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Language documentation twenty-five years on

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Hammarström,  Harald
Linguistic and Cultural Evolution, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Max Planck Society;

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Citation

Seifart, F., Evans, N., Hammarström, H., & Levinson, S. C. (2018). Language documentation twenty-five years on. Language, 94(4), e324-e345. doi:10.1353/lan.2018.0070.


Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0007-92E5-1
Abstract
This discussion note reviews responses of the linguistics profession to the grave issues of language endangerment identified a quarter of a century ago in the journal Language by Krauss, Hale, England, Craig, and others (Hale et al. 1992). Two and a half decades of worldwide research not only have given us a much more accurate picture of the number, phylogeny, and typological variety of the world’s languages, but they have also seen the development of a wide range of new approaches, conceptual and technological, to the problem of documenting them. We review these approaches and the manifold discoveries they have unearthed about the enormous variety of linguistic structures. The reach of our knowledge has increased by about 15% of the world’s languages, especially in terms of digitally archived material, with about 500 languages now reasonably documented thanks to such major programs as DoBeS, ELDP, and DEL. But linguists are still falling behind in the race to document the planet’s rapidly dwindling linguistic diversity, with around 35–42% of the world’s languages still substantially undocumented, and in certain countries (such as the US) the call by Krauss (1992) for a significant professional realignment toward language documentation has only been heeded in a few institutions. Apart from the need for an intensified documentarist push in the face of accelerating language loss, we argue that existing language documentation efforts need to do much more to focus on crosslinguistically comparable data sets, sociolinguistic context, semantics, and interpretation of text material, and on methods for bridging the ‘transcription bottleneck’, which is creating a huge gap between the amount we can record and the amount in our transcribed corpora.