About Fieldwork and Language Documentation

The Berkeley Linguistics Department is deeply committed to the description of under-documented languages, and has been since its inception. Fieldwork is also viewed as an important methodological grounding for many theoretically-focused projects. At Berkeley, language documentation often goes hand in hand with community-oriented applications of linguistic research. Language revitalization projects are an example of this, inspired by Leanne Hinton's work, which is a model of reciprocity between linguist and language community.

It is largely due to this deep engagement with primary research that the work of Berkeley faculty and students in theoretical subdisciplines is recognized for its strong empirical foundation. Berkeley also serves as an important center for the archiving and preservation of primary linguistic data and unpublished analyses via the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages and the California Language Archive.

Training students in collecting and analyzing primary linguistic data through work with native speakers is a central part of the graduate program. Although important in all courses, the core of this training is the two-semester Field Methods course taken by all students, which gives them skills required to analyze any unfamiliar language on its own terms. In this course, students learn the methodologies and techniques of linguistic fieldwork, and practice them by working with a speaker of a minimally-documented language. In recent years students have worked with speakers of Ao and Falam (both Tibeto-Burman languages) and of Southeastern Pomo and Northern Paiute (both native California languages). Over the year students elicit data from the speaker, which they use to develop analyses of the phonology, morphology, syntax and pragmatics of the language. Berkeley is unusual in offering a full-year course in field methods, giving students exceptionally thorough training for fieldwork. Many Field Methods participants continue their research on the language studied beyond the conclusion of the course.

Faculty who are presently engaged in fieldwork or comprehensive local consultant work include the faculty listed below. Graduate students are also engaged in fieldwork with a diverse set of languages, including languages of West Africa, central Eurasia, southeast Asia, Central America, Mexico, and native North America. Our graduate students are very successful at obtaining competitive grants from national and international institutions to support their fieldwork.

  • Christine Beier dedicates her research and field activities to the documentation, description, revitalization, and revalorization of small and endangered languages, primarily in Peruvian Amazonia. She is particularly interested in the social life of language, text-driven research, and the value of diversified collaboration in addressing language vitality and endangerment. Thus far, she has worked with inheritors and speakers of Andoa (also: Katsakáti; Zaparoan), Aʔiwa (isolate), Iquito (also: Ikíitu; Zaparoan), Matsigenka (Arawak), Máíhĩki (also: Orejón, Tukanoan), Nanti (Arawak), Muniche (isolate), Omagua (Tupí-Guaraní), and Záparo (also: Sápara; Zaparoan). She is also co-founder, with Lev Michael, and secretary/treasurer of Cabeceras Aid Project, a 501(c)(3) organization whose humanitarian work supports the social and physical well-being of communities whose languages, cultures, and ways of life are endangered.
  • Amy Rose Deal has carried out field research for the last ten years on Nez Perce, a Sahaptian language of the Columbia River Plateau. As a formal syntactician and semanticist, she is particularly interested in consequences for universals and variation in grammar, meaning, and their connection. Particular interests include everything to do with ergativity and/or morphological case, modality, shifty indexicals, countability (mass/count distinction), external possession and possessor raising, relative clauses and agreement.
  • Andrew Garrett's Americanist research centers on languages of California. He has done fieldwork with speakers of Hupa, Northern Paiute, and Sierra Miwok and archival work on the Ohlone languages of the San Francisco Bay Area, but his main focus is the Yurok and Karuk languages of northern California. Since 2001, Garrett has directed the Berkeley Yurok Language Project; in this role he has worked extensively with the few remaining native speakers, the large manuscript and audio archival record of Yurok (from at least 1901), and the younger generation of language learners and activists. An active participant in Yurok language pedagogy projects, he has developed an online integrated lexicon, audio, and text database, designed to serve the interests of both linguists and community members, that is probably the largest web tool of its type for any non-literary language of the Americas. Garrett also serves as Director of the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages.
  • Leanne Hinton (emerita) continues to work with many different Native American and First Nations groups on language learning and revitalization. Currently she is helping develop documentation and language lessons for Karuk and Kashaya, working closely with a master-apprentice language program in British Columbia for over a dozen Northwest Coast languages run by the First Peoples Heritage, Language and Culture Council, and continuing her long-term work with the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival with its various programs available to all California Indian people.
  • Larry Hyman focuses on descriptive, historical, and theoretical-typological issues arising in the Bantu family of approximately 500 languages, as well neighboring Benue-Congo languages spoken on both sides of the Nigeria-Cameroon border. Much of his general linguistic work draws on the richness and diversity of their phonological systems, especially as concerns tone, vowel harmony, syllable- and foot structure, and nasality. He also has worked extensively on morphological and other grammatical issues arising in these languages, especially from a comparative point of view, e.g. suffix ordering, cyclic and templatic morphology, the Bantu augment, word order. In a field methods course in 2008-9 he and his students studied Nzadi, a previously undocumented language of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which, although Bantu, has undergone extensive reduction and restructuring (See publicity in the San Francisco ChronicleDaily Californian, andScience). Based on this work, Prof. Hyman, graduate student Thera Crane, and language consultant Simon Nsielanga Tukumu are now preparing a descriptive grammar which will highlight some of the unusual properties of this language.
  • Lev Michael focuses on languages of Peruvian Amazonia, and has carried out fieldwork with Nanti (Arawak), Iquito (Zaparoan), and Omagua (Tupí-Guaraní-lexified contact language). Fieldwork methodologies he has employed range from monolingual fieldwork and reliance on conversational data (with Nanti), to team-based work using a contact language to carry out standard elicitation and text collection (Iquito), to mainly working with literate speakers who prepare written texts for subsequent analysis (Omagua). He is especially interested in innovative ways to involve native speakers as active researchers in documentation projects, and in developing methodologies for team-based language documentation.
  • Line Mikkelsen works with Andrew Garrett and a team of graduate and undergraduate students on the Karuk language of Northern California. Project goals include linguistic documentation and analysis and the creation of resources for community language programs. Since 2010, we have been creating a substantial online archive of Karuk texts and audio recordings and integrating these with the Karuk dictionary created by William Bright and Susan Gehr. In 2011, Garrett and Mikkelsen received an NSF-DEL grant to create a treebank (a syntactically parsed corpus) of Karuk. The treebank will be overlaid on the existing morphological and lexical parsing and integrated with the dictionary, creating an integrated research and language learning resource. As a syntactician, Mikkelsen is particularly interested in Karuk word order, about which very little is known, verbal and nonverbal predication, the internal organization of noun phrases, and subordination. Mikkelsen also held a Mellon Project Grant (2014-15) to investigate the linguistic texture of Karuk narratives.
  • Rich Rhodes has done extensive documentation work on two North American languages, Ojibwe (Algonquian) and Métchif (a mixed language of Plains Cree and French) and a Mexican language, Sayula Popoluca (Mixe-Zoquean). His current documentation interests include typologically rare syntactic constructions and looking at historical change by comparing current data with older recordings including material from 19th century sources.