Heini's Report: Mordovia ‒ Rite of Passage to Field Linguistness

Mordovia ‒ Rite of Passage to Field Linguistness

Heini Arjava



My sincere opinion is that whoever gets the chance should go to the field. You go, see, make every mistake possible, and hopefully come back home slightly wiser and determined to get those things right the next time. (Most of the things learned on the field are of benefit at home as well, since learning to be systematic and organized never hurt anyone.) Here is my report of what was learned in Mordovia.

Preparing for the Field Trip ‒ How It Worked and Not Worked

Preparation in advance is important! This is said in hindsight, since it both worked and did not work in our case. Per se, the preparation materials were excellent ‒ the organizers had mobilized all the relevant people for helping us (such as Merja Salo for language and culture consultation, Olga Jerina and Arja Hamari for learning Erzya, Florian Siegl for technical briefing, etc.); Internet sources were accessed; relevant research topics were discussed; the seminar in Tuusula made the group closer; and so on. The only problem was that using all these tools to our advantage did not work to its fullest, and in the end the group went to the field a bit unprepared.

Actually the main thing that I think could have been done otherwise would have been to trust the new-beginners with less responsibility in preparations for the trip. Few of us students managed to actually learn Russian and Erzya during the summer, nor had well-planned questionnaires ready at hand. It would probably also have been useful to read more about the earlier research on Erzya to find relevant new approaches, and this too many of us failed to do. Probably the sheer vastness of the work discouraged us? In any case, it would perhaps not be a bad idea to assign students with a compulsory preparatory essay and a simple language test, just to ensure that everyone picked up the basics before the trip; and perhaps conclude the whole thing with an end discussion a few days before the trip.

(There is even the question of summer, which makes Finns, if not lunatics, then rather sunatics. Our country tends to stop dead and people to disappear to their summer cottages for months. So how to organize prepping seminars before the trip and activate people to prepare materials in earnest when summer is the only thing everyone is thinking about? I might suggest doing most of the preparations intensively in May, or then be really strict with the deadlines.)

Still elaborating a little on the subject of language learning: Is it actually possible to motivate people to learn the metalanguages in advance when some of the students intend to do their own research another parts of the world and are mainly interested in the methodology of field linguistics? (For instance, the next trip to the Nivkh people will require a lot of work on an even narrower subject than Erzya.) On the other hand, how effectively can methodology be learned without understanding the actual speech situations? And should Russian, regardless of the goals of this trip, be considered a tool requirement for any linguist anyway? (To which my answer would probably be a yes.)

Also, by language learning I do not actually mean perfect research-enabling skills. The problem was that many of us actually went to the field without any routine at making even basic introductions or the simplest meta-questions to the informants, nor was it easy to follow what kind of answers we got, although these things got better with the time. So at least these basic things could be tested on the participants beforehand, and it would benefit everyone.

There are luckily also non-verbal means of communication. It is not a few times we managed to hunt down informants by stopping to talk with their cows (or geese, cats, dogs etc.). The fieldwork potential of animals must never be underrated.



To conclude, we went to the field knowing quite little of what we would be doing there. But that does not mean we did not learn useful stuff, have fun or get interesting results!



Group Work on the Field ‒ Pros (and Cons?)

When it comes to group work, mainly positive sides come immediately to mind. Within a large group there can be a wide range of research topics from grammatical to sociocultural, and the amount of gathered material grows very high. It also goes without saying that brainstorming together benefits the research. There is also the chance to distribute responsibilities and have some people be solely responsible for filming, recording, translating and so on. As for the social aspect, in a large group there are seldom dull moments, even during long waits (and this group seemed to get along particularly well). And last but not the least, if some crucial piece of equipment gets forgotten, at least somebody in the group will usually have it, or know how some of it works.

Of course, a large group requires super-effective organization in order not to become a chaotic bunch of collected materials and overlapping questionnaires. Some ideas could perhaps be further developed here: could someone organize the arranging of the recordings and see which of them are of the same situations; and should there be assigned group leaders to supervise evening planning sessions during the trips?

But, as everyone involved knows by now, in the end our lack of time and effectiveness was not our own doing and only resulted from one of the only negative sides of having a large group on the field. The fact that we were regarded as an official delegation of a foreign university resulted in seven obligatory several hours’ long feasts in ten days, and at least as many emptied vodka bottles. After that, there can be no talk of effective working hours (although I admit there could have been more of even trying).



My group studied spatiality, and it soon turned out that we had made a lucky choice. The research theme did not require too elaborate skills in the metalanguages and we were actually able to avoid them almost completely by using movable Lego toys and asking the informants to describe situations freely. This had benefits for us since we survived the interviews with simple questions like “Where is X?”, with the informants since they often found the situations amusing and engaging, and with the actual study since there were no Russian translations to influence the answers and the speakers could even decide which items they wanted to take in focus in their answers.


Photo: Riho Grünthal

Also the composition of our spatiality group worked quite well. There were two of us to do the interviews, which enabled the other to concentrate on the challenging discussion situation and the other to make extra observations, suggestions and notes on what happened. A crucial third member of the group was our video-man (Jaeng) who could catch every visual aspect of the three-dimensional experiment. In this kind of study a simple elicitation questionnaire will probably not be enough, since spontaneous situations emerge and the spatial settings may vary a little. We found the combination of recording, filming and sketching to be the most reliable and effective, in the end at least (when we had made all the mistakes one can do in this kind of situation).

Then again, the general unpreparedness I talked about earlier could be seen in our study too. We improvised many of the questions on the spot, not knowing in advance if the whole thing would work altogether, and although the procedure grew more systematic as the days went on, there were still too many things we only asked from only one or two informants because there was no list to follow. My only question remains: would this study actually have been as fun as it was, had we had everything neatly organized in advance and had not been able to learn these things through our funny mistakes…


Photo: Riho Grünthal



Photo: Riho Grünthal


Things You Should Have With You To Make Yourself Relatively Comfortable At All Times In A Physically Challenging Environment


Photo: Ksenia Shagal

The next list has nothing to do with elicitation techniques but is useful in keeping spirits high during a field trip ‒ very important for effective fieldwork! It is the list of extremely useful survival items, partly written down after some unpleasant surprises, and consists of:

  • A fan (really unsurpassable, light to carry, attracts jealous looks)
  • Anticeptics and moist towelettes (there is often no clean water handy; and these items at least have a calming placebo effect)
  • Good toilet scanning tactics (when, and where, are the questions)
  • Good sense in choosing of clothing (because your jeans will most often be WAY too hot and heavy in the 30 C° of Mordovia)
  • A roll of toilet paper of your own (always)
  • A headlamp (to find your way home on a street with no street lamps; but especially to use as a private nightstand lamp when there are none and you would like to let your roommates sleep)
  • Small snacks to keep the blood sugar balanced (during travelling; on the field hunger will not be a threat due to innumerable feasts)
  • Ability to sleep or meditate where or whenever (it is useful to reload the batteries when there is the chance; we chose the front of St. Basils in Moscow)
  • Compeeds or ordinary plasters (probably will save you from torture since feet easily get swollen in the heat)
  • Luggage that fits your physical shape (many things, like clothes, are simply unnecessary)
  • Some skill in local languages (again, because that is probably the most important thing you are going to need to get anything out of your everyday)

It really pays off to feel and look fresh, because you never know when an official ceremony of some sort can take place ‒ after a two-day long train trip with no showers, for instance. To conclude, remember that a bottle of sun lotion is of no use if it is left on the table of the headquarters. Also, many of these things are surprisingly easy to forget (an empirical observation based not only on myself).


Just a short hail to our super grannies, the babushkas without whom our research would have been in vain. They sang loudly, drank and laughed a lot, had a mess of teeth in their mouths, worked hard, sometimes suffered from the loneliness of the Mordovian countryside, answered diligently if somewhat confused to our questions, and of course filled us with tarts, apples, tea, berries and pancakes. And if you gave them a jar of jam as a present, they gave you two back. (Of course, the most hospitable ones had the richest houses of the villages and did not mind at all to show them off… But this is mean talk so I stop here.)




I guess it is important to remember that the mere field trip was not a fruitful scientific expedition in its own right.  If we want to get experience in actual field linguistics, the recordings should not be left to collect dust in the cupboard, because otherwise our expedition with its series of drinking parties will basically remain a linguistic holiday (albeit a brilliant one). However, I am quite sure there will be the chance to see into our findings and discover things we would like to do better or know more about (and sorry for sounding banal or over-idealistic, but that’s how it is). For me the trip to Mordovia was a wonderful experience of which I hope I learned a lot of useful things. And although I missed much language-related finesse due to my poor language skills, the simple amount of technical and methodological experience to be learned was fascinating enough. All in all, it is a privilege to be able to follow close-up how something new, namely student-orientated field linguistics, is being developed at our university, and I’ll be curious of its development even if I don’t take a single trip more.




Photo: Riho Grünthal

Pictures by Heini Arjava, unless otherwise indicated.