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Video Documentation of the Barayin language

Today on the ELAR blog, Joey Lovestrand discusses his use of video in his language documentation work on the Barayin language in Chad.

When I first went to Chad in 2010 and began working with speakers of the Barayin language, the idea of video documentation seemed unreasonable. I didn’t have the funds for the equipment or space to store the data, and I wasn’t sure how people would react to a camera. Since my goal at that time was limited to describing the phonology, my handheld audio recorder was all I needed. I only switched to video for my third visit to the language area in 2017 for which I received a Small Grant from ELDP. Now I wish I had used video during my first two fieldwork periods as well!

Many of the reasons for using video in language documentation are discussed by Ashmore (2008), and have been talked about on this blog before.  One of the reasons for video documentation is that it can capture gestures. I hadn’t given much thought to gestures before doing video documentation, but now I have the opportunity to go back and look at questions like: Why do people shake hands so many times during their greetings?


Another advantage to video is that it can capture all sorts of cultural and anthropological information. The relatively small Barayin documentation project isn’t designed for a systematic study of any aspects of the Barayin culture, but because a video camera was available, we were able to opportunistically capture some parts of the culture that are close to being lost. One day we drove to the village of Andi, and were told that all the men were out working in the field. We found them threshing millet together in a rhythmic pattern, and they asked me to film.


Ramat, an older Barayin speaker who traveled to the village with me, suggested they sing as they worked, but none of the men were confident that they knew the songs well enough. So Ramat jumped in to work with them, and as he led the song everyone was able to follow along. As we left that village, the men threshing millet were still singing the songs that our visit had refreshed in their memory!


Another type of song disappearing from the culture is funeral music. As the Barayin began to adopt Islamic practices in the 60s and 70s, they changed the way they bury their deceased. This means that the traditional funeral songs have not been sung for decades. Barayin speakers led me to the village of Guili to visit an elderly lady named Am Baya Djemil. When we arrived, I was asked to pick up her up in the car and drive her a short distance to where the women of the village had gathered, so that she wouldn’t have to walk. But when they finished singing, and I played back the video for them, she stood up and started dancing and singing along with her own voice! From that day on, in every place we visited, I was told to first play that video so people would understand the value of documenting their language and culture. In one case, I was asked to stop playing the video because it was too emotional to watch.


A very simple reason that I wish I had been using video all along is that the people love it! Obviously this won’t be true everywhere, but at least in the Barayin context both the people being recorded and the people watching the recordings really enjoyed the videos. When I was working with audio only, it was relatively difficult to explain to people what we were doing, and get their consent to participate. Once I switched to video, I had the problem of having too many people who wanted to be recorded! Barayin speakers never really showed much interest in listening to audio recordings of their language, but small crowds gathered every time I showed them video. Sometimes they just seemed interested in trying to identify who in the background they knew and how they were related to them, but in some cases they soaked in the linguistic content as well. When showing the videos for a family in the main town of Mongo whose father is Barayin and mother from the Kenga language group, the children listened closely and started asking each other and their father about any words they didn’t understand.

Academic audiences like video too! I recently got to use video clips in a conference presentation. It’s much more stimulating than an audio recording, and it gives the audience an immediate feel for the language community. Switching to video has had a lot of positive effects on my work with the Barayin community, and in the future I’ll use video wherever and whenever possible.

Thank you, Joey! To learn more about Joey’s work and the Barayin language, visit the Barayin deposit page on the ELAR catalogue.

Blog post by Joey Lovestrand

**ELAR blog will be on summer holidays for a few weeks, so we will be posting bi-monthly until mid-September, when we will resume our weekly posting.