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Documenting grammar through the lens of endangered languages: Examples from a Papuan language

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Title: Documenting grammar through the lens of endangered languages: Examples from a Papuan language
Issue Date: 01 Mar 2013
Description: In language documentation we face the challenge of representing different worlds of knowledge in terms that can be understood in both the target language and other languages. This applies to the documentation of knowledge from many facets of life, including knowledge about the language expressed in reference grammars. This paper examines the question of whether the complexities of grammar can be expressed through the lens of the endangered language itself. The study benefits from my experience of the challenges of writing a detailed reference grammar of a Papuan language in Papua New Guinea (Author 2008/2009). The grammar was based on material recorded during linguistic fieldwork visits and during several years living in a village where the language was spoken. Data was recorded with many different speakers in a range of genres. The process highlighted the difficulties of understanding and describing the meaning of grammatical categories and also of using English and Latinate terms that impart the perspective of other languages, rather than the perspective of the target language (Goddard and Wierzbicka forthcoming, cf. Koptjevskaja-Tamm et al 2007, Hellwig 2010). Considerable research (for, e.g., Goddard and Wierzbicka 2002) has indicated the usefulness of a natural semantic metalanguage for the description of meaning. This metalanguage uses terms found in many languages. In this paper I explore how grammatical categories of verbal morphology and their meanings can be investigated and described using exponents of semantic primes from the natural semantic metalanguage, in both English and the example language (see also Author 2012). It is proposed that this process can be used in many other languages where it can contribute to clearer understanding and description of grammatical categories. Furthermore, terms and perspectives from within the described language can then be used in the creation of reference grammar materials. The long term goal is to enable people to use such reference grammars, and connected educational materials (cf. Innes 2008, Yamada 2008), to contribute to maintenance and revitalization within endangered language communities.
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:3rd International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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