Field linguistics in Daghestan: A very personal account
The special fascination of linguistics is the possibility to combine skills which are usually considered to belong to different academic domains. Linguistics belongs to the humanities, since it is about a central property of human beings. Linguistics demands formal methods, because languages are structured. Linguistics needs observation, because languages are a property of human behavior. Linguistics invites one to travel, because languages are found all over the world.
For us, field research is one of the most important parts of doing linguistics. Both of us started taking part in linguistic expeditions – this is how field trips are called in Russian – as very young students. Since that time, we have made field trips almost every year, and during the last five years several times a year. Our field sites are in Daghestan, North-Eastern Caucasus, south of Russia. Dagestan is the home of dozens of peoples speaking very distinct languages (mostly belonging to the East Caucasian alias Nakh-Daghestanian language family, with the level of
internal divergence comparable to that of Indo-European). Traditionally, people live high in the mountains. Now more and more villagers are involved in downward migration – down to the towns and new settlements, down to the lowlands and the plains that open onto the Caspian Sea – and they lose their native languages in this descent. With more than forty languages in the area of 50,000 square km. (less if limited to the original mountain and foothill area),
Daghestan is the place of the highest language density in Russia.