Folk definitions in linguistic fieldwork

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Informal paraphrases by native speaker consultants are crucial tools in linguisticfieldwork. When recorded, archived, and analysed, they offer rich data that canbe mined for many purposes, from lexicography to semantic typology and fromethnography to the investigation of gesture and speech. This paper describesa procedure for the collection and analysis of folk definitions that are native(in the language under study rather than the language of analysis), informal(spoken rather than written), and multi-modal (preserving the integrity ofgesture-speech composite utterances). The value of folk definitions is demonstratedusing the case of ideophones, words that are notoriously hard to studyusing traditional elicitation methods. Three explanatory strategies used in a setof folk definitions of ideophones are examined: the offering of everyday contextsof use, the use of depictive gestures, and the use of sense relations as semanticanchoring points. Folk definitions help elucidate word meanings that are hardto capture, bring to light cultural background knowledge that often remainsimplicit, and take seriously the crucial involvement of native speaker consultantsin linguistic fieldwork. They provide useful data for language documentationand are an essential element of any toolkit for linguistic and ethnographicfield research.


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