I've been participating in a fieldwork methods course this semester, which is like fieldwork in that you get to work on a previously undescribed language, but unlike fieldwork in that you don't have to sleep in a mud hut, politely accept raw pigs' testicles for dinner, or forgo showers for the duration.
We were all told to buy a hardback notebook to keep our records in. I followed instructions, but then found myself incapable of sullying its pristine pages with my messy and incomplete analysis. Instead I have been using it to keep notes on why I should never ever indulge in research that requires fieldwork.
We meet our speaker. She explains that her language is a tone language and it has five tones. She can only give us examples of three. We spend several hours trying to hear and produce the right tones. She laughs at us a lot, because instead of saying, "My stomach is sore", we generally produce "My vagina is itchy".
Eventually we start to be able to hear the tone differences with more than chance frequency and decide that they can be characterised as "high-falling", "non-high", and "long". We can definitely hear a length distinction, anyway.
We spend hours hunched over spectrograms that definitively prove there is no length distinction in our examples.
We find a new way to categorize the tones that seems to work! We are certain we can now hear the difference between "vagina" and "stomach".
Our speaker walks in on us playing back the recordings. It turns out she can't tell which one she was saying either.
We give up on tones and move on to verb paradigms. We have one verb paradigm for this language already, entrusted to us by an ancient linguist who took some notes once when stuck in the wilds of Papua New Guinea due to visa problems.* The verb is "to swim". We decide to elicit this from our speaker for comparison purposes.
Our speaker insists her language has no word for swimming.
The hours of intense elicitation sessions pay off. I discover a phoneme! I am so excited I can speak of nothing else for hours.
Our speaker, unprompted, teaches us to say, "I am eating the white man. I am chewing on his skin." We all shift uncomfortably in our seats and make a note of the nearest exit.
* According to our speaker, the informant this other linguist used for his data was our speaker's niece. The niece was working for immigration and refused to let the linguist leave the country unless he did some work on her language as well as the one he was actually there to study. We wonder if the non-existent verb paradigm was some sort of revenge. Who by, we aren't quite certain.