by Alexander King
My superficial impression of the subfield of language documentation is that it is dominated by linguists who often find they must justify their activity to other linguists, primarily those enthralled to High Theory and dubious of the value of recording huge swathes of data in terms that are less controlled than orthodoxy prefers.
I’m an anthropologist, and my discipline has been interested in what indigenous people have to say for a long time. Unfortunately , many of my colleagues view language as a transparent medium through which one can acquire data (the ‘content’ of the said) and view the particular code used by a speaker (the ‘form’) as just a problem or obstacle to be overcome through translation, whether that translation be careful or footloose.
Of course these two stereotypes may be a slight bit unfair, but only slightly. The important thing is that those of us committed to language documentation need to get more colleagues on board. We need to evangelise our processes to the Grumpy Linguist and the Grumpy Social Anthropologist, people who don’t immediately ‘get it’.
At the last research ‘away day’ for my anthropology department, I presented The whys and hows of language documentation for any work with speakers of minority languages in a 20 minute talk to social anthropologists. I was surprised by the enthusiastic reception; my colleagues at Aberdeen are not the Grumpy Social Anthropologists stereotyped above. I spent a few minutes deploying some of the canned arguments for why language endangerment is a Bad Thing and why language documentation is a Good Thing. I then presented a limited number of suggestions for making better recordings of speech events in an endangered language with some quick suggestions for good but inexpensive recording equipment. Staff were so taken with the whole thing, that we immediately made some small changes to our MRes in Social Anthropology training curriculum to include a bit on A/V recording and attention to producing quality recordings and simple workflows for archiving endangered language data as part of another project. At the end of the day, a quality sound recording with a simple .txt file transcription and translation, even just a partial translation, is much better than nothing. If it is in a very poorly documented language, then it could be a treasure. If it is in an endangered language already well documented, then it will be simple for that data to be more fully analysed and processed once the recording and decent transcription are made available on an internet archive.
We should not be shy of taking crowdsourcing approach to language documentation. One does not need a PhD to produce high quality audio or video recordings and obtain a transcription, or at least an index, of the recording in an endangered language. The urgency is getting the recordings made before speakers pass on. People ‘get’ this with just a short explanation and a modicum of training, so prepare your soapboxes.