September 23, 2016

A conversation with Alana Johns

by Sali Tagliamonte

 Alana Johns is retiring at the end of 2016-2017, marking a 20 year sojourn at the University of Toronto and a lifetime of linguistic research on Inuktitut and especially within Inuit communities in Labrador. Although Alana is retiring from the Department of Linguistics, she will continue to do research. Her plan is to devote herself full time to five SSHRC research projects, including one to collect, transcribe and analyze oral stories and conversations working with Inuit research assistants who will ensure that the materials are made available to Inuit communities. I spoke to Alana on August 26th about this important milestone in her life.

Early days of discovering linguistics

Alana was at Carleton University in Ottawa in the 1970’s. Like most people she didn’t know Linguistics existed. “I was very interested in languages, learning about them, learning to speak them. When I hit upon Linguistics, it seemed to be very attractive because it involved languages and it involved analysis. And I really liked complex words right from the very beginning.”
Things got really exciting for Alana when she became a graduate student at the University of Ottawa. She was asked by Doug Walker to supervise a summer student project on Ojibwe and she got to do fieldwork to her heart’s content and ended up doing her MA on the topic.
At the time, the University of Ottawa had just started a new PhD program and Alana was among one of the first students to enter the program.  She says, “we were a motley crew.” Sitting in on a graduate course on morphology with John Jensen, the students were going through Marantz’s thesis  that had just come out (Marantz, Alec. 1978. On the Nature of Grammatical Relations. Ph.D. thesis, MIT.) and Alana knew enough about Inuktitut by that time to think that his ideas about ergativity couldn’t entirely be right. However, to argue against his analysis she needed critical Greenlandic data, but fortunately she didn’t have to go to Greenland. She found a language consultant in Montreal. Alana demonstrated that what Marantz had proposed “did not go through entirely”. Moreover, reading the thesis was good training in constructing analyses as a foundation for future research.
Alana was hired by Memorial University in St John’s to do research on Labrador dialects of Inuktitut. During her time there she would go up to communities in Labrador in the summer to teach Linguistics, Inuktitut language and do research. In 1996, she was lucky enough to get a position at the University of Toronto. She was very excited by the challenge of a busy, strong institution but the thing that struck her the most when she first arrived was the quality of the graduate students. “I would like people to consider that one of the first times I taught morpho-syntax, in that class, was Milan Rezac, Susana Bejar and Daniel Currie Hall. You know we tell the graduate students that they learn from each other, but we’re learning from them a lot too!”

Advances in understanding Polysynthesis

Alana’s career has focused on trying to understand the complex morphology of Inuktitut as a polysynthetic language. “One of the things we always thought about was what rules will give you these complex words. The rules that we had already thought about for English wouldn’t give you the complex words. You could see they were related but they weren’t exactly the same. If you take an English sentence and you just cram it all into one word, that doesn’t give you a polysynthetic word. So, then how do you get it?”
Alana developed the idea that all the verbs that are involved in noun incorporation were not regular verbs; they were light verbs. There were no verbs like ‘tickle’ or ‘brush’ or ‘smash’. They were all verbs like ‘get’ or ‘have’ or ‘be’.
Then Richard Compton and Christine Pitman came up with the idea that maybe the complex verb was a phase, a specific limited domain in syntax. You take an English sentence and take out anything that’s an NP and then take everything you have left and smoosh it together. “I never wanted to eat apples.” If you took out ‘apples’, ‘never wanted to eat’ would be the verb. It was a very pretty idea.”
“My current interest is to try and look at it from the perspective of agreement. It may be that instead of agreement it involves clitic pronouns. I want to see if I can do a formal treatment of it. However the collection of data to do this work coincides with what the community wants. The majority of written Inuktitut that is available in communities is a translation from English sources. Very few of the written materials were originally composed in Inuktitut. I think there should be natural written materials of the language for native speakers.”
Alana goes on to explain that, “Inuit don’t tell stories. Their accounts are either true accounts of what they saw in their lifetime or traditional stories, true accounts of things they didn’t witness. So, there is no story idea. There is no sense of fiction. People don’t make things up. It’s almost like they are on the stand all the time.” She muses that if Inuit start writing in their own language they might come up with a whole new genre.

What has it been like working on Inuktitut and what would you like people to know about it?

There’s always two sides [Alana Johns: two things about Inuktitut]. On the Linguistics side I would like people to know that the language has these complex words that seem very very different from English. But the more you look at it, the more you realize it’s got a lot of similarities to English, you just have to turn it upside down. If you turn something and invert it, it’s not like it’s randomly related to the other thing. In fact Inuktitut complex words are ordered the inverse to English. So, if you wanted to say “I want to drink some tea” you would start with “tea” and “drink”, then “want”, then “I”. So, there’s all these relationships that make you see that it’s similar to English. It’s the opposite order but it’s the same order.
From the other part of my research, which is always more on the community side, I’ve always wanted people to realize how interesting indigenous languages are and then of course the whole issue of people trying to keep them healthy in the modern framework.
The writing issue is also important. You go all across the Arctic. You might go into a cultural centre and you’ll see a bank of tapes “Oral Inuktitut” and then you see another bank of paper, “English Translation”. But what you don’t have is the bank of paper, “Inuktitut Transcription”. That’s the missing piece. And I think it’s a rich piece that needs to be increased and brought into a position of strength, as a tool within the community.

What is the project you will be doing in your retirement?

Together with Sipila Tuglavina, the Language Co-ordinator in Labrador, we’re going to make a written description of how the Inuktitut writing system works and make it public. Then, the plan is to have workshops teaching people how to use it. At the same time we’ll collect written data. The whole idea is to strengthen knowledge of the Inuktitut writing system. At the same time, I can teach a bit of Linguistics, which is very useful to sort out controversies about language. A healthy Linguistics perspective is extremely useful and we will teach the Linguistics that is useful in that context.
Another current project is to produce a phrase book on Inuktitut. It will be marketed to the Inuit themselves but the book may also be used by other people. The kinds of phrases that will be in the book are ones that people can use in everyday conversations. Phrases such as “that tastes good”, or Aso! (which means “so” or “really!”).

What did you enjoy about working in the Department of Linguistics?

I enjoyed being Graduate Coordinator because the students were very good and it’s an opportunity to fix a few things. I enjoyed teaching because you learn so much from teaching and it’s so nice to see students developing.

What will you miss the most?

I’m hoping I won’t miss anything! But if I think of it in terms of what will I look back fondly on, it would be the research projects with the graduate students.
I remember one time we were in Baker Lake. I was with Midori Hayashi and Conor Cook and Richard Compton and we were invited us to go out ice fishing. This was June in Baker Lake. You had to go out on skidoos all day. Richard and I thought, “no!” But Connor and Midori agreed to go. You had to take a boat from the shore across the melted water to the ice where you got on the skidoo. It was cold and it was blowing. They looked a little miserable, but off they went. Richard and I went back to the house and drank tea and read Linguistics and everything. So, we were kind of smug. They came back at 11pm that night and they were so happy. They brought back char that they’d caught. Midori was admiring the spots on the belly of the char. Conor cooked up the char. He’s a wonderful cook. So, Richard and I actually went out the second time because we realized that we’d really missed out on a really wonderful experience. [This is an abbreviated version of the actual story: Alana Johns, fishing story]

I have a lot of nice memories!

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