How to answer linguistic questions

How to answer linguistic questions
Is it possible to answer linguistic questions without having studies linguistics? Yes,
and it’s actually not that hard at all. The trick is to recognise what the core problem is
and then to try to solve that problem. So you do not need to understand and answer all
of a question, but only its most important part. In that way, you can help the glossers
working in Leipzig a great deal without having studied linguistics.
Below are some areas where questions may be asked and suggestions how to answer
them. Don’t worry if some of the captions sound a bit complicating - there’s an easy
explanation and an example for every area.
1 Summary
This section provides a very brief summary of what is said below: how to answer each
question type. You can use it as a reference after you have read through the detailed part.
question type
yes/no + correct spelling
yes/no + correct translation
lexical semantics
translation or description
stem of the word
“Is Chhintag spelt correctly?” “No. It should be chintaŋ.”
“Is We have eaten the right
translation for aciaŋsace?” “No, aciaŋsace means ‘You
have eaten.’”
“What does sontoloŋ mean?” “Orange.”
“Is ŋassa an alternative of
nassa?” - “Yes. Older people
use it.”
“How to gloss keccanco?” “The principal parts are keiʔma,
kede, and the meaning is
2 Spelling and typos
Sometimes transcribers make mistakes. They can be of two types:
• The transcriber does not know how to spell a certain word according to the
CPDP/CLRP conventions. For instance, khaiʔma ‘जान’ is sometimes spelt khai/ma
or khaima, or cakhaŋ ‘ ढडो’ is spelt cakhang or chakhaŋ. These are called spelling
• The transcriber does know how to spell a word but doesn’t hit the right key on
his keyboard. For instance, khaiʔma could be spelt jhaiʔma (because the key J
is next to K on English keyboards), or cakhaŋ could be spelt xakhan. These are
called typos.
Spelling mistakes and typos often confuse our glossers. For instance, if they see something like chakhang, how can they be 100% sure that this is cakhaŋ and not a different
word? For instance, you probably know the English word wine, which is a kind of alcoholic drink made from grapes (अ गर). Now you see a new word vine. How do you
know whether this is just a mistake or a different word? In fact, this is a different word it means the plant ‘अ गर’, not the drink! This is how our glossers feel when they see a
word which somehow looks like one they already know, and this is why they will often
ask you “Is this word spelt correctly?” or “Is there a typo in this record?”.
The answer is simply “yes” or “no”. If the answer is “yes” - so there is a transcriber
mistake - please also add the correct spelling. If you feel insecure yourself ask one
of your colleagues. Every member of the CLRP team should know the transcription
conventions, so no excuses here!
3 Translations
Sometimes translators make mistakes, too. There are several cases where this can happen. Take a look at the following examples.
• Chintang text: anne saıl̃ i
• Nepali translation: ‘ ददी सा हली’
• English translation: ‘Sister, Maili.’
The Nepali translation is correct. But the English translator changed the S for an M, so
‘Saili’ became ‘Maili’.
• Chintang text: hanci wa
• Nepali translation: ‘ तमीह को कखरा’
• English translation: ‘Your dog.’
Again, the Nepali translation is correct. However, the translator misread कखरा as ककर
(they do not look that similar, but they sound very similar). So the hen became a dog.
• Chintang text: baiʔ bhitta lɨktumhẽ
• Nepali translation: ‘यहा िभ ामा छ ा यौ ।’
• English translation: ‘You put t here at the wall.’
This is again a little different. The Nepali translation is not wrong, but there is a small
spelling mistake: because it’s ‘we’ it should have been छ ा य , but the translator spelt
it छ ा यौ, which looks like ‘you’. This is why the English translator uses ‘you’, too,
although it’s clearly ‘we’ in the Chintang text!
• Chintang text: joni khuma kha tokno
• Nepali translation: ‘जोनी बो पाउछ ।’
• English translation: ‘Anyone may talk now.’
Here the Nepali translation is wrong, too - khuma does not mean बो न but बो न (maybe
the translator just switched ल and क). Finally, there are cases like this:
• Chintang text: sace be
• Nepali translation: ‘कसको मा ?’
• English translation: ‘Whose mother?’
The Nepali translation is fine, but it is what linguists call ambiguous. This means that it
has two different meanings. In Chintang, they would be expressed as sacebe ‘at whose
place’ or as saiʔko umma ‘whose mother’, but in Nepali they are both कसको मा (in fact,
sacebe would more usually be spelt कसकोमा without spaces). The English translator
did not look at the Chintang text but only at Nepali - hence the mistake.
What does that mean for you? Glossers will often ask you whether some translation is
appropriate. As you have seen, these questions are not about perfect English - they are
about very basic issues, such as ‘Is the sentence about a dog or about a hen?’ or ‘Is the
speaker about you or about us?’. So when you are asked such a question, don’t worry
about English grammar. Just think about the content of the Chintang sentence and ask
yourself whether the translations correspond to it or not.
Your answer should be “yes” or “no”. If it is “no” - so if there is a mistake in the translation - please add where the mistake is (Nepali, English, or both) and how it can be
corrected. Again, it is not important that your correction is in perfect Nepali/English,
but it should convey the right meaning.
4 Lexical semantics
Right now there are about 6,000 words in our dictionary. About 2,500 of them are pure
Chintang. This may sound like a lot, but it is not - Chintang has many more words
than that! That means that our glossers often discover new words. And since they are
not speakers of Chintang, they have no idea what they mean. This area is much more
important than all the others because you are the only ones who can help to answer these
questions! Other, more experienced glossers or PhD students may know whether the
translation is right, whether there are spelling mistakes and so on, but they will never
know the meaning of a word they haven’t seen yet before.
So do take questions about words seriously. If you are asked something like “What
does hoŋgi mean?”, your answer should include:
• the Nepali meaning of the word: क मा
• the English meaning of the word. If you do not know the word or if there is no
word - as in this example - describe the meaning. For instance, you could say
‘Hoŋgi is a dish made of rotten soybeans’.
• If the word is particularly hard to understand for outsiders, please provide an
example as well. For instance, there are many words like tururuwa which we
call ideophones. It is hard to explain what tururuwa means - ‘continuously’ does
not say it all. But if you add an example like bago dhara tururuwa thano ‘this
tap drops without stopping’ the meaning becomes much clearer.
5 Alternatives
Some words take different forms depending on who says them - an old or a young guy,
a man or a woman, a speaker from Mulgaũ or one from Sambugaũ. For instance, the
word for ‘ladder’ (भ याङ) has the following forms in our dictionary: thakiloŋ, thakiʔloŋ,
thakɨʔloŋ, thakilo, thattikolok, thaklok. They look quite different, but they all mean
the same. But if our glossers find such new forms they don’t know that. They might
find thaklok and think it’s a new word - maybe a special kind of ladder, or something
completely different.
So they will ask you things like “Is thaklok an alternative/variant of thakiloŋ?”. This
basically means, ‘Does thaklok mean the same as thakiloŋ?’. If it does, say “yes”. If it
does not, say “no” and add what is different about it. You can do this with a description
or simply by providing the best Nepali/English translations. Sometimes a word is a
mistake rather than an alternative. For instance, a small child might say thagi instead
of thakiloŋ, or a drunk man might say thakhoŋ. In such cases, say what the speaker
meant and add that this pronunciation is a mistake.
Sometimes you might want to add something. For instance, nisa and nicha mean the
same (भाइ). But nicha is rather used in Sambugaũ. If you know things like this, tell us.
It is valuable information for the dictionary.
6 Glosses
What do the glossers in Leipzig actually do when they gloss? - When normal people
ask “What does this word mean?” they want a translation or a good description. For
instance, if a Chetri guy who doesn’t speak Chintang asks you, आलो डा साखा भ को
हो ? he will be content if you tell him (तपाइ) आउन भो ?. But linguists are different.
The do not only want to know what the whole word means, they also want to know what
its parts mean. For instance, alondaŋsakha has many parts which can be cut off: a- is
always used when talking of a second person (‘you’), as in akhaʔno, anenota, aimsandi.
-ŋs is used in a perfective sense, similar to English ‘have done’, as in khadaŋsehẽ,
nedoŋse, aimsaŋse.
Cutting up words and analysing the meanings of their parts is the job of the glossers,
not yours. So don’t worry when they ask you questions like “How to gloss this form?”.
You do not need to do their job for them. All you need to do is to give them a little help,
and for that you don’t have to have studied linguistics.
How to do this? In every word - however long it may be - there is one part which
carries most of the meaning. This part is called the stem. If you point out the stem
and its meaning to the glosser you will help her or him a great deal. Below are some
examples that will hopefully make you understand how to name stems. On the left side
you see long word forms, on the right side you see how to name the stem.
loıỹ a
umailoıỹ oktaŋse
̃ a
̃ a
̃ a
If the word is a verb (most complicated words are) you should actually provide two
forms called principal parts, like this:
numma, numde ‘do’
cama, cie ‘eat’
tupma, tube ‘meet’
tupma, tupte ‘understand’
phaiʔma, phade ‘exchange’
phama, phade ‘help’
The reason why we need two forms is that some words look similar in either form. For
instance, ‘meet’ and ‘understand’ are both tupma in the first form. But ‘she met him’ is
tube, whereas ‘he understood it’ is tupte. Other words look similar in the second form
(e.g. ‘exchange’ and ‘help’) but not in the first: ‘to exchange’ is phaiʔma, but ‘to help’
is phama. So if it’s a verb, always provide these two forms.
Maybe sometimes glossers will ask you about smaller parts of words, so not ‘How to
gloss this word?’ but ‘How to gloss this part?’. For instance, instead of “How to gloss
utiaŋsace?” they might ask “How to gloss ce?” (the last part of the word). If you know
the answer, give it. But if you don’t, never mind. Answering questions like this is
actually part of linguist’s job, so they should be able to give the answer.
7 In case you don’t know
Nobody knows the answer to everything. Not even native speakers know everything
about their language. This is not a problem at all. So if you do not know an answer,
say “I don’t know”. If you don’t understand a question, say “What do you mean by
that question?”. That’s all fine. What you should not do is to simply ignore questions.
The reason is this: if you leave a blank space behind a question, we can’t tell whether
you overlooked it or whether you really didn’t know. So in the latter case, always let
us know that you don’t know the answer.