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Review of  Linguistic Fieldwork

Reviewer: Christopher D. Sams
Book Title: Linguistic Fieldwork
Book Author: Jeannette Sakel Daniel L. Everett
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Discipline of Linguistics
Issue Number: 24.3135

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AUTHORS: Jeanette Sakel and Daniel L. Everett
TITLE: Linguistic Fieldwork
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2012

Christopher D. Sams, Department of English, Stephen F. Austin State University


'Linguistic Fieldwork' is intended for any linguist who needs a manual for doing fieldwork; the authors state that the book is a “manual rather than a textbook” (xi), which is evident in its informal approach to writing and excerpts of personal advice from the authors (and, at times, from other linguists who have worked in the field). The book could be used in conjunction with a field methods course but is also helpful for linguists wishing to know more about the field outside of any course or formal study. The information in the book is kept to a general discussion so that it could be applied to the linguist doing fieldwork in his/her hometown and to the linguist doing fieldwork in a remote village in the Brazilian jungle. As such, no specific theoretical framework for analyzing fieldwork data is used or promoted in the book; however, the authors assume the readers are already familiar with linguistic study (and so do not offer detailed explanations of linguistic data/phenomena).

The book is divided into seven chapters, which represent three major areas of fieldwork: the first two chapters provide an overview of the book and the field (including examples of different types of fieldwork projects); the next three chapters provide information for linguists to prepare for doing fieldwork; and the final two chapters provide information for linguists in the field and for linguists ready to interpret data from the field. Each chapter is neatly divided into more specific subtopics, which are conveniently listed in the table of contents, and ends with a section for further reading/research. The book also contains two appendices, notes to the chapters, references, and a rather comprehensive index.

Right from the beginning, the authors set out to define specifically how they operationally define 'linguistic fieldwork.' Chapter 1, the introduction, focuses on defining the scope of linguistic fieldwork and provides reputable citations. Chapter 2 provides students with two excellent examples of fieldwork projects which allow them to focus on certain aspects of fieldwork. The first example is Sakel's study of Mosetén in Bolivia. Her aim was to ''write a grammar of this language'' (p. 10). What follows next are the methods she used (and accompanying exercises). Students are exposed to text-collection, IPA transcription, translation, analysis, and elicitation. The authors refer to these as the ''cornerstones'' of '''prototypical fieldwork''' (p. 10). The second study examined in chapter 2 is a study by Sakel of language contact between Somali and English. The authors made an excellent choice here by selection two entirely different fieldwork scenarios. The subtopics in this section are indispensable topics for all field linguists. They discuss funding, ethics approval, finding speakers, and setting project goals.

Chapter 3 addresses a topic that I find students very often take for granted--monolingual versus bilingual fieldwork. In some field methods classes, students are shocked to find out that our speaker (I had originally written 'informant' here, but as one will see below, I have adopted the term 'speaker') has little to no command of English. Dan Everett addresses the advantages to learning the target language in order to communicate with informants. The latter part of the chapter addresses ''small'' versus endangered languages, well-described versus little-studied languages, and finally the seemingly obvious question of how to find a language to work on.

In Chapter 4, the authors turn their attention to the people who speak the languages. Sakel and Everett write, ''Not all speakers are equally suited for fieldwork'' (p. 44) and then continue to describe the different types of speakers linguists can work with. They make the point that researchers should strive to include “a diverse group of speakers,” but also acknowledge the fact the sometimes all the fieldworker has is one speaker with whom to work (p. 45).

Chapter 5 is dedicated the fieldwork preparation--the experience of Sakel and Everett can save future linguists working in the field a lot of time and frustration. At this point in the book, the exercises in the book shift toward the student working on one specific fieldwork project; they cover defining research questions, choosing a mentor, performing a prefield literature review, dealing with technology, and funding the research. The authors cover the procedure from inception to the field, which includes researching the culture of the speech community which will be studied. They advocate for basic medical preparedness and concerns with software and equipment--something that must be taken into account in fieldwork situations.

In Chapter 6, the authors turn their attention to fieldwork methods. They define the important distinction between qualitative and quantitative methods and also address organizing data for storage and efficiency. An important feature of this chapter is section 6.3.3. which covers glossing; they direct students to the Leipzig glossing rules. The remainder of the chapter is dedicated to elicitation methods, questionnaires, and structured interviews. The final chapter examines the outcomes of fieldwork, again taking into account the differences between qualitative and quantitative data. The authors cover building corpora, archiving, and presenting methodology and results and also address the creation of grammars and dictionaries.

Appendix 1 provides a brief history of fieldwork, beginning with fieldwork in Brazil during the colonial era (as early as the 16th century) and ending with contemporary fieldwork. The history is brief but provides students with an idea of the scope of the field and how it began. Of particular note is Appendix 2, where Daniel Everett has developed a questionnaire for field linguistics dealing with phonology. It is literally a step by step guide for students working with the phonology of a language.


The book is very well organized and flows well from topic to topic; its organization is chronological in nature, taking readers from preparatory stages to being in the field to analyzing the data. The book does not need to be read from beginning to end--readers can jump into the book to focus on particular areas of interest. If they choose to do that, the index and table of contents are nicely organized so that can easily find a specific topic. The organization of the book also points to its emphasis on preparation for fieldwork; in fact, the majority of the book is devoted to preparation (as opposed to an emphasis on what to do when already in the field), which is helpful because many of the topics provided in the book are often overlooked in field methods courses due to time constraints. For example, the authors include information on paperwork that needs to be completed and medical issues that need to be taken care of before fieldwork ever begins. Sakel and Everett point out why they focus on preparation when they write that “careful preparation is the backbone of any type of fieldwork” (p. 79). One of the things I appreciate about the book is that the authors provide answers to questions that students/linguists are often afraid to ask or don’t think to ask until they are already in the field, including integral questions about sources for funding projects and the ethics of working with speakers and language data.

Another key feature of the book is its exercises, which are integrated into the text. For example in Chapter 2, the authors ask in Exercise 2.10, “How would you thank the speakers for taking part in the study? Would payment be appropriate, and in which case how much? What about the work done by research assistants?” (p. 24). Exercises like these are not only a great tool for instructors and students to facilitate discussion but are also a great tool for linguists using this book outside the classroom to reflect on preconceived notions, plans for fieldwork, and so on. There is also a companion website to the text with answer keys and data for students to practice analysis. Furthermore, probably one of the most unique and helpful features of the book are boxes throughout the book where the authors and other experienced field linguists tell of their personal experiences in the field; the information provided in those boxes are invaluable for linguists going into the field. Both the exercises and commentary boxes are very well woven in to the book; I never felt as if they interfered with the flow and delivery of the text. These exercises and the overall organization of material set the book apart from other, similar titles like Bowern (2008) and Crowley (2007).

Sakel and Everett are practical in their advice to readers, including the advice that researchers don’t necessarily need to use IPA when transcribing data--especially if an established orthographical system exists for the language (pp. 11-12, 107). Advice like this could be controversial, yet the authors fully explain why they provide such advice and are quick to point out that the goals of the research will dictate the methods used in the field; for example, they state that if the fieldwork is being conducted in order to analyze the phonetics of the language, using orthography would not be the best method.

With its focus on the field in general, the book is applicable to linguists studying in different types of fieldwork situations, which sets this book apart from texts that focus on particular languages or families of languages (e.g., Everett 2008). Furthermore, its approachable style and practical, yet general advice separate this text from more comprehensive ones like Chelliah and de Reuse (2011). These texts--and others--are cited and included as further reading in the book to point readers to sources for more information.

Without a doubt, the authors have created an indispensable resource for any linguist who plans to work in the field. The text is authoritative, clear, concise, and based on actual data. The best feature of the book is best summed up with the authors’ words: “Many of the suggestions included within this guide are ones we wish someone had made to us before we began our field research careers” (p. xi). The advice is practical and useful for any linguist already involved or wanting to be involved in fieldwork.


Bowern, Claire. 2008. Linguistic fieldwork--a practical guide. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Chelliah, Shobhana L. and Willem J. de Reuse. 2011. Handbook of descriptive linguistic fieldwork. Dordrecht: Springer.

Crowley, Terry. 2007. Field linguistics -- a beginner’s guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Everett, Daniel. 2008. Don’t sleep, there are snakes: life and language in the Amazonian jungle. London: Profile Books.
Chris Sams is an Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. His research and teaching interests are in linguistic typology, language description and documentation, second language acquisition, forensic linguistics, and historical linguistics. His current fieldwork is on Haya, a Niger-Congo language spoken in Tanzania.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9780521545983
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Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780521837279
Pages: 192
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