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Real and fictional referents in linguistic fieldwork

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Title:Real and fictional referents in linguistic fieldwork
Authors:Sardinha, Katie
Contributors:Sardinha, Katie (speaker)
Date Issued:12 Mar 2015
Description:Semantic fieldwork and language documentation both rely on telling stories as a means of investigating language. In semantic fieldwork, telling a story to establish a discourse context and having speakers judge semantic felicity in that context can be used to discover semantic distinctions (Matthewson 2004, Anderbois & Henderson 2013, Rose-Deal 2013) while in documenting a language, eliciting stories can be an end in itself. In this methodologically-oriented presentation I discuss a previously unaddressed methodological issue: how choosing whether to talk about real people or fictional characters can affect the outcome of elicitation tasks, and what methods we can use to improve these outcomes.

Real people are familiar, definite people whom a speaker and elicitor jointly know in real life, such as relatives, linguistic researchers, or mutual friends. Fictional characters on the other hand are unreal personas created solely for the purpose of linguistic elicitation. For instance, in the story fragment in (1) the names ‘Hannah’ and ‘Alexis’ could refer either to actual known people or to abstract fictional people, ‘a(ny) girl named Hannah/Alexis’. Designing an elicitation session involves making many such choices regarding who to tell stories about.

(1) Hannah broke her promise to Alexis.

In this presentation I draw on a corpus of transcriptions from fieldwork on Kwak’wala (Wakashan) and Turkmen (Turkic) to explore consequences of the way we form stories in linguistic elicitation. I discuss how speakers tend to make fewer translation-related mistakes and find judgment tasks easier when using stories about real people, while using fictional characters tends to lead to more translation task errors and potential problems in mixing-up contexts within a single elicitation session. On the other hand, it is often inappropriate to talk about real people engaged in certain actions, even within an elicitation frame; fictional characters, then, can be used to overcome certain pragmatic barriers and elicit a wider range of linguistic constructions than would otherwise be possible. I also describe a third approach, the use of shared fictional universes, which overcomes many of the limitations of using real or fictional characters. This approach involves using stories about a set of definite yet fictional characters populating a realistic and engrossing – albeit also fictional – universe, which is co-imagined by the speaker and elicitor.

By paying close attention to how the properties of stories affect the outcomes of elicitation tasks, I aim to provide practical advice for linguists and documentarians to meet their linguistic goals.


Anderbois, Scott & Robert Henderson. 2013. Linguistically establishing discourse context: Two case studies from Mayan languages. To appear in M. Ryan Bochnak & Lisa Matthewson (eds.), Methodologies in Semantic Fieldwork. Oxford University Press.

Matthewson, Lisa. 2004. On the methodology of semantic fieldwork. International Journal of American Linguistics, 70(4): 369-415.

Rose Deal, Amy. 2013. Reasoning about equivalence in semantic fieldwork. To appear in M. Ryan Bochnak & Lisa Matthewson (eds.), Methodologies in Semantic Fieldwork. 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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