Urban Fieldwork: A LIPIL discussion

Martha Tsutsui recaps last week’s Linguistics in the Pub in London (LIPIL), a monthly informal gathering of linguists to discuss topical areas in our field.

The third LIPIL gathering was held at The Perseverance on November 10, 2015. Mediated by Charlotte Hemmings a gathering of linguists assembled to discuss the topic of “urban fieldwork”.

First to be considered was the question “what is urban fieldwork?” Several definitions were put forth and discussed. Some suggestions included fieldwork done “in city centres”, “in dense areas of immigrants/expats/displaced peoples”, or “in multilingual and multi-ethnic areas”. The issue of what makes urban fieldwork specifically urban was also examined. Is it the size of the city? The lifestyle of the inhabitants? The degree of cosmopolitanism? Can urban fieldwork be done in rural areas if the speakers are members of diaspora groups? The existence of pockets of diaspora groups in rural areas with limited contact was mentioned. Would fieldwork with such groups nevertheless be considered “urban”? Many members agreed that the term “urban fieldwork” is most usefully viewed as a relative term, on a continuum rather than as a dichotomy of “urban” vs. “rural” or “urban” vs. “in situ”.

Urban fieldwork challenges the concept that linguists must go to meet the speakers wherever they are in the largest groups and document language in situ. This may not be possible in situations where languages are traditionally spoken in areas currently in political unrest or other conflict. Additionally, in such cases of conflict, or where speaker groups have been particularly mobile in recent decades, the last remaining speakers may reside in urban communities. In these cases, the only places to document endangered languages may be outside the homelands, as linguistic knowledge can outlast speakers’ immobility. The Endangered Language Alliance in New York notes several well-known cases where languages have persisted only outside the homeland.

Doing fieldwork in an urban area may be more feasible than flying across the world to conduct research. Urban fieldwork can permit a more flexible schedule and the collection of data over a longer period of time. It also allows for higher numbers of researchers to work simultaneously on a project, giving it the advantage of sharing the workload, potentially accomplishing more that the “lone wolf” linguist. For example, at SOAS, many students and staff conduct research in London’s urban setting through The Sylheti Project and Language Landscape.

Urban fieldwork also presents its own set of challenges. There may be a much smaller pool of speakers. There may be more pressure to “give back” to the community and to learn the language being studied. To sustain funding over the extended period of time urban fieldwork can take is also problematic. Studying displaced languages may present new issues regarding language bias, ideology, and language contact. This brings up the question of authenticity. Are languages studied via urban fieldwork authentic? At what point does one disassociate language from culture? If displaced speakers are no longer practicing their native cultural practices, then can their native languages remain intact? New cross-linguistic challenges can arise as the languages under study adapt to their new surroundings. Immigrant speakers may adopt the local lingua franca, and that may influence their native languages. Accommodation, loss of high registers, and lexical borrowing are all common occurrences in languages spoken by diaspora groups. On the flipside, when speakers move to a new place they may stop using their native language entirely, and encapsulate their language. In this case, linguists may be able to “step back in time” and collect data on older forms or varieties no longer spoken in the homeland villages.

One last thought-provoking comment at the end of the session given was; “is urban fieldwork worth it?” With virtually no funding available to conduct urban fieldwork, the question of what can realistically be achieved deserves much thought and attention. However, with endangered languages going extinct more quickly than linguists can study them, urban fieldwork could potentially open up new possibilities for researchers and speakers in the future.

See also: 2012 MLIP discussion on Urban Fieldwork.

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