Preparing for fieldwork I: visibility

Many people have asked me how do I do fieldwork: how to approach the speakers; how to get the best answers, what to take on fieldwork; i.a. I don’t think I have a magic formula, nor I think I have lots of experience. But in any case, this post is for those who have never ever undertaken fieldwork, and are considering doing some (maybe for their MA thesis or their PhD project). The advice that I give here is mostly focused on the reality of Western Polesie. Every language and culture are different, and  even the differences from one village to another can be enormous in Western Polesie (from villages with less than 30 inhabitants, with mostly old people; to villages with more than a thousand dwellers, full of young people, who speaks the local variety, like Bahdanawka). However, you may find some of the tips to be useful. And of course, those readers who have had some experience are most than welcomed to add their suggestions.

So, here we start with the series “Good things to do in fieldwork (and I wish someone had told them to me before)”:


1-Stay visible

When it’s cold, or when sitting outside is impossible because there are noisy and annoying mosquitoes everywhere, you may feel very tempted to lock yourself in your room and do all your analysis. That can be very risky. It is good to spend time processing your data and analyzing it (especially, if you need to submit regular reports to your supervisors or abstracts for conferences). But, it is AS EQUALLY AS IMPORTANT to spend time with the community and letting people know you. Why?

1) It makes your speakers more relaxed during the interviews (many can feel intimidated or threatened to share stories or things about their life when they don’t know you well).

2) You are (or should) be working your project not to or for the community but WITH the community (and I must admit, that I often forget this,  or fail to put it into practice). You want them to get interested in what you are doing;  try to explain to them what you are studying  and why is their variety/dialect/language special and worth of study.

3) It gives you more opportunities to meet other speakers you had never considered. That will give you the chance to study variation or check out some grammar forms you are uncertain about. Plus, you may discover very interesting storytellers, musicians, artists in the village, who have not only linguistically interesting data, but also anthropologically rich!479504943_1280x720


[Source: Mister Shake, from ]

How do you become or stay visible?

Go to every public place you can think of in the village (the nearest shop, if you can walk or cycle to it), the local church, the banja (bathhouse; this was my favourite treat at the end of each week), the local library… In the beginning, you can start by going to the grocery store to get any small thing. If the shopping assistant doesn’t ask you straight away where are you from and what are you doing, leave the shop with a smile, and hear all the whispers on your back as you walk out the door. Go to the school and introduce yourself to the teachers. Some schools in Western Polesie have gathered some folklore from the local village, and they are usually happy to share that with you. If you go to the banja, you can use the occasion to listen to the local variety in its purest form, and hear what people in the village are interested in (this is far more important than you think when you want to design proper questionnaires). In Summer, you should still go out for walks and greet everybody you meet on your way, as if you had always lived there. Go to church with them, learn about their worldview, try to get the local pope/pastor/priest’s recognition and friendship (they know many people in the village, whom you can interview; and they are usually respected).

Anyway, the best thing to do is to try to see your speakers as your friends and not mere deposits of informations which you can ‘use’ for your project. If you decide to recluse yourself in your room, you will hardly make any friends.

Thing 4: Dealing with critique

After a well-deserved rest, I’m back to work, ready to share more about my research.

At the 23 Things for Publication workshop we have been encouraged to provide feedback to other blogs. We have been given some general criteria for feedback, which I think they are AWESOME, and which could be used for dealing with critiques in other areas of the academic career.

Remember: The purpose of giving feedback is to provide information and practical advice to help the receiver improve.

Rules for giving constructive feedback

  1. Give it immediately or as soon as possible after the event.
  2. Ask the receiver how he/she felt things went.
  3. Consider the value of your feedback to the receiver. If there isn’t any value then do not give that piece of feedback.
  4. Start with a specific positive comment. Good feedback should include things that an individual did well and areas for improvement. Be sincere and give specific examples.
  5. Limit your feedback to the most important aspects; simplify and prioritise your points. Do not include everything because too much feedback can overload the receiver and may be counter-productive.
  6. Check the receiver understands what you are saying by asking open questions. Individuals are more likely to remember criticism than positive comments, so ensure the balance of positive comments outweighs the comments about areas for improvement.
  7. Take ownership of your comments, e.g. say “I think …” rather than making generalisations, e.g. “We all think…”, “Everyone thinks…”
  8. Summarise all your points.

Receiving constructive feedback

  1. Accept feedback as a gift. Thank the giver, consider it, and then do with it as you wish. (Some gifts are valuable and well-used; others go straight to the charity shop!)
  2. Consider who is giving you the feedback. This may bias their point of view – refer to point 1 on this list.
  3. Accept compliments rather than dismissing them – we tend to believe any criticism to be true but not any praise.
  4. When feedback is critical or points out areas for improvement, avoid defending yourself – refer to point 1 on this list.”

[Extracted from: 23 Things for Publication (RDP University of Surrey) Last time checked 10/08/2016]


[Image from:]

I think this is a good thing to have in mind from the very beginning of my second year of PhD. In a society, where we are more and more obsessed with finding other people’s approval, and having a “good image”, many people may feel discouraged by negative feedback.  I remember as an undergraduate student in Translation and Interpreting, I once had a seminar with a translator who had been actively publishing for more than 20 years. Since Literature Translation (definitely not other areas of Translation) is a very “delicate” art, in which translators are constantly are accused of either “betraying the original” or sounding “foreign and anti-natural”, critique is a daily struggle. I asked him how could he manage all that pressure, and he answered ” You know, when you present your work and deal with critique, is like getting into a professional boxing-ring. They are not attacking YOU personally; they are attacking “your professional you”. Once the combat is over you both get off the ring and you continue your life normally”.



Closing the season

I can’t believe it, but it’s over! I came back from my last group of villages on Friday. Now I have to synthesise part of my work and deal with some admin before flying back to the UK.

I was planing to go on an expedition with two professors, but it was cancelled three days before its start, so I had to quickly reschedule all my plans (as I have already had to do many times during my time in Belarus). And I ended up in a small village, called Tolkovo (cnt Drahičyn), not very far from Tatar’ja, but included in a different (southern) dialectal subgroup in the existing dialect maps. According to my list of ‘unexplored’ sel’sovets in Western Polesie, nobody had ever undetaken linguistic fieldwork in the sel’sovet of Haloutsytsy (part of Zakozel, since 2016). So this was an interesting challenge, and my ‘host-mum’, tjotja Vjera has made it even a greater experience!


[Berry season is here! Many people go to the forest to pick berries and sell the at the central markets. In our case, we just ate most of them and stored some for winter]!

Once again, I have been able to borrow a bike, which has been great for travelling to other villages. But this time, the bike was a traditional Belarusian ‘Aist’, which means that it does not have breaks, on the handles (as you would expect). Instead, you have to pedal backwards if you want to slow down, so it took me a while to get used to it (hopefully, no accidents caused).


I got to Antopal’ a couple of times, as I was willing to visit it long ago. Apart from being the only place in a radium of 15km with a banja (which is not just good for your health, but it’s even greater for socializing and meeting more speakers) it is historically meaningful. Antopal’ used to be one of the Jewish centres in Belarus, before the Nazis’ invasion. According to Paškow et al (20061), before WWII there were 6 synagoges or Jewish prayer houses in Atopal’ (just as much as in Pinsk, which is a far way larger than Antopal’).

[Here is the memorial of the Jewish people killed in Antopal’]

On my last day of interviews, I got to travel to Halowtsytsy, where I was very warmly greeted (with cold drinks and food, as it was 34 Cº outside). One of the oldest dwellers (Anna, 86) showed me the local Protestant wooden church. It’s one of the oldest in Belarus, and a lot older than any other kind of church in the area, as it miraculously survived Stalin’s anti-Church crusade.

I also got to interview a very interesting lady, Vera. In spite of being taken to a concentration camp of forced-labour during by the Nazi, she is a person full of joy! Here is a video of her sharing with her friend Manja and us, about the horrible living conditions in the camp, and about the dream she had on her first night at the camp.

Getting already into more technical questions, I must admit, that the dialect maps that I have been able to find are almost entirely based on Phonology (which is also, one of the most obvious parameters that speakers can intuitively identify when presented a speaker from another place). However, when it comes to Morphology (and the little bit of Syntax, I am studying), I find those classifications to be unsatisfactory. Mostly, because Morphology and Syntax are the areas that have been mostly forsaken. So, when it comes to the ‘big’ discoveries in Morphology, I have not been able to identify any completely new phenomena, although gathering more texts, from other people has helped clarifying some of them.

One of the interesting things is that, so far the presence of the suffix -a for the adnumerative of masculine and neuter nouns, could have been explained by the influence of Russian (as the alternating, often, optional and older adnumerative form is -ɪ/e). In the case of the idiolects of people from Tolokovo and Halowtsytsy, they all have the adnumerative of masculine in -a (at least in all the occurrences analysed so far), regardless of their age (the oldest speaker interviewed this time was 92) or knowledge of Russian (most of the people interviewed had a passive competence of Russian).


1PAŠKOǓ, H., LAKOTKA, A., & KALJENDA, L. (2006). Harady i vjoski Bjelarusi: Brestskaja voblasts (vol I-II). Minsk: Bjelaruskaja Entsyklapjedyja.

It’s finally summer time (last weeks in Tatar’ja)

Once again, I have to leave the village when I already felt at home! Anyway, those last three weeks have been very intensive. I have had the chance to interview more people in the neighbouring villages (mostly in Sičyw and Tatar’ja). In spite of the fact that they are less than 10 km away from each other, and they are within the Torokanian subgroup, I have been able to find differences in their speech


[Yes, the veggies keep growing so quickly!].

But, most of the time I have been working with a speaker in Torokan (Imyaniny), Baba Ženja, who has an enormous heart and who has been very patient with me. Last Friday (10/06/2016), a journalist from (the main news portal in Belarus) was during our session. You can read the article here [].


[Meet this week’s star on Belarusian media]

I have also interviewed the people I have been living with. Baba Katja is a bit shy, but when she started sharing stories she happened to be the best storyteller interviewed so far, and she knows a bunch of them! But not only that, she also provided me awesome comments on grammar, which I appreciate endleslly (as I was a bit stuck). Apart from it she is an excellent cook (and partly responsible of the few kilos I have gained) and a gardener, with an enviable memory and creativity.

  [Here is one of her tales]20160611_111123 (2)

I also got to interview djadja Kolja, one of the last original dwellers of Tatar’ja, who is a speaker of a gorgeous Torokanian variety. When I first heard him speaking, I instantly adored his idiolect: he uses almost all the grammar structures I had been looking for months! But it took me a whole month to convince him to let me record his stories. He is full of joy, very friendly and sociable, but unfortunatelly, he doesn’t his stories to be published (at least he was OK with publishing his photos) So here you have one of my heroes!

One of the topics I have dealt with during those last weeks (although, not the main) is postnominal possessors. Postnominal possessors in the studied variety(ies) are characterised by a quite free word order, which allows the insertion of different elements between the noun and the possessor:

(T3.10 00:29) ʃtʃe o’dɪn u’tʃytɪl ʒy’ve mɪj.
(T3.10 00:45) ‘batjko ska’zav̞ jo’mu mɪj […] pa’bɪj jak, ʃtʃo nɪ ‘znaje.
(T7.8 01:38) mu’ʒyk ‘toʒe mɪj ʒ so’sjednoj dɪ’revni

It seems that the prenominal position is optional for most of the cases (especially when they do not involve kinship terms), which raises the question of whether postnominal possessors are ‘more authentic’ and they are evolving under the pressure of Russian (and for some reason, some terms are more resilient to that change than others).

They say I only publish about food, but I haven’t for a month. I think I deserve a treat!! Here you have some of the local specialities

[Schabjel soup, goat milk tvorah (a kind of quark), and sirniki with cherry jam]

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Да пабачэння! See you soon!


Almost three weeks (officially almost four) in my beautiful cottage house in Tatar’ja. Time has passed very quickly, although fruitfully.

[See how fast the veggies have grown in a week!]

The family I’m staying with owns some farm animals and some field, which they keep almost 100% organic. I have asked them to let me go with them several times. I am learning a lot about organic farming, plus, I get to hear the most natural language (outside the fieldwork sessions).

[Three types of wells that people use in the region, the one in the middle is “ours”]

Meanwhile, I had had to go to Minsk to share about my research (to the Society of Zaharoddzian or West Polesian Studies), be interviewed by TUT.BY, send a paper to a conference in Minsk, prepare my supervisory meeting.


[I love the sunsets I see every evening from the house]

I borrowed a bike and I am riding on it to the neighbouring villages to visit other speakers. Now that the weather is nice, it is actually a pleasure to go outside (otherwise, I am inside the cabin, working on the recordings and fighting with the mosquitoes, who apparently love me). I realise that it is very important to become visible in the villages. During winter that was a lot harder; now that many people are sitting outside their houses or working in the fields, we greet each other, and they are getting used to my presence.

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Getting more technical, I have been working on modality and future. Common Slavonic had its imperfective future tense by adding different modal (partly desemantised) verbs’, usually volitive (want, will) or incoative (start) followed by the infinitive. From the XVI century the Eastern Slavonic subgroup got rid of the rest of the auxiliaries and chose the semantically most neutral verb ‘to be’ as the only auxiliary (Southern Slavonic languages have preserved it). However, there is a rest of it in Contemporary Ukrainian (робитиму[1]), and in West Polesian.


The case of West Polesian is very interesting because, I am finding different form of that auxiliary with different nuances: maju robɪtɪ, majusja robɪtɪ, robɪtym(u), zrobɪtɪm(u), budu robɪtɪ and zrablju. Cross-linguistically it may not be that unusual, but it is special among the Eastern and Western Slavonic group. What is the function of each of them? It seems that there is lots of work to do, and this is just the begining.


Last Sunday I also got bad news, one of the speakers I had been interviewing a few days ago passed away. Thank you for all that you shared for the project and the future generations.


[1] MIKHAЇLYK, R. (2003). Grammaire pratique de l’ukranien: Manuel du niveau moyen. Paris: L’Harmattan (p.64)

A month long silence

Sorry for the big delay. This month has been full of events slowing down my research (and I have had a very limited access to the Internet for part of it).

I finished my research in Bodanywka, and with lots of tears I had to move next.

I decided to go back to Zhidche for five days in order to record other speakers, and do a deeper research on the adnumerative and modality, at the light of my last findings.


[The village looked a lot nicer now that the trees and the flowers had started to blossom]

I had the privilege of recording a lady from the neighbouring village (Malaja Vul’ka), who has lived most of her life in Zhydche. She was deported as a kid to Austria by the Nazis, and she shared some memories about it, although she is full of enthusiasm and good sense of humour. But she also has a great talent for writing satiric poems and songs in her own variety.

I spent a couple of days with my friends trying to find people to stay with in Pare (as the contact I had was not available at that time). We eventually found some friends’ friends in Vystraw (about 7 km from Pare, BLM: Востраў). So I went to this tiny village, with less than 60 dwellers, but a XVI century wooden church (where all the people from the neighbouring villages attend, especially for the main annual services).


I only get the chance to visit Pare on the weekend, as the weather during the week had been windy and cold, and we wanted to get there by tractor. Moreover, the people that had to take me where very busy planting their potatoes and seeds. But that was a good way for going to work with them, learning more about their lifestyle (since many speakers share stories related to agriculture which are difficult to figure out for a foreign boy grown up in a big city), and why not, do some physical exercise.

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Pare has gorgeous landscapes and the people in the village have a very interesting variety (within the tiny Torokanian group; e.g.*pѣsъkъ > pa’sok). As I said, the nearest church serving the whole area is in Vystraw. So the village has a bell (which is a century old) used in order to warn people about fires, announce someone’s burial or that it’s an important religious day (Easter or Christmas). I got to interview the man who has been in charge of that task for the past 20 years:

I was very excited for being able to interview four people in Pare, and I was planing on going back to Pare on foot that week, to take longer interviews from the ‘best’ speakers I had met. But the weather forecast turned against me on Monday morning, and they said it was going to be raining until Sunday 1st of May (which is Easter here, and I really wanted to record ethnographically interesting material in the village). But which is worse, it may be that the weather it’s going to be rainy (with eventual wet snow) until May 20th (unusual for the region). Hence, I decided to leave the village on Tuesday (26th), and come back later on, when the weather is better.


[Maria Uladzimirawna, from Pare]

Back in the city, I started looking for other villages where the Torokanian variety is spoken in county Drahichyn. That was hard as everybody was very busy preparing for Easter (as the house must be spotless and the table must be overflowing with food), plus I got really sick during that week.


But good news, I found some people living in a tiny village with less than 50 dwellers, just 2km away from Torokan (Imeniny), and I just got here last Monday (2nd of May). People here celebrate Easter for three days, and so on the third day, apart from preparing lots of food, they visit the tombs of their relatives. By Easter everybody had had to clean their relatives’ tombs and pour out new sand. Now they had to bring new (plastic) flowers and tie very bright laces, so that people notice that those people are lying there and there are people caring about them.

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More news about my time in county Drahichyn on the next post.

Last two weeks in Bodanywka (28/03-08/04)

Do you speak po-bodanywskamu?

·колькы /kol’kɪ/: fence (RU: забор ; BY: агароджа )
·чытэлька /tʃɪ’telka/ (f)ː teacher (RU: учительница; BY: настаўніца )

The last two weeks have been quite intensive. I had to go back to the city, to do some paperwork, and I used those days there to summarise all the info gathered so far, and upload more videos to the Youtube channel.

Some stories about the forest in Bodanywka:

[Xonja’s blueberries]

[Different stories about the forest]

And, as promised, the artist of the week, Vasil Maksimovich, in the process of being declared ‘national art’s master’ with his ‘vyklej’, a very unique star that has been traditionally used in Bahdanawka for Koljady (7th of January, Julian Calendar Christmas). People dress up in different costumes: a horse, a gipsy, a star… and they go from house to house singing those songs, while they would rotate that ‘vyklej’ (star) in front of the windows, so the children could see the figures moving from inside the house.



Academically, I have been researching the adnumeratives in this variety as they have a very particular distribution, which would make it quite unique among the Slavonic family. But, I will publish more data once I’m a bit more advanced, and I also hope to present a more detailed work in the Belarusian Conference in Kaunas, next October 2016.


My fourth week has been especially ‘the impact week’. First the local press of Luninjets got interested in my project, and then, unexpectedly, the national TV news knew about what I’m doing and showed up out of the blue to interview me. I never thought nobody would really care about it. And suddenly I realised that the interviews have been re-posted in other newspapers and sites, and so other people I know in other parts of the country, just called me to tell me they had seen my interview. But what is even more funny is that on Monday (April 11), I was at the bus station getting a bus ticket to Zhidche and they asked my documents (as you need a special permission to travel there), and suddenly the lady selling the tickets said: ‘Wait, aren’t you the guy, who was on TV last week? Oh! I saw you were going to Luninjets…’ And she asked me more questions about my research. I’m happy more people are getting interested on the work. People in the villages ask me with lots of interest to show them the stories and songs recorded in Bodanywka and Zhidche, and that makes me very happy.

·An interview on the national news: (31/03/2016)

·An interview on the local press: (31/03/2016, although the interview was taken a week before its publication)

(and some of the reposts) (31/03/2016)