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1 Linguistic Fieldwork Peter K. Austin Endangered Languages Project Linguistics Department, SOAS.

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Presentation on theme: "1 Linguistic Fieldwork Peter K. Austin Endangered Languages Project Linguistics Department, SOAS."— Presentation transcript:

1 1 Linguistic Fieldwork Peter K. Austin Endangered Languages Project Linguistics Department, SOAS

2 2 Overview of the day  Introduction to what we mean by “linguistic fieldwork”  Why, how and where do linguists do fieldwork?  Some examples: fieldwork in remote locations and fieldwork “at home”  Ethical issues  Communities and reciprocity  Fieldwork in the linguistics curriculum  Student experiences – SOAS MA and PhD students

3 3 Overview of this session  Defining “linguistic fieldwork”  A little bit of history  Why do we do fieldwork?  Where do we do fieldwork?  How do we do fieldwork? – a little bit about methods and styles  Conclusions

4 4 Definitions  Bowern (2008:2) “Fieldwork (not just linguistic fieldwork) is about collecting data in its natural environment … when linguists go to the field, they are going to study the natural environment for their object of study – that is, they go to study a language in the place where it is spoken, by the people who usually speak it. Of course, it’s not quite that easy. Linguists don’t just ‘dig up’ the grammar of a language to put it in grammar book. We work with real people, and become part of the data collection process ourselves (cf. Hyman 2001).”

5 5 Kennedy discovers the gerund and leads it back into captivity

6 6 More on definitions  Bowern (2008:7) “So, after all that, what is ‘fieldwork’? My definition is rather broad. It involves the collection of accurate data in an ethical manner. It involves producing a result which both the community and the linguist approve of. That is, the ‘community’ (the people who are affected by your being there collecting data) should know why you’re there, what you’re doing, and they should be comfortable with the methodology and the outcome. You should also be satisfied with the arrangements. The third component involves the linguist interacting with a community of speakers at some level. That is, fieldwork involves doing research in a place where the language is spoken, not finding a speaker at your university and eliciting data from them.” (emphasis added – PKA)

7 7 A bit of history  Up until 19 th century linguistics tended to be based on studying books or written materials, describing languages or testing out theories about language structure and history  Information on “exotic languages” typically came from reports by missionaries, amateur settlers, or explorers – professional linguists rarely ventured out from their offices  the first researchers actually going into the field in 19 th century were linguist-anthropologists studying indigenous languages in America, Asia and Australia-Pacific region or dialectologists in Europe keen to record local dialects and folklore (France, Germany, Italy)

8 8 eg. Atlas Linguistique de la France  1897-1901 Edmond Edmont (a grocer) helped collect data on French dialects for the Swiss linguist Jules Gilliéron by cycling through 639 localities in France and the French-speaking parts of Belgium, Switzerland and Italy  he collected phonetic data transcribed in a consistent phonetic alphabet and interviewed males aged between 15 and 85 (considered to be ‘local intellectuals’ and good ‘folk speakers’)  Note: this was slow to catch on in England  1875: Alexander Ellis (English dialect collector) said: “Collecting country words is looked upon as an amusement, not as laying a brick in the temple of science”.  1948: Eugen Dieth of Zurich and Harold Orton of Leeds started the Survey of English Dialects (SED)

9 9 In North America  1890-1940 Franz Boas was a strong supporter of anthropological and linguistic fieldwork among native American groups and sponsored and trained generations of researchers who did summer field trips, as well as training native speakers to do research on their own languages and to co-publish their results  Boas’ famous students included Sapir, Bloomfield, Haas, Kroeber, Swadesh, all of whom did fieldwork on indigenous languages and trained a generation of students (eg. Survey of California Indian Languages at UC Berkeley)  Fieldwork and descriptive linguistics was side-lined by the emergence of Chomsky in 1955, devaluation of “mere description” in favour of “theory” and introspection

10 10 In the UK  1910-1940: British anthropologists such as Bronisław Malinowsky emphasised fieldwork and studies of local languages  Fieldwork was an important part of research at SOAS from 1930’s to 1960’s, especially for Asian and African languages (eg. Milner, Robins, Hudson, Smith) and at some other universities  But fieldwork all but died out between 1970’s and 2000 as Chomskian linguistics dominated  ELAP founded 2003 – all staff and students do fieldwork across the world

11 11 Technology played a role  Starting in the late 19 th century, linguists and anthropologists made recordings of indigenous languages  using the latest technology

12 12  Equipment became smaller in the 1970s, but still researchers intruded into people ’ s lives

13 13  Today compact equipment means we can go to where the languages are spoken and live together with the people, and learn their languages

14 14 Why do fieldwork-1?  to document linguistic diversity  about 6,800 languages are spoken on earth today, 50% are endangered and may disappear this century  very few languages have been properly studied and most of them have never been recorded or written down  around 2,000 languages have writing, most of them very recently, and so around 5,000 languages have no written form  studying languages in the field provides the data to answer fundamental questions like: ‘what are languages like and how are they used?’, ‘are there universal characteristics shared by all languages, cultures and societies?’, ‘how much variation/difference can there be between languages/varieties and how is it patterned?’

15 15 Why do fieldwork-2?  Intellectual satisfaction of solving complex descriptive and analytical problems, test theories, encounter other ways of being/living/talking, and try to understand them  to support communities whose languages are under pressure by documenting and strengthening them  to forge meaningful relationships with members of other communities and cultures and experience significant cultural/social events  to learn amazing languages that are different from one’s own in interesting and challenging ways  to be able to go to exotic locations and tell everyone about it when you get home safely

16 16 Where do we do fieldwork?  Prototypically, fieldwork is done in remote locations, requiring long distance travel, living in basic conditions, under attack from diseases and creepy crawlies, and at some personal risk (“Crocodile Dundee Fieldwork Model”)  however we can also do fieldwork in situ, especially among diaspora or immigrant communities in major urban centres like London with its 400 languages and vibrant communities and cultures in which they are used  access to field sites depends on who is doing the research, and in some cases, due to physical or political or social danger, it is not possible to go to remote locations and local fieldwork is the best or only alternative

17 17 How do we do fieldwork?  There are several well-tried fieldwork methods and each has its own advantages and disadvantages (see References handout):  elicitation  staged communication  participant observation  Some linguists insist that you have to learn the language being studied and use it as much as possible (monolingual fieldwork) while others rely on lingua francas (eg. Spanish, Hausa, Bislama) and translation, and others use a mixture

18 18 Elicitation  Contextualising elicitation:  Speakers are asked to comment on or provide contexts for a given word/construction.  Translation equivalent:  Speakers are asked to translate a given word/utterance.  Judgement:  Speakers are asked to evaluate the acceptability/grammaticality of a given form.

19 19 Data resulting from contextualising elicitation  PLUS:  Yield phonologically natural utterances.  Can be quantified to some extent.  Are highly controlled, or at least seem to be.  Offer negative evidence  MINUS:  Results depend heavily on the creativity of the researcher and the receptiveness of the consultant  Easily lead to misunderstands that go by unnoticed  Can thus yield syntactically, semantically, pragmatically odd utterances “How do you say hello to people in the morning?”

20 20 Data resulting from translational equivalent elicitation  PLUS:  Are easy when starting work on an unknown language  Give good data to work on phoneme inventory, basic lexicon, and for lexical comparison  Are quantifiable and highly controlled  Offer negative evidence  MINUS:  Yield phonologically odd utterances  Give no complete picture of the extension of the word in the target language  Can easily lead to misunderstandings due to the lack of context  Translatable items are limited in number  Hyper-cooperative consultants may create neologisms to be helpful “How do you say ‘my mother’ in Cicipu?”

21 21 Data resulting from acceptability judgements  PLUS:  Are controlled and quantifiable  Can give results for domains that are difficult to cover otherwise  Give comparable results for many fields  Offer negative evidence  MINUS:  Very often do not test acceptability of the utterance, but rather of the context provided for it  Can therefore very often be contradicted by the same and by different speakers “Can I say ‘liwuru na’ when the book is lying over there?

22 22 Participant observation  other terms: ‘naturalistic data’, ‘spontaneous speech data’  external interference is limited to the fact that the communicative event is being observed and recorded – attempt to create a ‘natural’ context of interaction (story telling, ritual, conversation etc)  generally constitutes the backbone of a language documentation and an important component of a data corpus

23 23 Data resulting from monologues  PLUS:  Have a high degree of ecological validity  Yield phonologically, semantically and syntactically natural utterances  Give insight into the culture, if thematically balanced  Show high-frequency phenomena  MINUS:  Can seem ‘natural’ but actually aren’t because the cultural settings are not respected  Can contain pragmatic oddities  Are not very controlled  Many features are not quantifiable because a unique performance of one speaker  Don’t offer negative evidence and are not good for low- frequency phenomena “The elephant went into the forest and waited for the lion...”

24 24 Data resulting from conversation  PLUS:  Often seen as the non- plus-ultra in naturalness  Yields data that are naturalistic in every respect  Also gives important information about the culture  MINUS:  Is not controlled at all  Is very difficult to get  Is tedious and time- consuming to transcribe  Is even more time- consuming to analyse  Don’t offer negative evidence and insight into low-frequency phenomena A: “you won’t believe what I heard on the bus this morning” B: “are you still catching the 19 to Euston?

25 25 Staged communication  Other term: ‘quasi naturalistic data’  Communicative events that are enacted for the purpose of recording them for analysis:  Telling of a story/joke/the way to do something  Description of a picture/acted video/animated video  Matching/sorting game that involves non- linguistic categorisation or linguistic interaction.

26 26 Data resulting from static stimuli  PLUS:  Are highly controlled, quantifiable and comparable  Yield phonologically, semantically and syntactically accurate data  Are free from linguistic interference of the metalanguage and from misunderstandings of context  Can be used for non-linguistic categorisation tasks  MINUS:  Validity of the data depends on coverage of the domain under inspection by the stimulus  If gaps in parameters, data can be severely flawed  Cross-cultural applicability can be limited  Use is limited to visually depictable scenes

27 27 Data resulting from dynamic stimuli  PLUS:  Yield phonologically, syntactically and semantically quantifiable and comparable data etc. (see previous slide)  Can be used for non- linguistic categorisation tasks  MINUS:  See previous slide and:  Require the use of high-tech, which is complicated if not impossible in many field settings  if stimulus is abstractness and the purpose is unclear, misunderstandings can occur

28 28 Data resulting from interactive stimuli  PLUS:  Allow controlled interaction of two or more speakers  Yield quantifiable and comparable data  Can be used for non- linguistic categorisation tasks  MINUS:  May create culturally inappropriate or strange situations.  Since the true purpose of the interaction is normally not known to the consultants, misunderstandings occur easily

29 29 Summary  linguistic fieldwork is about working on language in a culturally, socially and ethically appropriate ways in a context where the language is being used  linguistic fieldwork began in the 19 th century, was interrupted and side-lined by Chomskian “science”, and is now seeing a resurgence  we do fieldwork for a variety of reasons, in a variety of places, and using a variety of methods and styles  but mostly we do fieldwork because it’s fun


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