Foundation for Endangered Languages
11. Book Reviews
Review of Austin ed. 2003: Language Documentation and Description: Nancy Dorian
Peter K. Austin, ed. 2003. Language documentation and description, Volume 1. London: Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project. Paperback; 178 pp.
Significant in the title of this book is the order in which the terms documentation and description appear. Adequate description has for some time been considered the foremost goal of fieldwork projects, with coverage considered comfortably complete if a project produced a grammar, a dictionary, and a collection of texts (the GDT triad). The contributors to this volume subscribe instead to the more recent definition of adequate coverage signaled by the term documentation. This new objective includes a very full and very broadly usable record of the language under study, the ideal record requiring more cooperation among specialist researchers and also more cooperation between researchers and community members than descriptive projects typically have called for. If both forms of cooperation are successful, then the expertise of a variety of specialists is brought to bear on the project and the depth of documentation provides even for future and currently unforeseen needs on the parts of both the scientific community and the local community.
The commitment of all participants to goals as ambitious as these is one of the admirable and encouraging aspects of this collection, which presents David Crystal's public lecture at the launching of the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project (HRELP) at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in early 2003 and revised papers from the workshop which followed it. Austin, in his introduction, points to just how much remains to be worked out for the emerging field of language documentation: how to acknowledge and balance the interests of the many relevant parties to a documentation project (e.g. funding agency, archivists, research team, speaker community, general public), how to train research teams with all the requisite linguistic and technical skills, how to keep intense involvement in documentation projects from impeding the academic careers of young researchers, how to arrive at responsible and ethical standards for documentation work and how to ensure the observance of any standards agreed upon. All of these problems are dealt with to some extent in the volume's contributions, and both the complexity of the challenges and the dedication of the researchers are very much in evidence. Though the papers differ a great deal in focus and scope, each one contains hard-won knowledge and experience from which both seasoned and prospective fieldworkers can benefit.
Those who have been engaged with the issue of language endangerment for some decades may be inclined to feel that considerable progress has been made in bringing the issue to the fore. Increasingly over the last two decades dissertations and articles have been written, conferences have been held, and especially in the past few years books of interest to a more general reading public have been published. Now, as the very occasion celebrated in this collection demonstrates, significant amounts of money are also being devoted to the study and support of endangered languages. But Crystal's keynote talk for the HRELP launching ('Endangered languages: What should we do now?') punctures any premature sense of self-congratulation about the distance traveled in this respect, as he compares the general public awareness of threats to biological species with the minimal or absent public awareness of threats to small languages. Crystal urges vigorous use of the media, the arts, the internet, and the schools to engage the public with the issue of impending language loss, concentrating in his talk on the arts, with their unique potential for imaginative and empathic impact. Surprised by the current lack of artistic engagement with a subject as powerful as loss of an entire human language, he suggests a number of measures aimed at improving the situation, from creating an endangered-language databank or archive that broadcasters, journalists, filmmakers, even poets or dramatists, could consult when considering a project related to endangered languages, to establishing a prize for artistic achievement in literature or film bearing on language endangerment or loss.
Anthony Woodbury's contribution, 'Defining documentary linguistics', highlights differences between the documentary and the descriptive approaches. Whereas in descriptive work the texts and dictionary were intended as support for the grammatical analysis, naturally occurring discourse is itself the primary object of documentary work; out of discourse documentation then emerge description and analysis, open always to change as documentation proceeds and broadens. Woodbury envisions a theorization of data itself in the pursuit of documentation, with appropriate debate over sampling and its adequacy and consideration of what the nature of the record of a language can and should be. Text curation is central to this enterprise, with a carefully accumulated trove of natural discourse data drawn on to illuminate the range of possible uses to which discourse can be put in a particular language community.
Colette Grinevald, in a paper entitled 'Speakers and documentation of endangered languages', discusses the implications of the various prepositions used in describing fieldwork on, for, with, and/or by speakers of endangered languages, noting that documentation projects increasingly focus, when conditions permit, on fieldwork with and by speakers of the languages being documented. The very reasonable working assumption is that such projects will be superior in terms of the comprehensiveness and quality of the data and the reliability of the analysis, and that sustainability of the documentation process is more likely to be secured. Arrestingly, in a volume devoted to documentation and description, she also considers the possibility that it may be wiser in some cases to confront the self-referential nature of the “scientific” imperative and forebear to undertake fieldwork at all in communities where the intrusion might “obliterate the essence of the link that holds between languages and their speakers, in particular speakers of unwritten, un-standardized languages who may display a sense of ownership unknown to speakers of dominant languages” (61). In the latter part of her paper Grinevald considers the implications for documentation efforts of the fact that endangered-language fieldwork often entails working with imperfect speakers of the language in question. Her brief but sensitive account, in a section on 'Adapting methods of linguistic elicitation and analysis', of the degree to which standard field methods of the sort typically taught in academic courses fail to meet the conditions found in many endangered-language communities, and her suggestions for working around these conditions, should be invaluable to anyone newly embarking on a documentation project.
Another particularly insightful paper, William A. Foley's 'Genre, register and language documentation in literate and preliterate communities', considers the consequences of linguists' bringing their own language ideology into preliterate communities. As products of literate societies with powerful standard-language traditions, linguists favor certain types of texts as sources of data, valuing “narratives over conversations, ritual language over gossip, songs over curses” (85-86). Foley sees in the sometimes almost exclusive selection of texts that parallel literate texts of the linguists' own cultural traditions a significant cultural bias, one that is then bolstered when linguists embody the features of these texts (again, sometimes almost exclusively these texts) in inevitably normative grammars and dictionaries. He demonstrates by means of two speech samples from first-language speakers of Watam, an unwritten Papua New Guinean language, that any intrusion of methodology reflecting the literate end of the oral-literate continuum is likely to bias the analytic outcome. A Watam speaker who provided a Watam narrative based on the text-less picture book Frog, Where Are You? produced a narrative with certain linguistic features quite different from those of a traditional oral narrative provided by a second Watam speaker, and Foley enumerates the false generalizations that would arise from the use of the former as a data base (e.g. that word order was rigidly verb-final, that elision of noun phrases was rare, etc.). Though he considers the whole of linguistics (perhaps incorrigibly) normative, Foley makes several concrete recommendations for improving the situation: recognizing the full range of data without privileging particular types; searching out native viewpoints on the material of study and their rationales for their views; acknowledging the variation, including inconsistencies and contradictions, that is the rule in the actual discourse of any community.
Two papers, Daniel L. Everett's and E. Annamalai's, look at language documentation needs and efforts in particular regions. Everett, in 'Documenting languages: A view from the Brazilian Amazon', offers a very brief history of research on the languages of the region, from the colonial era to the present, including the work of missionaries and missionary linguists. He identifies shift to Portuguese or Spanish, largely for socioeconomic reasons, as one common reason for language extinction in the region, and the death of all speakers as a second. He offers examples of findings from various languages of the Brazilian Amazon that indicate the losses to linguistic theory that would have resulted if these languages had not been recorded and studied -- a point of view that both describers and documenters can appreciate, though it is often the end-point for describers but a contingent point for documenters. While Everett reports an upsurge of interest in the documentation of endangered languages in Brazil, and in training programs for the task, Annamalai describes a much less favorable situation in India ('The opportunity and challenge of language documentation in India'). The relatively small number of Indian students attracted to the field of linguistics find subfields that demand less knowledge of additional languages more appealing (the Chomskyan approach in which they can be both analyst and informant, or the Labovian approach in which variation in a well-known language, again including their own, can be the object of analysis), and neither academic training nor government funding are geared to the documentation of endangered languages. Several reasons for low public awareness and lack of concern about language loss are suggested: the popular assumption that material progress inevitably entails the loss of native languages; the widespread belief that native culture can remain more or less intact even when the associated language is lost; the notion (Annamalai calls it a “hope”) that giving up small languages will facilitate communication among different groups within the society. Individual linguists working on small languages in India choose for description languages which have gone undescribed previously ; the fact that some so chosen are also endangered is not a primary consideration in making the choice.
Nicholas Ostler, in his paper 'Desperate straits for languages: How to survive', draws from European history two instructive cases of currently thriving languages which were threatened with possible loss at critical points in their history.
He reviews the political developments which brought Portuguese and English into jeopardy when a different language came to be used by those who constituted the apex of a hierarchically organized society, and the subsequent political conditions which restored the use of each language in the uppermost social reaches and so restored their standing and their prospects for survival. Brief sketches of other languages similarly socially displaced but not fortunate enough to come into use again among a social elite supply an equally instructive contrast. Ostler identifies a number of factors which can operate in favor of a language's survival: exceptional isolation; political status (some degree of political autonomy as opposed to none or to distribution across several different polities, none of which accord the language official status); the physical survival of group members (especially with some degree of population concentration); a literary corpus and literacy; a self-conscious tradition fostering awareness of the language and also of the identity and history of the people who speak it. Of the greatest potential value to threatened languages, therefore, are whatever measures may promote some of these factors: improving the status of the language (legally, educationally, etc.), taking steps that foster resistance to intrusion (e.g. supporting property rights), documenting and publishing linguistic materials, and building solidarity not only among local community members but between community members and speakers of similarly placed languages and between community members and concerned speakers of unendangered languages. Considering outcomes and prospects in terms of basic factors such as these, with reference to actual cases, has the useful effect of rendering the seemingly overwhelming forces that underlie language endangerment more familiar and making them appear in their familiarity more amenable to change.
The more programmatic and technical contributions included in the volume -- Éva Á. Csato and David Nathan's 'Multimedia and documentation of endangered languages', Johanna Nichols and Ronald L Sprouse's 'Documenting lexicons: Chechen and Ingush', Peter Wittenburg's 'The DOBES model of language documentation' -- will each without doubt find highly interested constituencies, and the inclusion with the volume of a CD-Rom presenting an introduction to the Karaim language of Lithuania (a geographically improbable Turkic outlier) offers an alluring look at the possibilities offered by current documentation technology. My computer and I had only limited success in sampling the contents of the disk, but I'm unable to say whether that reflects the computer's limitations or mine. What was viewable and audible was remarkable, offering more sense of a community and its language use than would be remotely imaginable without such a disk.
The contact address given for the volume's publisher is as follows: Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project, Department of Linguistics, School of Oriental and African Studies, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1H OXG, U.K.; Fax: +44-20-7898; www.hrelp.org. The collection has much to offer any Ogmios reader. It will be thought-provoking for current fieldworkers and invaluable to prospective fieldworkers.
Nancy C. Dorian
Review of Thangani Bunuba: Stories from the Bunuba Elders of the Fitzroy Valley: Chris Hadfield
Aesop’s fables, La Fontaine’s tales, Nasreddin’s anecdotes: we are surrounded by stories that tell us something about a certain culture; about how to live, think or eat better, stories with parables, allegories or mysticism.
These stories from the Bunuba in the Fitzroy Valley, North-western Australia are no exception. The stories are categorized into chapters: there are tales about the Dreamtime, about bushtucker, about the early days and finally about the first contact with Europeans. It is exquisitely illustrated by Bunuba artists using both bright colours in a naïf style, and black and white lithographs.
From them, we learn how the Elders hunted, carried their children, cooked kangaroo and even gave birth. They are short, concise insights into another way of living. At the beginning of the book we are told who the authors of these tales are and, perhaps more poignantly, that four of these last speakers have died since publication.
It would be easy to write a simple review of this book, but that would be missing the point. We have been given these stories (in both English and Bunuba) in order to learn not only about a particular way of life which seems intriguing or “different” but also to realize what is happening to many of the world’s languages. As mentioned in the Foreword: “If language is lost then knowledge is lost – knowledge of law, songs, dances and bushtucker. If young people don’t speak their languages, they will lose the knowledge of the old people. Our languages need to be recorded and renewed for the next generation – they must be kept going.”
The wonder of any language is the extra nuance that it conveys; like different types of honey, names for holes in the ground, shrubs, or words to express feelings, like absences, happinesses, loves – both first and last, and experiences.
The stories are not different from some of the others with exemplum tales or anthropomorphic fables. But where they differ is in the fact that this is not only a language but a whole culture. If we lose it we will have failed.
On a practical note, there is a phonetic guide at the back – albeit non-IPA, but exemplified to aid the reader with the Bunuba words and pronunciation.
The stories are written in English but more importantly, in Bunuba with a literal translation underneath. You won’t learn Bunuba by reading them but you may be tempted to take it further.
Yaninja, as the Bunuba would say.
Brief Note on R.M.W. Dixon and A. Aikhenvald ed. The Amazonian Languages and F. Queixalós and O. Renault-Lescure ed. as línguas amazônicas hoje: Nicholas Ostler
"A separate point is that the standard of scholarship in South America is not high. Much of the amateur data from before about 1950 has only a limited usefulness, with the transcription often being poor. Many of the missionaries have had inadequate training and produce 'cookbook' descriptions (in the 1950s and 1960s these were often cast within the impenetrable formalism of tagmemics) that cannot do justice to the genius of a language. Linguists from universities may employ other kinds of formalisms, that will soon pass out of fashion. Having made these general observations, we must add that there are notable exceptions on both sides – a number of descriptive studies that achieve a high standard of clarity and explanation."
These passingly damning words, occurring near the beginning of Dixon and Aikhenvald 1999, had a damning effect on the relations between these two eminent linguists of La Trobe and almost the whole academic establishment in their then newly adopted field of research, South America in general and the Amazon in particular. The effect was a telling lesson that courtesy, or at least abstention from sweeping claims about a whole peer group, is advisable even in an apparently technical work intended for a specialized audience.
But in fact this work is a compilation, and contains work by a number of South American linguists. The book contains chapters on major language families (Arawak - Aikhenvald, Tupí and Macro-Jê - Aryon Rodrigues, Tucano - Janet Barnes, Pano - Eugene Loos, Makú - Silvana and Valteir Martins, Nambikwara - Ivan Lowe, Arawá - Dixon, with Mary Ruth Wise and Aikhenvald writing mop-up chapters on the remaining minor languages. One curiosity is a separate chapter from Tupí specifically on its most populous branch Tupí-Guaraní. Another is a couple of areally-oriented chapters, Aikhenvald on the Içana-Vaupés basin and Lucy Seki on the Upper Xingu.
And ironically, within a year, a work would appear from these same "South American linguists" which gives the lie to the flip negative judgment.
Q&L-R have produced a less systematic and focused volume than D&A. In its first section, Uma visão mais abrangente, it has chapters by H. Russell Bernard and Jesús Salinas Pedraza on the Mexican CELIAC initiative in indigenous literacy, Paulus Gerdes on culture, language and mathematics in Mozambique, Manuel Pruñonosa on Catalan, and even David P. Wilkins on pitfalls in the fight for cultural and linguistic survival drawn from his Australian experience. But all the contributions are interesting in their very different ways; and this introductory section also includes a fascinating overview of language spread in the Americas by Willem Adelaar, which notes that just as there is a zone of greater diversity along the Californian seaboard of North America, there is also a zone down the centre of South America from the Colombian-Venezuelan border southward as far as Bolivia. Could these be the central areas of early settlement from which the later break-out to the rest of the continent occurred?
The organization of the rest of the volume is by country - curiously ordered alphabetically from Bolivia to Venezuela - essentially with a chapter on each of the countries which have an Amazonian zone, each written in the official language that prevails there: so in fact, most of this multilingual volume is written in Spanish. There is also a colour-coded language map for each country, in a separate envelope of supplements.
The content of the chapters in each of the books is unsystematic, and in fact very various; but D&A predominantly contains structural analysis of the languages, whereas Q&L-R is focused on sociolinguistic and geographical descriptions. The two, therefore, are quite complementary.