I explicitly don't have an opinion about whether or not other people's religions are right or wrong for them, I just trust that they are right for the most part.

Interestingly though, I'm finding there are still lots of things* that I have a moral attachment to or judgment on, and I don't know quite what to do about it. *(See previous list including racism and sexism, those are big ones.)

Okay pardon the rambling since I'm composing this without much editing, but I suppose I do know what to do about it. First, observe my judgments without necessarily trying to prevent them. Second, allow this question to remain unsolved in my mind without being an anthropological "sin." That's how it's done, right? Apologies for the lengthy and quite possibly confusing blog post. If I stop to edit any more this will never be published.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

quick notes from the field

My father left for the field yesterday too. Well, the military field; he´s in Qatar for about 75 days. He should be back before I return and will be in an air-conditioned office more often than in the cargo plane (C-130) that he pilots. Probably even safer than my adventure, and I daresay less exciting.

There is a festival in town this week, so there are banners hung between buildings and a few streets were closed to cars yesterday for a parade (I think; I didn´t see it myself). I think the reason for the celebration is the anniversary this Saturday of the foundation of Puyo on May 12, 1899. The coincidence of this event and my birthday seems like a good omen.
(Yes, I will use superstition to lighten my mood; especially at a time like this.)

Research updates: I went to visit a few of the people I know here this morning. They are willing to talk with me and help me learn Kichwa, so now I just have to get down to work. I have forgotten too much of the language and need to be prepared to be more talkative than I naturally am if I am going to get any research done.

My sociableness (and therefore my potential for effective research) has been affected by my interactions in the past few days: after training myself not to make eye contact with men and not to hear their whistles, hisses and whispers I have become even more withdrawn than usual as a result. In contrast I have been mostly ignored by women. I want to get out of the antisocial mood this defensiveness has put me in so that I can make more friends and reach out to the women who might be able to help me. I will have to work on initiating contact with those I want to know as well as continuing to reject contact with others.

Anyone else in the field feeling frustrated by gender issues? It´s not as if I didn´t see this coming but it´s a hassle, and difficult right now for me to decide how to view the situation in terms of ¨cultural values¨ or other things we were supposed to have learned in the field studies prep course...

Saturday, May 5, 2012

From the Field

Just a quick update, since Rem mentioned that people in our group haven't updated from the field just yet-- I'm officially in Ecuador, but not yet in my precise field location. I'm finding plenty to write about in my daily field notes already even if it isn't directly relevant to my study, and everything is going well so far. Well my checked bag is taking an extra day to arrive, but that feels like a much smaller setback because it happened to me last year as well and I know what to do.

I'm so glad I've been here before, I wasn't sure if I would feel more anxious traveling alone this time, but so far the familiarity of everything here is very comforting (even speeding taxi drivers and men on the street whispering things to me that I try to tune out... just another day in the capitol city).

I don't have much more to say at the moment, but I'm looking forward to getting down to the rainforest and meeting up with people from last summer's adventure. I'm also enjoying my time at this hipster/backpacker hostel, everyone here is very nice and helpful.

Okay, I'll write more later when I really have something to say. Best luck to all of my field study companions!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Half-baked Ideas

(disclaimer--This is not a fully developed idea, despite how long it's been rattling around my brain now. I just have to put it out there anyway. Suggestions/criticisms/encouragement of this sort of musing are welcome.)

I was reading an article by Mark Dingemanse the other week that describes current ideophone research and semantic typology and it sparked my thoughts on ideophones in English again...

So my mentor Dr. Nuckolls has written about the ideophonically impoverished state of English (2004), being that it only contains ideophones that mimic sound (onomatopoeia) and relegates them to contexts of juvenile literature or connotations of whimsy (2010). However I recently noticed several ideophone-like performances by native English speaking friends of mine that were definitely not depictions of sound. I would also argue that they were creative and original expressions worthy of more than a whimsical status.

I'll share just one example because it's the one I can most clearly remember. My roommate was asking to borrow a sweater that's sort of a faux wrap. In other words it has two parts and looks as if it wraps around to close; in fact it's sewn together so it's not a genuine wrap but rather a pullover. (See picture below.) The difficulty of describing this or coming up with a precise term for it is pointing out to me why my roommate may have chosen to use a sound effect (ideophone?) + gesture combination to portray the image of the sweater to me. So there's the setting. What she said to me was, "do you know where that shoop shoop* sweater is? can I borrow it?" And while saying shoop shoop she gestured with each hand down and across her body in the way that the sweater wraps (one swoop** of the hand for each word).

(Neiman Marcus faux-wrap cashmere sweater)

It feels like a stretch to call this an ideophonic performance, per se, but maybe that's just because my English-speaking mind wants to dismiss it as a "shortcut" description. I think this comes from the Western tradition of careful and extensive categorization of the world around us, where each object or concept has a name specifically applied to it in an attempt to craft a perfectly accurate, no-context-necessary language. (Kind of like in Tyler Gibb's "Specificity Specifically" Inquiry Conference presentation, or the whole practice of binomial nomenclature.) From this point of view, my roommate's use of an ideophone is imprecise and almost lazy. I think that might point to the problem with exhaustive categorization though, it puts the burden on the speaker to keep track of labels and requires tremendous memorization, as anyone who has tried to learn a professional or academic jargon can attest.

Anyway back to the ideophone. Ideophones have been said to occur in an "informal language register" in order to "dramatize a narration" (Doke, as cited by Dingemanse). While the former is true in my example, the latter does not apply and it seems more along the lines of usages reported by both Nuckolls (1996, etc) and Dingemanse (2011). I can't quite put my finger on the name for it, but this was a high-context communication situation (we live together) and the function of the ideophone was to facilitate the creation of an image in my mind, which it did successfully.

This "ideophone" is not conventionalized, which argues against true ideophone status. But it does potentially draw on a conventional English adjective (swoop), and it's fun to think that maybe this sort of performance could become more common in English. Certainly Nuckolls' use of the adjective "impoverished" (2004) indicates a potential richness or valuable quality that ideophones contribute to a language, so a development of English ideophones could be desirable.

In terms of describing the full meaning of the word I'm still struggling. I don't know whether to call this a depiction of movement or of visual perception; it's something like a visual depiction of lines along with the suggestion of wrapping. So in terms of the hierarchy of ideophone depiction proposed by Dingemanse (in press): there is some movement involved, and potentially a visual sensory element as well. Much more thought to be done here. But again, it's exciting for me to look at the possibility of English ideophones moving further along the ideophone hierarchy, with the use of ideohpone and gesture in English conversation occurring on a level closer to depictions of movement or other sensory perceptions than previously thought. (I haven't copied Dingemanse's exact hierarchy here but the idea is that languages with more developed ideophonic systems will move beyond depictions of sound to those of movement, visual images, and other sensory perceptions.)

* this is an approximate spelling of the pronunciation. I would say there was an accompanying rise in pitch for each word but I can't remember for sure.
** notice how the word "swoop" is close to her utterance, possibly an inspiration? that's the image/word association that came to my mind anyway.

1.Dingemanse, Mark. “Advances in the Cross-Linguistic Study of Ideophones.” (will be in Language & Linguistics Compass 2012)
2.Nuckolls, Janis B. Lessons from a Quechua Strongwoman: Ideophony, Dialogue, and Perspective. Tucson: University of Arizona, 2010. Print.
3.Nuckolls, Janis B. Sounds like Life: Sound-symbolic Grammar, Performance, and Cognition in Pastaza Quechua. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.
4.Nuckolls, Janis B. “To Be or Not To Be Ideophonically Impoverished.” Proceedings of the Eleventh Annual Symposium about Language and Society — Austin, Texas Linguistic Forum, 2004. 131-142. Austin.