Issue 8 |

Bridge linguistics: An interview with Siri Tuttle

by on September 20, 2016

Kevin Martens Wong spoke to Siri Tuttle on the sidelines of the 2016 Institute for Collaborative Language Research (CoLang 2016) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). Siri is Associate Professor in Linguistics at UAF, Director of the Alaska Native Language Archive (ANLA), and Co-Director of CoLang 2016 alongside Alice Taff.


How did you end up in linguistics?

I found out about linguistics when I was an undergraduate in the 1970s. It actually wasn’t an undergraduate subject at the time. But I liked languages and I had done some stuff with languages, so I begged my way into classes at the University of Utah. I got the chance to do a beginner class and a couple of others, including a seminar on generative phonology, which was very new at the time, and something on Medieval Latin. But I didn’t continue to graduate school right after I finished college; I stopped and had kids and did stuff like that for about twelve years.

When I went back to school I had to think about what I would want to do — and I had done some things while I was being a mom that were a lot of fun. I learnt scientific illustration, for example: I did some illustrations for books having to do with sea life and tank labels for the Seattle Aquarium, and I enjoyed teaching drawing to kids. So I thought about going to art school. But when I investigated it seemed like illustration was not considered art at that time (laughs). So instead, I submitted an application to the graduate Linguistics program at the University of Washington.

It was a good choice because linguistics is kind of an open subject. There are a lot of different parts to it, and no matter how hard you need your work to be, you can find something that will challenge you (laughs). It’s never going to be boring.

And how did you end up doing language documentation?

As I was finding my way to something I really wanted to study, I had some experiences with reading articles about indigenous languages. At this particular time in the early ‘90s, there was a trope in academic writing where people would take a theoretical premise and test it against a language that was under documentation. After that they would then turn the argument in question around and say, “Because of these facts I discovered in Language X, this theory is broken!” I have to say, it was quite enjoyable to see the theoretical claims broken by counterexamples.

So I started at that fairly shallow level thinking documentation would be fun, because I enjoyed finding those counterexamples. But then, documentation itself is really interesting. When you start investigating facts you start finding out that it’s not so easy to state a generalization. There are different things to find out and it’s worth trying to find them out and write about them in a sensitive way. Description is challenging at every level.

Why did you decide to get involved in the Lower Tanana and Ahtna languages in particular?

This had to do with some articles that I’d read on Athabascan languages. These articles raised questions about the role that stress could play in the organization of words. I looked for descriptions and didn’t find much on stress; more research had been done on tonal systems. I thought, the only way to figure out what was going on was to study an Athabascan language that doesn’t have tone, because tone is going to mess up metrics and I’m not smart enough to figure that out yet. So I decided to find a language that didn’t have tone, study its stress system, and see if there was anything that was metrical.

I started with Tolowa, which turned out to be much more complicated than I thought it would be, and also very difficult to investigate because it had so few speakers; but I did end up doing my Master’s thesis on it. And then I got the chance to come up here [to Alaska] and work with James Kari on the Salcha dialect of Tanana, which had been certified non-tonal. Yay. So I had my non-tonal language, and I could see if its stress system had metrics. There was just one speaker left of this dialect, and very little recording of anyone else, so I got a little bit of money and spent three months working with her every day.

Unfortunately, this speaker passed away two years into the project, and I was not done with the dissertation, so I expanded it to include the Minto dialect, which does have tone. Then it got more interesting, because I was ready to think about the tone and stress relationship, and how intonation played into it. The metrics part of it — I think that looking back on it, even though I was able to describe things metrically, you could also describe them without metrics. There’s no requirement to think about metrical structure — it’s just one way of describing it. Saying the facts are consistent with the theory is completely different from saying the facts require this theory.

And from there you moved into doing dictionaries with these two language communities?

What happened after I graduated was that I was invited to UCLA to do a postdoc with Peter Ladafoged, and I was one of the last people to get the chance to do that. He had already retired, but he still had this grant-funded program that had gone on for a long time. In this program, they were training non-phoneticians to do phonetic work. This was great for me because I had formally studied phonology but not phonetics, and I needed to do phonetics in my dissertation work, which was hard. So working with him in the lab was a great experience. During that time I did some phonetic work on Navajo, Apache and Tewa.

So as you know you go through these courses of study, and sooner or later you get a job or you move out of academics. And just at the point where I was making that decision the job came up here and I knew everybody here, I had done all this research on Tanana, and they knew me, and it wasn’t the first time I had applied for a job there. I was like, well I’ll try again, and this time it worked. And once I was here, I learnt that, it’s not like you can just start a phonetics lab and do that all the time, you have to do stuff that people want you to do. And so making the dictionary, that was something the Tanana-speaking community requested, so I did one.

Now what I’m doing is I’m working with story collections and a database that involves sentences and pieces of stories. This project combines some of the structure of a corpus with some of the structure of a grammar. What we want to do is to have a bunch of texts, and we want to have it explained, so that linguists can look at it and understand what we think it is. But we also want it to be usable by people who are not linguists. These are things that people need in order to learn languages. And that’s the big challenge, because most people look at Athabascan linguistic writing and go, oh gee. You want them to be able to decipher stuff. You want them to be able to look at a story and find something that can help people learn.

What’s it like being director of the ANLA?

It’s really fun. I love this collection and I’ve been involved with it for a long time. And now that it exists in two forms, digitally and physically, there are new problems to solve. But some of the same, earlier problems are still there to work on. I’m really enjoying interacting with it and with the people who want to work with it.

What are some of those problems?

The first thing is figuring out which ones have to be prioritized. My main challenge is I don’t have any paid staff — I actually have to raise money to pay the staff. So my first challenge is to raise money, and my strategy with that is to raise it in such a way that I’m also getting benefits for students at UAF and preferentially indigenous students who would be related to the people who put the stuff into the Archive in the first place. For example, I have succeeded in getting funding for one of the graduate students who will come through in the Fall — she’s from Minto, somebody who’s actually been coming in here on her own and spending time listening to stuff every Friday afternoon for almost a year. So I know she wants to do it.

There’s a lot of cataloging, fixing, straightening and organizing for the physical objects that needs to be done. And all that means relating the digital catalogue to the physical objects. And it takes a lot of time. It’s best done by people who are very interested in this subject. I’m hoping to find people who are interested in particular parts of the collection and would like to work with them, perhaps creating funded projects for the purpose.

What kind of role do you see the archive playing in the future?

Well, for most of the indigenous languages of Alaska, it’s going to be relied on more and more. What is present in the archive is increasingly all there is to know about each language. And that’s a scary, sad thought, but it’s true, so I think the future of it is in developing better and better outreach, including the creation of bridge linguistics to help people use what’s here.

That’s what I call it, bridge linguistics. I’m thinking of things like my pocket dictionary for Minto: that was a bridge project where I was trying to make something that people would find usable, with the right amount of information but presented in such a way that people wouldn’t reject it or find it too difficult to get into. Some of the things about that publication surprised me. For instance, one of the things that people insisted was that no word should be taken apart. Everything in there should be a whole word. Okay, how do I do that? Well, you show different forms of words, and you don’t push it too much, because you can only have so many words in a little booklet. And in fact, nobody has ever complained about that, and they do look things up in it, and they find things. And that seems to have worked.

I have a couple of other projects; I made a companion book to the Ahtna dictionry that tries to explain in simpler and more approachable terms how to look things up, and how to deal with what you find in a stem-based dictionary. And that’s been used quite a bit. Those are the kinds of things that are really sort of traditional examples because they’re books. We need more of that. We need linguists to think about how do you take that stuff you’re reading and make it something that a non-linguist, a teacher could use, and feel validated and supported by instead of intimidated or insulted. That’s a real trick.

Do you see the field moving towards more of this?

Yeah, I do. I’m happy to say that I think some of the applied linguists are starting to understand what’s required at this level. We really need those applied linguists. They know how to teach languages. But until recently I hadn’t seen them thinking about actually relating linguistics to pedagogy in a really direct way. Pedagogy itself is so interesting, there are so many sides to it, relating the form of language to it, it’s a big step. But I am starting to see some of it. So I’m hoping that might be another place where we might build a bridge between documentation and pedagogical application. All about bridges! (laughs)

Why did you decide to be involved in CoLang?

The answer for all of us on the committee is that it’s a really interesting thing to do and a high profile institute, and given the opportunity we went for it! (laughs) ANLC was a very good fit for CoLang, because ANLC linguists have been working in and with communities for decades. Good language documentation requires listening to people who know things you don’t know. We know this, and we also know that every community where a minority language is spoken will present different challenges, so bringing language workers together can only enrich our understanding of the possibilities for challenge and innovation.

How did you decide on the types of workshops to be offered?

There are two types of workshops that go into our CoLang. We observed from the preceding Institutes that there was a core group of people who originated the idea of having this Institute. We invited the core group to choose the workshops they would like to offer. This core commitment filled half the slots for workshops; we sent out a call requesting proposals for the other half.

We got a really serious number of proposals, and so we had to do some really careful consideration to decide which ones we wanted to use. But there was a lot of interest, because the institute had been gradually growing and the last CoLang, in Arlington [in 2014] was very, very well-publicised and positive. So there was a lot of good feeling about the institute when we started, and we rode on that to get all those good proposals.

Another thing we were able to do because we started thinking about this so early is that three of us presented workshops at [CoLang] 2014, and we were invited to do that — Colleen [Fitzgerald] made a plan for us to do that — so that we could find out more about the structure. We learned a great deal from being able to attend CoLang 2014, and it made our development process much easier.

How did you decide on the three practicum languages to be offered?

These are the three biggest volunteer commitments that you have to ask for, because they’re so long. And at first I just had no idea. But in 2013 or 2014 at the annual Linguistic Society of America meeting, I had dinner with Willem [de Reuse], and I asked him if he’d be willing to do one of them with Hän, and he said yes. And that was great. And I presented that idea to our committee when we got together again, and that was when Anna [Berge] said, I’d like to do one on Unangam Tunuu, that brings the fieldwork back into the archives and deals with the cycle of archival work, and also with the problem of working with a very, very, very fragile language like Unangam Tunuu. I thought that was a great idea and I supported that. And the third, I don’t remember how we first heard that Toshi and Yoshi were interested in Miyako, but it came through pretty early. We had that all settled a year ago.

The Unangam Tunuu practicum is different, because of the focus on archival study, but I’ve also experienced working a lot with archival material. Even when I was doing my dissertation, I was interested in prosody, and I had to go back into older recordings and learn what the language sounded like when it was spoken more. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and in the world to come, we’re going to have more and more languages that are situated between a living community and an archive space like Unangam Tunuu. It’s not an easy place to be but it’s a very interesting place to be. It’s a new frontier.

What kind of challenges have you had running CoLang on the ground?

I would say that a lot of them were things that I had anticipated, and some I wasn’t thinking about — but I always know there’s going to be something unexpected. There are different sides to having people come and do the institute: there’s the basic food, housing, transportation, access, and you have to deal with that. Remembering  that everybody has to eat all the time, and also reminding people that the campus isn’t the only place to eat and of course you should leave campus and discover where else there is to eat. So those kinds of design issues.  When a large group of people come to stay on your campus you are in the hospitality business! Florie [Wilcoxson] at [UAF] Summer Sessions has been our hospitality guru and we have depended on her utterly.

There are many other kinds of challenges — did a participant bring the wrong kind of computer? Is a workshop working the way the presenters intended? Does the tech in the classroom work? Are the t-shirts done yet? Is it going to rain on the day we plan to go on the riverboat? We’ve tried to stay on top of everything, and it’s a day-to-day experience.

How did you guys pick participants to come?

We very deliberately chose to do a couple of things. We wanted to choose our class of people, which was a departure from previous practice. Previously they just opened registration and let people register until they had their quota. And we didn’t really wanna do that, and there were two reasons. One was that we thought it would be more interesting if we had a higher percentage of people who came from communities and non-linguistic backgrounds. And the other was we got money from the tribal college and universities program, which is specifically targeted for the STEM training of people from indigenous communities. And so if we’re going to have that money we need to show that we have a balance and that we’re actually contributing to the development of those people. Personally I just thought the more we mix it up the more interesting it’d be.

So what we did was we asked for applications, and then we told people and told people and told people to put their applications in. And we got a lot of applications by the due date, which was in January, and then we opened the possibility for enrollment. And what we found was that probably less than half the people who had applied actually enrolled, and were accepted. And we accepted people based on preferences — each of us had a list of people who had applied with all kinds of information about them, and we rated people according to how much we wanted them to come. For example, there were a few graduate student types who were at some kind of theoretical university that I picked and said “Yeah, I really want that one”. But mostly, I went for the non-linguists, because those people are doing language work that is outside the university, and they’re going to bring that new perspective. We ended up with about thirty percent non-academic people in our first round, and I was very happy with that. I think we ended up with a little more than that at the end because in our second and third rounds of acceptance we got more people who didn’t decide until later that they were going to come, or didn’t know until later that they had enough money, or whatever.

What do you think are some of the great successes of this CoLang?

I’m really happy with the way the practica are going. It seems like everyone’s really engaged. Our instructors must be doing something right! They must be finding a way to include the different ways of approaching this problem. It’s darn tricky.

I know Willem is working awful hard, for example, because there are twenty people in his Hän group who are all really completely different and want different things. I really think he’s doing a great job. For the Miyako group there are people in there who don’t know any Japanese. And they’ve got two Japanese-speaking teachers and Mr Nakama who really doesn’t do much with English, and it’s pretty awesome that they’re finding a way to make that work. And for Unangam Tunuu, Anna and Moses are a fantastic team.

What do you hope to see at future versions of CoLang?

I want to see people do it with the same kind of freedom to be themselves. The structure of CoLang is unusual. The Advisory Circle, which local organizers depend on for guidance,  doesn’t micromanage. It allows the individual organisers to work from CoLang’s principles and develop some piece of the institute that maybe hadn’t been so prominent before. So I just hope the new organisers take the initiative and build what they want to build. And they are not going to be working in a vacuum because this institute has a history and a body of people that remember what was important to them about it.

Do you have anything to say to this year’s CoLang participants?

Oh, thank you! I would say thank you to all of them, because this doesn’t happen without everybody. That’s why I made a thank you slide with the name of every single participant. Because all those presenters — what would happen to them if they came to CoLang and all they saw there was an empty room?

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