January 12, 2004

Grammarless Riau?

Language Hat and his commenters have some interesting things to say about David Gil's work on Riau.

According to the stuff of Gil's that I've read, Riau is spoken within view of Singapore's highrises, so the opportunity for more thorough study is certainly there.

John McWhorter and I had a conversation about this about a month ago, following up on his post on the subject, and I read a number of Gil's papers at the time. The thing that bothers me most about the Riau business is the fact that it's the stigmatized end of a continuum with standard Malay/Indonesian [see this and this this for Gil's description of the situation], and Gil makes it clear that it's really hard to get speakers not to move up into a more formal register.

[Update 1/18/2004: here's what Gil writes about it:

Right away, I was struck by how different the local language was from the Standard Malay / Indonesian that I had read about in the linguistic literature. So I set out to investigate the language, by eliciting data from native speakers. But this turned out to be a virtually impossible task: the interference from the standard language was much too strong. If I asked speakers how to say something in colloquial Indonesian, they would invariably provide sentences in the formal language. If I then confronted speakers with sentences that they themselves had uttered, they would deny having produced them, and then offer to "correct" the sentences by translating them into the formal language. Similar problems occur in many or all languages; however, the extent of the phenomenon differs considerably from one speech community to another and here it was about as difficult as it gets.


When I've worked with language variants of that kind, there's often been a parallel difficulty -- once you persuade a speaker that it's really OK for him or her not to (try to) speak the standard language, it may be equally hard to prevent this "license" from being interpreted as an instruction to agree that any meaning can be paired with any form, since this seems to be what the field worker wants to hear. Gil seems serious and careful, but that may not be enough. [He discusses methods of observing "naturalistic" data by sitting around and jotting down what he hears when it seems interesting, but the claims about the many meanings of a given two-word phrase presumably come from another source than this.]

My own belief is that in cases like these, where judgments are so skewed by the social context, corpus-based methods are an essential part of any solution to the research problems. Given the number of speakers and the location, a good-sized corpus of Riau would not be hard to collect (and publish!), but I don't know that anyone is working on it.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 12, 2004 09:02 PM