Non-site Fieldwork on Libyan Languages.

The Silphium Gatherer has a post about how fieldwork used to be done:

For the past several decades, linguistic fieldwork in Libya has been extremely difficult, even at times downright impossible. This has certainly been the case for foreign researchers: not only was it nearly impossible to get research permits for Libya from the 1980s to 2000s, and fieldwork that did occur was heavily monitored and restricted, but there has been so little work on Libya in general, and scholars of Libya in Western institutions, that interested students usually have no place to start or advisors with whom to work. But this also to a great extent true for Libyans as well: Libyans with linguistic training have typically returned to work in universities teaching translation studies or foreign languages and only a few have published research in Libya on Libyan languages. Up until 2011 it was illegal to openly research anything other than Arabic—the regime’s official position was that Amazigh is a dialect of Arabic, and numerous researchers (not to mention activists) were thrown in jail for trying to write, teach, or research Amazigh in Libya. And now, although the activism and dedication of numerous Libyans has led to the increased visibility of the Amazigh and Tebu languages in Libya, actual fieldwork and research remains difficult for everyone due to the current political and military struggles.

I’ve always assumed that fieldwork during the colonial era and during the kingdom was, in contrast, much easier. Foreign researchers could simply have taken advantage of colonial power structures to go where they wanted, and indeed many did. Or after independence they were given permits to do so. And this is largely the case for research on Libya up until the early 1970s in a variety of fields—anthropology, linguistics, history, urban studies and so on. But, on examining a bunch of older linguistic works more closely, I was surprised to find that many of them were not actually done in the place the language was actually spoken at all—some of them not even in Libya. Of course, these studies were still carried out within colonial power structures. But, it’s likely that French scholars, for example, weren’t as easily able to travel to then-Ottoman Libya as they were able to travel within French colonial domains, and therefore took advantage of what opportunities they had to produce knowledge on the region. I’ve gathered some of these sources together under the rubric “non-site fieldwork”, the opposite of “on-site fieldwork”. […]

I should note, of course, that “non-site” fieldwork isn’t by default a bad thing. Sometimes a community of speakers is indeed dispersed around the world, because of persecution or migration. Sometimes work with speakers outside of their place of origin is a prelude to on-site fieldwork and an important part of making connections with the community. Or, it can follow on-site fieldwork as part of collaboration with local researchers. Those are all good things.

But when a language is still widely spoken in its homeland, research with a single speaker far away from that place is not likely to give the best, most nuanced picture of that language, and moreover, is much less urgent, since that language isn’t likely to die out or be replaced. Strangely enough, the impulse to do “non-site” fieldwork seems to be growing among Western scholars—but for Arabic dialects of northern Africa rather than for the minority or endangered languages which are in need of documentation.

I found that history interesting and surprising.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    A lot of grammars of African languages are based mostly or entirely on work with speakers in Europe or the US (often students.) I remember Tony Naden suggesting that there ought to be some sort of handy sigil to attach to such grammars in bibliographies.

    Mind you, there are august precedents for this sort of thing. Bloomfield’s Tagalog grammar, for example …

  2. POWs are another source:

    Song of bashkir prisoners of World War I

  3. Encapsulated Voices: Estonian Sound Recordings from the German Prisoner-of-War Camps in 1916–1918

    Doing Anthropology in Wartime and War Zones

  4. Unrelated but still breathtaking:

    Travel Photographer Documents Dazzling Ceilings of Uzbekistan’s Palaces and Mosques

  5. Wow, gorgeous stuff — thanks!

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    There’s obviously one legitimate point of view that sitting in a coastal city in Africa doing “fieldwork” with an informant from a language community based several hundred miles further inland is not fundamentally different than doing the same thing back in Rome or Paris, but it’s not entirely clear to me how many of the writers he’s talking about were full-time researchers with institutional backing and grant money and what not that you ought to have expected to do “real” fieldwork in situ for months at a time, versus sort of gentleman amateurs who had some sort of professional basis to live and work in Africa in the colonial center of power near the coast, but who did not have the leisure time and/or financial wherewithal to leave their “day job” and relocate inland to the actual home territory of some more obscure language community of interest.

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    Tomasso Sarnelli (1890–1972) was an Italian ophthalmologist-turned-linguist

    Mon semblable, mon frère …

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with studying exotic languages in the comfort of your own air-conditioned office. To begin with, it may be practically impossible to study the language in its own home (though I’m humbled and amazed by the brave folk doing fieldwork nonetheless in places like South Sudan.) Or you may be Leonard Bloomfield, just so thrilled to find a student who knows an interesting underdescribed language that you just can’t help but use the opportunity to write a classic grammar based on just his idiolect.

    I think it depends also on why you are studying the language, and partly on your linguistic ideology. If you’ve been raised by wild Chomskyites yet still feel that the study of exotic languages might add to the glory of the Great Common Task, it will naturally seem to you to be perfectly reasonable to do so without leaving the country, so long as you can collect a few speakers at MIT. If, on the other hand, you are a true heart who knows that linguistics really belongs with anthropology, you will feel that anything short of living among the speakers in their own land for years on end is really just dilettantism.

    My clear least-favourite of the Mouton Grammar LIbrary series is the one on Fongbe. The great majority of the data were collected in Montreal. The motive for the grammar is all too clearly to feed into the authors’ theories on the genesis of the Atlantic creoles. The work is full of small variations on sentences like “Kofi is writing the book on the table.” The language is just a means to a theoretical linguistic end. No interest at all is displayed in Fongbe culture. It’s perfectly competent in its own terms.

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