A very interesting interview with Professor Gérard Diffloth, “a leading figure in Southeast Asian linguistics, specializing in the languages of the Austroasiatic family”; the interviewer is Nathan Badenoch, with whom he is working on “a group of small and endangered languages spoken in northern Laos.” Diffloth started by studying Russian; Badenoch says: “you moved from Russian to languages further east. How did that happen?”
Diffloth: Gradually, via Persian and then Tamil — I wrote my dissertation on a variety of Tamil called Irula — and from Tamil to the mountains of Malaysia. And from there to the rest of the Austroasiatic family across the whole of Mainland Southeast Asia. But in a more personal way, by interacting with speakers of languages such as Khasi, Semai, Mon, Kuay, Khmer and others, I found that the Austroasiatic family was unique in many ways, and historically very rich.
Some good exchanges:
Badenoch: One of the things that has underpinned your linguistic career has been fieldwork. What do you think the experience of doing intensive fieldwork can teach us about language?
Diffloth: Very quickly you realize that language is not an object, but an activity. Unfortunately, in societies where literacy is well implanted, most people think, — because they are taught this in school —, that language is basically writing, the sort of black stuff you can see on paper as text. But written text is not language, and we have been made to forget that this writing is actually derived from language, not the other way around. One of the first things you witness in doing fieldwork is that language is something people do, not something people make. There are still societies today where the idea of putting down language on paper appears quite senseless, even objectionable.
Badenoch: When doing fieldwork have you felt any tension between Western academic science, which is strongly based in written culture, and the language that people are speaking?
Diffloth: Yes, but when you do fieldwork for a long time, you begin to see things the way they do. To give an example, at some point in studying the Mon-Khmer languages of Malaysia, I was going through a certain type of words — Expressives, somewhat similar to the Gisego (擬声語) found in Japanese — with a native speaker of Semai. At some point he said to me: “Actually, these words which you call Expressives, they are not really words at all. Up until now, we have been discussing nouns, verbs, and so on, and that is all very fine, but these things are different: we do not speak them, we actually shoot them.” I struggled to understand what he could possibly mean by that; and it has taken me some years to draw the linguistic conclusions from his strange remark.
[. . .]
Badenoch: You have often said that language is history. Can you elaborate a little more on what insights can be obtained from this language perspective on history?
Diffloth: When we get involved in historical linguistics, the results very often end up being rather different from the histories produced from the analysis of concrete historical documents. For one thing, traditional history usually has to do with power structures, governance, armies and battles, things of that kind; historical linguistics can do this as well, but also gets into the minutiae of life: the history of dress, of hunting, of family arrangements. Another difference is that in historical linguistics we are compelled to look at minority languages because they are useful, and historically every bit as legitimate as the major, the usually written national languages. Quite often, the histories of people without writing are simply absent from the more traditional narratives. Sometimes, what we find with the use of historical linguistics squarely contradicts what is said in the history books.
[. . .]
Badenoch: One type of finding we often talk about falls into the category of food history. The vocabulary of hunting, gathering, and processing different foods is incredibly rich in the Austroasiatic languages.
Diffloth: Every word, each with its own meanings, has a history that we can explore; for example the history of food collection and preparation, the history of culinary tastes. This is something we can often do quite well, given sufficient data. It will soon be possible, for example, to trace the history of when and how rice became a staple food, and what the position and uses of rice may have been before that. This subject has now become a major topic in archeological research.
Tnere’s lots of other good stuff there. Thanks, Bathrobe!