NCP scholar finds inspiration in links between Indigenous Gamilaraay and Japanese language dialects

29 January 2018

The linguistics program at ANU provides students with valuable skills in analytical reasoning, problem solving, critical thinking, and effective communication, in addition to numerous study opportunities including exchange with international partner institutions. We caught up with passionate linguist, Bachelor of Philosophy student, and New Colombo Plan scholarship recipient Bonnie McLean to hear what keeps her “buzzing” through her linguistics journey at ANU.

What got you into studying languages?

Linguistics was something I fell into. I took Introduction to the Study of Language in my first year and had an excellent lecturer. Actually all of the linguistics lecturers at ANU are excellent, but I enjoyed that course immensely. In high school I was a little unusual in that I took both high level mathematics and English. Linguistics allowed me to combine my love of problem solving with my passion for languages; it was a perfect match!

What are some of the opportunities you’ve taken advantage of as a Linguistics student at ANU?

Studying linguistics and Japanese has taken me to incredible places. At the moment, I have my feet in two worlds as I am involved with both Japanese and Australian linguistics. Some highlights have been my involvement with the revitalisation and documentation of Gamilaraay, an Indigenous language of north central NSW; an internship at a language centre in Tennant Creek (NT), working with speakers of Warumungu and Warlmanpa languages; a language documentation workshop on the island of Miyako in Okinawa; and from there, a language documentation and revitalisation conference in Alaska, where I also (oddly enough) worked with a speaker of Miyako.

Right now, I am interning at the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics in Tokyo, working on the collection of data for my honours project while also studying Japanese at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.

A major component of the PhB program is an individual research project. What have you chosen to research and what led you to pursue it?

My research project looks at variation in sound symbolic words, so words like “whizz”, “bang” and “boom”, across different varieties of Japanese. These words are also known as ideophones, and are very prominent in the Japanese lexicon, adding colour and richness to everyday language.

I became interested in them through learning Japanese, attracted by their playfulness and expressive power. They are also very interesting to linguists because they break what was once considered a fundamental property of language; the arbitrary relationship between the form and meaning of words.

I am interested in how this property of ideophones affects the way they vary across time and space, including whether or not they follow the same patterns as other words. To investigate this, I am conducting a survey with standard Japanese speakers and with dialect speakers in the north of Japan, the Kansai region and Okinawa.

My survey does not explicitly ask about ideophones, but instead presents speakers with a range of different sensory stimuli (auditory stimuli, visual stimuli, tactile stimuli and even taste and smell stimuli) and asks them to describe the sound, taste, smell, feeling, etc. in the language they speak at home. As ideophones depict sensory imagery, many of the stimuli elicit ideophones, but it is interesting to see the variation in how people in different parts of Japan and of different ages and genders describe these stimuli, including both whether they use ideophones and what kinds of ideophones they use.

In the future, I would like to continue my research on ideophones, but adding an Australian perspective. This will be more difficult, as ideophones in Indigenous Australian languages are less well described. However, documentation of ideophones in Indigenous Australian languages is very important to our understanding of this phenomenon from a global, typological perspective.

What has been the highlight of your experience in Japan so far?

A real highlight of my time here has been learning Japanese Sign Language (JSL). The course was offered at my university during my first semester of exchange, and I loved it so much that together with another friend we’ve continued the classes outside of university. I’m constantly looking back on conversations I’ve had in JSL in sheer amazement that somehow I know all these things about my conversation partner’s life, and they know all these things about me, but I have no idea how we managed to communicate any of it to each other! I think most of it must come from them rather than me. Speakers of sign languages are the most amazing communicators, and I’ve learnt so much about communication in general through learning JSL and hanging out with speakers of JSL. It’s a world few hearing people get to see, and I feel incredibly lucky to have been allowed a glimpse of it.

What are your plans post-NCP?

I will return to Australia to write my honours thesis, and after that I’d like to apply for a PhD in the Netherlands studying ideophones in Indigenous Australian languages. I’m trying to understand them from as many different perspectives as I can.

Any advice to people who love languages and linguistics?

Seek out as many opportunities for practical experience working with people and languages as you can. You’d be surprised how far you can get just by asking.


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