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Ph.D. University of Chicago 1999
Brooks Hall, 202434-924-7048
I am a linguist trained in phonology and morphology, the areas of grammar having to do with sound and word structure. My dissertation research 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 phonological form is systematically exploited in the partitioning of Arapesh nouns in the language for purposes plural assignment and syntactic agreement. The theoretical emphasis of this research is on the nature of the lexical representations implied by such classification systems, and the consequences they have for a typology of noun class assignment rules.
Like other small languages the world over, many Arapesh varieties are endangered. In the Cemaun 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 use PNG's creole lingua franca, Tok Pisin, as the medium of daily life instead. 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 linguistic work of language documentation and description. In an ongoing project with Daniel Pitti of UVA's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, I have been working to create a digital archive of Arapesh linguistic materials, including a lexicon and a collection of texts representing various kinds of discourse. I am also working on a grammar of Cemaun Arapesh. These projects have been supported by the Documenting Endangered Languages program, an NEH/NSF partnership.
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 fieldwork methods and goals, and scholarly power and ethics. In a series of recent papers (Dobrin 2008; Dobrin, Austin, and Nathan 2009; Dobrin et al. 2009; Dobrin and Berson in prep) I try to bring an ethnographic sensibility to bear in exploring some of these issues.
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 forthcoming), I have been looking in detail at 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, something documentary linguists and anthropologists both aim to do.
Linguistic morphology and phonology, Melanesian language and culture, history of anthropology, language endangerment, language documentation and description.