On the Applicability of Recent Theoretical Advances in Linguistics to the Practice of Fieldwork—Elwin Ransom SpecGram Vol CLIX, No 1 Contents Classical Pinnacle Sherpa—A living exercise in proto-language reconstruction—Keith W. Slater

Tridekavalent Verbs of Telenovelity in Mydlováskji

Śūnyatā Qoɣusun
Mononoaware University
Detroit, France

This summer I set out to do some introductory fieldwork on an endangered minority language in Mexico of possibly Slavic origin, called Mydlováskji by its speakers, and referred to as simply lengua eslávica, “Slavic language” or lengua Ruski, “Russian language”, by the local Spanish-speaking majority population. My efforts were thwarted by the fact that the men and women of the barrio in which the majority of Mydlováskji speakers live engage primarily in two activities: working on off-shore oil drilling platforms, and watching telenovelas. While potential informants are engaged in either of these activities it is not really possible to do much in the way of productive fieldwork, though one extremely unusual feature of Mydlováskji did present itself during my time in Mexico.

First, a word about telenovelas, which are Spanish-language serialized romantic dramas, superficially similar to American soap operas:

To the uninitiated, the appeal of the telenovela and the dependency it creates in millions of viewers can seem baffling. Story lines are implausible, characters can be cartoonish and the endings are invariably happy.

“The plot is always the same,” said Patricio Wills, head of development at Telemundo. “In the first three minutes of the first episode the viewer already knows the novela will end with that same couple kissing each other. A telenovela is all about a couple who wants to kiss and a scriptwriter who stands in their way for 150 episodes.”

“Plot Twists for Genre: Novelas Make English-Language Inroads, But Will Appeal Get Lost in Translation?”
Luis Clemens, Multichannel News, 10/15/2006

Indeed, I found the telenovelas watched by my host family to be simultaneously emotionally riveting and intellectually stultifying. The plots all follow the same basic schema. A pair of star-crossed lovers wish to marry, but are thwarted by the complications arising from their familial situations and the oppugnant actions of an under-motivated villain. The stories end with the happy couple getting married, and the villain being punished by death or long-term imprisonment. Unlike American soap operas, these serials do have a definite end date, but they run for six to twelve months each.

The Mydlováskji speakers are often away from home, working on the off-shore oil rigs, when a new telenovela begins. When they return home, they are eager to catch up on the storyline of each of the popular telenovelas of the day. While watching the shows, family members will indicate the names of characters as they come onscreen.

je Xóchitl    “It’s Xóchitl.”              je Quique    “It’s Quique.”

For several days when I first arrived, these were the only utterances I was able to record in Mydlováskji. The rest of the time the family spent watching the TV with rapt attention. On the third day, however, I recorded this amazing utterance:

telenůvělářujou Xóchitl Quique Toñi Güicho Genita Chuymonchi Menchu Paqui Pepelu Juanpi Malala Chejo Chago

The rough translation is: “Xóchitl and Quique are in love; Toñi and Güicho are Xóchitl’s disapproving, hardworking, underprivileged parents; Genita and Chuymonchi are Quique’s disapproving, snobbish, overprivileged parents; Menchu and Paqui are Xóchitl’s close amigas or sisters, Pepelu and Juanpi are Quique’s close amigos or brothers; Malala is the nosy neighbor or co-worker who nearly ruins everything by revealing Xóchitl and Quique’s secret love affair at least twice a week; Chago is the primary villain who tries to thwart Xóchitl and Quique’s love; Chejo is Chago’s bumbling henchman or assistant who provides extra comic relief.”

The plots of the most popular telenovelas are sufficiently similar that this tridekavalent verb (the roles of which I have analyzed as being two subjects, four primary objects, four secondary objects, two tertiary objects, and one ultimatiary object) can be productively applied to bring any Mydlováskji-speaking viewer up to speed on the basic dramatic structure of a given telenovela in mere moments.

Verbs of such high valency have been, until now, utterly unheard of, and it remains to be discovered whether this innovation is restricted to Mydlováskji speakers in this barrio, or if it is known and used by other speakers of the language, if in fact there are any. It is also still not known whether Mydlováskji is in fact a Slavic language brought to Mexico by European immigrants, or merely a “Slavic-sounding” language spoken by a previously unknown indigenous people.

Unfortunately, such questions will likely not be answered by me. I am currently in the final round of funding by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts. If my proposal is accepted, as now seems likely, I will be partaking in an installation of “performance art” at the MOMA consisting of a recliner and television equipped with a satellite dish to receive the Telemundo and Univision channels. I will watch telenovelas eight hours a day, as a commentary on popular culture, globalization, and the capitalistic exploitation and incipient deculturation of the Mydlováskji-speaking people of Mexico by soulless environment-destroying international oil companies. As an added personal bonus, through my participation in this important work of art I will get to find out how Xóchitl and Quique overcome Chago’s illogical and inconsistently explained hatred for them.

On the Applicability of Recent Theoretical Advances in Linguistics to the Practice of Fieldwork—Elwin Ransom
Classical Pinnacle Sherpa—A living exercise in proto-language reconstruction—Keith W. Slater
SpecGram Vol CLIX, No 1 Contents