On the book beat: Field linguists on fieldwork

Through the Linguistic Typology mailing list recently, an announcement for this 2018 book:

From the publisher:

In Word Hunters, eleven distinguished linguists reflect on their career-spanning linguistic fieldwork. Over decades, each has repeatedly stood up to physical, intellectual, interpersonal, intercultural, and sometimes political challenges in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. These scholar-explorers have enlightened the world to the inner workings of languages in remote communities of Africa (West, East, and South), Amazonia, the Arctic, Australia, the Caucasus, Oceania, Siberia, and East Asia. They report some linguistic eureka moments, but also discuss cultural missteps, illness, and the other challenges of pursuing linguistic data in extreme circumstances. They write passionately about language death and their responsibilities to speech communities. The stories included here — the stuff of departmental and family legends  — are published publicly for the first time.

The table of contents:

Chapter 1. Word hunters: Unsung heroes of linguistics, Hannah Sarvasy and Diana Forker

Chapter 2. The magic of names: A fieldworker’s perspective, Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald

Chapter 3. Historical linguistics in the raw: My life as diachronic fieldworker, Robert Blust

Chapter 4. Sharing thoughts, concepts and experiences: Fieldwork on African languages, Matthias Brenzinger

Chapter 5. Forty-plus years before the mast: My experiences as a field linguist, G. Tucker Childs

Chapter 6. Field linguistics in Daghestan: A very personal account, Nina Dobrushina and Michael A. Daniel

Chapter 7. Drinking of the iceberg: Thirty years of fieldwork on Arctic languages, Michael Fortescue

Chapter 8. Reflections on linguistic fieldwork between Sahel, Amazon and Outback, Knut J. Olawsky

Chapter 9. My fieldwork, from Georgia to Guinea, Nina R. Sumbatova

Chapter 10. The linguist as a demon and as a human: Fieldwork in Greater Awyu communities of West Papua, Lourens de Vries

Chapter 11. From here to there and back again: Fieldwork in the Andean foothills, Mary Ruth Wise

A cautionary note. This sounds like a fantastic book, but I note that it sells for $143 in the US. An outrageous price that means only academic libraries will buy it — I certainly can’t afford it — and very few people will have easy access to it.

This is, of course, an issue that arises with many other estimable volumes, in particular the massive handbooks of subfields of linguistics with authoritative survey chapters written by distinguished linguists. All priced to make money for the publisher primarily on the assumption that academic libraries will buy one copy each.

(I confess to being one of the editors of one such handbook, the 2001 Spencer & Zwicky Handbook of Morphology, now selling in paperback for just under $100.)

Linguists at work. The larger topic here is of linguists at work — something I looked at back in 2006 on Language Log. It’s probably worth a re-run.

From my 11/8/06 posting “Linguists at work”:

Reading Anatoly Liberman’s Word Origins …and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone (Oxford University Press, 2005) has brought me back to some unfinished Language Log business from long ago, a 2004 query about books that “could give a potential linguist some sense of what it’s like to be a linguist, to do linguistics”. [The posting continues with praise for the Liberman book in this context.]

… Now back to the 2004 question and replies to it.  Several people seconded my nomination of The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. But two suggestions dominated the responses I got: Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct (which won Pinker the first Linguistics, Language, and the Public Award from the LSA in 1997) — I can’t imagine how I could have left this book off my list — and Language Log itself. (Remember: unlike Steve, we offer a full money-back policy to anyone who’s dissatisfied with the services we provide.) And now some of our stuff has been published in Far from the Madding Gerund (see ad on front page, and buy the book!).

Adam Parrish nominated Thomas Payne’s Describing Morphosyntax, saying: “It provides an outline for a morphosyntactic description of a language and instructions on how to fill in the details.  It’s billed as a guide for fieldworkers, but I just like to read it and marvel at how languages are simultaneously diverse and similar.”

And Matt Post suggested, for computational approaches to language, the first few chapters of Daniel Jurafsky & James Martin, Speech and Language Processing: An Introduction to Natural Language Processing, Computational Linguistics, and Speech Recognition.

Some further suggestions that have occurred to me: Pinker’s 1999 book Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, which shows an experimental psycholinguist grappling with a lot of messy details about language, in particular about inflectional morphology; George Miller’s 1977 Spontaneous Apprentices: Children and Language, in which you get to watch Miller and Phil Johnson-Laird struggle to do research on child language acquisition; and Miller’s 1991 The Science of Words, about all things having to do with words, with much discussion of experimental work. Miller is an especially engaging writer, by the way.

Finally, Mark Liberman recommended a very different sort of writing, fiction with linguist characters:

None of these are by linguists. All of them involve sympathetic central characters who turn out to be better at analyzing the structure and content of exotic languages than the structure and content of their own lives.

Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, discussed here.

Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, discussed here.

Malcolm Bradbury’s Rates of Exchange, discussed here.

(There’s quite a lot of fiction with linguists in it, but these are works in which you get to see some actual linguistic analysis being done.)

Then from Bill Poser, a 11/10/06 posting “More field linguistics books”:

Here are some additions to [the] suggested readings on linguistic fieldwork.

– Bob Dixon’s 1983 Searching for Aboriginal Languages: Memoirs of a Field Worker ( New York: University of Queensland Press. Reprinted 1989 by the University of Chicago Press.) is a fascinating memoir of his work in Australia.

– Also about Australia is Forty Years On: Ken Hale and Australian languages, a collection of essays about the work of Ken Hale and related topics, including a piece by Ken’s widow Sally and one by Geoff O’Grady, another of the greats of that generation of Australianists. Further information is available here.

– Science Fiction/Fantasy writer Sheri Tepper has written two books that deal with linguistic fieldwork The more recent of the two, The Companions (New York: Harper Collins, 2003) is explicitly about linguistic fieldwork on an alien planet. Her earlier book After Long Silence (New York: Bantam Books, 1987), which is one of my favorites, is not explicitly about fieldwork but turns out to be. I can’t reveal more without spoiling it. If you think your tastes are like mine, read it.

– Some textbooks of field methods contain interesting anecdotes or philosophical discussions. You might enjoy Bert Vaux and Justin Cooper’s Introduction to Linguistic Field Methods … Anvita Abbi’s A Manual of Linguistic Field Work and Structures of Indian Languages (Munich: LINCOM EUROPA) is interesting for its focus on fieldwork in India.

There are now a number of excellent texts on field linguistics. A recent comprehensive one is Claire Bowern’s Linguistic Fieldwork: A Practical Guide  (Palgrave Macmillan, 2nd ed. 2015).

And then my 11/10/06 posting “Field linguists at work”:

Now that I’ve gotten around to posting suggestions of books that show linguists at work, correspondents are writing to fill in gaps in my list. My list had a couple of items depicting field linguistics, but I missed several good books about field work.
Curtis Booth writes to nominate Leanne Hinton’s wonderful collection of essays on California Indian languages, Flutes of Fire. To which Peter Austin adds Paul Newman and Martha Ratliff’s Linguistic Fieldwork, a collection of essays by a number of accomplished field linguists about all aspects of the field experience, and Mark Abley’s Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, specifically on working with endangered languages, including revitalizing them. For sociolinguistic fieldwork, I know of nothing quite like these volumes about traditional field linguistics.  My current best recommendation is Penny Eckert’s 1989 volume Jocks and Burnouts, because it treats both quantitative research and ethnographic description, and because it’s engagingly written.

One Response to “On the book beat: Field linguists on fieldwork”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Hannah Sarvasy in e-mail:

    on the book’s (very high) list price: Benjamins acknowledges that the book is of a different nature, with likely broader appeal, than other volumes in their SLCS line. They’ve thus put out a ‘hardcover library edition’ first to test the waters, but agree that if sales in the first year differ significantly from other SLCS books, they will put out a cheaper paperback edition next year.

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