Thing-a-day #1: Place reference coding

What is linguistics? What do grad students do all day? In an attempt to pull back the curtain a little (and to give myself an excuse to blog more), I’m going to blog a thing a day for the month of April. The “thing” isn’t the blog post itself, but a thing that I made as a part of my linguistics work / grad student responsibilities. I’ll write a post explaining to you all what I did and hopefully giving some idea of why it’s interesting.

I may give myself weekends off.

Today I’m working on a task for my research assistantship, which involves working with a set of about 40 videos taken among speakers of a Zapotec language in Santa María de Lachixío, Oaxaca, Mexico. The research is based on a functional, multimodal theory of communication. That is, language is analyzed not as a formal system for encoding propositional meaning, but as a tool for accomplishing social actions; and it’s just one (although arguably the most important) among many such tools, including also gesture, body positioning, eye gaze, etc.

Currently we’re taking a microanalytic approach in which the project’s principal investigator identifies a specific kind of social action such as offer, request, or question, and we go through a video to identify specific instances of it. I’m working with a video that has a transcription in Zapotec and translation into Spanish, which is critical for me because I don’t understand Zapotec, and my assigned social action is place reference: how do people refer to locations in space?

I’m working on my second video. In the first one, all of the place references referred to geographic locations such as in Oaxaca City, in front of the pharmacy, in the shade, or over there. But this second one includes an extended sequence of a guy complaining about an injury, which includes anatomical “place” references such as the part where it [i.e. his torso] bends. Since he hurt himself pulling a bicycle out of a ditch, there are also “place” references referring to parts of the bicycle, such as I had one hand on the handlebar and another in the middle. (In Zapotec it’s common to use parts of the body as metaphors for any place reference, so “I had one hand on the handlebar” is literally expressed as “I grabbed it by its nose.”)

In the first video I developed a coding scheme where place references could be tagged in a variety of different ways, such as “place name” for Oaxaca City, “location description” for in front of the pharmacy, or “deictic” for over there. Working on the second video I thought I was going to need a new code for anatomical and another new code for part of an object, but then I realized that the same distinctions I identified for geography still apply: where it bends is anatomical, yes, but it’s also a functional description like the place where I tied up my donkey. So now I’m tagging each place reference twice: once for type (place name, description, etc.) and once for metaphor (geographical, anatomical, etc.).

So why is this interesting? As I see it, there are functional aspects such as the use of anatomical metaphors for any place reference, which shows something interesting and different about Zapotec culture. There are also multimodal aspects such as the kind of pointing and gesturing that might be used with different classes of place reference. And then there are comparative aspects, where we do all this analysis and then compare notes with other researchers who are working on place reference in different cultures.

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