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Cloud Watchers: Cornell Linguists Collecting Data on Lao


by Nielson Hul, PhD candidate in linguistics

Language is what we use to spread the culture within each of us toothers. Every time we speak, whether through a visual or auditorylanguage, we paint our worldview, brush stroke by ephemeral brushstroke, in the minds of our listeners. 

By that same token, culture rides upon each utterance that we hear and in somecases see. This is the case from mother to son, from son to friend, from friendto friends, and so on, until the membersof a speech community are linked together by a single identity, as droplets in a somewhat uniform cloud moving slowly across the earth.

As linguists, we are cloud watchers,in a sense. We observe languages and analyze them as they are within the present moment and under the present circumstances because, like clouds, languages and speech communities are infinitely mutable and dynamic, changing diachronically among groups ofpeople and often even within a singlespeaker. It is, therefore, necessary to“capture” languages as they are inorder to see how they change, which inturn will contribute to our understandingof how humans use language ingeneral.

In the Field Methods class led bylinguistics Professors Abby Cohn andSarah Murray last Spring semester,an eclectic, international and domesticgroup of ten graduate students inthe Cornell Department of Linguisticsbegan learning the tools that we useto document unknown languages. Bysystematically eliciting speech froma native speaker of an unknown language,these students were able tomake generalizations about the languageand apply the theoretical toolsthat they have learned.The language studied on this occasionwas Lao. Though Lao is far fromunknown, it is understudied and theonly national language of SoutheastAsia that is not taught year-round at amajor university in the United States.On the other hand, its close relative,Thai, is widely studied and taught inAmerica. In fact, although none of thestudents had studied Lao, there weretwo students in the class who havestudied Thai extensively and one nativespeaker of Thai. In total, at least halfof the class had worked on SoutheastAsian languages in general.

By working with a major language like Lao, the students who had worked on Southeast Asian languages looked at intriguing data that allowed themto examine similarities and differencesbetween their own working SoutheastAsian languages and those they werecurrently studying. The native Laospeaker from whom the students gathered data, Bey Sisouphone, was featuredin an article for the Cornell Sun. Sisouphone taught fifth grade in Laosand immigrated to the United States in2003. She has worked at the Alice Cookdining hall at Cornell for six years. Sheand her husband speak only Lao inthe home, though she is proficient inEnglish as well. It was the good fortuneof the class to have someone who wasboth knowledgeable about Lao andenthusiastic to share what she knew,which was incredibly important, giventhat students elicited hours and hoursof speech from her this last semesterwithout one complaint on her part.In those long hours, the students ofthe Field Methods class not only collectedwords and speech, but also muchmore. Hidden within the words, insideevery sentence, behind the storiesSisouphone told were bits and piecesof Lao culture, inseparable from thelanguage itself. Unwittingly, as eachstudent furiously and systematicallyrecorded data, they captured a piece ofher cloud for themselves.