LINGUIST List 4.506

Tue 29 Jun 1993

FYI: The Joys of Fieldwork

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  1. Robert D Hoberman, Frustrations of field work

Message 1: Frustrations of field work

Date: Fri, 18 Jun 1993 15:23:24 Frustrations of field work
From: Robert D Hoberman <>
Subject: Frustrations of field work

The following description of the frustrations of linguistic
field work is from LIFE ON THE ALASKA MISSION, by Francis
Barnum, S.J. (Woodstock College Press, 1893). Barnum (1849-
1921) was the first Georgetown University archivist. This
excerpt was printed in GEORGETOWN magazine, Winter 1993, p.
62, along with introductory information and comments by Jon
Reynolds, the present archivist. (I'm posting it here
without having sought permission.)

Bob Hoberman
On arriving in Alaska, the first thing the missionary has to
do is to learn the language of the district in which he is
stationed. It is hard for those who are accustomed to the
aid of grammars and dictionaries, to realize what trouble it
is to acquire a strange idiom without any help.

One would scarcely believe what an amount of patient
investigation is necessary to obtain the various expres-
sions, so as to feel sure of their exact meaning. Let us
take an example. Suppose we are in a boat, you pick up an
oar, point to it and say,

"Cha" = what?
The native whom you address, gazes placidly at you, and
which means,
"I would like some tobacco."
You proceed to write in your note-book,

You feel that you have a start, and so you endeavor to
obtain the verb. Therefore you row a few strokes, and then
you "cha" again. Probably by this time, he is sulky at not
receiving the desired chew, or he is somewhat suspicious
over that mysterious proceeding of yours with the pencil, so
he pays no further attention to you. If he is a very
intelligent fellow, he will say "Thou hast been rowing."
Splendid! Down it goes in the notebook. You notice that
there is no similarity between the two words; well, after
all, there is none in English either. Next you point to one
who is rowing near you and "cha." The answer comes, and it
is in the dual, but down it goes as your "third singular."
Now you brace for a mighty effort, the hardest of all, to
obtain the first person singular. "How do you say, I row?"
is what you express as clearly as you can. Thou rowest is
the invariable replay [sic?]. Or he may suppose you wish a
friendly criticism on your stroke, and with native
simplicity says, "Thou rowest very poorly." For the first
plural you designate yourself and others, and the reply is
"Ye row." When you get to the third plural and point to all
rowing, you promptly get the word, "We are tired of rowing."
They wish to rest and to have something to eat. When you
have made out your paradigm at the mission, it will run, in
English, somewhat as follows:

Oar=I would like some tobacco.

1st person Singular: Thou rowest very poorly.

2nd person Singular: What do you want.

3rd person Singular: You are both rowing.

1st person Plural: Ye row.

2nd Person Plural: Thou hast been rowing.

3rd Person Plural: We are tired of rowing.

After this comes the verification, which is far more
difficult and slow. You will soon find out by continual
research and comparison, that there is evidently something
wrong about that word for oar. Then you notice that on
using the first person singular of your verb, that the
person addressed appears neither interested nor flattered,
so it must be wrong too, and thus the whole tense is
laboriously reconstructed.
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