Fieldwork snippet: What is the difference between these words?

Hello from the field! I’m currently on a five-week trip to Kawu in the beautiful Volta Region, eastern Ghana (see the picture to the right), hence the irregular posting schedule. In line with my main business here, I will share some notes on doing fieldwork.

MD
What about gligli?
SA
Gligli is ‘round’
MD
But what about minimini?
SA
Minimini is also round. Uh… when you say giligili, it is something like an oval form, oval… [Avoiding eye-contact, drawing an egg-like shape on the table]… uhuh… but minimini … is errrr…. round.

One thing I noticed during fieldwork sessions is that if pressed to explain the difference between two words, people choose one of three strategies. The first strategy (A) is to insist that the words are just the same, that there really is no difference. This strategy is the most common perhaps, but it is easily defeated by pointing to the fact that the words are clearly different, so that there must be some difference.1

The two remaining strategies are (B) making up a difference on the spot in the hope that I will faithfully write it down so that we can go on to the next item; and (C) honestly probing for the difference by imagining several different scenarios and trying out various utterances and gestures. The answers produced by those who follow strategy C are extremely valuable, because they provide lots of additional contextual information. This also makes it quite easy to distinguish strategies B and C; people following strategy B will be unnaturally quick in giving an answer and will not want to explain much more about it.

Note that it does not help to penalize assistants for using strategy B (e.g. by pointing out inconsistencies). They will only feel more uncomfortable. The best response is usually to do what they hope you will do: swiftly going on to the next item (don’t forget to leave a mark so that you can revisit the problem!). Smiling friendly and making clear that you are taking them seriously helps in restoring their peace of mind and will make strategy C more readily available to them.2

Unfortunately, there are no language-helpers who will only ever employ strategy C. When a session has been going on for long, or when it gets all too inquisitive, there is a tendency to switch to strategy B even among the most helpful and sharp assistants. Take for example the following exchange between me and SA, who is normally quite particular about giving the ‘right’ meaning of words:

MD
What about gligli?
SA
Gligli is ‘round’
MD
But what about minimini?
SA
Minimini is also round. Uh… when you say giligili, it is something like an oval form, oval… [Avoiding eye-contact, drawing an egg-like shape on the table]… uhuh… but minimini … is errrr…. round.
MD
But what about sɔdzɔlɔɔ? [sɔdzɔlɔɔ precisely describes the shape he was drawing on the table]
SA
Sɔdzɔlɔɔ… yeah, that it something like this [again draws egg-like shape on the table, avoids the word oval because he’s just used that for gligli]
MD
ikɔkɔɣɔ? [an egg?]
SA
uhuh, ikɔkɔɣɔikɔkɔɣɔ is sɔdzɔlɔɔ.

Here, SA does not take the time (or is not given the time) to think about the real difference between gligli and minimini. (The actual difference, as confirmed by several speakers independently, is roughly 2d versus 3d, or circular vs. spherical.) Upon being confronted with the need to differentiate, SA swiftly redefines gligli to mean ‘oval’, i.e. less perfectly circular than minimini. However, Siwu happens to have a word for being oval-shaped: sɔdzɔlɔɔ. Upon being reminded of this word, SA realizes he cannot use the term oval anymore but he does use the same gesture as when he redefined gligli. At that point I decide not to push the point and instead to go on with the next (totally unrelated) word in the list, hoping this will get him back on track with strategy C (which indeed it did, fortunately).

The point of all this is not that SA’s judgement cannot always be trusted. It is rather that the responsibility to be as considerate, polite, and patient as possible lies with me, as the person who apparently cares about differences that most people have never thought about, let alone articulated.

  1. Usually one does not say it as brusquely as that, because that would not work; rather, you say something like, ‘Yes, they are very similar indeed — but perhaps there is a very subtle difference; in fact, I have the feeling that there is. Try to think about the images these words evoke, and about the situations in which you can use these words. Then you can probably get a grip on the difference.’ []
  2. All this depends of course on how well you and the assistant know each other. To OK, my regular and most faithful assistant, I can simply say, “Think again. There is a difference.” Then he will lean back and say, “OK, I’m coming…”, and he will start trying out different utterances. Within one minute, he will usually have found a way to articulate the difference, together with some beautiful example sentences. []

2 thoughts on “Fieldwork snippet: What is the difference between these words?

  1. wonderful stuff; keep recording these sessions and filming peoples’ reactions to your questions, if you can.
    One problem, it seems to me, is that you are asking for the meaning of these (ideophonic?) words in what appears to be a list of ordinary vocabulary. In that context, people will laugh or shrug their shoulders, or evade the question, because you are making a huge leap in “speaking moods”, they are getting along with your prosaic vocabulary, and suddenly you spring up a surprise, an ideophone, so they laugh and cannot find a good prosaic translation.
    A better way would be to make it clear that you are some kind of strange person, only interested in these funny ideophonic “words”, and that you are not asking for a translation, just any kind of reaction they might have to YOUR saying this (out of context, obviously).
    Even that approach may not work.
    In Southeast Asia, some of my best guides finally tell me (after months of mental discomfort with straightforward questioning) is: just wait till the word “happens” in a spontaneous, gusty exchange, then I will say something about it (note: ABOUT it, not a spelling out of the “meaning”).
    Wishing you the best of luck, really.

  2. Dear Prof. Diffloth,

    Thank you for your helpful comments. In fact this was just one of many different types of sessions I did, and it was selected here not so much for its ideophonic content but rather because of the lessons for fieldwork drawn from it. It was a list of ideophones, though, not mixed with ordinary vocabulary (the egg only comes in because it is an example of the ideophone sɔdzɔlɔɔ). We went through the list and discussed the words in English. The goal here was primarily to see to what extent expressive vocabulary is shared (in Siwu, it is to a great extent) and whether I had got my preliminary notes on their semantics right.

    In other sessions, I had one or more participants enact and paraphrase ideophones I collected, very much as you say, as ‘some kind of strange person interested in these funny words’. Given the right type of guide (and the right type of atmosphere!), that method was really successful, with speakers gesturing, sketching situations, and using other ideophones and verbal paraphrases to clarify ideophones.

    Apart from planned sessions, I also captured ideophones in the wild in spontaneous conversations — a difficult but rewarding task.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *