The Linguist

The Linguist 55,2

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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14 The Linguist Vol/55 No/2 2016 FEATURES In the first of our series looking at linguistic fieldwork, Jeanette Sakel explains how she documented the Amazonian language Mosetén after learning Spanish for the project I f you had to translate a sentence from English into Arabic but your knowledge of the language was restricted, where would you start? Depending on your way of working, you might use an online translation tool, consult dictionaries and ask an acquaintance for help. What would you do, however, if it was an Amazonian language for which there were no dictionaries, let alone online translation tools? This scenario is quite common for a range of stakeholders, including missionaries translating religious texts, aid workers and educationalists working with indigenous peoples, and linguists working with speakers of little described languages. I belong to the last group – the linguists, or field linguists, as we like to call ourselves. Our motivation is generally not to translate anything into the other language, but rather to find out how the language 'works', for example in terms of its grammatical structures. Every language has a lexicon and grammatical structures, and it is our challenge to analyse and explore these, often producing dictionaries and grammars at the same time. It is a bit like putting together a gigantic puzzle – something I very much enjoy. I have conducted fieldwork on Greenlandic passive constructions, Somali-English code-switching and German/English bilingual heritage speakers, and I have also worked on the grammars of three Amazonian languages: Mosetén, Tsimane' and Pirahã. I will use Mosetén to show how we can extract grammar from spoken language. Connecting with speakers Mosetén is spoken by approximately 800 people in Bolivia. All speakers also speak Spanish, a language I learnt for the purpose of this research. I was thus able to conduct bilingual fieldwork, learning about Mosetén through Spanish. First, I needed to find speakers of the language to work with. There are many different ways to go about this, for example through contacting organisations working with the group. Once contact has been established, it is a good idea to talk to a wide range of speakers for the first few days. This way, it is easy to find speakers with good intuitions about their language who are keen to work with you. I try to talk to and record as many different speakers as possible, as well as working intensively with one or two 'teachers' (i.e. those who can help with translations and other language-related work). Once a teacher has been found, fieldwork can begin straightaway. I like to start by recording a short story. This could, for example, be someone introducing themselves and telling me a bit about their background. When I have a short recording, I sit down with the teacher and transcribe what was said. I either write down the language in IPA (the International Phonetics Alphabet), or use an approximate spelling to return to at a later stage in the process. The next step is to understand what has been said. I begin by asking the speaker to translate the overall text. They may divide it into chunks that are equivalent to sentences, giving me the meaning of those as we go through the text. What is a sentence, a word, a sound structure (phoneme) and the like is Linguistic puzzles © SHUTTERSTOCK From the field For more information, see Linguistic Fieldwork: A Student Guide by Jeanette Sakel and Daniel L Everett. To find out about monolingual fieldwork, see Everett's presentation on the subject at

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