If one wants to work with people-groups that have an oral language but no written language and develop a written language for those people-groups, what linguistics degree(s) would best equip that person?

My basic (and probably incomplete/inaccurate) understanding is that this would involve analyzing existing speech (phonetics/lexicon/grammar/etc), designing a suitable phonology/orthography, and (possibly, but maybe this would be a separate role?) creating written materials for language acquisition.

My googling skills have found no answer. Any guidance would be really appreciated.

  • I would think it's less about degrees and more about experience and ability—if you're able to come up with a writing system that works for a language, and it catches on, I doubt anyone's going to say "sorry, you need a PhD to invent orthographies and you only have a master's so we're going to shut this down".
    – Draconis
    Mar 8, 2021 at 17:09
  • yeah you need the skills not the degrees, if you can learn the relevant skills yourself and have the resources to go spend time with the people and document it, even if you have no degrees, if there's a need for an orthography everybody will use it. it's advantageous to use what's there rather than come up with new ones. where degrees can help is if you need pedagogical support to learn the skills, or material support/funding to do the fieldwork. in which case any linguistics course will do, there's usually some flexibility in curriculum that will let you pick courses on the relevant subareas. Mar 8, 2021 at 17:25
  • Thanks for the comments, I will reword my question to ask what degree(s) would best equip someone who wanted to do that.
    – levininja
    Mar 8, 2021 at 17:42
  • 2
    worth checking out, Cahill 2018 oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/… , Resources for Developing Orthographies from SIL sil.org/literacy-and-education/…
    – Alex B.
    Mar 8, 2021 at 18:15

1 Answer 1


IMO it is more about where you go and less about what the degree is. In general, the more linguistics you know, the better you will be positioned to do this kind of work. A basic undergraduate degree where you learn the essentials is all that a lot of field workers have, but unless you're associated with SIL and get special training, it is unlikely that you will be competent to take on an arbitrary language. With a PhD, what you will hopefully get is training in "how to figure it out", but not "the answer".

On the face of it, it would seem that you ought to focus on phonetics and phonology, because you need to develop skills at reducing speech to phonetic symbols (if the language has [k, q, k', q'] and they all sound the same to you, that is a problem). Abstractly learning technical terminology is not very useful, what is helpful is taking a field methods class of two, on Tigrinya and Buginese for example. However, a bit of reality check on practical orthography is also necessary. Lushootseed spelling is a stunning counterexample to the generalization that people don't want strange letters in their language (it helps that the promulgator of the writing system was a speaker). Many languages devise orthographic work-arounds to avoid phonetic symbols. So some training in realities of practical spelling systems is good.

Often, SIL people take their undergraduate degree plus some internal training, then go to the field and work for some while, take a break and get an MA, more work, and sometimes a PhD. The important point is that you don't know how to gather and analyze useful data without some training on that area, and the typical intro to syntax and phonology class will not tell you how to do that either. Indeed, a PhD from certain universities would be completely useless; and a BA from other universities would be quite useful. If the institution has a regular field methods class, you are look at the right type of institution. If it is a year long class, you have landed in heaven.

  • Wow, thank you for such a thorough answer. It sounds like you're saying that certain classes are more important than what the degree is. I'm looking at SIL actually and the university associated with them (DIU), and was wanting to research what other universities would prepare for this sort of thing. So you've answered some of my underlying questions as well.
    – levininja
    Mar 8, 2021 at 18:30
  • 1
    Right on the money. Be aware that SIL is discriminatory; it's a Protestant organization and Catholics are not really welcome. Also, it's a missionary organization, and that's always the main consideration. I got my initial phonetics training from them (in the summer, natch), and they're good people who do good work. But it's religious first and linguistic second, and one has to be clear about that.
    – jlawler
    Mar 8, 2021 at 23:03
  • My local SIL college does let anyone enrol though. It's probably the same in other countries.
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 9, 2021 at 0:15

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