Linguistics Department

From Coffins to Egg Cartons: Eric Adell on the Rewards and Challenges of Fieldwork

Graduate student Eric Adell talks about his fieldwork in the Cuchumatán mountains documenting Ixil, a Mayan language of Guatemala.

What is the focus of your doctoral research?

My research is part of an ongoing documentation and grammatical description of Ixil, which is a Mayan language of Guatemala. I work with local speakers to transcribe, translate, and analyze the grammar, sound system, and vocabulary of their language. We make lots of recordings of speech in as many contexts as we can—having conversations, giving interviews, telling stories or jokes, singing songs, etc. From those recordings, I work toward figuring out the meaning of as many pieces of the language as I can, and in what ways they can and can’t be put together according to the rules of the language. My dissertation is a descriptive grammar of Ixil, which is just a systematic presentation of my analysis of how the language works.

What drew you to documentary linguistics?

I really sort of stumbled into linguistics. I dropped out of college early on when I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to study, and ended up in landscaping for a number of years before deciding I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life moving dirt, rocks, and plants around. When I decided to go back to school, language was the thing that most interested me, so I thought I’d give linguistics a try, and I took an immediate interest in the field. As far as language documentation goes, I’ve always have an adventurous spirit—I love traveling and seeing new parts of the world, and I also have an appreciation for exploring aspects of other cultures and interacting with people who see the world differently. Language documentation allows me to do scientific research in a way that caters to that part of me.

Where has your fieldwork taken you and what have you studied?

My fieldwork has focused on Ixil, which is spoken in the Cuchumatán mountains in the Guatemalan highlands. In particular, I work with speakers of the Chajul dialect. So far I’ve made six or seven trips to the field, where I have spent a total of about fifteen months. In addition to the grammatical analysis I am working on for my dissertation, my work is also part of professor Danny Law’s larger NSF-funded project to document the speech of three Ixil dialects. We’re in the process of building a corpus of 60 hours of transcribed and translated Ixil recordings, with additional morphological (grammatical) analysis for a substantial portion as well.

What memories stand out from your time in Guatemala?

When I first started doing fieldwork, one of the spaces where I worked was a workshop for building coffins, because the owner of the shop let me use the space after work hours. Although it may sound kind of morbid, coffins in Guatemala are really colorful, so it wasn’t as depressing as you’d think! Some of my favorite experiences have been traveling through the Ixil country on the back of a motorcycle or standing up in the back of a pick up truck. The part of the Cuchumatán mountains where Ixil is spoken is one of the most naturally beautiful places I have ever been to and offers a lot of breathtaking scenery.

What kind of challenges did you experience in the field?

There was no shortage of physical challenges; among other things, I have had to defend myself against a pack of dogs, and I cannot tell you how many times I was sick. There were always logistical challenges as well. For instance, finding a quiet place to make recordings in Guatemala can be quite difficult. I needed to figure out a way to sound-proof a room with limited materials, and ended up stringing together used egg cartons to create sound absorption panels we could hang from the walls. Some of the biggest challenges were navigating linguistic and cultural barriers. Fieldwork can be difficult when it is mediated through a second language. Most of the communication happened in Spanish, which isn’t my first language, or that of my Ixil collaborators. This is in addition to the fact that we already begin with very different experiences and assumptions about the world - so there’s always some give and take in negotiating meaning and learning how to accommodate each other in communication. Culturally, I often felt like I was breaking social rules somehow, but no one would tell me even if I were, because that’s not what you do there. Some of that was probably real, and some of it was probably in my head, but it’s difficult to spend a long time in a state of feeling like an outsider. In spite of all of the challenges, it’s been rewarding to persevere through them, and I think I’ve seen a lot of personal growth as a result.

What has your experience been like as a graduate student doing research in the field?

Spending so much time in the field can be stressful, and it requires a certain level of dedication. It isn’t always easy, and it certainly isn’t always as glamorous as some people might imagine. Let’s just say that I’m probably a lot better at managing physical and cultural discomfort for long periods of time than I was before. At the same time, it is rewarding both personally and intellectually. I have been able to see new parts of the world and had a chance to get to know people who have different perspectives than my own. Working with Danny Law on his project has also been a really great experience for me. Dealing with such large amounts of data is a challenge in and of itself, and I think that working through the process of data management and project organization has been helpful for both of us. The project has been a collaborative effort with members of the Ixil community, and has given me the opportunity to train native speakers to write in their language and to use technology to do linguistic analysis. We’ve worked most closely with five Ixil speakers in their twenties, and I’ve enjoyed working with them and getting to know them. After nearly three years of working with us, they’ve produced more written materials in their language than probably anyone else, and they’ve picked up a number of skills that will be helpful moving forward in their own lives. It’s good to know that I was able to play a role in that.

What’s next for you?

Linguistics, and language documentation in particular, has helped me to develop a lot of skills that are more broadly applicable, so I’m considering taking some time to do data analysis or try to work in product development in the tech industry before deciding whether I want to commit to a lifetime of academic research. So I can’t say what the future holds, although I do plan to continue to follow through with the work I’ve done on Ixil. I hope to reproduce some of the resources I have worked on in a form that’s more accessible to Ixil speakers. I’d like to translate my dissertation into Spanish and disseminate it in some form. I also want to continue working through texts and polishing the lexical materials that I’ve been working on. After fifteen months of fieldwork, I’ve gathered much more data than I could handle while writing a dissertation, so I imagine I’ll be working my way through my materials for some time.








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