SpecGram Vol CLIX, No 1 Contents On the Applicability of Recent Theoretical Advances in Linguistics to the Practice of Fieldwork—Elwin Ransom

The State of the Field

By Guest Editor H.D. Onesimus


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A class-action law­suit has been brought a­gainst Ey­ja­fja­lla­jö­kull by a group of dif­fi­cult-to-pro­nounce volca­noes. A spokes­man for the group, speak­ing from The Hague, al­leges that his cli­ents had in­vested a great deal of time and mag­ma into an up­com­ing PR cam­paign, that Ey­ja­fja­lla­jö­kull pro­vid­ed da­ta as bribes to geo­lo­gists to in­duce them to steal de­tails of the plan, and that its sub­se­quent e­rup­tion con­sti­tutes il­legal in­ter­fer­ence in bu­si­ness ac­tiv­ities. Par­ties in the suit in­clude The­is­tar­ey­kjar­bun­ga (Ice­land), Iz­tac­cí­huatl (Mex­i­co), Al­ney­khash­ak­ond­zha (Si­ber­ia) and Tsouk-Kar­ckar (Ar­men­ia).

In a poss­i­bly sep­ar­ate de­vel­op­ment, a spokes­man for Po­po­ca­tép­etl is al­leg­ing that Ice­land­ic is in­fring­ing on Na­huatl’s trade­mark use of voice­less lat­eral fri­ca­tives in he­phai­stei­o­nyma.

[Editor’s Note: As part of our ongoing sponsorship deal with our publishing partner Psammeticus Press (and in the spirit of healthy academic debate), we welcome one of that fine publishing house’s most prolific authors, H.D. Onesimus, as our guest editor for this issue. Dr. Onesimus, a leading scholar of cetacean linguistics, is also a leading voice on the subject of linguistic fieldwork, which he passionately opposes.]

I have elsewhere unleashed passionately elegant warnings against the latest knees-bent-running-about devotion to willy-nilly linguistic data collection, but either these warnings are going unheeded or my publisher has been withholding royalties. Apparently it’s the former: Fieldwork continues to receive unabashed celebratory treatment in the academic and the nonacademic press, while an increasing number of previously respectable departments descend into the den of error, announcing this, that, and the other support for such arcania as the “documentarization” of languages. Fundable though this all may be, it is profoundly depressing to those whose powers of reflection are undimmed by fad and fashion.

Oh, by the way, I am supposed to thank the !Kanga Field Resort for its sponsorship of this issue. Thanks (for contributing to the decline of our field). Happy now?

In the previous issue of SpecGram (which incredibly had something just short of 2 million readers), the pompously-titled “Senior Editor” gave an alleged overview of linguistic fieldwork in 2010. Ambitious title, to be sure, and one which the accompanying prose hardly lived up to. In fact, that whole issue (save Fullah, who foreshadows my own conclusions), as well as the present issue, are missing the point.

One hates to wag fingers, especially at one’s colleagues, but I feel compelled to point out some of the real lessons that can be learned from these two issues. Pulju’s article deftly demonstrates the futility of fieldwork in a world of accelerating language death. Dwork, who has succumbed to naked capitalist impulses, undermines the very philosophical premise of fieldwork. Ransom’s commentary “On the Applicability of Recent Theoretical Advances in Linguistics to the Practice of Fieldwork” is tautologically and chiasmically equally applicable in the converse, concerning “The Applicability of the Practice of Fieldwork to Recent Theoretical Advances in Linguistics.”

To be sure, there are some (relative) bright spots in these two issues, though one has to wade through a lot of mire to find them. Mond takes a step in the right direction by limiting fieldwork to campus, but needs to go further, while Schadenpoodle (Parts I and II) can be read not as a list of precautions to take, but further reasons to avoid fieldwork altogether.

But on the whole, these scant contributions hardly lend much cause for optimism, outweighed as they are by faddish devotionalism to some fieldwork ideal. Perhaps the most egregiously damning item is the editors’ collective list of ways to pay for fieldwork, whichapparently inadvertentlydemonstrates the utter ludicrousness of undertaking fieldwork in the first place. And with this tragicomedy already weighing heavily on us, we come to Lehder, who, recognizing the intellectual bankruptcy of real fieldwork, but none too eager to give up the funding it represents, actually suggests crawling down into the muck with constructed languages, which reminds the thoughtful linguist of that aphorism about wrestling with a pig: it only tarnishes your academic reputation, and the conlangers like it.

In the face of such obdurate obsessiveness, let me offer the reader some cold, hard facts, which otherwise seem destined to go unnoticed. Linguistic fieldwork is no longer needed. Consider the following statistics. There are currently 2,327.4 undescribed languages in the world. That might sound like a lot, but consider that at least half of them will disappear before you finish reading this sentence, and furthermore, that there are 4,102 descriptive grammars being written at this very moment, by a legion of graduate students throughout the worldtoo many of whom will find inappropriate encouragement in Suvarnabhumi’s advice.

That’s right, gentle readers. Within a few short years, the number of grammatical descriptions will actually surpass the number of living human languages. To put it another way, the age of fieldwork is drawing to a close. (Good riddance, I say!) There are essentially no languages left to describe.

Now consider some more numbers. There are currently 9,248 active professional linguists throughout the world. It takes the average professional linguist eight months to produce one insightful linguistic paper, based on published data or her own field notes. Experience with major languages such as English shows that an average of about 14 insightful papers is required to give adequate descriptive coverage to all of the interesting and important structural phenomena found in any particular language. This means that one linguist (teaching mostly graduate classes) can expect to fully describe any given language in just over nine years. Thus, well within the next generation, fully 100% of the basic descriptive work will be completed, by the current crop of PhD students. No new fieldwork dissertations need be started.

I trust that most of my readers can draw the necessary implications, without my resorting to belaboring them. The vast bulk of the task ahead of us is not descriptive, but theoretical. And there is a whole lot of that work left. In contrast to the facts about a language, experience (again, with languages more or less like English) has shown that the genius of the languageits unique contributions to linguistic theorycannot be fully exhausted with fewer than 14,000 insightful papers. This is where the future of our discipline lies. The current generation of linguists needs to lose this ill-guided obsession with the field and get back to work where they belong: at the desk.

Some may not yet be convinced, but let me close by further illustrating my point thusly: where, the discerning reader may have asked, did Onesimus get the overwhelming statistics just cited? The answer, of course, is simple. I did not get them wandering around some Lilliputian airport in a vain search for the comfort of apple popovers, nor did I dig them up with a spade or a repurposed recording device while trying to simultaneously fend off an irate taxi driver with a four kilogram field notebook; no, I got them from the internet, which I accessed from the computer on my desk. In fact, this same means has led to all my most outstanding and insightful theoretical publications, including my most data-oriented studies on language contact among cetacean varieties. The process has always been comfortable, as have been the chairs and the food, and the results speak for themselves.

And now, I charge you, go and do likewise!

On the Applicability of Recent Theoretical Advances in Linguistics to the Practice of Fieldwork—Elwin Ransom
SpecGram Vol CLIX, No 1 Contents