Poisonous Newts and African Linguistics

At the end of spring break, I went to the 46th Annual Conference on African Linguistics (ACAL) at the University of Oregon with most of my Field Methods class. We were all presenting papers on Maragoli, a Luyia Bantu language of western Kenya also known as Logoori, among other names. (In fact, between our six talks, we managed to use four different names for the language, even though we had all gotten our data from the same speaker.) It was my first time presenting at a linguistics conference.

I flew from Los Angeles to Eugene on a little plane. To reach our gate at LAX, passengers on my flight had to take a shuttle to what felt like an outpost of the airport. The shuttle drove on the same thoroughfares as gigantic airplanes, which was both weird and interesting. During the flight, I saw an isolated mountain liberally heaped with snow that I think was Mt. Shasta.

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This is the only thing I photographed on my trip, soon after I arrived on campus in Eugene.

I arrived in Eugene and made my way to the campus of the University of Oregon, which was picturesque and wonderfully green. It felt like it was properly spring there, what with the daffodils, tulips, grape hyacinth, and hellebores. I made some notes on my talk handout and met up with one of my classmates. After registering for the conference at the Linguistics Department, we explored Eugene on foot. It seems like a really nice town.

That evening, I met up with our Field Methods professor, who had driven down from Portland with a Nigerian scholar she’d picked up at the airport. I met the Nigerian linguist, who was going to be in the same session as me, and then my professor and I went off to borrow camping equipment. In the spirit of spring break, we were making a camping trip out of ACAL.

That night, we camped by Hult Reservoir on Bureau of Land Management land. We drove there in the dark, and just looking up through the window of the car I saw more stars in one night’s sky than I’ve seen in the entire time I’ve lived in LA. We heard frogs croaking by the side of the road, and sometimes we drove through fog. Once at the campground, we set up our tents near the reservoir and went to bed.

In the morning, I went down to the reservoir. It was in a bowl formed by steep hills, and the bowl was filled with thick fog, so that I could only see a little ways out across the water. I spoke briefly to a fisherman on the shore and then crouched at the edge of the water and dipped my hands in. The water was clear and cold. I saw what I thought were newts swimming in the shallow water. (Indeed, later research suggested these were rough-skinned newts, which are highly toxic, but only if you eat them. An Oregon man once swallowed a 20-cm long (!) specimen on a dare and died. Another Oregon man once ate five of these newts and survived, though not without medical treatment. I think the moral of the story is clear.)

We broke camp and headed back to Eugene for the first day of the conference. I spent a good deal of the day in the Luyia tone workshop, trying to absorb reams of tonal pattern data. I also attended two of my classmates’ talks and met various linguists, including Famous Linguist #1, who was cited a couple of times in my talk, and Famous Linguist #2, several of whose Bantu problem sets I shepherded my Phonology I students through last fall. We also got to meet other linguists working on Luyia languages like Maragoli.

I’d hoped to make it to the Eugene Sacred Harp singers’ singing, which was fortuitously the Thursday I was in town, but alas, it was not to be. Instead, my professor, another classmate, and I headed to our next campground, Hobo Camp, which is along Brice Creek in the Umpqua National Forest. Our professor made hot chocolate and oatmeal on the camp stove, and then we retired, falling asleep to the sound of the creek rushing in its bed.

The morning drives back to campus were the most beautiful parts of the trip. We’d follow somewhat winding roads through forested hills and past little houses with smoke coming out of their chimneys. We saw old covered bridges and handfuls of sheep, horses, cows, goats, and even an alpaca. Wisps of cloud would be hanging so low you felt like you could reach up and snatch them down.

Friday was the day of my talk. I went to the phonology session in the morning and then skipped out on the next to make final preparations. My session was after lunch and was chaired by someone who just graduated from UCLA last year. Unfortunately, it was also concurrent with the session that my professor and two other classmates were presenting in. Famous Linguist #2 had asked me earlier why the organizers had scheduled two Maragoli talks simultaneously and then told me he was coming to mine. He was indeed there, though Famous Linguist #1, somewhat to my relief, was not. The talk went well, attendees asked me questions, but not aggressive ones, and then I was done!

The conference banquet was that evening. By then, our consultant, to whom we owed all our research, had arrived from LA. The meal was supposed to be African-themed, and there was this spicy peanut stew with chicken that I thought was pretty tasty, but by the time my table was called up to take food, they had run out of rice. Tragedy! (Eventually there was more rice.) This being Oregon, there was marionberry crisp for dessert. There was also post-dinner entertainment by a marimba ensemble playing Zimbabwean music. My tastes in music have a distinct tendency to run towards doom and gloom, but this was infectiously happy music, and I really liked some of the pieces. Some people got up and danced.

The following day, my classmate and fellow camper, our Field Methods consultant, and I flew out of Eugene on the same flight. I saw Mt. Shasta from the air again, and then it was back to LA and school.

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3 thoughts on “Poisonous Newts and African Linguistics

  1. The plant you photographed is probably Pieris floribunda; the red new foliage is always eye-catching. We used to have P. japonica in our garden in Silver Spring.

  2. This sounds really fun, and kind of badass! Camping instead of staying in a hotel for a conference! I’ll have to try that next time. I passed through Eugene briefly on my way up to LSA this past January, and it really is nice! It’s like a mini-Berkeley. And the fog was indeed incredible. Too bad you didn’t take anymore photos… And congratulations on giving your first conference talk! 🙂

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