By Frieda Steurs, Secretary-General of CIPL
Jean Christophe Verstraete is a professor in the department of Linguistics of my alma mater, the KU Leuven (Belgium). He is also affiliated with the Australian National University as an Honorary Senior Lecturer and Affiliate at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language.
Because of corona we had made an online appointment for his interview.
FS: Would you please introduce yourself?
JCV: My name is Jean-Christophe Verstraete. I work at the University of Leuven, and I am also affiliated with the Australian National University. I studied Germanic Philology in Leuven. After my studies in theoretical linguistics, when I was doing my doctoral research with Kristin Davidse, I got to know William McGregor, who was in Leuven as a visiting professor. He became my co-supervisor. Nowadays he has an appointment at the Aarhus University in Denmark. During my postdoctoral period I decided to re-orient my work towards language typology and language documentation. I ended up studying the Australian aboriginal languages of Cape York Peninsula, in Australia’s northeast.
FS: Why the interest in Language Typology and Language Documentation?
JCV: My interest was piqued by a number of guest lectures by William McGregor. I was fascinated. This was a type of linguistics that was totally different from what I had been doing up to that point. I felt that I had only focused on theory, without being able to do the real groundwork. And what attracted me in the type of work he was talking about, is that you are obliged to tackle a language in its entirety. When a language is not very well-described, you have to look into all its aspects, from phonology to narrative structure, the complete spectrum. What appealed to me was the intellectual challenge, plus the feeling that this type of work can have a direct social impact. One is dealing with the heritage of a whole community, which is important not just to the elders but also the young people.
Nick Evans (then Melbourne University, now Australian National University) hosted me in Melbourne for postdoctoral research, and he got me in touch with Bruce Rigsby. And that’s how the ball started rolling. Bruce Rigsby (University of Queensland) is an anthropologist/linguist who has been working with the Lamalama since 1972 and who introduced me to them.
FS: What are the languages you are dealing with?
JCV: Umpithamu (Middle Paman < Paman < Pama-Nyungan) is the first language I studied and for which I have done the most fieldwork (resulting in, among other things, a dictionary with an historical comparative component, published in 2020). [More about this dictionary can be read in his interview with ABC; see the link below (FS).]
Apart from that there is Umbuygamu, Lamalama and Rimanggudinhma (Lamalamic < Paman < Pama-Nyungan): for these languages, I have done mostly phonological and historical-comparative work so far.
I also worked on archival materials on Yintyingka (Middle Paman < Paman < Pama-Nyungan), a sister language of Umpithamu. In 2015 I published a grammar and lexicon on this language, together with Bruce Rigsby.
FS: What part of your research appeals to you most?
JCV: The most fascinating thing about it is that I am constantly forced to do something new. My background from Leuven included good training in semantics and morphosyntax, but relatively little attention to phonetics, phonology or historical-comparative analysis. I started out working on morphosyntax, but because of the nature of the languages I was working with I was forced to deal with phonetics and phonology. The Lamalamic languages undergone significant phonetic changes, which I had to analyse if I really wanted to come to grips with them. That’s why I ended up doing historical-comparative research. It was quite new to me, but the evolution of these five different languages is quite intriguing. It appeals to me intellectually.
Apart from that, there is the social aspect of the work. The last elder I worked with passed away in 2014, but the work I did and am still doing has an ongoing impact. I try to return to the Lamalama community every year, just so they know what I’m working on, and usually there are things I can do for them too. A few years ago the Lamalama were busy putting up place-name signs and wanted to include traditional place-names, which I had documented in detail with the elders.
Another project we have taken on is the development of dictionary apps for smartphones. Traditional attempts to make lexical databases available had failed; paper versions were not sustainable, and PC-based versions did not work out because too few people own a computer or laptop. Smartphone versions, however, did work quite well, especially for the young people in the community! SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) had developed free software that made it possible to turn lexical databases into apps in a relatively simple way. I experimented with that a bit, and in the end we developed multimedia apps for all five languages. The multimedia aspect is particularly useful because sound recordings allow direct access to pronounciation: the practical orthography is not always transparent for people who are used to English spelling (which is notoriously irregular). Visual material was also included, with photographs of traditional objects, animals and plants. The social aspect of the work gives great satisfaction.
FS: During the Ebola crisis in Africa, all communication was in English at the beginning and the locals only really understood what they had to do when translators started to translate everything into the more than ninety local languages. Considering this, the importance of good communication in the original languages seems very great to me.
JVC: That’s right, at the beginning of the COVID pandemic there were great worries about the Aboriginal communities in Australia, especially because many elderly community members have underlying conditions. Ruth Singer, a colleague in Australia, led the development of a database for the various language communities, making available a lot of useful material.
FS: You took a course at SOAS’ Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP). Can you tell a bit more about that?
JVC: That’s right. I had received an ELDP grant for the documentation of Parman languages (together with a team of colleagues). As part of that grant you are entitled to training in documentation techniques at SOAS – aspects such as archiving, metadata, transcription software, working with audio and video etc. (taught by Peter Austin, David Nathan and colleagues). This was very useful, and because you receive the training together with other grantees of the same year, you also learn a lot from each other.
Our project was: Documentation of five Paman languages of Cape York Peninsula, Australia. Its aim was to document five highly endangered Paman languages of Cape York Peninsula (Australia), namely Kugu Muminh, Kuku Thaypan, Umbuygamu, Umpila and Wik Ngathan. There were five of us, of different generations (Bruce Rigsby, Peter Sutton, Alice Gaby, Clair Hill and me): we wanted to pool knowledge and resources to document these languages as thoroughly as possible with the last generation of speakers.
FS: You are teaching General linguistics in the Bachelor of Arts in Leuven, but also subjects like Language typology and universals, Language description and documentation and Phonetics and phonology, all in the master in Linguistics. Are you able to pass on your passion to students?
JVC : Yes, especially first-year and second-year students are quite surprised when they hear about this type of linguistic work. A few students become so intrigued that they really want to study the subject in detail. Some have written MA theses, and a few have gone on to do doctoral work, usually in typology but also in documentation.
FS: As an organisation that unites linguists from all over the world, what can CIPL do more to promote these linguistic disciplines? We send out newsletters, supply travel grants and support workshops.
JVC: I have no specific recommendations, but the main thing is to keep people interested in this type of research. I did not manage to attend ICL 20 in Capetown myself, but having linguists like Nick Evans deliver keynote talks is very inspiring. Supporting young people is also important, especially if they want to do fieldwork. Fieldwork is a courageous choice for a PhD topic; it takes a long time to obtain results, much longer than for the average PhD topic in linguistics.
Verstraete, J-C (2020) A Dictionary of Umpithamu, with notes on Middle Paman. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press. (xviii, 502 p.)
Verstraete, J-C & B Rigsby (2015) A Grammar and Lexicon of Yintyingka (Pacific Linguistics 648). Berlin: Mouton. (xiv, 414 p.)
PhD: 2002. Interpersonal grammar and clause combining in English. (Leuven, with co-supervisor in Aarhus); published as Verstraete, J-C (2007) Rethinking the Coordinate-Subordinate Dichotomy. Interpersonal Grammar and the Analysis of Adverbial Clauses in English (Topics in English Linguistics 55). Berlin: Mouton. (xvi, 321 p.)