Have any linguists studied/described a language that was totally foreign to them? ie the linguist has totally no idea of what the utterances and writing of a language mean.

How did they do it - infer the meaning and grammar of utterances and writing - if they did not understand a single word at the start? What methodologies did they employ? I can think of a very likely scenario where some writing or sound record has been uncovered by archaeology, and it's totally new ground. How does the linguist even start to figure out what the writing or sounds mean? (And also, is this the domain of linguistic anthropology?) (Please pardon my tags. I don't have an idea which domain or sub-domain this question best fits. I can only guess.)


3 Answers 3


For field linguists, this isn't unheard of, but in most cases there is a contact language or lingua franca in the region which allows more extensive communication. The University of Toronto maintains a bibliography of fieldwork resources which you may find interesting. Most of my knowledge of field methods in early documentation work comes from Robbins Burling's book Learning a field language and my discussions with Kate Lindsey, a field worker who documented Ende. She describes a bit of her initial work in this news article.

In field situations, linguists will often use elicitation sessions to gather data. In these settings they will often try to elicit basic vocabulary to develop a preliminary lexicon from which they can make other generalizations. These elicitation session can use a number of methodologies. Linguists can use images or flashcards to learn what words associate with what objects. Linguists can use actual objects in a similar manner.

More complex grammatical patterns can be elicited through methods like map tasks. In these tasks, speakers are paired up and both are given copies of a map. The instruction giver has a map with a route they need to get the instruction follower to draw on their own blank map. Because the route is known to the linguist, the correspondence between phrases and meanings can be deduced. If the word "gavagai" occurs every time the speaker wants the hearer to draw a line to the left, the linguist can make an informed guess that "gavagai" means left. As the number of examples grows, more complex grammatical structures can be uncovered through comparison. If you have examples such as "he sits" "he sat" and "she sits", a linguist can determine what sound sequences correspond to what meanings by comparing what meanings share sound sequences across examples. From these the linguist can develop hypotheses about new sentences they have not seen before.

As the linguist builds up understanding from these tasks, they can begin to ask questions of their collaborators and do quasi-experiments with their grammar. They may quickly learn how to ask questions, and so it is possible the linguist can ask their collaborator "Is [...] a good sentence?" As the linguist learns to speak the language, they will also try to use it. Through using the language, they get positive and negative feedback about whether the grammar they deduced is correct. They may also get feedback from their collaborators on mispronunciations, or better ways to phrase things.

Once you get past the initial hurdles of establishing basic communication and collecting a basic corpus, further work becomes more similar to any other field situation. More complex patterns can be gleaned through analysis of the corpus, and those methodologies are similar to solving a phonology or morphology problem. More complicated tasks can be used to gather new data, and hypotheses can be tested through acceptability judgments.


There are two major variables in doing this: can you interact with a speaker, and do you have some common ground. If the answer to both questions is no, then you pretty much cannot figure the language out.

You mentioned archaeologists: numerous texts of dead languages have been uncovered and deciphered. But you need some basis for figuring out what the text is – it would help massively if you have a text written in an known language that translates the mystery text. Or if you have independent factual knowledge about the culture (names of kings and the like), you can make intelligent guesses based on recurring text. If you only have scratch marks, you won't be able to figure out the meaning.

If you have an actual speaker, you can ask various questions that lead you to understand the mystery language. This is reasonably easy if you and the speaker both speak some other language (English, Potawatomi...). By "speak" I don't mean "be fluent in", I mean "can make reasonable use of". The harder way is if you have no common language, then you have to rely on the person's cooperation. You might present objects like "knife; rock; grass; dog" and infer the words for those things when they respond to the presented stimulus. There is always the chance that they will say something different like "Are you threatening me?", "I charge $15/hr, I don't work for rocks", "Do I look like a cow?" or "This interview is really going to the dogs". If the speaker does not understand that you are trying to learn about the language, then there is not much you can do until you have at least that common ground.


The film "The grammar of happiness" has a scene where Daniel Everett demonstrates how he learned the first words of Piraha without having any common language to the Piraha people.

He starts presenting some things in order to learn the nouns depicting those things. Than he goes on with actions on the things and learns some verbs.

It is all starting to converse with the native speakers of the unknown language.

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    This is known as a "monolingual demonstration" in the trade. Kenneth Pike used to do this quite frequently; I saw several of his and one of Dan Everett's demonstrations. Someone finds a speaker of a language that the linguist doesn't know (very easy on university campuses) and then they proceed to try to figure out how stuff works in public, with the linguist rattling props (Pike usually used some branches with leaves) and speaking a different language (Pike spoke Mixteco and Everett Pirahã) and writing elicited words on the blackboard. Then at the end the linguist learns what language it was
    – jlawler
    May 14, 2020 at 14:36

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