Tom Payne tpayne at OREGON.UOREGON.EDU
Mon Feb 10 15:42:26 UTC 1997

With much respect and admiration for Mary Haas, Victor
Golla and others who have done excellent descriptive
linguistic work in academic settings distant from
communities of speakers, I would like to support the view
that the best way to learn a language, both for purposes
of speaking and doing linguistic analysis, is to live in a
community where the language is spoken.

After having done linguistics both ways, I can look back
on many situations where analyses derived from data
elicited from bilingual, educated native speakers, were
shown to be wrong or incomplete when exposed to
uncontrolled, dynamic data from spontaneous speech in
culturally relevant settings. One brief example: Yagua
consultants would "edit out" certain uses of reflexive
pronouns in transcriptions of spontaneous text. They would
insist "you can't say that." This is interesting data in
and of itself  -- they had very strong "grammaticality
judgements" about these pronouns. However, the
constructions in question would come up over and over
again in texts. So rather than eliminate them all in the
editing process, we did a discourse study of them, and in
so doing discovered a long range switch-reference system!

For many of us, living "in the field" is attractive for
more than the "mystique" value. Many individuals who have
grown up in complex, industrialized societies find living
among speakers of endangered languages refreshing. There
tends to be an openness, honesty, clarity and many other
qualities that are uncommon in industrialized societies.
We come back from "the field" changed as individuals
because of this experience.

I don't think this is a trivial consideration, or one that
should be written off as "mere idealism." In fact, it is
one very strong motivation for supporting the continued
existence of linguistic and cultural diversity -- there
are qualities of life present in pre-industrial cultures
that many of us have lost. The world will be a much, much
poorer place if these cultures, and the qualities they
embody, cease to exist. Everyone can learn from people
whose ways of life are increasingly threatened.
Thomas E. Payne
Department of Linguistics
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403
Voice: 541 342-6706
Fax:   541 346-3917

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