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Verbal artistry: the missing link among language documentation, grammatical theory, and linguistic pedagogy

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Title: Verbal artistry: the missing link among language documentation, grammatical theory, and linguistic pedagogy
Issue Date: 12 Mar 2015
Description: Verbal art has so far played only an occasional role in documentary linguistics. In this talk I want to show, by giving examples from the work of language documenters, grammarians, and teacher-activists, the roles that verbal artistry might play in binding together language documentation, grammatical theory, and linguistic pedagogy. Verbal artistry—and heightened, expressive language use in general (Sherzer 2002)—is a part of what we record, annotate, analyze and interpret when we document language and speaking. It is one of the things that we like and appreciate about language. As Roman Jakobson (1960:356) formulated it, ‘[t]he set...toward the MESSAGE as such, focus on the message for its own sake, is the POETIC function of language’. In turning attention back to linguistic form and meaning, verbal art propels our ideation—as speakers or as outsiders—of the uniqueness, transcendence, and sacredness of language and languages. And it gives us further strong reason to want to document, reminding us that language documentation is not only a scientific enterprise but a humanistic endeavor. Documenting verbal artistry, in turn, promotes grammatical and lexical investigation both by necessity—so we can access the material at a basic level—but also encourages deep inquiry to the nature and plasticity of speakers’ knowledge of grammar and lexicon, especially if we assume, with Kiparsky (1973), that verbal art mobilizes the authentic structures, categories, and processes of grammar. It then also becomes possible to understand the extent to which verbal artistry and related language practices rely on a language’s special features, and use them in special ways: what I have called ‘form-dependent expression’ (Woodbury 1993). These features tie verbal creations to the linguistic structures they depend on, making translation to a language lacking such features problematic, and language loss deeply threatening to the continuity of such creations. As such, they also bring grammar and lexicon—the subject of science—back into the humanistic equation. In language teaching, an explicit focus on verbal art and linguistic creativity shows students the value and pleasure of curating, studying, and interpreting the speech of others, including one’s own ancestors. It leavens the learning of grammar and lexicon, which is otherwise often based on mundane or constructed content. And it provides a basis for approaching translation and appreciating its complexities. Moreover, it can open up new realms of linguistic creativity for students should they choose to try to shape their language into new cultural forms, from poetic and musical genres to mobile texts and tweets, to new orthographic experiments. Although these roles for verbal art documentation, grammar, and pedagogy are all individually recognizable, it is important to focus on verbal art in its proper social and linguistic context in order to realize its tremendous potential for better linking together our efforts as documentary linguists.
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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