A suggested word list for an elicitation task

Author : Dean Pittman

Publication date : 1948

Questionnaire URL : https://archive.org/stream/practicallinguis00pitt#page/134/mode/2up

Bibliographical references :

Pittman, Dean. 1948. Practical Linguistics: A textbook and Field manual of Missionary Linguistics. Cleveland, Ohio: Mid-Missions.


This is a list of English words to be translated into the studied language. It aims to help the linguist in eliciting new words, asking for the native speaker to translate the words in their own language.

The list is divided in three sections:
- Pictureable words
- Demonstrable words
- Non-Demonstrable words.
It is suggested that "Body parts, clothing, culture and are effects, native industries and sports, kinship terms, natural objects, heavenly bodies, numbers, and colors all will provide rich fields for getting words  from the native without using a word list" (Pittman, 1948: 133)

Pages 137-139 also provide practical advices on working with an informant.

Protocol summary

"For the actual work, one should sit down with the informant and ask him in the trade language for material. To make sure he understands just what is  wanted, one should establish a context each time by circumlocutions, demonstrations, etc. One would not usually trust in the informant's knowledge of the trade language when asking him what the native word for food is, for example, but would also describe it and tell how it is used, using gestures if necessary. The material the native gives (words and sentences in his own language) is to be written down in phonetic script. If possible, one should sit at a table and  write on sheets of paper, on one side only. If no table is available, the forms  may be written in a notebook. The informant should be asked to repeat each form until it is written down perfectly (using a pencil so the work can be cor-  rected easily), but the linguist should not try to say anything out loud back to him in his language at first, as it would certainly be mispronounced. Each time when by himself, he can practice the forms given to him by the native until the  pronunciation is perfect. Each form should be memorized till it is right at the  tip of the tongue. Later, when pronunciation habits become more fixed, the  words should be said back to the informant, mocking him in every detail and  intonation of his voice. The informant must not be allowed to give theoretical discourses about his language, especially grammatical dissertations. He should be asked only to talk in his own language — sentences, stories, words. One should never ask him theoretical questions like "Where do you use this verb form?", "How do you  make that sound?", etc. If the investigator lets the informant think he is helping him, as they work  together, it will be much better all the way around. If the informant should suggest another similar form for a word, or start telling all about his horse that  died when he is asked the word for horse, it is better to let him go ahead — it will make for more speed in the end. One should let the informant know he is helping the most if he corrects every mistake the investigator makes when he tries to use the language. This is very important. The informant should not be asked for the same thing more than three or four times, as he is likely to become specially conscious of the word or phrase, and the pronunciation will change. This is especially true of prosodic features. If it is not possible to get just what is wanted, it is better to act completely satisfied, then ask for the same thing the next day. It is well to never laugh at the informant, the language, etc., while in his presence. It is easy to spoil a good informant by getting him into the wrong habits — habits of giving dissertations on his language, "talking down" to the investigator  instead of speaking naturally, thinking phonetically instead of phonemically,  etc. One should never work with a man that someone else has worked with if  it can be avoided. There are likely to be several difficulties in working with informants. A native will sometimes give the wrong word, either intentionally, because he doesn't  know the right word, 5 or unintentionally, from not understanding just what is  wanted or because the linguist has a poor knowledge of the trade language. The latter happened in the case of one informant in Oaxaca, Mexico, who regularly gave the interrogative form for the second person singular of every verb. Informants may give too much, saying this table for table or little white flower for   6 Or the native may also maliciously misinform the missionary to keep him from learning  the language." (Pittman, 1948: 138-139)

Development context

This general word list was published in Practical Linguistics (Pittman, 1948: 133-137).  Pittman worked as a "Instructor in missionary linguistics, missionary in Peru" (title page) for SIL, and the book was a manual for carrying out work in missionary linguistics.

The full scan of the book is available at Archive.org

Back to the previous page