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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 to others. Every time we speak, whether through a visual or auditory language, we paint our worldview, brush stroke by ephemeral brush stroke, in the minds of our listeners. 

By that same token, culture rides upon each utterance that we hear and in some cases see. This is the case from mother to son, from son to friend, from friend to friends, and so on, until the members of 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 of people and often even within a single speaker. It is, therefore, necessary to “capture” languages as they are in order to see how they change, which in turn will contribute to our understanding of how humans use language in general.

In the Field Methods class led by linguistics Professors Abby Cohn and Sarah Murray last Spring semester, an eclectic, international and domestic group of ten graduate students in the Cornell Department of Linguistics began learning the tools that we use to document unknown languages. By systematically eliciting speech from a native speaker of an unknown language, these students were able to make generalizations about the language and apply the theoretical tools that they have learned. The language studied on this occasion was Lao. Though Lao is far from unknown, it is understudied and the only national language of Southeast Asia that is not taught year-round at a major university in the United States. On the other hand, its close relative, Thai, is widely studied and taught in America. In fact, although none of the students had studied Lao, there were two students in the class who have studied Thai extensively and one native speaker of Thai. In total, at least half of the class had worked on Southeast Asian 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 differences between their own working Southeast Asian languages and those they were currently studying. The native Lao speaker from whom the students gathered data, Bey Sisouphone, was featured in an article for the Cornell Sun. Sisouphone taught fifth grade in Laos and immigrated to the United States in 2003. She has worked at the Alice Cook dining hall at Cornell for six years. She and her husband speak only Lao in the home, though she is proficient in English as well. It was the good fortune of the class to have someone who was both knowledgeable about Lao and enthusiastic to share what she knew, which was incredibly important, given that students elicited hours and hours of speech from her this last semester without one complaint on her part. In those long hours, the students of the Field Methods class not only collected words and speech, but also much more. Hidden within the words, inside every sentence, behind the stories Sisouphone told were bits and pieces of Lao culture, inseparable from the language itself. Unwittingly, as each student furiously and systematically recorded data, they captured a piece of her cloud for themselves.