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.


Prof. Montanari about The Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek

When we published the Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek (BDAG) in 2015, we were often asked if a new dictionary on Greek was really necessary. This was a valid question, of course, but we would not have made the considerable investment in the translation of Franco Montanari’s Vocabolario della lingua Greca if we did not think that a new, modern dictionary would not be a useful tool for scholars of Greek at all levels. We asked professor Montanari to write a guest post on this subject.

By Franco Montanari

Dictionaries of ancient languages, founded as they are on the written testimony of the literature and other documents, certainly undergo a slower process of aging than dictionaries based on the living usage of modern languages. Dictionaries of modern languages reflect the current spoken forms, and these are undergoing constant and rapid evolution, but even dictionaries of ancient languages require updating, revision and additions. In our case, the need for a new dictionary of Ancient Greek, profoundly renewed in comparison to its predecessors, derives essentially from three factors: 1) the language to be interpreted and translated itself, namely Ancient Greek; 2) the modern language that provides the translations, the glosses and all explanations, i.e. the language spoken by the users of the dictionary; 3) the graphic layout. Let’s look at these factors one by one.

Consideration of the first factor, Ancient Greek, implies taking into account the enormous progress achieved in the study of the literature and the language in all its aspects during the last decades. The data at our disposal are being constantly enriched by the increase of lexical and grammatical knowledge, the in-depth reappraisal and updating of the interpretation of all the written evidence, new or even first critical editions of texts, the discovery of new words (actually not as rare as you might think!), new attestations in previously unknown genres or periods – for instance evidence that a term previously known only from prose texts was also used in poetry –  or the finding of an archaic occurrence of a word that had so far been thought to reflect more recent usage.

Progress of this kind is also based on a more extended and in-depth evaluation of the full range of the written evidence. Accordingly, the use of electronic databases (first and foremost the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae of Irvine, California) constitutes an essential aid and – let me add a phrase I often repeat –  the ancient languages walk effortlessly on modern legs! I’ll give you an example I regard as highly significant. When I was working on the first Italian edition, which came out in 1995, a search performed with my desktop Mac on the entire TLG database took hours to complete. So I used to launch the search the night before and then go off to bed, and I would find it ready the next morning. Now, the same search takes one minute or even less. Very simply stated, this means that a far greater number of searches can be performed on the Greek literature database, with an enormous advantage in terms of results. Technological progress thus leads to important progress in the scientific quality of the outcome.

Moreover, in the case of our dictionary, I would like to add that first of all it is important to underline that focus was not restricted to language material dating from the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic eras. Significant consideration and noteworthy attention have also been awarded to later forms of Greek, in particular Greek of the imperial age and of the first centuries of Greek Judaic-Christian literature (Old and New Testament, Patristics, etc.), up to the VIth century and with sporadic later examples (this is a period on which the great LSJ is notoriously weak, especially after the IInd century AD). Let me underline this latter aspect. The Patristic Greek Lexicon of G.W.H. Lampe, which was published more than half a century ago (Oxford 1961), is specifically devoted to Christian Greek of the early centuries: but it is well-known that the ancient Greek dictionaries with a generalist structure and target (namely those dictionaries dedicated to the Greek language in its entirety and not to particular periods or particular linguistic-lexical subject areas) do not normally allow room for the Greek of the latest Imperial age and, above all, to the one of the first (let us say) 6-7 centuries of the Greek Christian Literature. This is also why we tried to differ as much as possible, and the room dedicated in the BDAG to the lexicon of the Greek Judaic and Christian literature is indeed in a larger percentage in comparison with other ancient Greek generalist dictionaries, even though we had to leave out, for this reason, some examples or quotations from other periods and subject areas.

Furthermore, our dictionary makes substantial use of papyri and inscriptions, and includes a wealth of proper names, which have been systematically checked and revised for the new edition, on which the English edition is based.

Another important point becomes clear in this context. A glance at the lemmata of a new dictionary of Ancient Greek that is based on a re-examination of the language materials from the literature, and also from other sources such as papyri and inscriptions, suggests that the word count is considerably greater than in the past. For instance, previously unknown words are constantly being discovered, deriving either from first editions of hitherto unpublished texts or from new editions of already known texts. Nevertheless, a new dictionary of ancient Greek may actually have lost some words that were present in previous editions. This may come about, for example, because earlier versions of the dictionary contained words that were the result of misreadings of a manuscript or of conjectures later judged to be unacceptable: but in the meantime they had found their way into dictionaries, sometimes even as early as the Stephanus, or possibly later in some cases, and by the sheer force of inertia they were left in the dictionary, in the absence of any revision of the lemmas. In the BDAG, such ghost-words have been eliminated whenever new checks on the material have shown that they actually do not exist at all, although one cannot rule out the possibility that other ghost words may still be lurking on some pages, awaiting their unmasking.

This kind of progress is of course also based on more extensive and in-depth examination of the overall body of the written evidence, and it is precisely for this reason that the above-mentioned electronic database is of great help. It becomes absolutely crucial not so much in the case of the most frequently used words, but above all for poorly attested words supported by rather problematic evidence, or in cases where the evidence for a word relies on its occurrence in a single author or in specific groups of authors.

When working on a new dictionary of Ancient Greek, we face the constant problem of how to deal with this considerable increase in knowledge and material. The main difficulty lies in finding a balance between, on the one hand, the requirements of scientific and methodological rigour, and on the other the constraints of a dictionary in its own right. A few words have, therefore, to be spent on practical questions. In publishing a new dictionary, there are obvious limitations on space and production time (there comes a point when a dictionary has to be closed and published: continuing ad infinitum is but a pipedream). Furthermore, certain requirements concerning clarity and ease of consultation must also be taken into consideration. Finding the ideal balance between these needs is far from easy and can never be established once and for all. The case of the ghost-words is simple: once they have been acknowledged as such, they simply have to be eliminated, and therefore you should not be surprised if a lemma that was present in the earlier dictionaries now no longer appears. In contrast, the considerable increase in the amount of material that can be used raises considerable problems. It is quite obvious that the material will have to be carefully sifted so that the enormous mass of information can be cut down to acceptable limits, but without impoverishing a tool which, by virtue of its indisputable wealth of information, lends itself to a multiplicity of uses on various levels.

The second factor is the modern language used for the translation and interpretation. A language that is in active use is undergoing constant evolution and rapid change. This is a very important aspect which cannot be ignored: the language that is utilized to explain and translate must not be too remote from current everyday use. In other words, it must not constitute an additional stumbling block, chiefly for the student. If the working tools available for studying the ancient language are too old and are written in an outmoded style of presentation, then they become difficult to use and discourage students from exploring the subject in greater depth. A dictionary (like a history of literature, a grammar book, or any other tool) must speak to the user in an easily understandable manner and in a language that is as close as possible to the user’s everyday mode of speech.

This idea of a “user-friendly” tool also includes the third factor prefigured earlier, namely the graphic layout and the way the material is set out on the printed page (and conceivably also the screen view for an electronic version, similar to that of the English version). The graphic layout, which makes an essential and crucial contribution to the process of consultation, is another element that has undergone substantial change over the past century, and has made great progress. Anyone who has had more than a brief experience will certainly recollect how different the available tools looked no more than a few decades ago, even from this point of view. It is clear that not only for students taking their first steps in the study of Ancient Greek but also for scholars and a broad range of users, the graphic layout of their books must be suited to their tastes and must not represent an obstacle.

The Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek made Choice magazine’s 2016 list of Outstanding Academic Titles