I've made two trips to Burkina Faso where I study Northern and Southern Toussian; my immediate goal is to write a grammar for the variety of Northern Toussian spoken at the village Djigouera. Fieldwork can be much more than simple linguistic documentation; in working with the Toussian community, I have recorded much about Toussian culture: fables, oral history, interviews, descriptions of cultural practices, and various musical practices. Linguistic fieldwork, to this end, is a great tool for providing data for many other fields like anthropology and musicology.
I'm interested in suprasegmental features, particularly tone. The Toussian languages have complex tonal systems, as well as several different morphemes that bear floating nasalization. I want to better understand these floating features and their theoretical implications, in order to help hone phonological theories in regard to topics such as featural assignment and long-distance processes.
Musical Surrogate Languages
Musical surrogate langauges, encodings of speech using musical instruments, abound in southwest Burkina Faso, where they are usually played on the marimba-like instrument called the balafon. The Toussian languages are highly tonal, which means that a great deal of linguistic information can be conveyed just through prosody, i.e. the pitch and rhythms of speech. Talented musicians can literally talk with the balafon by representing the tone and prosody of their language. They use this surrogate language for many cultural practices, such as calling people out to the fields during planting and harvest season or announcing important messages.
For linguists, these surrogate languages have both practical and theoretical value—they are invaluable tools for tonal analysis, as they cut through the slight phonetic variations present in speech, allowing the linguist to more quickly see the tonal contrasts, and they can shed light on the extent to which speakers conceptualize their language.