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Review of  The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Fieldwork

Reviewer: Carmen Jany
Book Title: The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Fieldwork
Book Author: Nicholas Thieberger
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Anthropological Linguistics
Book Announcement: 23.1962

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EDITOR: Thieberger, Nicholas
TITLE: The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Fieldwork
SERIES: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2011

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


The book under review, ‘The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Fieldwork’, is a
practical guide for field linguists. It focuses on the cultural context of
linguistic fieldwork and its collaborative nature across linguistic subfields
and disciplines. As the editor, Nicholas Thieberger, notes in the introduction,
this volume provides advice on ‘optimizing both the form and content of field
material’ (p. 2) at a time when it has become clear that language documentation
encompasses recording a wide range of materials on as many aspects as possible.
The volume features twenty contributions by both well-established and
experienced fieldworkers and younger scholars across several disciplines. The
main goal is to guide fieldworkers towards recording various aspects of human
knowledge and creating high quality, reusable, and accessible primary data. The
volume 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 right
techniques for elicitation and text collection, and the creation of a lasting

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

Chapter 2 discusses various elicitation techniques to capture semantic
categories. In this chapter, Asifa Majid informs us about the basic tools and
methodology for using non linguistic stimuli to explore semantics in language
and warns us about potential pitfalls and dangers. She describes how to select
and create stimuli, how to administer tests, and how to record and evaluate

In Chapter 3, Ulrike Mosel provides a guide to field guides for morphosyntactic
analyses. Surveying the existing literature, she highlights the advantages and
disadvantages of various field methods, from the selection and training of
consultants 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. Nicholas
Thieberber and Andrea L. Berez offer advice on how to create and manage ‘long
lasting, archivable primary data’ (p. 91) in the course of linguistic fieldwork.
Via illustrations and examples, they discuss the planning stage prior to
fieldwork, the workflow for creating well-formed data and metadata in the field
and afterward, and the technology used for data management. Overall, they
advocate for the importance of creating a well constructed and reusable set of
data 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 various

In Chapter 5, Miriam Meyerhoff, Chie Adachi, Golnaz Nanbaksh, and Anna Strycharz
review techniques for examining sociolinguistic variation within speech
communities. They start out by outlining key concepts in sociolinguistics, such
as the observer’s paradox, the sociolinguistic variable, and the concept of
speech community. Furthermore, they discuss practical matters in data
collection, from setting the stage and getting started to creating and
conducting a sociolinguistic interview. They focus on methods for addressing the
observer’s paradox in the interview and conclude with a review of some merits
and pitfalls of an alternative model, the group interview, while including tips
for successful group recordings in the appendix.

Chapter 6 deals with reasons and guidelines for documenting gestures. Mandana
Seyfeddinipur provides an overview of the approaches and methods for linguistic
fieldworkers to examine the multifaceted and understudied phenomenon of gesture.
She includes tips on how to record gestures, what topics may prompt certain
kinds of gestures, and how to create basic annotations of the collected data. In
this chapter, the concept of gesture is narrowed down to the ‘hand and arm
movements speakers make when they communicate’ (p. 148). Seyfeddinipur
exemplifies several cross linguistic, cross cultural, and cognitive differences
of gestures manifested in repertoire, size, content, orientation, and types of

In Chapter 7, Linda Barwick advances reasons for including musical performance
in fieldwork corpora. She stresses the significance of human musical capacities
and provides suggestions for linguistic researchers to engage in the
documentation 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 a
total of ten contributions. It deals with the interdisciplinary nature of
fieldwork 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 to
illustrate how collaborative interdisciplinary fieldwork can help the linguist
solve analytic problems related to the investigation of the verb lexicon and
create a richer record to include such details as five gender distinctions and
distinct verbs of wearing for different body parts.

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

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

In the following chapter (Chapter 11), Barry J. Conn offers a brief introduction
to the techniques used for collecting botanical specimens. Conn stresses the
importance of knowing the identity of plant species and their scientific names
so that collected information is available to everyone. The chapter includes
many practical instructions for pre fieldwork planning and preparing a
collecting equipment kit, collecting good specimens and preserving them through
pressing 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, and
environments. More specifically, he focuses on how biological knowledge is
acquired, learned, and controlled, e.g., hierarchical folk classification
systems for plants and animals (e.g. animal, bird, raptor, owl, barn owl). He
outlines 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 in
collecting physical and other types of evidence.

Chapter 13 deals with the recording of technical processes. Techniques are
responsible for producing social ties and types of information as they are
transforming the material world. After introducing several key concepts, Pierre
Lemonnier 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 Baruya
fence and the Ankave drum. The case studies illustrate how technical processes
need to be understood within their cultural context. Lemonnier concludes the
chapter with comments for the linguistic fieldworker regarding field questions
and methods and collecting linguistic data, such as multiple descriptions of
technical activities.

In Chapter 14, cross-cultural quantification and mathematical algorithms are
presented. Marc Chemillier introduces the field linguist to work in
ethnomathematics and shows how mathematical concepts can be extracted from
fieldwork situations. He presents observations on the best way to record and
annotate data while visiting the field, the completeness of data collection
during fieldwork and checking for consistence of mathematical knowledge, and
specific topics, such as vernacular lexicons used for numbers and measurement
and mathematical operations in societies with no number above five. Moreover,
via his fieldwork in Madagascar, Chemillier illustrates how gestures can convey
mathematical 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 sky
through observation, perception, and use, such as through stories, art,
timekeeping, and night navigation. Holbrook offers a crash course in cultural
astronomy from suggestions on how to prepare before going to the field, to what
type of information to collect from simple terms, such as names for cardinal
directions and stars, to names for more complex phenomena, such as comets,
eclipses, faint starts, zodiac constellations, and weather predictions using the
night sky. From the sky we move to terrestrial topics.

In Chapter 16, Andrew G. Turk, David M. Mark, Carolyn O’Meara, and David Stea
discuss motivations and techniques for documenting terms for the human
environment in ethnophysiography, a field that seeks to understand cultural
differences in conceptualizations of landscape. With illustrations from three
case studies undertaken by the authors of this chapter (with the Yindjibarndi
people in Australia, the Navajo in the Southwestern United States, and the Seri
in Mexico), they summarize methods used in obtaining terms for landscape
features and toponyms. In addition, they identify and address a set of threats
to the validity of the collected information. The authors also discuss several
field methods (e.g. dictionary work and photo collection, field interviews,
photo interpretation sessions, semi structured follow-up, reporting back and
getting feedback) and conclude the chapter with a discussion of key ethical issues.

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

Part IV: Collaborating with the community

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

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

Paul Newman, in Chapter 19, discusses copyright and intellectual property
rights. Copyright deals with intangible mental products and covers artistic and
literary creations in the broadest sense. Newman summarizes a number of general
copyright laws and then proceeds to the basics of US copyright law. Of
particular interest to the fieldworker is the section distinguishing different
types of collaborators and their copyright entitlements. While contributions of
informants (i.e. providers of natural language data), subjects (such as those in
a sociolinguistic study), and consultants (i.e. providers of ideas and
information) are not copyrighted, those of text providers are. It is suggested
that the fieldworker obtain a non exclusive license to use copyrighted collected
texts for linguistic research. The appendix provides useful samples of copyright
transfer and license forms.

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


As Nicholas Evans notes, ‘undocumented languages contain too much information to
be wasted on linguists alone’ (p. 183). Focusing on interdisciplinary
collaboration, this volume is a fine collection of papers that demonstrate the
importance of creating a lasting and comprehensive linguistic record which goes
beyond traditional linguistic fieldwork. More than half of the chapters stress
the need for cross disciplinary work and encourage the 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 to collecting 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 title alone. A title such
as ‘Handbook of Interdisciplinary Language Documentation’ may be more fitting
and representative of this volume.

The volume includes many themes which have not been central to linguistic
explorations, such as astronomy and mathematics, among others. As a handbook, it
is expected to provide the reader with accessible instructions and references
for the covered topics. Most chapters certainly achieve this goal by providing
concise, yet sufficiently detailed, specific practical notes and guides to
introduce 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, simply present an overview of the key concepts in a given
discipline without offering specific practical tools for the field worker.
Nevertheless, this does not impinge upon the fact that this volume constitutes
an excellent source of information and guidance for any field linguist. Although
a fieldworker may not always be able to take all the interdisciplinary
suggestions offered in this volume into consideration, this handbook provides
many useful ideas for what to look for while in the field and how to go about
documenting interesting features beyond linguistic structure. Even a seasoned
fieldworker will find ideas for new concepts to work on to enrich already
collected data. Conn’s chapter is particularly valuable, as it concisely
outlines the basic methods of botanical collecting with practical suggestions
for the requirements of such fieldwork. Finally, one of the major strengths of
this work is the fact that, while the authors come from a wide variety of
disciplines, they are all experienced fieldworkers and are, thus, able to share
their experiences and lessons learned with the reader. In most chapters, the
techniques and practices covered are exemplified and illustrated via real field
situations from across the globe.

It has to be noted that, while the volume covers many different topics pertinent
to cross disciplinary language documentation, it is a coherent piece of work.
Appropriately divided into four parts, each part covers a major theme of the
handbook. The uneven distribution of contributions across the four parts only
highlights the major focus of this handbook, namely, to serve as an
interdisciplinary guide for the linguistic fieldworker. It is unfortunate that
some topics were not included. For example, in the second part, treating the
documentation of performance, I would have welcomed a paper on storytelling and
other topics related to verbal art, such as poetry. As noted by Nicholas
Thieberger in the introductory paper, a chapter on zoology would have been a
nice addition to the volume. I would have also liked to see a paper on folk

There is certainly no shortage of recently published handbooks and other guides
on linguistic fieldwork and language documentation (Austin and Sallabank 2011,
Gippert, Himmelmann, and Mosel 2006, Grenoble and Furbee 2010, Chelliah and de
Reuse 2011). However, a handbook reflecting the current status of linguistic
fieldwork as an interdisciplinary and collaborative enterprise is a welcomed
addition to the existing literature. In sum, this handbook is a timely
publication that does not duplicate, but rather complements, other recently
published guides on linguistic fieldwork (Chelliah et al. 2011), as it embraces
new trends in documentary linguistics, which is moving beyond traditional
grammatical description. I welcome the growing encouragement to conduct more
interdisciplinary fieldwork and highly recommend this rich source of information
to any new or seasoned linguistic fieldworker.


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

Gippert, Jost, Nicholas Himmelmann, and Ulrike Mosel eds. 2006. Essentials of
Language 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 Descriptive
Linguistic Fieldwork. London: Springer.

Carmen Jany received her PhD from UC Santa Barbara in 2007. She now holds a position as Associate Professor of Linguistics and Spanish at California State University in San Bernardino. Her main research interests include linguistic typology, language documentation, Native American and other endangered languages, morpho-syntax, phonetics and phonology, and language contact. Currently, she is working on the grammatical description of Chuxnabán Mixe, a Mexican indigenous language. Her dissertation was a typologically framed grammatical description and analysis of Chimariko, an extinct Northern California language.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780199571888
Pages: 560
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