The description of Indigenous languages has typically focussed on structural properties of languages (phonology, morphology, and syntax). Comparatively little attention has been given to the documentation of language functions or the most commonly occurring speech formulas. Speech formulas are often culturally-specific and idiomatic and cannot be reliably reconstituted from a knowledge of grammar and lexicon alone. Many linguists and lexicographers seem to have an implicit relic view of language, as if they have been trying to capture the “pure” language uncontaminated by language and culture contact. Accordingly, borrowed terms and neologisms are typically omitted or underrepresented in dictionaries. Recorded texts have tended to be myths or texts about traditional culture. Conversations and texts about everyday life, especially in non-traditional contexts, are ignored. How can we ensure that language descriptions are maximally useful, not only to linguists, but to the people most closely associated with the languages, who may wish to revive them? Considerable time is needed to produce a maximally useful description of a language and its uses. Suggestions made here emerge from first-hand experience working with Yolngu and Pintupi people in non-traditional domains, as well as from attempts to re-introduce Kaurna on the basis of nineteenth-century documentation.
In the literature on best practices of language documentation, “collaboration” has emerged as an important concept. While collaboration between scholars is not usually the norm in linguistics, a theory of language documentation must grapple with its theoretical orientation to collaboration. By reviewing the practices of researchers in other disciplines, this paper identifies five aspects of academic collaboration-coordination, distribution of labor, standards for interoperation, authorship and authority, and feedback—that have special bearing on the enterprise of language documentation. I investigate these as a starting point for linguists and our collaborators to consider critically what documentation project and for the discipline of linguistics.
Just as there is no single model for community-based research, ethical standards for community engagement are not universal. Drawing from personal experiences with language documentation among threatened communities in two very different parts of the world, this paper examines the challenges of applying universal ethical guidelines for linguistic fieldwork.
Documentation and Language Learning: Separate Agendas or Complementary Tasks?
In the indigenous communities of the Malintzin volcano highlands in Mexico, in the border region of the states of Puebla and Tlaxcala, speakers of Nahuatl have responded variously to the displacement of their language. In a few localities, evidence of a significant erosion appears to have sparked increased interest in both documentation (e.g., preserving a record of extant traditional narrative) and second language learning of the indigenous language by first language speakers of Spanish, and by speakers of Spanish who were once fluent speakers of Nahuatl. Modest interest has been expressed in bilingual instructional models for public schooling for children who are first language speakers of Nahuatl. Even though a small number of towns in this region have maintained high levels of Nahuatl language proficiency across the population (approaching ninety percent in two cases) continued and most likely accelerated erosion in the coming years appears to be inevitable. All demographic and sociolinguistic indicators point in this direction. We report on advances that have been made in a project that seeks to combine the tasks of Documentation and Language Learning. The following argument is presented for wider discussion: that in fact there are no inherent conflicts of interest between scientists (internal and external to the speech community) and indigenous communities as a whole regarding the goals of language maintenance, language use, and research projects related to recording and preserving an archive of the language and its various discourse forms.
Online Dictionary and Ontology Building for Austronesian Languages in Taiwan
This paper provides a model of language documentation and conservation in Taiwan to illustrate how online dictionaries have been produced by a collaborative team, and how technology has been used in the process to create a formalized model of existing indigenous knowledge. Our interactions with the Yami community over the past decade have led us to believe that a cooperation framework involving three groups of experts provides necessary “scaffolding” before an “egalitarian” wiki style of online dictionary or ontology building can be attempted. In addition, ontology building requires triangulation of various sources of human interpretations. It is not possible to build an ontology only based on sophisticated machine reasoning. We hope this model of collaboration can serve as a feasible model for other projects in language revitalization and capacity building in the future.