Fieldwork today or cultural theft ? or theory or...

Trond Trosterud trondt at
Tue Feb 11 12:49:03 UTC 1997

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Three related topics are creating a lot of debate on the list,

1. the one on decriptive studies vs. theoretical studies,
2. the one of fieldword among the speakers (over a long period) vs.
armchair interviews, and
3. the one of whether the language/grammar of indigenous peoples can be
seen as cultural capital to be grabbed by linguists from outside the
communities, in much the same way as e.g. mining companies etc.

In all three debates, and specially the two first ones, I see more
agreement than disagreement. Since all three topics are important, I would
encourage you to consider the possibility that even though claim A is
correct, claim B may not necessarily be wrong. In this way we may be able
to gain some insight.

1. descriptive/theory
Yes, many linguists / departments have trouble seeing how long #time# it
takes to come up with new data, either in form of new grammars or, to pick
another example, of new generalisations from text material from dead

Still, I see now in the linguistic community an emerging consensus of the
importance of responding to the lg crisis, both by documenting and by
supporting/rescuing threatened lgs. This consensus should be utilized, of
course. Field work experience volume is fine, much more important would be
to include field work / grammar writing as a compulsory part of the
curriculum at the linguistic departments. If no un(- or very badly)
documented language is not close enough to make it possible, one could take
text material from languages with text collections but with bad or no
grammatical sketches (there are lots of them). The point is to make the
course become more than a game, to make sure that the "correct" answer is
not on the shelf of the professor, in form of an already written grammar of
the language in question. Some of the organizations could make suggestions
for languages.

If this becomes widespread, linguists trained in writing reference grammars
for undocumented languages ("field workers") automatically get a strong
postion on the job marked, narrowly specialized GB binding theoreticians or
FG discourse analysts (to strike in several directions) are not that suited
to give such courses.

That said, I will emphasize again that theory/empirical studies is not an
either/or. Unfortunately, much theoretical work proceed more due to
fashion-like trends and "assumptions" than to new discoveries about the
formal properties of the models being built, but there is still a good deal
of the latter kind as well. And, and this is important, not only are the
tools we use for making ANY generalisations identical to the building
blocks of any linguistic theory, but developing the theory makes us go back
again to the language and ask for more data, more generalisations. This is
commonplace, but as the discussion on the list goes, you need a reminder.

Again, my point is that I see little disagreement on this. The division
line is not between the OTish HPSGnessy mess on the one hand and sound,
healty grammars on the other, but between well-defined and
unfortunately-only-well-#assumed# theories. Read Geoff Pullums essays in
"The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and other Irreverent Essays about
Language", and you will find arguments for taking both your formal
linguistics (with well-defined basic concepts, that is) and your data
seriously. It is as simple as that. So much for principles. Given that the
state of the Globe is what it is, we should of course be off the campus
most of the time, all of us. But the reason why we should go doing field
work all of us, NOW, is that the languages are disappearing, not that
investigating the formal properties of grammars is a bad thing to do.

2. Living out there / armchair field work
I take it that ALL agree on this: a. It is better to know much than little,
and b. how much you HAVE TO know depends on what you are interested in.

Last point first: Ladefoged can get his clicks without being a speaker of
every clicking language, but in order to do switch-reference studies you
have to understand the chunks between the pronouns as well, in order to
catch them when they come. You also need many informants at a time, to get
conversations. he Morphologists come in between, but they have to dive deep
enough to get both the phonology and the exceptional conjugation classes.

But if linguist A want to do conversation analysis, go to a place and
really learn the lg, that doesn.t mean that linguist B, that wants the verb
and noun paradigms, or linguist C, that wants the data on short-distance
binding (a few binder positions, a few types of reflexives, period), need
to do the same. We also really have to distinguish between a language that
has never been recorded (they don.t have an student exchange agreement
anyway, so you will have to go there) and a language like Thai, that HAS a
grammatical tradition, a tradition that even may be known to the informant.
Very many very good analyses (of this latter type of languages!) are the
result of cooperation between visiting students and their hosts, or between
native speakers far away from home. Also, if the alternatives are a small
grammar on a few informant that accidently went to the city  of the
linguist.s armchair versus no grammar at all, the choice is easy. Again, I
see no principal disagreement.  Sometimes, the linguist cannot go (has
children, commitments, ..), and sometimes, s/he is not allowed to. During
large parts of this century, the only way of getting data from languages
within the Soviet Union, was to use Prisoners of War. Our colleges did this
in Finland, in Norway, Hungary, etc. As a text source on Mari syntax, I
have often used a 600 page book of Mari fairy tales told by ONE informant,
that during WWI (in Budapest) had the choice between labour camp and
sitting at the professor.s office telling stories. His motivation for
remembering fairy tales must have been exellent...

Still, there is the tendency to make too big generalisations on the basis
of too narrow knowledge of a language (familiar to me from parts of my GB
background). But there also is the tradition of #only# using primary data
(your own), a practice that makes it hard to make any generalisations
(familiar to me from parts of my fenno-ugrist-neogrammarian background).
What can we say? Be sensible, folks!

We should also keep in mind that this, if anything, is far from the
either/or case. My experience is that if you need many responses nothing is
more efficient than making wrong generalisations made on the basis of too
narrow armchair data (apart from going out and get the data you need
yourself, of course!). Since some parts of our field are very
fashion-oriented, a new analysis from a new language may suddenly make this
"the language of the year" (I am sure we all can mention one for every
third year or so), and initiate better and more extended empirical studies
on that. The one-linguist-per-language approach is understandable, given
the ratio between fieldworkers and languages, but each language really
deserves its own research community, not only it own researcher.

3. Linguists stealing lgs vs. research on the conditions of the speakers
We should all listen very carefully to Peter, because he is able to see the
linguistic community from outside in a way that insiders are not. That
being said, I see a flaw in the premises of the discussion:

Language / grammar is not a property like land or money. If I take your
language, you still have it, if I borrow your word, you still have it. The
problem is thus rather that linguistic minorities are "stealing" the
languages and grammars of their majorities when they give up their own
language. The only potential things left to steal then are honour, pride
and the fame of being the first. That is a real issue, though (and it is
never economical, you don.t earn money on "A grammar of Xish"). I know
several instances of dictionaries being made by native speakers, edited by
linguists, with only one name on the cover. That is very bad practice, and
we all agree on that.

So, when Peter writes

>I will try to clarify. We Maori both culturally and legally "own" our
>language, and have control over how it is taught in schools and who teaches

I think two things are being mixed. You certainly should have control over
how it is taught in schools (and not primarily because it is your language,
but because it is your school; cf. the battle of how to teach English as a
foreign language in non-English speaking countries: British Council etc.
want monolingual teachers, we want bilingual teachers, with English as a
2nd lg and the lg of the pupils as the 1st lg), and how it is used in your
society and your country. But you cannot prevent me from learning Maori,
writing bad-taste novels in (good or bad) Maori, making claims about the
grammatical structure and sociolinguistics of Maori. You also cannot
prevent your neighbour from being my informant. What you can and should do
(and what you are doing right now) is to initiate debates about the ethical
standards for such work. Much has been said on this list on that topic, and
again I have found very little disagreement. In the end, it all boils down
to respecting other human beings.

Many things should be done by outsiders, in order to avoid vasting of time.
Thus, when Michael Everson and others has made computer software for some
lgs (Non-English letters, non-latin alphabets, etc.), you should use him or
his collegues instead of starting from scratch. English users don.t need to
bother about getting their letters right, they do other things. All should
be able to do that (cf. my web site below for work done on making
non-English characters visible on the net, esp. the article "Funny

Then on indigenous peoples / minority lg speakers as linguists.

> is it really appropriate to
>encourage another wave of Western linguists to go into the field ? i.e. In
>an ideal world I would argue that we need to send indigenous linguists who
>have been trained in the West. Indigenous linguists are more likely to be
>accepted (i.e. they are already are bicultural, or multicultural) and are
>more likely to respect the cultures and wishes of those indigenous groups
>in the field.

I think the concequences of this would be far from ideal. Today, only a
small part of the indigenous peoples have a formal education. Even if all
were literate, and with a minimum of 12 years of education, there would not
be enough interested in linguistic field work to cover the need for
documentation that we see here and now. Thus, the result would be vanishing
languages with no documentation whatsoever. Also, although a multicultural
background is of great help, it is no guarantee against racist, arrogant,
etc. opinions.

But when it comes to field of specialization, there is the question of
whether their community can afford them to leave off and brain-drain into
researching a totally different language. Today, we have a handful of S.i
linguists, but still no dictionary from Norwegian to any S.i language. The
S.i community needs their linguists. Ultimately people do what they want
(and the dictionary will turn out to be bad if the writer wants to do
something else), but as linguists we (I, you, etc.) should try to find out
how I, you, etc. can react to the lg catastrophy in the best way. The
prototypical dictionary written by a majority lg linguist is FROM the
minority language (with a collection of traditional texts as corpus), each
lg deserves a dictionary FROM the majority lg TO the minority one (and a
monolingual dictionary, etc.), things that linguists with the lg as a
mother tongue are best at.

Speakers of endangered languages should certainly concider linguistics as a
career alternative. When the country in question decides to change its bad
practice and introduce some linguistic human rights, the job possibilities
are in fact exellent. This should be encouraged, by grants etc. Again this
policy stands not in conflict with a policy urging majority-lg linguists
leave campus and do field work.

The debate has made explicit many things all of us has thoughts about,
which is a good thing. Parts of it is in a polemic tone (and I am not
thinking about the only participant that I cited!) that is only harmful to
the discussion: rhetorical questions, a desire to "win" the discussion and
prove the other ones wrong, rather than achieving a deeper understanding,
far-fetched examples of the reductio ad absurdum type. Unfortunately, the
engagement is often so strong that the reductio is more absurd than any of
the positions or straw-positions taken. But this is not a discussion club
at high school, we are not here to win discussion games.

We are on this list because we all want to do something to the catastrophic
situation of almost all of the languages of the world (save the tiny group
of well-studied, expanding ones). What to do, and how to do it is not self
evident. But we are on this list to find that out, so let us proceed from

Trond Trosterud                         email: trondt at
Barentssekretariatet, P.O.Box 276,              work: +47-7899-3758
N-9901 Kirkenes, Norway                          fax: +47-7899-3225       home: +47-7899-2243
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