In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Fieldwork

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Collections
  • Other Book-Length Resources
  • Survey Articles
  • Language Documentation
  • Language Endangerment and Language
  • Language Conservation and Revitalization
  • Collaborative Research
  • Training Resources
  • Funding

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Linguistics Fieldwork
Keren Rice
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0015


When you hear the word “fieldwork,” you probably think of someone going to some remote location to study a language that has not been studied. That is one way of doing fieldwork, but it is not the only way. A common way of thinking about fieldwork today, adapted from discussion in the work of Claire Bowern, is that it involves the collection of accurate data on a language and working in an ethical manner with respect to the language, the community, and the profession: the goal is gaining a better understanding of the language and benefiting the community of speakers in ways that are of interest to that community at the time. While fieldwork is often said to be about collecting data in a natural environment, fieldwork is also often done outside the natural environment the language is used in. For instance, fieldwork might take place in a classroom, an office, or with an individual or group of speakers who use another language as their daily language. In common is the study of a language for analytic purposes, with appropriate attention to ethics.

There are many things to consider in undertaking fieldwork. Most are applicable no matter where the fieldwork takes place. They include getting training, finding a location that works for you and the community, getting ethics approval (from the university and, often, from the community), finding funding, gathering language materials, managing and archiving the data, and often becoming involved in the community in which you work.

Products of fieldwork are many. Typically they include descriptions: traditionally a grammar, dictionary, texts, and recordings. In addition, theoretical analysis and language teaching materials are common products. Archiving is important no matter what the goals of the fieldwork may be.

While the linguistics profession has relied on fieldwork for some time, the focus on fieldwork has increased in recent years, as the number of languages for which transmission has been greatly diminished has become more evident. While language endangerment and loss is unfortunate from many perspectives, the recognition of language loss has led to increased attention to linguistic fieldwork, and with it a richness of materials in terms of description, awareness of ethical responsibilities, and unprecedented technological support.

Recent thinking about ethics has led to questioning of the word “fieldwork,” with some suggesting that this term is a holdover from earlier days and that terms such as “collaborative linguistic research” might be more appropriate under some circumstances.


The textbooks provide an excellent introduction to the various aspects of fieldwork. An early book devoted to this topic is Samarin 1967: although out of date, it remains a classic. In the past few years there has been a strong resurgence of interest in fieldwork, and several textbooks have appeared. Three outstanding books, each with their own take on fieldwork and based on experiences in different parts of the world, are Crowley 2007, Bowern 2008 (with an accompanying website, Linguistic Fieldwork), and Chelliah and de Reuse 2010. In general, these books aim to introduce the student to the experience of doing fieldwork, from before the experience officially begins to after it ends. Discussion typically includes preparing for fieldwork, the use of technology, archiving, grant writing, working with speakers, gathering data, ethical fieldwork, finding places to work, particular types of fieldwork (e.g., morphology, syntax, semantics). These books are all rich and detailed and provide high-quality introductions to the person beginning fieldwork. Bowern 2008 is especially strong on the human factors in fieldwork, while Chelliah and de Reuse 2010 includes broad historical and philosophical perspectives as well as core material. Crowley 2007 includes numerous anecdotes, with careful attention to the human context of language loss. Rogers and Campbell 2009 supplements Bowern with additional advice, and Terrill 2010 is a useful review of Bowern 2008 (with accompanying discussion of some of the other books on fieldwork), while Payne 2010 guides the reader through Crowley 2007.

  • Bowern, Claire. 2008. Linguistic fieldwork: A practical guide. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    A textbook that keeps the speakers of the language at the core of fieldwork. Bowern covers a wide range of aspects of fieldwork, with chapters that are valuable to a student in a field methods class as well as someone undertaking fieldwork on their own.

  • Chelliah, Shobhana T., and Willem J. de Reuse. 2010. Handbook of descriptive linguistic fieldwork. Berlin: Springer.

    By authors with field experience in different parts of the world, the book has a broad scope: from geographical, historical, philosophical, and encyclopedic perspectives. Readable and entertaining history of fieldwork that gives practical guidance on choosing a language, preparing for fieldwork, ethics, working with speakers, data management, fieldwork in different areas, and techniques.

  • Crowley, Terry. 2007. Field Linguistics: A beginner’s guide. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    With a focus on the responsibility of linguists to document languages, this study covers ethical issues, types of elicitation, use of texts, background for doing fieldwork, and potential cultural issues. Explicit discussion about working in situations where there is just a small number of speakers remaining.

  • Linguistic Fieldwork.

    An accompaniment to Bowern 2008, this is an excellent supplement. With links to archives and blogs, as well as to websites with information on eliciting, ethics, grants, and more.

  • Payne, Thomas E. 2010. Review of Terry Crowley. Field linguistics: A beginner’s guide. Language Documentation and Conservation 4:90–96.

    A useful review of Crowley.

  • Rogers, Christopher, and Lyle Campbell. 2009. Review of Linguistic fieldwork: A practical guide, by Claire Bowern. Anthropological Linguistics 50:393–397.

    Includes additional advice and clarifications about fieldwork.

  • Samarin, William. 1967. Field linguistics: A guide to linguistic field work. New York: Henry Holt.

    A classic textbook on linguistic fieldwork designed to prepare linguists to work with speakers of a language. Out of date, especially with respect to technology, but this is a valuable resource.

  • Terrill, Angela. 2010. Review of Linguistic fieldwork: A practical guide. Language 86.2: 435–438.

    DOI: 10.1353/lan.0.0214

    A thoughtful review of Bowern 2008, with brief summaries of a number of other works on fieldwork.

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