What is Fieldwork?

Linguistic fieldwork involves studying and documenting a specific language and culture through first-hand investigation. A complex process, fieldwork is vital for studying previously undocumented languages.

To conduct fieldwork researchers often live within the community they are studying for an extended period. During their stay, they gain insights into the culture and record the language, the local history, traditions, songs and stories. Where a language is also endangered, such research can be vital to raise awareness and create preservation programs to reteach the language to younger generations.

Ethical Responsibilities

  1. To recognise the ownership of any material (songs, stories, music, images) gathered;
  2. To abide by cultural taboos (eg publishing images of deceased people);
  3. To make their fieldwork available to the wider linguistic community; and
  4. To involve the community in the collection of information, so as to provide accurate data

Ethics Online

Ethics guidelines from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology: http://www.eva.mpg.de/lingua/files/ethics.html

The Linguistics Department, University of Toronto http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/linguistics/LIN458H1F/04.458.ethics.pdf

Statement of Ethics put out by the Australian Linguistics Society http://www.latrobe.edu.au/rclt/als/ethics.html

The American Anthropological Association http://www.aaanet.org/committees/ethics/ch1.htm

Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics (Canada) http://www.pre.ethics.gc.ca/english/index.cfm

Stanford University http://www.stanford.edu/dept/linguistics/fieldwork/


The process of fieldwork usually involves making recordings of the language. This allows the researcher to acoustically analyse, replay, and check meanings as they transcribe the information. In conducting fieldwork, it is good to have a backup plan in case your equipment fails. Basic equipment can include:
  • A sound recorder: analogue (cassette) is good, but digital recorders are becoming more common. Always go for high quality, preferably with adjustable recording volume.
  • Spare batteries
  • A high quality external microphone (internal microphones also record the sound of the machine working)

What is Transcribing?

This involves recording information about the language being studied. This includes what sounds are used - including pitch, stress, intonation and other features - vocabulary, morphology, syntax and grammatical structures. Usually transcription is done using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). See Peter Ladafoged's course in Phonetics for further information.
Webpage created by Voxcomm, a 2005 Arts Informatics Project. All information, images and media copyright of the Linguistics Department, USYD, 2005.