Concepts and skills you’ll need for Fieldmethods (LING 527/727)

  • Identifying word category
  • Constituency
  • Functional vs. lexical categories
  • Binding Theory

Where does linguistic data come from?  At this point in your linguistics career at KU, you’ve almost certainly encountered some data sets that you’ve been asked to analyze. These data sets are almost always neatly tailored to fit the needs of the class and the assignment. Language is messy, though, and doesn’t just give you data sets. So where do we (the professional linguists) get our beautiful data from?

The answer is fieldwork! Fieldwork is the exploration of new (to the researcher) languages. Fieldworkers work with native speakers to construct a description of a language, or at least a part of the language. As the fieldworker learns more about the language, he or she might eventually be able to identify an interesting pattern—and thus a data set is born! You did a very brief  imitation of fieldwork as you worked through the Swahili examples to build up the Phrase Structure Grammar. Fieldworkers elicit data from speakers. With the elicited data, a fieldworker can refine their theoretical model, or they can simply develop an accurate description of the language in question.

In my opinion, fieldwork is one of the most challenging and most rewarding of the linguistic disciplines. Good fieldworkers must have a working knowledge of phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. Indeed, it is often that case that a fieldworker has to use skills from all of these disciplines within the span of 5 or 10 minutes. When you start working with a language that you don’t know anything about, then everything is new! You don’t know what the sounds are, you don’t know what the word order is, you don’t know anything. Slowly, a fieldworker builds up an understanding of the language.

Fieldworkers have a variety of tools at their command. These tools are called fieldmethods. The most important fieldmethods are those that teach you how to elicit the data you want. Different tools do different things. We have tools to elicit tone. We have elicit modals. Etc. From syntax, the most important tools are those that help us categorize things. So being able to identify parts of speech is crucial. And being cable to determine constituency is as well. It’s also important to have a sense of the distinction between functional vs. lexical categories.

It may come as a surprise that Binding Theory is also a crucial skill for a fieldworker. The simple reason is that the Binding Conditions are great ways to determine hierarchical structure. We can use Conditions A, B, C as diagnostics for which elements are above other elements, and which elements have moved.

As always, though, it is important to keep in mind that, going into a language you’re unfamiliar with, you don’t know how anything works! You’ll need to figure out the tests for that language.

Finally, perhaps the best thing about fieldwork is being able to work with a native speaker of language that you don’t know. Fieldworkers don’t just learn about the language, but they also learn about the culture and society of the speakers of that language.


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