LINGUIST List 23.1962

Fri Apr 20 2012

Review: Anthropological Linguistics; Language Documentation: Thieberger (2012)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 20-Apr-2012
From: Carmen Jany <>
Subject: The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Fieldwork
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EDITOR: Thieberger, NicholasTITLE: The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic FieldworkSERIES: Oxford Handbooks in LinguisticsPUBLISHER: Oxford University PressYEAR: 2011

Carmen Jany, Department of World Languages, California State University, SanBernardino


The book under review, 'The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Fieldwork', is apractical guide for field linguists. It focuses on the cultural context oflinguistic fieldwork and its collaborative nature across linguistic subfieldsand disciplines. As the editor, Nicholas Thieberger, notes in the introduction,this volume provides advice on 'optimizing both the form and content of fieldmaterial' (p. 2) at a time when it has become clear that language documentationencompasses recording a wide range of materials on as many aspects as possible.The volume features twenty contributions by both well-established andexperienced fieldworkers and younger scholars across several disciplines. Themain goal is to guide fieldworkers towards recording various aspects of humanknowledge and creating high quality, reusable, and accessible primary data. Thevolume is divided into four parts: 'Part I: Data collection and management','Part II: Recording performance', 'Part III: Collaborating with other disciplines',and 'Part IV: Collaborating with the community'.

Part I: Data collection and management

The first section of the volume focuses on the choice and use of equipment,experimental field elicitation to record conceptual categories, using the righttechniques for elicitation and text collection, and the creation of a lastingrecord.

In Chapter 1, Anna Margetts and Andrew Margetts outline, in great detail,techniques and proper selection of equipment for making the best quality audioand video recordings. Moreover, they provide suggestions on how to deal with thepower supply for the recording equipment in various field situations. Includedis also a content list of a basic field kit.

Chapter 2 discusses various elicitation techniques to capture semanticcategories. In this chapter, Asifa Majid informs us about the basic tools andmethodology for using non linguistic stimuli to explore semantics in languageand warns us about potential pitfalls and dangers. She describes how to selectand create stimuli, how to administer tests, and how to record and evaluateoutcomes.

In Chapter 3, Ulrike Mosel provides a guide to field guides for morphosyntacticanalyses. Surveying the existing literature, she highlights the advantages anddisadvantages of various field methods, from the selection and training ofconsultants to the actual data collection, zeroing in on elicitation techniques(translational versus non translational) and text types for corpus creation.

Chapter 4 guides us through the process of fieldwork data management. NicholasThieberber and Andrea L. Berez offer advice on how to create and manage 'longlasting, archivable primary data' (p. 91) in the course of linguistic fieldwork.Via illustrations and examples, they discuss the planning stage prior tofieldwork, the workflow for creating well-formed data and metadata in the fieldand afterward, and the technology used for data management. Overall, theyadvocate for the importance of creating a well constructed and reusable set ofdata as a solid foundation for long lasting use and research.

Part II: Recording performance

The second section of the volume deals with recording performances of variouskinds.

In Chapter 5, Miriam Meyerhoff, Chie Adachi, Golnaz Nanbaksh, and Anna Strycharzreview techniques for examining sociolinguistic variation within speechcommunities. They start out by outlining key concepts in sociolinguistics, suchas the observer's paradox, the sociolinguistic variable, and the concept ofspeech community. Furthermore, they discuss practical matters in datacollection, from setting the stage and getting started to creating andconducting a sociolinguistic interview. They focus on methods for addressing theobserver's paradox in the interview and conclude with a review of some meritsand pitfalls of an alternative model, the group interview, while including tipsfor successful group recordings in the appendix.

Chapter 6 deals with reasons and guidelines for documenting gestures. MandanaSeyfeddinipur provides an overview of the approaches and methods for linguisticfieldworkers to examine the multifaceted and understudied phenomenon of gesture.She includes tips on how to record gestures, what topics may prompt certainkinds of gestures, and how to create basic annotations of the collected data. Inthis chapter, the concept of gesture is narrowed down to the 'hand and armmovements speakers make when they communicate' (p. 148). Seyfeddinipurexemplifies several cross linguistic, cross cultural, and cognitive differencesof gestures manifested in repertoire, size, content, orientation, and types ofgestures.

In Chapter 7, Linda Barwick advances reasons for including musical performancein fieldwork corpora. She stresses the significance of human musical capacitiesand provides suggestions for linguistic researchers to engage in thedocumentation of song texts and other dimensions of musical performance.

Part III: Collaborating with other disciplines

This section, which is the largest, comprises half of the volume's papers, for atotal of ten contributions. It deals with the interdisciplinary nature offieldwork and stresses the need for working with experts from other disciplines.

Chapter 8 focuses on collaboration with anthropologists and musicologists.Nicholas Evans presents case studies from his own fieldwork on Iwaidja toillustrate how collaborative interdisciplinary fieldwork can help the linguistsolve analytic problems related to the investigation of the verb lexicon andcreate a richer record to include such details as five gender distinctions anddistinct verbs of wearing for different body parts.

In Chapter 9, Laurent Dousset points out central concepts related to kinship andsocial organization and provides guidelines for the field linguist for recordingdata. Social organization is distinct from, yet related to, kinship itself, andmust be treated separately. While social organization centers on society anddescribes the structure of general social distinctions, kinship focuses on therelationships between particular individuals from an egocentric point of view.

Chapter 10 treats the anthropology of food. Nancy Pollock provides an overviewof the language of food. She notes that food carries many meanings that are opento diverse interpretations and that it is analyzed and discussed using veryspecialized concepts pertinent to the disciplines of economics, nutrition, andsocial science. The language of economics differs from the language ofnutrition, which in turn differs from that of social science. Within an economicperspective, food is viewed in terms of food supplies, food poverty and hunger,and food security. From a nutritional perspective, food is dealt with in termsof health and well being. The dimensions of food sharing and the place of foodin social interaction are treated within social science.

In the following chapter (Chapter 11), Barry J. Conn offers a brief introductionto the techniques used for collecting botanical specimens. Conn stresses theimportance of knowing the identity of plant species and their scientific namesso that collected information is available to everyone. The chapter includesmany practical instructions for pre fieldwork planning and preparing acollecting equipment kit, collecting good specimens and preserving them throughpressing and drying, as well as how to construct appropriate field notes.

In Chapter 12, Will McClatchey discusses some key concepts of ethnobiology,defined as the study of the dynamic relationships among peoples, biota, andenvironments. More specifically, he focuses on how biological knowledge isacquired, learned, and controlled, e.g., hierarchical folk classificationsystems for plants and animals (e.g. animal, bird, raptor, owl, barn owl). Heoutlines five common field methods used for ethnobiological data collection(i.e. free listing, inventory interview, environmental transect, area inventory,and artifact interview) and comments on the ethical and legal issues involved incollecting physical and other types of evidence.

Chapter 13 deals with the recording of technical processes. Techniques areresponsible for producing social ties and types of information as they aretransforming the material world. After introducing several key concepts, PierreLemonnier presents two case studies from the Anga people in Papua New Guinea,paying close attention to the making and using of artifacts, such as the Baruyafence and the Ankave drum. The case studies illustrate how technical processesneed to be understood within their cultural context. Lemonnier concludes thechapter with comments for the linguistic fieldworker regarding field questionsand methods and collecting linguistic data, such as multiple descriptions oftechnical activities.

In Chapter 14, cross-cultural quantification and mathematical algorithms arepresented. Marc Chemillier introduces the field linguist to work inethnomathematics and shows how mathematical concepts can be extracted fromfieldwork situations. He presents observations on the best way to record andannotate data while visiting the field, the completeness of data collectionduring fieldwork and checking for consistence of mathematical knowledge, andspecific topics, such as vernacular lexicons used for numbers and measurementand mathematical operations in societies with no number above five. Moreover,via his fieldwork in Madagascar, Chemillier illustrates how gestures can conveymathematical ideas.

Jarita Holbrook elaborates on cultural astronomy for linguists in Chapter 15.All human cultures have some sort of sky knowledge and a relationship to the skythrough observation, perception, and use, such as through stories, art,timekeeping, and night navigation. Holbrook offers a crash course in culturalastronomy from suggestions on how to prepare before going to the field, to whattype of information to collect from simple terms, such as names for cardinaldirections and stars, to names for more complex phenomena, such as comets,eclipses, faint starts, zodiac constellations, and weather predictions using thenight sky. From the sky we move to terrestrial topics.

In Chapter 16, Andrew G. Turk, David M. Mark, Carolyn O'Meara, and David Steadiscuss motivations and techniques for documenting terms for the humanenvironment in ethnophysiography, a field that seeks to understand culturaldifferences in conceptualizations of landscape. With illustrations from threecase studies undertaken by the authors of this chapter (with the Yindjibarndipeople in Australia, the Navajo in the Southwestern United States, and the Seriin Mexico), they summarize methods used in obtaining terms for landscapefeatures and toponyms. In addition, they identify and address a set of threatsto the validity of the collected information. The authors also discuss severalfield methods (e.g. dictionary work and photo collection, field interviews,photo interpretation sessions, semi structured follow-up, reporting back andgetting feedback) and conclude the chapter with a discussion of key ethical issues.

The last chapter of this section, Chapter 17, deals with toponomy. David Nashand Jane Simpson focus on the documentation and linguistic aspects ofplacenames. They discuss issues such as determining the location of thedenomination in the field, the cross-cultural variability in categorization oflandform types and built structure types, etymology and etiology, socialsignificance of a place, structural properties of placenames, and data storageand presentation.

Part IV: Collaborating with the community

The fourth section of the volume includes three contributions treating topicsrelated to ethical issues, like speakers' consent, duration of fieldwork, andthe authoring and archiving of collected material.

In Chapter 18, Keren Rice surveys some ethical issues that arise in fieldworkand frames them in terms of individuals, communities, and scholarship,advocating for longer field experiences in order to get to know the communityand to establish a relationship with it. Rice notes a resurgence of attention toethics in linguistic fieldwork and documentary linguistics and lists several keysources in her appendix. The author summarizes three ethics protocols and walksus through the process of institutional ethics approval and getting started andworking in the community, including considerations regarding scholarship, fromdata recording to intellectual property rights.

Paul Newman, in Chapter 19, discusses copyright and intellectual propertyrights. Copyright deals with intangible mental products and covers artistic andliterary creations in the broadest sense. Newman summarizes a number of generalcopyright laws and then proceeds to the basics of US copyright law. Ofparticular interest to the fieldworker is the section distinguishing differenttypes of collaborators and their copyright entitlements. While contributions ofinformants (i.e. providers of natural language data), subjects (such as those ina sociolinguistic study), and consultants (i.e. providers of ideas andinformation) are not copyrighted, those of text providers are. It is suggestedthat the fieldworker obtain a non exclusive license to use copyrighted collectedtexts for linguistic research. The appendix provides useful samples of copyrighttransfer and license forms.

In the last chapter, Chapter 20, Monica Macaulay deals with the personal andpsychological difficulties of fieldwork. The author illustrates the need tobetter train graduate students in these matters through a very personal accountof fieldwork experience presented via excerpts from her fieldwork journal. Areassuch as the mechanics of fieldwork (getting into the community, and finding andpaying consultants), health and safety, food, and culture shock need to beaddressed before going into the field. A good start is to familiarize oneselfwith the anthropological literature about the culture and community prior to travel.


As Nicholas Evans notes, 'undocumented languages contain too much information tobe wasted on linguists alone' (p. 183). Focusing on interdisciplinary collaboration, thisvolume is a fine collection of papers that demonstrate the importance of creating a lastingand comprehensive linguistic record which goes beyond traditional linguistic fieldwork.More than half of the chapters stress the need for cross disciplinary work and encouragethe field linguist to collect data beyond the usual elicitation and text collection. In this sense,this handbook is very timely, representing a shift in the field of language documentation,from primarily focusing on formal properties of language and relying heavily on elicitation tocollecting data on a wide range of cultural practices and a great variety of genres. However,the reader may be surprised to find such content in this volume when judging from the titlealone. A title such as 'Handbook of Interdisciplinary Language Documentation' may be morefitting and representative of this volume.

The volume includes many themes which have not been central to linguisticexplorations, such as astronomy and mathematics, among others. As a handbook, itis expected to provide the reader with accessible instructions and referencesfor the covered topics. Most chapters certainly achieve this goal by providingconcise, yet sufficiently detailed, specific practical notes and guides tointroduce the field linguist to the tools and practices available in a particular discipline.Some chapters, however, such as Pollock's contribution on the language of food, simplypresent an overview of the key concepts in a given discipline without offering specificpractical tools for the field worker. Nevertheless, this does not impinge upon the fact thatthis volume constitutes an excellent source of information and guidance for any fieldlinguist. Although a fieldworker may not always be able to take all the interdisciplinarysuggestions offered in this volume into consideration, this handbook providesmany useful ideas for what to look for while in the field and how to go aboutdocumenting interesting features beyond linguistic structure. Even a seasonedfieldworker will find ideas for new concepts to work on to enrich alreadycollected data. Conn's chapter is particularly valuable, as it conciselyoutlines the basic methods of botanical collecting with practical suggestionsfor the requirements of such fieldwork. Finally, one of the major strengths ofthis work is the fact that, while the authors come from a wide variety ofdisciplines, they are all experienced fieldworkers and are, thus, able to sharetheir experiences and lessons learned with the reader. In most chapters, thetechniques and practices covered are exemplified and illustrated via real fieldsituations from across the globe.

It has to be noted that, while the volume covers many different topics pertinentto cross disciplinary language documentation, it is a coherent piece of work.Appropriately divided into four parts, each part covers a major theme of thehandbook. The uneven distribution of contributions across the four parts onlyhighlights the major focus of this handbook, namely, to serve as aninterdisciplinary guide for the linguistic fieldworker. It is unfortunate thatsome topics were not included. For example, in the second part, treating thedocumentation of performance, I would have welcomed a paper on storytelling andother topics related to verbal art, such as poetry. As noted by NicholasThieberger in the introductory paper, a chapter on zoology would have been anice addition to the volume. I would have also liked to see a paper on folkmedicine.

There is certainly no shortage of recently published handbooks and other guideson linguistic fieldwork and language documentation (Austin and Sallabank 2011,Gippert, Himmelmann, and Mosel 2006, Grenoble and Furbee 2010, Chelliah and deReuse 2011). However, a handbook reflecting the current status of linguisticfieldwork as an interdisciplinary and collaborative enterprise is a welcomedaddition to the existing literature. In sum, this handbook is a timelypublication that does not duplicate, but rather complements, other recentlypublished guides on linguistic fieldwork (Chelliah et al. 2011), as it embracesnew trends in documentary linguistics, which is moving beyond traditionalgrammatical description. I welcome the growing encouragement to conduct moreinterdisciplinary fieldwork and highly recommend this rich source of informationto any new or seasoned linguistic fieldworker.


Austin, Peter K. And Julia Sallabank eds. 2011. The Cambridge Handbook ofEndangered Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gippert, Jost, Nicholas Himmelmann, and Ulrike Mosel eds. 2006. Essentials ofLanguage Documentation. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Grenoble, Lenore A. and N. Louanna Furbee. 2010. Language Documentation:Practice and values. John Benjamins.

Chelliah, Shobhana L. and Willem J. de Reuse eds. 2011. Handbook of DescriptiveLinguistic Fieldwork. London: Springer.


Carmen Jany received her PhD from UC Santa Barbara in 2007. She now holds aposition as Associate Professor of Linguistics and Spanish at CaliforniaState University in San Bernardino. Her main research interests includelinguistic typology, language documentation, Native American and otherendangered languages, morpho-syntax, phonetics and phonology, and languagecontact. Currently, she is working on the grammatical description ofChuxnabán Mixe, a Mexican indigenous language. Her dissertation was atypologically framed grammatical description and analysis of Chimariko, anextinct Northern California language.

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