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Review of  Linguistic Fieldwork

Reviewer: Pam Arlund
Book Title: Linguistic Fieldwork
Book Author: Paul Newman Martha Ratliff
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 12.3098

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Newman, Paul, and Martha Ratliff, ed. (2001) Linguistic Fieldwork.
Cambridge University Press, hardback ISBN: 0-521- 66049-1,
xii+288pp, $69.95 (paperback ISBN 0-521-66937-5)

Pam Arlund, The University of Texas at Arlington and Kashgar
Teacher's College

[Another review of this book can be found at --Eds.]

This volume offers an interesting array of twelve essays
centered around the topic of linguistic fieldwork. The
editors invited each of the twelve authors to contribute
articles that elucidated any aspect of fieldwork that they
felt were important in their own development as linguists.
As a result, the essays differ widely in tone, style, and
content, with little except the overarching topic of
linguistic fieldwork to pull them together. However, rather
than detract from the quality of the collection, this is
precisely its strength. The book does have technical
aspects but reads more like the combined wisdom and
introspection of twelve linguists who have made mistakes
and learned from them. The introspective and personal
nature of each of the essays is precisely what makes the
book most valuable.

The introduction to the book identifies two main goals for
the collection: (1) to motivate more linguists to undertake
field work and (2) to tell what it is really like to do
research on the field. It remains to be seen whether the
book will meet its first goal, but it has certainly met the
second. The twelve contributors were apparently quite open
in discussing both their failures and their successes while
on the field. There seems to be little effort throughout
the essays to hide problems and failures in difficult field

The introduction identifies five main points that run
throughout the articles: (1) Informants and what their
roles can and should be in the work, (2) A strong advocacy
for learning the language under investigation, (3) The
importance of maintaining flexibility and open-mindedness,
(4) The more personal and emotional aspects of fieldwork,
and (5) Ethical concerns such as obligations towards the
language helper and the community under investigation. To
this list, I would add the importance of discourse, i.e.
studying and collecting language in natural contexts.
Several of the authors stress that elicitation alone is not
enough to answer all the questions the investigator has
about a language. Indeed, the investigator may not even
know the proper questions to ask. Studying natural language
(and learning to speak the language) can provide answers to
questions that were raised during elicitation sessions and
vice versa.

The book opens with an essay by Larry Hyman (15-33) in
which he explores the definition of fieldwork. He argues
that a fieldworker may or may not be someone in a
prototypical field situation (which he defines) but someone
who has a sense of adventure and is dedicated to studying
whatever languages have to offer. He speaks from his
experience in Nigeria and Cameroon in 1970.

In the second article, Marianne Mithun (34-54) discusses
the advantages and disadvantages of direct elicitation vs.
natural speech as a research methodology. She advocates
allowing speakers to have a large role in shaping the
nature of sessions with the linguist. She argues that this
and the study of natural discourse can reveal interesting
and unusual lexical and grammatical patterns that might not
be discovered through a standard elicitation technique. She
has done fieldwork on several languages of North America,

Gerrit J. Dimmendaal (55-75), pulling from his experience
in Kenya and Ethiopia, offers practical guidelines for
selecting a field site and a good language informant. He
also discusses remuneration for the informant and ways to
identify strengths and weaknesses of informants. He ends
with an appeal for the linguist to study the language under

Ken Hale (76-101) tells the story of his investigations in
Nicaragua stressing the importance of community involvement
in that project. It provides a helpful case study of how to
be involved in language projects that are initiated by
particular language communities, a less common situation
but one that linguists ought to be aware of. He also
strongly advocates learning the language under
investigation. Like Mithun, he believes in letting
informants have some leeway to shape language sessions and
advises that linguists write down whatever informants feel
is important.

David Gil's essay (102-132) is likely to be the most
controversial in the collection. In it, he argues that many
traditional grammatical universals (such as grammatical
categories) are Eurocentric and may not have any relevance
to data collected on the field. In fact, such preconceived
notions may hide other, simpler, more elegant analyses of
the data. He encourages fieldworkers to employ bottom up
processing and allow the data to speak for itself without
squeezing it into inappropriate theoretical boxes. He
provides examples from his work on Hokkien, Tagalog, and
Riau Indonesian.

Nancy C. Dorian's (133-151) essay is one of the most
personal in the book. She discusses her work in Scotland in
the 1960s, mentioning her challenges with the cultural
aspects of living in the community, her status as an
outsider, and the expectations placed upon the project by
the governmental authorities to whom she was responsible.
She argues that fieldworkers should consult a large number
of language helpers on the field. Like several other essays
in this collection, this one also advocates learning the
language under investigation.

Shobhana L. Chelliah (152-165), working on Meithei in
northern India, advocates using elicitation and text
analysis together for maximum research benefit. She
provides clear, practical suggestions on how to structure
fieldwork sessions for maximum benefit and enjoyment to the
researcher and the consultant. Like Gil, she warns against
being misled by preconceptions brought to the data from
various grammar theories.

Daniel L. Everett (166-188), who has worked on Pirah� (an
Amazonian language), advocates the monolingual field
approach to research and language learning as the optimal
way in which to do fieldwork. He argues that this method
enables the linguist to develop intuitive knowledge of a
language and allows the researcher to enter the community
as a student in a subordinate position rather than as a
teacher in a superior position. Throughout the essay he
provides advice and anecdotes from his own experience using
the monolingual method in his own research.

Fiona McLaughlin and Thierno Seydou Sall (189-210)
contribute what is perhaps the most personal essay in the
collection. They share their experiences as linguist
(Mclaughlin) and consultant (Sall) while Mclaughlin was
working on her Ph.D. in Senegal. Each gives their own
perspectives on the emotional and cultural challenges they
had to overcome during their time working together.
McLaughlin discusses issues such as how to select a place
to live, how to confront intense poverty, and problems of
cultural stress. Sall relates how he came to work with
McLaughlin and the fears and social pressures he
experienced from having done so. He also addresses his own
feelings of inadequacy and embarrassment at his own poverty
and how that influenced his relationship with McLaughlin.
Sall's perspective makes this one of the most interesting
and enriching essays in the book.

Ian Maddieson's (211-229) chapter is one of the least
personal (though he does refer to his own experience) and
the most systematic in the book. He provides charts,
examples, and advice on methods for doing phonetic analysis
in a field situation, including several helpful hints on
how to elicit phonetic data. There is not enough
information on any one technique to immediately begin using
it, but the essay gives a helpful overview of the kinds of
phonetic analysis that are available.

Keren Rice (230-249) offers advice on topics ranging from
the importance of paying attention to what speakers feel is
important (there is a reason why the feel it is important)
to the need to be theoretically informed. She opens her
article by listing nine very well conceived slogans to
remember in any field situation. Each of her slogans hits
upon topics covered and reinforced in many of the other
essays in the book. She speaks from her experience in
researching the Hare dialect of Slave (Canada) in the

Nicholas Evans (250-281), speaking from the Australian
perspective, addresses techniques for finding last speakers
and how to revive their knowledge of their language. The
article includes much material that is specific to people
groups of Australia and how the communities judge who has a
right to be considered an "owner" of a language. He also
addresses some of the sociolinguistic problems that arise
when working in situations where there are very few
speakers left. This article would be of interest to those
researching endangered languages.

The main strength of this book lies in the personal
testimonies and stories of fieldwork that each author
offered. Indeed, the book feels rather like an opportunity
to sit down with seasoned linguists over a cup of coffee
and ask them what they learned through their bumps and
bruises. Each author is honest in his/her shortcomings and
what they wished they had done differently. Seasoned
workers may find a few suggestions to help them overcome
obstacles in their own research while those who have not
yet been on the field can perhaps learn not to make the
same mistakes.

The book is not meant to be a systematic field manual. It
can, however, serve as an excellent supplementary textbook
for a Field Methods class. Students will likely find the
personal anecdotes interesting while learning sound methods
for field research. The book also addresses topics (such as
emotional aspects of field life and obligations to the
community) that are important but often not covered in more
traditional textbooks.

The main weakness of the book is one that is pointed out by
the editors themselves. Because all the linguists in the
book were on the field about the same length of time (a few
months to a year and a half), that paradigm begins to feel
normative. This is certainly not true in many cases where
linguists may spend only a few days or perhaps a few years
in one particular setting. A brief mention in the
introduction may not be enough to overcome the feeling that
a few months to a year is the "proper" amount of time to do
field research.

Overall, the book is sure to be of interest to anyone
interested in linguistic fieldwork, whether they have many
years experience or are considering undertaking their own
fieldwork in the future.

Pam Arlund is a Field Linguist working in Xinjiang, China.
She has lived in China since 1997 and has been researching
and studying Sarikol Tajik (an Indo-Iranian language of
China) since 1999. She has also done fieldwork in Mandarin
Chinese and Uyghur. She is working on her Ph.D. in
Linguistics at The University of Texas at Arlington.


Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0521660491
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 300
Prices: U.S. $ 70
U.K. £ 45

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0521669375
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 360
Prices: U.S. $ 26
U.K. £ 16.95