We’ve come a long way in documenting the 90 per cent of languages facing extinction, but rescuing them is another story.
Who benefits from research? What if that research involves recording personal conversations among some of the world’s most vulnerable communities? These are questions that linguists are asking today as they explore “documentary linguistics” – an emerging discipline concerned with endangered languages.
It is estimated that most of the world’s languages – of which there are approximately 7,000 – will be “dead” within the next three generations. That is an extinction rate greater than the one faced by our planet’s flora and fauna under the worst predictions for global warming.
Although languages are sometimes extinguished as a result of wars and natural disasters, the most common cause is a gradual decline over one or two generations as a language’s communicative or symbolic value is undermined by the various effects of globalization, urbanization, political actions, educational policies, or population movements caused by economic and environmental pressures (including global warming).
Spurred into action by the imminent death of so many languages, linguists are now making concerted efforts to document them using techniques both new and old. While the movement has its roots in the work of pioneering linguists Edward Sapir and Franz Boas, who investigated North American languages early last century, the current escalation of activity and interest was triggered by a speech from linguist Michael Krauss in 1992. In this speech, Krauss warned that, “at the rate things are going, the coming century will see either the death or the doom of 90 per cent of mankind’s languages.” He went on to ask, “what are we linguists doing to prepare for this or to prevent this catastrophic destruction of the linguistic world?”
At this time, many linguists also wanted to roll back their discipline’s increasingly narrow focus on grammatical theory since the 1960s. This changing focus made linguistics look more like an outpost of mathematics or psychology than a humanistic discipline that could map out the diversity of human languages and what people use their languages for.
Finally, in the late 1990s, German linguist Nikolaus Himmelmann catalyzed the emergence of a new field called documentary linguistics, or language documentation. The efforts of this field were – at last – specifically directed at addressing language endangerment.
Documentary linguistics has few core principles, but, taken together, they represent a thorough departure from “mainstream” linguistics.
First, it is centred on data – real data – in the form of recordings of language in use. This includes conversations of all kinds, in normal, everyday social contexts, avoiding the distortions of staging and self-monitoring or other forms of corrective language use. In addition to conversations, linguists attempt to record the entire range of language events, from songs and rituals to the speech of children.
Second, language documenters want to “make sense” of the data, to ensure that their work resides not only in recordings of talk and song (valuable though they will be to the speakers themselves, of course), but also in ways to recast those recordings through transcriptions and interpretations so that others will have a window into their meanings.
Third, documentary linguistics has an ethical, participatory flavour: rather than re-enact the colonial, “we” study “them” research methods of the past, documenters work together with language speakers. Communities are recognized as partners in the enterprise and receive some of the benefits of the research.
Today, documentary linguistics is gaining increasing momentum and recognition. There are funding sources, graduate courses, specialized archives, advocacy organizations, and publications that are devoted to nurturing language documenters and their crafts.
The new discipline’s activities are not restricted to academic research and publication. They range from supporting local language revitalization efforts among the Rama people in Nicaragua, to an “urban initiative” of recording and linguistically analyzing stories among refugee diasporas in New York, to the global sharing (via YouTube) of hip hop songs in the Aka language of Arunachal Pradesh, India. In fact, you can find a myriad of websites devoted to such ventures. See, for example, Online Resources for Endangered Languages, which has over 400 links to web resources on revitalizing or documenting endangered languages.
Despite becoming accepted as an indispensible component of mainstream linguistics, language documentation has recently been facing some major questions. If you attend its conferences, or read its latest journals and blogs, you will detect two deep tensions.
The first revolves around the question of what distinguishes it from conventional linguistics: increased attention to the diversity and value of languages, or the availability of new technologies, such as ever-smaller (and better) audio recorders and camcorders? Colette Grinevald, for example, believes that “the technological part” is receiving more than its share of attention. However, both distinguishing features are essential; the precise balance between them is less important than how the technologies are deployed, and how outcomes are therefore directed. This leads to the second, and greater, tension.
Documentary linguists are indeed fortunate to have at their disposal technologies that were until very recently unavailable or unaffordable. These technologies fall into two categories – media technologies and information technologies – which correspond to a growing tension between two constituencies. Those in the media camp see ever-greater value in making high quality, compelling recordings; in using the internet to share documentation with communities; and in channelling resources towards supporting and revitalizing languages. On the information technology side are those who gain more value from access to those recordings – or, to be more precise, coded transcriptions of those recordings – as language “data” that can be computationally compared, collated, and analyzed to inform new theories.
Documentary linguistics has come a long way. It has shown a wider public the scale of language diversity, as well as the threats to it. There is a new generation of highly trained and motivated documenters, equipped with the tools and knowledge to face the challenge of massive global language loss. However, 20 years have elapsed since Michael Krauss warned that linguists may see their object of study disappear under their own watch, and yet few – if any – have claimed any effective countermeasures to language loss. In what is surely a healthy sign of a maturing discipline, fundamental tensions are breaking out. For documentary linguistics, the new departures may come from within.