The subtlety of fieldwork: Answering the questions you are not asking

Hale Professor: Lenore GrenobleUniversity of Chicago

Date: 7/28/17

2017 Linguistic Institute Public Lecture

One of the great challenges for linguists is to study a language on its own terms, to avoid biases in our analyses, biases that may be introduced by our native language(s), languages we have studied, or our by our theoretical apparatus. At the same time, the unexpected phenomena may be important for shaping our understanding of language, linguistic diversity and cross-linguistic similarity.

In this talk I discuss some strategies for mitigating some of these potential biases, and for documenting and analyzing a language on its own terms. I argue for an engaged model of fieldwork that involves, indeed requires, the active participation of language users, thoughtful attention of the linguist, and a broader view of what language is. This is a problem that Ken Hale also grappled with, and I draw on concrete examples from his own work (Hale 1992, 1998) and my own. As an illustrative case, Hale presents Damin, an auxiliary language used by Lardil men on Mornington Island in North Queen. Unlike Lardil, the Damin sound inventory (surprisingly) includes clicks. The use of an auxiliary system, with an auxiliary sound system, is unexpected and could be easily missed.

My own fieldwork finds some parallels, in particular in recent work with a team of researchers working in Cameroon, Senegal, Scandinavia and Greenland, documenting the use of clicks and other sounds that stand outside a language’s phonemic inventory but are regular parts of the communicative system. They are conventionalized and recognizable in isolation by the speakers, serving a number of discourse and pragmatic functions and are a core part of language. Examples in American English include mm-mm [ʔmʔm] ‘no’ and  uh-oh [ʌʔoʊ], both of which use a glottal stop, not a phoneme in English Although they are readily recognized by speakers as having semantic meaning, such items (what I call verbal gestures)  are distinguished from a language’s lexical words in that they do not take a morphosyntactic frame and thus do not combine with the grammar.

LSA 2017 - Lenore Grenoble - Public Lecture July 28th

The 2017 Linguistic Institute at the University of Kentucky Lexington featured seven public lectures by leading linguists in a variety of fields. The videos of the lectures, courtesy of the Institute's techincal team and organizers, are available on the original Institute website and have been generously shared with the LSA.