Advice for undertaking fieldwork

August 24th, 2010

See also, the L&C Field Manuals and Stimulus Materials website produced by the Language and Cognition Group at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics:

Before You Leave

Human Subjects

The main page for human subject research applications is

Many linguistic projects are automatically exempt from Human Subjects review, or will be covered by the department’s blanket IRB protocol (, however chances are that most projects conducted in the field will need to go through the Human Subjects process. It’s probably safe to assume that you need to apply for Human Subjects approval!!!

Plan on submitting your application to the Institutional Review Board (IRB) about two months before you plan to start using human subjects – check their exact review schedule to be safe!  When you’re back, don’t forget to renew your status every calendar year from the time you first applied!

Background Research

Needless to say it is important  to inform yourself of the culture and the history of the speakers you will be working with, and of the current political situation of the area you will be in. These factors bear upon the nature of the language you are studying and a good knowledge of the socio-cultural norms and the local political climate will facilitate good relations with the people you are working with.

On the linguistic side, goes without saying that you should have studied all available literature on the language itself before embarking on your own field trip. It also helps to have some knowledge of related languages (especially if you particular language is very underdescribed), and of the other languages in the region. If you are interested in a particular aspect of the language in question, then it pays to work out very carefully what sort of data you are looking for prior to leaving and design the best means of eliciting this, in order to capitalize on your time in the field.

Making Contacts

You should make contact with any linguists who have recently worked in the area to which you are headed. This is useful for logistical matters relating to preparing yourself for the stay, and also in order to set up relations that may be beneficial to all of you later on. It is also a good idea to make contact with any local universities, research institutes and local linguists. This way you can become familiar with ongoing research in your field, and set up valuable communication channels which help to secure ongoing progress in the field.

What to take

Gifts: It is a good idea to come prepared with gifts for local universities (books by linguists connected with your university are always a good choice), community authorities, your informants and any nearby children. Again, talking to people who have recently been in the area, or are still there, is a good way to determine what is appropriate.

Officialdom: You will generally have to deal with officials at the regional and local level to obtain research clearance. This will vary greatly depending on the country and region. Navigating authorities can be facilitated by bringing with you letters from your university on official letterheads. Stickerbooks or business cards with the official university logo are also a good idea.

Audio recording equipment: Always have a backup system in case your primary system fails! Make sure you thoroughly check and clean your recording equipment prior to your field work. At the beginning of each elicitation session, test to see that the equipment is recording properly. For general advice about choosing equipment, see:

Adding the element of video to your fieldwork can mean a new wealth of data, but it also requires some additional considerations. A good summary of the issues surrounding video recording can be found at the “How to Film in the Field” page at

Conducting Fieldwork


As Dimmendaal notes in his contribution to Newman and Ratliffe’s Linguistic Fieldwork, it is very important that you remain in control of choosing your informants, and that you don’t necessarily follow “suggestions” that officials may make as to suitable informants. It is always best, where possible, to have more than one consultant, preferably they should be of different ages and sexes. Try to find consultants who have good intuitions about their language, and who like talking about it.


Follow cultural norms with regard to whether it is appropriate and how much to pay your consultant. If there happen to be other linguists in the area, it’s a good idea to consult them as to standard rates. In any case, be sure to have some idea of what is an acceptable level of payment for the community in which you are working. Paying too much can be as problematic as not paying enough. When direct payment is inappropriate, there are usually other methods of renumeration possible.

Always get receipts for payment, as this looks more official. If you arrange to pay your consultant at a regular time (e.g each week), this can reduce misunderstandings.

Elicitation techniques

First Steps

(Preliminary Information and Steps 1-3 were compiled by Barb Kelly, Spring, 2004)

Preliminary information needed from your consultant/informant

Date of birth
Place of birth
Places lived; for how long
Languages spoken (written/read/understood
Profession, if any
Family background (mother/father/sisters/brothers – languages they speak)

Eliciting and Transcribing data

- you control the recording equipment
- have the consultant listen to a short portion slowly and repeat every syllable
- transcribe a stretch and then get a translation
- feel free to ask for meanings of particular words as you go
- do as much glossing as possible as you go along

Sentences/words missed
- look up words in class lexicon
- make notes on what you think is going on and things to check
- it’s life that some parts may be too difficult to understand (even for the speaker! learn to move on.)

Things to check when transcribing

1. Phonology

- place, manner
- voicing
- breathy/creaky voice
- ejective
- implosive
- nasalization

- height
- backness
- rounding
- nasalization
- voicelessness
- breathy/creaky articulation

- tone?
- distinct pitch patterns?
- beware of “list intonation”, skewing of elicitation context

- prominent syllable (first, last, penultimate, other
- secondary stress (is it rhythmic
- is it pitch related (pitch pattern over word varies predictably with stressed – syllable

Remember to:
- Keep track of phones (make charts as you go along
- Keep track of possible allophones (especially among related sounds
- Attempt to elicit minimal pairs
- Make notes of regularities and things to check
- To begin with: keep lexical classes separate

As you go:
- Continue with charts
- Move from list of phones to list of phonemes
- Watch for morphophonemic variation – keep lists of alternations
- Analyze syllable structure
- Construct syllable templates
- Which phones can occur in which position? Constraints?
- Look for constraints on vowel-consonant combinations

2. Vocabulary


Swadesh 100 list

STEDT (Sino-Tibetan Etymological Dictionary and Thesaurus) wordlist questionaire

Matisoff 200-word list/CALMSEA wordlist (Culturally Appropriate Lexicostatistical Model for SouthEast Asia)

Lexical Categories

- Basic terms for people
- Kin terms (basic, then more remote)
- Occupations: farmer, butcher, priest, shaman, healer, etc.
- Neighbours
- Body parts
- Domesticated
- Wild
- Birds
- Fish
- Insects
- Body parts
Natural phenomena
- Rain, hills, rivers, etc.
- Building and implements
- Houses, temples, etc.
- Rooms in houses, etc.
- Clothing, cloth, needle, thread, etc.
- Pots, pans, bottles, ladles, etc.
- Farming implements, ropes, shovels, etc.
Religious objects
- Goddess, god, temple, etc.
- Towns and things in towns
- Roads, alleys, courtyards, markets, wells, etc.
- Other things as appropriate
- Castes, holidays, festivals, days of week, month of year, seasons)

Note: these may be verbs or nouns and not a separate lexical class – elicit to find out!
Human attributes
- Physical: tall, short, fat, skinny, dark, bald, etc.
- Emotional/psychological: lazy, angry, happy, sad, etc.
- Flexible, hard, wet, soft, bumpy, etc.
May not equate with English colours – use words and coloured objects for this
Food related terms
- Salty, spicy, sweet, ripe, rancid, bitter, etc.

Elicit in simply sentences
Look for a base form (infinitive) – from this you can often elicit a whole paradigm.
Be sure you have all the paradigms for each verb class.

Easiest to collect from texts and then fill in with elicitation
Demonstratives, particles, etc – fill in based on texts and elicitation.

3. Verbs and verbal morphology

Note, for Tense/Aspect/Evidentiality/Modality textual materials are crucial for analysis.

Tense (location the event on the timeline)
- Past
- Non-past
- Future
- Non-future
- Present
- Remote vs. recent past/future (use temporal adverbs, e.g. ‘next’, ‘tomorrow’, ‘next year’)
- Stative (on-going states, past states, future states: ‘be a teacher’, ‘be tall’, ‘be blind’; You may find past/perfective morphology on entrance into states: ‘He became a teacher’
- Habitual (past/present/future)

Aspect (internal temporal consistency of the event
Perfective (completive)
- Future
- Progressive/continuous
- Habitual
- Stative
- Present
Perfect (English ‘had gone’, ‘have gone’, ‘will have gone’ (3 tenses)
- current relevance

Evidentiality (statement of source of speaker’s authority)
May be indexed in the verb morphology or in sentence-final particles
- Direct perception of event
- Direct perception of resultant state
- Inference
- Hearsay

Deontic (social modality
- ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘be appropriate’, etc.
Epistemic (real-world physical needs, limitations, etc
- ‘need’, ‘must’, etc.)

Singular, dual, paucal, plural
Collective plurals
Morphological status: clitic? suffix? particle?
- What can it attach to?
- What happens if the noun is deleted?
If elements may come after the noun, does the number morpheme follow them?
Any irregular inflection with case morphology?

Copula Sentences
- For each category, work out syntax (how many NPs)
- Check inflections for person, negation, past/present/future
- May inflect like ordinary verbs, or be irregular
- Remember that these are stative by nature
- He was fat – implies no longer
- He became fat – entrance into state)

Case and Verbs
Start by eliciting genitives
- Father’s book, top of the table, the cow’s horn, the shopkeeper’s son
- Check for distinctions with alienable/inalienable possession

Elicit a simple intransitive verb paradigm (you may elicit pronouns at the same time
Use ‘go’ or ‘come’ but note that they might be irregular
Note casemarking, if any, on the subject
Use a nominal subject first, then check a pronominal subject
Elicit past tense first, then non-past
Check animacy/person distinctions

Add locative elements to the simple intransitive
- Allative: ‘to the house’
- Ablative: ‘from the house’
- Simple locative: ‘on the ground (use ‘sit’)

Elicit a simple transitive sentence with a human, nominal subject and a human, nominal object (‘took her son’, ‘dress’, ‘feed’, ‘hit’)

Expand the number of your predicates
- kill the goat, chicken
- wash or sew clothes
- buy fruit
- cook rice
- cut banana
Make them culturally appropriate, use everyday activities that you see happening around you.
- Add instrumentals, comitatives
- Elicit ditransitives with ‘give’

Downloadable questionnaires and surveys

The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has an extremely comprehensive and informative site, which includes links to questionnaires and elicitation techniques related to specific research questions.

A Manual of Linguistic Field Work and Indian Language Structures by Anvita Abbi. (LINCOM Handbooks in Linguistics 17) is a guide to linguistic field methodology with particular reference to Indian languages. It has a comprehensive section on elicitation techniques and appendices containing a number of questionnaires.

After You’re Back

Maintaining Contacts

There are many reasons for maintaining contact with your informants and friends after you’ve left the field. First, you never know what questions will come up in the process of your data analysis; some very crucial problems can only be solved through a re-consultation with your informant. Second, it’s in your best interest to maintain links in case of a potential follow-up trip, even if that option doesn’t seem likely when you first get back. Third, it’s the most ethical decision to give back what you can to the community that gave you so much (your dissertation data, for instance?); even if you’re not writing a new grammar of the community’s language, some informants may love to see the final write-up of the data. And finally, in many cases, a good fieldworker will become so much a part of their community of study that they can’t help but maintain ties with their informants, out of friendship.

Data organization

Grammar writing

A good grammar should be presented clearly, with comprehensive coverage of the linguistic phenomena. Make sure you illustrate your descriptions with multiple examples (from texts where possible) and use clear terminology (include any alternate names by which they may be known). Cross reference related phenomena in the grammar, and provide standard interlinear glossing and translation.

You can find the conventions for interlinear morpheme-by-morpheme glosses here:

There are various available guides to good descriptive grammar writing. This is a useful comparative study by Jeff Good (University of Pittsburgh and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology) of traditional descriptive grammar writing, based on a survey of four printed grammars:

Further descriptive grammar writing references include:

Bickford, J. A. Tools for Analyzing the World’s Languages: Morphology and Syntax. Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1998.

Comrie, Bernard, William Croft, Christian Lehmann, and Dietmar Zaefferer, 1995. A Framework for descriptive grammars. Bernard Crochetiere et. al (eds.), Proceedings of the XVth International Congress of Linguistics, vol. 1. Quebec City.

Payne, T. E. 1997. Describing Morphosyntax. A Guide for Field Linguists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Identify and tag texts with:

  • Language
  • Narrator
  • Date recorded, transcribed, translated
  • Transcriber, translator

Interlinear glossing:

  • First line: contains the original language with morpheme boundaries identified
  • Second line: morpheme by morpheme translation in alignment with the morphemes of the first line
  • Third line: a more natural translation


Entries should include:

  • Phonological form of lexical item
  • Morphological composition
  • Glossing
  • Source (name of consultant or original text)
  • Date recorded and entered into database
  • Part of speech
  • Lexical cross-referencing
  • Any historical observations
  • Sociolinguistic and cultural notes
  • Example sentences — to illustrate use in context

Dictionary writing references

Ulrike Mosel (Universität Kiel). Dictionary making in endangered speech communities. (A paper addressing various issues related to lexicographic work in short-term language documentation projects).

Pawley, Andrew K. Grammarian’s lexicon, lexicographer’s lexicon: Worlds apart. In Svartvik, Jan(ed.) Words KVHAA Konferenser 36 (pp. 189-211). Stockholm: Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien.

Software and field linguistics tools

Download site for Shoebox, a data management and analysis tool for the field linguist.
Software for doing field linguistics
Tools for field linguists
Software produced by the MPI in the Netherlands for transcribing both audio and video.


The general enterprise of conducting fieldwork is invariably coloured by various ethical considerations, relating to such issues as:

  • Responsibilities and obligations to one’s informant (recompense, anonymity, acknowledgement)
  • Intellectual property rights (e.g. of stories and songs elicited)
  • Recompense to the community
  • Level of participation in community affairs
  • Grant money use
  • Making available your field materials to the general linguistic community

It is a good idea to inform yourself of the various ethical issues that may arise, before undertaking your fieldwork. The following is a selection useful literature on the subject, much of it from the field of anthropology, where the discussion of the ethical dimension in fieldwork has been particularly prominent. See in particular Hale (1964/65) and, more recently the introduction to Linguistic Fieldwork (2001) by Newman and Ratliff, as well as the Toronto, La Trobe, Max Planck sites for linguistically oriented discussions and guidelines)

Electronic sources
Ethics guidelines from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Issues and sources on ethics in anthropological research put out by the American Anthropological Association

Printed material

Ellen, R. F. (ed.) 1984. Ethnographic Research. A Guide to General Conduct. (ASA Research Methods in Social Anthroplogy) New York: Academic Press

Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn (ed.). 1991. Ethics and the Profession of Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Greaves, Tom (ed.) 1994. Intellectual Property Rights for Indigenous Peoples: A Sourcebook. Oklahoma City: Society for Applied Anthropology.

Hale, Kenneth. 1964/65. On the use of informants in field-work. Canadian Journal of Linguistics 10:108-19

King, Nancy M. P., Gail E. Henderson, and Jane Stein (eds.) 1999. Beyond Regulations: Ethics in Human Subjects Research. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press

Koepping, Klaus-Peter (ed.). 1994. Anthropology and Ethics. Fribourg: Seminaire d’Ethnologie

Mitchel, Richard G., Jr. 1993. Secrecy and Fieldwork. (Qualitative Research Methods, 29) Newberry Park, CA: Sage.

Newman, Paul and Martha Ratliff. 2001. Introduction. Linguistic Fieldwork. P. Newman and M. Ratliff (eds). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Penslar, Robin Levin (ed.) 1995. Research Ethics: Cases and Materials. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Rynkiewich, Michael A., and James P. Spradley (eds.). 1976. Ethics and Anthropology: Dilemmas in Fieldwork. New York: John Wiley.

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