Monday, August 1, 2011

Staples, Sharpies, and Flashdrives

I looked down at my evaluation. Very good, the words scrambled across the page, but be sure to include the English glosses after each word when you record your lists.

Why? I thought to myself. I have the English words in a corresponding list in my data notebook—why take the time to record the English along with the Marathi words as well?

The next day in class, I found out. “Make sure that everything is clearly documented and so that in case you die or something drastic happens, someone else can use the work.”

In case you die?
Composition notebooks are, in fact, sewn, not stapled

Throughout the summer, the theme only continued. We use notebooks that are sewn rather than stapled (staples rust and stain), writing with pens that use indelible ink (so that it won’t smear if it falls out of the canoe and into the river). Our notes stay on the right side of the page, spaced four lines apart (so everything remains entirely legible) and cited against all other available data such that it eventually resembles the Encyclopedia Britannica. Data is backed up on a regular schedule and cross–checked and cross-stored until the most paranoid bank manager or CIA official would be satisfied.

“Pull out #612.” My professor eyes the class as we begin shuffling through our 500 handouts. “Quickly, quickly! If you haven’t found it by now, you aren’t organized!”

Organized. Neat. Well-documented. Archived. These are not themes that are found in every Introduction to Chemistry or Non-Western Contemporary Literature classroom, and yet here grades rise and fall depending on the method of labeling audio recordings. You have an obligation to share, to publish, they say, to be diligent in preservation. The finely-honed knowledge stored in our heads about a how a dialect works is not our exclusive musing, meant only to be pulled out in an armchair on a snowy evening. The loss of an analysis due to a fried hard-drive in which years of personal labor have been invested is not merely my own private agony. The choice to shelve irreplaceable data because of a miserly notion that I must hammer out every single detail in personal perfection is not mine to make.

It’s not my language. It’s not my data. It’s theirs.  It’s the world’s.

After all, in the beginning was the Word. In the beginning there was language—a medium for communication. A medium for building relationships. Linguistics is about people, not data. Communities, not vowel clusters.

Tainae. Gabri.  Awara. My notebooks are stuffed full of language names that hold only cursory meaning for me, but are the crux of identity for a small group of people in the Amazon rainforest or Chaddian desert. That complex verb conjugation I barely understand? It’s spoken effortlessly from an Asian cradle and wielded as a powerful tool in order to love, hurt, do business, and praise the Lord. These are no mere symbols on a page.

In the beginning, God could have named Himself as anything. But He chose the Word.

And that, if anything, ought to make me want to back up these words on a few more flash-drives.