Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

Travel Report: Kevin Baetscher, Thailand

May 09, 2014
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Kevin Baetscher, a Master's student in Linguistics, received a Graduate International Research Travel Award to further his research inThailand. His report:

In the summer of 2013, SFU gave me the opportunity to travel to Northern Thailand for two months to conduct first-hand fieldwork on the language of a small indigenous tribe, called the Mlabri (self-designation, literally: “forest people”). Although this tribe consists of only around 300 individuals, they are well-known in Thailand as the exotic Spirits of the Yellow Leaves. This designation for the Mlabri is derived from the fact that they traditionally used banana leaves to build temporary shelters. After these turn yellow after a week or two, they move on to hunt and gather in other areas. That is, the Mlabri lived a nomadic life, roaming the high hills of dense jungle in the border area of Northern Thailand and Western Laos. For this reason, the Mlabri are very elusive. Little is known about their history, and their first mentioning whatsoever dates to no earlier than 1938.

The life of the Mlabri has changed significantly in the last 30 years, when missionaries and the Thai Royalt Project Foundation started development projects in this area, which is very dense in ethnic minorities. While this provides the Mlabri with access to public education and medical care, it also threatens the continuation of their unique traditional lifestyle, their vast knowledge about their natural surrounding, and their cultural practices. At this point of time, every single member of their small group still speaks their ancestral language. However, other minority tribes in the region have been less fortunate: many are struggling to pass on their traditions, with many young people moving to cities and switching to the national language Thai as the standard means of communication. The attrition of these traditions can have adverse consequences on the social structure of those tribes, through the loss of identity and group cohesion. Importantly, these minority tribes in many cases do not choose to adapt to a modern life, but are left no choice. Furthermore, the loss of cultural knowledge is detrimental to social sciences, which are concerned with the documentation of biocultural diversity, which is crucial in the understanding of our interaction with nature and just what it means to be human.

Thus, the goal of my study was to continue my documentation of the Mlabri language, which I started in the previous year, in summer 2012. For this, I lived with the Mlabri in different remote villages in the Thai province of Nan. I interviewed several people, but learned more getting involved in their community life myself. This more extended field trip allowed me to gather sufficient data to write a grammar sketch of this under-described language, which will be published later this year (2014) in an extensive reference work on the Austroasiatic language family, which includes Khmer (or Cambodian), Vietnamese, as well as dozens of other minority languages in the region, but not to Thai. The language of the Mlabri features a considerable amount of morphology, a rather large phoneme inventory with complex clusters and very unique intonation patterns, all of which is unusual especially in the area of South-East Asia. I presented some of my findings at the international conference of the South-East Asian Linguistics Society (SEALS) in Bangkok just after my fieldtrip in May, and talked about clause linkage at the International Conference on Austroasiatic Linguistics (ICAAL) in Canberra in September.

This project is not directly related to my MA thesis research, but will probably lead to my dissertation. In the long run, I aim to provide a lasting documentation of the Mlabri language that could be used in potential revitalization efforts in the future, and contribute to the understanding of the history of South-East Asia, as well as its cultural diversity nowadays. This period of time is crucial, because access to the community is significantly easier compared to a few decades ago, but the older generations still grew up in the forest, and are willing to pass on their knowledge that the younger generations are losing. Needless to say, the situation of the Mlabri is no exception in today’s world. Many (but not enough!) linguists and anthropologists are running against the time to save those cultural treasures in the rapid expansian of modern civilization and globalization.

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