7/02 Keren Rice (Hale Professor): “Fieldwork and community: Aspects of variation and change”


Keren Rice, University of Toronto
2013 Linguistic Institute Ken Hale Professor
Tuesday, July 2, 2013 7:00 pm
Askwith Auditorium, Lorch Hall
Reception to follow

Read Abstract

During my career, I have been interested in addressing and trying to understand the tension that exists between universality and variability in language; I have also been interested in examining ways of working with people in fieldwork where the role that the people that linguists work with are taken into account, with a focus on people as well as on language. In this talk, I would like to examine variation from two quite different perspectives, a general approach to research and specific research that I have been doing.

I begin from the perspective of approaches to research. In recent years in research on endangered languages in Indigenous communities, there has been a trend towards empowerment, collaborative, and community-based models. These models grow out of social science methodology, the development of Indigenous research paradigms, and societal values such as the notion of giving back. I am an advocate of such models, but I have been experiencing a concern with the unidimensionality that sometimes accompanies the discussion of these models, with value judgment placed, perhaps without even realizing it, which privileges ways of research that involve communities directly in the research, with leadership coming from the community. While there are concerns with hearing community needs, does this mean operating under a model in which everyone works together, or can collaboration be more broadly construed?

I then outline a very different type of variation, the absence, or presence thereof, of variation at a time in the history of the Dene (Slavey) language that has important ramifications for the history of how communities were settled, a topic of interest in the communities. The ethnographic record speaks to the emergence of two varieties of the language in the late 19th or early 20th century, with them being largely undifferentiated prior to this time. This does not fit well with people’s sense of their history. I worked with a dictionary compiled in the late 19th century, and this work reveals that the linguistic varieties were in fact distinct at that time, suggesting that the linguistic record supports the community interpretation of its history.

How do these two topics relate? Both speak to the importance of recognizing variation. The linguistic work provides an interesting counterpoint to a comment by Sapir, speaking of the value of linguistic work to understanding culture, that linguistic research requires a “closeness of knowledge that is often out of proportion to what little can be obtained from it for tangible cultural inference” (Sapir 1936: 224). Yet much is to be learned if we can do this work. In restrictive research models, would such work be done?

In rethinking responsibilities, we may have defined collaboration so narrowly as to devalue valuable work, putting burdens on communities that may, perhaps, not be welcome, while the work itself might be perceived to be of value. A broader construal of collaboration may best serve both community and academic needs so long as that broader collaboration is grounded in relationships, respect, and recognition, allowing a range of types of work to thrive.