Leiden Language Blog

Goats and fieldwork in Dakar

Goats and fieldwork in Dakar The dirty goat

“It’s dirty! You can take pictures of it after I bathe it!” 

The woman who was in charge of the house where I was invited for lunch was rather surprised as to why I was taking pictures of a dirty goat. I was in Dakar, Senegal, where I spent a total of six weeks doing fieldwork for my Research MA thesis, which involved collecting data on Wolof, an Atlantic language spoken mostly in Senegal and Gambia, by approximately 5 million people.

My thesis is a cross-linguistic study on the semantic relations between conditionals, i.e. if-sentences, questions and coordinators like and and or. Previous research on language has shown that these concepts are somehow related, and in many of the world’s languages they can be expressed with the same or similar words, for example, the Wolof word for ‘or’ is mbaa, which also functions as a question particle.

“Cross-linguistic” means three languages that were distant enough, but which were also easy to work with: Wolof, because I already had some knowledge of it from my Bachelor’s thesis, Macedonian, because it is my native language, and Dutch, because I live and study in the Netherlands. As well as Senegal, I also did some fieldwork in Macedonia and in Leiden, but that is of course less exciting, because it basically entailed pestering friends and relatives.

So there I was with my recorder looking to catch people using conditionals, questions and sentences containing all kinds of conjunctions and disjunctions. I spent the first week processing the new environment I found myself in, making a schedule for my fieldwork, taking pictures of goats, and getting used to the mosquitoes. I met a lot of professors at UCAD, as well as students and their families, and other local people, who were all very kind and welcoming.

Since I was looking for particular language structures, I needed to find ways of prompting people to say the things I wanted them to say. I used an array of images and questions with my consultants, which included pictures I drew myself or collected from the internet, a set of videos I filmed with my mother in the lead role, word games, dilemma tales, topics for discussion, as well as various other language elicitation techniques available through the Max Planck Institute.

One of my self-made stimuli: a woman thinking whether to eat fish or chicken

The topics for discussion produced especially interesting results, as people sometimes started having heated discussions about polygamy or women’s rights while I was awkwardly sitting beside them with my recorder. Sometimes I just asked them to tell me stories. One consultant told me a joke about potatoes. We became good friends.

All in all, my visit was a great experience. I learned how to deal with typical fieldwork issues, like finding people to work with, finding a place that is not too noisy where you can record them and hoping your recording turned out to be usable. It is a really nice feeling to get first-hand data and feel that you have actually found out something interesting. Besides, it is very helpful to hear the language you are researching in context and know how it is used. I found subtle nuances in the language that have not been thoroughly described in the grammars thus far, such as the use of the emphatic particle de in questions, similar to the use of Dutch dan in a question such as Wat ga je doen dan?

I also learned how to adapt in a culture that is not my own, a skill that every linguist (or person) should probably have, though I sometimes failed miserably. Another thing I learned is that, just as the Dutch pride themselves on gezellig, the Wolof people also have one of those quirky untranslatable words that you could encounter as clickbait on your newsfeed: terànga, which roughly translates as ‘hospitality’.

In the end, I felt completely at ease riding in the car rapide: the colorful buses which are the go-to method of transport in Dakar. Finally, and maybe most importantly, I learned that goats look very cute when they are being bathed in the ocean.

The famous car rapide, a typical method of transport in Dakar

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