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Ph.D. University of Chicago 1999
Brooks Hall, 202434-924-7048
I am a linguist trained in the analysis of sound and word structure. My first research project was on the Arapesh languages of Papua New Guinea. Working from both documentary sources and materials collected during fifteen months of fieldwork (1997 to 1999), I studied the ways in which sounds are systematically exploited by the Arapesh noun classification system. The theoretical emphasis of this work is on the nature of the lexical representations implied by such a classification systems, and their implications for grammatical organization.
Like other small languages the world over, Arapesh is endangered. In the coastal Arapesh area where I did fieldwork, young adults have only passive competence, and their children have hardly any knowledge of their ancestral tongue at all. Arapesh villagers instead use PNG's creole lingua franca, Tok Pisin, as the medium of daily life. Recognizing the way language shift is affecting these communities has had a profound impact on the work that I do.
Most directly, I have become engaged in the basic work of language documentation and description. Since 2005, with support from the NSF/NEH Documenting Endangered Languages program and in collaboration with UVA's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, I have been curating a digital archive of Arapesh linguistic materials. The archive incorporates dozens of Arapesh audiorecorded and transcribed texts. I am now in the process of integrating them with a lexicon that has reached nearly 3000 top-level entries. I have also digitized nearly a hundred transcribed Bukiyip Arapesh texts, and have been painstakingly glossing them in collaboration with the missionary linguist who collected them in the 1970s. I am currently working on a grammar of Cemaun Arapesh that relies on the archived materials. Over the past several years I have also begun to integrate community interests and goals into the project.
At the same time, I have become increasingly interested in the way that the problem of language endangerment has brought new attention to social process within the discipline of linguistics. Revaluing the human and moral dimensions of linguistic research has raised a number of issues surrounding power, ethics, fieldwork methods and goals. In a series of recent papers (Dobrin 2008; Dobrin, Austin, and Nathan 2009; Dobrin 2009; Dobrin 2012; Dobrin and Holton 2014) I try to bring an ethnographic sensibility to bear in exploring some of these issues. The ethics of field research has also been an important focus of my scholarly service, whether on the University of Virginia’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Institutional Review Board, the American Anthropological Association’s Committee on Ethics, or the Linguistic Society of America’s Committee on Endangered Languages and their Preservation.
The cross-cultural fieldwork encounter is of course a key arena in which problems of social process become consequential, whether one is describing an unstudied culture as anthropologists did in the past, or documenting an endangered language as linguists are doing today. My own firsthand field experience has provided me with a special vantage point from which to revisit the publications and unpublished archive of two scholars who conducted research on Arapesh language and culture before me, Reo Fortune and Margaret Mead. Mead and Fortune did fieldwork on Arapesh together, yet they drew radically different conclusions from their experiences. In collaboration with Ira Bashkow (Dobrin and Bashkow 2006, Bashkow and Dobrin 2007, Dobrin and Bashkow 2010a,b), I have been studying the interpersonal and intercultural factors that led to this divergence of interpretation, and thinking about what this case means for the creation of knowledge about other social worlds.
Linguistic morphology and phonology, Melanesian language and culture, history of anthropology, language endangerment, language documentation and description.