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Documenting language-hood

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Title: Documenting language-hood
Issue Date: 12 Mar 2015
Description: It is not uncommon for endangered languages to be treated as ‘dialects’ of a more widely spoken language in the region—a label that downgrades their status, discouraging their use and ultimately contributing to their further decline. One place where this has happened is Korea’s Jeju Island, where the critically endangered local variety of speech (Jejueo) is often referred to as a dialect of Korean, not only by government officials and educators, but in some cases even by linguists.

In order to evaluate this categorization in an objective manner, we designed a study to evaluate the inter-comprehensibility of Jejueo and Korean, consistent with the standard view within linguistics that varieties of speech with low mutual intelligibility should be considered distinct languages (e.g., Hockett 1958).

Participants: 10 native speakers of Jejueo, 10 native speakers of the Seoul variety of Korean (the national standard), 10 native speakers of the South Jeollado variety of Korean, and 10 native speakers of the South Gyeongsangdo variety of Korean. (The latter two varieties are spoken in the southern part of the Korean peninsula near Jeju Island.) All participants were aged 49 to 64.

Materials: The test passage consisted of a short narrative (describing the first events in the “Pear Story” video) that had been recorded by a fluent female native speaker of Jejueo. The narrative was 62 words in length (1 minute & 9 seconds in duration).

Method: Participants first listened to the entire narrative without interruption. The narrative was then replayed in five segments, varying in length from 1 to 3 sentences. After each segment, the participants were asked to respond in writing to one or more written questions designed to test their understanding of what they had just heard. (In all, there were nine questions of this type.)

Results: Percentage correct on comprehension questions
Jejueo Native Speakers Seoul South Jeollado South Gyeongsangdo
89.21% 12.03% 6.00% 5.26%

These results demonstrate that Jejueo is a distinct language, not comprehensible either to speakers of Seoul Korean or to speakers of regional varieties of Korean in the southern part of the Korean peninsula. There are broader implications as well, since the establishment of language-hood is a prerequisite for revitalization efforts in many communities. As part of our presentation, we will show how the materials that we have developed can be adapted for use with other languages.

Hockett, C. 1958. A course in modern linguistics. New York: Macmillan.
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:4th International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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