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Punctuation is prosody: Making historic transcriptions of Karuk accessible for revitalization and research

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Title: Punctuation is prosody: Making historic transcriptions of Karuk accessible for revitalization and research
Issue Date: 12 Mar 2015
Description: Transcription of utterance-level prosody is difficult; historically, many field linguists have employed standard punctuation of their own language to represent prosodic boundaries in the language of study, with varying degrees of consistency within and across languages. A standardized system such as ToBI (Beckman et al. 2005) is appropriate for phonetic analysis, but requires a level of detail and knowledge of a language's structure that is impractical in many fieldwork situations, and is not accessible to language learners.

In the case of Karuk, a highly endangered language of northern California, a great deal of historic transcriptions of textual material in the language exists. Because few first-language speakers of Karuk remain, historic records of the language are an important resource for ongoing language revitalization efforts by the Karuk tribe, as well as for theoretical linguistic research on the language. However, differing methods of transcribing utterance boundaries and prosody by past researchers has made extracting this type of data from the archival materials a challenge. For instance, Harrington (1930; 1932b) transcribed much larger units as single sentences than Bright (1957) did, and while Bright was explicit about the intonational types his punctuation represented, how Harrington used punctuation was unclear. In this paper, we ask first whether the speakers recorded by these two linguists were, in fact, using equivalent intonation and groupings of utterances. Confirming that their speech is indeed comparable, we then strive to relate the two transcription systems to each other and to current speakers' language. Utilizing archival recordings and transcriptions, we create a key that allows us to translate between the two historical transcription systems and modern transcription conventions.

Gaining a better understanding of the phonetics of prosody represented in historic materials will be helpful in language revitalization efforts. It is obvious that the prosody of Karuk is significantly different from that of English. However, without a vibrant speech community, it is difficult to transmit this aspect of a language, and even to determine what the patterns to be taught are.

A better understanding of prosodic boundaries in Karuk is also expected to shed light on theoretical questions regarding Karuk word order. It is not clear which word orders are permissible, and results of elicitation have been confounding due to conflicting judgments, especially in the post-verbal position. It is likely that conflicting judgments are related to different prosodic boundaries which have been previously overlooked.


Beckman, M. E., Hirschberg, J., & Shattuck-Hufnagel, S. (2005). The original ToBI system and the evolution of the ToBI framework. In S.-A. Jun (ed.) Prosodic Typology -- The Phonology of Intonation and Phrasing

Bright, William. 1957. The Karok language. University of California Publications in Linguistics 13. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Harrington, John P. 1907-1959. The papers of John Peabody Harrington. Ms., National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Microfilm.

Harrington, John P. 1930. Karuk texts. International Journal of American Linguistics 6(2). 121-161.

Harrington, John P. 1932a. Tobacco among the Karuk Indians of California. Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 94.

Harrington, John P. 1932b. Karuk Indian myths. Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 107.
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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