LINGUIST List 22.3129

Fri Aug 05 2011

Review: Language Documentation: Chelliah and de Reuse (2011)

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        1.     Daniel Hieber , Handbook of Descriptive Linguistic Fieldwork

Message 1: Handbook of Descriptive Linguistic Fieldwork
Date: 05-Aug-2011
From: Daniel Hieber <>
Subject: Handbook of Descriptive Linguistic Fieldwork
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AUTHORS: Shobhana L. Chelliah and Willem J. de ReuseTITLE: Handbook of Descriptive Linguistic FieldworkPUBLISHER: SpringerYEAR: 2011

Daniel W. Hieber, Associate Researcher, Rosetta Stone


In recent years there have been a number of books devoted to linguisticfieldwork (Abbi 2001; Aikhenvald 2007; Bowern 2008; Crowley 2007; Newman &Ratliff 2001; Vaux & Cooper 1998; Vaux et al. 2007). Each of these books limitstheir scope in some way, whether by favoring in-depth discussions of specifictopics (e.g. Newman & Ratliff 2001), or focusing primarily on the pragmatic andpractical (e.g. Bowern 2008), or basing the discussion largely on one's personalexperiences (e.g. Crowley 2007). The Handbook of Descriptive LinguisticFieldwork, by contrast, aims to be comprehensive in scope, servingsimultaneously as survey, reference, and handbook. It includes many of thesections 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 linguisticfieldwork), and its scope is significantly broader than that of other guidebooksin respect to its geographical, historical, theoretical, and encyclopediccoverage. It is intended for both professional linguists and students oflinguistics who intend to conduct descriptive linguistic fieldwork.


The book's chapters are organized in roughly the same order that a fieldlinguist can expect to encounter their various topics, beginning with anoverview of the subfield and its history (Chs. 1-3), then moving through thelogistics of selecting a language and field preparation (Chs. 4-5), interactionwith 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 onphonetics and phonology, morphosyntax, and semantics and pragmatics (Chs. 9-13).

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

Chapter 3, ''The History of Linguistic Fieldwork'', is a unique and welcomeaddition to books on this topic, doubly so because it covers not just the moderntradition of fieldwork since Franz Boas, but as far back as the earliest work byChristian missionaries. The authors also create a useful taxonomy of historicalfieldwork. Unfortunately, the chapter is more of a reference work than ahistory. It details primarily who did what fieldwork where and when, with verybroad geographic and historical coverage, but omits details regarding thehistorical, political, and ideological contexts in which the fieldwork wasconducted. Why, for example, were early Christian scholars interested inlanguage, and what was their view of fieldwork? Moreover, what was theindigenous 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 fieldworkin their region of interest, the chapter is invaluable. In addition, ithighlights the importance and limitations of studying the history of fieldwork,and includes a rather interesting note about the Africanist tradition infieldwork, noting the Africanists' general reservations towards fieldwork forthe purpose of language revitalization.

The shortest substantial chapter in the book, Chapter 4, covers how fieldworklanguages are chosen - whether the fieldworker chooses the language, thecommunity chooses the fieldworker, or the advisor tells the student fieldworker,'go work on this language'. The latter half of the chapter is a compilation ofhandbooks, 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'', isone of the longest chapters in the book, and also the most useful. The authorsdivide preparation into four tasks: (1) background reading on language andculture; (2) establishing expectations regarding the field situations and one'sown personality; (3) practical arrangements such as funding, contacts, andequipment; and (4) permissions. Section (1) includes sage advice on the types ofmaterials you might encounter during background research, and tips forre-eliciting archival data. The authors use the opportunity to point out theimportance of making one's own research usable and accessible to futureresearchers. Some useful features of this chapter are a list of common reasonswhy grant proposals are rejected, and notes on the timing of certain aspects ofapplying for grants and obtaining permissions. The potential fieldworker woulddo well to use this chapter as a checklist prior to departing for the field.

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

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

Chapter 8 covers ''Planning Sessions, Note Taking, and Data Management'', andincludes suggestions on the structure of a typical fieldwork session, a reviewof different interviewing techniques, and advice on note-taking, record-keeping,and keeping track of finances. The practical advice on note-taking isparticularly 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 ofthis chapter is the inclusion of a sample file structure, presented in outline form.

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

Chapter 10, ''Phonetic & Phonological Fieldwork'', reviews all the literaturecontaining advice on such fieldwork, and is thus a highly practical and usefulchapter. (Chapters 12 and 13, on morphosyntax and semantics/pragmatics, takethis approach as well, with the same result). Some topics covered include:preparing wordlists, advice on phonetic transcription and ear training, and whento switch to a phonemic transcription. Other useful features of this chapter area list of common difficulties encountered by native English speakers when doingtranscription (based on Bowern 2008:41), lists of common alternations andallophones, 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 insequence, but always overlap. The authors suggest first becoming broadlyfamiliar with linguistic typology before doing fieldwork, saving more specificreading on grammatical phenomena until you encounter items of interest duringfieldwork. They then proceed to provide the reader with the resources necessaryfor 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 someof the more exemplary grammars based on fieldwork. The second part is thendivided into morphological and syntactic typology and terminology. The authorsbriefly cover formal marking systems (head v. dependent, inverse, andswitch-reference), and then a short section on lexical categories. I found thislatter section to be largely unnecessary, since it was too brief to be muchhelp, nor did it meet the authors' usual standard of being an excellentreference list. Much more useful, however, was the following section ongrammatical categories (perhaps better termed 'grammatical features', e.g.person, number, etc.). Beginning with nouns, the authors list all the featurescommonly associated with that part of speech (e.g. case, possession), and thendevote one or two paragraphs to each feature, with extensive references toliterature on the topic. This procedure is mimicked in the following twosections on morphological and syntactic typology and terminology. The result isthat this chapter is the longest in the book, but that it serves as thedefinitive starting place for the fieldworker who wants to know more aboutspecific grammatical phenomena cross-linguistically. The section on morphologyis 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, verblesspredicates). Also overviewed are headedness and dependency, modularity, casealignment systems, and gradience in grammatical categories, and grammaticalhierarchies. A final useful feature of this chapter is a list of vague orambiguous terms best avoided in language description, such as 'emphatic' or'particle'. This far-ranging chapter is thus a definitive typological survey andreference in itself. As the authors note, ''Before the fieldtrip, it is importantto 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, willhelp the fieldworker decide what to read in the field, what to read in betweentrips, and what to read after fieldtrips'' (340).

Chapter 12, ''Grammar Gathering Techniques'', surveys methods for getting at thephenomena discussed in the previous chapter. It begins by discussing therelationship 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 representativeof the differing views on the topic. The reader is encouraged to digest thissection carefully (though see my further comment under EVALUATION below). Thechapter is then divided into three more sections -- techniques formorphosyntactic, syntactic, and morphological data gathering. The authors notetwo criteria by which elicitation methods can be categorized: what controlselicitation, and difficulty (rated from easy to perilous). Elicitation can beeither schedule-controlled or analysis-controlled. Analysis-controlledelicitation techniques are classified according to the prompts or stimuliutilized, while schedule-controlled elicitation is divided into analyticalquestionnaires and translation questionnaires. Thus the authors divide eachsection into surveys of schedule-controlled techniques and analysis-controlledtechniques, devoting several paragraphs to all the subtypes of each and theirpros and cons (with the usual helpful references). To illustrate the excellentorganization 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 ofelicitation methods I have seen, organized around a useful taxonomy.

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


This book is exceptionally well-organized, with a number of small organizationalfeatures which add significantly to its use-value: First, section and chaptertitles are straightforward and transparent, aiding lookup. Second, the bookcontains a chapter synopsis outlining in a short paragraph the contents of eachchapter. Third, reference lists are provided at the end of every chapter ratherthan at the end of the book. (I found this strange at first, but later thoughtit more appropriate for the survey-like nature of the work.) Finally, theorganization 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 rangeof coverage. The authors achieve their goal of providing a work which iscomprehensive in geographical, historical, philosophical, and encyclopedicscope. The depth of bibliographic coverage is simply impressive; combined withits organization, this feature alone makes the book worthwhile as a startingpoint for further research. Most sources are placed in their theoretical,historical, and geographic contexts and briefly summarized, so the reader has agood idea in advance whether a specific work will be useful to him/her. The flipside 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 bookoften 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 noticereferences missing from the bibliography on two occasions, though they had beenreferenced in the text. This is always a frustrating occurrence. Second, in onecase where I went to follow up on a source, I found that a secondary source hadbeen cited rather than a primary one, for the claim that language revivalprograms correlate with increased self-esteem (140) (although the authorsfollowed up with another source immediately following that one, which was aprimary one). Perhaps given the reference-work nature of the Handbook, it isunfair to expect the authors to have closely examined every source, but citingsecondary rather than primary sources is worrisome. In both cases thesediscoveries were purely accidental, which leaves the reader to wonder howwidespread these errors might be.

There were also two discussions in the text worth commenting on. The first isthe section on theories of syntax, which focused a good deal on weighing themerits and demerits of Dixon's Basic Linguistic Theory (2010). The authors adoptDryer's (2006) position that, while description cannot happen without theory, adescriptive theory is adequate for the fieldworker while gathering data --explanatory theories are not necessary for description. The authors suggestadopting elements from a number of one's favorite grammatical theories,depending on what works best for the language being studied. Many linguistswould hotly contest this idea. The authors also take issue with Evans & Dench(2006:5), who suggest that each language should be described ''entirely on itsown terms,'' their reason being that this would make the result ''difficult toread'' and not typologically comparable (326). I believe it is worth noting,however, that the notion of typological comparability is itself a theoreticalposition which is the focus of some debate (Evans & Levinson 2009; Haspelmath2010; Newmeyer 2007). Finally, the authors suggest that we should modelourselves on the hard sciences of mathematics, physics, and chemistry inreducing terminological inconsistency, and again point to the need forcross-linguistic comparison. Again, however, it debatable whether the method ofthe hard sciences is fully appropriate to the discipline of linguistics, andsomewhat idealistic to think that those sciences do not also struggle withextensive terminological inconsistencies.

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

When reading new books on typology or fieldwork, I often ask myself, 'is this abook I would take to the field with me, when packing restrictions are tight?' Inthe 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 areference and survey on the topic, however, this book has no peer. The authorsare 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 foruse in the field (in fact, taking the entire latter half of the book, from aboutChapter 8 onwards, would not be uncalled for).

The depth of this book is such that it would be impossible to list all of itsmerits, 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 wereomitted due to space constraints. I believe this is an essential text for anyfieldworker's collection, as something to be read thoroughly before entering thefield, and consulted frequently upon return.


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

Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. (ed.). 2007. Focus on Linguistic Fieldwork. Specialissue 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: OxfordUniversity 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 basiclinguistic theory. In Felix K. Ameka, Alan Dench, & Nicholas Evans (eds.),Catching Language: The Standing Challenge of Grammar Writing. 207-234. Trends inLinguistics. 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 StandingChallenge of Grammar Writing. 1-39. Trends in Linguistics. Studies andMonographs 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 andBrain Sciences 32. 429-492.

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

Haspelmath, Martin. 2010. Comparative concepts and descriptive categories incross-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 formalcategories. 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.

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