Nuer Field Project

Nouns Verbs Verb Book Expressions Pedagogical Grammar of Nuer Translation of Genesis in Nuer Others

Introduction, by Marion Frank-Wilson


Fieldnotes, i.e., notes taken by scholars during their research in Africa, are important materials, comparable to primary sources. And yet typically, once the researchers have collected and recorded their information, they return home, analyze the material, and publish the analyses. The notes, once exhausted for publication, are stored and forgotten somewhere in an attic or a basement where nobody has access to them. This situation has been recognized as a problem by various individuals as well as organizations, and several initiatives to rescue those materials are currently under-way. The EVIA Digital Archive project is one such initiative. It is a joint effort of Indiana University and the University of Michigan to establish a digital archive of ethnomusicological videos for use by scholars and instructors. Ultimately, the EVIA Digital Archive intends to preserve video recordings and make them easily accessible for teaching and research, providing an alternative to physical archives whose unique materials are available only to people who travel to the archive location. It is also an effort to preserve information stored in a medium which is known to have a short life.

Apart from individual and institutional initiatives, such as EVIA, the need to preserve field notes has also been recognized at a larger organizational level. The Council for the Preservation of Anthropological Records acknowledges that unpublished anthropological records contain valuable information which, if not preserved, will be irreplaceable in today’s world of rapid socio-cultural change. CoPAR therefore issued guidelines to ensure that this body of information is preserved and accessible to researchers. (Parezo 1999; )

The Nuer Field Notes Project should be seen in this context. Its goal is to preserve and make accessible a set of linguistic field notes recorded by Eleanor Vandevort, who was a missionary in the South Sudan between 1949 and 1963. The project was funded by Indiana University’s African Studies Program and the Indiana University Libraries, and it was conducted by Marion Frank-Wilson (Librarian for African Studies, Indiana University), Edward Miner (International Studies Bibliographer, University of Iowa), and members of Indiana University’s Digital Library Program.

Project Development

As an Africana librarian, I was well aware of the problem of hidden collections of field notes, and for several years it has been a major concern of mine to find a way to provide access to these important collections. In 2000, I received money for a pilot project to digitally preserve and provide access to a set of field notes. The money was part of Indiana University’s African Studies Program’s federal grant from the U.S. Department of Education Title VI Program. If successful, the pilot project would become the basis for a more extensive field note preservation project. Around the time funding for digitizing was granted, we received a gift of field notes for the Africana Collection. The gift consisted of linguistic notes on the Nuer language in various forms, donated by Eleanor Vandevort, a former Presbyterian missionary to the South Sudan. Ms. Vandevort had worked in Nasir, Southern Sudan, among the Nuer for 13 years. Her assignment had been to evangelize the villages around the Nasir mission station and, more specifically, to create pedagogical materials for both Nuer and non-Nuer, as well as to produce Bible translations that could be used by her and her successors in the missionary endeavor. The field notes she donated were compiled during her years in Nasir. In the fall of 2000, Edward Miner joined the African Studies Collection at IU as the Libraries’ Postdoctoral Mellon Fellow (the Postdoctoral Mellon Fellowship is a program, supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, for the training of an African Studies or Slavic Studies Research librarian). The fellowship for the academic year 2000/01 went to Dr. Miner. With our backgrounds in Africana librarianship/bibliography and Linguistics/Literature (Edward Miner has a Ph.D. in African Linguistics whereas my Ph.D. is in African Literature with some work in Linguistics), we realized that Ms. Vandevort’s notes were unique both in terms of format and content, and she enthusiastically endorsed our proposal to digitize them. After obtaining formal permission, Edward Miner and I began to work on the project as co-editors in the spring of 2001.

Collection Description

Ms. Vandevort’s studies of the Nuer language began with a brief course at the Summer Institute of Linguistics in Norman, OK, shortly before she left for the South Sudan, and were to continue during her 13 years in Nasir. Most of her studies were undertaken in collaboration with Kuac, a Nuer who converted to Christianity, and became a pastor within the Presbyterian Church. Kuac was her teacher of Nuer with whom she discussed its grammar and vocabulary. It is during those years that her linguistic field notes were created. Later, she and Kuac also collaborated on translating parts of the Bible. Ms. Vandevort recorded most of her notes on index cards, and used a calendar to develop verb rules. The mission station at Nasir was isolated during those days and could only be reached by boat. One imagines that she used whatever material was available to her for her language studies. In order to preserve not only the content but also the unique format of her notes, we decided to scan them so they would be displayed in their original form. Additionally, we included databases with transcriptions of the notes to improve access for linguistic researchers. The body of field notes consists of:

Several sets of index cards with, Nouns, Verbs, and Expressions
Pedagogical Grammar of Nuer, published in 1958 and not held by any U.S. Library
Genesis in Nuer

After her return from the South Sudan in 1963, Ms. Vandevort began work on a book in which she writes about her experiences as a missionary in the South Sudan. The book, published in 1968 under the title A Leopard Tamed, is about her life among the Nuer, and by extension it is also an ethnographic account of Nuer culture and world view. The inspiration for the book’s title was Kuac, and the book describes his dilemmas as a Nuer pastor among American missionaries. It also describes the context of Ms. Vandevort’s language studies with Kuac and as such provides insights into the creation of the field notes. Realizing that the book and the notes complement each other, we obtained permission to include a scanned version of it in this project.

Little research has been conducted and published on Nuer linguistics and ethnography since the noted works by Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard in the 1930s -- a fact which can easily be explained with almost 50 years of civil war in the area and the resulting unsafe conditions for researchers. In order to provide a contextual framework for the body of Ms. Vandevort’s field notes, both Edward Miner and I conducted additional research. This research included visits to the Presbyterian Historical Society Archives in Philadelphia (by Dr. Miner) to view personnel files and to the Billy Graham Archives at Wheaton College in Illinois (by myself) where Ms. Vandevort deposited some of her correspondence.

The visit to Wheaton College, as well as a series of interviews conducted over e-mail and the telephone between June and August 2003 with Ms. Vandevort, are the basis of my essay, "Eleanor Vandevort --13 Years as a Missionary in the South Sudan." This essay gives a brief biographical overview of Ms. Vandevort’s life and reflects on topics such as her work as a missionary, the relevance of missionary work, issues related to translating the Bible, and central to all of these, her relationship with Kuac. These are topics discussed in her 1968 book, and the essay provides her perspective in 2003.

Dr. Miner’s research focused largely on the history of missionary work among the Nuer and the linguistic description of their language. Ms. Vandevort’s work represents the most recent known fieldwork on the Nuer language since the 1930s. Moreover, a literature search made clear that much of the little that had been published on the Nuer language previous to Vandevort’s work had come from previous generations of missionary linguists at the Nasir mission, especially Ray Huffman. In short, it became clear that the history of Nuer linguistic description is in part the history of the Nasir mission itself. For more detailed information, see Dr. Miner’s essay on "History of Colonial and Missionary Linguistics in the South Sudan."

For a more detailed overview of the existing literature, see A Note on Nuer Studies and the Bibliography.

Potential Audience

Access to the field notes will be interesting to a variety of students and researchers. Linguists and anthropologists specializing in the languages and ethnic groups of Sudan and Ethiopia will have an interest, as well as anthropologists specializing on the Nuer more specifically. Moreover, a wide range of people in disciplines such as anthropology/ethnology and other social sciences which use primary data for analyses might find this project of interest. It could, for example, be used by faculty members in classes for those students who haven’t yet had the opportunity to do their own field research. Since our project contains original field notes, it lends itself to use in discussions about conducting and recording field research.

Electronic Publishing

While both Edward Miner and myself had previously edited texts for publication, neither of us have been involved in editing a book in electronic form. When we began this project, we knew we would face a multitude of problems, issues, and decisions. We were nevertheless convinced that the digital format was the ideal mode of publication for Ms. Vandevort’s field notes. It enabled us to display her complete notes, thus preserving their uniqueness. At the same time, it allowed us to add transcriptions of her notes which linked to the scanned images. Moreover, by creating a number of hyperlinks between the various sections of the project, we created an environment that allows the users to develop their own interpretative connections.

The primary concern of this project is to preserve and provide access to Eleanor Vandevort’s field notes, thereby publishing her contribution to Nuer linguistics and ethnography. However, the project should also be seen within the larger context of digital scholarship and scholarly communication in the 21st century. The digital projects mentioned at the beginning of this introduction are an indication of the shift in scholarly publishing trends towards the electronic medium. Other ongoing e-book projects include the Gutenberg-e History Monograph project of Columbia University (for a more detailed description, see ), and historian Robert Darnton’s (Princeton University) e-book about the book publishing trade in 18th century France, which has been commissioned by Oxford University Press. A recent issue of Library Journal Academic Newswire (July 31, 2002) reports on the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) success with the History E-Book Project and suggests that e-books might be the way of the future. Jerome McGann, a professor at the University of Virginia who is part of the team creating the Rossetti Archive, a digital archive of the complete writings and pictures of the English pre-Raphaelite poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, even goes so far as to predict that “In the next 50 years, the entirety of our inherited archive of cultural works will have to be re-edited within a network of digital storage, access, and dissemination.” (McGann 2002:B7). He points out that the electronic medium with its potential to create connections through a multitude of hyperlinks encourages readers to "explore not so much the "meanings" of materials as their many possibilities of meaning." (McGann 2002: B9).

To create a framework for many different uses and interpretations is what we had in mind for this project. With its original notes, images, and contextual essays, as well as with the connections created by hyperlinks, we envision a multitude of uses for the notes - depending on the different kinds of audiences described above.

Technical Decisions

Decisions about the technical side of the project were made in consultation with Indiana University’s Digital Library Program. We knew that decisions about software early on would have an impact on the accessibility of the field notes in the long-term. The technical choices we finally settled on for the project are based on extensive research by Dr. Miner in those early stages.

To provide for long-term accessibility, the key issues for digitizing the fieldnotes were to develop a means of storing the Nuer orthography in Unicode and to create images of archival quality. While the Nuer orthography is roman-based, it makes use of combinations of diacritics that are not represented in the ASCII character set. We found that although Unicode character sets have been developed for languages as diverse as Chinese and Georgian, Nuer and other African languages are still not yet on the map. It became clear that the only solution would be to represent Nuer orthography with existing Unicode characters, and to build a keyboard from scratch for entering them into a text file.

We used a Unicode text editor called UniPad, which is available as a trial version from UniPad is a plain text Unicode editor. As such, it does not support text formatting and is not language oriented. It contains a keyboard emulator, which enabled us to customize a Nuer keyboard layout without having to change the Windows keyboard layout. It allowed us to bypass the Windows keyboard driver in directly mapping physical keys to specific base characters or diacritics.

Having actually customized and loaded a Nuer keyboard layout definition file, we began to experiment with keying in examples of Nuer text. An immediate problem was that some base characters and diacritics could not be viewed in their ‘composed’ form within the text editor: rather, one would see a left-to-right sequence of base characters followed by one to three associated diacritics with ‘place holders’. In exploring the Unicode Consortium website, it became apparent that the key to getting Unicode to display properly involves (1) installing fonts that cover the needed characters and (2) configuring the browser to use them. For more information on viewing Nuer characters from this site properly in your web browser, see our Viewing Tips page.

Nuer Field Project Nouns Verbs Verb Book Expressions Grammar Genesis Others