When field linguists begin to study a new language with whose speakers they don't share a common language, how do they begin?

I don't need the whole story, just the very start, the "bootstrapping". For some remote languages even the nearest dominating language might be a rare exotic language for us. For example Australian languages. It's likely the native speakers won't be fluent in English but maybe Kriol instead. Would the linguist have to master that instead. The same must apply for the Caucasus, Northern Pakistan, or the Amazon jungle.

I've heard this is actually done and I'm not just imagining it. Is there a standard way to start studying a completely alien language?


First comes research, of course. If it's an undocumented language, you learn about the languages that are potentially related or nearby it, as well as the culture of the people who speak it.

So often the real issues of documenting a previously undocumented language are social or political, so in all likelihood there are many battles to fight before you'd ever actually study the language itself. A professor of mine had to meet with the tribal council of a Menominee res many times as they repeatedly changed their mind back and forth over whether she was welcome. And this was documenting a language the speakers of which literally only number in the double digits.

Once you're in good graces, learn the phrases for "more slowly please" or "please repeat that." If you're really starting with nothing in common, I'd imagine you'd have to start with objects you can point to. Here's a great word list to start with. (Also, here's a lovely article on interacting with others when there's no language shared.)

When you have the basics of the language down, being prepared for your time with your subjects is very important. It helps you collect data you can actually use. Wanna know how the language handles plurals? Hold up one leaf, then hold up two. Hold up one rock, then hold up two.

Although I hope there are completely undocumented languages out there for us to discover, I think most commonly field linguists these days are trying to document endangered and moribund languages, and that's an easier process because there is probably a younger generation that is bilingual who can interpret.

There are all sorts of practical considerations too: obtaining permission from speakers to record them, what kind of technology you need to record them and analyze the data, etc. Also, invest in some Moleskine notebooks.

When it comes to the language itself, I highly recommend Describing Morphosyntax: A Guide for Field Linguists. It really is a handbook for the first time field linguist and walks through every item one should consider when documenting a language: the language's genetic affliations, sociolinguistic concerns, morphological typology, defining the grammatical categories of the language, constituent order typology, pragmatics of the language, etc.

(Also, it's a must for anyone making their own conlang.)

  • 1
    And then hold up three, four and five leaves, rock, etc. of course. How cool is Dual?
    – mollyocr
    Sep 22 '11 at 20:20
  • And Paucal! (-: Sep 22 '11 at 20:28
  • +1 for recommending Describing Morphosyntax!
    – Joe
    Sep 29 '11 at 1:29
  • The first link you used is dead. Do you know where else to find it?
    – Slepz
    Aug 3 '16 at 23:10

In order to study documents written in some unknown language, or to study the language itself, there's the Combinatorial method:

It is used to study texts which are written in an unknown language, and to study the language itself, where the unknown language has no obvious or proven well-understood close relatives, and there are few bilingual texts which might otherwise have been used to help understand the language.

I'm not sure it's what you needed since this is mainly about texts, rather than analyzing a spoken language.

But, speaking about the linguist having to master an unknown language, I'd like to introduce Quine, who was not a linguist but a philosopher and a logician.

About translation, "Quine tried to show that "radical translation" from one language to another is logically impossible. Suppose, he said, that you are standing by a native in a foreign land who speaks only a language you do not understand. A rabbit runs by and the native says "gavagai". Quine claims that you have no way of knowing whether 'gavagai' means "rabbit", or "there goes a rabbit", or "isn't it a lovely day!". Of course, linguists and even ordinary people have sometimes gone into foreign areas knowing not a single word of the local language, and have mastered it quite well. [...] The simple answer to Quine's puzzle is that if you have not yet got enough experience with the new language to be sure of its proper translation, then get some more experience with it. As long as beings share a common universe, and to the extent they share a common existence, proper translation will always be possible."

This belongs to the theory called "Indeterminacy of translation".

EDIT: There are other methods illustrated in this slideshow, provided by the Professor Peter Austin, called "Linguistic Fieldwork: An introduction". If necessary I can move the needed content here.

  • Yes I hadn't considered texts but only living languages - it's interesting though and obviously related. Ah yes gavagai (-: Sep 21 '11 at 21:02
  • @hippietrail I added another link, but it's not working. Trying to fix it. :)
    – Alenanno
    Sep 21 '11 at 21:32
  • Ok, I managed to fix it. :)
    – Alenanno
    Sep 21 '11 at 21:44

I can't find a link to the documents, but there are standardized lists of words that field linguists will use. Basically they try to get names for various body parts, colors and other common lexical items. With this they can start to study the phonetics/phonology, and the basic morphology, which will aid them in classifying the language. SIL would be a good place to look around.

Here a site I was looking for from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics that has useful resources and more detailed information on the process.

  • @FloatingTone, yes that is what I was trying to find. Thanks for providing the name. Sep 22 '11 at 23:32
  • 2
    You are thinking of Swadesh lists, which were developed by Morris Swadesh to collect 'basic' words (like 'mother', 'moon', etc.) in various languages, for the purposes of comparing the lists and drawing some conclusions about the relationships between certain languages. The most commonly used list is probably the 207-item Swadesh list. Various templates can be found, some of them adapted for a certain geographical region (while the original lists aim to cover words that are likely to exist in any language, there are some items that might not be suitable, such as 'snow' in tropical areas). Sep 22 '11 at 23:40
  • No probs @Mark Tuttle - also, I accidentally submitted the comment before I was done typing, and then my computer froze during the edit, so I deleted the original comment and re-posted my intended comment as a fresh one. (just to explain the appearance of your response now before my answer!) Sep 22 '11 at 23:43

@hippietrail, re: your query about which language the documentation should actually begin in, it's generally thought that your work is most valid if all of the data are collected through the actual language you are documenting. This means that you can either essentially start out 'mute', and learn from scratch, or try to learn some of the language before you start the project. This is all well and good, but for languages that are under-documented (or undocumented), you would be lucky to find sufficient materials available to help you learn the language on your own, before going into the field.

So, mostly, people will first learn the lingua franca of the area - if you plan to work on a small native language of Africa, the lingua franca might be Arabic, French, English, or a dominant native language like Kiswahili. And yes, in Australia, the lingua franca might be Kriol.

Then, ideally, you'd gradually learn the language you are actually documenting, and use this to verify data you already have, and continue collecting more.

In reality, this situation won't always work - it's far more time consuming for the linguist if it's necessary to get an extra language or two under your belt before getting down to the nuts and bolts of documentation, and funding might not always allow for those extra few months as a learner. Not all language documentation entails years spent working on the one language - sometimes an opportunity arises to just work on a language for a short time, or on a specific feature, and it's important to make the most of these opportunities because some documentation is still better than no documentation. In those situations, you might be more likely to end up working with educated speakers who are as fluent in English (or any given language) as you, and that's ok too, as long as you're aware of the possible pitfalls of the 'translation method'.

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    And, my favourite basic guide for fieldwork is Claire Bowern (2008) 'Linguistic Fieldwork: A practical guide'. Sep 22 '11 at 23:45

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