On the Importance of In Situ Linguistic Observation

By Hannah S. Sarvasy
Australian National University

Not everything about a language’s grammar can be discovered through elicitation and corpus mining. Even recording naturalistic conversations doesn’t necessarily complete the picture. Language is used in so many contexts that certain magical, serendipitous discoveries can only arise through participant-observation.

In previous fieldwork on Tashelhit Berber and the Atlantic languages Kim and Bom, I’d worked both through a contact language and through the target language itself. I wanted to attempt a completely monolingual approach for my Nungon fieldwork. Several things were in my favor: ample time, a vibrant linguistic situation, and a welcoming community (see Sarvasy 2016 for more discussion of monolingual methods in both Field Methods pedagogy and actual fieldwork). Indeed, after the first two days of formalities and introductions in English and Tok Pisin, I eschewed any contact language for the remainder of my work on Nungon.

On returning from my first 20-day field trip, I wrote up initial grammatical and lexical findings. Although I had a good idea about some phonology, morphology and semantics, certain constructions—and indeed certain forms—would take much longer to discover. (For instance, I didn’t pin down the Counterfactual verb inflection until a few months later.) My texts and dialogue corpus was an essential record of the language, supplemented by elicitation. But beyond these, at least one form in particular required active observation of the language in use.

The Call-at-Distance form I’ll describe here is in some ways foreign to daily life in WEIRD cities—at least the ones I know. Urbanites may call from one room to another within a house, or to a child playing outside the house, but in the heart of the city people tend to keep their conversations contained. One doesn’t regularly observe people calling to each other from opposite sides of a busy street, or different points on a city block. In cities, long-range oral communication is impeded by cement walls, traffic, and the hum of conversations between myriad other pedestrians. There’s also a learned tendency among city-dwellers to avoid ‘making a scene,’ or broadcasting personal information in public—at least the physical public, disregarding of course social media.

In contrast, Nungon speakers live in huts with non-sound-proof flexible walls of woven bamboo slats. With no roads or electricity and only very occasional small airplanes overhead, the main sources of noise in the region are rushing rivers and waterfalls—when one approaches these. In general, birdsong, cicadas humming, axes striking trees, and rumbling landslides are audible from afar. People often converse at long range, and there is special optional morphology to facilitate this.

The Nungon Call-at Distance form, discussed on pages 106-109 of my Grammar of Nungon (Brill, 2017) and in an upcoming talk at the Association for Linguistic Typology meeting (December, 2017), is one of those liminal instances in which morphology interfaces with performance context. A particular morphological alteration here has the sole function of indicating that the utterance in which it occurs is directed at an addressee over a certain physical distance. The morphology maintains this function even when the utterance is in fact spoken sotto voce and in jest; then the incongruence of the morphology and performance context is humorous. None of the 222 narratives and conversations I recorded in the course of my original grammatical research (2011-2013) happens to include the Call-at-Distance form, and I did not discover it through observation until a few months into my fieldwork.

The Call-at-Distance form entails the alteration of the vowel in the last syllable (closed or open) of almost any utterance (a name, a command, a statement, a speech fragment—less commonly, a question), iff that vowel is /a/. If the vowel of the utterance’s last syllable is /a/ (IPA [a]), the Call-at-Distance form of the utterance replaces this /a/ with /o/ (IPA [ɔ]). Thus, my name changes from Hana to Hano. Utterances with final syllables that contain any vowel or diphthong besides /a/ never get marked as Calls-at-Distance.

Here’s another example, from the Grammar of Nungon (p. 107). Here, an elderly woman (my adopted mother) calls from within her hut to her adult daughter, whom she knows to be inside her own hut a number of meters downhill. She is requesting that the daughter bring her a particular saucepan.

Söpan            opmou       k-e-ng                     n-om!

saucepan       small         sg.o-come-dep        1sg.o.cad-give.imm.imp.2sg

‘Bring the small saucepan and give it to me!’ (Field notes)

The usual short form of the Immediate Imperative ‘give (it) to me’ is nam; this becomes nom in the Call-at-Distance form. The daughter herself responds, from within her own hut, with a statement framed as a Call-at-Distance: that saucepan still has food in it.

Even if an utterance fits the formal criterion to be markable as a Call-at-Distance and is uttered in a Call-at-Distance-compatible performance context (called out over some distance to one or more addressees), Call-at-Distance marking (the alteration /a/ -> /o/) is not obligatory.

The Call-at-Distance form canonically occurs in a context outside those of many of our typical field recordings, which often involve speakers seated close to one another. In work on Kim and Bom with Tucker Childs and others in Sierra Leone (http://dkb.research.pdx.edu), we had the opportunity to record and videotape speakers demonstrating traditional processes (farming, weaving, etc.). But if Kim or Bom had an equivalent form to the Nungon Call-at-Distance, it would not necessarily have shown up in even these more active recordings, since the speakers still directed their commentaries on the procedures at the recording devices or at onlookers standing beside them.

The Call-at-Distance form is a reminder of the all-encompassing nature of language in use. Here a category of morphology is entwined with performance context, and specifically a context that is easily overlooked by an urban researcher: communication at semi-long-range. Beyond even the most wide-ranging speech corpus, truly comprehensive description of an unwritten language’s grammar requires intensive exposure to the speech community by the linguist. In field linguistics as in field biology, scrupulous observation of the facts, tenacious data chasing into every cranny of language use, can generate some of the most novel discoveries of our time.


Sarvasy, Hannah. 2016. “Monolingual fieldwork in and beyond the classroom.” In Ksenia Ershova, Joshua Falk, Jeffrey Geiger, Zachary Hebert, Robert Lewis, Patrick Munoz, Jacob Phillips, and Betsy Pillion (eds.), Chicago Linguistic Society 51 Proceedings. 471-484.

Sarvasy, Hannah. 2017. A Grammar of Nungon: A Papuan Language of Northeast New Guinea. Leiden: Brill.

Sarvasy, Hannah. In preparation. Morphological shouting: the Nungon Call-at-Distance form. Paper to be presented at the Association for Linguistic Typology Meeting, Canberra, Australia.


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