On fieldwork

Mark Donohue mark.donohue at man.ac.uk
Sat Feb 8 14:27:21 UTC 1997

First of all, I appreciated Thomas Payne's summary of some of the
discussion - very clear. A couple of issues, and other ideas.....

>For example, if a linguist gains access to a field purely
>in order to develop her resume of experience, there may
>not be much she can do to be of genuine service to the
>people she does research with. She may not be personally
>satisfied, but will develop a decent research record.

Depends on what satisfies a person. I'd certainly agree that s/he won't
ahve personally satisfied the people s/he worked with.

>But if you
>stay with a community long enough, and if you develop a
>reputation among that community as a person with
>integrity, the particular needs that you
>are uniquely suited to address will become obvious.

This is the problem that young fieldworkers find increasingly acute: how to
stay with that community. Who is willing to support them while they're
there? What job / agency / institution is willing to pay for a linguist (or
pair of linguists, or team of multidisciplinary researchers, or whatever)
to really stay "long enough" with a community. I agree with Thomas that
this is the way to go about it, but it is a serious problem to achieve. I'd
LOVE to head back to the islands where I've spent a good deal of the last 5
years, but am flummoxed as to how: the government of the country won't let
me in for more than two months unless I'm affiliated to something
"official", and to be that I need to be part of a large organisation, and
need guaranteed support (in exces sof what I'd be likely to actually USE,
butthe government of this country requires that foreigners living in it's
borders can support themselves in the style to which they've (it imagines,
the bureaucrats not having lived in villages themselves) become accustomed)

(I heard one story of a visit from someone high up in the research branch
of this government visiting an SIL team in the field. The official was
HORRIFIED and full of disbelief to discover that there ws no air
conditioning and no TV. What sort of people were these, that they didn't
have any of the essential? They were living jsut like, horror, village

>If you have invested your time in building a
>reputation as a fieldworker with integrity during the
>early years, that reputation can be used effectively in
>later years to have tremendous practical value to speakers
>of endangered languages.

Yes - and I agree with you about the people you name, and would add others
to that list, who I either personally know or know off. And certainly the
field (of lnguistics) will benefit from it in the long term. I believe that
without continuous fieldwork, supplying data, challenging assumptions
(Object initial languages, remember that one? No ergative case in SVO,
another myth to collapse, etc etc...), testing prediction (both purely
descriptive, and theory based: theory fuels fieldwork as much as fieldwork
fuels theory: I think this is what Rob Pensalfini was getting at when he
mentioned to lack of any totally "theory-free" grammars, and I agree) (but
theory-neutral, that's another matter...).

And I believe, deep down inside, pace my earlier posting, that we should
encourage people to do this sort of work, as I really do feel that its
valuable, and will be seen as increasingly valuable as time goes by. But
again, the prospect of jobs for a fieldworker is not too good, even less
good than the run-of-the-mill (i forget ethe term I used last time, so I'll
do a new one) optimal HPSGish minimalist gramamticalisational theoretician.

So what needs to change?

Not the doing of fieldwork, and spending time with, working with, aiding

Not the use of data in linguistic theory, to check, refine, and keep us all

But something more immediate. Only in 1996 did the LSA begin a special
section for reports form the field, and Language begin a section of short,
empirical reports. Perhaps a few more journals which are more interested in
empirical results (I can think of Pacific Linguistics, which regularly
publishes interesting, short, and diverse data, but not too many others in
the mainstream publication world), rather tahn old data re-examined; this
would give the message to both students and faculties that FIELDWORK IS

Workshops, with theoreticians interested in a variety of certain
gramamtical phenomenon getting together with fieldworkers who have new and
interesting data on those things, and WORKING TOGETHER, publishing
something together on the language: this aids recognition of the
fieldworker's role in the linguistic process. I've seen a few papers of
this kind, but not too many.

There must be other ideas out there. More importantly, there must be
someone with some cheap accomodation in a student hall (over a break:
fieldworkers come back with not that much loose change in their pockets, no
holiday inn, or Sheraton conferences for us), and a few rooms (not jsut
lecture HALLS, but small rooms with boards, tables, writing implements,
where little discussions can take place, jsut three or four people at a
time, to achieve the working together that I talked about), and a decent
length of time (at least a week, minimum). We could really get a two-way
traffic of valuable concepts going.

Anyone want to follow up on this?


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