30 June 2012


My trip to Yap from January to March, 1972, had produced a recommended orthography - a systematic way of spelling words in the language.  That had, of course, been the reason that the Yap Department of Education had brought me there for those three months.

The system that I produced - we, actually, since it was, officially, the work of something called the Orthography Committee - was well-adapted to the phonological facts of the Yapese language.  It is a pity that it was not as well-adapted to the practical realities of Yapese people who would be writing their language.

This is not the place for the details of the difficulties - which, in 1972, I dimly felt might end up causing problems - but by 1974, it was apparent to the people in Yap in the Education Department that they were not going to be able, without assistance, to implement the system in schoolbooks.  They wrote to me, sometime in that year, asking if I could come to Yap in the (southern hemisphere) summer for two weeks to train their people in the use of the orthography.  In, I think, January of 1975 I went to Yap for the purpose.

I think that, despite its problems, the orthography could have been used, had I been a better teacher.  I am, as those who know me will testify, a very poor teacher.  I spent those two weeks in Yap trying to explain to the Yapese teachers how to use and to teach the system.  They were very polite, and friendly - and clearly did not get it.

Both going to Yap and coming home I had spent time with Greg Trifonovitch in Honolulu.  I talked with Greg about the problems here, and asked his advice.  What should I do to help them?

"You should tell them to hire you to come there longer-term to oversee the implementation of the system."

I was stunned by the implications of this!  Nevertheless, I thought deeply about it.  When I came home, I talked with Susan about it.

The end of my lecturing contract was 31 January, 1976.  There was another three-year contract available - and there were two of us there who might have applied for it: myself, and Ross Clark.  Ross was on a three-year contract; mine had been a swap with Andy Pawley, who was coming back, so only one of us could have the job.

To the very great benefit of future linguistic students, Ross got the job (and still lectures here in linguistics).  Note my comment above about how bad a teacher I am.

I wrote to Yap with my proposal.  I did also apply for a linguistics lectureship in Perth, although I didn't think it likely I would be offered the job (I wasn't).

The Yap Department of Education wrote back saying they wanted me to come, initially for two years.


Anonymous said...

Disagree that you are a bad teacher. You were a very engaging and patient teacher to four young but eager students of the Yapese language and one who was a bit older (wonderful Sister Rose) in 1981-82.

John Thayer Jensen said...

I remember Deefeeg's comment, after I spent forty-five minutes trying to teach the new (and failed) orthography to the Yapese teachers: "Guur, Jeenseen, ea daagathii guur reeb ea seensei!" - "You, Jensen, are no teacher."

Or Ursula's comment (wife of Ulrich, the bass player in the orchestra) - she had been my linguistics student at Auckland University in 1974, I believe it was: "I learnt nothing from you."

I can agree that I was, or attempted to be, both engaging and patient. Pity I didn't actually succeed in teaching anyone anything :-)