Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login
amazon logo
More Info

New from Oxford University Press!


How Traditions Live and Die

By Olivier Morin

This book brings together cognitive science and quantitative cultural history to look into the causes of cultural survival.

New from Cambridge University Press!


The Acquisition of Heritage Languages

By Silvina Montrul

"This work centres on the grammatical development of the heritage language and the language learning trajectory of heritage speakers, synthesizing recent experimental research."

Review of  Handbook of Descriptive Linguistic Fieldwork

Reviewer: Daniel William Hieber
Book Title: Handbook of Descriptive Linguistic Fieldwork
Book Author: Shobhana Lakshmi Chelliah Willem J. de Reuse
Publisher: Springer
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 22.3129

Discuss this Review
Help on Posting
AUTHORS: Shobhana L. Chelliah and Willem J. de Reuse
TITLE: Handbook of Descriptive Linguistic Fieldwork
YEAR: 2011

Daniel W. Hieber, Associate Researcher, Rosetta Stone


In recent years there have been a number of books devoted to linguistic
fieldwork (Abbi 2001; Aikhenvald 2007; Bowern 2008; Crowley 2007; Newman &
Ratliff 2001; Vaux & Cooper 1998; Vaux et al. 2007). Each of these books limits
their scope in some way, whether by favoring in-depth discussions of specific
topics (e.g. Newman & Ratliff 2001), or focusing primarily on the pragmatic and
practical (e.g. Bowern 2008), or basing the discussion largely on one's personal
experiences (e.g. Crowley 2007). The Handbook of Descriptive Linguistic
Fieldwork, by contrast, aims to be comprehensive in scope, serving
simultaneously as survey, reference, and handbook. It includes many of the
sections one expects to see in such a handbook (e.g. ethics, data management,
field preparation) as well as several novel ones (e.g. history of linguistic
fieldwork), and its scope is significantly broader than that of other guidebooks
in respect to its geographical, historical, theoretical, and encyclopedic
coverage. It is intended for both professional linguists and students of
linguistics who intend to conduct descriptive linguistic fieldwork.


The book's chapters are organized in roughly the same order that a field
linguist can expect to encounter their various topics, beginning with an
overview of the subfield and its history (Chs. 1-3), then moving through the
logistics of selecting a language and field preparation (Chs. 4-5), interaction
with native speakers and the ethics of doing so (Chs. 6-7), data management,
planning, and organization (Ch. 8), and finally the specifics of doing work on
phonetics and phonology, morphosyntax, and semantics and pragmatics (Chs. 9-13).

The Introduction lays out the aim, audience, and scope of the book as outlined
above, with an overview of previous work on the topic. Chapter 2, ''Definition
and Goals of Descriptive Linguistic Fieldwork'', defines fieldwork as ''the
investigation of the structure of a language through the collection of primary
language data gathered through interaction with native-speaking consultants''
(7), but also surveys the conflicted literature as to what precisely constitutes
fieldwork (as well as who does it, where, and what activities it includes). The
goals of linguistic fieldwork are divided into primary, secondary, and ancillary
aims, which correspond roughly to documentation/description, instruction, and
theory respectively. The primary goals are listed as descriptive and
documentary, and the authors devote space to discussing the relationship between
the two, while noting some of their own reservations about the distinction. The
secondary goals are divided into religious instruction and instruction for
language revitalization. Ancillary goals are listed as: non-comparative
theoretical goals, comparative theoretical goals,
dialectological/sociolinguistic goals, and goals regarding culture and
cognition. Many linguists, however, might take issue with this taxonomy and the
rankings assigned to each type of goal. The authors do not address this issue.

Chapter 3, ''The History of Linguistic Fieldwork'', is a unique and welcome
addition to books on this topic, doubly so because it covers not just the modern
tradition of fieldwork since Franz Boas, but as far back as the earliest work by
Christian missionaries. The authors also create a useful taxonomy of historical
fieldwork. Unfortunately, the chapter is more of a reference work than a
history. It details primarily who did what fieldwork where and when, with very
broad geographic and historical coverage, but omits details regarding the
historical, political, and ideological contexts in which the fieldwork was
conducted. Why, for example, were early Christian scholars interested in
language, and what was their view of fieldwork? Moreover, what was the
indigenous reaction to these activities? (This latter question, in particular,
is useful for fieldworkers to know before doing fieldwork in a region.) However,
as a reference for scholars wanting to learn more about the history of fieldwork
in their region of interest, the chapter is invaluable. In addition, it
highlights the importance and limitations of studying the history of fieldwork,
and includes a rather interesting note about the Africanist tradition in
fieldwork, noting the Africanists' general reservations towards fieldwork for
the purpose of language revitalization.

The shortest substantial chapter in the book, Chapter 4, covers how fieldwork
languages are chosen - whether the fieldworker chooses the language, the
community chooses the fieldworker, or the advisor tells the student fieldworker,
'go work on this language'. The latter half of the chapter is a compilation of
handbooks, atlases, and other references which provide overviews of languages,
language families, or regions, to help with language selection.

Chapter 5, ''Field Preparation: Philological, Practical, and Psychological'', is
one of the longest chapters in the book, and also the most useful. The authors
divide preparation into four tasks: (1) background reading on language and
culture; (2) establishing expectations regarding the field situations and one's
own personality; (3) practical arrangements such as funding, contacts, and
equipment; and (4) permissions. Section (1) includes sage advice on the types of
materials you might encounter during background research, and tips for
re-eliciting archival data. The authors use the opportunity to point out the
importance of making one's own research usable and accessible to future
researchers. Some useful features of this chapter are a list of common reasons
why grant proposals are rejected, and notes on the timing of certain aspects of
applying for grants and obtaining permissions. The potential fieldworker would
do well to use this chapter as a checklist prior to departing for the field.

Chapter 6 discusses ''Fieldwork Ethics: the Rights and Responsibilities of the
Fieldworker''. Topics covered include: empowering speakers, responsibility for
students, data ownership and attribution, access rights to data, evangelism, and
personal conduct.

Chapter 7, ''Native Speakers and Fieldworkers'', lays out criteria to take into
consideration when selecting a language consultant, beginning with a lengthy
discussion of the various terms for 'language consultant' and 'linguist', and
the social relationships those terms imply. Section 5, ''Selection Based on
Speaker Characteristics'', is a thorough overview of qualities to look for in a
consultant, with some excellent and oft-overlooked advice (e.g. ways to test for
language proficiency). Payment and gifts are discussed here as well.

Chapter 8 covers ''Planning Sessions, Note Taking, and Data Management'', and
includes suggestions on the structure of a typical fieldwork session, a review
of different interviewing techniques, and advice on note-taking, record-keeping,
and keeping track of finances. The practical advice on note-taking is
particularly helpful, discussing notebooks, digital notes, organization,
metadata, and suggested abbreviations for noting the source of the data (e.g.
'el. ' for 'elicited', 'vol. ' for 'volunteered'). Another useful feature of
this chapter is the inclusion of a sample file structure, presented in outline form.

Chapter 9 addresses ''Lexicography in Fieldwork'' (as opposed to lexicography
generally, which has much broader scope and aims). The chapter discusses
wordlist elicitation and elicitation schedules, and includes a table of
commonly-used schedules, with notes as to their target region/language family.
Advice is given on interviewing techniques, and a sample dialogue between a
linguist and consultant is presented, with annotations. Finally, the chapter
ends with a short section on database management.

Chapter 10, ''Phonetic & Phonological Fieldwork'', reviews all the literature
containing advice on such fieldwork, and is thus a highly practical and useful
chapter. (Chapters 12 and 13, on morphosyntax and semantics/pragmatics, take
this approach as well, with the same result). Some topics covered include:
preparing wordlists, advice on phonetic transcription and ear training, and when
to switch to a phonemic transcription. Other useful features of this chapter are
a list of common difficulties encountered by native English speakers when doing
transcription (based on Bowern 2008:41), lists of common alternations and
allophones, and a list, with explanations, of common stress patterns in languages.

Chapter 11 details ''What to Expect in Morphosyntactic Typology and Terminology'',
and takes it as given that data gathering and analysis cannot be carried out in
sequence, but always overlap. The authors suggest first becoming broadly
familiar with linguistic typology before doing fieldwork, saving more specific
reading on grammatical phenomena until you encounter items of interest during
fieldwork. They then proceed to provide the reader with the resources necessary
for just this task. Thus, the first section reviews the major works on typology,
noting their foci, audiences, and strengths. Included is a 66-item list of some
of the more exemplary grammars based on fieldwork. The second part is then
divided into morphological and syntactic typology and terminology. The authors
briefly cover formal marking systems (head v. dependent, inverse, and
switch-reference), and then a short section on lexical categories. I found this
latter section to be largely unnecessary, since it was too brief to be much
help, nor did it meet the authors' usual standard of being an excellent
reference list. Much more useful, however, was the following section on
grammatical categories (perhaps better termed 'grammatical features', e.g.
person, number, etc.). Beginning with nouns, the authors list all the features
commonly associated with that part of speech (e.g. case, possession), and then
devote one or two paragraphs to each feature, with extensive references to
literature on the topic. This procedure is mimicked in the following two
sections on morphological and syntactic typology and terminology. The result is
that this chapter is the longest in the book, but that it serves as the
definitive starting place for the fieldworker who wants to know more about
specific grammatical phenomena cross-linguistically. The section on morphology
is broken down by terminology (e.g. word, morpheme, concatenative,
derivational), with brief but thoroughly-referenced discussions of each term,
while the section on syntax is more wide-ranging, covering theories of syntax,
syntactic phenomena (e.g. movement), and constituent types (e.g. NPs, verbless
predicates). Also overviewed are headedness and dependency, modularity, case
alignment systems, and gradience in grammatical categories, and grammatical
hierarchies. A final useful feature of this chapter is a list of vague or
ambiguous terms best avoided in language description, such as 'emphatic' or
'particle'. This far-ranging chapter is thus a definitive typological survey and
reference in itself. As the authors note, ''Before the fieldtrip, it is important
to decide which of the reference works the fieldworker will take, or what pages
[...] it is hoped that this chapter, intended as a quick and dirty survey, will
help the fieldworker decide what to read in the field, what to read in between
trips, and what to read after fieldtrips'' (340).

Chapter 12, ''Grammar Gathering Techniques'', surveys methods for getting at the
phenomena discussed in the previous chapter. It begins by discussing the
relationship between theory and data, posing three questions for data-gathering:

- Should data gathering be theory-driven or data-driven?
- Is data gathering performed in a predictable linear fashion?
- What data should be gathered?

The discussion which follows is an interesting one, and is fairly representative
of the differing views on the topic. The reader is encouraged to digest this
section carefully (though see my further comment under EVALUATION below). The
chapter is then divided into three more sections -- techniques for
morphosyntactic, syntactic, and morphological data gathering. The authors note
two criteria by which elicitation methods can be categorized: what controls
elicitation, and difficulty (rated from easy to perilous). Elicitation can be
either schedule-controlled or analysis-controlled. Analysis-controlled
elicitation techniques are classified according to the prompts or stimuli
utilized, while schedule-controlled elicitation is divided into analytical
questionnaires and translation questionnaires. Thus the authors divide each
section into surveys of schedule-controlled techniques and analysis-controlled
techniques, devoting several paragraphs to all the subtypes of each and their
pros and cons (with the usual helpful references). To illustrate the excellent
organization of this chapter with one example: Morphosyntax >
Analysis-Controlled Elicitation > Target Language Manipulation Elicitation >
Word-List Based Elicitation (easy). This is easily the most thorough typology of
elicitation methods I have seen, organized around a useful taxonomy.

The final chapter, on ''Semantics, Pragmatics, and Text Collection'', reviews a
topic which is often omitted in field manuals, and is thus a welcome addition.
Particularly impressive was the survey of pragmatic phenomena, where the authors
presented several lists of pragmatic categories (e.g. counterfactual
conditionals, factive verbs, contrastive topic, performatives, etc.) with some
general notes regarding their effects on the morphosyntax of the language. I was
also happy to see a section on conversation structure (e.g. repair systems,
overlap, controlling the flow of topics, etc.), which is often overlooked but
absolutely essential to language-learners in revitalization projects. Finally,
the authors present a strong case for text collection, as well as a typology of
textual types and an overview of methods for text elicitation. A useful feature
of this chapter covers the task of transcribing, with a suggested workflow from
Foley (2002).


This book is exceptionally well-organized, with a number of small organizational
features which add significantly to its use-value: First, section and chapter
titles are straightforward and transparent, aiding lookup. Second, the book
contains a chapter synopsis outlining in a short paragraph the contents of each
chapter. Third, reference lists are provided at the end of every chapter rather
than at the end of the book. (I found this strange at first, but later thought
it more appropriate for the survey-like nature of the work.) Finally, the
organization of each chapter often creates useful (if sometimes debatable)
taxonomies on the topic.

The content of this book is also unique for several reasons. The first is range
of coverage. The authors achieve their goal of providing a work which is
comprehensive in geographical, historical, philosophical, and encyclopedic
scope. The depth of bibliographic coverage is simply impressive; combined with
its organization, this feature alone makes the book worthwhile as a starting
point for further research. Most sources are placed in their theoretical,
historical, and geographic contexts and briefly summarized, so the reader has a
good idea in advance whether a specific work will be useful to him/her. The flip
side of that coin is that the book is 'a mile wide but an inch deep'.
Discussions tend to be brief but representative, but to the extent that the book
often breaks a topic down into subtopics, and sub-sub-topics (and even further),
it has remarkable depth for a reference work.

A few minor criticisms and comments are in order. First, I happened to notice
references missing from the bibliography on two occasions, though they had been
referenced in the text. This is always a frustrating occurrence. Second, in one
case where I went to follow up on a source, I found that a secondary source had
been cited rather than a primary one, for the claim that language revival
programs correlate with increased self-esteem (140) (although the authors
followed up with another source immediately following that one, which was a
primary one). Perhaps given the reference-work nature of the Handbook, it is
unfair to expect the authors to have closely examined every source, but citing
secondary rather than primary sources is worrisome. In both cases these
discoveries were purely accidental, which leaves the reader to wonder how
widespread these errors might be.

There were also two discussions in the text worth commenting on. The first is
the section on theories of syntax, which focused a good deal on weighing the
merits and demerits of Dixon's Basic Linguistic Theory (2010). The authors adopt
Dryer's (2006) position that, while description cannot happen without theory, a
descriptive theory is adequate for the fieldworker while gathering data --
explanatory theories are not necessary for description. The authors suggest
adopting elements from a number of one's favorite grammatical theories,
depending on what works best for the language being studied. Many linguists
would hotly contest this idea. The authors also take issue with Evans & Dench
(2006:5), who suggest that each language should be described ''entirely on its
own terms,'' their reason being that this would make the result ''difficult to
read'' and not typologically comparable (326). I believe it is worth noting,
however, that the notion of typological comparability is itself a theoretical
position which is the focus of some debate (Evans & Levinson 2009; Haspelmath
2010; Newmeyer 2007). Finally, the authors suggest that we should model
ourselves on the hard sciences of mathematics, physics, and chemistry in
reducing terminological inconsistency, and again point to the need for
cross-linguistic comparison. Again, however, it debatable whether the method of
the hard sciences is fully appropriate to the discipline of linguistics, and
somewhat idealistic to think that those sciences do not also struggle with
extensive terminological inconsistencies.

The second discussion of note concerns, as I mentioned earlier, the relationship
between theory and data. Here the authors present a false dichotomy between
deductive and empirical approaches in linguistics. A 'theory-first'
understanding of linguistics does not imply that linguistics must be a purely
deductive science. It merely points out that all sciences must begin with some
deductive reasoning, in order to delimit the scope of inquiry, and establish
what even constitutes its data in the first place. However, only mathematics,
logic, and praxeology can make scientific progress using deductive procedures
alone. Theirs is a purely deductive method. The method of linguistics, by
contrast, has by and large been an empirical one -- linguistics as a science
could not develop without new data. So while all science is necessarily
'theory-first', the methods of each field will vary. It is, of course, then
still an open question as to how large a role deductive methods have to play in
linguistics, beyond the basic problem of theory-selection.

When reading new books on typology or fieldwork, I often ask myself, 'is this a
book I would take to the field with me, when packing restrictions are tight?' In
the present case, the answer is no. The book is physically too large and heavy
(492 pages, hardcover), making it impractical to bring to many field sites. As a
reference and survey on the topic, however, this book has no peer. The authors
are to be congratulated on accomplishing the difficult task they set out to do.
As a handbook/guidebook, many sections of the book are worth photocopying for
use in the field (in fact, taking the entire latter half of the book, from about
Chapter 8 onwards, would not be uncalled for).

The depth of this book is such that it would be impossible to list all of its
merits, and the manifold ways in which it will be useful to the fieldworker.
While some of its most useful features have been listed here, far more were
omitted due to space constraints. I believe this is an essential text for any
fieldworker's collection, as something to be read thoroughly before entering the
field, and consulted frequently upon return.


Abbi, Anvita. 2001. A Manual of Linguistic Field Work and Indian Language
Structures. Lincom Handbooks in Linguistics 17. Munich: Lincom Europa.

Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. (ed.). 2007. Focus on Linguistic Fieldwork. Special
issue of Sprachtypologie und Universalienforschung 60(1).

Bowern, Claire. 2008. Linguistic Fieldwork: A Practical Guide. New York:
Palgrave Macmillan.

Crowley, Terry. 2007. Field Linguistics: A Beginner's Guide. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

Dixon, Robert M. W. 2010. Basic Linguistic Theory. Volume 1: Methodology.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dryer, Matthew S. 2006. Descriptive theories, explanatory theories, and basic
linguistic theory. In Felix K. Ameka, Alan Dench, & Nicholas Evans (eds.),
Catching Language: The Standing Challenge of Grammar Writing. 207-234. Trends in
Linguistics. Studies and Monographs 167. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Evans, Nicholas & Alan Dench. 2006. Introduction: Catching language. In Felix K.
Ameka, Alan Dench, & Nicholas Evans (eds.), Catching Language: The Standing
Challenge of Grammar Writing. 1-39. Trends in Linguistics. Studies and
Monographs 167. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Evans, Nicholas & Stephen C. Levinson. 2009. The myth of language universals:
Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behavioral and
Brain Sciences 32. 429-492.

Foley, William A. 2002. Field methods. In Kirsten Malmkjær (ed.), The
Linguistics Encyclopedia, 2nd edition, 131-137. London & New York: Routledge.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2010. Comparative concepts and descriptive categories in
cross-linguistic studies. Language 86(3). 663-687.

Newman, Paul and Martha Ratliff (eds.). 2001. Linguistic Fieldwork. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Newmeyer, Frederick J. 2007. Linguistic typology requires crosslinguistic formal
categories. Linguistic Typology 11. 133-157.

Vaux, Bert and Justin Cooper. 1998. Introduction to Linguistic Field Methods.
Lincom Course Books in Linguistics 1. Munich: Lincom Europa.

Vaux, Bert, Justin Cooper, & Emily Tucker. 2007. Linguistic Field Methods.
Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.

Danny Hieber is an Associate Researcher at Rosetta Stone Labs in Harrisonburg, Virginia. In addition, he worked for three years as a linguist in Rosetta Stone's Endangered Language Program, constructing Rosetta Stone software programs for the Chitimacha, Navajo, and Iñupiaq languages. His primary interests are language typology, endangered language documentation and description, and the economics and praxeology of language. He holds a B.S. in Linguistics and Philosophy from The College of William & Mary in Virginia.

Amazon Store: