Adventures and African Linguistics in Bloomington

For the third year running, I spent the end of my spring break at the Annual Conference on African Linguistics, which was held at Indiana University in Bloomington this year (previously I’d gone to the University of Oregon and Berkeley). Leading up to my trip, I was unknowingly checking the weather for Bloomington, Idaho instead of Bloomington, Indiana, so I was excited to potentially see some snowflakes until I realized my mistake. It did not snow in Indiana (it hailed!), but I did get a dose of proper spring: daffodils, tulips, hyacinth, irises, grape hyacinth, redbud, forsythia, all manner of other flowering trees, and burgundy peony shoots, against a backdrop of mostly leafless trees and mostly gray skies. Plus robins and cardinals!

By now, ACAL feels a bit like a reunion. I gave a talk on tonal alternations in compounds in Efik, a language of southeastern Nigeria I worked on in my second round of Field Methods at UCLA. I also went to several talks that at least touched on Maragoli, my first UCLA Field Methods language and the language I presented on at my last two ACALs. There’s always such an interesting variety of talks at this conference, from “Common Plant Names in South Nilotic Akie” to “Monsters in Dhaasanac and Somali” (where monster is a technical term). There are also always wonderful examples and glosses; for instance, I learned that in Maniŋgaxaŋ (if I got the name of the language right) the compound formed by the words ‘tapeworm’ and ‘person’ means ‘public nuisance.’

I also took the time to explore Bloomington. I didn’t arrive with any expectations, but it turned out to be a lovely college town with nice coffeeshops, interesting cuisine (I had kham amdo thugpa, a Tibetan stew with homemade noodles, and lahmacun at various conference meals), and, best of all, bookstores! On Saturday morning, after the plenary on Luyia tone, I set out on my bookcentric itinerary. I first took a look in the university bookstore. Then I started walking west toward downtown. I stopped at the Monroe County Public Library, which turned out to be having a book sale! There was quite a large selection of former library books. I found some old, probably out-of-print children’s books and some French works, but I didn’t buy anything.

In the middle of downtown Bloomington is a square in the middle of which sits the handsome county courthouse. On the first morning of the conference, when two of my UCLA colleagues and I walked to campus, I’d noticed two bookstores within a few doors of each other on the eastern side of this square and made a mental note to return. After the library book sale, though, I first checked out the farmers market we’d seen from a distance on our way in on Saturday morning.

It was April 1st, and it may have been the first market of the season. I was surprised by the number of produce vendors. There were potatoes, fennel, mustard greens, and other vegetables, as well as eggs, meats, goat cheese, soaps, seedlings, cut flowers, and pussywillow branches! A guitar/fiddle duo was playing old-time tunes at the edge of the market. Their instruments were attached by strings to two free-standing puppets that were also playing the guitar and the fiddle, respectively, so that when the musicians played the puppets played too. In the other section of the market, there were vendors selling beer, kombucha, tacos, pizza, coffee, and pastries. And nearby there was a man with a large red, blue, and green parrot.

I returned to the courthouse square and walked first into Caveat Emptor: Used and Rare Books. It reminded me a little of Alias Books, but it was bigger. Behind the deceptively small storefront was a very deep shop. The lefthand wall was covered in bookshelves from floor to ceiling, with several rolling ladders for reaching the upper shelves. The selection was huge, with sections for everything from botany to women’s studies. I lingered over the Francophone African literature before moving on to the back of the store, where there were half a dozen or more small rooms housing children’s books, poetry, drama, science fiction and fantasy, psychology, foreign languages, and so on.

Caveat Emptor

Making my way back to the front of the shop, I found the music section. There were miniature scores of orchestral and choral works of the kind I used to shelve at the Swarthmore music library. And on the floor there were a few crates of music, which I started to go through with some care. I eventually found David Popper’s “Wie einst in schöner’n Tagen”, a piece I have played and may or may not already have the music to somewhere. This version was printed on two pieces of paper glued in a flimsy brown paper folder. I also found two short collections of cello sonatas, one by Handel and one by Loeillet, who I think must be a French Baroque composer, although I’ve never heard of him. I took all these to the counter and asked how much they were. The bookseller thought the Popper was something I had brought in myself, not something I’d found in his shop. He gave me both sets of sonatas for the price marked in the Handel and the brown paper Popper for free! I must say one thing I like about used bookstores is they tend to have at least some sheet music tucked away somewhere.

I had spent more time at Caveat Emptor than I’d intended, but I still walked down the street to the Book Corner and took a look. I think by then my book browsing hunger was sated, though, and I didn’t stay very long.

Saturday evening was the conference banquet. It’s traditional to have some sort of African food and music at the ACAL banquet, but this year we’d heard there would be neither. Instead, there was soul food. And the music… When I walked in, I saw on the little stage at the far end of the room a man sitting on a chair with a hurdy-gurdy. I almost exploded with happiness. (My love of hurdy-gurdies should by now be well-known.) And then a second musician joined him with…bagpipes! It made my day. Actually, it probably made my conference. One of the conference co-organizers, who I knew from previous ACALs, told me that the piper was a professor in the linguistics department and the hurdy-gurdy player was from another department. They played on and off during the early part of the banquet; the piper played Samhradh, Samhradh, which it took me a few minutes to recognize and which I’d never heard outside this recording. It was lovely. The musicians left relatively early, though, so there was no dancing, as there usually is at ACAL. I for one didn’t mind.

On the last morning of the conference, as I was walking from one session to the next, I caught sight of a little cemetery through the windows of Indiana Memorial Union. The building was something of a labyrinth, so I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find the cemetery outside, but then I studied the building map and figured it out. So after the conference had ended, I went exploring. I found Beck Chapel and, finding the door unlocked, stepped inside. It was pretty, mostly light wood with a small pipe organ. In the chapel yard, there were three markers commemorating the February 10th, 1942 planting of three trees respectively representing Catholicism, Judaism, and Protestantism. Only the tree representing Judaism remained, however; the other two markers stood at the foot of tree stumps. The cemetery was beside the chapel, but it was surrounded by a low stone wall, and the gate was closed, so I did not try to enter.

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