Monday, 24 June 2013

Yu's on First

No matter how clearly we think we've written something, we've all had someone who's read our email, our essay, our simple message and come back with a completely different reading than we intended.  The miscommunication, the multiple interpretations come at the semantic level in my experience, the result of a disagreement on degree or connotation or tone.

Similarly, we've all misheard things.  "Have I got cat spies?" "No. Have you got a half size?"  Ah.  Our brain fills in as best it can around the morphemes it missed even though we know what we came up isn't semantically solid.

Here in Gulu, I can only describe the mode of misunderstanding as feeling a bit like a hybrid of these two-- on the one hand, the problem I'm seeing happens between writer and reader, but on the other hand, the nature of the problem isn't as much semantic as it is denotative. 

In my experiment, I ask participants to fill in one of two surveys in Acholi. (surveys designed with native speakers)  I was prepared for the semantic level misunderstandings surrounding some questions, but I was not prepared to have denotative deviation, something along the lines of my writing the word 'carrot' in English and having someone interpret it as 'marble.'  That's basically what has been happening, a dispute at the foundational level of word meaning.  I'll give a second example in case that wasn't clear.

I throw the ball.  (what is written on the page)
I throw the fight. (what you, a native speaker of this language understand from what you've read)

I've never had this kind of misunderstanding before.   

Not every participant has the same misinterpretations, so it's not a mistake, typo, or spelling variation.  I don't entirely have an explanation yet, but in one instance a participant will give me a lecture about the inaccuracy of my survey to have included such a bizarre term and in the following session the individual sees no problem.

I understood from my research and from other linguistic environments, that with an oral language, meaning is tied to listening and speaking.  This experiment brought this process into relief for me as a native speaker of a chirographic language because I was able watch the meaning mechanism weaken on the page, dissolve without the context of sound.  In the short-form writing mandated by mobile applications, meaning becomes fuzzy, unpredictable, contestable. (I wrote about the 6 meanings of gwok in a previous post.  Coo has 9)

One of the series of questions I asked participants before we began the experiment was about language use in daily life, at work, and with their mobile device.  Did they mostly talk on their phones, talk and text, how did they use their phone?  Most respondents were college educated.  Many were multilingual.  The most common answer to, 'How do you use your phone?' was that they rarely texted or not at all.  They preferred to call even though texting is cheaper.  Everyone texted in English.  And they told me this with a tone that said this was a foolish question.  A few later added that they could mix languages to joke with friends in Acholi, or they can send a text to their grandmother in the village who does not speak English.  I have no quantitative data to look at how frequently this happens.  There are other studies which look at the frequency and context of language mixing.  A participant from a micro-finance organization described why he used English to text:
“We wish to text in Luo, wish to maybe send voice mails in Luo, but [the mobile phone] has been invented in another country, so in English we have to now do that. [me: Why couldn’t you text in Luo?]  In Luo?  It is not easy. You know our language is very short. chuch chuch chuch [noise of texting action].  So to formulate is not easy.”
He was describing the problem of the misunderstanding I had encountered.  It is avoided in speech because Achoil (sometimes called Luo) uses a lot of repetition as well as intonation to convey meaning.  This kind of thing isn't easily adapted to mobile applications where the design focus is on minimalism and streamlining of interface text.

Have now wrapped up my three months in Gulu with transcriptions and translations mostly completed.  On to data analysis.  Will be sharing first impression from the field at Africa Writes, July 5th at the British Library. 

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