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Putting practice into words: Fieldwork methodology in grammatical descriptions

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Title: Putting practice into words: Fieldwork methodology in grammatical descriptions
Issue Date: 12 Mar 2015
Description: Language documentation and description are closely related tasks, often performed as part of the same fieldwork project on an un(der)-studied language. However, since Himmelmann (1998) we have been encouraged to consider that documentation and description are methodologically different, and that data collected with documentary methods can enable verification of descriptive claims based upon them. The last decade has seen a surge in the literature on good fieldwork methodology, including Gippert, Himmelmann & Mosel (2006), Crowley (2007), Bowern (2008), Chelliah & De Reuse (2011) and Thieberger (2012). The result is that linguists are more aware of good methodological practices for data collection than ever. These include attention to metadata about speaker demographics, setting, linguistic and discourse types; information about tools, equipment, and stimuli; a description of the fieldwork conditions including time spent among speakers; and a description of archiving practices and locatability of data.

However, it is not clear that linguists' awareness of the importance of robust data-collection methods is translating into transparency about those methods in resultant publications. Clear methodological description is a hallmark of reproducible and reliable scientific research (Author 2014, Authors In Prep), but documentary and descriptive linguists rarely receive clear advice on how to discuss the methods they use.

In this paper we present a survey of 50 published grammars, 50 grammar-based dissertations and 200+ journal articles with regard to how explicitly authors discuss their data collection methods, and what kinds of information they include. The publications surveyed were selected from a ten-year period beginning five years after Himmelmann 1998 encouraged the use of language documentation to provide verification for language description; journal articles come from nine journals selected for breadth of geography, linguistic subfield, and theoretical approach. We find that while there are some examples of strong methodologically-driven writing, the majority of authors do not include key documentary metadata or methodological information. The result is that it is often difficult or impossible to verify or reproduce descriptive linguistic claims, making descriptive linguistics one of the few social sciences to not require researchers to back up claims with an explicit statement of methodology.

We acknowledge that descriptive linguists often practice good methodology in data collection, but need encouragement to make this clear in their writing. Thus we conclude with clear benchmarks for the kind of information we believe is vital for creating a rich and useful research methodology in both long and short format descriptive research writing.


Author. 2014. [Title omitted for anonymity]. In Amanda Harris, Nick Thieberger & Linda Barwick (eds.), Research, records, and responsibility: Ten years of the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures. Sydney: University of Sydney Press.

Authors. In prep. Citation and transparency in descriptive linguistics.
Bowern, Claire. 2008. Linguistic fieldwork: a practical guide. Basingstoke [England] ; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Chelliah, Shobhana L., and Willem J. De Reuse. 2011. Handbook of descriptive linguistic fieldwork. London: Springer.

Crowley, Terry. 2007. Field linguistics: a beginner's guide. Edited by Nicholas Thieberger, Oxford linguistics. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Gippert, Jost, Nikolaus P. Himmelmann, & Ulrike Mosel. 2006. Essentials of language documentation. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Himmelmann, Nikolaus P. 1998. "Documentary and descriptive linguistics." Linguistics no. 36:161–195.

Thieberger, Nicholas. 2012. The Oxford handbook of linguistic fieldwork. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:4th International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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