A field linguists is most likely an adult, after all. We all know that babies are capable of hearing the specific sounds in natural languages. As a person grows up, however, he/she starts to lose the ability to distinguish between different phonemes in a non-native language. The same goes for other features of a language, like the subtleties in semantics, grammar, pragmatics, etc.

Yes, it's true that a field linguist generally receives adequate training in linguistics before going on to document an unknown language. But what if there are rare, unknown sounds or grammatical structures?

The linguistics training he/she has received wouldn't have covered this because these things are, well, unknown to linguistics yet.

While some rare sounds (like the click sounds) are easy to spot for even non-natives, others are more subtle and therefore harder to pick up.

Some undocumented langauges are endangered, so there are often many bilingual speakers (who have to learn a more prestigious language) who can help the linguist and point out these nuances. But he/she may not be aware of them without linguistic training, and few people happen to both speak the obscure langauge and have studied linguistic.

And anyway what about those langauges that have mostly or only monolingual speakers? Like many native Amazonian languages?

Even if the field linguist takes the pain to learn it, he's still a non-native speaker who is unlikely to be able to distinguish those things that are not known in linguistics yet.

So how is it possible to record these rare, unknown details in an undocumented language? Is it likely for him/her to miss them?

  • 2
    Yes, rare features are hard to document, that's why a linguist's job is never finished.
    – curiousdannii
    Dec 3, 2017 at 5:11

2 Answers 2


I got some money from one of my teachers (Cathy Callahan) to drive out to California to do some field work on Yawelmani (a well-documented American Indian language). But the only Yawelmani speaker I could locate refused to speak to me -- he seemed to be angry about something. So with help from a guy at a museum in Bakersfield, I got the name and address of a woman north of Bakersfield who spoke "Indian". So I headed up there.

She said she spoke Tachi (but she got that information from someone at the Bakersfield museum). Later, I found that name in a list of Yokuts tribes made by Kroeber, but the language seems to be undocumented. So anyhow, I spent a couple weeks transcribing forms from her (Maria Domingo). She was a great informant. I had some difficulty with some nominalized verb forms that seemed to end with [h]. Sort of. The [h]-like sound might have been aspiration of the preceding voiceless consonant.

From Stanley Newman's monograph Yokuts Language of California, I was familiar with Yawelmani, and it was apparent that Tachi was very close to Yawelmani. Some of the Tachi forms that had me puzzled were clearly related to Yawelmani forms ending in /a/.

Weeks later after I got back to Ohio and looked more at Newman's book, I found much more evidence that the Tachi forms I'd collected were like Yawelmani, and I was also reminded that another Yokuts dialect had some word final voiceless vowels.

So then I knew. Well, I can't prove it, but I'm convinced that the "Tachi" forms I'd written down were so very similar to Yawelmani, because they were actually Yawelmani, and Maria had picked up a few forms with voiceless final vowels from one of the other Yokuts dialects. I had never heard in person a language with voiceless vowels, and when I heard [kA]/[tA]/[pA], aspiration was as close as I could come.


It is possible to record rare features of a language because it is possible to encounter such a feature, and it is possible to record. It is up to the linguist to take appropriate note of the feature, which does depend on the background and interest of the linguist. Even a native speaker of a language may be completely unaware that his language has such-and-such feature, in fact it is uncommon for native speaker linguists to initially have awareness of "rare" features of their language which are not also found in the dominant standard language(s) of the region. Outside of certain parts of Asia, tone is an "exotic" feature of language not found in standard languages, but tone is overall not a rare feature in language (between 1/3 and 1/2 of languages have tone). Commonly, linguists who are starting their training, and speak a tonal language, will "miss" the fact that tone is a significant feature of their language.

There is a continuum of "not getting" some feature of a language. One end is absolute unawareness. Staying with a theme, the linguist could be completely unaware that the language he is looking at is tonal. There are various linguistic reason for this unawareness, such as that tonal distinctions have very low functional utility especially no grammatical distinctiveness, or it has low physical differentiability (differences in the 5-10 hz realm; very long spans for physical realization). The linguist can contribute to total unawareness in unnummerable ways, for example they only worked on the language for two weeks; they gathered the wrong kinds of materials (raw conversations between speakers); they didn't care enough (put differently, the linguist is focusing on something else: looking at pragmatics, not phonemes; looking at phonemes, not information structure encoded in tenses).

The way that we discover rare features is that we pay attention and return to things that are puzzling. We can do this if we are engaged in a long-term controlled scientific investigation of the language. Even if we weren't carefully trained to transcribe tone, fancy duration properties or distinctive vowel phonation, we are capable of noticing that some two words have similar yet somehow different vowels. When you notice such a thing, you start to wonder "Hmmm I wonder if there's some distinction in the language that I'm not getting", so we dig deeper and eventually we learn that breathiness is contrastive, that there are 4 tone levels, 5 types of falling tone, or three degrees of length. With more and more experience, you better able to notice obscure things about new languages.

That is ideally. In reality, sometimes we don't notice at all, or we notice something yet can't figure out what it is or how to notate it (some people say they are "tone-deaf", which is not ever true, but some people are really bad at it). We may not really care enough about the feature to ask all of the relevant questions (semanticists typically don't mess with transcribing tone; phonologists typically don't mess with the elaborate contexts required for distinguishing kinds of focus in verbs). We are not all in it for the really long-haul (decades of research on a language). Sometimes we don't record everything, so if you made an error in the field, you can't go back to the recording and re-check.

I don't think it's possible to say anything substantive about rates of blatant error in fieldwork. Very rarely, we can know that X is wrong about some language that they were working on; more often, we know that we found something different with our speakers, but here are dialects, and languages change. We do know, though, that there are very few absolutely perfect descriptions of languages: we don't expect a description of a language to give an absolutely flawless description of word order, morphology, semantics and phonology in some language.

Field workers don't actually get much by way of training in what exists in languages. We get a relatively standard superficial exposure to unusual sounds in the general phonetics class (which usually amounts to learning IPA for English then maybe a week of "not English" sounds and symbols); other general linguistics classes don't provide you with the cross-linguistic background needed to immediately recognize "Aha, this is an ergative language!". What we get in field methods training is experience in figuring out how to collect and make sense of data. So "what is known" in linguistics doesn't have much applicability to the average field linguist. There are some institutional exceptions, where students have extensive and relatively rigorous training in grammatical diversity.

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