Classical Pinnacle Sherpa—A living exercise in proto-language reconstruction—Keith W. Slater SpecGram Vol CLIX, No 1 Contents Doing Fieldwork on Constructed Languages—Curtis U. Lehder

Writing a Fieldwork Dissertation

Kai Tak Suvarnabhumi
Independent Scholar

Fieldwork is an age-old tradition in Linguistics, and the fieldwork dissertation is, too, dating back at least to the age of Boas. While there is much to celebrate in this traditionespecially the very fact of its resurgence since the mid-1990sthere remain certain intractable problems which we, as linguists, have failed to address systematically. One of these problems, of course, is the lack of clear, systematic guidance for the novitiate in the realm of producing an acceptable doctoral screed. Though this brief article admittedly falls far short of the complete treatise that is needed, I promise to expand it eventually into a full-length book. In the meantime, I would like to offer just these few points to aid those pitiable doctoral candidates who lack sufficient guidance for their compositional task.

Choosing an advisor

The advisor is the most critical part of your dissertation experience. You want one who is appropriate for the task, and this is a lot more difficult to arrange than you might expect. On the one hand, you have to avoid the Überfieldworker, whose 36 years of language analysis (including seven years of living in the language community) have resulted in the perception that “grammatical description” means eight volumes; on the other hand, you have equally to watch out for the theoretician who will perceive you as the coauthor (unacknowledged) of chapter 6 of her next book on theta roles (or some other topic of marginal relevance to the language you are actually working on), and will “guide” your research along this track. The perfect fieldwork dissertation advisor has done some fieldwork, but is neither ostentatiously proud nor meekly humble about it. Furthermore, he or she can be neither too interested nor too uninterested in your own project.

Choosing a theory

Depending on your department, the prevailing doctrinal winds, and most especially your advisor, you may have actually some choice as to which theoretical “model” you use to frame your study. If so, choose wisely, because you will have to live with the results of your choice for three or four years. If you are lucky, the theory you choose will still have a few adherents when you interview for your first job. It is unlikely to survive until the publication of your dissertation as a book, but this does not matter much, since the publication of books is not related to the current state of the field.

Choosing fieldwork software

More than any other single factor, software can really make or break your linguistic fieldwork. It’s important to have the ideal suite of programs for the work you want to do. Most likely you don’t want to pay for software, so you probably are going to stick to standard Microsoft issue such as FreeCell and Hearts. Don’t be too frugal, though; you may increase your productivity dramatically if you shell out some cash for top of the line Electronic Arts games. Online gaming is ok, but MMORPGs are to be avoided if at all possibleinnumerable field projects in the last 5 years have been scuttled due to online conflicts between the fieldworker and his1 host community that spilled over into real life.

You may also want some form of academic software, and I am proud to recommend to you the software produced by my own— [Managing Editor’s Note: to avoid the prospect of lawsuits or the appearance of editorial impropriety, Suvarnabhumi’s recommendations have been redacted. Also, there is no point in recommending software, since it is invariably out of date before the recommendation is even published.]

Preparing for fieldwork

There are an ever-increasing number of books about linguistic fieldwork, but as I have not read any of them I will mention only The Innocent Anthropologist. Although this book is purportedly anthropological in thrust, its basic testimony is one of jumping to rather grand theoretical conclusions based on severely limited data, in the midst of a series of daily living disasters which could have been avoided with only a little foresight and common sense, and thus it is excellent preparation for fieldwork in linguistics as well.

Gathering data

Once you get to the field, don’t follow anyone’s recommendations about gathering data. This is a personal matter, best not discussed in public. Just realize ahead of time that you won’t gather enough data, no matter how you try, and be prepared. Smiles are good for the heart, and somehow healing.

Finishing your dissertation

You can count on your advisor getting tired of your project. (Not until long after you’ve gotten tired of it, most likely.) Before this happens, though, innumerable “suggestions” will be made, ostensibly in pursuit of “improving” your work; probably some reference will also be made to your marketability as a job candidate (not in precisely those terms). Do not be alarmedthis is normal.

At some point your advisor, whether or not she is a fan of A. A. Milne, will come to agree with Rabbit that “having got so far, it seems a pity to waste it.” At this juncture, she will stop making suggestions related to content and will instead start pointing out that there may be a shortage of funding for next year and you may need to consider an off-campus job, or even a TAship in the English or ESL department. At this point, the time is right. Make a few more minor adjustments (about 25 should do it; be sure to change at least one grammatical category label) and turn in another entire draft. It will be cheerfully approved. You are done.

Parting encouragement

On the whole, there are roughly about six thousand serious errors you could make in the design and execution of a fieldwork project, and a similar number that could derail your attempt to massage a dissertation out of the resulting field notes (if you produce any notes at all). The project may be worthwhile, or it may not. There’s just no way to tell beforehand.

1 Such cases invariably involve men who cannot distinguish MMORPGs from other types of “real” life.

Classical Pinnacle Sherpa—A living exercise in proto-language reconstruction—Keith W. Slater
Doing Fieldwork on Constructed Languages—Curtis U. Lehder
SpecGram Vol CLIX, No 1 Contents