The Rift Valley Network: learning how to collaborate

Hi friends!

So – there’s a project that I’ve been a part of for the past little while called the Rift Valley Network (RVN), and I wanted to share some of what we’ve been doing here, as I think parts of it are relevant to the forum members. For a bit more about what the RVN is about, here is our Mission:

The Rift Valley Network aims to foster an academic community for deepening our understanding of the peoples of the Tanzanian Rift Valley, especially through histories, cultures, and languages.

The Tanzanian Rift Valley was – and continues to be – a crucible of dynamic, innovative, and complex societies. Because of this, the Rift presents endless opportunities to learn about the nature of communication, cultural exchange, and the African past.

Knowledge is power, and it is our belief that collaborative knowledge creation is the single most powerful way to reframe existing narratives about the peoples of the Rift, to valorize the work surrounding understanding the Rift, and to build solidarity and shared agency between community members and outside researchers.

It is our intention to make the Rift a space for coming together: exploring what we know about its peoples (both from inside and outside perspectives), and enhancing exchange among researchers, dialogue between researchers and local stakeholders, and ultimately communication to Tanzanians at-large.

We do a lot of stuff, but I think you’ll all be most interested in the recorded lectures from our fortnightly webinar series. We’ve racked up a lot of them over the past 3 years, and I don’t want to post them all at the same time, but I will occasionally post some old and new stuff for your consideration and feedback. I think I’m most excited about learning:

:red_circle: How is what we do in the Tanzanian Rift similar to or different from what you are doing in your part of the world?

:red_circle: Are there tools, methodologies, theoretical frameworks you’ve encountered that might help us in meeting our goals and furthering our analyses?

:red_circle: Are there further topics you’d be interested in hearing?


To start, I’d like to share 3 of our past talks:

The first is our inaugural talk, where Docling member @rgriscom and I review the state of linguistic research in the Rift, and make the argument for a Rift Valley Network to move that research forward.


The second is talk by Helen Eaton about the Sandawe speaker community, why it is configured in the way it is, and (even in the face of challenges and language endangerment elsewhere in Tanzania) how it continues to be spoken today.

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The third talk is by Roland Kießling, examining the long history of cultural contact between the Datooga and Iraqw peoples through loanwords exchanged among the languages involved.

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This is a talk from Julie Taylor looking at interrelationships between ethnomusiocology and linguistics. The communities featured in this talk are primarily from a little bit outside of the area the RVN normally focuses on, but the talk is a really nice introduction to how these two disciplines can speak to each other.


Not exactly what you’re asking about, but just to mention that some Cameroonian linguists launched a “Chadic Languages & Cultures” group a few years ago. It remains quite small, and mostly just focused on descriptive linguistics. Perhaps if we broadened the group we’d get more interdisciplinary discussion and more consistent talks on par with what you’ve seen happen with the Rift Valley Network.


It’s a balance, I think. The fact that the RVN has stuff going on every Wednesday is really nice (people tend to block that hour out as dedicated to Rift Valley stuff), but I don’t think we’d want to broaden our base to the point that we lose our specific focus.
So the question for your Chadic colleagues is: does a sporadic schedule (though featuring super-relevant material that might not get the detailed attention it needs elsewhere) work for the target membership, or would people benefit from a broader (though inevitably less-focused) audience?


A talk from @rgriscom, looking at the diversity that exists among speakers of Datooga, a group of language varieties which are, in passing, often considered a single language.
I think Richard does a really good job early in this talk to explicitly discuss how language varieties ≠ ethnic categories ≠ occupational/other categories. The Datooga situation is particularly complex, and this talk handles that with care.

:red_circle:Do any other Docling members struggle with things like:

  1. Determining who a named language variety refers to?
  2. Understanding ways that speaker communities categorise themselves (clans, subgroups, etc.)?

:red_circle:Do we have any good examples of diversity within a named language variety being treated in a documentary context?

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A talk from Stanislav Beletskiy on songs and the roles they play in Ihanzu folk tales.

:red_circle: Has anyone on the forum worked with genres like songs? What are the methodological / theoretical approaches people have for things like this?

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A talk/discussion led by Maarten Mous about “hunter-gatherer” (broadly-construed) peoples of East Africa, and challenges they raise for understanding the linguistic and social history of the area.

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Amani Lusekelo’s ‘Plant Nomenclature and Ethnobotany of the Hadzabe Society of Tanzania’

:red_circle: Has anyone on the forum focused on the documentation of plant or animal names / uses / behaviour / natural history? I’d be interested to hear how you’ve approached it (theoretically, methodologically, etc.)

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In response to the question above, @pathall made a great spinoff thread, which can be accessed here:

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A talk from Hannah Gibson “Beyond word order: Rangi in comparative perspective”

For a bit of background, Hannah has worked extensively on the morphosyntax of Rangi, a Bantu language whose exact classification vis-a-vis its Bantu neighbours is still unclear. And while much of her early work focused on the salient features which made Rangi stand out from its Bantu neighbours, this talk goes a bit beyond that to ask “all these neat features considered, how different is Rangi really from other Bantu languages?”. Which makes me wonder:

:red_circle: Do we have any thoughts on:
A) highlighting the elements of a language which make it different
B) situating a language in its wider geographic / genetic context
especially in terms of its relative value and/or the uses to which these kinds of descriptions are put?
(Obviously, in the act of describing a language, we will probably engage in both of these at different times and places throughout – but I wonder if we’ve thought about the ramifications of these narratives (in some sense, polar opposites), and how they may come to be used (both by linguists and non-linguists alike).

Here’s a Twitter thread I did on Hannah’s talk when it first came out:

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A talk from Alexander Andrason and I on interjections in Hadza

:red_circle: Has anyone else ever worked on interjections from a documentary perspective? (Up to this point, I hadn’t, and I admit it’s still a really challenging exercise for me). Any tips or thoughts in terms of how to do this?


Kuria Mdoe’s talk “A Morpho-Semantic Classification of Datooga Nouns” looking at how nouns are organised in the Nilotic language Datooga

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This week, I’ll share a talk from Michael Karani and Alexander Andrason on a topic I’d never really encountered before: how people talk to animals, and the sounds they use in doing so.

Admittedly, this is something I’d never thought about before – but having spent time working with people who own and live with livestock – OF COURSE this is a part of everyday language and life, and therefore deserving of similar kinds of examination we might give to any other area of the language. With that said, human-animal talk still seems to be a rather underresearched area, so I’ll leave everyone with a couple of questions:

:red_circle: Do you know of any linguistic work treating how people talk to animals?

:red_circle: In your experience, what kinds of animals might be possible addressees? (So far, I’ve found examples of livestock, pest animals like monkeys and baboons, pets like cats and dogs, and bees)

:red_circle: (Perennial question) – how can we go about documenting these phenomena?

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This week, I’d like to share a talk given by Samuel J. Beer “Disciplining the archive: African history, John M. Weatherby’s Soo data, and language archives”. In it, Sam (who has been working with these legacy materials) talks about how Weatherby had aspirations for his work to be an interdisciplinary resource, but that, time and time again, his efforts to share and preserve his materials were met with what amounted to failure. In the end, Sam shows that it was not professional structures that saved these materials, but relationships of love and friendship.

:red_circle: How are the contexts we work in today similar to or different from that of Weatherby all those years ago?

:red_circle: What can we do (or what are we doing) to ensure the materials we help to create don’t face the same fate?

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The associated publication “Interdisciplinary aspirations and disciplinary archives: Losing and finding John M. Weatherby’s Soo data” in Language Documentation and Description, is here:


This week, I’d like to share Sara Petrollino’s “The investigation of ‘appearance’ in Hamar: methodological challenges and preliminary results”

:red_circle: Has anybody else worked on colour (broadly-construed) here? This video is a great methodological introduction, and i’m interested to hear about other people’s approaches.