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Beyond the ancestral code: Towards a model for sociolinguistic language documentation

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Title: Beyond the ancestral code: Towards a model for sociolinguistic language documentation
Issue Date: 03 Mar 2013
Description: Language documentation is prototypically characterized as the collection of records of a language which can form the basis of traditional descriptive products such as lexicons, grammars, and texts (see, e.g., Himmelmann 1998:168–171). This follows from an emphasis by linguists and speaker communities on the so-called “ancestral code”—that is, the variety that is taken to be most representative of a given community’s traditions (Woodbury 2011). By comparison, relatively little attention has been paid to understanding what kinds of documentary products are required to adequately capture sociolinguistic aspects of language use.

This paper reports on the results of a workshop exploring theoretical and applied aspects of sociolinguistic language documentation in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). SSA is special in being characterized by high rates of multilingualism and numerous vital “small” languages, where sociolinguistically informed approaches are likely to yield useful results for academic and speaker communities. More than sixty workshop participants, from Africa and elsewhere, organized into five working groups covering the following topics: conversational data and sociolinguistic documentation, documentation of culturally significant events, how languages acquire “value” in multilingual environments, social mechanisms fostering multilingualism, and documenting the relationship between language and culture.

Among the conclusions of the working group discussions were: (i) the value of natural conversation as a way of documenting a language’s sociolinguistic setting and culture, (ii) the importance of documenting actual language use without distorting the data to make it better reflect notions of language purity (and other ideological positions), (iii) recommendations for expanded metadata collection about speakers and the recording context so that sociolinguistic configurations affecting data collection can be more adequately recorded, (iv) the necessity of establishing strong interdisciplinary partnerships when the goals of documentation go beyond structural aspects of grammar and basic lexical data, (v) that documentation including information on sociolinguistic context can usefully inform language planning decisions in ways that traditional documentation cannot, and (vi) the need for more flexible training opportunities than are presently available.

A more general conclusion of the workshop was the importance of seeing more reflexive scholarship on the goals and practices of language documentation. This is crucial if we want to ensure that commonly employed idealizations such as “speaker community” do not inappropriately lead to documentary projects focusing on selections of speech events that are not an accurate reflection of the actual practices of those individuals whose speech is being documented.
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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