LINGUIST List 30.631

Fri Feb 08 2019

Review: Anthropological Linguistics; History of Linguistics: Sarvasy, Forker (2018)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 21-Oct-2018
From: John Powell <>
Subject: Word Hunters
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Hannah Sarvasy
EDITOR: Diana Forker
TITLE: Word Hunters
SUBTITLE: Field linguists on fieldwork
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Language Companion Series 194
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2018

REVIEWER: John Warren William Powell, University of Arizona


This edited volume, Word Hunters (2018), provides a diverse array of experiences, tips, and lessons learned from long-term field linguists. Edited by Hannah Sarvasy and Diana Forker, the book is certainly helpful for linguists both in the field and out. It is also a great resource when exploring and evaluating the merits of various methodologies to fieldwork, as showcasing a diversity of approaches was clearly an objective to the editors. The contributors to the book provide their own first-hand accounts of what is realistically entailed in language documentation in the field and their experiences of living in the different language communities. The book is devoted to all fieldworkers, the “unsung heroes of linguistics” (1). The strengths of the book are the diversity of contexts, methodologies, aims, and disciplines of the contributors discussing their experiences as fieldworkers across the world, which include five continents and major regions ranging from the circumpolar Arctic to Amazonia and from the Caucasus to Oceania.

Thirteen veteran field linguists pen the eleven chapters. The editors discuss how the book’s aim is to focus on the methodology and not necessarily the findings of their work, and the contributing authors largely follow that suggestion. Some of their different approaches and disciplines include anthropological linguistics, typology, historical linguistics, phonetics, syntax, morphology, and sociolinguistics, ranging from various theoretical orientations. They include both scholars who have worked with a community for long periods of time, for a career in some cases, to those who have spent relatively shorter times, even several hours with a language. Much of the book is very practical, though it is certainly not a handbook for language description and documentation nor even fieldwork. Instead it provides a very real picture of what fieldwork can look like in an accessible fashion. By presenting so many different accounts, the volume deconstructs preconceived notions of fieldwork and indeed this is a sentiment echoed by many of the contributors in their own experiences.

This review first summarizes the chapters, not by the order in the book but instead by theme: first, anthropological linguists, second, Africanists, third, collective field trip methodologies, and fourth fieldworkers outside of academia. Then, it provides an evaluation, first on debates on preference of methodologies, second, on ethics, and lastly, cohesion.


Lourens de Vries provides an anthropological take on his fieldwork with the Awyu in Indonesian West Papua in the chapter, “The linguist as a demon and as a human: Fieldwork in Greater Awyu communities of West Papua.” He analyzes the intersection between language and place, including his own place in the Awyu society, and its consequential intrusion, an analysis that is noticeably absent from much of linguistic literature. The Awyu communities made room for him, both physically in a high tree house, and sociologically, designating him as an “after-death demon” (142), both a term for outsiders and a derivational morpheme that modifies nouns relating to foreignness. Sociologically, his place relates to the basic unit of Awyu society, dyads, or relationships forged between two individuals. In the language, compounds are formed to express these relationships, often forming over a shared experience. He entered into linguist-consultant dyad relationships with many, some of which have lasted a long time. He remarked that his long-term relationship with the Awyu allowed for the observation of some forms that only emerged after extended periods of time in the community.

Whereas de Vries focuses on places, Alexandra Aikhenvald, in her fascinating chapter “The magic of names: A fieldworker’s perspective” provides an anthropological examination of what names mean to communities and explores the links between identity and language. She first discusses her work with Tariana (Arawak) in the Amazon. Names for people includes their Portuguese and kinship names, nicknames, and sacred names, and Aikhenvald describes the cultural processes for creating and inheriting names, including the ones she received. Aikhenvald then discusses her experiences with Manambu, a Ndu language in Papua New Guinea, where people have English, kinship, and village names. Personal and clan names in Manambu are linked to power and wealth, including land ownership, and the accumulation of names corresponds with prestige. Some elders can remember thousands of names going back fourteen generations, a knowledge employed during land disputes. For both communities, names connect people and contain important cultural and societal information. Just as the communities are concerned with language endangerment, there is a worry about the loss of knowledge of names, particularly among the youth, a knowledge so important to the communities.

Matthias Brenzinger also discusses names, this time as they apply to Khwe places, during his decades of fieldwork in Africa. Place names includes information about events and history important to the community. Even though elders are able to recall thousands of places, including hundreds of trees, this knowledge is disappearing among youth along with the language. Brenzinger also provides a very interesting description of cardinal directions in Khwe. There are no lexemes that directly map to North and South, as the community views the world split into two halves, East and West, along the path of the sun. In his chapter “Sharing thoughts, concepts and experiences: Fieldwork on African languages,” Brenzinger also discusses his experiences with language revitalization, including the work with the Mukogodo Maasai people, who had lost Yaaku (East Cushitic) decades ago. What Yaaku anyone remembered was limited to greetings and some phrases, though there are efforts to revive the language. The language status for Luruuli-Lunyala, however, was more robust. His work with their dictionary project included an impressive team interviewing hosts of speakers who recorded interviews, speeches, songs, and stories. Even though the language is not spoken by the youngest generation, the community is engaged in a promising revitalization effort.

G. Tucker Childs, in his chapter “Forty-plus years before the mast: My experiences as a field linguist,” also discusses his work with languages in Africa. The value of his chapter is that in exploring his experiences, he writes about both the successes and the mistakes. New fieldworkers can learn through his trials and errors, particularly the greatest lesson that he has to teach, that many setbacks can be valuable moments for learning and growing. Some of his greatest successes came from discovery occurring in some of the most quotidian situations. Childs recounts an epiphany while working with clicks in !Xóõ. He noticed that when walking away from a campsite, clicks would fade according to a ranking of noisiness. Regarding mistakes, some were unavoidable, like when he developed a severe rash from sap seeping down the hammock from sawed off limbs. Others were more preventable, like when he stored water in the same type of containers as kerosene and once mistook it when attempting to quench his thirst. His experiences illustrate that it is impossible to anticipate what the fieldwork will be like. Instead, fieldworkers should be open-minded, adaptable, and flexible.

The next two chapters are from authors who were trained in the Russian collective fieldwork methodology of the late Aleksandr Kibrik, both offering rich descriptions that may benefit graduate programs when evaluating approaches to fieldwork training. Nina Dobrushina and Michael Daniel discuss their atypical experiences with East Caucasian languages in the chapter “Field linguistics in Daghestan: A very personal account.” During summers, Kibrik and his students would turn empty high schools into highly structured fieldwork camps to bring in consultants. Student pairs were responsible for their primary and secondary projects, all contributing to the collective field research. Advantages include the immense volume of documentation in a relatively short duration of time that could leverage the brilliance of many minds. Dobrushina and Daniel are unique because they are married and often travel with their children into the field. With children, they must make considerations for food, schedules, and living conditions, often sacrificing time for either work or family; yet their kids make them fit better in the communities. Lastly, the authors discuss the diverse multilingualism in Daghestan, how it has declined, and the causes for language shift in the region.

Like Dobrushina and Daniel, Nina Sumbatova, in her chapter “My fieldwork, from Georgia to Guinea” also discusses being a student but also an organizer in Russian collective field trips. As an organizer, the immense preparation included selecting the language, contacting the community, drawing agreements, and finding residences. Money for housing and transportation came from student fees, some consultant fees from grants, and yet much still out-of-pocket. She was responsible for the students’ physical needs including food, safety, and health, in addition to education and research. All this would require so much of her time and energy that little remained for her own research. She eventually quit the fieldtrips and focused on individual research with Tungusic languages in East Russia. The work had two objectives, to document the endangered languages and observe how they become dormant. The languages had few speakers and were not used in daily communication. Moreover, attrition had become an issue for the speakers; they forgot common words and structures, spoke hesitantly, and code-switched frequently. One of the languages, Oroch, was nearly dormant when she began working with four rememberers, who did not know many words nor could translate texts. The language became dormant several years later when the rememberers had passed away.

Two chapters in the volume dealt extensively with comparative and historical linguistics. Michael Fortescue, in his chapter, “Drinking of the iceberg: Thirty years of fieldwork on Arctic languages” chronicles some of the milestones of his work: publishing comparative dictionaries and historical reconstructions of Eskimo and then Chukotka-Kamchatkan and discovering a two-morpheme stage for child acquisition of polysynthetic languages parallel to the two-word stage. He also provides descriptions about the extralinguistic facets of his work, including a number of stories which are highly memorable. While working in the Arctic, he describes how the construction of an American base after WWII had forced the Inughuit community to find new hunting grounds. Now, global warming continues to affect the ways of life and being in the Inughuit community, with even more traditional hunting grounds disappearing. Historically, the Inughuit would camp on the ice along with their dogs, but the ice cannot support this traditional practice anymore. In another context, the abysmal economy in Chukotka had affected Native communities following the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were no rubles in the bank and electrical power was intermittent. The native populations were particularly impacted, having lost many of their reindeer and experiencing widespread depression. The inclusion of this socio-political history helped contextualize his work within the communities.

Robert Blust, in the chapter titled “Historical linguistics in the raw: My life as diachronic fieldworker” chronicles some of his academic accomplishments working on Austronesian languages. His scholarship unites historical linguistics, phonetics, and fieldwork in order to solve some of the evolutionary mysteries and describe genealogical classifications of languages. For him, these grew together simultaneously, and he credits his findings on historic phonology of Austronesian languages only being possible through fieldwork. Blust describes the genesis of his fieldwork with a speaker of Kelabit in Hawaii. From a simple elicitation of numbers, he discovered that the language was typologically unique, featuring previously unattested voiced aspirates. From here, major documentary projects emerged, culminating in numerous grammars, comparative vocabularies, and a classification of Northern Sarawak. He provides insight into how he conducted fieldwork with multilingual students as a teacher in local high schools. During some of the fieldwork, he would rely on interpreters, and his insights on working with them were some of the more intriguing contributions of this chapter. Working with them involves testing not only the target language, but also the interpretation, which became even more complicated when working with double interpreters!

Lastly, this review discusses the contributions from non-academics. Knut J. Olawsky, a linguist employed by the Miriwoong community in Northwest Australia, writes the chapter “Reflections on linguistic fieldwork between Sahel, Amazon and Outback.” His voice of a linguist affiliated with a community is critical. In his current position, instead of the linguist directing the fieldwork, documentation and revitalization is community-driven. His chapter, the most practical of all of the chapters, provides advice on best practices. Olawsky describes how he finds the right consultant for each component of documentation representing various demographics, much like Thomason (2015), who discusses discovering the talents each consultant possesses. For example, with a Urarina in the Amazon, he worked with the chief who could speak Spanish but did not consider himself a skilled storyteller. So, the chief recommended a storyteller, but the storyteller could not speak Spanish. Not only was the chief’s recommendation helpful, but the chief could interpret for Olawsky in the sessions and during transcription. Nevertheless, he endeavored to speak the languages himself, which was viewed positively by the communities, allowing him to communicate and bond with people, immerse himself in the language, and conduct some of the work without an interpreter.

Finally, Mary Ruth Wise, in her chapter “From here to there and back again: Fieldwork in the Andean foothills” discusses her experiences while working for the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). Coupling the scientific investigation of language with evangelical aims, Wise reflects on her time with Peruvian communities, bookended by her fieldwork with the Yánesha’. For them, colonization continues to endanger the people and their culture, with the youth shifting to monolingual Spanish. Even so, the Yánesha’ orthography is taught in the schools and literacy in Yánesha’ is high (around 90%). Nevertheless, the former orthography had issues with old fonts that would no longer render correctly on word processors and Wise’s last task was to produce an orthography typeable on a Spanish keyboard. She researched many other aspects of the language including reference tracking in texts, influence from Quechua, including loans, roots, and mythology, and historical movement of the Yánesha’ people.


Throughout the volume, there was a stimulating debate on the preference of elicitation, observation, and corpora methodologies, a debate that is well-known in the literature and is often tied to theoretical approaches. Sumbatova, for example, found that elicitation was oftentimes advantageous over corpus data. She remarks that with corpora, one is simply given data, but with elicitation, one could obtain data relevant to the research. Yet, eliciting words was not always straightforward. In the first chapter, “Word hunters: Unsung heroes of linguistics,” Hannah Sarvasy discusses using nonverbal techniques, like mime, to elicit forms in Kim and Bom in Sierra Leone. Similarly, Sumbatova, while working with Landuma (Mel family) in West Africa, used nonverbal techniques such as pictures, gestures, and actions. While frustrated at first, she notes that within a couple weeks, the communication had improved significantly.

On the other hand, some fieldworkers felt strongly about observation methodologies. When discussing “immersion fieldwork” (10), Aikhenvald considered the observation of quotidian use of language to be vital, especially in spontaneous contexts. For her, text corpora were not enough, and participant-observation was essential for increasing the quality of the language grammar. Only through immersion fieldwork could some forms emerge. Similarly, Brenzinger stressed the importance of accompanying consultants in their work as it was in these situations that he was able to record specific terminologies, stories, folklore, and lexemes.

While many of the linguists sought to minimize their role in society, particularly among the anthropological linguists, observation was not a passive experience. Sometimes, the linguists themselves became catalysts for new words that otherwise would not necessarily emerge naturally in speech. Aikhenvald, for instance, discusses how she developed a cough for a month in Papua New Guinea and was able to learn an immense amount of language related to diseases during that time. Such challenges were often setbacks, but also opportunities for learning. For example, Childs became lost while traveling to a Kisi town. When he was able to find the town, he accidentally crossed a cultural line by entering the wrong side. While at first, he was going to be banished, the elders reconvened and decided instead to celebrate him. The lesson that he learned is valuable, that because he erred, he was exposed to a part of culture and language that otherwise may not have been available by typical observation.

Even among those who prefer observation, they would still use various methodologies, which often depended on the specific items under investigation. Generally, Olawsky found elicitation to be a mixed bag. While elicitation allows him to control for variables, it often risks arriving at unnatural speech, a phenomenon recognized by any fieldworker. Hypotheticals, for instance, often frustrated his consultants. Moreover, he found it preferable to use actual physical and natural stimuli, even if it required traveling, as opposed to flat graphical representations, which he considered to be sometimes unhelpful. Even though Olawsky preferred texts, he acknowledged that some forms only emerge via elicitation, and especially saw value in semi-structured elicitation. Like Olawsky, some authors concluded that both are helpful, but often for different purposes. For example, de Vries considers that while grammar and lexica are both important parts of language fieldwork, texts have a special role as they can falsify the description. They also provide rich data on oral tradition and culture.

There was also some important discussion about fieldwork ethics. Many of the chapters incorporate aspects of social justice and ethics into the discussion of the area of field linguistics, particularly as it applies to the revitalization of endangered languages. For Brenzinger, ethical collaborations include supporting language maintenance, such as developing pedagogical materials or orthographies. This privileges the community’s interests and rights but also reinforces sustainable capacity building. Olawsky echoes this sentiment and adds that, in addition to paying consultants cash or goods for their time, fieldwork should include giving back to the community, like dictionaries. He also argues that the recordings and material that emerges from the work should be property of the community itself.

There were many reoccurring themes relating to the experiences of the contributors of this volume. The authors of the volume discuss many of the difficulties and sacrifices involved with fieldwork, which encompass “physical, intellectual, interpersonal, intercultural, […] political” (1) and financial challenges. These include leaving loved ones behind and adapting to a new way of life which sometimes lacked conveniences like running water and electricity. Animals, insects, diseases, and local conflicts presented dangers in the work for some. For example, Brenzinger discusses his work taking place near guerrilla zones or sleeping next to camp fires where dangerous animals posed threats. Likewise, Sumbatova was conducting fieldwork, first on Svan when conflict broke out between the Abkhazians and the Georgians, and later on Itsari when the KGB attempted a coup against Gorbachev. Exhibiting exceptional vulnerability, Childs talks about how he suffered from malaria and experienced burglary, but tragedy hit him most acutely when his own child passed away.

What brought each of the authors into the field also varied greatly, and ranged from studying music, other languages, internships, meeting diaspora of the language, and even the Peace Corps. While the paths varied, their experiences, particularly within the field, garnered an immense interest for each of them. Yet the authors cited common themes of why they kept coming back to fieldwork. Some of it had to do with the scientific process, including uncovering raw unanalyzed data, finding the patterns, solving each of the challenging puzzles, generating creative solutions for the problems, and the climactic eureka moment that comes with discovery, and then doing it all over. Moreover, many of them were drawn to interaction with the speakers, learning the languages, and immersing themselves in the cultures. Outside of the language, the authors discuss traveling to new places around the world, embracing the diversity of the people, appreciating the natural beauty of the area, and living different ways of life. However, a common theme for the authors was that it was the people that they met and grew to love that continued to bring them back to the field.

The book’s coherence comes from its sheer diversity, which is metaphoric of fieldwork itself. No two chapters are alike, and this is a strength from a book which provides a panorama of experiences, locations, methodologies, disciplines, and approaches to fieldwork. This means that the book can be enjoyed as a whole, but that each of the chapters can be appreciated individually. In this, the editors achieved their goals of presenting a very diverse area of field linguistics. The fieldworkers and their experiences are as diverse as the languages, places, and peoples with whom they work, and the book provides important insight into the multidisciplinary nature of the work itself.


Thomason, Sarah G. 2015. Endangered Languages: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


John W. W. Powell is a PhD student of Linguistics and University Fellow at the University of Arizona. His research interest are in syntax, historical linguistics, language documentation, revitalization, and maintenance of Indigenous languages. For his dissertation, he is researching comparative and historical Yuman syntax. He works with the Piipaash (Maricopa) community. He has a MA in Linguistics and Applied Linguistics from Arizona State University.

Page Updated: 08-Feb-2019