HALS Workshop 1. Culturally grounded field linguistics

May 27–29 2013, University of Helsinki

The first HALS workshop with approximately 60 participants was a varied event with many different activities.

Apart from very rich description of their respective field experiences from our invited speakers, we engaged in intensive discussions in four separate groups dealing with content- and strategy-related themes. Our workshop was different from most typical academic symposia in that it did not only contain academic presentations sharing scientific results, but included longer sections of in-depth discussion of renewed methods in the study of language. From a pure methods-oriented training workshop, we differed in that we also looked into questions concerning our strategic position in the current international research environment dedicated to the study of language.

In preparation of the first HALS workshop, many of our team members drafted proposals for projects based on their own research background and the state-of-the-art in the respective fields. These projects address current research needs and explore possibilities of how to implement future investigation in various areas of academic and societal importance. These range from language use among diaspora migrant communities to language documentation and the analysis of endangered languages, and from European language contact scenarios e.g. in the Balkans and among Finno-Ugric languages to questions of linguistic typology, language technology and the creation of documentary language resources.

An important result of the HALS workshop was the valuable feedback on our project drafts which we received from the participants – in particular from the external specialists. Sharing these ideas at this point enabled us to team up with colleagues across (language-related) disciplines, enhancing the collaboration within our faculty. This will hopefully lead to applications for funding in the near future.

Language-related issues are a significant component in one of the great current societal challenges: maintaining social cohesion and well-being in a world characterised by increased mobility and contact across languages and cultures. A round table discussion on the final day of the first HALS workshop discussed these concerns in some detail and pointed out that linguistic diversity is not inherently a problem per se, but on the contrary can be an answer to some of these challenges. Rather than seeing it – unjustifiably – as an obstacle to be overcome we need to work towards perceiving it as an asset. The panelists included members of the HALS team and other members of the scientific community and funding agencies in order to promote more reliable and consensual strategies to implement future research in this important arena.

Background and objectives

The University of Helsinki has been home to a successful research cluster with the title “Linguistic Diversity Historical, Functional and Typological Approaches” (LDHFTA). The successful LDHFTA experience between 2005 and 2010 has since led some of the investigators involved in that research cluster to an even closer collaboration. We envisage major methodological advances by bringing together Helsinki’s traditional strength in ethno-linguistics (including descriptive, historical and contact linguistics) with pressing societal needs (understanding and maintaining linguistic diversity) and the opportunities due to fast-developing technologies. One area which we have experienced as challenging over the past years concerns the adaptation of our research tools to current demands in an increasingly globally connected research field. In the course of our three-day workshop in May, we will concentrate on the questions relating to the challenges involved in contemporary linguistic fieldwork.

The “conventional” approach to descriptive linguistics is to zoom in on systematic properties of individual languages. It is typically driven by theoretical or typological linguistic concerns (and relies almost exclusively on methodological tools from those fields). When carrying out linguistic description or historical comparative work, language contact is usually taken into account only as a “contaminating” factor that needs to be identified so that its interference with the allegedly genuine language history or synchronic mechanisms will not blur the “real picture”. Since language contact and multilingualism is such a prevalent feature of contemporary linguistic field research, and because recently, essentialising or reifying approaches to individual languages as self-contained symbolic systems have increasingly come under attack, we need to react to these realities in more adequate ways than has been common so far.

A certain degree of reification or essentialisation of individual languages is indubitably necessary and justified. After all, speakers of a particular linguistic variety share intuitions about grammatical acceptability in an amazingly systematic, rule-like fashion. Yet, in view of the fact that we are typically dealing with multilingual settings and communities, a globalizing world, increased mobility, and new technologies that make elicitation and consultation possible beyond the narrow windows of field site visits, there are a number of methodological issues which need to be addressed. We aim at developing a more integrated approach with regard to field methods. This is the core theme of the workshop. A specific outcome is the shared research strategy including specific techniques for gathering data at the intersection of linguistic elicitation, cognitive anthropological and ethnographic data collection, and historical linguistic methods. The most fundamental expected upshot is to improve our capacity to deal with the challenges of language documentation in contact situations.

In practical terms, the organisation of such a workshop requires to bring together scholars from relevant centres of research who work along similar lines as the HALS researchers. The latter all have a wealth of individual experience which has not been systematically brought together or tapped into for teaching and training purposes. We are currently improving on that by organising a variety of joint activities, including teaching events and field excursions. In order to ensure high standards and international visibility in all our activities, we bring in international expertise. Five external specialists with long-standing experience in the areas of language documentation, linguistic field work and language endangerment have agreed to contribute to our workshop. Lobbying for better policies, the leading experts in their respective fields have also been successful advocates in terms of linguistic activism and fund-raising. Our invited specialists are from different corners of the globe, but they all pertain to one focus area of the HALS activities. We therefore also intend to collaborate with them with regard to student and junior researchers’ on‑site training.


Monday 27 May – auditorium XII, Main Building




  • Welcome address


  • Negotiating meaning between researchers and language consultants: underlying languages and clashing concepts

    Matthias Brenzinger (University of Cape Town)


  • Linguistic fieldwork in Siberia: Experiences from working with the Tundra Yukagir speech community

    Cecilia Odé (University of Amsterdam)

Lunch break


  • Doing fieldwork on contact languages: What is the ideal consultant?

    Evgeniy Golovko (Institute for Linguistic Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg)


  • Ket linguistic fieldwork and Yeniseian historical linguistics

    Edward Vajda (Western Washington University, Bellingham)



  • Initial session of group work (to be continued Tuesday morning)


  • Screening of a documentary on N/u speakers in South Africa, introduced by Matthias Brenzinger
    The Last Call


  • Rector’s reception – Teachers’ Lounge (Lehtisali), Main Building

    Hosted by the first Vice-Rector, Ulla-Maija Forsberg

Tuesday 28 May – auditorium XII, Main Building


  • Welcome to the second workshop day


  • Group work (continued from previous day)



  • Reporting back and discussion (20 min per group)

Lunch break


  • Helsinki experiences/plans

    Principal investigators of the HALS research cluster will present their concrete ideas for envisaged fieldwork-based projects.

    Lotta Aunio, Ekaterina Gruzdeva, Juha Janhunen, Jouko Lindstedt, Janne Saarikivi, Sarri Vuorisalo-Tiitinen.



  • The expert group: Commenting on perspectives, ideas, collaborations


Wednesday 29 May – Juhlasali, Language Centre (Fabianinkatu 26, 3rd floor)


  • A note of welcome: HALS experiences and programmatic outlooks


  • At the crossroads – a journey from an essentialist look at one target language towards a multidisciplinary, multi-sited, multilingual documentation project

    Friederike Lüpke (School of Oriental and African Studies, London)



  • Round table

    The Helsinki Area & Language Studies. Its distinctive character vis-à-vis other language documentation programmes and traditions in descriptive linguistics

    Prof. Matthias Brenzinger (Centre for African Language Diversity (CALDi) and The African Language Archive (TALA), Univ. of Cape Town)

    Prof. Juha Janhunen (East Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Helsinki)

    Prof. emer. Fred Karlsson (General Linguistics, University of Helsinki)

    Dr. Kalle Korhonen (Head of Scientific Affairs, Kone Foundation)

    Dr. Friederike Lüpke (School of Oriental and African Studies, London)

    Prof. Anna Mauranen (Dean of the Faculty of Arts, University of Helsinki)

    Dr. Cecilia Odé (Linguistics, Faculty of Arts, University of Amsterdam)

    Prof. Axel Fleisch (African Studies, University of Helsinki), moderator

Negotiating meaning between researchers and language consultants: underlying languages and clashing concepts

Matthias Brenzinger (University of Cape Town)

The linguistic fieldworker is often assumed that an etic grid of concepts and categories can be established as a point of departure for linguistic description and analysis that allows for identifying diverging conceptualization. The presentation will discuss and exemplify that non-conformist concepts can often not be accommodated in this way. Fieldwork has to be understood as an ongoing reflection of preconceived understandings and expectations on both sides, by the scholars as well as the language consultants. Arguably, this becomes most relevant in producing a language description whenever meaning is construed –as obviously in the form of lexical semantics, but also with regard to grammatical functions and pragmatic mechanisms linked to specific linguistic constructions. Analyzing languages in the field might be seen as a cultural negotiation with the translation of meanings being compromises.

As one of our invited experts, Matthias Brenzinger is going to address and illustrate the negation of meanings based on his broad experience as a fieldworker in southern and eastern Africa. One of the examples will look at perception verbs as starting points for discussing the culturally entrenched understanding of the relationship between sensing and understanding, i.e. the true “nature of knowledge”. Khwe, and most likely other speakers of Khoeid languages, know things they have not perceived through body parts, such as ears, eyes, nose, mouths or fingers. Cultural thinking challenges, changes or substitutes information gained though sensory perception with vision being the most unreliable source. Perception verbs open the rather complex topic of the underlying concepts of cognition and knowledge.


Linguistic Fieldwork in Siberia: Experiences from Working with the Tundra Yukagir Speech Community

Cecilia Odé (University of Amsterdam)

Part I: Subjects

  • In this first part I will discuss the following issues (the list is not exhaustive and other issues may come up during the workshop):
  • How to select and approach subjects for your research?
  • How much do you pay them for what kind of work?
  • What can you expect from your subjects?
  • What can you accept from your subjects?
  • How to gain the confidence of members of the speech community (not only of subjects)?
  • How do you behave in difficult situations and who can you contact or trust?
  • What about feedback for members of the speech community?

Part II: Local schools: teachers, pupils, education programmes

Teaching the Tundra Yukagir language is a hard job for the teachers. They don’t have much time, there are hardly any teaching materials, there is no properly working technical equipment, there are not enough native speakers who can assist, there is hardly any financial support.

The pupils are mostly very motivated which is an absolute first requirement. However, they do not reach a reasonable level in none of the four proficiencies. At home and among each other they do not speak the native language, the only practice they have is in the classroom. The method of teaching the language is the traditional translation method. There are no modern learning possibilities by means of computers: either they have not been developed, or the computers are broken down.

With concrete examples I will discuss these difficulties and I will make some suggestions how a fieldworker can encourage teachers and pupils to solve their problems.


Doing Fieldwork on Contact Languages: What is the Ideal Consultant?

Evgeniy Golovko (Institute for Linguistic Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, St Petersburg)

It is widely assumed that, unlike dialects of ‘a normal language’ (Finnish, Russian, etc.) which form a dialect continuum, contact languages, due to inherent variability, form a (post-pidgin, post-creole) contact continuum ranging from basilect to acrolect. While basilect has fewer features in common with lexifier language, acrolect turns out to be much closer to it. In my paper I will approach the material of two Russian-based pidgins (Taimyr pidgin and Russian Chinese pidgin) recorded by different linguists at different periods of time. I will examine how well the material of Russian-based pidgins fits the above-mentioned concept. I will also consider to what extent the social parameters of consultant-researcher interaction influence the result.

The material analyzed in the second part of my presentation comes from my own field data on Mednyj Aleut – a mixed language that emerged as a result of the intertwining between Aleut and Russian. I will demonstrate that the linguistic biography of a consultant, as well as the mode of communication between consultant and linguist, may be determinant as regards the structural properties of linguistic material and the interpretation.


Ket linguistic fieldwork and Yeniseian historical linguistics

Edward Vajda (Western Washington University)

The Yeniseian family of central Siberia contains several extinct languages and the severely endangered Ket, for which documentation is still possible. Fieldwork with the last generation of native speakers over the past decade has resulted in a clearer understanding of the language’s polysynthetic verb structure. This refined comprehension of the verb system, in turn, has yielded several recent advances in tracing the historical diversification of the Yeniseian family. Innovative developments in verb structure have helped define the family’s internal subgrouping and also provide a much clearer picture of language contact with the surrounding Uralic, Tungusic, and Turkic languages of the area.  While linguistic fieldwork is generally valued for its use in creating synchronic descriptions, the data collected from disappearing languages can also play a crucial role in informing diachronic linguistic investigations.


At the crossroads – a journey from an essentialist look at one target language towards a multidisciplinary, multisited, multilingual documentation project

Friederike Lüpke (School of Oriental and African Studies, London)

Linguistic researchers and the speakers they work with alike often have strong essentialist, purist and graphocentric language ideologies. These ideologies influence the design and results of research projects, as they frame the questions linguists can ask and answer on languages. In this talk, I describe the journey I have taken with colleagues away from documenting several target languages – Baïnounk languages spoken in Casamance (Senegal)  to documenting multilingual repertoires in different field sites, where individual repertoires span 6 to 8 languages and children grow up aquiring at least three languages simultaneously. In describing this development from individual pilot research to a major collaborative project investigating the relation between more and less mono- and multilingual language modes and communities of practice and social networks, I draw on some challenges that often face fieldworkers and show the strategies we have chosen to address them. These comprise:

  • the tension between short-term research dictated by funding constraints and long-term, collaborative, inter- and multidisciplinary perspectives.
  • the tension between purist ideologies and hybrid practices (in researchers and researched alike)
  • the absence of training in ethnography, corpus linguistics, and multilingualism research in most field linguistis programmes and the need to adopt methods from these and other fields.
Group sessions

In addition to presentations by the experts, we hope we can tap into their experience by interacting with them more closely during group work phases within the workshop. Four groups will deal with separate, more specific issues that are relevant in “designing” a new methodological approach to language description and documentation involving linguistic fieldwork. These are:

  1. Team work in field linguistics

    How can what was, traditionally, the task of an individual researcher (with often a very long-term commitment to a specific language/area) be carried out by cooperating teams? What challenges, what possible advantages? How can the team work be organized in practice?
  2. Long duration fieldwork, short funding periods

    New approaches to complex field situations require a broad arsenal of methods, including (time-consuming) participant observation, etc. At the same time, funding agencies and academic policies aim at accelerated career paths for researchers and clearcut, temporally predictable outcomes (buzzword: impact). How to reconcile this?
  3. Archive sources, historical texts

    Historical and cultural grounding – as we promise in the 2013 project theme – requires the inclusion of historical language data as an important source of insight for our understanding of current contact situations. How can field linguists explore these most systematically? Which methodological challenges are involved, if these sources are meant to be more than “anecdotal” or supporting, but haphazard evidence?
  4. Confronting language contact

    The complexities of multilingual settings are a challenge in fieldwork. The conventional way of dealing with this has been to focus on speakers “as monolingual as possible” (someone approaching what could be an ideal speaker). But if contact the core concept under study, that is not a viable option. How do we tackle descriptive field work “upgrading” contact and multilingualism as “worthy” themes in descriptive fieldwork?