Newman, Paul, and Martha Ratliff, ed. (2001) Linguistic Fieldwork.
Cambridge University Press, xii+288pp, hardback ISBN 0-521-66-49-1,
$69.95; paperback ISBN 0-521-66937-5, $29.95.
Gary Holton, Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska
A recent resurgence of interest in linguistic fieldwork has been
reflected in the appearance of several new "how-to" manuals (e.g.
Payne 1997; Vaux and Cooper 1999). Yet this book stands apart. It
does not purport to describe fieldwork methodology but rather
presents a series of personal reflections on fieldwork from some
of the leading practitioners in the discipline. While some of
these human aspects of fieldwork were addressed in Shopen (1979)
(particularly Craig 1979), the present work presents many fresh
voices and perspectives.
The "Introduction" by the editors Paul Newman and Martha Ratliff
makes a noble attempt to weave the diverse stories together. This
is not always an easy task. Fieldwork is not a single entity to
be defined in one stroke. Rather, different linguists, different
subfields, and even different tasks will require different
approaches. These essays are largely personal anecdotes
reflecting the authors' personal experiences with linguistic
And yet, in spite of the personal differences many common issues
arise. The editors identify five basic issues which are addressed
by many of the contributors (p. 2).
- the role of native speakers
- the role of language learning
- structure and flexibility of the research
- personal difficulties and rewards
The editors then infer, correctly I believe, that these issues
are important to any discussion of the "human aspect of
linguistic fieldwork" (p. 2).
The contributors are: Larry M. Hyman, Marianne Mithun, Gerrit
J.Dimmendaal, Ken Hale, David Gil, Nancy C. Dorian, Shobhana L.
Chelliah, Daniel L. Everett, Fiona McLaughlin, Thierno Seydou
Sall, Ian Maddieson, Keren Rice, Nicholas Evans. Each essay is
DESCRIPTION OF CONTENTS
Larry M. Hyman's "Fieldwork as a state of mind" strives first
toward a definition of fieldwork. In recent years linguists have
been willing to label activities conducted as part of an academic
field methods course as "fieldwork". Hyman emphatically stresses
that this is not prototypical fieldwork, which he characterizes
as having an elicitee other than oneself; oneself as observer;
occurring far from one's domicile; small (rural) setting; long in
duration; exotic language; language in its cultural context;
naturalistic data; and languages-driven motivation (p. 21). While
not everyone will agree with this definition of field work, the
last parameter of motivation is an important one, recognized by
other contributors elsewhere in the volume. In Hyman's view
fieldwork is not so much a set of activities or methodologies but
rather an approach to doing linguistics. Many linguists may only
visit the "field" during an intense period of research associated
with dissertation work. However, this "rite of passage" plays an
important role in shaping one's approach to linguistics beyond
the field. A fieldworker remains a field linguist well beyond the
In "Who shapes the record: The speaker and the linguist", Marianne
Mithun begins by stating an important but often overlooked fact.
Namely, for many languages "what we choose to document may be the
principal record of an entire linguistic tradition" (p. 34).
Given this warning it is important to pay attention to the choice
of fieldwork methodology, the role of the speaker in fieldwork,
and the "preparation and sensitivity of the linguist" (p. 34).
Mithun does not merely advocate for a particular methodology.
Instead, she presents copious examples demonstrating that
different types of methods yield different types of data, and
hence may be used to address different types of questions. Mithun
compares elicited and natural data from Central Pomo in order to
clearly demonstrate what can be missed if the linguist's
methodology is too narrowly circumscribed. This point seems
intimately linked to Mithun's other two points, regarding the
speaker's role and the linguist's sensitivity. In order to
provide natural data, the speaker must "be given the opportunity
to choose what to say and how to say it" (p. 51).
Gerrit J. Dimmendaal's "Places and people: Field sites and
informants" provides a practical step-by-step guide to preparing
for the field, setting oneself up at the field site, selecting
speakers, and conducting research. Dimmendaal emphasizes the
importance of making official contacts and ingratiating oneself
into the local language community. Dimmendaal draws on personal
experience to provide advice on choosing speakers to work with
and dealing with sometimes delicate issues such as payments to
speakers. The section entitled "Indigenous knowledge systems and
problems in interpretation" picks up a theme addressed by many
contributors to this volume, namely, the importance of letting
the language speak for itself rather than imposing on it some
preconceived categories. Finally, Dimmendaal notes the importance
of "listening to peoples' conversations" and "try[ing] to speak
the language oneself" (p. 72). While Dimmendaal presents this as
an alternative strategy, it seems to be a very important
Ken Hale's essay, "Ulwa (Southern Sumu): The beginnings of a
language research project", takes a somewhat different approach.
Rather than drawing on myriad experiences from his many years of
fieldwork experience, Hale presents a case study from a single
fieldwork project, beginning with its origins in the desires of a
language community to preserve their language and continuing
through the evolution of an ongoing (if tenuous) project to
document and revitalize the language. Hale describes in exacting
detail all of the procedures necessary to prepare for and carry
out his Ulwa fieldwork. Hale even includes a copy of the first
page of his Ulwa field notes and proceeds to dissect each line of
the notes, elaborating on his motivations for eliciting one form
David Gil's "Escaping Eurocentrism: Fieldwork as a process of
unlearning" points out the hazards of using predefined
("Eurocentric") categories in analyzing non-Indo-European
languages. Drawing on fieldwork with Hokkien, Tagalog, and Malay,
Gil provides numerous examples of what he labels
"macrofunctionality", in which a given linguistic form may encode
what would in European languages be labeled as more than one
distinct function. Some may take issue with Gil's claim that
Tagalog "simply does without the traditional parts of speech" and
has no distinction "between lexical categories and their phrasal
projections" (p. 114), but Gil nevertheless presents a persuasive
argument that field workers must approach a language without
Nancy C. Dorian's "Surprises in Sutherland: Linguistic
variability amidst social uniformity" is another very personal
account, which begins with her choice of field language as a
student, her search for a field site, and continues through the
evolution of her research project as she came to know the
linguistic situation at her field site. For Dorian--perhaps more
obviously than for other contributors to this volume--fieldwork
is a personal journey. In her words, "fieldwork is simultaneously
a professional and a personal experience" (p. 148).
Shobhana L. Chelliah's "The role of text collection and
elicitation in linguistic fieldwork" cites many examples from her
fieldwork with Meithei (Tibeto-Burman) to show how the use of
textual data can overcome the limitations of direct elicitation
and grammaticality judgments. She advocates a "text-based
elicitation" approach whereby one speaker provides a text, a
second assists with transcription and translation, while a third
works through questions raised by a text.
Daniel L. Everett's "Monolingual field research" directly
addresses the question of what degree of language learning is
required of the fieldworker. In most fieldwork scenarios a
linguist works through the medium of a "contact" language. While
the linguist may be actively learning the target language, that
is often tacitly considered to be secondary. Everett argues for a
different approach to linguistic fieldwork, based on first
learning the target language to a sufficient degree to conduct
the research in the medium of the target language. Language
learning facilitates a holistic approach to fieldwork and is a
"natural, enjoyable, and maximally productive way to gain
familiarity and understanding of the interactions between
different components of the grammar simultaneously" (p. 170).
Everett provides advice on techniques for language learning in a
fieldwork situation, establishing the monolingual approach as
valid methodology with distinct advantages over the traditional
contact language method.
In "The give and take of fieldwork: Noun classes and other
concerns in Fatick, Senegal", Fiona McLaughlin and Thierno Seydou
Sall present parallel essays from the respective viewpoints of
fieldworker and consultant. McLaughlin presents one of the
darkest perspectives in the volume, dwelling at length on the
difficulties of life in the third world and the awkward nature of
monetary transactions between linguist and consultant. The
linguist's role as employer is one that few come to the field
prepared for. Sall's parallel essay provides insights into this
issue from the perspective of a consultant who engages in
cooperative fieldwork out of interest for the language but who
nevertheless is happy to be paid.
Ian Maddieson's "Phonetic fieldwork" is the most pragmatic essay
in the volume. Written from the perspective of a linguist who
takes fieldwork for granted, there is no angst in this essay.
Rather, Maddieson presents a practical guide to doing phonetic
fieldwork, including a concise discussion of equipment.
Especially useful is a table comparing the advantages of various
recording media (p. 227). Maddieson's careful exposition is
intended to motivate field workers to include more detailed
phonetic description in their work, which he notes sometimes
contains "nothing more than a list of symbols" (p. 228). Indeed,
we think of "grammatical description" as including phonology and
discourse, but not usually phonetics. But if field workers are
truly dedicated to "whole language" (as stated explicitly in the
essays by Hyman and Gil), then phonetic description must of
necessity be included in their field work.
In "Learning as one goes", Keren Rice presents a personal story of
lessons learned during a lifetime of fieldwork with Slave
(Athapaskan). Rice's insights are presented along with the data
which led to them, so that the reader can share her "aha!" and
see clearly how these insights could have been (or were at first)
missed with a more constrained approach. But perhaps the most
valuable part of Rice's essay--indeed of the entire volume--is
the list of fieldwork slogans, beginning with "Pay careful
attention to information ... the speaker ... wants you to hear"
and ending with "Be open to learn" (p. 230). This simple
nine-item list seems to summarize not only Rice's advice for
fieldworkers but also the collective wisdom of all the
contributors to the volume. If I could read only one page of this
book, it would be this one.
In "The last speaker is dead--Long live the last speaker!"
Nicholas Evans draws on his Australian fieldwork to address the
issues associated with what has come to be known as "salvage
linguistics", namely, working with the last speakers of a
moribund language. This type of work requires special care in
order to generate valid results. The first part of Evans' essay
is devoted to the process of identifying last speakers. This can
be problematic, since it can be difficult to distinguish language
knowledge from language ownership. While Evans construes this as
an areal phenomenon, the problem of distinguishing competence
from ownership exists in many endangered language fieldwork
situations. As Evans notes, last speakers tend to be highly
multi-lingual, and "affiliation to language is primarily a matter
of social group membership rather than actual competence" (p.
253). Of course, identifying last speakers requires some concept
of what constitutes fluency. And as Evans points out in the
second part of the essay, fluency itself is an evolving concept
which may change over time. The linguist needs to be aware of
parameters which may affect the evaluation of fluency and be
careful not to discount speakers who may "become fluent" in time,
for example by practice or by a change in the potential speaker's
personal life. Of special note here is Evans' concept of
"amplifying", whereby "the death of one speaker precipitates a
decline, rather than an improvement, in the abilities of another
(special type of) speaker" (p. 274).
One voice which is notably absent from this collection is that of
mentored approaches to fieldwork, as exemplified by the Kaufman
and Justeson's Mesoamerica work and Genetti and Noonan's
Tibeto-Burman work. These projects bring together a number of
student linguists to engage in fieldwork in a structured setting
while being mentored by experienced fieldworkers. By removing
some of the uncertainties and personal hardships, this boot camp
approach may help fieldworkers avoid some of the pitfalls
described by the contributors to this volume. Clearly this
approach has its limitations, and most language documentation
work will require an independent commitment. However, it should
be recognized that many of the current generation of fieldworkers
cut their teeth in mentored projects before striking out alone.
The ramifications of this fact for fieldwork and the field of
linguistics are unfortunately not discussed in this volume.
One further criticism of the book regards the intended audience.
The dust jacket notes that the book "covers a wide range of field
areas" and "will be indispensable to fieldworkers in linguistics,
anthropology, folklore, and oral history." While many of the
essays do draw on writings about field work in other disciplines,
this is clearly a book written by linguists about linguistic
These essays provide entertaining reading for experienced field
workers, be they those for whom field work remains part of daily
life or those for whom field work is a "state of mind" which
shapes their approach to language and linguistics. Even armchair
field workers will recognize the stories of their colleagues in
these pages. While many distinct points of view are represented,
readers will surely identify with some part of each of the
personal experiences recounted in the essays.
But the book seems most useful for those preparing to go into the
field for the first time. The editors have done an excellent job
of bringing together leading fieldworkers to address the human
aspects of fieldwork. Ironically, these crucial issues are often
treated cursorily in field methods courses. Perhaps for that
reason fieldwork remains something of a black art which initiates
approach with great knowledge of the theories and techniques of
linguistic analysis but little preparation for the human
dimensions. Indeed, there is a danger that this book may
reinforce the feeling that these human aspects of fieldwork
cannot be taught in a classroom but must be learned on the ground
through direct experience. Nevertheless, this book fills an
important gap in field methods training.
One comes away from the essays convinced that every language does
indeed have a story to tell. This book will provide inspiration
and encouragement to those linguists willing to listen to those
stories. To quote again from Rice's essay: "Be open to learn."
Craig, Colette Grinevald (1979) Jacaltec: Field work in
Guatamala. Languages and Their Speakers, ed. by Timothy Shopen,
2-57. Cambridge: Winthrop.
Payne, Thomas Edward (1997) Describing Morphosyntax: A Guide for
Field Linguists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Shopen, Timothy, (ed.) (1979) Languages and Their Speakers.
Vaux, Bert, and Justin Cooper (1999) Introduction to Linguistic
Field Methods: LINCOM Europa Textbooks in Linguistics 1. Munich:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Gary Holton is Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the Alaska
Native Language Center, from where he pursues fieldwork with the
Athabascan languages of Alaska, particularly those of the upper
Tanana river region. His interests are in the areas of language
documentation, linguistic archiving, and language revitalization.