The short film we present this week is an extract from The Poet’s Salary, by Eric Wittersheim.
The Poet’s Salary stands as a fun yet accurate illustration of what a field linguist’s work is like, immersed within a population to study its everyday language ― languages that are often understudied and spoken by minority and/or isolated populations.
The video shows linguist Alexandre François facing a tricky and rather amusing situation as he struggles to articulate a nearly unique consonant that only exists in the Hiw language of Vanuatu, particularly difficult to pronounce for a European. Pastor Stanley, speaker of Hiw, tries his best to help Alexandre master and improve his “too French” pronunciation of this very unusual consonant…
For more information we recommend our interview with Alexandre François: he tells us about the movie, about his work in the field, and sure enough, about this very peculiar phase of learning a new language on the spot.
The Poet’s Salary
Interview with linguist Alexandre François
Alexandre François works as a linguist for the CNRS (French National Scientific Research Center). His fascination for linguistic diversity and devotion to the protection of endangered languages lead him to choose northern Vanuatu as his main field of study. He’s the one who actually came up with the idea of the term Sorosoro (“breathe”, “language”, “speech”) for our association. Sorosoro comes from Araki, another endangered language from Vanuatu, one the several local languages he has studied over the years.
He kindly agreed to answer our questions on the following extract of the movie and more generally, on his work as a linguist.
– What brought you to work on the languages of Vanuatu, and more specifically on the Hiw Language?
« I’ve been both fascinated by the diversity of languages in the world and concerned about their extinction since I was a teenager. So it was pretty early that I decided this was the job I would be doing, working as a linguist. One day I was told that Vanuatu, in Melanesia, had the world’s highest linguistic density per capita with around a hundred languages, most of which were still unexplored. So fifteen years ago, I chose this group of islands for my linguistic research. I started by learning two languages, Mwotlap and Araki, but then couldn’t resist the temptation of taking a closer look on the nearly fifteen languages spoken on the surrounding islands, languages hardly anyone knew anything about. Travelling north-west, island after island, I eventually discovered the Hiw language and found it just fascinating. »
– What were the first steps like?
« Actually my very first encounter with Hiw happened when I was living on the island of Motalava, learning Mwotlap. The local doctor, Zébulon, and a young pastor called Stanley both lived on Motalava but were natives of another island, and I was intrigued by the unusual language they spoke together. They’re the ones who taught me the basics of their language, which was mutually appreciated! Then I decided to travel to the island of Hiw, so I could find out more about this language and get to hear it within proper context. »
– How much time have you spent with the people from Hiw over the years?
« At this point I’ve spent around 6 weeks on the actual island of Hiw, speaking the language daily. But this adds to the several introduction sessions (3 weeks altogether) that I had been through beforehand with the speakers of Hiw living on Motalava. »
– Do you speak their language now?
« Hiw is so different and unusual that it took me some time to get started, much longer than with the other languages of the area. But now I can speak it pretty well. It’s no secret, if you want to get fluent there’s nothing like a stay with the locals! »
– Do you get to speak it outside Vanuatu?
« Unfortunately I never get the chance to speak Hiw once I leave Vanuatu, and I’m afraid I might forget what I know. I wish I could practise more but communicating with Hiw from abroad is pretty much impossible: no internet, no phone, not even mail! The only way… is to go back, which always involves a whole expedition. »
– What exactly is the movie about?
« In 2005, I had offered ethnomusicologist Monika Stern to come study the music and dances of the island of Motalava, and anthropologist/director Eric Wittersheim to join and film these performances. He came up with the idea not only to film the dancing and music sessions, but also to show how much the population’s musical experience is imprinted in their daily life, from wedding celebrations to walks in the forest… And it eventually grew into a pretty original (and award-winning) documentary. The Poet’s Salary turned out as even more than an ethnomusicological documentary: it’s also a depiction of life in Vanuatu, as well as an occasion to follow scientists along their explorations.
– Can you tell us a little about the scene we chose to feature? What was the context?
The reality of fieldwork is that you never stick to just one project: you always find yourself in a twirl of newness and once in a lifetime opportunities. So between two days of music and dancing, I asked Stanley – the pastor of Motalava, who is native from Hiw – if he would agree to teach me a bit of his language because I was planning on travelling to his island a few weeks later. Eric Wittersheim happened to be around for his shooting sessions and he started to film our little workshop, which wasn’t planned at all! Although it has nothing to do with music, this scene ultimately remained in the final version of the movie because it also shows the kind of work you might get into when studying languages such as these. Besides, the linguistic richness of this part of the world also reflects in the way poems and songs are traditionally composed around the Vanuatu islands. »
– What are you working on in this scene?
« In my previous language sessions with doctor Zébulon, I had noticed that Hiw included a very unusual consonant, some king of /gL/ from the back of the throat, found in pretty much no other language in the world. At the time I still wasn’t sure how to analyse this phoneme, very typical of the Hiw language. Thanks to this session and the following ones, I eventually figured out what it was: a preploded lateral velar approximant – which I actually just wrote an article about for an international phonology review.
At the time the movie was shot, however, I wasn’t sure yet if my analysis was accurate or not – I was just starting to learn the language – so I had set up a list of words that would help me hear the consonant in various contexts. My private tutor, Stanley, corrects me and teaches me the right pronunciation. It makes me smile when he says “That still sounds too French”. »
– Is this always the way a linguist learns the sounds, words, and grammar of a new language?
« Definitely not. What you see in this extract are the first steps in the exploration of a language, at the very beginning, when we’re still at the stage of deciphering its phonological and grammatical system. But there are countless ways of approaching a new language, and the method changes as you become bilingual. The research becomes much more lively after a while, when it gets possible to talk to anyone and hear what they have to say.
Another extract of The Poet’s Salarygives another idea of how I like to handle the investigation – in this very case, a man from Motalava recounting memories of the Pacific War, in 1942. At other times people tell me tales and ancient myths, or even jokes, or love songs. Once you’ve entered a language a whole new world opens up and calls for exploration… and then again, the sooner the better! »
« Alexandre François works as a linguist for the CNRS (French National Scientific Research Center). He’s been adopted by the people of Motalava island, in Vanuatu, whose language, Mwotlap, is his main subject of research. He returns with his family and friend Monika, an ethnomusicologist, to attend the very first performance of an epic chant on his behalf. He’s hoping to unveil the mysteries of the “language of the ancestors”, used by poets. Once arrived, however, things do not go exactly according to plan. »
A word by anthropologist-film-maker Eric Wittersheim, director of Le Salaire du Poète.
« Although he is a linguist, Alex’s work actually draws beyond the study of languages. In Vanuatu, traditional knowledge is closely linked to the material life of the population, and this knowledge is being passed on everyday, constantly. Children take part in all the activities, either helping or playfully pretending to help the grownups. As in other societies of oral tradition, songs and music also play an important part in conveying the culture of this island. Children are constantly imitating their elders, playing along with the musicians on mini-drums, or dancing along with their mothers.
Workaholic as he is, fascinated with phonetic curiosities as well as daily phrases or childhood expressions, Alex takes part in all the social activities. His presence is so common over there that he can just be himself, without affecting this cautious reserve put on by short-term travellers. He likes to chat and tell stories. And above all he likes to make people laugh… including at his own cost. »
Sorosoro is a program carried by the WOLACO Association (World Languages Conservancy) and supported by the Laboratory of Excellence ASLAN (Advanced Studies on language complexity) from the University of Lyon.