From eureka moments to violent encounters, Gregory Anderson considers the good, the bad and the ugly of linguistic fieldwork
With over 30 years of fieldwork experience on every inhabited continent (sorry Antarctica!) and across the islands of the Pacific, I have had an enormous range of experiences across the full emotional spectrum. Elation, exhilaration, joy, sadness, remorse, loneliness, despair and fear have all been my fellow travellers. All have helped shape me into the person and linguist I am today; you cannot take the good without the bad or the ugly in linguistic fieldwork. Ideally, every experience helps you learn how to do things better – and what to avoid.
Working on any language will reveal many stimulating and potentially challenging details about the grammar, lexicon or social grounding of a language and its community of speakers. In a very real sense, every day in the field is filled with wondrous revelations and eureka moments. While working with speakers of Tofa, a moribund Turkic language spoken in east-central Siberia, I realised that one particular suffix, –ZIg, means ‘to smell of ____’.
Revelations may even come in the form of identifying a previously hidden language. The Hruso Aka of Arunachal Pradesh, India, for example, described another local community as “exactly the same as us, just a little bit different in dialect”, but when working with speakers of that other ‘dialect’ I realised that this was a distinct language used by a community who had self-invisibilised into the other larger one. They spoke Koro Aka, a language that had previously escaped the notice of trained professional linguists, and thus was new to scientific investigation.
These kinds of revelations are the bread and butter of linguistic researchers in the field. Every step one takes into understanding a language leads both to new insights and to new mysteries. Such positive moments are what spur us on to learn more and more, to reach new levels we had not imagined possible in our understanding of a particular language and the people who use it. Together with overly romanticised notions of travel in exotic locales and the desire to push one’s personal boundaries in journeys of discovery, this is among the most salient tropes in the popular conception of linguistic fieldwork. While there is much that is good in the field, if seasoned veterans of the trade leave this image unedited, we are doing our junior colleagues a potentially grave disservice.
One thing you don’t learn in undergraduate or postgraduate field methods courses is all the other aspects that managing a project can entail. Some could be considered logistical realities, but they can still be a shock to the unprepared or uninitiated. Hurdles and hassles abound. Different conceptions of promptness and commitment across cultures are predictable points of divergence between scholars and local communities. Practical considerations such as personal space, privacy and hygiene are taken for granted in the cultures that scholars typically hail from, but may diverge significantly from local concepts.
Any traveller can expect, on occasion, to get sick or feel lonely and disconnected, but if you are in a remote area for an extended period of time, the psychological effects can be strong, or even overwhelming. You may wonder, ‘Why am I here, so far from family, this illness raging in this wretched environment?’ These moments of self-doubt may make you stronger, but they also test your resolve. I have had such moments, convulsively vomiting, doubting my sanity, questioning my decision-making sensibilities. Weather and natural phenomena can contribute to the sense of discomfort. Extreme heat (46oc) or cold (-56oc), floods, windstorms, landslides, earthquakes – I have experienced them all in the field.
Logistical problems abound when working in certain jurisdictions. Even when the fieldwork has been endorsed by state or national officials, local police or forestry officials may have other ideas. Once I was detained for a full day in a small village in Siberia with my colleague and interrogated for hours by two police officers. They were concerned that the font in our two US passports was different – this while examining the passports upside down and backwards, showing they could not read the Roman alphabet! Ad hoc fines and secret fees can be expected in some cases; not paying them means not being able to do the work, or being arrested, regardless of what permission you have on paper.
In India, particularly in Odisha and Jharkhand, where I have worked extensively, the local socio-political climate can be very harsh. As an outsider, you are in a lose-lose position, even if the entirely powerless and disenfranchised community supports you. Forestry and tribal development boards often have open disdain for local communities, and do not trust anyone who wants to help them, especially if they think of the communities as equal partners.
These officials are engaged in potentially deadly interactions with local (allegedly Maoist) rebel groups whose primary raison d’être appears to be drug running and preying on local communities for food. This can lead to some distinctly unpleasant and dangerous interactions, to put it mildly!
Even engagement with local communities can come with its downsides on a personal level. Working with severely endangered and moribund communities usually means developing strong personal relationships with elder expert teachers, but the inevitable passage of time takes these people from you. Many last speakers are aware of their mortality and what this means for the future of their language. “I’ll soon go berry-picking and take my language with me,” Marta Kangaraeva told me in 2001, using the Tofa metaphor for death (she was right, she did). You feel the despair in their voices, and although this may engender a renewed sense of mission, time claims more and more of these voices, now silenced forever.
Another common problem is a belief among the community that the researcher is making vast sums of money from their language (clearly they have no understanding of the economics of academic publishing!). This type of attitude can endure, even if counterevidence is provided, and can have a negative impact on the success of a project.
As unpleasant as ‘bad’ experiences can be, they pale in comparison to the ‘ugly’. Social realities can be ugly in some locations. Poverty, unemployment, institutionalised disenfranchisement and corruption can rear their ugly heads at a moment’s notice, with potentially grave outcomes.
One such instance came after a long and successful day of interviews with speakers of the tok ples, locally known as Wagi Ne, in Kamba village, which is perched on an idyllic hill overlooking Papua New Guinea’s north Pacific coast. As we drove down the jungle track to Madang town, our path was blocked by a small tree. Instantly we knew this was a bad sign. Then a young man holding a gun came into view; to his left was a man with a machete, who moved to the driver’s side and began trying to smash the window. These were the notorious Raskol boys – gangs of criminal youth – outside their usual urban haunts. This was what we had always known was possible: a life or death situation.
The decision was straightforward: remain in the car, get our four-wheel drive over the tree and, if necessary, run the young men over. This was not the first time someone had pointed a gun at me, and I felt (correctly, it turned out) that the gunman did not have the nerve to pull the trigger, so we went straight at him and he jumped out of the way. A good story now, it was terrifying at the time. How to deal with this situation certainly never came up in my field methods class!
Linguistic fieldwork can provide many experiences. Some you can prepare for; for others, that is almost certainly impossible, since you can never know how you will respond in times of true crisis until you face them square on. I feel lucky to be able to tell these tales today. They have, indeed, shaped who I am as a person and as a fieldworker.
Dr Gregory DS Anderson is a specialist in language documentation, language contact, historical linguistics and linguistic typology. An expert on endangered languages, he has published a number of books and articles on the analysis of indigenous languages.