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Linguistic fieldwork

Of the over 6000 languages spoken in the world, several thousand have still not been documented. More than half of these languages are facing extinction. In order to create a description of a language, long-lasting and thorough field research is needed. A good linguistic field worker will mostly collect large amounts of (spoken) text in the field, i.e. recording audio or video, preferably in a natural setting. In general, a significant part of these texts is discussed with the local population and then transcribed, analysed and interlinearized by the researcher. Methods of analysis can include morphological analysis and morphosyntactic analysis, for example. In the process of interlinearization, the original expressions are linked to the analysis and a translation, for example, in an orderly way. The following is an example of an interlinearized text in Biak, a language spoken on the Indonesian island of Biak:

I-ser fasaw i
3sg-hold fast 3SG
She quickly took hold of him (her child)

The first line contains the transcription and divides the text into morphemes. The second line gives the meaning of the morphemes and the third line provides a translation.


A good tool for interlinearizing texts is the program Toolbox, which helps to generate a lexicon and automatically parses imported texts.

A widely accepted standard for interlinear glosses is provided by the so-called Leipzig glossing Rules, developed by the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig.

Researchers often collect more than just 'natural' texts when in the field, also eliciting specific details about a certain aspect of the language, either because the language itself gives rise to that, or because of specific interests, for example in the institutional setting within which the researcher is working. Many materials have been developed in recent years by the Max Planck Institute in particular that can be used by field researchers. Many of these materials, such as stimulus kits and questionnaires, can be found on the website Typological tools for field linguistics (also by the Max Planck Institute), as well as a lot of useful practical tips.

Other topics in this section: Archaeological fieldwork