Dan Everett on the ethics of linguistic fieldwork

dan everett


One evening, Linea Flansmose Mikkelsen and Liv Moeslund Ahlgren met up in Lingoland at Aarhus University and set up a zoom-connection across the Atlantic Ocean to talk to Dan Everett. He is an American linguist, best known for his work on the Pirahã language, and is currently a professor at Bentley University. This is the second part of the interview, where we talk about the ethics of fieldwork, building relationships and the importance of seeing yourself as a student.

In the first part of the interview, we discussed Dan Everett’s career, motivations and his dream project.

You started your career as a missionary and ended up as a scientist. Can you tell us about some of the ethical issues you considered?

Being a missionary has never been a popular profession. Well, missionaries assume that they are right, that they have a relationship with God and with Jesus. And God told them to go out, and then that’s what they have to do. Of course the non-believers will not agree and will oppose you – so who cares what they think? We are talking about things of eternal importance, not things of temporal importance.

And it was the very ethics of that, that was part of my questioning process. The Pirahã listened to what I had to say about God, and they were very respectful. They liked me and wanted to help me. They wanted to understand, so they would ask questions like “What would Jesus look like?”. When they found out that I had never seen Jesus and didn’t really know what he looked like – that nobody had ever seen Jesus – they thought this was a very bizarre story. Why would I tell them something about which I had no direct evidence? They are really good empiricist, just like scientists. So I felt like I was violating ethics. They trusted me and yet I did not meet their evidentiary standards. I was falling below their standards – Amazonian hunter-gatherers had higher standards of evidence than I had as a Westerner with graduate training and a degree in theology. So then I started to look at their lives and realized that I don’t have anything to offer them! It’s just the opposite, they have a lot to offer me. So that was part of the process. I’ve known a lot of missionaries who feel just thatdeep down, but they don’t ever let it come out because it just doesn’t fit the commitment they have made.

Also, when you decide you’re no longer gonna be a missionary, you lose all your income, you’re unemployed! So it’s a big decision to abandon that – apart from the faith and fear of hell and all that: You’re gonna be unemployed. So yeah, it’s a different philosophy of ethics to do missionary work.

So let’s talk about the ethics of linguistic fieldwork then. How do the people you study react to this strange white person coming and doing stuff and telling them to do and say things? How do you make them do these things ethically?

Well, you have to build trust relationships. I lived with the Pirahã for eight years in total. Not at one time, though, I would spend several months a year with them over a period of thirty years. They all know me, all the children know me. At one time I knew all the Pirahã by name. They trusted me. I raised my children there, I came in there with two little girls and a nine months old boy. I didn’t look too threatening and I was pretty laid back then. So we had a very good relationship.

Peter Ladefoged and I took down all kinds of solar powered phonetics equipment. We put tubes up their noses and painted the insides of theirs mouths and did all sorts of things – and they let us do it, they thought it was all very amusing. When I put the tubes up their noses for Peter Ladefoged they said “You really wanna do this, what is this for?” and I said “I don’t know, only Peter knows”. So they did it, and Peter would sit there, and he would worry about the equipment. And I said “Peter, they are getting tired of these tubes up their noses”, and he said “Oh, it’s not a big deal!”. And then he put a tube up his nose and pulled it out his mouth, and he said “See, there is nothing to it”. And they thought it was very funny, so the tubes got to stay there, and they had fun being studied like that.

When we Westerners study other languages and cultures we of course want to be respectful and non-intruding. How can you do ethical fieldwork in that way?

I think the first thing you do – and this is something linguists tend not to do, unfortunately – is to spend your first six months just learning the language and being a student. You go in as a student, not as a teacher. You just try to imitate them and try to communicate – show them that you wanna do things. I would go out to the fields with an axe and help men do their fields, I would go with people who were hunting and do what I could to help. I involved myself in their daily lives. I helped them with medicine – I had medical training as a missionary, so we sewed up wounds and gave antibiotics and malaria medicine, and these were things they considered a value to the community.

The other things I did – even when I had spent all these years with them and had all these friendships – I would always ask them for permission to go into the village. Of course they always offered it, but I still felt like it was important. When I wrote my masters’ thesis in Portuguese, I gathered all the Pirahã men who had helped me and I tried to explain to them what I had said about their language. And then they would say “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, ok, we have to go now, we have other things to do”. They were totally not interested in it. But I did what I thought was right in terms of getting their permission to do things and paying them for their work.

Do you think we talk enough about the practice and ethics of fieldwork in linguistics?

I think the way fieldwork is taught, at least in the United States, is pretty wrong. We bring in a native speaker to a classroom, and ask them a bunch of questions in English and write it down.  Those students, when they do their curriculum vitae, will say they’ve done fieldwork – but that’s not fieldwork! Fieldwork is going to the community, learning the language and the culture, becoming a child, becoming a student – to me, that’s fieldwork.

You can do what you want, it’s a free world of course. You can spend as little time as you want and try to learn something and write it up, but it wouldn’t be satisfying to me. I would wanna see somebody who has spent a much longer time. If someone tells me they have done a disputation on a language after six month’s fieldwork, I just don’t know how good that can be. You need to spend at least two or three years there. I had a PhD-student who got very upset with me because I told her “I won’t start advising your dissertation until you tell me that you speak the language fluently. And if you can’t speak it fluently, you shouldn’t write a dissertation on it”. And she just couldn’t see a connection there. She said “I’m not good at learning languages”, and I said “Well, then write your dissertation on something else, there are a lot of subjects you could write on, you’re a good linguist!”. So she chose another adviser.

The early fieldworkers like Franz Boas in the United States, he was really hard on his graduate students about them learning to speak the language, and learning what every morpheme meant before they were even ready to start writing their dissertation. Bob Dixon, who’s a fieldworker from Australia, he said that you should get as much of a holistic understanding of the language before you start telling people about all those little bits. It’s because all those little bits fit together. Saussure said “Everything hangs together in a language”, and Sapir also said those kinds of things. I think we’ve moved away from that, and that had to do with the Chomskyan proposal, that you can study form apart from meaning – and I think that was an extremely unfortunately wrong turn for linguistics.

What is your best advice for describing a different language and doing fieldwork?

That would be: Learn the language, have clear objectives. What it is you wanna make, and how much of a commitment you are prepared to make? Be honest with yourself and others. Don’t claim knowledge that you don’t have, and let this work emerge from who you are as a person. I really believe in a pragmatist perspective, that our work and our lives in a sense have to fit together. So take your time, do a great job, get a good adviser, you know. When you are choosing what language to work on, don’t choose it arbitrarily – this is the most important decision you’ll make in your professional life. So don’t just chose a language, because somebody else thinks it’s interesting. Also, are you ready for that part of the world? Does that part of the world excite you, do you like the food around there, do you like the culture? I mean, I love Brazil, and Pirahã all fit into that context. Everybody has to make these decisions extremely carefully. And then work it out slowly and realize that when you first go, you’re the student – they’re the bosses, they’re the teachers.


Liv Moeslund Ahlgren is an MA student of linguistics at Aarhus University. She has worked with gender studies and postcolonialism as a part of her linguistics minor.

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